Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: III.XXXVI

God Appears to Moses in the Burning Bush, St. Isaacs Cathedral, St. Petersburg


The means by which God exercises His sovereignty over His kingdom in this world are His Word and the office of prophet. Chapter XXXVI is dedicated to exploring what these specifically mean for us.

The “Word of God” is a phrase that is used multiple ways in the Bible. Even the word “word” itself can mean multiple things, including both specific words and the general ideas we use those specific words to convey. The “Word of God” can be both—the former when God is being directly quoted, the latter when referencing the Bible as a whole. Likewise, “the Word of God” can refer to the speaker (Matthew), the subject of the speech (Matthew as a character in his Gospel), or the doctrine intended to be taught by the speech (the message of salvation through Christ as found in the Gospel of Matthew).

So if we are going to know what we mean by “the Word of God,” we need to know in which sense the phrase is being used. If we are referencing doctrine, then “the whole Scripture is the word of God” (XXXVI.3). If we are talking about the first or second categories, then only those passages of scripture which are direct quotations are properly “God’s words.” Our concern here is of course the category of doctrine from the whole of scripture; maintaining this distinction will help us be able to separate descriptive from normative passages and so know which parts of the Bible are authoritative by command and which parts authoritative by example. So we might take as an example Genesis 42:1–2

When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.”

This is the “word of God” in that out of the narrative there is doctrinal truth to be had (as just one example: God preserves His people, even by using pagan nations to His own ends), but we should not read this as a command to all of God’s people to go to Egypt and purchase bread from a street vendor. By contrast, when Jesus directly says in Matthew 22:21

“render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Whatever doctrinal truth we also get out of the passage, we have the clear command in the direct “Word of God” to pay our taxes. Not “pay our taxes unless they’re too high,” not “pay our taxes unless Caesar’s a moron,” and not “pay our taxes unless we don’t like the civil programs they’re being used for.”

With this consideration in mind, we must further understand that the “Word of God” is “understood sometimes properly, sometimes metaphorically” (XXXVI.3). “Properly” we can take to mean a direct quotation—when God says “thou shalt not kill” we understand that whatever underlying metaphorical meaning there may be, there is first and foremost a direct and “proper” meaning that is unambiguous.

The passages that are primarily to be understood metaphorically can involve declarations of God’s power and decree; a pronouncement of the effects of His Word; or a general declaration of reasonable and just ideas. So when God says “Let us make man,” we should understand that the primary point is that God has exercised His will, power, sovereignty, intellect, etc., in the act of creation. The debate over whether this was done in a six-day period or in fourteen billion years is in some sense a distraction from the fundamental doctrine scripture is conveying. Likewise, the “Word of God” can be used as a way of referencing the providential nature of God’s promises, where “by words are understood those things which God has promised to his people” (XXXVI.4). For example when God promised His people a messiah, Jesus was called the “word of God” because He was the fulfillment of that promise. (There are of course other reasons to call Him the “Word of God,” but this is Hobbes’s example.) Finally, general principles of reason and justice can be considered the “Word of God,” even when they come from pagans. (Though this is restricted to the context of scripture.)

As with the “Word of God,” a “prophet” can mean different things in different scriptural contexts:

The name of Prophet signifieth in Scripture sometimes prolocutor (that is, he that speaketh from God to man, or from man to God), and sometimes predictor (or a foreteller of things to come), and sometimes one that speaketh incoherently, as men that are distracted. (XXXVI.7)

So sometimes being a “prophet” means speaking the future. This can be one of God’s people, or it can be one of God’s enemies (the witch of Endor, Balaam, etc.). And sometimes it can be someone who claims to be able to tell the future, but is lying or deceived.

Most of the time, the title of “prophet” is given to those who act as intermediaries between God and man. Yet even this can mean different things. In the strictest sense,

they that in Christian congregations taught the people are said to prophecy…. Whereby may be also gathered that the name of prophet may be given, not unproperly, to them that in Christian churches have a calling to say public prayers for the congregation. (XXXVI.7)

This is not of course exactly what we usually mean when we refer to Abraham or Moses as prophets, but it is at least related. The difference between the two meanings is found not necessarily in the person of the prophet himself, but rather in the means by which God communicates with the prophets.

If a prophet is simply a mediator between God and man, then any Christian who prays for someone else is in that moment acting as a prophet. Again, that’s not what we usually mean. By “prophet,” our general meaning is someone to whom God communicates directly with information to pass along to His kingdom. This communication may come in various ways—direct speech, dreams, visions, etc.—but it is still direct from God to the prophet.

Hobbes further divides prophets into different categories. “Extraordinary” prophets, who were given a specific revelation by which sweeping changes might be made. “Perpetual” prophets were those who were to do the day-to-day business of mediating between God and the people (Hobbes especially identifies the Old Testament priests in their role in making the temple sacrifices). A prophet could of course be both of these, as was Moses.

Of the “perpetual” prophets, there were in turn some who were “supreme” and some who were “subordinate.” The “supreme” prophets started with Moses and held the leadership of Israel until the Israelites demanded a king. These prophets interacted with God through the operations of the temple (well, at this point of the “tabernacle”). How that worked exactly is unclear from scripture. The “subordinate” prophets were those who God spoke to through the Holy Spirit, albeit perhaps not supernaturally.

To subordinate prophets of perpetual calling, I find not any place that proveth God spake to them supernaturally, but only in such manner as naturally he inclineth men to piety, to belief, to righteousness, and to other virtues all other Christian men. (XXXVI.15)

Which is not to say that the Holy Spirit isn’t at work at all, just that He is working through the ordinary way the world works. At this, we finally come to the point Hobbes was building to:

When, therefore, a prophet is said to speak in the spirit, or by the spirit of God, we are to understand no more but that he speaks according to God’s will, declared by the supreme prophet. (XXXVI.15)

 These subordinate prophets are to the supreme prophet what the ministers of a state are to the sovereign.

So what does all of this have to do with us, in a time when there appear to be no more extraordinary, perpetual, supreme prophets? First, it tells us we ought to be wary of any claims made in the modern world to special revelation from God:

For he that pretends to teach men the way of so great felicity pretends to govern them… which is a thing that all men naturally desire, and is therefore worthy to be suspected of ambition and imposture, and consequently, ought to be examined and tried by every man before he yield them obedience (unless he have yielded it them already, in the institution of a commonwealth, as when the prophet is the civil sovereign, or by the civil sovereign authorized). (XXXVI.19)

All of us, Hobbes says, are obligated by scripture to test (also by scripture) the claims of any who say they are speaking in the name of God. If we find that heresy is being taught, then we are to go to our sovereign prophet (“that is to say, who it is that is God’s vicegerent on earth,” XXXVI.20) and point out the false prophets. If the sovereign gives them his blessing, we are to listen. If he rejects them, we are to turn away as well.

If this concluding passage about the role of the sovereign seems a bit out of joint from the rest of the chapter, that’s because Hobbes has reached here the basic problem of authority in Christian ecclesiology. We are given a set of principles in scripture that are fairly clear and in some ways pretty simple. The application of these principles, however, is not always quite so easy. How do I know that the guy at the church down the street is really preaching the truth as opposed to being a charlatan? Someone must interpret scripture in a real-world context. Hobbes sets up this problem as a dichotomy:

For when Christian men take not their Christian sovereign for God’s prophet, they must either take their own dreams for the prophecy they mean to be governed by, and the tumor of their own hearts for the Spirit of God, or they must suffer themselves to be led by some strange prince or by some of their fellow subjects that can bewitch them, by slander of the government, into rebellion (without other miracle to confirm their calling than sometimes an extraordinary success and impunity), and by this means destroying all laws, both divine and human, reduce all order, government, and society to the first chaos of violence and civil war. (XXXVI.20)

We are right back to the problem of the state of nature, albeit this time in an ecclesiastical setting. He has argued that we must either reasonably submit to an absolute sovereign, or throw ourselves into a theological war of all against all that will consume not only the church but the whole nation as well.

It should be obvious that what Hobbes has actually done here is not so much clearly exposit scripture as take his political philosophy and superimpose it on the doctrine of the church. Completely missing is any idea of limited responsibility on the part of the believer and limited authority on the part of the institutional church. And as much as I would like to give Hobbes a full blast of Baptist-ness, I suspect in this case and in this forum it’s better just to say that Hobbes got it wrong and go on to the next chapter, which raises the question of the role of miracles in the authority of the church.


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

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