Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Scripture and Truth: A Problem in Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Scripture and Truth: A Problem in Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

Article excerpt

The Tractatus theologico-politicus [TTP] certainly does not confront the modern reader with the same difficulties as Spinoza's philosophical master-piece, the Ethics.1 For one thing, on a superficial level, the TTP does not bear the intimidating format of the geometric method, with its dense tangle of definitions, axioms, propositions, and scholia. Moreover, while the Ethics presumes facility with a technical philosophical vocabulary that was common to a number of early modern traditions, especially Cartesianism and Aristotelian Scholasticism, the TTP, while also written in Latin, speaks in a more vernacular and accessible idiom. Where the Ethics proceeds by way of ostensibly rigorous demonstrations, the TTP moves along in a conventional narrative and argumentative mode. It also addresses what are arguably more mundane and (to the non-philosophical reader) familiar issues than the Ethics: instead of analyzing the nature of substance and its modes and presenting an intellectualist account of virtue, the TTP is concerned with how to read the Bible and the proper relationship between ecclesiastic and secular authority in the state.

This is not to say, however, that the TTP does not present serious lems of own. As straightforward as the work may seem, there are many puzzles to unravel among the philosophical, religious, and political theses that Spinoza defends in it, as well as numerous secondary questions about 1 his intended audience, the connection of the book to contemporary historical developments, and its systematic relationship to the Ethics.2

The goal of this essay is not to offer any bold or novel claims about this or that topic in the TTP. I have no grand interpretive purpose in mind. My aim, rather, is much more modest and, admittedly, inconclusive. I want only to present a small but troubling question that arises in the context of Spinoza's views in the TTP on the interpretation of Scripture. More specifically, Spinoza makes a number of comments in several distinct passages in chapter six, "On Miracles," about the relationship between Scripture and truth that seem flat-out inconsistent with his considered view on the matter. There seems, prima facie, to be no good reason why Spinoza says these things, and very good reasons why he should not say them. I am not entirely certain of how to resolve the perplexity generated by these anomalous passages, and so for the most part I here limit myself to offering them as a problem to be discussed. I shall, however, conclude by making at least one suggestion as to how the apparent inconsistency might be settled. Moreover, despite the relatively small scale of the problem I highlight, I believe that there is some larger payoff in addressing it, in so far as making sense of these problematic passages can deepen our understanding of Spinoza's Bible hermeneutics, which have had a significant influence on Bible criticism since the TTP's "scandalous" publication in 1670.


Let us begin with Spinoza's considered view on the relationship between the content of Scripture and truth. And since Scripture is the product of the prophetic imagination, where we really need to begin is with Spinoza's account of prophecy.

One of the goals of the TTP is to secure the separation of the domains of religion and philosophy so that philosophers might be free to pursue secular wisdom unimpeded by ecclesiastic authority. In Spinoza's view, philosophical truth and religious faith have nothing in common with one another, and one must not serve as the rule of the other. Philosophy should not have to answer to revealed religion, no more than revealed religion, or "faith," should have to be consistent with any philosophical system. Among the first steps that Spinoza takes toward this goal of defending the "freedom of philosophizing" is to combat the notion of the prophet-philosopher, particularly as this notion is elaborated by Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed.

Maimonides, like a number of medieval philosophers,3 had argued that the prophet, no less than the philosopher, can do what he does because he has a perfected intellect or rational faculty. …

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