Sometimes it takes days, weeks, or even months for insight into the significance of an obscure text to gestate. And then sometimes it merely takes a serendipitous intersection of disparate sources. In The Star of Redemption, Franz Rosenzweig presented “Christianity” as a worldly spirituality, experienced through art, especially the great spaces of the European cathedrals, and music. He denied to Christianity an experience of redemption, except through the public celebrations that mark the foundations of a nation or the universal sentiments of a culture: in the United States, Thanksgiving Day, Fourth of July, Veteran’s Day. He claimed that these are the moments when a Christian society redeem the world and point to the eternal hope of a final unity of all things. Even when I sympathetically place his interpretation as the response of a reverting Jew to the crest of German Christian culture, the exposition rubs against my self-understanding. Even if Mother’s Day has earned a de facto place on my own congregation’s church calendar, one is not redeemed by remembering one’s mother.
But then I began to read Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. In spite of the monstrous overtones of the title, Hobbes meant it entirely positively. People left to themselves are in an unending state of war. The only way to solve this perpetual conflict is for most men to voluntarily surrender their freedom to other men, through contracts or covenant. Once the rights have been transferred, they cannot be revoked. (ch. XIV)
This creates the leviathan:
...it is a real unity of them all in one and the same person, made by covenant of every man with every man, in such manner as if every man should say to every man: I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a COMMONWEALTH; in Latin, CIVITAS. This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence. ... one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all as he shall think expedient for their peace and common defence. (ch. XVII)
So the leviathan is the power of the community, covenanting together and surrendering its individual freedoms to the power of a single man, who acts on their behalf and in their name, and thus becomes a “mortal god.” Through a long and complex interpretation of the biblical account, especially in ch. XXXV , he shows that this covenant is identical with the covenant God made with Abraham. God covenanted with Abraham to give him Canaan, if Abraham followed the moral law and the specific commands God gave Abraham. The efforts of the Israelites to keep this covenant created an earthly kingdom, which is the kingdom of God. This earthly kingdom is continued by Jesus Christ, since did not Gabriel promise, “of his kingdom there shall be no end,” and do not Christians always pray, “your kingdom come”? Finally, the kingdom shall be consummated as a real and actual kingdom on this earth (ch. XXXVIII)—a claim that is simple to prove from Revelations.
The leviathan is Rosenzweig’s “Christianity”: the eternal powers of life express themselves in an earthly kingdom, coterminous with the state-and-religion that attempts to bring all people and earthly activities under its sway. Eternity enters into the everyday lives of men, in and through the state. The “church” is simply the locus of activities that make a man aware of the moods and sentiment of eternity. This kingdom is ever underway, never gaining completion until eternity.
Many scholars view Hobbes as an atheist and materialist. I have not had time to consult the secondary literature, but I do know the religious and theological literature of the early 17th century England. Hobbes’ arguments are straightforward and internally consistent applications of important aspects of English Puritan thought.
Originally, Reformed theology taught that God covenanted with his people to save them by grace. This of course was wholly a covenant of divine election. But the Puritans wanted to tell the English that they needed to covenant with them in their battle for a purified church. Englishmen needed to make a choice, to take sides. So the Puritans invented the concept of a covenant of works. God had covenanted with Adam to give him eternal life, if he kept the moral law. But the Puritans thought it self-evident that this covenant could not be kept. Since all fail to keep this covenant, they—and the waffling English public—could only be saved by a covenant of grace. The dual covenant, of works and grace, allowed the Puritans to make public appeals to morality and order, even while they claimed that only the elect were in the covenant of grace.
Now what Hobbes did what to take this dual covenant and strip it of grace. The covenant was wholly one of works: “This is it which is called the Old Covenant, or Testament, and containeth a contract between God and Abraham, by which Abraham obligeth himself and his posterity in a peculiar manner to be subject to God’s positive law; for to the law moral he was obliged before, as by an oath of allegiance.” (ch. XXXV) Compare that to the Puritan William Perkins, who said: “The covenant of works, is Gods covenant, made with condition of perfect obedience, and is expressed in the morrall law.” Hobbes simply added the extra layer of God’s “positive law,” since he assumed that the moral law in found in nature itself.
The second idea that Hobbes learned from the Puritans, and the larger Reformed tradition, was the claim that the “new covenant” was identical to the “old covenant.” The Reformed theologians needed an explanation for baptizing infants. How to answer the Anabaptists, who seemed to have scripture and logic on their side? The solution—beginning with Ulrich Zwingli in Zürich—was to claim that just as the Israelites circumcised all males, so the church baptized all babies. God had made one covenant, according to which all infants were already within the covenantal community. However, that solution raised the specter of a hazard at another point: if the two covenants were identical, then superstitious Roman prelates could reassert their ceremonies as continuous with those of the Israelites.
The solution was to make two seemingly contradictory claims: the old and new covenant were identical, but at the same time, the real content of the old covenant was the new covenant, a covenant of grace in Christ. Zwingli, while claiming the covenant of circumcision for Christians (in the form of baptism) could still say: “So there could be no other testament than that which furnished salvation through Jesus Christ.”
What Hobbes did to this conflation of the two covenants was to take it to its logical conclusion: if the covenant with Abraham and Moses was a covenant leading to a worldly kingdom (as the Hebrew scriptures transparently indicate), and if the two covenants were truly one, then the kingdom of Christ was also a worldly kingdom. Hobbes was simply a Puritan with the religious experience removed. The kingdom was a unified state in which divine authority was administered through the sovereign, who drew all power, all truth, all religion, within his sway. This kingdom had no place for the Jews as an autonomous people: when describing the various ways in which one authority could be “personated,” i.e., express his authority through another, Hobbes says (ch. XVI) : “The true God may be personated. ... by the Son of Man, His own Son, our blessed Saviour Jesus Christ, that came to reduce the Jews and induce all nations into the kingdom of his Father;.... “
Hopefully now, Christians can better understand when Jews object to arguments that they ought to relinquish their claims of being God’s chosen people with specific election, unique obligations, and particular privileges. It should give us some sense of why Jews are sensitive to assertions that their covenant with HaShem is fully embraced in and understood through Christian understandings. The covenant, the “carnal election” (Wyschogrod), endures, even against the universalizing aspirations of a dominant culture. Once again, Jews are the canary in the coal mine. It is their specificity that alerts Christians everywhere to the risks of the would-be leviathan.