Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: III.XLII.1-19

Fresco of Chirst and His Apostles, Genoa. Photo by Sailko – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


Just what should the sovereignty of Christ look like in this world? That is a question that ultimately deals with church polity—or the “Power Ecclesiastical.” Yet we must understand, Hobbes tells us, that this sovereignty is of two historical types: that from “before the conversion of kings and men,” and that “after their conversion” (XLII.1). The next three posts (paragraphs 2–65) deal with the “before” type of sovereignty, the last three with the “after.” The editor of the Hackett edition usefully provides an appendix outlining this lengthy chapter (presented here with some modifications).

1: Statement of the problem of ecclesiastical power
2–65: Pre-Constantine ecclesiastical power

2–4: Apostolic succession, and the Trinity;
5–10: The preaching function of the church;
11–14: Digression on escaping persecution;
15–19: The work of the church;
20–31: Excommunication;
32–35: Interpretation of scripture forbidden;
36–48: Personal theonomy forbidden;
49–60: Congregationalism;
61–65: Paying pastors;

66: Summary/Transition
67–135: Post-Constantine

67–71: Investiture by sovereigns;
72–79: Performance of church functions by sovereigns;
80: Delegation of authority by sovereigns;
81–86: Bellarmine is wrong about the pope’s monarchy;
87–88: But the pope isn’t the Antichrist;
89–96: Bellarmine is wrong about the pope’s infallibility;
97–109: Bellarmine is wrong about the pope’s legislative authority;
110–120: Bellarmine is wrong that the pope alone is invested by God;
121–135: Bellarmine is wrong that the pope has political power other than over the papal states.

“Bellarmine is wrong” is not exactly Hobbes’s theological life motto (though you could certainly find worse ones), it’s just his response to the greatest Catholic theologian of the time immediately prior to Hobbes.

Prior to the time of Constantine, authority and sovereignty within the church were passed down from the apostles to their successors:

…it is manifest that the power ecclesiastical was in the apostles; and after them, in such as were by them ordained to preach the gospel, and to convert men to Christianity… and after these, the power was delivered again to others by these ordained. And this was done by imposition of hands upon such as were ordained… (XLII.2)

While this succession is related to the Trinity, I won’t bother trying to sort out Hobbes’s trinitarianism—that is best left to the theologians. The point for our purposes is that the authority exercised first by the apostles and then by their successors was the same authority exercised in the name of the Father by Moses in the Old Testament and by the Son in the Gospels. The authority that comes with the Holy Spirit is the same authority that has always ruled over the Kingdom of God, it just comes in a different form under the dispensation of the New Testament.

What does this authority look like? Based on the examples used by Christ to describe the Kingdom of God—such as leaven, seed, and fishing, and by the name “regeneration,” by the nature of “faith,” and on the example of Christ’s preaching, Hobbes thinks it clear that the authority of the Kingdom of God is a declarative and persuasive power, not a compulsory one:

Therefore, the ministers of Christ in this world have no power by that title to punish any man for not believing or for contradicting what they say. (XLII.9)

Of course, if said ministers are also political sovereigns, then they do have such power. But at this point we are still discussing the pre-Constantine era, so compulsion is not yet on the radar. The Kingdom of God may seduce and allure, but it may not force or command.

(As a side-note, speaking of fishing as an example of the Kingdom of God, I cannot recommend enough Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler as a much more orthodox and irenic counterpoint to Hobbes.)

This discussion of religious compulsion leads Hobbes to a slight tangent about persecution. If the Kingdom of God may not compel others, what are we to think about the world’s attempts to compel it?

But what (some may object) if a king, or a senate, or other sovereign person forbid us to believe in Christ? (XLII.11)

Hobbes reminds us that this is a meaningless command:

To this I answer that such forbidding is of no effect, because belief and unbelief never follow men’s commands. Faith is a gift of God, which man can neither give nor take away by promise of rewards or menaces of torture. (XLII.11)

But, what if we are commanded to expressly deny Christ? Hobbes argues that we are free to speak in a way that saves our lives, since our external words cannot affect the faith implanted by grace in our hearts. And if our response is that we are commanded to publicly affirm Christ regardless of the consequences, Hobbes asks whether we would want a Muslim living in our own nation to refuse to obey the command of the prince to attend a church service on account of his religious conscience? If we say “yes,” we have authorized “all private men to disobey their princes, in maintenance of their religion, true or false” (XLII.11). If we say “no,” we’re giving the Muslim a command that we would refuse to obey ourselves, and so violating the Golden Rule and the laws of nature. (There are martyrs, of course, who do exercise such disobedience, but they have a special calling that the average man-on-the-street Christian need not concern himself with.)

So just what authority does the church have? What does the Power Ecclesiastical look like in practice? Preaching and teaching are central, as has already been said. But they are also to “baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” This is not a transfer of allegiance in this life—we can’t do that, we’ve already covenanted with the sovereign. It is instead the “promise to take the doctrine of the apostles for our direction in the way to life eternal” (XLII.18).

The right to baptize implies a final power, the “power of remission and retention of sins—called also the power of loosing and binding, and sometimes the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (XLII.19). This is not an absolute power—God alone is sovereign over who goes to heaven and who does not. But, those with apostolic authority are, according to Hobbes, responsible for judging “the outward marks of repentance” and administering baptism accordingly (XLII.19). But because this authority is not infallible, at some point an individual will be baptized who is not a believer, in which case the question will arise of what to do with that person. This leads to the question of excommunication, which we will pick up in the next post.


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

Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: