Hobbes and the State of Nature

For my current class at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, I am independently studying the theory of natural law.  George Grant summarizes the doctrine of natural law as “the assertion that there is an order in the universe, and that right action for us human beings consists in attuning ourselves to that order.  It is the most influential theory of morality in the history of the human race” (Philosophy In The Mass Age, University of Toronto Press, 1995, page 26).  This order can be discovered by reason.  This does not mean that it can be easily discovered; it simply implies that we are rational creatures.

My studies have led me to focus on one key thinker.  I am focusing on the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes.  What does Hobbes have to do with the church?  In his monumental work Leviathan, Hobbes spends a good chunk of space on the Scriptures.  As Leo Strauss writes, “Hobbes with double intention becomes and interpreter of the Scriptures for his own theory, and next and particularly in order to shake the authority of the Scriptures themselves” (The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, 71).

I am particularly indebted to Leo Strauss and Dr. Terence Kleven (Central College, Pella, Iowa) for pointing out to me that the theory of natural law changed in the 17th and 18th centuries.  While Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Hobbes both write on the natural law, there is a fundamental difference.  The difference comes with the understanding of the state of nature.  By state of nature, I simply mean that Aquinas and Hobbes disagreed about the purposes of nature or the theory of mankind.  Because they disagreed about the state of nature, their understandings of natural law changed.  Natural law is based on nature.

What is the point?  The point is that I will periodically write on Hobbes or natural law.  This is a way for me to think through the subject and to respond to what I’m reading.

Where to start?  Well, let’s start with a short statement made in the Introduction of Leviathan.  Hobbes writes that man is the “most excellent work of nature.”  Hobbes rejects Aristotle’s claim that there is something higher to know: “For it is absurd for anyone to believe that politics or practical judgment is the most serious kind of knowledge, if a human being is not the highest thing in the cosmos” (Ethics, translated by Joe Sacks, 108).   In other words, Hobbes takes a humanist approach to nature.  He implies that man is the standard of nature.  He rejects Aristotle’s claim that there might be something above man by which to judge man.

For Hobbes, the state of nature just is.  Whatever is, is.  It is accidental.  It is purposeless.  It is bodies in motion.  There is nothing to learn from it to guide our actions or politics.  Reason cannot discover any order in nature because there is no created order in nature.  Natural law, then, does not become founded in the classical, Aristotelian understanding of nature.  Where is its foundation?


Worth a Look

S.M. Hutchens has written a fine editorial on the newest publication of Touchstone Magazine.  (You may access his editorial on line for free here.)

Here is the main point of the piece:

“In 1 Corinthians 6, St. Paul gives vital clarification on a subject where there is much foggy thinking among those who ask questions like, ‘What should the Church’s approach to homosexual Christians be?’ The apostolic answer is that there is no such thing as a homosexual Christian. There are brethren who struggle with various temptations, to be sure, and may on occasion fall to them before rising again. But believers who resist homosexual lust are not ‘homosexuals.’ They are just Christians, as are the rest of us with our own besetting sins.”

Then what is there to do?  He continues:

“In that baptism we become penitents, and as such divided from our sins. St. Paul tells us here that no penitent is to be named by, identified by, what he has abjured. Those injured people who have put on Christ have put on, in him, life, hope, healing of their diseases, and resurrection of their bodies in the image and likeness of the one who has saved them.”

What we do is celebrate the death of the old and the the life of the new in Christ as witnessed in our water baptism.  Our sins do not define us for they have been put to death.

Compare this celebration to one recently adopted by a mainline denomination.  In a paper on “Moral Discernment”, the focus is not on the celebration of the death of sin but on the celebration to read “Scripture in community.”  One section reads:

“Faithful interpreters relying on the Holy Spirit may reach differing conclusions,and these differences may lead to conflict. Yet we celebrate the call to read Scripture in community and in conversation with followers of Christ around the world. We honor the distinctive criteria to which our respective traditions appeal, even as we wrestle with the different interpretations at which we may arrive. Through the leading of the Holy Spirit, God uses Scripture to strengthen the church’s moral vision, obedience, character, and its varied expressions of our common Christian vocation.”

Two different celebrations bring two different messages.  The first celebrates an objective reality; the second celebrates different subjective voices in community with each other.  The moral basis of the first is the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection.  The moral basis of the second is the reality of different opinions and inevitable conflict.  The first declares the reality of an objective moral vision to strive for.  The second makes the reality of an objective moral vision, which it strives for, even more ambiguous, for we are all “varied expressions.”

Take a look at Hutchen’s article and enjoy.

Book Recommendation

Some of my sermon research comes from a book that I highly recommend.  Allan Carlson and Paul Mero authored The Natural Family: A Manifesto.  (I’ve enjoyed Carlson’s books thus far so I also recommend Godly Seed and Conjugal America.)

The Natural Family argues that the natural family is a part of the created order, imprinted on our natures, and is the source of bountiful joy.  As the basic unit of society, policies regarding the family matter to citizens.

Carlson and Mero give a helpful historical analysis of the forces against the family in the first chapter.  Claiming that the 17th and 18th centuries brought philosophers who argued against the natural and traditional family, they prove it by looking at Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Rawls, and Rousseau.  They also analyze the rises of socialism, nationalism, and communism.

The real treat of the book, however, is how they argue for the family.  In other words, while the historical work on forces against the family is very helpful, they turn to the social sciences for showing why the family really matters.  This makes the book a helpful supplement to the biblical revelation.

The book will challenge many modern assumptions about the family and sex differences.  Carlson and Mero affirm and give evidence for the the unique complementarity of the sexes as a source of strength, not disharmony.  In an age when it is popular to claim that differences don’t matter or that the family structure is not important, Carlson and Mero provide helpful arguments and evidences for why they do matter and why the family structure is important.

Sermon Notes

The sermon on 7-14-2013 is on the topic of singleness.  I have been preaching a summer series on the Social Networks of Marriage, Family, and Friends.  This Sunday morning sermon is a more thematic sermon than an expository (verse by verse) sermon.  The main point comes directly from 1 Corinthians 7:7: singleness is a gift from God.  I try to explain this by looking at the call to singleness, the key to singleness, and the comfort to singles.  Here are few parts of my sermon from the third part, the comfort to singles.  The reason I think it is worth looking at is because single Christians need to rejoice in the promises of a heavenly marriage and an eternal family.  Here are a few lines:

This means that marriage and family are temporary goods.  What is permanent? What is permanent is the eternal family of the church, bought by the blood of Christ.  This brings us back to Isaiah.  The Lord promises to faithful eunuchs—to those without children—better blessings than biological sons and daughters (v. 5).  He promises them the place of the Lord, the presence of the Lord, and to the sacrifices of the Lord (v. 7).  He promises them an everlasting name never cut off.  He promises them an eternal family, which is the church (Eph. 2:19). 


The spiritual family is the permanent family.  Do you remember Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus?  Nicodemus is confused how a person must be born again to enter the kingdom—the family—of God.  Nicodemus is thinking in terms of the temporary family.  Jesus turns him to the permanent, spiritual family.  He says, “Unless one is born of waters and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  The comfort to singleness is the family of the church where the waters of baptism are thicker than blood. 

The comfort of this life is not marriage; the comfort is Christ and acceptance to His eternal family. 

Worth a Look

I came across a recent article by theologian Stanley Hauerwas.  Here is a link to it.

Let me point out one comment he makes.  Hauerwas writes, “I believe we may be living at a time when we are watching Protestantism – at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America – come to an end. It is dying of its own success. Protestantism became identified with the republican presumption in liberty as an end reinforced by belief in the common sense of the individual. As a result, Protestant churches in America lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain a people capable of being an alternative to the world. Ironically, the feverish fervency of the religious right in America to sustain faith as a necessary condition for supporting democracy cannot help but be a strategy that insures the faith that is sustained is not the Christian faith.”

Hauerwas argues that the success enjoyed by Protestantism in America is the very thing that will bring it to its end.  The success enjoyed by Protestantism was choice.  Free from religious pressures in Europe and now in America, Protestants were now able to choose.

The problem I think he’s getting at is that there is no common answer to what a person chooses.  The only common moral compass is freedom to choose.  What is chosen depends on the common sense of the individual.

There is no common answer to what a person chooses because there is no common belief in what should be chosen.  We believe in an objective order for music but not for morality.  We know what notes work in harmony but we have no harmonious morality.  Why?  Because of the common sense of the individual.  As a result, the individual is sovereign and autonomous.  We own the lie that there is no eternal order, there is no natural order intrinsic in the world, especially not for morality.  We mope that the world is aimless and we are just trying to survive.

Hauerwas ends on a word of optimism: “If I am right that we are now facing the end of Protestantism, hopefully that will leave the church in America in a position with nothing to lose. When you have nothing to lose, all you have left is the truth. God may yet make the church faithful – even in America.”

Let us raise the cup and give thanks.