Friday, February 21, 2014

Does the New Testament Teach Classical Liberalism?

The second half of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (Parts 3 and 4) is devoted to the interpretation of the Bible.  For many readers today, this seems odd, because giving so much attention to biblical theology seems out of place in a treatise of political philosophy.  When the Leviathan is used as a text in undergraduate political science classes, it's common for the teacher not to assign any reading from the second half of the book.  Some editions of the Leviathan reprint only the first half of the book.  But having just completed another reading of the whole of the Leviathan in my graduate seminar on Hobbes, I am reminded of how important the interpretation of the Bible has been for the history of political philosophy, and particularly for the history of liberal political philosophy.

A new book that has helped me to see this is Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture, 1300-1700 by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2013).  Hahn and Wiker show how the "historical-critical method" in the scholarly study of the Bible arose in the 19th century as the culmination of a political interpretation of the Bible that began with Marsilius of Padua and continued with Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke.  The purpose of that political interpretation of the Bible was to secularize politics and privatize religious belief so that the aim of politics would be securing the peace and security of the body rather than the salvation of the soul.  (Hahn has summarized the argument of his book in a YouTube video lecture.)

Hahn and Wiker repeatedly quote a remark by Jon Levenson that "historical criticism is the form of biblical studies that corresponds to the classical liberal political ideal," and they say that Levenson "has hit the bull's-eye" (7-9, 11, 296, 364, 388).  Their book is an elaborate argument to demonstrate this claim--that the historical-critical method for studying the Bible was developed to advance classical liberal politics.  That's their explicit argument.  Their implicit argument is that this liberal bias requires a distorted interpretation of the Bible.

I am persuaded by their explicit argument but not by their implicit argument.  I agree with them that some of the early modern political philosophers initiated a tradition of Biblical interpretation that would support classical liberalism by radically separating Church and State, doing this in such a way as to promote the liberal principles of political secularism, religious liberty, and the privatization of religious life.  I don't agree, however, with their implied claim that this liberal interpretation of the Bible is clearly contrary to the true teaching of the Bible (see, for example, 11, 364, 445, 484).  I would argue that the secularization of politics through the liberal principles of religious toleration and privatization of religious belief is largely a product of New Testament Christianity.  In other words, the liberal reading of the Bible is a plausible reading.  Indeed, it's so plausible that most Christians today--including the Catholic Church--have embraced this liberal interpretation of the Bible.  I suspect that even Hahn and Wiker ultimately accept Biblical liberalism.

It might seem odd, however, to put Hobbes in the tradition of Biblical liberalism.  After all, much of what Hobbes says about church-state relations seems illiberal in that he argues for the absolute power of the political sovereign over an established church, which includes the right of the sovereign to interpret the Bible, so that the sovereign acts as the "supreme pastor," who "ought indeed to direct his civil commands to the salvation of souls" (ch. 33, 254-55 [268-69]; ch. 36, 283-85 [298-300]; ch. 39, 306 [321-22]; ch. 43, 355-56 [372-73], 379 [396]).

And yet one should notice that Hobbes's illiberal argument for the political regulation of an established church is based on his interpretation of the Hebrew theocratic state in the Old Testament, and as he moves into the New Testament, he begins to move towards a separation of church and state.  Critical for Hobbes's political interpretation of the New Testament is the declaration of Jesus that "my kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36) and that Christ's kingdom will not begin until his second coming.  During the first three centuries of Christianity, the Christian churches were voluntary organizations that enforced doctrinal orthodoxy through the threat of excommunication from the church but without any coercive force or violent persecution of heretics or infidels.  Hobbes concludes that among the early Christians, "there was then no government by coercion, but only by doctrine, and persuading" (ch. 42, 348 [365]).  The political enforcement of church authority did not arise until the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312 AD (ch. 42, 322 [338], 342-44 [359-61]).

By the time he reaches the end of Leviathan, Hobbes is ready to endorse the position of the Independents in Parliament, who wanted no politically enforced church at all and free toleration of religious diversity.  "And so we are reduced to the Independency of the primitive Christians, to follow Paul, or Cephas, or Apollos, every man as he liketh best," and if this promotes religious peace, it is "perhaps the best" (ch. 47, 456 [479-80]).

Thus does Hobbes move towards complete religious toleration and the privatization of religious belief as rooted in the New Testament as the best way to secure peace.  In effect, Hobbes adopts the interpretation of the Bible advanced by Roger Williams, who argued that while the Old Testament teaches theocratic enforcement of religious belief, the New Testament teaches religious toleration.  As I have argued in a previous post, Williams was right in interpreting the New Testament as supporting a classical liberal conception of religious toleration and liberty.

We should realize, however, that Hobbes was right in arguing that no matter how much religious liberty might be allowed, even in a state that practices toleration, the sovereign must have the ultimate power to rule against religious doctrines that promote violence, and in that way the sovereign is still the "supreme pastor." 

Consider, for example, what happened after the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001.  When it was discovered that the terrorists were members of al-Qaida, who believed they were obeying the teaching of the Koran in commanding holy war against infidels, this provoked a political debate over whether Islam was a threat to the peace of the world, which would make it impossible to tolerate Islam in a liberal regime that must suppress religious violence. 

In his speech to a Joint Session of Congress, nine days after the terrorist attack, George Bush had to offer his own authoritative interpretation of the Koran.  He said that the terrorists "practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics; a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam."  He declared that the teachings of Islam "are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah." 

Bush is a Christian who interprets the New Testament as teaching that religious belief is a voluntary activity of private individuals that can be properly protected from coercive persecution.  But any religious belief that promotes unjustified violence cannot be tolerated by any government that aims to secure peace and liberty.  Consequently, Bush believes that government can rightly interpret religious doctrines to protect the peace while generally tolerating religious beliefs and practices that are non-violent.

This is the Christian understanding of liberal toleration that emerged in the English Civil War and in the writings of Roger Williams.  It was later elaborated by Spinoza, Locke, and others.

Do Hahn and Wiker agree with this interpretation of the Bible as supporting liberal toleration?  They are strangely evasive about this.  They generally present the liberal interpretation of the Bible as driven by a liberal bias that is not really true to the Biblical text.  But then they sometimes speak of liberal toleration as something that "may appear quite ordinary to us," as if they endorse it (446).  Moreover, they often concede that the liberal interpretation of the Bible was an understandable reaction against the brutal violence and moral corruption of the Catholic Church in its exercise of authority over politics (15, 390-91).  And yet they never explicitly concede that the liberal reading of the Bible is plausible.

Hahn and Wiker claim to be following the recommendation of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, who called for "a criticism of criticism" in Biblical interpretation (8).  But they are oddly silent about the statements of Pope Benedict XVI that support the liberal interpretation of the Bible, particularly the liberal argument that the violent persecution and brutality of the Old Testament must be seen as morally inferior to the peaceful toleration and love of the New Testament.

In his Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (November 11, 2010), Benedict XVI indicated that the Old Testament had "dark passages" containing "violence and immorality" (sec. 42).  We must remember, he advised, that "biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history."  He explained: "Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things."  Notice the implication here that "the cultural and moral level" of the Old Testament was lower than that of the New Testament, because the God of the Old Testament did not explicitly denounce the immorality of the unjust violence perpetrated by the Hebrew people.

Moreover, Hahn and Wiker are silent about the actions of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI in asking forgiveness for the history of religious violence condoned by the Catholic Church.

They are also silent about how the Catholic Church endorsed liberal toleration as rooted in the New Testament in the "Declaration of Religious Liberty" (1965) at Vatican II.

Would Hahn and Wiker agree with these moves of the Catholic Church towards liberal toleration?  Hahn seems to agree with this in his book Reasons to Believe: How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith (Doubleday, 2007).  Throughout this book, he uses persuasion to try to convert his readers to Catholicism, but he never suggests that violent persecution or coercion would ever be justified by the Catholic Church.  He writes: "We cannot impose orthodox conclusions on our unbelieving friends.  To borrow words from Benjamin Franklin: The mind changed against the will is of the same opinion still.  God endowed every human being with freedom, and we are always free to choose unbelief" (39).  So here he seems to accept Franklin's argument for toleration and conversion only through peaceful persuasion.

And yet I can't be completely sure about this, however, because of what Hahn says about papal infallibility.  He says that although the popes have made some mistakes, they are infallible in matters of Christian faith and morals.  "God has never permitted even the scoundrels to teach error in matters of faith and morals" (130).

This is disturbing.  Does he really mean to say that all the popes who authorized the persecution of heretics--for example,  Innocent IV in his Bull Ad Extirpanda--were infallible?  If so, then were John Paul II and Benedict XVI fallible in asking forgiveness for such religious violence?  Does Hahn agree with Thomas Aquinas that the Church can even authorize the execution of heretics (ST, II-II, q. 11, a. 3)?

I have elaborated some of these points in previous posts here, here, here, here, and here.


CJColucci said...

even in a state that practices toleration, the sovereign must have the ultimate power to rule against religious doctrines that promote violence, and in that way the sovereign is still the "supreme pastor."

That seems to me a very different thing from GWBush giving an "authoritative interpretation" of Islam. Outsiders to a religion can, at best, be accurate about that religion, not authoritative. There is certainly a body of Islamic believers and Islamic thought that agrees with GWB's understanding, but whether that is "true" Islam is for adherebnts of Islam to determine either through argument among themselves, or, if you believe as I do that there is no truth of the matter, by what understandings eventually, as a matter of fact, prevail among Muslims. It may be politic to tip one's hat to, or pretend to believe in, acceptable forms of Islam, but government officials rightly resist religious teachings leading to violence not because they are false, especially within the relevant religious tradition, but because they're dangerous, whether true or not.

David Gordon said...

The conditions under which Catholics believe that the Pope speaks infallibly are quite restrictive and wouldn't apply to an ordinary Papal bull. See Denzinger 1839 here:

Adam Yoksas said...

I'm inclined to believe that Hobbes's conception of Christianity is informed by his thoughts on heresy. And his thoughts on heresy were more fully developed later, after Leviathan. He wrote a tract on heresy for the Latin edition of Leviathan. I don't know that one well, but I also know he wrote on heresy in the first dialogue of Behemoth and in a whole section in his Dialogue of the Common Laws. Specifically, he defines heresy as Queen Elizabeth did; anything that violates the first four ecumenical councils (under Constantine)is heresy and may be punished as a capital offense. From this, I'm inclined to believe that Hobbes is not a liberal Christian. If the sovereign has the power to put someone to death for heresy, it seems to me that there can be no liberal Christian tolerance. That said, I don't think the Hobbesian sovereign needs to govern as a theocrat. Notice that Elizabeth (and Hobbes, I might add) produce a fixed standard for judging heresy (the first four councils). The councils were, we might say, the first time the Christians agreed on what they were and what they weren't. And while opinions are not binding, agreements are binding, according to Hobbes. So I guess my answer would be that a liberal Christianity would be difficult. That said, I do have to agree that the sovereign should create the standard in such a way that it will be tolerable. The greatest mistake of Charles I was imposing episcopacy on the Scots. This is something Hobbes tacitly admits in Behemoth ("...sent down a book of Common-Prayer into Scotland...caused such a tumult there, that he that read it had much ado to escape with his life..."). In other words, if you have the power to burn heretics, don't use this power to force your prayer books on a population that doesn't want them.

Larry Arnhart said...


I know that the Church standards by which the Pope speaks infallibly are very restrictive. But I was responding to Hahn's broadly stated claim that "God has never permitted even the scoundrels to teach errors in matters of faith and morals." The papal authorization of persecution of heretics is surely an error in faith and morals.