Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: III.XLII.20–48

Excommunication of Emperer Frederick II by Pope Innocent IV.


If the sovereign of the church has the authority to offer or withhold baptism (based on a confession of faith and a life in conformity with that confession), does it follow that the same sovereign has the right of excommunication if someone’s confession and practice does not continue to match the claims made at the time of baptism? Keeping in mind that we are looking at the pre-Constantine era, Hobbes argues that

The use and effect of excommunication, whilst it was not yet strengthened with the civil power, was no more than that they who were not excommunicate were to avoid the company of them that were. (XLII.21)

“Excommunication,” therefore, ends up as a sort-of shunning. The problem is, this has no real effect given that the person is no longer claiming to be a Christian anyway. If anything, Hobbes believes that it damages the church by giving the individual all the more reason to go to the persecuting civil power and turn in believers. Functionally, therefore, excommunication can only affect those who believed themselves to be Christians already, and so

was used only for a correction of manners, not of errors in opinion; for it is a punishment whereof none could be sensible but such as believed. (XLII.24)

So an individual might be excommunicated for wronging another believer, but not for holding a heretical belief. In the latter case he wouldn’t have been a Christian to begin with, while in the former he would fall under what Hobbes sees as scripture’s clear condemnation. Even within that fairly narrow range, Hobbes identifies further limitations on the power of excommunication:

  • Only church members may be excommunicated, “For where there is no community, there can be no excommunication; nor where there is no power to judge, can there be any power to give sentence” (XLII.26).
  • Churches cannot excommunicate other churches, or members of other churches (XLII.27).
  • Sovereigns cannot be excommunicated (XLII.28).
  • Citizens cannot be excommunicated for obeying the laws of their sovereign (XLII.29).
  • Children cannot be excommunicated for communing (literally: “eating with”) their excommunicated parents, nor servants with their excommunicate masters (XLII.30).

All of this to say that “Excommunication… when it wanteth the assistance of the civil power… is without effect, and consequently, ought to be without terror” (XLII.31). I am not the person to respond to Hobbes’s ecclesiastical thought, instead I’ll just point toward some of the excellent work being done on this topic by the good folks over at 9Marks.

Just as in the pre-Constantine church excommunication was largely without force, so the church authorities had no real power to establish the correct interpretations of scripture. This is why we see Paul arguing with the Jews out of the Old Testament that Jesus is the Messiah but letting them go their own way in the end without trying to compel them into faith. In other words, Paul was not Moses—where Moses punished Israel for rejecting God, Paul simply travelled on to the next town (XLII.32). The same was true of the Gentiles, with whom the apostles reasoned but did not command (XLII.33). When there was a difficulty of interpretation, the apostles and elders of the church met together, discussed the difficulty, and sent out a nonauthoritative missive encouraging Christians to adapt their preaching accordingly but not taking “from the people the liberty to read and interpret them [the scriptures]” (XLII.35).

If Christians weren’t to impose definitive interpretations of scripture on each other, then it was even more true that they were not to impose biblical precepts on the nation as a whole. (Hobbes is quite clearly no Rushdooney at this point!) But, he holds the same principle to be true at the smallest level—the pre-Constantine church did not even apply scriptural laws to individual believers. At least, it did not do so as an institution. Instead, believers voluntarily obeyed scripture as a matter of individual choice and conscience but not as a matter of law. Anticipating the higher criticism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hobbes says of the early church:

But in that time, when not the power and authority of the teacher, but the faith of the hearer caused them to receive it [Scripture], it was not the apostles that made their own writings canonical, but every convert made them so to himself. (XLII.42)

A “law,” as we have seen already, can only be made by a sovereign. Therefore, as Christians, if the sovereign himself is not a Christian then we should not expect to live under scriptural law. In fact, Hobbes argues that we would be sinning were we to attempt to do so, since we have already pledged our political allegiance to the current sovereign. Fortunately, he thinks we can have a clear conscience about this because Christ’s kingdom is not of this world and as long as we believe in Him in our hearts, our outward actions may conform to the laws of the land:

For internal faith is in its own nature invisible, and consequently exempted from all human jurisdiction, whereas the words and actions that proceed from it, as breaches of our civil obedience, are injustice both before God and man. (XLII.43)

Even where the New Testament appears to be laying down new laws and requirements, we see on closer examination that these are rather “invitations” than commands (XLII.45). The council in Acts 15 was an advisory body, not a legislative assembly. The apostles were preachers sent to the lost, not kings sent to subjects. Which raises the questions of who was sent, how were they sent, and how did their work continue after they were martyred? We’ll take up those questions in the next post.

*I’ve slightly modified this reading selection from the original schedule to match better with the flow of Hobbes’s text.


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

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