After presenting an overview of Vatican II’s discussion and passage of Dignitatis Humanae at Lewis University (last week) I then proceeded to set forth an evangelical view of religious freedom, or at least one that I believe accords well with the view I personally hold as a Christian.
I began with 1 John 4:8: “God is love.” This terse statement sums up the deepest insight of the entire Christian faith. The Jews knew God’s covenant love of mercy but not agape. Love is revealed to us in grace and truth, in the person of Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God.
In his classic book Agape, author and theologian Anders Nygren says that God’s love has four characteristics that make it distinct:
1. It is spontaneous or self-motivated. Its source is in God. It loves not because of what is in the other person but because love belongs to human essence.
2. It is self-originating, it does not play favorites; Matt. 5:45 “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” He accepts the rejects and outcasts of society. Love creates value! We can think of the prodigal son; cf. Luke 15:20-24. We should consider Paul’s teaching in Romans 5:8, “God shows his love for is in that while we were yet sinner Christ died for us.”
3. Love creates value in what it loves. Humans try to shape and mold others into their own image. Love renews and transforms us because of what it is, not because of what is done to control or shape a person.
4. Love is the initiator of fellowship with God. It is God’s true way to man, not man’s way to God. 1 John 4:10 says, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins.” 1 John 4:19 adds, “We would not love unless he had first loved us.”
Agape Love and Coercion
The implications of agape may seem self-evident to us today but this was not always the case in Christian history. St. Augustine made an argument to Boniface, an official of the Roman Empire in the province of Africa, that provides a clearly different kind of example.
Augustine believed that love should compel pagans, heretics and schismatics to join the church. In support he noted that divine love is the basis for Christian mission. He proceeded from this to his major premise–Love will use whatever means necessary to achieve the greater good for a person. He illustrated this by saying that a physician would do what hurt a patient in order to heal. The patient might complain but the doctor should always do what is best. He would, quite likely, learn to thank the physician.
The Donatists claimed that the Catholic Church was not true because of persecution. Augustine would not yield to this claim. What counts, he reasoned, is not persecuting or being persecuted, but “motive and intent.” We could illustrate this by the story of a burning building. No one would hesitate to force a person from a burning building no matter what it took. The analogy was then applied to fires of hell. Augustine wrote that love “ardently desires that all should live, but it more especially labors that not all should die.”
Oddly enough St. Augustine appeals to Christ using divine force to convert Paul. He said that God “even dashed him to the earth with his power.” Why then should the church not use force? This argument had been used since the time of Constantine. It carries less and less power in our day, for which we should all be profoundly grateful. Tomorrow we will consider why this argument does not carry the weight it once had.