Hobbes on the Authority of Scripture

Thomas Holden
University of California at Santa Barbara
To understand Hobbes’s handling of Christian scripture in Part 3 of Leviathan we need to see it in the light of his own radical account of the norms controlling public religious speech and practice as set out in Part 2 and in other works such as De Cive and De Corpore. As these texts make clear, Hobbes holds that we ought rationally to venerate the first cause of all, and that the proper way to venerate this awesome and incomprehensible being is to publicly adopt the local culture’s religious practices, however arbitrary or conventional those practices might be. For the seventeenth-century English subject, the Anglo-Protestant scriptural religion provides the appropriate vehicle to express this rationally mandated religious piety, and thus provides a form of devotion that Hobbes embraces in a spirit of genuine religious reverence. At the same time, he also regards this religion, like all scriptural religions, as a conventional human artifact that, given the ear of the sovereign, he might hope to shape in favor of Hobbesian ideals such as civil obedience, the separation of philosophy from religion, and the extirpation of belief in an immaterial spirit-world. The proposed interpretation dissolves systematic problems facing irreligious readings on the one hand, and more straightforwardly Christian readings on the other.
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