Hobbes (Sheehan) on Heresy

Yesterday I posted on Jonathan Sheehan’s recent article on Hobbes the theologian. Today I came across—entirely by coincidence—an article by Cees Leijenhorst on “Hobbes, Heresy, and Corporeal Deity,” published in John Brooke and Ian Maclean’s Heterodoxy in Early Modern Science and Religion (2005). Leijenhorst shows quite convincingly that Hobbes himself defended himself against charges of heresy and atheism. Using juridical arguments, for instance, Hobbes contended “that contemporary English law had neither the legal framework nor the proper juridical authorities for a formal charge of heresy.” He supported his claim by tracing a “history of the concept of heresy.” According to Hobbes, heresy came to “stand or an unpermitted false belief held by a minority, as opposed to ‘catholic’ orthodoxy.” But this opposition was the result of the paganization of the early Church. The introduction of Greek philosophy had a pernicious effect on the early Church. Hobbes wrote:

Most of the pastors of the primitive church were…chosen out of the number of these philosophers; who retaining still many doctrines which they had taken up on the authority of their former masters, whom they had in reverence, endeavoured many of them to draw the Scriptures every one to his own heresy…And this dissension amongst themselves, was a great scandal to the unbelievers, and which not only obstructed the way of the Gospel, but also drew scorn and greater persecution upon the church.

Now, I might be wrong in saying this, but this argument looks remarkably similar to the one Sheehan himself makes. Hobbes seems to be defending his “heresy” by declaring that heresy was present in the early church from the very beginning. In other words, there has never been orthodoxy. Leijenhorst also makes the interesting point that Hobbes also attempted to separate reason from faith, or philosophy from theology. Philosophy deals with things that are conceivable; theology with the inconceivable.

But to return to the main point, Leijenhorst admits that notions of orthodoxy, heterodoxy, and heresy were extremely complicated in seventeenth-century England. When Hobbes maintained that he his views were orthodox, he based this on his own criterion of orthodoxy, which was based on his history of heresy. So when Sheehan points out the “Christian archive” of heterodoxy, he seems to be following Hobbes’s own argument! But as Leijenhorst makes clear, “it is a historical fact that all the various sects, as well as most of the leading scientists [sic] in seventeenth-century England…agreed that Hobbes was either a heretic or an atheists.”

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