Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: III.XXXIX

A Country Gospel worship service at Christ Lutheran Church, Fortuna, CA.


After much introductory material, we finally get to a surprisingly brief beginning of a definition of the church. And as with so much of the Leviathan so far, there’s something here to irritate everyone. Hobbes quite rightly points out that the various words for “church” can mean in scripture at different times different things. Sometimes, for example, it can be used to mean “God’s House, that is to say, for a temple wherein Christians assemble to perform holy duties publically” (XXXIX.1). In this case, the “church” is what we mean when we talk about a physical church building.

Sometimes, “church” in scripture means the assembled congregation or body of believers. Other times, it means those who have a right to assemble as believers, even if they are not actually there. This is the difference between the group of people who show up on Sunday morning for service and the list of members of a given church. The two might be close to the same but will rarely be exactly equal.

Yet other times, the “church” refers to a small gathering of Christians; and yet others to all true Christians (the “elect”) living in all times and all places. The former example might include Christians gathered at a Bible study or living in a college dorm; the latter is the eschatological church.

Most importantly, according to Hobbes, is the church as “a congregation assembled of professors of Christianity, whether their profession be true or counterfeit” (XXXIX.3). That is, people who gather together and publicly confess the faith, whether they truly believe it internally or not, are the “church” that matters most.

And in this last sense only it is that the Church can be taken for one person, that is to say, that it can be said to have power to will, to pronounce, to command, to be obeyed, to make laws, or to do any other action whatsoever. (XXXIX.4)

This is the body that creates the sovereign. In fact, it is exactly the same body that creates the civil sovereign.

Temporary and spiritual government are but two words brought into the world to make men see double and mistake their lawful sovereign. (XXXIX.5)

If we refuse to acknowledge the authority of the sovereign and the unity of the church and state, all we are doing is sowing the seeds of civil war by setting the powers of the one against the powers of the other. While there will come an eschatological time when this is no longer the case and the powers are correctly separated and balanced, “there is, therefore, no other government in this life, neither of state nor religion, but temporal” (XXXIX.5). Nor may anyone teach a doctrine, as Hobbes said earlier, other than that authorized by the sovereign.

This is also Hobbes’s way of refuting any kind of international religious authority, such as that claimed by the Church of Rome. There can be no international assembling of believers or citizens to authorize such a sovereign, and so no single authority can claim legitimacy over all believers. Even if one group were to try to assemble believers from all nations and enter into a covenant with them,

every one of them is [already] subject to that commonwealth whereof he is himself a member, and consequently cannot be subject to the commands of any other person. (XXXIX.5)

We cannot consent to an international sovereignty both because we cannot assemble internationally and because we have already pledged our national loyalties to our religious and political sovereign. Who that sovereign is and what he does religiously is the point of the next chapters.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who would be comfortable with Hobbes’s final conclusions about the church here. He of course directly refutes the claims of the bishop of Rome, even the much more modest pre-Vatican I claims to authority. His denial of separation of church and state sets him against the Anabaptists, the Baptists, and the Lutheran two-kingdoms models. And finally his absolutism puts him at odds with the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans. Which isn’t to say everything in this chapter is wrong—he is surely correct in his nuances of the word “church”—but it is to say that few people will walk away from this chapter wishing that the Leviathan were more widely read.


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

3 Responses to “Leviathan: III.XXXIX”

  1. gabe

    Goodness gracious, Ole Hobbes seems to be advocating a return to the “old Time Religion” – by old, I mean ancient, as in each city / polis has its own gods and woe be to him who advances or recognizes any other.

    Here is where Hobbes should have left it ( from today’s Liberty Law Blog – essay by Richard Samuelson discussing / quoting John Adams:

    “A postscript. Don’t despair of the republic:

    Zaleucus was of Locris in Italy, not far distant from Sybaris. He was a disciple of Pythagoras, of noble birth, and admirable morals. Having acquired the esteem and confidence of his fellow-citizens, they chose him for their legislator. Unfortunately, little remains of his laws but their preamble. But this is in a style so superior to that of all the other legislators, as to excite regret for the loss of his code. In this preamble he declares, that all those who shall inhabit the city ought, above all things, to be persuaded that there is a God; and, if they elevate their eyes and thoughts towards the heavens, they will be convinced that the disposition of the heavenly bodies, and the order which reigns in all nature are not the work of men nor of chance; that, therefore, they ought to adore the gods, as the authors of all which life presents us of good and beautiful; that they should hold their souls pure from every vice, because the gods accept neither the prayers, offerings, or sacrifices of the wicked, and are pleased only with the just and beneficent actions of virtuous men. Having thus, in the beginning of his laws, fixed the attention of his fellow-citizens upon piety and wisdom, he ordains, above all things, that there should never be among them any irreconcilable enmity; but, on the contrary, that those animosities which might arise among them, should be only a passage to a sure and sincere reconciliation; and that he who would not submit himself to these sentiments, should be regarded as a savage in a civilized community. The chiefs of his republic ought not to govern with arrogance nor pride; nor should the magistrates be guided in their judgments by hatred nor by friendship.”

    A somewhat more reasoned approach to a) securing civic cohesion, b) civic virtue and c) civic allegiance.

    I’ll take John Adams, thank you.

    take care

    • Coyle Neal

      Heh, well, when it comes to politics I’ll agree with you and take Adams. When it comes to religion, a pox on both their houses…

      For example, Adams on the Incarnation:

      They all believe that great principle, which has produced this boundless Universe… came down to this little Ball to be spit-upon by Jews; and until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world.” (Letter to Jefferson, January 22, 1825)

      • gabe


        Thanks for the quote:

        Interesting, yet not surprising, that so many of these “learned men” – children of the Enlightenment, no doubt – would feel the need to exhibit this sort of disrespect for those for whom they allegedly cared so deeply and while advocating that this nation must be a religious nation for it to succeed.

        It only shows that even the “best and the brightest” are not immune from a) the egoistic need to be seen as “with it” and b) a hypocritical disregard for their “flock.”

        Double the pox on ’em all!!!

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