Editors note: the following book review appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Eikon.
Andrew T. Walker. Liberty For All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021.
Christians often defend their own right to worship freely and live out their faith in the public venue, but are sometimes reluctant to defend the same rights for non-Christians. In Liberty For All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom, Andrew T. Walker argues that if Christians truly want to be free to express their faith, they should defend the rights of non-Christians to do the same. Walker is a faculty member at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Apologetics, Associate Dean of the School of Theology, and Director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Previously, he served as a Senior Research Fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He also co-edited the Gospel for Life Series and authored God and the Transgender Debate (2017).
To defend the thesis that Christians should defend religious liberty for all people, Walker takes an interesting approach and combines Baptist emphases on personal conversion and religious liberty with natural law theory drawn from Catholic roots. The Baptist emphasis on conversion is seen when he says, “Entry into God’s kingdom depends on the conscience being convicted of sin and persuaded by the gospel . . . which means rationally self-chosen without external coercion” (45). Along these lines, many Christians who practice various forms of infant Baptism will find the book’s appendix quite provocative, as Walker forcefully insists the Baptist view of baptism following conversion leads most naturally to a stronger foundation for religious liberty. At the same time, natural law theory is central to Walker’s thesis, providing essential common ground among people from competing and different religious beliefs. Walker defines natural law, saying, “The idea of natural law ethics is that there are binding moral principles, governed by reason and attested to in nature, that all persons, regardless of whether they are Christians or not, are obligated to obey for their own sake and God’s” (202).
Liberty For All moves through the disciplines of eschatology (chapters 2 and 3), then anthropology (chapters 4 and 5), and then missiology (chapters 6 and 7) to provide evidence for a generous approach to religious liberty. Walker says, “The quest to connect religious liberty to biblical theology is the central and driving concern of this book,” (15) and adds, “The kingdom of God is the orienting [eschatological] doctrine, the image of God is the practical [anthropological] doctrine, and the mission of God is the [missional] cultural apologetic” (16). In this way, the structure of the book seeks to bridge a gap between religious liberty arguments based on natural law alone versus religious liberty arguments based on scripture alone.
Of many commendable aspects of Liberty for All, the most compelling is the book’s fervent and urgent argument for Christians to defend religious liberty for all people, not just Christians alone. And Baptists have an important point to make here to the rest of our brothers and sisters. Let me illustrate: As the United States has become progressively more secular, many Christians have pointed back to the pre-Colonial constitutions of states such as Connecticut or Massachusetts as evidence that Christianity should have a privileged position in American civics. Likewise, the magisterial reformers are sometimes cited as evidence for establishing a Christian nation. Once, I was at a meeting of various Southern Baptist academics at which a non-Baptist addressed us on the relationship of church and state. When this dear brother finished his presentation, I asked, “Are you arguing for a stance somewhat like Colonial New England or the magisterial reformers?” After he answered in the affirmative, I said, “You do realize you are talking to a room full of Baptists and our forefathers did not fare well in Colonial New England and our Anabaptist cousins didn’t fare well with the magisterial reformers.” On some occasions, I have teasingly asked, “Would Calvin have allowed a Baptist church in Geneva?” I think the obvious answer is, “No.” When Christians are in power they can be as oppressive as others and Walker points all Christians towards a consensus which honors the right of people to decide for themselves whether or not they will be followers of Christ and how they should serve Him.
Liberty for All wisely places the concept of religious liberty in an eschatological perspective. Walker advocates a form of inaugurated eschatology, and insists only Christ himself will usher in perfection. He apparently rejects postmillennial schemes, and says “I do not believe there is, in a secular age short of the coming of Christ, a ‘golden era’ of the church” (68). Along these lines, he seems also to reject theonomic ideas of reinstituting Biblical law, saying, “A Christian politics . . . ought to be more focused on the common good than seeing the order radically transformed. Social orders do not get saved; they get influenced. The former is a politics of incremental, specific realism; the latter is a politics of ambiguous, utopian triumph” (209).
Walker’s argument concerning eschatology could have been stronger in two ways. First, though he rejects postmillennial concepts, how might his ideas for religious liberty be viewed differently by premillennialists and amillennialists? Is there common ground between the groups such that both can agree on his argument? By and large, church history has seen believers wax and wane between premillennial ideas (Irenaeus) to amillennial views (Dionysius of Alexandria, Augustine). How might these two groups along with postmillennialists share common ground? Second, Liberty for All doesn’t explore in depth the manner in which the Antichrist shapes the Christian vision for the future of religious liberty. As a premillennialist myself, I see human government ultimately ending with no religious liberty under the reign of the Antichrist. While amillennialism is experiencing a resurgence within academic circles, the majority of Evangelical laity, and Baptists in particular, hold to some form of premillennialism and see the Antichrist as a real person, not a metaphor for earthly powers oppressing the church. Liberty for All could have greater influence with more work here.
Various readers will also take issue with some of Walker’s claims based in natural law. For example, he says, “We Christians should extend religious liberty to everyone, because everyone is pursuing truth, even if incorrectly” (4). While this is a standard part of natural law theory, it is also a claim that a long tradition in Protestantism finds troubling. While Walker is acutely aware that the conscience can become seared and non-functioning, there is a long-standing debate about the way natural law should be viewed based on Paul’s comments in Romans 1:18 – 32. That argument won’t be solved in this book, but even if one disagrees with Walker’s thoughts on natural law at this particular point his arguments for religious liberty are still compelling.
Another area which could have received more attention is how the arguments for religious liberty articulated in Liberty for All interact with Islam. Walker argues from a Baptist perspective of a free church in a free state, but Islam sees no such distinction: It is a religious-political system with an Islamic state as the ultimate goal. How do Christians stand for religious liberty and grant freedom to their Muslim neighbors when their neighbors want an Islamic state? Perhaps it is enough for Liberty for All to defend the broad principle of religious liberty and leave the interaction of Christianity and Islam on religious liberty issues to future work from Walker.
Liberty for All is a vibrant defense of religious liberty with a pleasing logical flow and sound conclusions which should be compelling to Christians. It serves as a needed counterbalance to poorly framed popular arguments regarding the relationship between church and state, arguments too often based on an inadequate understanding of religious liberty.
Alan Branch is Professor of Christian Ethics at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Born This Way? Homosexuality, Science and Scripture and Affirming God’s Image: Addressing the Transgender Question with Science and Scripture.
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