Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: III.XXXV

Christ judging the living and the dead, detail of “The Last Judgment” by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Rome.


What is the “Kingdom of God”? And, by extension, what do the words “holy,” “sacred,” and “sacrament” mean in the context of the proper definition of the Kingdom? The best thing we can do, according to Hobbes, is reject the traditional Christian reading:

The Kingdom of God in the writings of divines, and specially in sermons and treatises of devotion, is taken most commonly for eternal felicity after this life, in the highest heaven, which they also call the kingdom of glory; and sometimes for (the earnest of that felicity) sanctification, which they term the kingdom of grace; but never for the monarchy, that is to say, the sovereign power of God over any subjects acquired by their own consent, which is the proper signification of kingdom. (XXXV.1)

That is, theologians such as John Calvin have interpreted the “Kingdom of God” as an eschatological kingdom rather than a kingdom in the sense we might use it when referencing the “United Kingdom.” So Calvin writes in his Institutes, “Nor can those things which are everywhere said [in scripture] as to the prosperous success of believers be understood in any other sense than as referring to the manifestation of celestial glory” (II.x.16). For believers, promises of success, prosperity, and a nation are promises either fulfilled in the future return of Christ or, as Hobbes suggests, in present “sanctification,” that is in growth of personal and corporate holiness. Hobbes finds these definitions deficient and instead argues:

To the contrary, I find the Kingdom of God to signify, in most places of Scripture, a kingdom properly so named, constituted by the votes of the people of Israel in a peculiar manner, wherein they chose God for their king by covenant made with him, upon God’s promising them the possession of the land of Canaan… (XXXV.2)

And again:

The kingdom, therefore, of God is a real, not a metaphorical kingdom; and so taken, not only in the Old Testament, but the New. (XXXV.11)

And again:

In short, the kingdom of God is a civil kingdom, which consisted first in the obligation of the people of Israel to those laws which Moses should bring unto them from Mount Sinai… and which kingdom having been cast off in the election of Saul, the prophets foretold should be restored by Christ, and the restoration whereof we daily pray for when we say in the Lord’s Prayer “Thy kingdom come”… (XXXV.13)

While there will be a future kingdom directly governed by Christ after His return, until then we must still hold to a literal Kingdom of God in this world:

If the Kingdom of God… were not a kingdom which God by his lieutenants or vicars, who deliver his commandments to the people, did exercise on earth, there would not have been so much contention and war about who it is by whom God speaketh to us; neither would many priests have troubled themselves with spiritual jurisdiction, nor any king have denied it them. (XXXV.13)

This Kingdom, in Hobbes’s view, is not only a this-worldly kingdom, but it is a discrete kingdom that does not encompass the whole world. While God exercises a natural sovereignty over all of the earth as its creator, He has a special sovereignty over the Kingdom of God that has been instituted by means of a covenant. This is what holy nation means, it is

a commonwealth, instituted (by the consent of those which were to be subject thereto) for their civil government and the regulating of their behaviour, not only towards God their king, but also towards one another in point of justice, and towards other nations both in peace and war… (XXXV.7)

Thus “holy” comes to be understood to mean “God’s” or “belonging to God” or “set apart to God,” or, in our specific context, “under the sovereignty of God.” (XXXV.14–16) And again, the vehicle for establishing holiness, especially political holiness, is the covenant. People and beings which enter such a covenant are said to be “sacred” or “sanctified,” while people outside of the covenant are “profane” (XXXV.17). The signs of entering the covenant and reminders of having entered the covenant we call “sacraments” (XXXV.19). There are two of these in the Old Testament (circumcision and the Passover) and two of these in the New Testament (baptism and the Lord’s Supper).

So, where to begin? If you want to read proper—albeit densely academic—interpretations of biblical covenants, check out Meredith Kline’s survey of Deuteronomy or Gentry and Wellum’s Kingdom through Covenant. As is becoming clear, Hobbes is not necessarily the place to go for the best theology. And yet, his point is an important one. While we would never want to take away from the idea that the Kingdom of God is ultimately and finally an eschatological kingdom, and that getting there has something to do with personal  and corporate holiness in this life, and while we want to avoid the extreme danger of immanentizing the eschaton; we also want to be careful not to hyperspiritualize religion until it is so disconnected from the earth that it becomes functionally irrelevant for anything other than drumming up good feelings in the individual. I do believe that the Kingdom of God is an eschatological heaven only to be finally realized on the return of Christ—when put to it I will always pick Calvin over Hobbes. (Insert Bill Watterson joke here.)

And yet, with that said, the church is an outpost of that coming kingdom in this world. When believers gather in a community around the preaching of the Gospel and the proper administration of the sacraments, there is a discrete and physical presence of God’s kingdom in that local congregation. And because that presence is discrete and physical, Hobbes is correct that there will be political implications to the kingdom as well. The covenant that should govern a church, whether we are talking about the divine covenant we find in scripture or a written covenant established by the congregation for the purposes of doctrine and church life, is going to set the church apart in some way from the sovereignty of the rest of the world. And while I don’t necessarily agree with the conclusions Hobbes draws from these facts, they are nevertheless conclusions that modern Americans—Christian or not—would do well to think about. When I gather with my brothers and sisters in Christ in union in the local church around the preaching of the Gospel and partake of the sacraments, we are all making a statement that is if not explicitly political, at least full of political implications. For example, in the preaching of the Gospel we declare what it is that binds us together as the kingdom of God. When we partake in baptism and communion, we are announcing to the world who is a part of that kingdom. Both of these actions have the effect of drawing a circle around one group of people and excluding others—as does that third mark of a true church (to be discussed later by Hobbes), excommunication. All of these are actions which will affect politics, even as they are fundamentally apolitical. Consequently, it is critical that we think a bit about what the line is between the Kingdom of God and everybody else. Hobbes begins to outline his definition of this boundary in the next chapter, starting with the leadership of the worldly Kingdom of God.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

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