Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes

Chapter xxxiv

Of the Signification of Spirit, Angel, and Inspiration in the Books of Holy Scripture

SEEING the foundation of all true ratiocination is the constant signification of words; which, in the doctrine following, dependeth not (as in natural science) on the will of the writer, nor (as in common conversation) on vulgar use, but on the sense they carry in the Scripture; it is necessary, before I proceed any further, to determine, out of the Bible, the meaning of such words as by their ambiguity may render what I am to infer upon them obscure or disputable. I will begin with the words body and spirit, which in the language of the Schools are termed substances, corporeal and incorporeal.

The word body, in the most general acceptation, signifieth that which filleth or occupieth some certain room or imagined place; and dependeth not on the imagination, but is a real part of that we call the universe. For the universe, being the aggregate of all bodies, there is no real part thereof that is not also body; nor anything properly a body that is not also part of that aggregate of all bodies, the universe. The same also, because bodies are subject to change, that is to say, to variety of appearance to the sense of living creatures, is called substance, that is to say, subject to various accidents: as sometimes to be moved, sometimes to stand still; and to seem to our senses sometimes hot, sometimes cold; sometimes of one colour, smell, taste, or sound, sometimes of another. And this diversity of seeming, produced by the diversity of the operation of bodies on the organs of our sense, we attribute to alterations of the bodies that operate, and call them accidents of those bodies. And according to this acceptation of the word, substance and body signify the same thing; and therefore substance incorporeal are words which, when they are joined together, destroy one another, as if a man should say, an incorporeal body.

But in the sense of common people, not all the universe is called body, but only such parts thereof as they can discern, by the sense of feeling, to resist their force; or, by the sense of their eyes, to hinder them from a farther prospect. Therefore in the common language of men, air and aerial substances use not to be taken for bodies, but, as often as men are sensible of their effects, are called wind, or breath, or (because the same are called in the Latin spiritus) spirits; as when they call that aerial substance which in the body of any living creature gives it life and motion, vital and animal spirits. But for those idols of the brain which represent bodies to us where they are not, as in a looking-glass, in a dream, or to a distempered brain waking, they are (as the Apostle saith generally of all idols) nothing; nothing at all, I say, there where they seem to be; and in the brain itself, nothing but tumult, proceeding either from the action of the objects or from the disorderly agitation of the organs of our sense. And men that are otherwise employed than to search into their causes know not of themselves what to call them; and may therefore easily be persuaded, by those whose knowledge they much reverence, some to call them bodies, and think them made of air compacted by a power supernatural, because the sight judges them corporeal; and some to call them spirits, because the sense of touch discerneth nothing, in the place where they appear, to resist their fingers: so that the proper signification of spirit in common speech is either a subtle, fluid, and invisible body, or a ghost, or other idol or phantasm of the imagination. But for metaphorical significations there be many: for sometimes it is taken for disposition or inclination of the mind, as when for the disposition to control the sayings of other men, we say, a spirit of contradiction; for a disposition to uncleanness, an unclean spirit; for perverseness, a froward spirit; for sullenness, a dumb spirit; and for inclination to godliness and God's service, the Spirit of God: sometimes for any eminent ability, or extraordinary passion, or disease of the mind, as when great wisdom is called the spirit of wisdom; and madmen are said to be possessed with a spirit.

Other signification of spirit I find nowhere any; and where none of these can satisfy the sense of that word in Scripture, the place falleth not under human understanding; and our faith therein consisteth, not in our opinion, but in our submission; as in all places where God is said to be a Spirit, or where by the Spirit of God is meant God Himself. For the nature of God is incomprehensible; that is to say, we understand nothing of what He is, but only that He is; and therefore the attributes we give Him are not to tell one another what He is, nor to signify our opinion of His nature, but our desire to honour Him with such names as we conceive most honourable amongst ourselves.

"The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."1 Here if by the Spirit of God be meant God Himself, then is motion attributed to God, and consequently place, which are intelligible only of bodies, and not of substances incorporeal; and so the place is above our understanding that can conceive nothing moved that changes not place or that has not dimension; and whatsoever has dimension is body. But the meaning of those words is best understood by the like place, where when the earth was covered with waters, as in the beginning, God intending to abate them, and again to discover the dry land, useth the like words, "I will bring my Spirit upon the earth, and the waters shall be diminished":2 in which place by Spirit is understood a wind (that is an air or spirit moved), which might be called, as in the former place, the Spirit of God, because it was God's work.

Pharaoh calleth the wisdom of Joseph the Spirit of God. For Joseph having advised him to look out a wise and discreet man, and to set him over the land of Egypt, he saith thus, "Can we find such a man as this is, in whom is the Spirit of God?"3 And Exodus, 28. 3, "Thou shalt speak," saith God, "to all that are wise hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, to make Aaron garments, to consecrate him." Where extraordinary understanding, though but in making garments, as being the gift of God, is called the Spirit of God. The same is found again, Exod. 31. 3-6, and 35. 31 And Isaiah, 11. 2, 3, where the prophet, speaking of the Messiah, saith, "The Spirit of the Lord shall abide upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel, and fortitude, and the spirit of the fear of the Lord." Where manifestly is meant, not so many ghosts, but so many eminent graces that God would give him.

In the Book of Judges, an extraordinary zeal and courage in the defence of God's people is called the Spirit of God; as when it excited Othniel, Gideon, Jephtha, and Samson to deliver them from servitude, Judges, 3. 10, 6. 34, 11. 29, 13. 25, 14. 6, 19. And of Saul, upon the news of the insolence of the Ammonites towards the men of Jabesh Gilead, it is said that "The Spirit of God came upon Saul, and his anger" (or, as it is in the Latin, his fury) "was kindled greatly."4 Where it is not probable was meant a ghost, but an extraordinary zeal to punish the cruelty of the Ammonites. In like manner by the Spirit of God that came upon Saul, when he was amongst the prophets that praised God in songs and music,5 is to be understood, not a ghost, but an unexpected and sudden zeal to join with them in their devotion.

The false prophet Zedekiah saith to Micaiah, "Which way went the Spirit of the Lord from me to speak to thee?"6 Which cannot be understood of a ghost; for Micaiah declared before the kings of Israel and Judah the event of the battle as from a vision and not as from a spirit speaking in him.

In the same manner it appeareth, in the books of the Prophets, that though they spake by the Spirit of God, that is to say, by a special grace of prediction; yet their knowledge of the future was not by a ghost within them, but by some supernatural dream or vision.

It is said, "God made man of the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils (spiraculum vitae) the breath of life, and man was made a living soul."7 There the breath of life inspired by God signifies no more but that God gave him life; and "as long as the spirit of God is in my nostrils"8 is no more than to say, "as long as I live." So in Ezekiel, 1. 20, "the spirit of life was in the wheels," is equivalent to, "the wheels were alive." And "the spirit entered into me, and me, and set me on my feet,"9 that is, "I recovered my vital strength"; not that any ghost or incorporeal substance entered into and possessed his body.

In the eleventh chapter of Numbers, verse 17, "I will take," saith God, "of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee"; that is, upon the seventy elders: whereupon two of the seventy are said to prophesy in the camp; of whom some complained, and Joshua desired Moses to forbid them, which Moses would not do. Whereby it appears that Joshua knew not they had received authority so to do, and prophesied according to the mind of Moses, that is to say, by a spirit or authority subordinate to his own.

In the like sense we read that "Joshua was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands upon him":10 that is, because he was ordained by Moses to prosecute the work he had himself begun (namely, the bringing of God's people into the promised land) but, prevented by death, could not finish.

In the like sense it is said, "If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his":11 not meaning thereby the ghost of Christ, but a submission to his doctrine. As also, "Hereby you shall know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God";12 by which is meant the spirit of unfeigned Christianity, submission to that main article of Christian faith, that Jesus is the Christ; which cannot be interpreted of a ghost.

Likewise these words, "And Jesus full of the Holy Ghost"13 (that is, as it is expressed, Matthew, 4. 1, and Mark, 1. 12, "of the Holy Spirit") may be understood for zeal to do the work for which he was sent by God the Father: but to interpret it of a ghost is to say that God Himself (for so our Saviour was) was filled with God; which is very improper and insignificant. How we came to translate spirits by the word ghosts, which signifieth nothing, neither in heaven nor earth, but the imaginary inhabitants of man's brain, I examine not: but this I say, the word spirit in the text signifieth no such thing; but either properly a real substance or, metaphorically, some extraordinary ability or affection of the mind or of the body.

The Disciples of Christ, seeing him walking upon the sea14 supposed him to be a spirit, meaning thereby an aerial body, and not a phantasm: for it is said they all saw him; which cannot be understood of the delusions of the brain (which are not common to many at once. as visible bodies are; but singular, because of the differences of fancies), but of bodies only. In like manner, where he was taken for a spirit, by the same Apostles:15 so also when St. Peter was delivered out of prison, it would not be believed; but when the maid said he was at the door, they said it was his angel;16 by which must be meant a corporeal substance, or we must say the disciples themselves did follow the common opinion of both Jews and Gentiles that some such apparitions were not imaginary, but real; and such as needed not the fancy of man for their existence: these the Jews called spirits and angels, good or bad; as the Greeks called the same by the name of demons. And some such apparitions may be real and substantial; that is to say, subtle bodies, which God can form by the same power by which He formed all things, and make use of as ministers and messengers (that is to say, angels), to declare His will, and execute the same when He pleaseth in extraordinary and supernatural manner. But when He hath so formed them they are substances, endued with dimensions, and take up room, and can be moved from place to place, which is peculiar to bodies; and therefore are not ghosts not ghosts incorporeal, that is to say, ghosts that are in no place; that is to say, that are nowhere; that is to say, that, seeming to be somewhat, are nothing. But if corporeal be taken in the most vulgar manner, for such substances as are perceptible by our external senses; then is substance incorporeal a thing not imaginary, but real; namely, a thin substance invisible, but that hath the same dimensions that are in grosser bodies.

By the name of angel is signified, generally, a messenger; and most often, a messenger of God: and by a messenger of God is signified anything that makes known His extraordinary presence; that is to say, the extraordinary manifestation of His power, especially by a dream or vision.

Concerning the creation of angels, there is nothing delivered in the Scriptures. That they are spirits is often repeated: but by the name of spirit is signified both in Scripture and vulgarly, both amongst Jews and Gentiles, sometimes thin bodies; as the air, the wind, the spirits vital and animal of living creatures; and sometimes the images that rise in the fancy in dreams and visions; which are not real substances, nor last any longer than the dream or vision they appear in; which apparitions, though no real substances, but accidents of the brain; yet when God raiseth them supernaturally, to signify His will, they are not improperly termed God's messengers, that is to say, His angels.

And as the Gentiles did vulgarly conceive the imagery of the brain for things really subsistent without them, and not dependent on the fancy; and out of them framed their opinions of demons, good and evil; which because they seemed to subsist really, they called substances; and because they could not feel them with their hands, incorporeal: so also the Jews upon the same ground, without anything in the Old Testament that constrained them thereunto, had generally an opinion (except the sect of the Sadducees) that those apparitions, which it pleased God sometimes to produce in the fancy of men, for His own service, and therefore called them His angels, were substances, not dependent on the fancy, but permanent creatures of God; whereof those which they thought were good to them, they esteemed the angels of God, and those they thought would hurt them, they called evil angels, or evil spirits; such as was the spirit of Python, and the spirits of madmen, of lunatics and epileptics: for they esteemed such as were troubled with such diseases, demoniacs.

But if we consider the places of the Old Testament where angels are mentioned, we shall find that in most of them, there can nothing else be understood by the word angel, but some image raised, supernaturally, in the fancy, to signify the presence of God in the execution of some supernatural work; and therefore in the rest, where their nature is not expressed, it may be understood in the same manner.

For we read that the same apparition is called not only an angel, but God, where that which is called the angel of the Lord, saith to Hagar, "I will multiply thy seed exceedingly";17 that is, speaketh in the person of God. Neither was this apparition a fancy figured, but a voice. By which it is manifest that angel signifieth there nothing but God Himself, that caused Hagar supernaturally to apprehend a voice from heaven; or rather, nothing else but a voice supernatural, testifying God's special presence there. Why therefore may not the angels that appeared to Lot, and are called men;18 and to whom, though they were two, Lot speaketh as but to one,19 and that one as God (for the words are, "Lot said unto them, Oh not so my Lord"), be understood of images of men, supernaturally formed in the fancy; as well as before by angel was understood a fancied voice? When the angel called to Abraham out of heaven, to stay his hand from slaying Isaac,20 there was no apparition, but a voice; which nevertheless was called properly enough a messenger or angel of God, because it declared God's will supernaturally, and saves the labour of supposing any permanent ghosts. The angels which Jacob saw on the ladder of heaven21 were a vision of his sleep; therefore only fancy and a dream; yet being supernatural, and signs of God's special presence, those apparitions are not improperly called angels. The same is to be understood where Jacob saith thus, "The angel of the Lord appeared to me in my sleep."22 For an apparition made to a man in his sleep is that which all men call a dream, whether such dream be natural or supernatural: and that which there Jacob calleth an angel was God Himself; for the same angel saith, "I am the God of Bethel."23

Also the angel that went before the army of Israel to the Red Sea, and then came behind it, is the Lord Himself;24 and He appeared not in the form of a beautiful man, but in form, by day, of a "pillar of cloud," and, by night, in form of a "pillar of fire";25 and yet this pillar was all the apparition and angel promised to Moses for the army's guide: for this cloudy pillar is said to have descended and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and to have talked with Moses.26

There you see motion and speech, which are commonly attributed to angels, attributed to a cloud, because the cloud served as a sign of God's presence; and was no less an angel than if it had had the form of a man or child of never so great beauty; or wings, as usually they are painted, for the false instruction of common people. For it is not the shape, but their use, that makes them angels. But their use is to be significations of God's presence in supernatural operations; as when Moses had desired God to go along with the camp, as He had done always before the making of the golden calf, God did not answer, "I will go," nor "I will send an angel in my stead"; but thus, "My presence shall go with thee."27

To mention all the places of the Old Testament where the name of angel is found would be too long. Therefore to comprehend them all at once, I say there is no text in that part of the Old Testament which the Church of England holdeth for canonical from which we can conclude there is, or hath been created, any permanent thing (understood by the name of spirit or angel) that hath not quantity, and that may not be by the understanding divided; that is to say, considered by parts; so as one part may be in one place, and the next part in the next place to it; and, in sum, which is not (taking body for that which is somewhat or somewhere) corporeal; but in every place the sense will bear the interpretation of angel for messenger; as John Baptist is called an angel, and Christ the Angel of the Covenant; and as (according to the same analogy) the dove and the fiery tongues, in that they were signs of God's special presence, might also be called angels. Though we find in Daniel two names of angels, Gabriel and Michael; yet it is clear out of the text itself that by Michael is meant Christ, not as an angel, but as a prince:28 and that Gabriel (as the like apparitions made to other holy men in their sleep) was nothing but a supernatural phantasm, by which it seemed to Daniel in his dream that two saints being in talk, one of them said to the other, "Gabriel, let us make this man understand his vision": for God needeth not to distinguish his celestial servants by names, which are useful only to the short memories of mortals. Nor in the New Testament is there any place out of which it can be proved that angels (except when they are put for such men as God hath made the messengers and ministers of His word or works) are things permanent, and withal incorporeal. That they are permanent may be gathered from the words of our Saviour himself where he saith it shall be said to the wicked in the last day, "Go ye cursed into everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels":29 which place is manifest for the permanence of evil angels (unless we might think the name of Devil and his angels may be understood of the Church's adversaries and their ministers); but then it is repugnant to their immateriality, because everlasting fire is no punishment to impatible substances, such as are all things incorporeal. Angels therefore are not thence proved to be incorporeal. In like manner where St. Paul says, "Know ye not that we shall judge the angels?"30 And II Peter, 2. 4, "For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down into hell"; and "And the angels that kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgement of the last day";31 though it prove the permanence of angelical nature, it confirmeth also their materiality. And, "In the resurrection men do neither marry, nor give in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven":32 but in the resurrection men shall be permanent, and not incorporeal; so therefore also are the angels.

There be diverse other places out of which may be drawn the like conclusion. To men that understand the signification of these words, substance and incorporeal (as incorporeal is taken not for subtle body, but for not body), they imply a contradiction: insomuch as to say, an angel or spirit is in that sense an incorporeal substance is to say, in effect, there is no angel nor spirit at all. Considering therefore the signification of the word angel in the Old Testament, and the nature of dreams and visions that happen to men by the ordinary way of nature, I was inclined to this opinion, that angels were nothing but supernatural apparitions of the fancy, raised by the special and extraordinary operation of God, thereby to make His presence and commandments known to mankind, and chiefly to His own people. But the many places of the New Testament, and our Saviour's own words, and in such texts wherein is no suspicion of corruption of the Scripture, have extorted from my feeble reason an acknowledgement and belief that there be also angels substantial and permanent. But to believe they be in no place, that is to say, nowhere, that is to say, nothing, as they, though indirectly, say that will have them incorporeal, cannot by Scripture be evinced.

On the signification of the word spirit dependeth that of the word inspiration; which must either be taken properly, and then it is nothing but the blowing into a man some thin and subtle air or wind in such manner as a man filleth a bladder with his breath; or if spirits be not corporeal, but have their existence only in the fancy, it is nothing but the blowing in of a phantasm; which is improper to say, and impossible; for phantasms are not, but only seem to be, somewhat. That word therefore is used in the Scripture metaphorically only: as where it is said that God inspired into man the breath of life,33 no more is meant than that God gave unto him vital motion. For we are not to think that God made first a living breath, and then blew it into Adam after he was made, whether that breath were real or seeming; but only as it is "that he gave him life, and breath";34 that is, made him a living creature. And where it is said "all Scripture is given by inspiration from God,"35 speaking there of the Scripture of the Old Testament, it is an easy metaphor to signify that God inclined the spirit or mind of those writers to write that which should be useful in teaching, reproving, correcting, and instructing men in the way of righteous living. But where St. Peter saith that "Prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but the holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit,"36 by the Holy Spirit is meant the voice of God in a dream or vision supernatural, which is not inspiration: nor when our Saviour, breathing on His Disciples, said, "Receive the Holy Spirit, was that breath the Spirit, but a sign of the spiritual graces he gave unto them. And though it be said of many, and of our Saviour Himself, that he was full of the Holy Spirit; yet that fullness is not to be understood for infusion of the substance of God, but for accumulation of his gifts, such as are the gift of sanctity of life, of tongues, and the like, whether attained supernaturally or by study and industry; for in all cases they are the gifts of God. So likewise where God says, "I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions,"37 we are not to understand it in the proper sense, as if his Spirit were like water, subject to effusion or infusion; but as if God had promised to give them prophetical dreams and visions. For the proper use of the word infused, in speaking of the graces of God, is an abuse of it; for those graces are virtues, not bodies to be carried hither and thither, and to be poured into men as into barrels.

In the same manner, to take inspiration in the proper sense, or to say that good spirits entered into men to make them prophesy, or evil spirits into those that became phrenetic, lunatic, or epileptic, is not to take the word in the sense of the Scripture; for the Spirit there is taken for the power of God, working by causes to us unknown. As also the wind that is there said to fill the house wherein the Apostles were assembled on the day of Pentecost38 is not to be understood for the Holy Spirit, which is the Deity itself; but for an external sign of God's special working on their hearts to effect in them the internal graces and holy virtues He thought requisite for the performance of their apostleship.

1 Genesis, 1. 2

2 Ibid., 8. 1

3 Genesis, 41. 38

4 I Samuel, 11. 6

5 Ibid., 19. 20

6 I Kings, 22. 24

7 Genesis, 2. 7

8 Job, 27. 3

9 Ezekiel, 2. 30

10 Deuteronomy, 34. 9

11 Romans, 8. 9

12 I John, 4. 2

13 Luke, 4. 1

14 Matthew, 14. 26 and Mark, 6. 49

15 Luke, 24. 3, 7

16 Acts, 12. 15

17 Genesis, 16. 7, 10

18 Ibid., 19. 10

19 Ibid., 19. 18

20 Genesis, 22. 11

21 Ibid., 28. 12

22 Ibid., 31. 11

23 Ibid., 31. 13

24 Exodus, 14. 19

25 Ibid., 13. 21

26 Ibid., 33. 2

27 Exodus, 33. 14

28 Daniel, 12. 1

29 Matthew, 25. 41

30 I Corinthians, 6. 3

31 Jude, 1. 6

32 Matthew, 22. 30

33 Genesis, 2. 7

34 Acts, 17. 25

35 II Timothy, 3. 16

36 II Peter, 1. 21

37 Joel, 2. 28

38 Acts, 2. 2


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