Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: IV.XLV.10–38

“Book of Exodus Chapter 33-2” by Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


The second foundation of the kingdom of darkness is the blending of pagan superstition with Christian doctrine. In previous posts we saw that the first result of this blending was a false spirituality and supernaturalism that distracted from our proper focus on the eschatological kingdom of God. The second result, which is where we pick up Hobbes’s discussion, is the growth of the worship of idols in the church. This particular sin is something that God’s people have struggled with for as long as there has been a written record, starting with the Old Testament (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:15–16) and running right through our own time. Which isn’t to say that Hobbes is correct in his analysis of its causes, just that he has noticed something that Christians have a problem with.

Another relic of Gentilism is the worship of images, neither instituted by Moses in the Old, nor by Christ in the New Testament, nor yet brought in from the Gentiles, but left amongst them, after they had given their names to Christ. Before our Saviour preached it was the general religion of the Gentiles to worship for gods those appearances that remain in the brain from the impression of external bodies upon the organs of their senses, which are commonly called ideas, idols, phantasms, conceits… and have nothing in them of reality, no more than there is in the things that seem to stand before us in a dream. (XLV.10)

We should note that Hobbes is not condemning the worship of a statue as a statue—I know of few religions that would say that a piece of rock is literally a god. But there are many religions that claim to worship their gods through the physical object. Hobbes objects to this on the grounds he has already established, namely that there are no spiritual existences outside of physical reality. (For the record, though there are many reasons Christians ought not to commit idolatry, Hobbes’s reason isn’t one I would use as a defense.)

The exceptions to Hobbes’s prohibition on idolatry come exactly where we would expect them to: namely, if we live in nations where the sovereign commands it. In that case, it is our Christian duty to externally make the proper genuflections while internally loathing the wicked practice. He does say that pastors in such circumstances ought not to do so, since they might lead others astray in the process by their public example, but the hoi polloi ought to obey without fear of divine displeasure (XLV.27).

A second exception comes in the doctrine of the Incarnation. Christ is in Christian doctrine God and man in one. “…Yet this is no idolatry, because we build not that belief upon our own fancy or judgment, but upon the Word of God revealed in the Scriptures” (XLV.24). Though we can add that while the worship of Christ is obedience rather than idolatry, sculpting a statue of Jesus and then worshiping it would be a violation of the command.

Interestingly, while Hobbes makes an exemption for the second person of the Trinity, he allows none for the Holy Spirit:

Whereas there be that pretend divine inspiration to be a supernatural entering of the Holy Ghost into a man, and not an acquisition of God’s graces by doctrine and study, I think they are in a very dangerous dilemma. For if they worship not the men whom they believe to be so inspired, they fall into impiety (as not adoring God’s supernatural presence). And again, if they worship them, they commit idolatry (for the apostles would never permit themselves to be so worshipped). (XLV.25)

It is perhaps better, Hobbes argues, to understand the “gift” of the Holy Spirit as a renewed set of human faculties rather than as a direct possession by supernatural forces. I’ll have to think more about this one, it’s an argument I’ve never encountered before.

Finally, there is the exception of art. Hobbes is not an absolute iconoclast—he leaves room for paintings and statues of images seen in dreams and fantasy, so long as they remain outside the realm of worship.

I say not that to draw a picture after a fancy is a sin; but, when it is drawn, to hold it for a representation of God is against the second commandment; and can be of no use but to worship. (XLV.31)

The same applies to portraiture and other representations of real people and things or fiction.

These, however, are exceptions to the rule rather than the norm. According to Hobbes, it is the obligation of Christian sovereigns to eliminate idols rather than to codify their worship:

…Christian sovereigns ought to break down the images which their subjects have been accustomed to worship, that there be no more occasion of such idolatry. For at this day the ignorant people, where images are worshiped, do really believe there is a divine power in the images, and are told by their pastors that some of them have spoken, and have bled, and that miracles have been done by them, which they apprehend as done by the saint (which they think is either the image itself or in it). (XLV.30)

For Hobbes, it is the job of the sovereign to teach his subjects the truth, including the truth that spirits do not possess statues. The best way to teach this, in Hobbes’s view, is by smashing those statues and proving they are not divine.

For what it’s worth, I think Hobbes is wrong on this one. This isn’t because I’m unsympathetic to the anti-idolatry here: when it comes to religion, I’m as iconoclastic as they come. I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for both Cromwell and Leo the Isaurian. But I’ve also got a soft spot for freedom of religion. I know it is unfair to hold Hobbes to an idea that really didn’t take off until a bit after his time, but still…

Hobbes gives much less attention to the other aspects of pagan religion that have bled into Christianity. These include: canonizing the saints (XLV.34); the non-Biblical titles of church figures like “ponitfex” (XLV.35); processions of images through public places (XLV.36); ceremonial use of candles, torches, incense, and other religious bric-a-brac (XLV.37); and the institution of holy days and religious ceremonies (XLV.37).

And, well, what can we say? While I disagree with much of Hobbes’s diagnosis and certainly much of what he prescribes for the cure, no one can disagree that the church has always been in the midst of a long-standing battle to resist the pull of the culture. The temptation is always to adopt the customs and practices of the world  as a supplement to—or in the place of—what has been commanded in scripture. Though Hobbes largely picks on the Catholics here, they are by no means the only guilty ones. When we see churches that are like rock concerts, preaching that is like a motivational speech, and prayer that is incoherent post-modern gibberish, we can see that the “Gentile” culture continues to infect the church to this day. Whether it is the old temptation to worship idols or the new temptation to worship technological innovation, the solution is not an all-powerful government sweeping away corruption in the church.


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: