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Calvin and Hobbes: Trinity, Authority,

and Community

Jonathan J. Edwards

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes limits Christian duty to an internal and

private faith in a spiritual reality whose only proper external expression is
obedience to the rules and laws of the civil Sovereign (Lev. 346, 403). The
church is not universal but a particular element of civil society, and its laws
are therefore subject to Sovereign review (Lev. 321). With religion absorbed
into the body of Leviathan, the Sovereign is free to act in the best interests
of the Commonwealth without fearing rebellion from subjects on the basis
of religious devotion. The theology of Hobbes, particularly as manifested
in his unique interpretation of the Christian Trinity,1 is a powerful political
tool to pierce the heart of ecclesiastical authority. However, the Hobbesian
Trinity fails to account adequately for problems of conscience and interpre-
tation, and this ultimately undermines the stability and persuasive capacity
of his Trinitarian politics.
My goal in this essay is to extend the recent line of scholarship that
aims to reconnect Hobbes’s political science with the rest of his thought,
including his rhetorical, metaphysical, and theological interests ( Johnson
1986; see also Sorell 1990, 1990a; Skinner 1996; Kahn 2004). Specifically,
by reading Hobbes’s interpretation of the Christian Trinity in Leviathan
against the interpretation offered by John Calvin in his Institutes of the
Christian Religion, I explore the relationship between political and religious

Philosophy and Rhetoric, Vol. 42, No. 2, 2009

Copyright © 2009 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA

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life for both authors and identify the ways in which the Trinity functions
for each as a tool for transformative political change.2
The Hobbesian Trinity has been widely recognized as one of the
most distinctive features of his theology (see Pocock 1973; Martinich 1992;
Springborg 1996; Wright 1999, 2006; Forster 2003; Paganini 2003; Martel
2007). Like most discussions of his religious arguments, however, critical
explorations of the Trinity have generally centered upon Hobbes’s apparent
Christian “sincerity” or lack thereof.3 In contrast, as far as is possible, my
purpose is to explore the Trinity as a specifically political tool, one that
works to authorize and justify the Hobbesian Sovereign. Given the context
within which Hobbes wrote, a time and place saturated with violently com-
peting Christian discourses, the question of personal sincerity appears more
and more to start us off in the wrong place. Recent scholarship that has
considered Hobbes’s religious arguments and more specifically his inter-
pretation of the Trinity has broadly divided into two camps. On the one
hand, those arguing for a sincere, devout Hobbes—who generally follow
the work of Taylor (1938), Warrender (1957), and, more recently, Martinich
(1992)—present Hobbes as essentially defending a sincere religious devo-
tion from the consequences of his own philosophy. From this perspective,
his theology is rooted in an intellectual striving for personal consistency,
only secondarily and tangentially related to his political project. On the
other hand, those who argue that Hobbes was insincerely, ironically, or
mockingly “religious” tend, though to greater or lesser degrees, to follow
Strauss (1936) in disconnecting and diminishing the religious arguments of
Leviathan in relation to Hobbes’s politics as articulated in Books 1–2.4
In contrast to both of these positions, I begin with the assumption
that, in Leviathan, the Trinity is primarily political, manifesting specific
and significant political effects. If one uses Calvin’s work to further examine
the political and social impact of this doctrine, it becomes clear that the
Hobbesian Trinity is far from a dispensable theological curiosity or an ad
hoc response to interpretive problems. Instead, I intend to demonstrate that,
for both Calvin and Hobbes, the Trinity establishes a critical link between
authority and authorization, conscience and community, which necessarily
draws together reason and religion in the support of their distinctive political
There are good reasons for comparing these two authors. In the first
place, like Hobbes, Calvin is engaged in a political project to establish
a stable ground for authority and community (see Wolin 2004, 150ff ).
Second, Calvin’s theory of the Trinity uniquely focuses on the doctrine’s


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connection to the “divine-human relationship” (Butin 1995, 19), effectively

describing a Trinitarian politics. Third, for Hobbes, these politics repre-
sented a critical assault on the foundations of stable community, eroding
many potential benefits of the Reformation and helping to generate and
sustain a state of civil war. No less than the Catholic commitment to papal
authority, the Calvinist/Presbyterian teaching that the Kingdom of God is
immediate and physical produces, for Hobbes, a “Darknesse in Religion”
that promotes the illegitimate political authority of ministers and danger-
ously disrupts the common good (Lev. 476; see also 419–20, 427, 482). Thus,
Calvin’s legacy remains critical for understanding Hobbes’s politics, and
Calvin’s Trinity offers a critical counterexample for exploring Hobbes’s
uniquely Trinitarian understanding of political community. Finally, while
I reject Martinich’s larger claim that positions Hobbes as an orthodox
Calvinist, writing a scientifically motivated defense of his faith (1992, 1–4,
334), it is demonstrably true that similar political concerns inform the the-
ology of these authors. Both Calvin and Hobbes use the Trinity to link
political rationality to the mediation between Sovereign and subject and
to the management of action through rhetorical engagement in an effort
to account for the critical role of belief and passion in politics. However,
as I explore below, the differences between the Calvinist and Hobbesian
appropriations of the Trinity also highlight critical difficulties in Hobbes’s
attempts to persuasively negotiate problems of mediation and interpretation
within his political science.

the state of war and the grounds of peace

Hobbes shares Calvin’s negative view of humans in nature, saying the state
of nature “is nothing else but a mere war of all against all; and in that
war all men have equal right to all things” (De cive Preface, 101; see also
Lev. 88–91, 117, 149, 245). There is not an inherent propensity to order and
justice in Hobbes’s account of nature, or in that of Calvin, who calls nature
“a shadow deity” that the godless use to obscure God’s works and reflect
their own corruption (Insti. 1.5.5; see also 1.5.4, 1.14.3). For Hobbes, this
corruption is realized in the endless warring of atomized individuals who
struggle for conflicting rights and incommensurable desires. To combat
this state of war, both authors assign fundamental significance to sover-
eignty as they seek to reestablish the grounds for stable community in the
midst of human alienation and conflict. Calvin’s sovereign God acts as a
force restraining and correcting human corruption (Insti. 1.5.8; 2.2.3; 2.5.3),


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and the wicked fear him because of his power (Insti. 3.2.27). The deadly
incomprehensibility of nature is given meaning and purpose through the
unfathomable power of God (Bouwsma 1992, 146). For Hobbes, in contrast,
the sovereign Leviathan must be contractually created, and the Sovereign’s
power and authority to save and command mirror the sovereign God that
Calvin describes as controlling all human and natural events and setting up
authority “by humbling the whole world” (Insti. 3.20.42). Like Calvin’s God,
Hobbes’s Sovereign uses power and authority to counteract the corruption
and alienation that threaten to destroy community life and plunge human-
ity into atomistic disintegration.
Both Calvin and Hobbes are consumed with the goal of establishing
the grounds for lasting peace in the midst of social upheaval and violence.
For Calvin this hope for peace resides ultimately in the one true church
(Insti. 4.1.2, 12), and his goal is to restore the unity of the church around
the truth of scripture and the sovereign, eternal kingship of Jesus Christ
(Insti. 4.2.4; see also Linder 1975, 177). Where Martin Luther is characterized
by a focus on interpretive freedom and a general hostility towards what
Wolin calls “the political order” (2004, 150), Calvin is characterized by a late-
Reformation concern for the role of the institutional church and its connec-
tion with the broader political and social community (Insti. 4.1.4; see also
Warfield 1992, 15–17; Wolin 2004, 150). Accordingly, his work represents a
critical rediscovery among the reformers of the relationship between politi-
cal and ecclesiastical life (Wolin 1957, 429). For Calvin, as Wolin says, “Civil
government and ecclesiastical government did not symbolize distinctions of
kind, but of objectives. Their natures, therefore, were more analogous than
antithetical” (1957, 432). All power rests ultimately in God, but this does not
delegitimate the actions of the civil authorities. Instead, these authorities
are to be used for the growth of godliness in a fallen world (Reid 1992, 65).
Calvin’s theological work directly influences his understanding of community
and of the proper civil government (Insti. 2.2.13; see also Wolin 1957, 436–37).
In his “Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France” that introduces the
Institutes, Calvin offers his doctrine as a corrective to the violence of heretics
against the kingdom: “From this you may learn the nature of the doctrine
against which those madmen burn with rage who today disturb your realm
with fire and sword” (Insti. 9). Calvin presents himself as both a religious
authority and a political mediator (Insti. 4.11.3)—a representative for a rec-
onciliation that is directly tied to his understanding of the nature and char-
acter of God. Calvin’s God is “not author of division but of peace” (Insti. 30;
I Cor. 14:33), and Calvin’s goal is to promote peace through a sure and


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reverent recognition of God as absolute sovereign of all powers—political

as well as ecclesiastical: “It is perfectly clear that we fear and worship God
in very truth since we seek, not only in our life but in our death, that his
name be hallowed” (Insti. 30).
Hobbes is similarly devoted to the cause of peace. As Hans Blumenberg
(1987, 438) describes it, the goal of the Hobbesian state is not the ampli-
fication of wealth or the enrichment of human life but the elimination
of that “lethal antagonism” that exists between human beings in nature.
Hobbes shares with Calvin a distrust of natural human goodness, and both
authors believe that the goal of the state is to create boundaries that limit
the violent and destructive tendencies of human beings (Lev. 117). How-
ever, for Hobbes, Calvin and his theological legacy represent barriers to the
peaceful Commonwealth. Hobbes locates the grounds for peace in reason
and the rational fear of death, and defines reason as the ground of ethical
behavior, thereby making it the ultimate good to seek after peace wherever
possible (D.C. 1.7, 15; 3.29, 31–32). War is an option for Hobbes, but only in
those circumstances where right reason determines that peace is impossible
(D.C. 1.15; 2.2). If a subject believes that the pains of life exceed the benefits,
he may well count death as a good (De homine 11.6), but this response can be
managed through the mediation of the civil Sovereign, who provides safety
and security so that subjects will have no rational reason to abandon the cause
of peace (D.C. 3.19). Calvin’s theology, however, allows for the possibility
of a supernatural identification that exceeds human reason—providing a
motivation for war that is not linked to human needs or manageable by the
Sovereign—and this, for Hobbes, is anathema to the cause of peace. Writing
in the context of civil war—resulting, in large part, from ideological divi-
sions based on warring ecclesiastical interpretations—Hobbes is concerned
with overturning Calvin’s theological legacy, eliminating ecclesiastical rule,
and privileging the absolute authority of the civil Sovereign.

reforming trinitarian politics

Like those of Hobbes, who famously describes the life of the atomized
individual as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (Lev. 89), Calvin’s
values are rooted in the need for and needs of community. However, where
Hobbes identifies community as something that individuals enter into out
of a fear of the alternative, Calvin describes it as a natural manifestation
of God’s social order. The desire for social preservation exists, within both
the church and the civil government, because of an ingrained sociality


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in individuals (Insti. 2.2.13), and, throughout Calvin’s work, the Christian

Trinity serves as a model for the proper manifestation of this natural
human desire.5 For Calvin, because God is simultaneously one and three,
he is both absolutely unified (Insti. 1.10.3; 1.13.2, 6, 25) and inherently social
(Insti. 1.13.17). His being and nature provide a foundation for the civil
community—one that does not suffer from the problems inherent in the
false freedom of individual autonomy that exists in sinful human beings
operating on their own terms (see Templin 1992, 67). The false auton-
omy of the sinner is transformed through divine grace into the knowing
dependence of the saint (Insti. 1.1.3). Calvin, as William Stevenson rightly
points out, does not glorify human freedom apart from God (1999, 21–22).
Instead, grace allows the unregenerate—previously slaves to the sinful
nature—to recognize their absolute dependence on God for all things and
become integrated into a community of the elect. The triune nature of
God then provides, for these elect, an example of proper civil society.
God’s triune nature also means, for Calvin, that the natural existence of
human beings is in a hierarchical community (Insti. 2.3.4; Comm. on Seneca
6.34). Calvin never subscribes to anything like the contemporary notion of
individual autonomy, where individual rights can challenge community roles
and responsibilities (Stevenson 1999, 22). Even God does not have individual
autonomy in this sense, because he is eternally engaged in creating and sus-
taining class-conscious social relationships within himself. The nature of the
Trinity implies hierarchy. God the Father commands God the Son, and both
of them command the Spirit (Insti. 1.13.18). This understanding of the nature
of God leads Calvin to retain a political doctrine of natural roles, in which
God calls people to fulfill their predetermined social functions (Insti. 3.10.6;
4.20.4–5; Comm. 1 Pet. 2:13). Economic status is predetermined by God (Insti.
1.16.3); wives must naturally obey their husbands (Insti. 4.8.13); and one cannot
resist magistrates without resisting God (Insti. 4.20.23, 25, 29). Calvin says,
“[W]e should look up to those whom God has placed over us” (Insti. 2.8.35),
and it “makes no difference whether our superiors are worthy or unworthy of
this honor” (Insti. 2.8.36). It is God and his sovereign choice that are honored
as subjects honor their rulers (Insti. 2.8.46; Comm. Dan. Dedication lxvi).
Thus the identity of the ruler is not important; what matters is his divinely
appointed identity as ruler.
However, for Calvin, there also remains an equality of value within the
Trinitarian hierarchy of office and status, which leads him closer to a kind
of social and political democratization. Rulers have God-given authority
over their subjects, but they, in turn, serve God (Insti. 2.8.46), who has all


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power and authority in both spiritual and civil affairs (Insti. 1.4.2; 1.11.9;
1.14.12). In particular, Calvin restricts the power of human authorities under
the authority of Christ, and this introduces a limited conception of individ-
ual autonomy that restricts human authorities to the observance of “God’s
will” and leaves room for the possibility of resistance if the will of God is
not being upheld (Insti. 4.20.6, 32; see also Stevenson 1999, 94–100). Even
as the Trinity models the proper hierarchy of society, it establishes that this
hierarchy is not a permanent, but a contingent state. The Father will not
always be the head of Christ (Insti. 2.14.3) but will ultimately relinquish
authority to his Son.6 This transfer of authority is not merely an example of
sovereign succession, because the persons of the Trinity are eternal. It also
indicates that, while hierarchical categories are fixed for the people, they are
ultimately dependent upon the will of God. If rulers press their subjects to
transgress God’s law, they lose their right of rule over them: “It is unworthy
and absurd for their eminence so to prevail as to pull down the loftiness
of God” (Insti. 2.8.38). In a famous passage near the end of his Institutes,
Calvin implies that duly elected officials, “appointed to restrain the willful-
ness of kings,” can and must resist oppressive rulers who seek to take away
the liberty of the people under their charge (4.20.31). While Calvin care-
fully clarifies and restricts the authority to challenge sovereign power, the
position that human sovereigns must submit to Christ (Insti. 4.5.17) never-
theless opens the door for religiously motivated political revolt in response
to rulers perceived as denying Christ or Christ’s headship.7 Indeed, this
was precisely the position adopted, in Hobbes’s time, by the Presbyterian
leaders in Scotland and England who challenged civic authority on reli-
gious grounds.
In Leviathan, Hobbes sets himself against these Presbyterian clerics and
other religious leaders who “hath challenged the power to Excommunicate
their owne Kings, and to bee the Supreme Moderators in Religion” (Lev. 427;
see also Curley 2007, 322). However, as his extensive doctrinal arguments
indicate, Hobbes recognized that the religious beliefs and passions motivat-
ing such ecclesiastical rebellion could not simply be eliminated and must,
therefore, be managed (Milner 1988, 416–19). Furthermore, rather than sim-
ply adapting his secular politics to a distinct audience of religious readers,8
Hobbes’s extensive political and theological work in Leviathan attempts to
motivate nothing less than a new Protestant Reformation, an effort prompted
in large part by his observations that the work of the earlier reformers had
demonstrably failed to eliminate corruption and establish the grounds for a
sustainable, peaceful religious order.


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As it does for Calvin, the Hobbesian Trinity serves as a model of stable

political and religious community, but, for Hobbes, the model derives not
from the triune nature of God but from the historical “Trinity” of God’s
human representation. Hobbes famously interprets the Trinity as a series
of representations of God by “persons artificial.” The Father is God repre-
sented by Moses; the Son is God represented by Jesus; and the Spirit is
God represented by the Apostles. In order to preserve the Commonwealth,
the Sovereign must have absolute power (Lev. 222, 247), and the power of
God must be subsequently subordinated to the Sovereign’s interpretation
or excluded from the Sovereign’s realm (D.H. 14.9). By reinterpreting the
Trinity as human representation, Hobbes is able—while still professing
the absolute authority of God in the spiritual realm (Lev. 309)—to prioritize
the human element in his civil society and dismiss God’s independent role
as a political force in the Commonwealth (Lev. 244). Also, by defining
God as one (Lev. 340), rather than Calvin’s three-in-one, Hobbes dismisses
God as, himself, a model for stable community. As I explore in more detail
below, while Calvin’s God is, within himself, community, and the author of
community, Hobbes reduces God to an individual, who cannot indepen-
dently authorize the Sovereign, except insofar as he, like all others entering
into the contractual Commonwealth, yields his self-representation to the
Sovereign authority, who speaks and acts on his behalf (Lev. 147, 324–26).
Thus, rather than retaining all power within himself, Hobbes’s God becomes
a critical example of how to relinquish power to the human Sovereign in the
establishment of proper community.

establishing trinitarian authority

For Hobbes, the Sovereign is an actor, authorized by “Naturall Person[s]”
to represent their “Authority” (Lev. 111–12), and, once authorized, the Sov-
ereign acts with absolute power on behalf of the peaceful preservation of
the state. Hanna Pitkin argues that Hobbes, obsessed with peace, offers a
“concept of representation” that is “partial, formal, and empty of substance”
(1967, 34), and that produces an authoritarian tyrant under the guise of rep-
resentation. However, in what is otherwise a thoughtful, persuasive analy-
sis of Hobbesian representation and its justification, Pitkin, who describes
nearly all forms of representation in Chapter 16 of Leviathan, notably
ignores Hobbes’s linking of Sovereign representation to his doctrine of
the Trinity. In contrast, as I read Hobbes, representation is critically mod-
eled in and authorized by the divine Trinity, in which God contracts with


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the Sovereign and yields his natural authority to represent his own Person.
Hobbes’s Trinitarian politics demonstrates that, like human authors, “[t]he
true God may be Personated” (Lev. 114), and the Trinity, in turn, becomes
a model for the contractual representation of the Hobbesian Common-
Once established as God’s representative, the Sovereign is endowed
with all elements of natural or physical authority that are claimed by
Calvin’s God. Hobbes begins, as Calvin would, by arguing that all people
are subject to the divine power, whether willingly or not (Lev. 245). This
is true of the Sovereign as well, and Hobbes argues that, once established,
the Sovereign is not accountable to his subjects, by whose authorization
he acts, but only to God, who, as in Calvin, is the Sovereign’s Sovereign
(Lev. 148, 325–26). However, while ostensibly subject to God, the civil Sov-
ereign alone has been authorized to fill the interpretive gap between the
people and the divine law (Lev. 322–23), so that the people are obliged to
obey the Sovereign’s word “in all things which repugn not the command-
ments of God” (D.C. 15.1), and, to make the point more clearly, Hobbes
elsewhere declares that the divine law of reason orders obedience “to the
laws of those in supreme command” (D.H. 14.5), leaving it, as Harrison
says, “for the prince to say what is the law of God” (2003, 21).
The Hobbesian God is defined by an office, rather than a set of personal
qualities, so that he can be supplanted without being erased. In describing
the figure of Satan, Hobbes first lists the various names by which the chief
tormentor is identified and then argues that these names “set not forth to
us any Individuall person, as proper names use to doe; but onely an office,
or quality; and are therefore Appellatives” (Lev. 314). It is not difficult to see
how the same argument could apply to the figure of God, who is also iden-
tified by many names throughout the text of Leviathan and whose person-
ality remains substantially undefined in Hobbes’s text. God, for Hobbes,
fills a particular quality in the human imagination, becoming a personifi-
cation of that which exceeds our rational abilities (Lev. 23), and which, in
turn, can be filled by the human Sovereign, who does for the people what
they cannot do for themselves, and whose office, if not person, is honored
above all things.
However, as Hobbes recognizes, the Sovereign’s office and laws are not,
by themselves, sufficient to ensure peace. God is not simply a name for the
unconceivable, but also the ultimate source of human will and emotion, so
that “they can have no passion, nor appetite to any thing, of which appetite
Gods will is not the cause” (Lev. 147). Reason is the foundation for peace


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but not the foundation for the actions that produce peace (D.C. 4.3; 5.1).
For action, something more is needed, which Hobbes identifies with the
passions of hope and fear (D.C. 5.1). However, because these passions can
also hinder reason (D.C. 2.1; 3.26)—and even lead to madness when not
properly guided (Lev. 55)—Hobbes’s goal is to regulate them with persua-
sive reason so that they are produced not in excess, but in such a way as to
create productive action that takes rational account of the future and the
“real good” (D.H. 12.1, 4) of the political community. It is not, therefore,
enough for the Sovereign to claim representative authority derived from
the office of God. To be effective, Sovereign authority must also account for
religious emotion and belief insofar as these influence political action. And
it is for this reason that Hobbes adapts his interpretation of the Trinity to
the problems of scriptural authority and ecclesiastical interpretation.

defining trinitarian community

The original frontispiece of Leviathan shows a giant human figure rising
above a city—his body a manifestation of his subjects, who stare up at his
head and his crown, the symbol of his authority to make, establish, and
enforce laws for the good of all his representative subjects. In his right
hand, he carries the sword of the secular state and in his left hand, the
bishop’s crozier (Martinich 1992, 363). Above the figure’s head is a citation
from the book of Job (41:33): “There is no power over earth [that] compares
with him” (Strong 1993, 130). Thus, from the very beginning of the text,
the Sovereign’s authority to create community and establish the grounds
of peace are both read into and placed beneath the authority of scripture.9
Recognizing, in Leviathan, that rational fear of violent death is insuffi-
cient to build and peacefully sustain political community, Hobbes requires
a scriptural, revelatory support for his politics, which can connect reason
with emotion and belief (Lev. 322). As we will consider in this section, for
Calvin, the Trinity, and, particularly, the Holy Spirit, provides the criti-
cal link between revelatory communication and belief—establishing the
basis for scriptural authority. By rereading the Spirit through the Apostles,
Hobbes attempts to frame the link between scripture and belief through
the lieutenants of the Sovereign, who can speak and persuade the popula-
tion to accept the authorized interpretations of the Sovereign—redefining
orthodoxy while maintaining scriptural authority. Thus, once again, we can
see that the Trinity serves a critical function in Hobbes’s political project.
However, it is also at this point, I argue, that the Hobbesian Trinity fails


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as a persuasive political instrument—being unable to provide an adequate

security of interpretation, while simultaneously challenging the divinity of
the Trinitarian persons, thus sparking an ecclesiastical backlash that forced
Hobbes to withdraw from his doctrine.
For Calvin, the binding authority of scripture is doubly grounded
in its unambiguous clarity and in the efficacy of the Spirit of God to
directly authorize meaning through the text. In other words, Calvin is
not particularly troubled by the question of human interpretation or mul-
tiple interpretations because he regrounds meaning in the authority of the
institutional church (over the autonomous individual) and stresses the role
of the Spirit in communicating and clarifying for the elect what might
otherwise appear ambiguous in scripture. Hobbes, in contrast, stresses the
role of human interpretation in the development of scriptural “meaning”
and civil application, and he uses the fallibility of human interpretation
and the fear of unchecked individual power to support his argument that
the Sovereign must have interpretive authority over scripture and sacred
matters (Lev. 267, 359–61).
Because of his understanding of the Triune God, Calvin can say, unprob-
lematically, that “Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge
of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the
true God. . . . [Who], to instruct the church, not merely uses mute teachers
but also opens his own most hallowed lips” (Insti. 1.6.1). Because God is
triune, although he is absolutely Other, he is not limited to the spiritual
realm, but has the ability to speak and act and intercede directly in human
affairs (Insti. 1.5.13; 1.6.1). The Trinity makes God an active participant in
individual, social, and civil life, and through the work of the Spirit, God
can and does open “his own most hallowed lips” and speak his word to the
elect. Thus, Calvin develops his argument that the Word of God is directly
accessible in the following way. Scripture is true because it is the Word of
God, and it therefore demands allegiance. The text is known to be the Word
of God because of the testimony of the Spirit of God, and the truth of the
Spirit is discerned by its agreement with the written text (Insti. 1.7.2–4).
The argument is rooted in both the Reformation concern for the freedom
of individual interpretation and Calvin’s more particular desire to restore
authority to the church while avoiding a return to Catholic doctrines of
papal interpretive supremacy. Calvin assumes that the will of God is know-
able, although individuals should look to community standards and leaders,
rather than their own opinions, on matters of confusion (Insti. 1.6.2). This
allows him to reprioritize the institutional role of the Church without


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falling back into the fully human ecclesiastical and political domination of
the Catholic popery. The Church and the civil authority are both circum-
scribed by the Word of God—a word that is clearly and unambiguously
knowable through the work of the Spirit.
For Hobbes, however, these solutions are insufficient. The identity and
authority of scripture are, from the beginning, intimately tied to human
interpretation (Lev. 260), and God also is inaccessible to human beings
except through authorized representation. By denying the existence of
spirits (Lev. 269–79) Hobbes effectively discounts Calvin’s interpreta-
tion of the Spirit as spirit and thus eliminates any direct communication
between God and human beings—arguing from the rules established for
the Israelites at Sinai that God does not authorize the people to “gaze” upon
him directly (Lev. 326). In the end, as Pocock says (1973, 184), “We have
nothing of [God] except his word,” and because this word is written
in human language and accessible only through human interpretation
(D.C. 18.13; Lev. 357–61), it is, for the purposes of the Commonwealth, not a
divine, but a human word. There can be no assurances that divine revelation
is from God (Lev. 198, 256), and therefore voices claiming divine authority
have no public weight. The realm of private belief is outside Leviathan’s con-
cern, and Hobbes, yielding nothing, yields it to God (Lev. 256, 343, 353)—that
is, so long as these beliefs do not manifest themselves in public action that
robs the civil Sovereign of absolute power (Lev. 323, 326). Thus, the authority
of scripture is determined by the Sovereign’s authority (Lev. 260, 323, 357–62,
378). There is no divine law apart from the Sovereign, who is not, himself,
subject to any law (D.C. 16.13, 14, 16; 17.27; Lev. 197, 224, 357). By making
God singular and spiritual, Hobbes establishes an interpretive boundary
between the human and the divine that legitimates the absolute interpre-
tive authority of the Sovereign. The Spirit has no independent authority for
Hobbes, but is limited to those realms of private belief that make no impact
upon sovereign authority.
In his recent thoughtful and well-argued work, James Martel presents
a very different understanding of the Spirit’s role for Hobbes than I have
offered above. Drawing on a conception of rhetoric heavily influenced by
Paul de Man and Walter Benjamin, Martel argues that the Spirit is “the
awareness of rhetoric’s power . . . to deconstruct itself ” and to introduce
the reader to the “play” of language (2007, 193). While Martel’s arguments
offer fascinating possibilities for future deconstructive and rhetorical work
on Hobbes, I think that, ultimately, his conception of the Spirit (and his
reading of the Hobbesian Trinity more generally) owes far more to de Man


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than it does to Hobbes. Certainly, as Martel demonstrates, it is possible to

read radical democratic possibilities within Leviathan, but when we look
at the context of the “war of all against all” in which Hobbes wrote, it
seems unlikely that he intended to encourage such an uncontrollable glut
of individuated interpretations as Martel seems to suggest. Rather than
encouraging radical interpretive freedom, Hobbes’s severe limitations on
the Spirit’s authority seem, at every level, to forestall this freedom.10 While
Martel convincingly points to the democratic possibilities of Leviathan,
I argue that these possibilities reflect a failure of the Hobbesian Trinity, not
its rhetorical success.

the failed trinity

Like the Hobbesian Sovereign, Calvin’s God is a figure created through
representation. He is not an individual in need of external representation
but an internally representative reflection of values rooted in the needs of
institutional community, identifiable class structures, and a hierarchical
conception of power. While Hobbes requires a human representative,
Calvin’s understanding of the Trinity allows God to represent himself.
Calvin’s understanding of scripture and interpretation requires direct access
to God—a necessity that he solves by identifying the Triune God as inher-
ently social and functioning as a kind of mediatorial chain linking the human
to the absolute Other of the divine through the persons of Christ and the
Spirit. Christ’s kingship is spiritual and eternal (Insti. 2.15.4) but also physical
and immediate, manifested through the continual instruction and reassur-
ance of the Spirit. It is this immediacy that leads to Calvin’s descriptions of
the sweet, gentle, loving father-God who wins his children over through
eternal love. While never abandoning his absolute sovereignty, Calvin’s God
is able to communicate and intercede directly with his people. Calvin’s God
is the ultimate Sovereign, because he exists, to borrow Hobbes’s terminol-
ogy, as both natural and artificial person for himself. The Son represents
God, but the Son is God (Insti. 1.2.1; 1.13.23, 25). And this allows Christ to
authorize a mediatorial kingship that extends community between God and
his creation (Insti. 2.6.3; 2.12.1; 3.14.11). Within this community, the Spirit,
or third person of the Trinity, functions as a conduit of education and com-
munication between the elect and the Sovereign Christ.
In contrast, there is not, in Hobbes, a conduit for direct commu-
nication between the people and the Sovereign that compares to the
third person of Calvin’s Trinity. The Sovereign serves as the mediatorial


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representative between the divine Other and the human, but, despite
Hobbes’s arguments, there remains no assurance that the mediator speaks
for God (Lev. 197–98; see also Curley 2004, 204–5). Because the people are
not naturally obligated to follow a representative who is not known to be
God’s mediator (Lev. 122; Curley 2004, 212), there remains a fundamental
gap between human and Sovereign that cannot be filled and is concealed
only through the threat of applied force (Lev. 147–48). As Harrison argues,
for Hobbes, it is only through the threatened violence of the Sovereign
that people can be persuaded to keep the contracts with each other that
authorized his power: “once Leviathan’s sword is in place, we shall suffer
too much if we don’t keep our agreements” (Harrison 2003, 138). Hobbe-
sian theology is the theology of power, and power comes to those who can
best inspire fear (D.C. 1.2; Harrison 2003, 45). The contract of Sovereign
and subjects is a “Fiction” (Lev. 113), produced and maintained through
fear and, ultimately, dependent on a Trinitarian promise of communica-
tion that it cannot provide.
As Hobbes defines the Commonwealth through the Trinity, communica-
tion between the people and the Sovereign comes through many messengers
and institutions, including prophets and pastors, who represent the Sover-
eign as the Sovereign represents God and who rule the people more directly
(Lev. 166, 296, 326–27, 373–74). By dispersing Calvin’s unified work of the Spirit
into many voices (Lev. 339), Hobbes allows God to be redefined or dismissed
as needed for the peace of the Commonwealth. However, such dispersal also
leaves his Sovereign hanging as a figure of representation without the possi-
bility of authoritative communication. Thus, Hobbes’s reinterpretation of the
Spirit fails to stabilize dissent and resolve the problem of the passions or of
private interpretation. There is no guarantee that the Sovereign’s word will
be accurately transmitted by those who rule under him, and even less guar-
antee that the words of messengers will be accepted or rightly interpreted by
the people. Hobbes justifies his dispersion of the Spirit into many voices by
reference to Moses and his appointment of 70 elders to rule under him; how-
ever, as Pocock points out, Hobbes also argues that, under Moses, God was the
absolute Sovereign and “exercised direct political authority” (Pocock 1973, 170).
Therefore, the comparison between the Hobbesian Sovereign and Moses is
a problematic one. Hobbes makes the apostles analogous to the Spirit, but
this also stumbles because the ecclesiastical leaders following in the apostolic
line have no direct access to God, except through the whim of the Sovereign’s
authorization. Ultimately, in the growing confusion of the Hobbesian Trinity,
the Sovereign struggles to occupy all three personations of God and seems


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unable to occupy any of them authoritatively or to thus provide a sufficient

challenge to the desires and demands of individual conscience and interpreta-
tion that is not rooted in violence. The Spirit in Leviathan demonstrates most
clearly the fragmentation of representation that Hobbes is unable to resolve
through his appropriation of the Trinity.
Leviathan can control only the external actions of his subjects
(Tuck 1993, 123). Like Calvin’s God, the consciences of the Hobbesian
subjects are privatized, but, in relinquishing control of private interpreta-
tion, Hobbes also reinstitutes a private sphere of desire and demand that
exceeds the control of the state and challenges the possibilities of a peaceful
Commonwealth. In Hobbes, as Feldman (2001) argues, we see a shift in
the meaning of conscience from a word describing the socially mediated
search for truth, as in Calvin, to a secret, internal knowledge and the subse-
quent elevation of opinion to the status of knowledge. This, in turn, “opens
truth itself to redefinition and corruption” (Feldman 2001, 29). Lacking
authoritative mediation and ultimately returning meaning to individual
interpretations under the guise of a new Sovereign, Leviathan opens the
door for both a peaceful Commonwealth and an oppressive tyranny, and by
dispersing the third figure of his Trinity, Hobbes leaves no absolute, peace-
ful option for resolving the discord between the two.11 Hobbes’s modalistic
linking of the Trinity to human representation has the effect of questioning
and potentially delegitimating the status of the three Trinitarian persons,
challenging the divine status of the Son and Spirit, and seemingly open-
ing up divine authorization and personation to any reasonable authority
(see Matheron 1990, 389–90; Paganini 2003, 194). Ultimately, Hobbes’s
Trinity failed to persuade, inciting an ecclesiastical backlash that forced
him to at least partially withdraw his arguments. If we accept the Trin-
ity as not an incidental but a critical element of his political and religious
Reformation, his retraction of that doctrine amounts to a critical rhetorical
weakness of his project.
Ultimately, the Hobbesian reconstitution of the Trinity fails because it
never resolves the problem of interpretation. When ecclesiastical authori-
ties bore down on Hobbes, after the publication of the English Leviathan,
he chose to relinquish his unique interpretation of the Trinity and return to
an orthodox reading—interpreting Father, Son, and Spirit as three persons
of the single deity—for the Latin translation of the text.12 The Hobbesian
Trinity did not serve its persuasive purpose. Hobbes failed to adequately
critique Calvin’s Trinity on its own terms, and he ultimately abandoned the
attempt through those means.


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Nevertheless, although short-lived, the Hobbesian Trinity remains a

significant touch point for understanding the fear of religion and the nature
of representation in religious and political life. For both Calvin and Hobbes,
God cannot be both single and sovereign. Instead, God must be a figure
of representation, and divine authority is determined by the nature of that
representation. The political Trinity remains a significant, and a significantly
underexamined, figure for both understanding and discussing the role of
the sovereign God and the civil Sovereign in both authors. My hope is that
this study will spur continuing interest in the theology of Hobbes and the
significance of the Trinity as a central doctrine for understanding the role of
sovereignty and civil community in post-Reformation political thought.

Department of Communication Studies

Northwestern University

1. Although Hobbes’s doctrine of the Trinity shares features with the interpretations
of earlier Christian sects, including the Joachites and the Socinians, many of its details are,
as Wright argues, unique (see Pocock 1973, 187–88; Lessay 2007, 265; Wright 1999, 413).
2. In this essay, I concentrate on the Trinity in Leviathan, but I have not hesitated
to look back to Hobbes’s work in De homine and, particularly, De cive to gather additional
insights. In doing this, I do not deny that changes and extensions of thought take place
between these works; however, I am in fundamental agreement with Lodi Nauta’s (2002)
argument that there is an overall consistency in Hobbes’s approach to religious issues.
3. While, for example, Curley (1996) and Martinich (1996) sharply divide over
Hobbes’s intentions in defining the Trinity as he does (and subsequently redefining his
definition in the Latin Leviathan), both assume that Hobbes’s Trinity is an attempt to
adapt a religious position to his philosophy. Martinich argues that the attempt is rooted
in sincere belief; Curley argues that it is rooted in ironic insincerity; but the underlying
assumption is essentially the same (see also Wright 2002).
4. Forster (2003) provides a good overview of the recent debates on Hobbes’s religious
5. It is significant that for Calvin God does not merely present himself as a Trinity for
human benefit but is inherently triune within his own nature (see Helm 2004, 11).
6. Calvin argues that Christ’s subordination to the Father will last only until Christ
returns to earth and we “see his divine majesty face to face,” at which time “God shall
cease to be the Head of Christ.” Hobbes, in contrast, argues the Christ will always be
subordinate to his Father, eternally occupying a position equivalent to that which Moses


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occupied at Sinai. Thus, even the eternal, heavenly kingdom retains the essential form of
the Hobbesian Commonwealth (Lev. 336–37).
7. Walzer describes how this allowance for mediated rebellion was appropriated by
John Knox to justify revolts against rulers who, Knox argued, were failing to exercise their
God-given duties (1965, 104–12).
8. Brandon (2007) is one of the most recent authors to argue that Hobbes adapts the
second half of Leviathan to a specifically religious audience.
9. Tracy Strong argues that, in Leviathan, Hobbes engages in “the writing of an
actual Scripture” (1993, 131). However, I argue that Leviathan is not itself presented as
scripture, but is, like Calvin’s Institutes, presented as a theology of scripture that seeks to
apply scriptural authority to human life and community.
10. Martel is somewhat inconsistent about intentionality in his reading of Hobbes,
arguing explicitly in places that authorial intention is not what concerns him, but, at other
points, seeming to place greater emphasis on what Hobbes meant by a given passage.
11. It is at this point that Martel’s intervention may once again be useful. By pointing
us towards an understanding of democracy and deliberation that does not require absolute
authority or interpretive stability, Martel’s work helps to redeem a different understanding
of Hobbesian politics and theology for our own time. Again, however, these possibilities
point not to the success (as Martel argues), but to the failure of Hobbes’s Trinity.
12. Among other changes, Hobbes deleted key passages of Chapters 41 and 42 of
Leviathan, and edited Chapter 16 to better fit dominant ecclesiastical interpretations
(see Matheron 1990, 389; Wright 2006).

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