- Strong Sovereign, Weak Messiah: Thomas Hobbes on Scriptural Interpretation, Rhetoric and the Holy Spirit
In looking at the chaos and disruption of the English civil war, Thomas Hobbes presents us with a conundrum. In Leviathan and elsewhere, he lays the blame for the war to a large part on the problem of interpretation of Scripture.1 Competing interpretations by the Church of England, Puritan radicals, Ranters, Quakers, Presbyterians, Catholics, Anabaptists, Diggers and other religious movements all claimed to have the correct reading of the Bible, with a commensurate political vision that many were ready to fight for. For Hobbes, there may be as many scriptural interpretations as there are interpreters. The conundrum is that for Hobbes, God is unknowable in that God does not (with very few, very special exceptions) ever speak directly to us. Instead we must imagine and represent what God might say.2 For Hobbes, Scripture, although authored by God, is not literally God’s word but stands in for those words, and is thus unfortunately subject to interpretation (hence the troubles of the English civil war).3 Thus Hobbes tells us “men need to be very circumspect” in following a prophet or claimant to speak for God for “he that pretends to teach men the way of so great felicity, pretends to govern them; that is to say, to rule, and reign over them.” 4 Yet paradoxically Hobbes insists that Scripture is and must be the basis for any notion of truth or justice, a foundation for epistemology.5 God is the author of natural law without which human law is meaningless. Put simply, we can’t live with Scripture as a basis for politics and we can’t live without Scripture either. What, Hobbes asks us, is to be done?
In “Of a Christian Common-wealth” (the third of four parts of Leviathan and at 217 pages, a book within a book), Hobbes offers us a complete and substantial interpretation of Scripture of his own. He begins “Of a Christian Common-wealth” by telling us that although the possibility of a Christian commonwealth “dependeth much” on revelation and the “Will of God,” we ought not despair that God has chosen of late to remain silent:6
Nevertheless, we are not to renounce our Senses and Experience; nor (that which is the undoubted Word of God) our natural Reason. For they are the talents which he hath put into our hands to negotiate, till the coming again of our blessed Saviour; and therefore not to be folded up in the Napkin of an Implicate Faith, but employed in the purchase of Justice, Peace and true Religion.7
For Hobbes, the absence of a clear and authoritative divine voice, far from being the cause of our woes, enables and even requires the possibility of human agency. Our reason is a gift from God, a “talent” given to us in order to negotiate a world marked by God’s (relative) absence. Rather than despair, we must endeavor to become aware of our own power to discover and produce truths in God’s name. This talent is not meant to supplant Scripture but rather to learn how and what Scripture actually teaches us.8
If Hobbes is saying that we can (and must) know truth(s) through Scripture, but that there are many false claimants for that truth, how is he to distinguish the true from the false? In particular, why should we take Hobbes’ word for what the correct reading of Scripture is, when he is, by his own argument, just another claimant? Indeed, Hobbes’ own version of “the truth” is quite unpleasant (to modern ears, certainly, but also to many of his contemporaries). To end dissention and war, he proposes the subjugation of all other religions under the rubric of the Church of England which itself must be subjugated to the English king. English citizens may believe in their hearts what they like, but they must obey their terrestrial sovereign in all of their actions.9
Hobbes’ “answer,” like the national sovereign which he is advocating as part of that answer, seems absolute and unimpeachable. And yet, by raising the issue of...