Catching the Parson

Church politics can be as vicious as secular politics. In the lifetime of Thomas Hobbes it inspired a civil war. One churchman may be criticised as “Too heavenly minded to be any earthly use”, or another as abandoning his calling to follow wrongheaded political ideas. The two digressions may be the same, simply differently expressed.

With an opening chapter entitled “That the Hobbian Principles are destructive to Christianity and all Religion”, Dr Bramhall’s book required a response. The quarrel showed up something deeper in how the church was going.

Leviathan was published during Cromwell’s time (and resulted in Hobbes fleeing the exiled King’s court). At the Restoration the book entered the mainstream of debate and reactions to this radical examination of philosophy and of political and ecclesiastical assumptions was virulent. The Bishop of Derry, Dr Bramhall, led the established church’s charge against Hobbes, accusing him of the deadly charge of atheism, and Hobbes struck back in style.

You would expect the Bishop of Londonderry, in the Church of Ireland, a forceful champion of Protestantism in a land still given over to impious superstitions, would uphold the simple Reformation on which the church had been refounded, but his arguments show a drift away into intellectual spirituality.

The reformed church was a restoration of the Christian faith to its ground-level  simplicity.  It was a cool, smooth pond where the faithful could find rest and refreshment. A hundred years later the ministers given charge of the pond had begun to feel themselves lords, bubbling over the surface as a lukewarm froth.

The bishop spoke intellectual abstraction; Hobbes retorts with plain sense and scripture.

The Gospels and the Books of the Prophets before them are founded on earth, amongst real people. Their teachings are applied to real, earthly conduct and concern the actions of men and women. I once lend a New Testament to a curious Hindu, who brought it back a week later puzzled that “It’s like a story”. Indeed it is: an account of Jesus in a particular place at a particular time, speaking to actual people about daily life. Heathens may have books of abstractions and spiritual speculations: we have prophets with dust on their feet.

To become too spiritual therefore is not in the nature of the Gospel, although missing the spiritual truth behind the earthly words is also to miss the truth of the Gospel.

Bramhall upbraids Hobbes for suggesting that coveting is not always sinful – Hobbes responds that if men did not covet that which they do not already possess then the world would be unpeopled:

“What man was there ever whose imagination of any thing he thought would please him, whe not some delight? Or what sin is there, where there is not so much as an intention to do injustice? But his Lordship would not distinguish between delight and purpose, nor between a Wish and a Will. This was venome. I believe, that his Lordship himself even before he was Married took some delight in the thought of it, and yet the Woman then was not his own. All love is delight, but all love is not sin. Without this love of that which is not yet a mans own, the World had not been Peopled.”

So it goes on, the Bishop positing abstractions and Hobbes practicality, the Bishop concepts devised only in schoolrooms, and Hobbes the plain words of Scripture.

Clinging to abstraction is a way to avoid earthly responsibilities, but the role of a pastor is to be shepherd to those in his care. His role is inevitably on earth. He must be spiritual to praise God and be held by His hand to his duties – if though he goes into abstractions, he steps out of the hand of God into his own concepts. It is understandable: looking into the face of the divine is terrifying.

Spiritual abstractions are one escape: political abstractions are another. They both serve the same purpose.


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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short