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The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 5: From Hooker to Locke

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[This fifth segment in our series (Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here) comes from my friend Peter Escalante, a supreme expert on all matters of Protestant political theology, especially the 17th century.  Forcing him to keep this exposition to around 1500 words was probably one of the cruellest tests I have ever put upon our friendship.]  

The 17th century was a time of immense tumult, not only in outward affairs, but in the mind and heart of Europe. The religious conflict of the 16th century showed no signs of resolution, the intellectual disciplines of Humanism were confidently establishing the inquiry of history over against authoritarian tradition, the natural sciences were developing apace, and the world had gotten vastly wider with Europe’s new maritime reach.

We call it “early modernity”, and with good reason. Of course, everything depends on what we take modernity to mean in this case. We are still in many ways beholden to the “Whig” version of the story, which reads and measures all the 17th and 18th century jurists and philosophers of politics as steps toward a certain kind of 19th century Liberalism, whose father is thought to be Locke. But the old writers, if their own works and not simply quick summaries of those are read, don’t fit that tale of evolutionary progress. In some ways they are direct pioneers of Liberalism, in some ways indirectly so, either positively or negatively, and in other ways they are not at all. What they all were was religious. Recently, careful readers have begun to show just how deeply informed by Protestant Christian doctrine supposedly secularizing writers like Hobbes and Locke really were. As is to be expected, the central Protestant idea of the two-kingdoms was a crucial part of that inheritance. Since that idea has been explained very carefully in earlier installments of this series, I will assume it as understood.

In the 17th century, although the evangelical theme of the two kingdoms is everywhere. It is often somewhat hidden, though operant, behind other more forefront matters of contest–self-interest vs sociality as the basis of society, the divine or human grounds of legitimate rule, the relation of the State to nascent civil society, public and private–and sometimes the thing itself goes under aliases. It sometimes plays a greater role in the thought of the doctrinally idiosyncratic, for instance Hobbes, than it does in that of those otherwise more orthodox, such as Richard Baxter. This is a very vast and complicated field. Given that this is to be such a short overview, we will consider here merely one aspect of Lutheran two-kingdoms doctrine, that of the denial of political power to the clergy, and point to a few landmark instances.

Though Hugo Grotius, “the Miracle of Holland” (1583-1645 ) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the Sage of Malmesbury, are often thought to differ at least in their matter of concern (international law for Grotius, political constitution for Hobbes), Rousseau discerned a profound similarity between them. They are certainly similar in their eminence; each stands at the center of the century’s conversation about politics, each seeking to reduce politics to a kind of science in the service of peace, and each casting a very long shadow. What they also have in common is a two-kingdoms doctrine inherited from the Reformers.

In Hobbes one sees it in stark relief.  Echoing Luther, for Hobbes there is a sharp distinction between the spiritual kingdom of God, which Hobbes regards as eschatological, and the earthly kingdom, which he regards as at a remove from the kingdom of God, though mediately related to it, and proportioned to fallen mankind in a way which the Mosaic polity was not. For Hobbes, any human attempt to install the kingdom of God directly on earth now can only be founded on dark fantasy, the soul-terrorizing “Kingdom of Darkness”, and can only result in tyrannical violence in the service of pretenders, usually clergy, usurping the place of Christ. Hobbes was regarded as an apostate by the clericalist factions he opposed, and for a long time, modern opinion approvingly concurred; only the “scientific” section of Leviathan got much attention, and the crucial third part was regarded as disingenuous or mere ornamentation. But the studies of Hood and Warrender more than half a century ago argued for Hobbes’ sincere Christianity, and Dr Aloysius Martinich has lately made the case that Hobbes was a Reformed Anglican. Be that as it may, although his name was vilified even in his own life perhaps even more than that of Machiavelli, Hobbes was widely read by the Independents of Cromwell’s army, who were resolved that Christian freedom was not to be imperilled by a new Presbyterian version of the old Papacy.

Hobbes’ schema is in certain ways a thoroughly Lutheran one, though at the time it was called, somewhat incorrectly, “Erastian”, after the doctrine of Thomas Erastus (1524-1583).

The same term was used of the great John Selden, famous for his incomparable learning and a participant in the Westminster Assembly. Selden opposed the claims of both Presbyterians and extremist Episcopalians (who had abandoned the principles of Hooker) to jus divinum, most notably in his essay on tithes, which induced fits in many clericalist writers. Although Selden rejected natural law, and founded jus gentium on the Noahide Laws, an idea which he had discovered in his adventures as a prodigious student of rabbinical learning, this does not place him in fundamental opposition to Hobbes’ project . Though the Noahide covenant was positive revelation and bound by command, it was an adjusted reapplication of original Edenic order, universal in scope, very general in outline, and pre-Mosaic. Thus, it amounted practically to much the same thing as the more scholastic idea of natural law one finds in Hooker, or, mutatis mutandis, in Grotius and the continental natural lawyers. The difference between Selden on the one hand, and Hooker and Grotius on the other, is rather like the difference between English common law and European civil codes. In fact, Selden’s follower Richard Cumberland, Bishop of Peterborough (1631-1718) will return to nature and natural law for the principles of his political science, without betraying the substance of his predecessor’s project.

 

Grotius was important not only for international law, whose modern form he can plausibly be credited with having invented; his principles served to illuminate law and constitution generally. Like all Protestants, he denied that human nature was in need of an originally intended supernature for completion, and he denied the political corollary of that thesis, namely that the commonwealth requires for its perfection direction by ministers. He held that nature, even fallen, was nature, and that grace was forgiveness, not addition. Although he is often quoted out of context as saying that natural law would be what it is even without God, neither Grotius nor the new natural lawyers ever attempted an atheist system. Grotius’s famous maxim has to be read as bracketing revelation and the positive law it might bring, to highlight the selfstanding distinctness of creational order from any subsequent positive revelation, or else Grotius would absurdly contradicting his own views of the radical dependence of creation and reason upon God.

Grotius was immensely influential everywhere, but one sees the basic theme continuing especially, though with modifications, in the jurisprudence of Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694) and Christian Thomasius (1655-1728) both devout Lutherans who sought to secure the magistrate’s independence from factions pretending to supernatural authority, and thereby to secure the temporal peace and freedom of the commonwealth.

 

Thus we see that a common theme which unites Hobbes, Grotius, and the many new natural law jurists shaped by them either in discipleship or disagreement was an uncompromising critique of political pretensions on the part of the Christian clergy or fanatics looking to usher in the rule of the Saints. The science of peace which Grotius and Hobbes had labored to establish was the common project of men such as Pufendorf and Thomasius, and its cardinal supposition was that God delegated His temporal powers to the sovereign for the purposes of temporal peace and the protection of conscience. In this, they were the successors of Luther. Of course, other Protestants read the two-kingdoms doctrine differently, or applied it differently on account of other principles they held. But the “Erastians” hewed closest to the original radicalism of Luther’s doctrine, and in doing so, laid the foundations of modernity.

The last great English “Erastian”, and the so-called father of modern Liberalism, John Locke (1632-1704) , is a fitting figure with whom to conclude an overview of two-kingdoms doctrine in the 17th century. As is the case with the other writers we’ve reviewed, Locke was long thought to have been a secularist at best indifferent to and possibly even hostile to Christianity, but that opinion is now being reversed.

In Locke’s early and often neglected tracts on government, he argues, echoing Hooker’s two-kingdoms account precisely, that the magistrate may impose adiaphora as part of public order. What is especially noteworthy is that Locke methodically lays out a theological argument for his view of civic order first, and then follows with the political consequence. And his theological principles are remarkably evocative of the early Protestant distinctions of the civic and the spiritual kingdoms.  Locke will quote Hooker often and reverently throughout his career, and in his 1689 Letter on Toleration his principles are directly reminiscent of Luther and Hooker throughout.

So we see that the Reformation theme of the two kingdoms continued to direct some of the foremost minds of the 17th century, and through them, would have an immense effect on the modern age.

In the final segment of this series next week, we will examine why the two kingdoms doctrine still matters for contemporary Protestant political theology.
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Brad Littlejohn has just completed a Ph.D at the University of Edinburgh, where he worked on the relationship between law, loyalty, and liberty in the thought of Richard Hooker under the supervision of Oliver O’Donovan. He has written one monograph and edited another on the 19th-century movement known as the Mercersburg Theology, but his real passion is in the fields of political theology and early modern history, in which fields he has written several articles and book chapters. He blogs at www.swordandploughshare.com.

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