Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Interpreting the Religion of Thomas Hobbes: An Exchange

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Interpreting the Religion of Thomas Hobbes: An Exchange

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION: INDEPENDENCY AND EVIDENCE

Recent work by Jeffrey Collins throws into high relief many of the most disputed issues concerning how evidence about religious beliefs ought to be interpreted in Thomas Hobbes's philosophy and in early modern philosophy more generally. In The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes,1 Collins argues that Hobbes was strongly Erastian, enthusiastically favored Independency during the Interregnum, and was generally anti-religious. Although we agree on Hobbes's Erastianism, I maintain that Hobbes tepidly endorsed Independency in the early 1650s but preferred theological Calvinism, then out of favor, as a form of Christianity adhered to by King James I, episcopacy as an adjunct to absolute sovereignty, and a high liturgy.2

Our respective treatments of the following brief passage from Leviathan illustrate some of our differences: "And so we are reduced to the independency of the primitive Christians to follow Paul or Cephas or Apollos, every man as he liketh best. Which [is] . . . perhaps the best."3 Collins takes these words to be an enthusiastic endorsement of Independency, that Hobbes believed "that Independency was the church model most likely to secure religious peace and protect the ecclesiastical supremacy of the state."4 He tries to buttress his position by saying that Hobbes "concluded that only gathered, voluntary congregations enjoyed church authority."5 But the phrase "gathered, voluntary congregations" is tendentious language, and Hobbes never used the phrase to my knowledge. Collins is right in holding that Hobbes was virtually alone in holding that the sovereign had both the power of jurisdiction and the power of ministry. But Hobbes justified his position by appealing to the Bible and early Church history. Both Moses and David had both secular and priestly authority; Constantine summoned the council of Nicaea; and he was called a "bishop."

On my view, both the words themselves and their immediate context show that Hobbes did not enthusiastically endorse Independency. The first clause, "And so we are reduced to the independency of the primitive Christians," is a statement of fact. Independency is the established church in 1651. Further, while the reference to "primitive Christianity" may suggest some approval because as a good Protestant Hobbes thought the early church was best, the allusion to Paul, Cephas or Apollos suggests restraint or disapproval for two reasons. First, the differences between the people mentioned were the cause of dissension in the Christian community in Corinth.6 Second, Hobbes's use of the hedge word "perhaps" mitigates his endorsement of Independency, and this hedge is strengthened by the two qualifications he immediately adds: "if it [Independency] be without contention and without measuring the doctrine of Christ by our affection to the person of his minister." The fact that the primitive church did not satisfy these qualifications Hobbes added suggests that he thought it would not be long before the Commonwealth's Independency also caused contention. This is confirmed by his comment that "if pastors be not subordinate one to another, so as that there be one chief pastor, men will be taught contrary doctrines, whereof both may be, and one must be, false."7 Hobbes seems not enthusiastic, but wary. In other words, Hobbes seems to have thought that independency was at the time the least bad option available because episcopacy had been abolished and Presbyterianism was infected by a pernicious democratic element.

In any case, Hobbes did not think Independency was right for him. One of the few direct facts we have of his religious preference in the early 1650s is his own testimony that he attended the services of "a good and learned man" ("vir bonus et doctus"),8 who conducted them according to the rubric of the Church of England, even though they had been outlawed. His attendance is confirmed by Aubrey, who mentions that Hobbes received the sacrament from John Pearson, later the bishop of Chester; and I have argued in another place that Hobbes's learned divine is Pearson. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.