Archive Civic Polity Philosophy Reformed Irenicism Simon Kennedy

Vermigli vs Hobbes on Idolatry

In his massive chapter on ecclesiastical power in Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argues that people can rightly bow before idols, or deny belief in Christ as Messiah. He writes that if a civil magistrate forbids one to believe in Christ, it does not matter:

To this I answer, that such a forbidding is of no effect, because Belief, and Unbelief never follow men’s Commands. Faith is a gift of God, which Man can neither give, nor take away by promise of rewards, or menances of torture … Profession with the tongue is but an external thing, and no more than any other gesture whereby we signify our obedience; and wherein a Christian, holding firmly in his heart the Faith of Christ, hath the same liberty which the Prophet Elisha allowed Naaman the Syrian.1

Hobbes goes on to interpret 2 Kings 5:17, which tells of Naaman’s appeal to Elisha to be able to worship in the temple of Rimmon despite his conversion:

… the prophet approved, and bid him Go in peace. Here Naaman believed in his heart; but by bowing before the Idol Rimmon, he denied the true God in effect, as much as if he had done it with his lips … This we may say, that whatsoever a Subject, as Naaman was, is compelled to in obedience to his Sovereign, and doth it not in order to his own mind, but in order to the laws of his country, that action is not his, but his Sovereign’s; nor is it he that in this case denyeth Christ before men, but his Governor, and the law of his country.2

Hobbes seems to me to be trying to deal with the very real prospect that a Roman Catholic sovereign could ascend to the English throne, thus raising the possibility that Protestants may have to attend Mass, and participate in all that entails. His biblical and exegetical solution is Naaman the Syrian, combined with a rather extreme internalisation of faith, and disconnection of faith from outward actions. Hobbes is concerned, of course, with the possibility of many private men disobeying the civil magistrate on the basis of their religious faith.

Hobbes’s Leviathan was published in 1651. About a hundred years earlier, a work entitled A treatise of the cohabitation of the faithful with the unfaithful had been published. It was authored by Peter Martyr Vermigli.  In it, Vermigli directly addresses the question of whether the narrative of Naaman legitimises attendance at Mass for Protestants.

But notwithstanding all this which is spoken, yet these men which think that they may dissemble at the Masse, cease not to say, That though the Masse be not the Lords supper, but an Idolatry, yet is not the presence at it so earnestly to before bidden, seeing that such thinges have been granted unto the Infirmities of men. If a man do ask them where: They do bring forth the Example of Naaman the Syrian, and by it they will needs have it made Lawfull unto them to communicate with wicked superstitions … And that, say they, which was permitted unto Naaman, why do you forbid unto us?3

Vermigli is obviously setting up to refute claims which would similarly be made by those such as Hobbes. In any case, he goes on, and considers the testimony of the church fathers:

First these men should weigh with them selves, whether that we only have ready this Example of Naaman, or not. Do we think that the holy Apostles and Martyrs of the old church which were occupied night and daye in the holy scriptures, did not consider this act and Example? Truly they were not ignorant of the history, yet did they never know this understanding of it: for if they did, why then would they not follow this example, especially when they might thereby have saved their lives? But these holy and godly learned men did see that thing in this history, which our men do not consider, namely this, that Naaman now newly converted to the faith was a smoking flax which was not to be put out, a weak and shaken reid which was not to be bruised in pieces, and that as yet he was very weak, for he was not yet prepared and ready to deny and forsake himself and all that was his for God’s sake. He thought that it might come to pass that he should together with the knowledge of the Living God, easily hold and keep still his old place, office, and dignity, if he could happen to have that, which he desired of the prophet.4

Vermigli then reasons that the very fact that Naaman requests that God would forgive him is a giveaway that what he suggests he will do is, in fact, sinful.

And when he did well perceive that this was his infirmity and sin, it troubled him so that therfore he desired the prayers and helpe of Eliseus [Elisha]. He desired him, that if he should happen to fall into this evil, yet that he might be favored, that he might find mercie, and that Eliseus would pray that the Lord would forgive him. Who doth at any time ask forgiveness for that which he accepteth Lawfull? Forgiveness is asked for sins only, Naaman therefore acknowledged this his act to be a sin. And if I so fall (quod he) then pray the Lord to forgive me. This place therfore doth make most against our men, and even the same ways which they go about to excuse their fact, by the same it is most plainly proved to be sin. Let them acknowledge therfore in their doing that thing, which Naaman the Syrian did. And let them beg the mercy of God, and the prayers of godly men, that the same thing which they have evil done, and do, may be pardoned them.5


Errata: This post originally stated that Hobbes had published prior to Vermigli and that Vermigli may have been responding to him, an obvious mistake caused by misreading the publication years by about a century. This error was separable from the larger post, but was, nevertheless a significant mistake. Thanks to an interested reader for pointing it out.

  1. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, C. B. Macpherson ed., (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), pp. 527-528, 3:42
  2. Ibid, p. 528
  3. Pietro Martire Vermigli, A treatise of the cohabitacyon of the faithfull with the vnfaithfull Whereunto is added. A sermon made of the confessing of Christe and his gospell, and of the denyinge of the same. 1555, p. 31. Note that I have updated the spelling of the original text.
  4. Ibid, p. 32
  5. Ibid, pp. 32-33

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.