Thomas Hobbes's Social Contract and the Eternal Theological Temptation of Order

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July 13, 2023

Adventism and Thomas Hobbes, at first glance, have little in common. Only the fact that they both belong to the same historical period—modernity. But, in this modernity, they elaborate two antithetical versions. Adventism from its inception has been critical of modernity, its immanent rationality and irreverent secularization. Hobbes, on the other hand, was not only one of the founders of modernity but also defended the relevance of a new rationality, and categorically stood for the principle of secularization as an indispensable mechanism for civil coexistence. In other words, while Adventism continues to see religion as a positive phenomenon and an element of human and social growth, Hobbes instead grasps the intrinsic ambivalence of religion and from this fact derives the structural need for its continuous monitoring and critique. Religion cannot be left alone, Hobbes says, because historical events show that, if there is no agency to monitor and set limits on it, religion easily becomes a cause of instability and social destruction. This stark judgment should not surprise us because Hobbes wrote his main work, the Leviathan in 1651, three years after the Peace Treaty of Westphalia that ended a long, 30-year war. This conflict had been tearing Europe apart since 1618 because of religious disputes between European nations, and it involved Catholics and Protestants alike. In Hobbes’s view, the only way to ensure a possible survival of society was to remove religion from the public scene, precisely because religion would automatically awaken much animosity and radicalism. But religion does not disappear, in Hobbes's thinking; instead, a limit is imposed on it. It may be experienced in the private sphere but not the public space.

However, religion is a complex phenomenon that is not easy to set aside, even less so in a period such as Hobbes's when Europe was still very religious and the process of secularization was still in its infancy. A Hobbesian solution, then, would in fact need to be more moderate and come to terms with religion. Not only would Hobbes be unable to limit religion to the private sphere but he also would be forced to consider it politically. How then would he proceed? By giving a new interpretation and vision of religion. In other words, Hobbes would found a new and modern religion in whose outline, albeit with different accents, all contemporary churches are founded, even when they are not conscious of it. Thus, in Hobbes, we find not only a new political philosophy that founds the state based on a social contract but also a theology of the Christian faith—no longer on a transcendent basis but as a function of social peace.

Hobbes introduces three innovative elements into the architecture of a new theological-political project that affect not only society but also the modern churches: a new hermeneutics, a new social configuration (individualism), and a new way of standing before the founding principles (contract).

1. A new binding biblical hermeneutics

Hobbes was a diligent interpreter of the Bible. The Leviathan, along with De Cive that precedes it by only a few years, are true exegetical-theological treatises. In these texts Hobbes carries out a true exegesis, not of secondary texts but of the core of Old and New Testaments. He aspires to avoid a circumscribed or partial outline. Instead, he gives penetrating reflections into a theological project with a clearly delineated and coherent organization. Two of the four books of which Leviathan is composed are exegetical-theological reflections on the Bible and the religious context of its time.

Hobbes succeeds in elaborating, from an ancient text, a new and unprecedented blueprint for a time that is coming into being. He does not enslave his time to ancient patterns but allows new times to receive the prospective thrust and legitimacy of an ancient text and makes it a propeller toward something new. This innovative reading of the Bible interprets Christianity in light of the concept of peace, a central category for the civil coexistence Hobbes is trying to build. To this new Hobbesian hermeneutic all subsequent Christian churches are much indebted, even to the present. By virtue of this hermeneutic, modern Christianity is more modern than Christian. It could not be otherwise because no historical epoch reads the Bible neutrally but always from a historical grounding that influences and conditions it. In Hobbes, his innovative biblical interpretation indulges and reinforces the status quo we see presently imposed by the State.

2. Individualism as a new social configuration

But Hobbes's imprint on modern societies and churches is even stronger when considering his anthropology. Contrary to the Aristotelian conception of man as a "social animal" ("Zoon politikon") who tends to live by aggregating in common with others, Hobbes describes the human being instead as an independent atom. Thus, it is not the group in which an individual first finds foundation and flourishing. In the beginning (state of nature) there are only individuals, who later choose which group to belong to. This is the social atomism underlying not only a new conception of the state but also a new vision of society. No individual can live alone; membership in a group is therefore necessary. Hobbes does not contest this. Instead, he disputes the fact that such membership is imposed on him by nature. Individualism is thus not a defense of absolute individual autonomy but the defense of belonging as an individual choice.

Christian churches and other religious communities are today fully dependent on this individualistic anthropological model because religion today is not mandated but chosen. Part of today's religious membership is personal awareness of one's spiritual experience, which necessarily presupposes individual choice. This innovative and revolutionary individualism, based on a radical Hobbesian understanding, indulges and reinforces the status quo of the present and as imposed by the State.

3. A mandatory social contract

Each individual therefore tends toward self-preservation through the unrestricted acquisition of whatever he or she needs for survival. What an individual does, however, others also do, to the point that the actions of one clash with others—and eventually a struggle for dominance is generated. This is the “war of all against all” ("bellum omnium contra omnes"), where each individual becomes a wolf contesting with every other person (homo homini lupus).

However, human beings have a common interest in stopping war. They need to secure an existence beyond merely defending goods that could never be enjoyed, so they form societies by entering into a social contract. In this way they transfer to a leader, who may be either a monarch or an assembly of human beings, the authority to guide them, and this leader assumes the task of ensuring peace in society.

The contract is thus a new kind of bond: more functional, purposeful, chosen, and not suffered. But in these virtues also lies its weakness. By being chosen the contract automatically becomes a weak bond, thus essentially nonbinding—one that unites only partially and transiently and only for the situations and moments indicated in the contract. Outside of this, one party is easily separable from the others. The result is a formal union, but one that does not substantively bind people together. With the Hobbesian view, the contract’s flexibility ends up indulging and reinforcing the status quo of our present order imposed by the State.

On the one hand, Hobbes gives birth to a new Christianity based on an innovative reading of the Bible (Old and New Testaments), but on the other hand, that new Christianity is perfectly aligned with the modern state. It serves the logic of the modern state and can only move in the perspective of its legitimization and reinforcement. The Bible, as read by Hobbes, and with the Christianity derived from this reading, is a strange mixture of freedom and captivity.

Hobbesian biblical hermeneutics, by breaking with the deterministic logic of medieval, church-centered hermeneutics, actually creates an innovative interpretation. It is a new anthropology based on the individual, and a modern state that is born with new characteristics and mechanisms. But unfortunately, Hobbes ends up shackling them both to the contract of a meaning that can only be put in service of the state.

Hobbesian innovations, then, involve a modern interpretation of the Bible, the radical freedom of individuals, and an unheard-of flexibility of the contract. But they are doomed to pander to Leviathan and to absolutely and exclusively legitimize its monopoly of political force for its own project. The modern Christianity proposed by Hobbes is thus more modern than Christian. It creates a new system, very dynamic and functional but serving the existing political order.

Contingency or necessity? Innovation or determinism? Freedom or order? Which ones are the emphasis of the Hobbesian project? The noted political scientist at the University of Bologna, Carlo Galli, responds by saying that Hobbes is the prophet of a new vision of politics. Hobbes inaugurates the typically modern vision of the state as a social convention, sealed through a contract. And this innovation also carries implications for anthropology and the way of conceiving human groups in a total break with the Aristotelian axiom of man as a social being. With Hobbes the typical atomism of modernity is imposed, which is the anthropological presupposition of the social contract that drives individuals to converge together artificially for a common benefit. Coexistence has become contingent, so much so that it must be made necessary. Indeed, between contingency and necessity, Galli replies, "the Hobbesian state” is one of order and necessity.

The paradox is precisely this: a political project of freedom becomes a political project of order and stability. But an even greater paradox is that Adventism, which is at the antipodes of the Hobbesian solution, fits perfectly into this Hobbesian perspective of order. Adventist religion, through its hermeneutical and theological mechanisms, is like the Hobbesian state: an entity that privileges stability over change, necessity over contingency, order over movement.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.

Title image: John Michael Wright (1617-1694), "Thomas Hobbes" (c. 1669), National Portrait Gallery (CC 3.0).

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