Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: Latin Appendix I.56–104

“Obritzberg Kirche06” by BSonne. Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Latin Appendix I.56–104

Taking up the argument about immortality left off in the last post, we see again that on this subject Hobbes is well aware of the fact that he is taking a position that is a significant deviation from traditional Christian orthodoxy. He realizes that a good number (the majority?) of perfectly sound theologians and common-men-on-the-street have held both the idea of an eternal hell and that the soul and body are temporarily separated between death and resurrection. Hobbes is fairly generous with such people: “For my part I do not find fault with those who think this” (I.56). He recognizes that most theologians are trying to be faithful to scripture and to what their reason teaches, and that most average Christians are simply following those theologians.

Nevertheless, Hobbes believes that however well-intentioned their theological efforts were, the doctrines of the Sadducees, Plato, and Aristotle have crept into Christian theology and so twisted all of us away from what the Bible actually teaches. Hobbes invites us to challenge him from the best arguments those theologians can muster—he is confident that they will be little better than fantasies that have been given fancy names and linked together in syllogisms.

Let others expect what immortality they wish. I expect that which Christ, having conquered death, acquired for us by his blood. (I.56)

And that, at least, is I suppose as good a place as any to end a discussion of the resurrection.

From the subject of immortality Hobbes returns to a discussion of the Incarnation by exploring the relationship between Mary and Jesus. Perhaps in the spirit of his earlier condemnation of those who tried too hard to unravel this mystery, Hobbes collapses the whole question into one of God’s miraculous intervention and omnipotence. God ordained that Mary would bear a child who was both God and man, but only beget a man (albeit one “without the seed of a husband”) and not God—despite the fact that in Christ the God and the man are unified. Instead, he focuses on the miraculous nature of the conception—namely that Mary conceived without intercourse:

…if you believe that a woman can become pregnant by virtue of human seed, why do you doubt that she can become pregnant by virtue of God’s omnipotence? (I.60)

God was capable of performing this miracle—we need not delve into the whys and hows. And with that, Hobbes imagines that we are asking him to explain further:

So far you [i.e. Hobbes] have explained the doctrine of the Nicene creed in such a way that it does not seem to me that you have shaken the Christian faith at all; instead you have strengthened it, though in your own way. Now show me what the Greeks call a hypostasis. (I.63–64)

Again, Hobbes has already told us that we should not delve too deeply into these doctrines. Nevertheless he flings himself into a lengthy discussion of the hypostatic union. Yet in doing so, I don’t think he really deviates from his position that some things shouldn’t be overinvestigated. (I might be wrong here: Hobbes is obscure in this discussion, so kindly correct me if I’ve misread him.) His argument goes something like this:

1) God reveals himself to human beings in the persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;
2) Human beings have a language that we have to use to try to understand the world;
3) Our use of language is an imposition of the word on the world;
4) When God reveals himself to us, we have to impose words on what he has revealed about himself in order to understand and communicate that revelation to others (I.64–69).

So far, so good (I think). When we speak of “God the Father” or “God the Son,” we are communicating something true about divinity to each other in a way that we understand from human relationships. This does not take away from the truth of that communication (though it does mean it is not a perfect or complete communication), it just makes it accessible. But, being humans, we of course mess it up:

5) We take the words we have applied to God’s revelation and declare them to be the realities in themselves;
6) Thus what had been intended to communicate substantive realities becomes abstracted from those realities and takes on a rhetorical life of its own (I.70–81).

For example, if I tell you that near my house there is a small gray stone wall, I have communicated something about reality to you that may or may not be useful in helping you understand where I live. But, if I were to take that descriptor “gray” and tell you that “gray” is not just a descriptor but rather a spiritual reality present in the wall that highlights a perfect incorporeal transcendent reality, I have taken a useful and true statement and turned it into a meaningless mess that communicates nothing to no one and only hides the actual stone wall. And, when others take up that idea and start discussing it—maybe even build a philosophical school around the idea of “grayness”—understanding the reality of the stone wall becomes nearly impossible.

The risk in this discussion, as it appears Hobbes was well aware, is going to be the rhetorical collapse of the Trinity into a single unity and a functional modalism. And so Hobbes gives us a discussion of “person” and “substance” as they relate to divinity. He points out the disconnect between the Greek word prosopon and the Latin persona, which has caused so much confusion in Christian history (and which I am eminently unqualified to comment on), and once again retreats into mystery, only noting that far too many Christians have tried to use Aristotle’s metaphysics to defend the doctrine of the Trinity instead of sticking to “what was inferred plainly from Scriptures” (I.82–91).

The same has been true of discussions of body and spirit and the attempts by theologians to make the latter “incorporeal.” We’ve already seen that Hobbes has little patience with this and so won’t go into detail here. Fortunately, he notes that

…it does not seem to me that the salvation of men turns on such subtle refinements of words. I have no doubt that he will be saved who believes in Jesus Christ and repents of his sins even if he is not a theologian. To be sure, I do not depart from the teaching of the Nicene creed… that these three, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, are one God, and that in three persons… (I.104)

Rather than giving a direct response, perhaps it’s best to give the final word on the Trinity to Hobbes’s theological superior:

And this I suppose to be that blessed Trinity that we read of in the Holy Scriptures. The Father is the Deity subsisting in the prime, un-originated and most absolute manner, or the Deity in its direct existence. The Son is the Deity generated by God’s understanding, or having an idea of Himself and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the Deity subsisting in act, or the Divine essence flowing out and breathed forth in God’s Infinite love to and delight in Himself. And I believe the whole Divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the Divine idea and Divine love, and that each of them are properly distinct Persons.


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

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