Political Theology, Modernity, and Late Scholasticism

by Matthew Gaetano

I expect that political theology and “modernity criticism” (or, perhaps better, criticism of modernity criticism) will become important themes for The Regensburg Forum. As we will see, this is not a turn from our fundamental mission of encouraging scholarly conversation between Reformed, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran Christians in the Augustinian tradition. Some of these questions about the role of fourteenth-century scholasticism (Scotus or Ockham), Baroque scholasticism (Suarez and Molina), or the early Reformation (here and here) in the emergence of modern philosophy and political thought have become important scholarly pursuits in the past several decades. And all of these questions seem to speak quite directly to questions that we have been discussing here for the past several months.

Of course, we can only address these broad debates in limited ways in the context of this forum. But we hope that TRF can become a space for discussion of these issues in the future.

Let’s begin with Thomas Hobbes (d. 1679), one of the most important political theorists of early modernity. While we might tell stories about how he may be indebted to William of Ockham or the early Reformation, we should never forget what he actually says, which is that Roman Catholics and Presbyterians are major threats to the light that he hopes to bring into the world with Leviathan. As he says in Chapter 47, “And when men excommunicate any person without authority from the civil sovereign, they are depriving him of his lawful liberty, i.e., usurping an unlawful power over their brethren. So the authors of this darkness in religion are the Roman and the Presbyterian clergy.” They are key figures in the “Kingdom of Darkness,” a “conspiracy of deceivers who want to get dominion over men in this present world, and to that end try by dark and erroneous doctrines to extinguish in them the light of nature and of the gospel.”

Hobbes thus sees himself as pitted against Rome and Geneva in his political program. Some of the few theologians that he invokes explicitly are the Jesuits, Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez, and Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza. So, once again, the relevance of this subject to the concerns of TRF should be quite clear.

It is not surprising that a Reformed theologian responded at length to Hobbesian political thought. The little-known Gisbertus Cocq (1630-1708), a student of Gisbertus Voetius (discussed elsewhere at TRF) and a figure in Dutch Reformed intellectual circles in Utrecht, published the Anatomy of Hobbesianism in 1680. As an associate of Voetius, Cocq was in the direct lineage of the Synod of Dort (through Franciscus Gomarus and Voetius) that condemned Arminianism and established seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy. This is important because, despite the associations of this tradition with total depravity (though see pp. 8-9 here), Cocq began his treatment of Hobbes’ account of human nature by objecting to his “errors about the works of God,” turning then “to uphold the dignity of man above the rest of the animals against his impious assertions” (151).

In Chapter 17, Cocq turns to the famous Hobbesian account of the “state of man outside civil society” or the state of nature. He suggests that such a state where one has a “right over all things” is one which “never exited nor could exist” but is a “pure fabrication” (198). He then spends a substantial amount of the section refuting the idea that such a state is one of true liberty. Indeed, he thinks that it is absurd to call the Hobbesian state outside of civil society state of nature. This condition would not be natural at all but rather a state of”wild rapacity” (202).

It is natural, for Cocq, that man through pacts and covenants forms civil society. Civil society is not merely based on mutual fear but rather a “natural propensity to it, divinely implanted in rational nature” (605). Unsurprisingly, this student of Voetius refers to Aristotle’s description of man as a political animal. Political rule should neither become excessive, as it does in the case of tyranny, nor be defective or insufficient, as one sees in anarchy. Cocq, the Dutch Calvinist, defends the natural and legal limits on government, opposes any notion of personal “majesty” or absolutism that involves a lordship or ownership over the realm (dominium regni), and limits government mainly to what he calls administration. The king, Cocq says in opposition to Hobbes, is more of a director than a lord. A king may have a right of jurisdiction over the goods of his subjects but he does not have a property right over these goods. Hobbes’ conception of an indefinite power for sovereigns–having “no limits besides the unwritten law of nature”–is a power proper only to God. An absolutism of this sort is blasphemy against God.

This is just a small section of a much longer work, but, for now, here are a few thoughts:

1) Hobbes saw both Calvinism and Roman Catholicism as especially threatening to his project because, inter alia, both groups gave the power of excommunication to the ministerium. So, while there are obviously different conceptions of ministry in the two confessions, it is worth pondering this point held in common and reflecting on the implications of such a view for a critique of Hobbesian politics.

2) I’ve had frequent conversations with student and others who have seen some sort of congruity or resonance between the Hobbesian state of nature and the Calvinist view of fallen man. By (sharp) contrast, the Dutch Calvinist, Gisbertus Cocq, saw Hobbes’ view of man’s nature as opposed to the majesty of divine creation and to the dignity of human nature. And, on the issue of human nature, it is noteworthy that he affirmed the Aristotelian account of man as a political animal.

3) Cocq defended the classical and Christian strategies for limiting government. He appeals to the ultimate kingship of God, the natural law, the fundamental laws of any political community, the natural limitations of any earthly ruler, the rights of the people over their own property, the independent ministerium in the Church, etc., as ways of restraining kings from the corruption of tyranny. How do modern liberal strategies of limiting government draw on these ancient, medieval, and Reformation resources? Where do these liberal strategies part ways with the pre-modern account? In other words, how does Cocq’s reply to Hobbesian absolutism differ, say, from John Locke’s?

These are only a few brief passages from a rich work. It seems reasonable to let the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed scholastics who replied to some of the major early-modern philosophers have a hearing. They were largely dismissed by the architects of modern thought. And now that we are paying more attention to early-modern scholasticism after centuries of neglect, some scholars tend to “blame” these late scholastics for the figures that led to their oblivion. This doesn’t seem like the correct approach. Uncovering a more plausible view on this critical period–and its implications for thinking about modernity and the role of medieval, Reformation, and Roman Catholic Christianity in the formation of the modern West–is, in many respects, still in its early stages.

Leave a Reply