Disciple-Making in a Time of Covid19

This week, my intention was to write a blog on the way in which modern physics can illuminate decision-making, with an emphasis on political decision-making. Then, in trying to answer a friend’s question about disciple-making, I realized it might be a good idea to talk about disciple-making in a time of Covid19.

Some readers will recall that with my wife I have written a curriculum on disciple-making and a series of blogs that are now a book in process on the subject. [1] Inherent in both these attempts is the principle that disciple-making takes place within and is an activity of the entire church, whether that church is a formal body or a small group of people. Jesus said, “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I will be with them” (Matthew 18:20). In Hebrews the author admonishes the church, “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer”(Hebrews 9:25). The example of Jesus, Paul, and the early church encourage us in the belief that meeting together as Christians, and discipling people in groups, is not an optional thing for Christians.

Enter Covid19

The emergence of Covid19, and the responses of our government and governments throughout the world, have made difficult, and in some cases impossible, the work of sharing the Good News of God’s love within local congregations and beyond. The experience of our family is common. Initially, we could not attend church nor could our church hold services at all. We could not engage in our normal business and social life. This lasted for some weeks. Our small group did not meet during the first period of quarantine. In particular, Church committees and ministry teams stopped meeting. Mission trips were cancelled and local mission projects were put on hold. Everything was at a standstill.

At first, many of us thought to ourselves, “This is temporary and will soon pass.” But, that is not what happened. The absolute ban on church services ended in most states and communities by sometime in May or early June 2020, but there were still serious restrictions on groups and their meetings. A sanctuary built for 500 or so people might only hold 100 or so given the restrictions on the size of groups that might meet and social distancing requirements.  Many people, especially older people, no longer attended because of a continuing fear of exposure to the disease. This was true for both churches and small groups. In one older congregation with which I am familiar, the small groups ceased to operate all-together, and are still not meeting in any organized way.

Then, it became obvious that the disease was going to emerge in waves, and the lock downs might appear or reappear at any time. New strains of the disease were reported in newspapers and other media. In some places, churches that had begun worshiping in person stopped doing so for a period of time. Christmas programs were shortened and held online. By the first of this year, most pastors with whom I visited were of the opinion that between 10 and 30 percent of their congregations would never return. In some cases, budgets, were being cut. In a few cases, pastors would admit that they were not sure that their congregation would survive.

Going On-Line

The first response of most congregations to the problem was to go online. Facebook, U-Tube, Vimeo, and other technologies and platforms made this possible. In the beginning, larger congregations had a distinct advantage, many of whom were already recording or streaming their services. Then, smaller congregations began streaming their services. What was most amazing and comforting to me was the speed at which the availability, content, and professionalism of the new online participants increased. In some cases, some smaller congregation worship services seemed more real and more moving than those of larger, more technologically-savvy congregations.

One way in which the church of Jesus Christ may have been permanently changed by Covid19 is that smaller congregations that never broadcast their services in the past will probably continue to do so for shut-ins and others into the future. In at least one case of which I am aware total attendance is up for last year when “on-line” and “in person” attendees are put together. While this congregation has seen some financial pressures and program realignment, it has managed to enter 2021 in sound condition.

Touch by Phone and Mail.

Most pastors early-on recognized the potential of Covid19 to harm their Christian community. In every case of which I am aware, pastors, deacons, elders, small group leaders, and staff members began to call, email, and write shut-ins and others who were physically distant and unable to attend. In some congregations within the first two months every member was called, including inactive members. The purpose of these calls was to re-establish personal connection with the membership of the church. This was an initial positive of Covid19.

Many churches began or continued programs of sending cards to elderly members and others with pastoral needs that could not be met because of Covid19 restrictions. This was especially important in bereavement situations, where funerals were cancelled or delayed due to Covid19. Of course, those congregations which sent cards to visitors were constricted in this form of evangelism by the absence of visitors, a problem that continues to this day.

Media Meetings

Almost immediately, church groups, many of whom met weekly or monthly were faced with the need to find ways of meeting online. When the pandemic began, many church leaders had never heard of “Zoom.” Today, I attend some kind of Bible study or meeting every week on Zoom alone. Zoom is not the only alternative out there for online meetings, there is Google Hangout, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Free Conference, Group Facetime, and other platforms can be used to have such meetings.

Having visited with a number of pastors and executives about “Media Meetings,” I think that there are nearly always three responses:

  1. First, holding  Media Meetings has been a success, even where it was not the perfect way to hold the meeting.
  2. Second, Media Meetings are especially successful where the meeting has a concrete purpose and a decision to be made based upon information that can be sent to attendees in advance.
  3. Third, Media Meetings are not the perfect vehicle for brainstorming, evaluating potential courses of action, personnel matters,, or evaluating the emotional commitment and responses of people to a problem or opportunity.

Just a few weeks into the pandemic, our small group decided that we had had enough isolation and decided to meet by Zoom, which one of our members knew how to use and who sponsored the meeting. It was surprising how well the group adapted to the situation. As far as the content of the Bible Study and the sharing of information and prayer requests was concerned, on the surface we noticed no particular problems. We were excited to experience something new.

Under the surface, there were problems. For one thing, we could no longer eat a meal together. That element dropped out of our meetings all together. In addition, the men and women who were accustomed to a few moments together alone during the meeting to share concerns, ideas, and the like could no longer do so easily. Inviting new people to the study, while possible, did not seem likely. Informal disciple-making within the group was not easy. Part of our small group is sharing with the group opportunities we have shared our faith during the past week. This became very difficult except for those with an online platform through which to do so. As excited as we were to be meeting together in some form, the form was not perfect.

Virtues and Limitations of Virtual Church

As can be easily seen from the foregoing, there are both strengths and limitations in the notion of a “virtual church.” Most congregations have been able to “muddle through” Covid19 restrictions by adapting to the crisis and taking advantage of some of the opportunities that technology affords. This is a good thing.

The success many have had in adapting can, however, mask the limitations on “Virtual Community.”  My dictionary defines “Virtual” as “being such in power, force, or effect, though not expressly such”. As to computer generated virtual worlds, the same dictionary defines virtual as “a reality temporarily simulated or extended by a computer device.” From these definitions, we can see two characteristics of “Virtual Community” that should be concerning to all of us:

  1. Virtual Community is not “real”. It is virtual. Virtual community is a simulation or imitation, a temporarily created reality dependent upon the ability and willingness of those who control the technology to continue.
  2. Virtual Community should be temporary. Once again, virtual community does not exist without the creation of the virtual reality by those who control the technology. It is not a good substitute for people meeting together in the flesh and sharing their lives in deep and personal ways.

While technology has created the ability to continue the power and efficacy of Christian communities for a time, and in some cases for a long time, Christian leaders should not rely solely on virtual community for the extended future. There is no substitute for actual, in-person, human community. There is no substitute in disciple-making to one-on-one or small group disciple-making connections.

In the long run, no church can be and become all that God wants it to be unless it reaches out physically and personally to those who are without a local Christian community within which people grow in Christ-likeness. In the long run, those congregations that take Acts 2:42-47 seriously, and create the kind of growing, vibrant, spirit-filled community that Acts portrays, are those that will prosper during and beyond the current epidemic. [2]

Going Forward

Not long ago, I visited with a pastor about the challenges Covid19 poses for congregations. We were both aware of the many problems Covid19 has posed for pastors and leaders. As I write, there is no obvious end in sight for the dislocations of Covid19. The need for some kind of virtual church will continue for some time—in some form probably forever.

At the same time, my experience has been that those congregation with a strong small group program already in existence have fared better under COvid19 than those without a vibrant small group community. This would argue for congregations to continue and expand their disciple-making programs to the maximum extent possible, despite the current crisis and to respond to any opportunity to create and nurture small disciple-making groups within the local congregation.

Here are a few suggestions based upon my experience and the experience of those I have consulted:

  1. Make Forming Disciple-making Groups a Priority! Every pastor should make disciple-making a priority. This was true before Covid19. In multi-staff congregations there should be at least one staff member whose primary or sole duty is the formation and support of small groups. The focus of the pastor or single individual on disciple-making groups should not inhibit church leaders from making disciple-making and group formation “the business of everyone.” The Great Commission was for all disciples of Jesus, and all disciples of Jesus need to participate in this endeavor. Covid19 does not change the business of the church; it only changes our methods.
  2. Commit to Supporting and Growing your Program. In this environment, small, disciple-making groups usually need some kind of technology and help in making it work for their group. New groups will need access to technology as well as curriculum. Do not be satisfied with the status quo, be committed to growth by whatever means are possible for your congregation.
  3. Understand and Support Existing Groups. In one of my former congregations we realized we did not have a clear idea of how many small disciple-making groups we had! This church had a variety of Bible study, prayer, ministry, mission, reunion, monthly fellowship, and other smaller discipling groups. We were amazed at the number of people we had the ability to touch weekly. You may be surprised as well. Having identified these groups, find ways to encourage and expand their activities despite Covid19. For larger churches this is an opportunity to have all staff members and leaders grow in their capacity to take advantage of disciple-making opportunities.
  4. Identify and Train Leaders. A growing church has to grow new leaders. In the current environment, many new leaders may be younger members who were not previously in leadership but whose age and careers make them comfortable in virtual groups and “tech savvy” concerning their operation. In fact, Covid19 presents an opportunity to recruit a new generation and type of church leader. These group leaders should be asked to make a list of potential members, including people inside and outside of an existing congregation. Having recruited leaders, it is the business of pastors, staff, elders, and existing leaders to train and equip them for success.
  5. Give People Technology Options. Leadership should not try to make disciple-making groups a “one-size fits all” process. This is certainly true of the technology used by the group. For example, for one-on-one disciple-making, Phone calls, Facetime, Skype and the like may be just fine. Larger groups will need different and more complex technology. Having said this, churches and groups of churches that are able to should consider investing in their own platform designed or adapted for their needs.
  6. Curriculum and Management. As to curriculum, consider making your congregation’s basic small disciple-making group program an extension of the pastor’s text and sermon for the week. This requires that each pastor evaluate carefully where he or she wishes to take the congregation spiritually in the next period of time. It has the advantage of creating unity and cohesion among many people in a time when achieving such is hard. As to existing groups, offer them options, but allow them to decide for themselves what they will study and how they will meet.
  7. Make Your Program a “Hybrid” Program. As mentioned earlier, our group went from meeting in person weekly, to meeting online, to meeting both online and personally. When the initial Covid19 restrictions were lifted in our area, we began meeting in person, but some folks were either unwilling or unable to attend in person. My wife and I were among the latter for a good length of time, and occasionally even now. We have continued to allow members to meet virtually, not just because of Covid19 but also to accommodate people as the travel and conduct their professional lives in the face of Covid19.


I hope that this little blog is helpful to pastors and church leaders who are faced with the continuing restrictions Covid19 imposes on church activities. The basic message is simple: We cannot use Covid19 as an excuse to put the Great Commission on hold. Second, modern technology gives us some tools past generations lacked with which to meet the crisis. Finally, however competent we become at the art of virtual community, it will not be a substitute for in-person Christian community.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] G. Christopher and Kathy T. Scruggs, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo, 2017).

[2] They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47). Every church should make this the center and goal of their church life—and this means creating and maintaining smaller, disciple-making groups.


Hobbes: Implications of a Limited View of Freedom

As earlier mentioned, Hobbes holds a mechanistic view of the world in which matter and force are ultimate realities. Everything is determined by the mechanical operation of force on matter. In such a universe, there is little room for freedom in nature or in human life. In fact, one sees in Hobbes the shadow of an understanding doctrine of predestination prevalent among Reformed theologians, a doctrine in which it was (and is) difficult to find a place for a coherent doctrine of human freedom. [1] The result, for Hobbes, and for all those who follow his way of thinking, is a universe without meaning, in which the idea human freedom is ultimately meaningless. Such a vision of reality is inclined to some form of totalitarianism when applied to government. In its Marxist form, it becomes a doctrine of an inevitable materialistic course of human history. In its capitalist form, it becomes submission to a “free market” and its operation.

The position outlined in these blogs is quite different. The human experience of freedom is not a mere illusion based upon a lack of understanding of the world. Historical material forces do not fully or finally determine the future. The world in both its quantum and everyday aspects displays an astonishing amount of freedom. At the most basic level of reality, events contain an element of indeterminism and at the macro-level self-organizing systems reveal a kind of freedom from determinism, seen for example in chaos theory. As physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne puts it:

“Modern science has come to recognize that the processes that give rise to genuine novelty have to be at the “edge of chaos” where order and disorder, chance and necessity, creatively interlace. Otherwise, things are either too rigid for anything really new to happen or too haphazard for novelty to persist. The intrinsic unpredictabilities of quantum physics and chaos theory can be seen theologically as gifts of a Creator whose creation is orderly and open in this way. [2]

The universe humans inhabit does not appear to be fully deterministic. There is a place for both natural and human freedom. In particular, the emergence of the human race brought into existence beings with the ability for conscious choice and the creative ability to both adapt to the determinative elements of the material environment and creatively exploit its potential future organization. Human beings are true participants in the unfolding of a meaningful history, a history in which our choices are real and have real potential to bring about a better and freer future for ourselves and our families (or the reverse).

Hobbes on Freedom

Hobbes begins his analysis of the meaning of human freedom by defining freedom as follows, “Liberty, or Freedom, signifies the absence of opposition; by opposition I mean external impediments of motion; and may be applied to less to irrational and inanimate creatures than to rational.” [3]  There are two aspects of this definition that readers should bear in mind:

  1. Freedom is freedom from “opposition” or “impediments” of motion. In the end, freedom for Hobbes is the freedom to do whatever we wish or will to do without any restraint. [4] Those wishes and wills, however, are determined by material forces. Human freedom is no different from the freedom of a rock to fall under the force of gravity.
  2. Lack of freedom is a matter of external restraint. A rock falling is free to fall under the impact of gravity so long as no other force acts upon it. Translated to human freedom, freedom is the freedom to act without external restraint. A free person is one who is free to do whatever he or she wills to do without external hinderance. [5] Physical infirmity and external laws are natural and human imposed restraints on freedom.

Thus, Hobbes freedom is a freedom “from” restraints on the human will, not a freedom “for” human achievement and flourishing. In the classical view, freedom was not simply a freedom from restraint but a freedom of each individual to achieve the end for which human beings were made. In a classical view of freedom, while freedom from restraint is an aspect of freedom, that freedom from restraint is a freedom to achieve the good for which human beings were created. There is a “telos” (or goal) to human freedom. In Hobbes constricted view there is only a freedom from, for there is no goal to human existence.

For Hobbes every action is caused (determined) by physical causes that mean all human behavior is necessary. The final cause in Hobbes mind is God. [6] Everything that occurs in the universe is determined by necessity, including human actions. Real existential freedom is not part of the universe. According to Hobbes, the fact that an action is caused, and the cause is determinative, does not make it less free.

Political Consequences

At this point, it is important to recall that Hobbes’ view of society as instituted because of fear, the fear of chaos and violence. In order to achieve peace (an absence of the fear of violence and chaos), human beings give up their freedom, human society is formed, and human laws are enacted. These laws are “artificial chains”. [7] The use of the term “artificial chains” is instructive. Laws are external rules imposed upon citizens that constrict their freedom in the search for social peace. Political freedom simply refers to those areas of life that are currently not the subject of some legal impediment to action.

Notice that, unlike a classical or Christian view, laws are not constructed by free agents to seek a common good or the good of families or communities. Political society is not formed for the purpose of providing a social structure within which human freedom can be exercised and human potential realized. There is no common good to which all human beings and their leaders should strive within human society. Political society is formed solely to eliminate chaos, violence and fear, which Hobbes believes to be the “natural state” of the human agent. In Hobbes, the more organic and historically accurate view of the origin and evolution of human society is lacking.

One result is to discourage looking at laws as essential to human thriving. For example, the laws against murder and assault are surely partially enacted to prevent social chaos. Nevertheless, they are also a guide to healthy human life. If we believe that human beings were meant to be rational, cherishing human life and human potential, then the laws against murder and violence, as well as a great many other laws, are not merely restrictions on liberty, but also guides to the achievement of human potential. Even with respect to such mundane matters as traffic laws, a Hobbesian view sees these laws as restrictions of human activity (such as speeding). This overlooks the common objective of such restrictions: allowing people to travel safely and reach their destinations without accident, so that they can conduct their lives and businesses profitably. This is an aspect of law that Hobbes misses entirely.

Consequences of the Unlimited Power of the Sovereign

Because Hobbes believes the sovereign has unlimited power (that is an unlimited capacity to restrict human freedom), he is required to defend his notion of freedom in a way consistent with the notion of absolute sovereign power. Hobbes begins by taking the position that there is nothing a sovereign can do that constitutes an unjust deprivation of human freed, even putting a subject to death. [8] This is a totalitarian position granting to sovereigns unchecked power.

In fact, only a sovereign is truly free under Hobbes doctrine. The state, and therefore its rulers, are free because the sovereign and it alone can do whatever it pleases without restraint. [9] This notion of absolute sovereignty flows from his fundamentally material and antisocial view of the human race and its condition without laws: the war of “everyman against his neighbor.” [10] Once again, we see in Hobbes’ limited, dark and entirely constricted view of human beings and of human society—and one that flies in the face of a good portion of human experience.

Liberty without Freedom

According to Hobbes, once a sovereign is either acknowledged or established, having submitted to a government in order to achieve some kind of social peace, the subject has the duty and obligation to support the state. The freedom established by Hobbes notion of sovereignty is not the freedom to achieve “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” unimpeded by the power and interference of the state. In the first instance, human freedom is the freedom to obey the sovereign. Hobbes’ freedom is the freedom to obey and support the state, having authorized its actions in advance by submission to its power. [11] However, another remaining liberty is the right to refuse to obey and suffer the due consequences of refusal or the establishment of a new sovereignty. [12] Thus, a sovereign can order the suicide of a subject with no injustice, and the subject can refuse according to the law of nature—but must expect to suffer the consequences.

As for any other form of liberty, it depends upon the “silence of the law.” [13] The only area of human freedom is whatever area is left without legislation or regulation restricting that freedom: “In cases where the sovereign has prescribed no rule, there the subject hath the liberty to do, or forbear, according to his own discretion.” [14] This is again a concrete example of Hobbes negative, “freedom from” view of the nature of liberty. Within his system, there is simply no coherent way to object to a decision of a sovereign. The only real appeal to a decision of the sovereign cannot be to reason, but to force of some kind to remove the sovereign and create another sovereignty by force. There is no notion of freedom as an open area within which the good of human society and the achievement of human potential can be achieved.

An Agapistic Response to Hobbes

There are continuities between some versions of the post-modernist outlook and response to political realities and the dark ideas of Hobbes. Both are radically materialistic in their vision. Both are inclined to see sovereign power as a guarantor of “safety” from violence, physical, social and emotional. Both are inclined to disregard the existence of limitations on what government might do to enforce their vision of social reality.

Interestingly, both can be suspicious of communal norms. This concern of the post-modernists was kindly communicated to me by a philosophy professor with whom I was discussing a communitarian ethic. His concern was the absorption of the individual into the community and the lack of any limitations on what kinds of morality and law a community might enforce. In his mind the state was the guarantor of the individual’s rights to be “different.” At the time, I had no response to his concern. However, I do think a response is possible—but only for those who embrace an ontology and political philosophy of love, what I have called an agapistic political theory.

A politics of love rejects the notion that there are no limits on what governments can and ought to do, on the grounds that the freedom is necessary for human beings to flourish and for human culture to progress. The natural tendencies for political units to increase their power and control has to be balanced by a desire to allow persons, families, neighborhoods, churches, communities, and other social groups form themselves and those who belong to the group. Love, by its nature, sets limitations on power.

Of course, those who believe in God and in some transcendental purpose to life will defend the maximization of social free space as allowing individuals the freedom to achieve their true end, their true nature, as reflected in the nature of God. [15] Christians will believe that this free space is necessary for believers to truly become like Christ in their capacity for self-giving love. Those who do not believe in God can also participate in this vision because they too believe that human beings ought to be free to become their true, chosen selves.

From a theological point of view, God created the universe with a kind of freedom through which human beings eventually evolved. Throughout eons and eons, God has allowed and continues to allow the evolution of human society as a place of freedom from the absolute control of the creator so that this creature might freely embrace fellowship with God and others, creating a social life that achieves a not the abstract dictates of a Divine Dictator, but the free choices of human persons. One of the purposes of human society is to protect the maximum amount of that freedom consistent with human safety and society.

On the other hand, a politics of love recognizes that love can only be experienced and practiced within social realities, marriage, family, neighborhoods, communities, social organizations, and even in political institutions. The social fabric of a sound society is necessary as a place where love can flourish, and so it is necessary to build up the social bonds of that kind of love that we can call “social pragma,” the love of members of a society for the society as a whole and all of its members, not just for members of its own social group. [16]

Finally, freedom cannot exist without sacrifice—a kind of sacrificial love in which the individual is cherished by his or her society and given the social space to be achieve their own individual destiny and purpose. In this view, society is almost like a dance, with the partners being freedom and community, with each individual both respecting communal norms and being granted the space to grow and flourish, even in some instances in responsible dissent from those norms.

This defense of freedom will be the subject of future blogs.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This is not the place for a discussion of the Doctrine of Predestination or the various forms it takes in Catholic and Protestant circles.

[2] John Polkinghorne & Nicholas Beale, Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox 2009), 43.

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York, NY: Collier-McMillan, 1971), 159. All references herein are to this edition of Leviathan. I have taken the liberty of rendering Hobbes language into more contemporary English, since we do not use terms like “signifieth” in normal conversation.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id, at 160. This is not a theological essay, but it is fascinating how Hobbes and other early mechanists appear to be influence by an extreme predestinarian outlook on the world. One might say that a dark result of extreme Calvinism is the loss of freedom for both the individual and for creation as a whole.

[7] Id.

[8] Id, at 161.

[9] Id, at 162. Notice again that sovereigns are free because they lack restraint. Thus, the kind of checks and balances that prevent democracy from degenerating into mob-rule, aristocracy from degenerating into oligarchy, and kingship into tyranny is entirely lacking any foundation.

[10] Id.

[11] Id, at 164.

[12] Id, at 165.

[13] Id, at 165-166.

[14] Id, at 166. To anticipate a future argument, the so-called “legal realism” of is an adaptation to American law of this principle, which once again, I think can be mistaken.

[15] The idea for this section came to me in reading John D. Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness (London, ENG: T & T Clark, 2006. For those not familiar with Zizioulas, he is a Greek Orthodox theologian, most well-known for his insistence that the trinity is constituted by the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and therefore, communion precedes being. John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1985). His communal ontology has been influential in Christian circles far beyond Eastern Orthodoxy. Communion and Otherness was written to defend his approach against the complaint that it tends to diminish “otherness” or the personal. Among others, John Polkinghorne has noted the similarities between certain aspects of quantum physics with this kind of ontology. See, John Polkinghorne, ed., The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans, 2010).

[16] Pragma matures and develops over time in persons and society. It is not merely physical nor does it focus on attraction (as in eros). It is not primarily based on genetic or personal commonality (as in filios). Pragma involves a degree of self-denying commitment (like agape), and results in a personal and social harmony formed over time as a result of human effort. Whether personal or social, pragma requires reason, compromise, dialogue, patience and tolerance. Persons and institutions are formed in love when formed in pragma.

Hobbes on the Social Compact

Last week, we took an initial glance at Thomas Hobbes, looking at his place in history and basic worldview, one he developed based on the emerging scientific outlook of his day. It is important to note that, while his outlook reflects the beginning of the modern world, Hobbes is not a modern person. (One of the benefits of the kind of walk through the history of ideas that we are taking in these blogs is that one sees not the sharp breaks in historical outlook that often reflected in textbooks and other historical summaries, but the gradual development of new ways of thinking.) [1] Hobbes is an early example of the kind of mechanistic materialism that further developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. As mentioned in the last blog, Hobbes worldview is no longer fully adequate given the emergence of relativity and quantum theory in the 20th Century.

This week, we will look at Hobbes version of the Social Compact theory, a theme that we will touch on again in Locke, who was more instrumental in the thought of the drafters of the American Constitution. Before launching off into this examination, a bit more biographical information is helpful. Hobbes lived during the reign of the Stewart kings, and was impacted by the Cromwellian revolution. Politically, Hobbes was a Royalist and defended the Stewart Monarchy in his writings. As Charles I and Parliament moved in the direction of Civil War, Hobbes left England for Paris and the Continent. While in exile, he tutored the young Charles II. While in exile, Hobbes presented the Leviathan to Charles II.

Remembering that Cromwell was a Protestant and the Stewart Kings were aligned with the more traditional Catholic Christian faith, the conflict impacted his views on both religion and politics. Hobbes was deeply concerned about the religious wars of his day, and this impacted his view of religion. One of his main motives in writing was to defend monarchy. [2] Therefore, his version of Social Compact theory is what might be called, “Monarchist.” Nevertheless, since he did consent to live under Cromwell and his son, he is also concerned to defend his own actions.

The Social Compact

Hobbes is an originator of the modern Social Compact theory of government, but his version of the theory is not in any way democratic. Hobbes begins his analysis of Social Compact theory in Leviathan as follows:

A commonwealth is said to be instituted when a multitude of men to agree and covenant, every one, that to whatever man, or assembly of men, shall be given by the major part, the right to present the person of them all, that is to be their representative; every one, as well as he who voted for it, as he that voted against it, shall authorize all the actions and judgements of that man, or assembly of men, in the same manner as if they were his own, to the end, to live peaceably among themselves, and be protected against other men. [3]

There are several aspects of this definition that are important to unpack, because Hobbes theory, as fully developed is somewhat different from the theory as it finally impacted the American Constitution.

First, note that Hobbes defines a commonwealth without any reference to history or to existing institutions, such as the family and clan. The individualism of the modern world view is fully present. A commonwealth is formed by individuals, not by existing social units. Once formed, a commonwealth binds individuals, both those who approved of its formation and those who opposed it. The full implications of Hobbes thought only becomes apparent later when he reveals that a “compact” can be made whenever the conquered submit to the rule of a conqueror. The mere act of submission violence is enough to establish the state. Hobbes goes on to say that once formed, the “subjects” have no legal right to change their form of government. [4]

Second, this submission authorizes all the actions of the person or persons who are authorized by the formation of the commonwealth to act on behalf of the state. In other words, once sovereignty has been granted, whether by assent or submission, the state may act without restraint, and no action of the sovereign breaches the compact by which the commonwealth was formed. [5] In fact, the sovereign, once established can to anything without the subjects having any right to object to injustice. [6] If the reader has not already figured this out, Hobbes is a totalitarian. There are no moral constraints on what a sovereign can do. [7]

Finally, Hobbes theory of sovereignty leads him to the position that the sovereign is the sole judge of what policies are required to create social peace, what should be taught, what laws and rules should be instituted, what decisions should be made by courts, issues of war and peace, the choice of ministers, counselors and civil servants, who and how persons should be rewarded and punished, and all other aspects of government. [8] The historic notion of balancing governmental powers to restrain the sovereign is absent in his absolutist vision.

Formation of the Commonwealth

Hobbes indicates two methods by which a commonwealth can be established: Force and Institution. [9] One would think that a “social compact theory” would require the second means be used since “compacts” require some kind of consent, but that would be a mistake. According to Hobbes, the legitimacy and rights of the sovereign are identical by whatever means sovereignty is acquired. Hobbes also distinguishes between acquiring sovereignty by right of birth and/or conquest. [10] (In Hobbes day, these were the two most common means of acquiring sovereignty.) Once again, in either situation, the sovereign possesses all the rights of sovereignty. Whether by choice, birth, or conquest, the rights are the same.

It might be time to ask a question, “How in the world could there be a compact which is made by force?” Here we have recourse to Hobbes’ view of the world and of human nature: It does not matter how sovereignty is acquired because in each case the cause is fear. People fear social chaos, so they democratically agree to a government. People fear a king, so they accept an heir to power. People fear a conqueror, so they consent to the rule of a despot. People fear the absence of social order, so the rule of an elite is legitimate. In the end for Hobbes, all government is based on the power of those who rule to impose that rule on others.

Dangers and Fallacies of Hobbes Theory

It does not take much thought to understand just how dangerous Hobbes theory is and why dictators and others have found it so appealing: It is a thoroughly nihilistic theory that can be used to justify any action, however violent, deceitful, or decadent so long as the attempt is successful. Once successful, the sovereign is legitimate irrespective of how sovereignty is acquired. His thinking is a far distance away from what might be called the classical political thinking of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, and the like.

Is Hobbes correct? Is it correct to see power as the only reality and fear as the only motivator in human government? I believe that the answer is “No.” While fear is a powerful motivator in human affairs, and one cannot underestimate its force, people are also motivated by love of their family and friends, by social bonds within communities of all types, by the desire to exercise their mental and moral powers, by a desire to improve their situation, by the creative desire to improve the world, and by a host of other motives that are not reducible to fear of social chaos. Human beings sense invisible realities like justice, freedom, and social good that they seek and which motivate their actions. The reduction of politics to power and the acquisition of power to an end not to be critiqued by resort to moral and other values is simply less than fully human.

In prior blogs, I have reviewed the classical division between monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy and their decadent forms: despotism, oligarchy, and mob rule. For Hobbes, the latter are simply names human beings apply to things they subjectively and without other grounds do not like. In other words, the words despotism, oligarchy and mob rule do not refer to a moral reality beyond themselves. Thus, Hobbes says:

There be other names of government, in the histories, and books of policy; such as tyranny, and oligarchy: but these are not names of other forms of government but of the same form misliked. For they that are discontented under monarchy call it tyranny; they that are displeased under an aristocracy call it oligarchy; so also, they that find themselves aggrieved under democracy call it anarchy.” [11]

Here we see the impact of Hobbes radical nominalism at work and in the process creating a nihilistic vision of human political life. One who abuses power as tyrant, oligarch, or leader of a mob is not at odds with an invisible moral order which can be discovered by a community of citizens and rulers seeking a just and fair polity. There is no such thing. There is only desire and the search for power. Moral objections are nothing more than statements of personal preference.

This view of Hobbes, however, flies in the face of both human history and human experience. Human beings do in fact judge their leaders, and their judgements are not merely subjective. Would Nazi Germany have been a just polity and not a tyranny if it had only won the Second World War and there was no one left to complain? Was Stalinist Russia not a tyranny despite its claims to the contrary? Were not critics of both systems such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in fact in contact with a moral reality when they condemned the actions of these governments and not just expressing personal dislike? Human beings do in fact judge governments, and when we do so, we make recourse to a reality that is real, though invisible and not available to those who refuse to seek it.


I am going to spend one more week on Hobbes, for Hobbes political philosophy, flawed as it is, is still a powerful guide of modern political life, as we see it played out around us every day. On the left and right of modern society there has been a loss of faith in democracy and in the values of Western societies, given philosophical legitimacy by a development of the world-view and politics of Hobbes. Next week, we will begin by looking at Hobbes definition of liberty and the ways in which this definition is used to undergird his vision.

One final and personal word this week. I am not writing these blogs out of an abstract interest in political philosophy, but out of a concern for the way in which Western society is developing. As opposed to Hobbes politics of “the war of all against all” I suggest a politics of community and of human concern for others as well as self. As opposed to the tactics of “the war of all against all” I suggest dialogue about serious social problems. As opposed to the proud idea that my group has the correct answers to the state of our society and when in power should enact them, in humility I propose the idea that none of us have a complete understanding of the issues we face, and we need each other’s idea and approaches. As opposed to the notion that we need the power to enforce a solution to the problems we face, I propose that we need the wisdom to compromise to make the problems better as we seek a more just society.



[1] For example, I have in my library a book in which Machiavelli and Hobbes are put together in one volume. As this blog has mentioned in the past, there are similarities between Machiavelli and Hobbes, and both represent a movement away from Renaissance and Reformation ways of thinking, yet Machiavelli is almost a quasi-Renaissance thinker, while in Hobbes one sees the modern world emerging with a new way of looking at the world.

[2] An orderly account of Hobbes life is beyond this blog. Hobbes did return to England and lived through the rule of Cromwell and his son. His submission to Cromwell did not sit well with Charles II and the Royalist faction when Charles returned to power in 1660. Charles defended his old tutor but did not permit the publication of his history of the English Revolution or to reprint Leviathan. See, Great Thinkers: Thomas Hobbes https://thegreatthinkers.org/hobbes/biography/ (downloaded January 6, 2021).

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York, NY: Collier-McMillan, 1971), 134. All references herein are to this edition of Leviathan.

[4] Id, at 134.

[5] Id, at 135.

[6] Id, at 136.

[7] In fact, Hobbes holds that a sovereign cannot be punished for any act, a position that flows from his doctrine that no action of a sovereign can be claimed to be unjust. Id, at 137.

[8] Id, 137-139.

[9] Id, at 151.

[10] Id, at 153.

[11] Id, at 142.

Hobbes: The Modern Materialist Turn

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was the son of an English Vicar who unfortunately deserted his family after an altercation at his church. He was raised by a relative, who saw to his education at Magdalen Hall, Oxford. After graduating in February 1608, Hobbes went to work for the Cavendish family, initially as a tutor to William Cavendish (1590–1628), who later became the second earl of Devonshire. Hobbes was employed by the Cavendish family for most of the rest of his life. [1] He died at the age of ninety-one.

Hobbes traveled widely, and was friends with Rene Descartes and other figures of the early Enlightenment. He was acquainted with Galileo and other founders of modern science. Hobbes was initially trained in the classics, but became proficient in law, in philosophy, mathematics, and the science of optics. His work reflects the emerging scientific worldview of his day.

Politically, Hobbes was aligned with the Stewart Monarchy, which eventually resulted in his exile to Paris for a time. In 1651, he published Leviathan, which forms the basis of this blog. [2] In addition to Leviathan, he published other works, notably another work on political philosophy. His influence on philosophy has been enormous, and he is justly considered the founder of modern political thought. Leviathan is considered one of the great works, perhaps the greatest work of modern political philosophy.


Hobbes is an early example of the materialist tendency of modern thought. Hobbes was a student of optics and considered himself to be a scientist as well as a philosopher. [3] He intended, in Leviathan and his other works, to produce what he would have termed “scientific” philosophical account of reality, human perception, and human life and society. In his view, the world is made up of “one stuff” (matter), and the relationships between material particles can be explained on the basis of causal relationships between such material bodies (force). Even more complex phenomena, such as human society, can in principle be explained on this basis. Human beings are simply extremely complex material phenomena.

Here we see at work the reductionist and materialist bias of the modern world in its original form. Reading Leviathan can be a daunting task. For example, while Hobbes does express some form of traditional religious belief, he is skeptical of any kind of non-physical reality, miracles, angels, etc. In the end, while Hobbes expresses some degree of religious belief, his system is thoroughly non-religious and many, if not most, of his ideas are contrary to traditional  religious faith. In addition, he is uninterested in or rejects many themes that animated classic political thought.

For example, Hobbes is hostile to any final causation or any form of goal directed behavior cut off from the human propensity to seek pleasure and avoid pain. His view of human society is similarly cut off from a notion of the commonwealth seeking a common good unconnected to the private goods sought by individuals. For Hobbes, people are not communal by nature, we are communal by necessity to avoid the conflict that inevitably characterized human society. In his view, the fundamental state of people is “the war of all against all.” [4]

It is important to note that post-modern science, that is the worldview emerging from the 20th Century revolution in modern physics, is neither materialistic nor is it deterministic. [5] The fundamental sources of physical reality are not themselves material. There is built into in reality a principle of indeterminacy that prevents any form of absolute determinism—a feature of Hobbes thought. In addition, the world is deeply relational not just on a quantum but also at a Newtonian level of reality. The human sciences also reveal a deep relationality built into human beings. As we go through Hobbes, I will be alerting readers to the limitations on Hobbes thought and some of its fundamental flaws, which he could not have understood due to his place in human history. Therefore, where limitations are noted, it should not be read to indicate a lack of respect for his thought and conclusions.


Hobbes was a “nominalist,” that is one who believes that only particulars exist, and universals are “mere names.” The result of this view is that historically important virtues, such as Truth, Goodness, Justice, and the like are in no sense “real.” [6] Whatever value there may be in such ideas come from their utility in serving as names of human experiences that are explainable on other grounds.

Hobbes’ nominalism is deeply related to what I will call his “Naive Empiricism”. For Hobbes thoughts are simply images for the thing we are thinking about. The “thing” is a part of the exterior, material world. Contrast this view with the semiotic views of Pierce, where signs do not necessarily involve images of things but are part of the cognitive process of understanding. For Hobbes universals are “just names,” that is to say for example, that while there are Peter’s, Mary’s James’ and John’s, the designation “human being” is a mere name signifying some similar characteristic among the individuals. [7]

It might be best to say that Hobbes is correct but for the word “mere.” A “mere” name has a reality, albeit a noetic (mental) reality, in that it describes a real characteristic of a group of particulars discerned by human reason. For Hobbes, universals, like “justice,” for which there is no image can have no meaning and to be understood must be reduced to some material entity or process. The word “justice” is merely a matter of linguistic convention. There is no reality that we call “justice” or “injustice.”

For critical realists, universals have a reality in their cognitive role in understanding reality. Universals provide a noetic insight into reality. The realities they describe are not material, but exist as theoretical and moral ideas. This may seem like quibbling over words, but there is a deep difference in the two world-views. For Hobbes, and for many moderns, there is an unbridgeable gap between the world of things (the material world) and the noetic world (ideas). The world of ideas is not real (i.e. has not external verifiable reality) but a characteristic of the mental state of a thinker.  For a critical realist, the noetic world is not material, but is “real” in that it describes an unseen attribute of reality.

The theoretical insights of this mental world have a verifiable reality in the consensus of a community of inquiry devoted to the study of a phenomena. This consensus is provisional at any point and subject to revision based upon new evidence or a new and different interpretation of existing facts. The notion of a community of inquiry is not necessarily limited to science or empirical observation. It can include the realities of justice as disclosed in a legal system, of beauty as disclosed by an artistic community, and of meaning as disclosed by a religious community.

Political Consequences

The “super-nominalism” of Hobbes when applied to political reality results the view that all decisions about things like “justice” and “the general welfare” are simply matters of convention and differences can only be resolved by force, physical, legal or otherwise. This leads Hobbes to his theory of politics, which entails a preference for absolute monarchy, a dictatorship, whereby force is used to control “the war of all against all.” Thus, the totalitarian tendencies of modernity can be directly traced to the way of thinking that emerged at its inception. It is no surprise that Hobbes has been a favorite of modern totalitarian thinkers and regimes.

For the classic tradition, the notion of a “general good” was not simply a matter of power. The general good was an ideal towards which society moved over time and which was to guide political leaders in use of their power. The critical realistic formulation of this idea is the notion that at any point in time, we may be wrong concerning what constitutes the general good, but the general good as a goal, constitutes a transcendental ideal towards which a community can move by committing itself and its institutions to the task of seeking that good.


One cannot read Leviathan without seeing the continuity between Machiavelli and Hobbes. In a way, Hobbes gives a theoretical basis for the political views of Machiavelli. On the other hand, one cannot but be aware that Machiavelli is a classicist in his method, while Hobbes method is founded not on the classics but on applying the principles of the Scientific Revolution to philosophy and the political philosophy in particular. While the Renaissance thinkers were conscious of their continuity with the ancients, Hobbes is consciously opposed to the work of Aristotle and the classics. This is a feature of modern thought that we will see again and again in coming months.

Right at the beginning of the English Enlightenment, Hobbes rejects all thoughts of final causes; he wants to focus only on material cause. Thus, he cuts himself loose from the work of Aristotle. Hobbes also rejects the idealism of Plato; he wants to focus only on what can be empirically known. He rejects any form of superstition or mysticism in politics—anything that cannot be reduced to fit into his materialistic agenda. He cuts himself off from the communitarian insights of both Plato and Aristotle, as well as Cicero and the medieval thinkers.

Finally, Hobbes is captivated by a kind of monistic, individualistic anthropology characteristic of the modern world. At the basis of his society is not the individual in relationship with human family or community, but the individual as a solitary actor bound to others not by love, communion, partnership, family or the like, but by the force of will and desire. This is contrary to the classic notions defended by Plato and Aristotle—the notion that human beings are by nature social and that human society begins with a bond deeper than force, the bonds of love, be it marital love, familial love, community loyalty, or national love.

Hobbes materialism leads him to a notion of human society as made up of material beings bound together by force. Modern science, both physical and social does not lead in this direction. Reality is deeply relational and so are human actors. While force is a factor in human relations, it is not the only factor. These are aspects of Hobbes thought that we will examine next week. In the next blog, I will continue with Hobbes thought focusing on his version of the social compact theory that is basic to modern political thought in our society.

I know that this blog, and the next couple, will be challenging for readers and for the writer, but it is important to see, right at the beginning, some of the features of the Modern World and its dominant political ideas that are outdated. This does not mean that the ideas of Hobbes and some of his successors are unimportant or completely wrong or that we have nothing to learn from him. The modern critique of ancient and medieval thought brought progress, and no one would want to return to the Greco-Roman or medieval world. However, the intellectual energy of the Enlightenment has burned out, and we are now in its decadent phase. Sometimes, to go forward one must retrace a few steps and recover lost wisdom. Fortunately, the world view that is emerging from the advance of science in the early 20th Century gives philosophy adequate tools to respond and move forward. That is the task of these blogs in 2021.

Finally, I do hope everyone had a Merry Christmas and will have a wonderful New Year.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, “Thomas Hobbes” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hobbes/#1 (Downloaded December 17, 2020)

[2] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York, NY: Collier-McMillan, 1971).

[3] Hobbes life intersects the life of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) whose work laid the intellectual and mathematical foundations for modern science and which laid out a theory that undergirded the materialistic world view of people like Hobbes. It is important to note that Newton was deeply religious and spent much of his life studying religious phenomenon. Newton was also a student of optics, as was Hobbes.

[4] Leviathan, 100-101.

[5] I have dealt with this insight in prior blogs and will not repeat here what I have said elsewhere. By “postmodern science” I mean science after the early 20th century with the development of quantum physics and relativity theory.

[6] This contrasts with the view these blogs defend, which is called “Critical Realism”. Critical Realism argues that scientific laws, and universal ideas (like justice) are real, though revisable in the face of new information. While I have failed to give full credit to them in this blog, it should be obvious to readers that I am deeply in debt to C. S. Peirce and Michael Polanyi for much of the response to Hobbes contained in the blog.

[7] This is not the place or time to completely unpack the error Hobbes makes here. The “image” theory he advances ignores the multiple kinds of meaningful signs that human beings in fact us in thinking and communicating. This is a specific area in which I am in debt to C. S. Peirce and his followers.