In the face of misinformed and biased denunciations of the Church as an oppressor of humanity, English historian Lord Acton penned The History of Freedom in Christianity in the late nineteenth century. It was a masterpiece of historical summary, distilling almost two thousand years into a single story of the gradual unfolding of human liberty. Acton reversed the Enlightenment narrative that he had inherited. The rise of Christianity did not smother the flame of liberty burning brightly in Greece and Rome only to be rekindled as medieval superstition gave way to the benevolent reason of Voltaire, Hume, and Kant. Instead, Christianity took the embers of freedom, flickering dimly in an ancient world characterized by the domination of the weak by the strong, and-slowly and haltingly-fanned it into a blaze that emancipated humanity from its bonds, internal and external.
Christianity’s confrontation with culture was not a matter of the truth about God and man transported whole into civilization via religion. Beginning in sources prior to Christianity-Judaism and classical Greece-and continuing in secular political, economic, and social movements, Christianity interacted with the world and honed its own understanding of human nature and God’s will for mankind on this earth.
Christianity’s signal achievement, as Acton recognized, was the creation of space for human freedom vis-à-vis the institution that has, in fact, been the gravest threat to liberty throughout history: the state. The story is admittedly complicated by Church officials’ sometime collaboration with state oppression. Yet a fair reading of history must credit the ideas as well as the institutions of the Christian faith with the leading role in curtailing the totalitarian tendency-government’s inclination to usurp ever greater power over an ever larger swath of human existence.
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said,
“I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said,
“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”