Friday, July 20, 2012

Thomas Hobbes as Theologian: Part I

Recently I've reading Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan along with a number of other political philosophers.  Hobbes' treatment of the political is particularly interesting because it is intertwined with their discussions of the Bible.  To modern readers, the two subjects don't seem to have a lot in common.  In other words, why would you write a treatise that is simultaneously a critique of the authority and reliability of Scripture, and also about how you construct a social contract?  Reading some of the secondary literature, it never seems to occur to modern interpreters that the reason is that Hobbes is constructing in his political theory as an alternative theology to historic Christian orthodoxy.  The one person who seemed to get this was Carl Schmitt, who famously suggested that modern politics is simply a covert secularized theology.

The most interesting thing about Leviathan is how much time Hobbes spends talking about religion- that is, nearly half the book.  He also constructs an elaborate ontology and epistemology at the beginning of the book in order to put what he says in perspective.

At the heart of the Hobbes' theology is a veiled argument for the old Ancient Near Eastern idea of the Chaoschampf.  For those unfamiliar, the Chaoschampf was the standard narrative of origins in the ANE- though it also appears in Hesiod, who was influenced by similar sources in the Greek context.  The basic idea of the myth is that the origin of creation is chaos.  Such chaos is usually overcome by a god of order defeating a chaos monster and then organizing the universe.  One can see how different this is from Genesis 1-3, where the primal order is one of mutuality and grace (not force!) and where creation is not rooted in chaos, but in God's Word of grace.  Creation comes about not by the application of superior force, but by the gift of God's fiat.

Hobbes gives some credit to the idea of God, but generally states that God cannot be directly known.  Many interpreters have thought that he is secretly an atheist, though for various reasons I disagree.  That being said, Hobbes does make God almost completely irrelevant to his worldview.  Creation itself is mechanical.  This goes with a belief in atomism, which Hobbes took over from Epicureanism.  There are atoms, and atoms move in patterns that the autonomous laws of motion push them.  This results in the order of reality.  This again is the Epicurean idea that reality is constituted by atoms, motion, and the void.  Although Hobbes is slightly more convinced than Epicurus that the atoms move according to uniform laws of nature, he nevertheless believes that what is at the very heart of reality is chaos.  The atoms are necessarily fragmentary and chaotic.  They lack meaning or direction, unless pressed upon by a superior force, such as the laws of motion.

In the same manner, since human beings are nothing but living machines and as products of chaos, they are themselves chaotic.  There is no suggestion in Hobbes' vision of an original harmony descending into chaos.  Rather, Chaos is what is most primal and order only comes about by superior force.  So too, human beings in a mythical "state of nature" are naturally violent and competitive.  Again, it must again be stated that there is no suggestion here on Hobbes' part that there has been a Fall and that the primal order is one of grace and peace, with sin only entering later.  Rather humans are chaotic and violent, just as their bits and pieces are forged from are the chaotic stuff of the universe.

The solution to this problem of violence and chaos is the creation of the social contract.  Hobbes uses the term "covenant", which of course carries with a many biblical resonances.  Nevertheless, the covenant here is not with the biblical God, but between each atomistic individual in society with every other.  Humans agree with one another to create order out of chaos by contracting to obey the sovereign, that is, the state (whatever form that may take.  Hobbes says monarchy is best, but it doesn't necessarily have to be monarchy).  The sovereign is responsible for bringing order to the chaos of the social order.  The sovereign must be obeyed, since the alternative is the state of nature (the "war of all against all").  Almost any amount of oppression is better than the state of nature.

What I find interesting is how the sovereign for Hobbes here essentially plays the role of the god of order in the ANE creation myth.  He is the one who subdues chaos and brings about order through his use of violence and superior force.  Hobbes (though probably unaware of this similarity) states that the sovereign is a "mortal god."  It gets even better.  In the ANE, the king of the nation would often times participate in a yearly festival where he played the role of the deity of cosmic order subduing chaos.  In Babylon, for example, the king would play the role of Marduk.  Therefore, just as creation had been forged out of chaos by Marduk's victory over Tiamat, so the Babylonian social order and its empire were forge out of the application of superior force to its subdued peoples. 

Conceived in this manner, the theoretical basis for the modern secular state and secular society are actually the same as the ancient chaos myth.  Secularity is therefore not really "secular" (as the term is conventionally used) but thorough theological.  Actually, it's theological in a manner that is antithetical to the Christian understanding of God and creation.  

The Chaoschapf is ultimately a manifestation of the opinio legis.  It assumes that the realities of the present age are limitlessly recycled and reshaped by the pressure of superior force.  So too, the sinner may justify themselves with superior applications of the law.  The opinio legis does not recognize that God possesses infinite possibilities outside the law and therefore can, by an act of fiat bring about a new creation.  The law cannot create anything, it merely can apply larger and larger amounts of pressure to reshape reality.  It can subdue by death, but it cannot ultimately give life.  Creatio ex nillio goes hand-in-hand with the gospel, because it means that just as God unilaterally spoke creation into existence by his grace, so too in can again redemptively bring about a new creation through his omnipotent Word of the gospel and thereby fulfilling and transcend the limitations of the law..


  1. Since we are outside the law the Christian will be viewed as a threat to a pure secular state. If secularization continues and is not interupted say by a spiritual awakening or massive immigration from the global south, then Christian faith will be the target of government persecution.

  2. I find it curious that both Hobbes and Locke rejected traditional Christian doctrines and the traditional view of Scripture--Locke argued for stripping the Bible of its doctrinal content and using it as a practical book of morals--and yet both men deeply influenced the philosophy behind the American Revolution and subsequent political developments--something that many traditionally-minded American Christians seem to believe was divinely inspired. There is an inherent contradiction between the most basic tenets of our Christian faith and the most basic tenets of American political philosophy, but most Americans seem oblivious to it. Or perhaps they read Hobbes and Locke with Christian eyes, reading (for example) the Hobbesian state of nature as if he were a Calvinist speaking of the total depravity of man?

  3. "Creatio ex nillio goes hand-in-hand with the gospel, because it means that just as God unilaterally spoke creation into existence by his grace, so too in can again redemptively bring about a new creation through his omnipotent Word of the gospel and thereby fulfilling and transcend the limitations of the law.."

    The punchline!!!