Friday, November 03, 2006

Three Foundations of Religious Liberty

On October 13th and 14th, international lecturer, Vishal Mangalwadi, spoke at the speaker series we have here at Trinity. Dr. Mangalwadi talked about many things related to religious persecution, the situation in India and historical matters, but one interesting portion of his speech was about religious liberty. Dr. Mangalwadi noted that in the West religious liberty has largely developed based upon three ideas: truth, conscience and constitutionalism to protect individual rights.

Traditionally, the West has believed that objective truth exists and will triumph in a free discussion of ideas. Milton wrote about this during the time of the great English civil war of the 17th century. The great Huguenot jurist, Mornay, also spoke about this on his diplomatic journeys to the Netherlands from France. While the West has religious wars for a period of time, it was ultimately the consensus of western peoples that truth should be a matter of persuasion rather than a matter of violence.

Freedom of conscience has been a foundational principle of religious liberty in the West. The need to follow conscience was exemplified by Martin Luther who indicated at the Diet of Worms that he was unwilling to bow to the claims of human authority, but rather must follow his conscience unless convinced that his conscience was incorrect by reasoned argument from the Scripture. Likewise, the Westminster Confession emphasizes the need for freedom of conscience. This is not to say that there are not things that are right or wrong or true of false. The deep conscience is given to us by God, and contains genuine moral information. While our higher consciences may be affected by society, upbringing, and ill treatment or false belief, our deep consciences flow from God’s nature and God’s image imprinted on man through the divine light. Though that image is damaged by sin, we still must respect the genuine dictates of real conscience. We have faith that the power of conscience should not be made subservient to the power of government without some sort of reasoned persuasion from the Word of God as to the proper content of conscience.

Mangalwadi spoke last of the foundation of belief in individual rights. Again, the Huguenots had a fundamental role in the early development of constitutionalism and the belief that constitutions should protect and reserve the rights of the people against their governments. Samuel Rutherford and John Locke, influenced by the writings of the Huguenots, expounded these concepts for the English speaking peoples. The notion of rights is also a fundamental part of the development of the English common law with its emphasis on the proper predisposition of justice toward the preservation of life, property, and the freedom to choose among goods necessary to develop virtue and achieve what relative human happiness is possible in a fallen world.

All three of these foundations, truth, conscience and individual rights, were developed in the West because of the Bible and its influence. Mangalwadi is currently developing a video series that will discuss the role of the Bible in western civilization. I believe he is correct in asserting the role of biblical truth in supporting the development of the foundational ideas which in turn support religious freedom. In the next post of this series, I will argue that the Bible is the origin of the three foundations of religious liberty.

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