Per Caritatem

Turning now to a second way in which Hobbes naturalizes traditional Christian claims in order to harmonize them with his philosophical and scientific beliefs, we come to his discussion of spirits and angels.  The entire trajectory of Hobbes’ discussion is set by what he says in paragraph two concerning the definition of the word “body,” which by the way, is a definition taken not from Scripture, but from philosophy.  Where, after all, in Scripture do we find a philosophical discussion of the nature of bodies?  As Hobbes explains, a body signifies that which is extended and thus occupies space and is subject to change.   Moreover, bodies are real parts of the universe and in no way depend on our imagination. Hobbes adds, “[f]or the universe, being the aggregate of all bodies, there is no real part thereof that is not also body, nor anything properly a body that is not also part of (that aggregate of all bodies) the universe” (Lev., ch. 34, ¶2).  Next, Hobbes says that body and substance signify the same thing, as both involve a “diversity of seeming (produced by the diversity of operation of bodies on the organs of our sense) we attribute to the alterations of the bodies that operate and call them accidents of those bodies” (Lev., ch. 34, ¶2).   Given these definitions, Hobbes, concludes that the phrase, “incorporeal substance,” is a contradiction.[1] Once he clearly establishes his terms, Hobbes then proceeds to apply his principles to his Scriptural exegesis.  For example, commenting on Gen 1:2 where the Holy Spirit is described as hovering over the waters, Hobbes points out that if we take Spirit literally as an incorporeal being, then we end up with the absurdity of attributing motion and place to the Holy Spirit who is supposed to be a non-extended being.  Rather than dismiss the passage as altogether incoherent, Hobbes opts to interpret “Holy Spirit,” as a metaphor for wind (Lev., ch. 34, ¶5).[2]

Since Hobbes himself affirms God’s incomprehensibility (Lev., ch. 34, ¶4), he does have other options open to him as a Christian thinker than the one he takes. However, presumably he rejects these because they either fail to cohere with his materialism, or they do not support his political agenda of absolute obedience to an earthly sovereign.  Traditionally, the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility has been a fundamental tenet of historic Christianity and has been taught and defended by theologians such as St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as Protestant thinkers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Karl Barth.  Roughly stated, God’s incomprehensibility speaks of the inability of finite creatures to comprehend exhaustively an infinite God. Nonetheless, Scripture and tradition both affirm that God’s incomprehensibility does not negate his knowability in some genuine and meaningful sense.  In fact, Scripture presents God as condescending to human beings and revealing himself in ways that we are able to understand (e.g., by means of human language and of course through the summa plenissima revelation of God Himself who became one of us in the Incarnation).  Emphasizing God’s loving condescension to human beings in light of their creaturely limitations, Calvin writes, “[f]or who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us?  Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity.  To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.”[3]   In other words, given that God knows exhaustively in one act, whereas humans engage in discursive, sequential reasoning processes given their material and immaterial composition, God accommodates our mode of thinking by speaking to us as if he were thinking according to our mode of intellection.  This then suggests that all Scripture is anthropomorphic and not simply those instances in Scripture in which God is described as hovering over the waters, having arms or speaking with an audible voice.  Since God himself in his mercy has given humans this revelation of himself and has overseen the process of the giving of this special revelation from redaction all the way through to final canonization, human beings can be confident that what God communicates to us about himself (albeit in analogical and anthropomorphic language) is true. 


[1] In chapter 41, paragraph 9, Hobbes seems to say that God and Jesus Christ are one and the same substance.  Given Hobbes’ argument that substance and body refer to the same thing and are thus material, the logical consequence is that the Father has a body.[2] Hobbes’ discussion of angels exhibits the same hermeneutical approach.  Cf. Lev., ch. 32, ¶23-24 where Hobbes concludes that angels cannot be incorporeal.  Hobbes goes on to state that he leans toward the idea that “angels were nothing but supernatural apparitions of the fancy, raised by the special and extraordinary operation of God, thereby to make his presence and commandments known to mankind, and chiefly to his own people.”

[3] John Calvin.  Institutes of Christian Religion.  Trans., Ford Lewis Battles and ed. John T. McNeil.  (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1960), 1.13.1, p. 121. 


The following passages are taken from George Tavard’s book, The Starting Point of Calvin’s Theology.  Tavard’s work is a significant and unique contribution to Calvin studies, as it introduces readers to Calvin’s practically unknown book, Psychopannychia, which examines the immortality of the soul.  In addition to highlighting Calvin’s thorough knowledge of the Church Fathers and Scripture, Psychopannychia also reveals “Calvin’s rootedness in the medieval mystic tradition and his deep catholicity, even as he took steps that would define him as a Reformer.”[1] In chapter 10, Tavard highlights the orthodoxy of Calvin’s Trinitarian theology. 

The originality of his presentation of Trinitarian doctrine emerges from his understanding of the notion of “person” in God.  This had been a point of debate in medieval speculation.  The stream of thought that originated in the writings of Boethius and was chiefly represented by Thomas Aquinas understood personhood as “a distinct subsistence in a rational nature.”  A person is that entity which is endowed with reason and subsists in itself.  On the whole, reflection on the dogma of the Trinity has mostly followed this line of approach (p. 177). 

Another stream of thought, however, that goes back to Richard of St. Victor in the twelfth century, and was chiefly emphasized by John Duns Scotus at the end of the thirteenth, understood personhood as, seen negatively, the incommunicability, or, positively, the uniqueness, of a spiritual or rational being.  A person is that spirit which is itself and no other.  Personhood belongs to the order of existence rather than of subsistence. In the God of the Christian revelation it designates a dimension of divinity that is so unique that it cannot be communicated and shared.  That there are in God three such dimensions is at the core of the revelation of Christ.  Abba, the Father of the Logos incarnate, is neither the Son nor the Spirit, and vice versa twice repeated.  The Father is known to believers in a glass, darkly, through the further revelation of the filiation of the Second Person and the procession of the Third” (p. 177). 

According to Tavard, the 1559 version of the Institutes appears to bring these two approaches together. 

Starting with the Greek term hypostasis used in Hebrews 1:3, Calvin explains in the Latin versions:  ‘There is no doubt that he [the Apostle] designates some subsistence in which he [the Father] differs from the Son.’[2]  This is further clarified with the remark:  “Person I call a subsistence in the essence of God, which, related to the others, is distinguished by an incommunicable property” (p. 178).[3]  

However, in the French version of 1561, Calvin adds a new aspect and attempts to explain the term “subsistence” in terms of indwelling.  “This word [hypostasis] implies a subsistence residing in the essence of God, which, being related to the others, is distinct from them by virtue of an incommunicable property.”  So interestingly, for his French readers, Calvin explicates subsistence by the term “residence”-a term that is “borrowed from the well-documented spiritual experience of sensing God ‘indwelling’ in the Christian soul” (p. 178). 

Tavard goes on to say that due to Calvin’s pastoral concerns, he tended to focus his biblical commentaries in a moral direction and that this aspect of Calvin has been advanced by his predecessors more so than the mystical roots of his Trinitarian theology. 

Nonetheless, the indwelling of the three Persons in the soul was the model he followed when he explained the Father, the Son, and the Spirit as three mutual indwellings in the divine ousia.  Each Person is a specific indwelling, a residence, in this essence of God. ‘But as it [la Parole, the Word] can have been in God only as residing in the Father, this shows the subsistence of which we speak, which, though it is joined with the essence by an inseparable link, nonetheless has a special mark by which to be different from it.’[4] The divine Word subsists and dwells in God the Father.  […] It remains that the writing of Psychopannychia had turned his theological perspective in the direction of the soul’s interiority, exactly in that inner dimension of humanity-Augustine’s ‘intimiority’-in which Christian faith and experience have located the indwelling of the Three Persons (p. 179). 


[1] Quoted from the back cover of the book.[2] Inst. of 1559/61, I, ch. 13, n. 2.

[3] Personam voco subsistentiam in Dei essential quae, ad alias relata, proprietate incommunicabili distinguitur (I, ch. 13, n. 6). 

[4] Inst. of 1559/61, I, ch. 13, n. 6.