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Thomas Hobbes’s Reformed Soteriology

In Leviathan Thomas Hobbes writes that faith in Jesus Christ is not attainable, except by the sovereign gift of God. He says the following, in the context of a discussion about the role of the Christian person in a Christian commonwealth:

It is the doctrine of St. Paul concerning Christian faith in general, “Faith cometh by hearing,” that is, by hearing our lawful pastors. He saith also, “How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?” Whereby it is evident that the ordinary cause of believing that the Scriptures are the word of God is the same with the cause of the believing of all other articles of our faith, namely, the hearing of those that are by the law allowed and appointed to teach us, as our parents in their houses, and our pastors in the churches: which also is made more manifest by experience.1

Hobbes continues:

But if teaching be the cause of faith, why do not all believe? It is certain therefore that faith is the gift of God, and He giveth it to whom He will. Nevertheless, because to them to whom He giveth it, He giveth it by the means of teachers, the immediate cause of faith is hearing. In a school, where many are taught, and some profit, others profit not, the cause of learning in them that profit is the master; yet it cannot be thence inferred that learning is not the gift of God. All good things proceed from God; yet cannot all that have them say they are inspired; for that implies a gift supernatural, and the immediate hand of God; which he that pretends to, pretends to be a prophet, and is subject to the examination of the Church.2

By way of comparison, the following is from Calvin:

It is written in the Prophets. Christ confirms by the testimony of Isaiah what he said, that no man can come to him, unless he be drawn by the Father He uses the word prophets in the plural number, because all their prophecies had been collected into one volume, so that all the prophets might justly be accounted one book. The passage which is here quoted is to be found in Isaiah 54:13, where, speaking of the restoration of the Church, he promises to her, sons taught by the instruction of God Hence it may easily be inferred, that the Church cannot be restored in any other way than by God undertaking the office of a Teacher, and bringing believers to himself. The way of teaching, of which the prophet speaks, does not consist merely in the external voice, but likewise in the secret operation of the Holy Spirit. In short, this teaching of God is the inward illumination of the heart.3

Certainly, Calvin emphasises that God himself is the teacher of the heart, whereas Hobbes says that faith comes by hearing through teaching. Both are true, and Calvin’s comments on the efficacy of preaching complete the picture:

And this is a remarkable passage with regard to the efficacy of preaching; for he testifies, that by it faith is produced. He had indeed before declared, that of itself it is of no avail; but that when it pleases the Lord to work, it becomes the instrument of his power. And indeed the voice of man can by no means penetrate into the soul; and mortal man would be too much exalted, were he said to have the power to regenerate us; the light also of faith is something sublimer than what can be conveyed by man: but all these things are no hindrances, that God should not work effectually through the voice of man, so as to create faith in us through his ministry.4

As far as the outward means of generating Christian faith is concerned, Hobbes is one with Calvin.

  1. Leviathan, Part III, chapter 43
  2. Leviathan, Part III, chapter 43
  3. Commentary on the Gospel of John, John 6:45
  4. Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Romans 10:17

By Simon Kennedy

Simon is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland. He resides in Geelong, Victoria with his wife and four children.