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  • Calvin and Hobbes: Trinity, Authority, and Community
  • Jonathan J. Edwards

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes limits Christian duty to an internal and private faith in a spiritual reality whose only proper external expression is obedience to the rules and laws of the civil Sovereign (Lev. 346, 403). The church is not universal but a particular element of civil society, and its laws are therefore subject to Sovereign review (Lev. 321). With religion absorbed into the body of Leviathan, the Sovereign is free to act in the best interests of the Commonwealth without fearing rebellion from subjects on the basis of religious devotion. The theology of Hobbes, particularly as manifested in his unique interpretation of the Christian Trinity,1 is a powerful political tool to pierce the heart of ecclesiastical authority. However, the Hobbesian Trinity fails to account adequately for problems of conscience and interpretation, and this ultimately undermines the stability and persuasive capacity of his Trinitarian politics.

My goal in this essay is to extend the recent line of scholarship that aims to reconnect Hobbes’s political science with the rest of his thought, including his rhetorical, metaphysical, and theological interests (Johnson 1986; see also Sorell 1990, 1990a; Skinner 1996; Kahn 2004). Specifically, by reading Hobbes’s interpretation of the Christian Trinity in Leviathan against the interpretation offered by John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, I explore the relationship between political and religious [End Page 115] life for both authors and identify the ways in which the Trinity functions for each as a tool for transformative political change.2

The Hobbesian Trinity has been widely recognized as one of the most distinctive features of his theology (see Pocock 1973; Martinich 1992; Springborg 1996; Wright 1999, 2006; Forster 2003; Paganini 2003; Martel 2007). Like most discussions of his religious arguments, however, critical explorations of the Trinity have generally centered upon Hobbes’s apparent Christian “sincerity” or lack thereof.3 In contrast, as far as is possible, my purpose is to explore the Trinity as a specifically political tool, one that works to authorize and justify the Hobbesian Sovereign. Given the context within which Hobbes wrote, a time and place saturated with violently competing Christian discourses, the question of personal sincerity appears more and more to start us offin the wrong place. Recent scholarship that has considered Hobbes’s religious arguments and more specifically his interpretation of the Trinity has broadly divided into two camps. On the one hand, those arguing for a sincere, devout Hobbes—who generally follow the work of Taylor (1938), Warrender (1957), and, more recently, Martinich (1992)—present Hobbes as essentially defending a sincere religious devotion from the consequences of his own philosophy. From this perspective, his theology is rooted in an intellectual striving for personal consistency, only secondarily and tangentially related to his political project. On the other hand, those who argue that Hobbes was insincerely, ironically, or mockingly “religious” tend, though to greater or lesser degrees, to follow Strauss (1936) in disconnecting and diminishing the religious arguments of Leviathan in relation to Hobbes’s politics as articulated in Books 1–2.4

In contrast to both of these positions, I begin with the assumption that, in Leviathan, the Trinity is primarily political, manifesting specific and significant political effects. If one uses Calvin’s work to further examine the political and social impact of this doctrine, it becomes clear that the Hobbesian Trinity is far from a dispensable theological curiosity or an ad hoc response to interpretive problems. Instead, I intend to demonstrate that, for both Calvin and Hobbes, the Trinity establishes a critical link between authority and authorization, conscience and community, which necessarily draws together reason and religion in the support of their distinctive political projects.

There are good reasons for comparing these two authors. In the first place, like Hobbes, Calvin is engaged in a political project to establish a stable ground for authority and community (see Wolin 2004, 150ff). Second, Calvin’s theory of the Trinity uniquely focuses on the doctrine’s [End Page 116] connection to the “divine-human relationship” (Butin 1995, 19), effectively describing a Trinitarian politics. Third, for Hobbes, these politics represented a critical assault on the foundations of...


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