Radical Protestantism in Spinoza’s Thought


Graeme Hunter. Radical Protestantism in Spinoza’s Thought. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005.


Peter John Hartman, University of Toronto

There are two things about Spinoza that most students of philosophy come to learn: first, that he was either an outright atheist or a radical pantheist, both of which seem to result in the same modern rationalist irreligious outlook; second, that he was a harbinger of the Enlightenment, a modernist voice of reason in the charged religious wilderness of the 17th century.

That the only work of philosophical merit that Spinoza published, albeit anonymously, is a work advocating the merits of religion, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (TTP), doesn’t seem to deter this commonplace understanding. This is explained away, most notoriously by Leo Strauss, as an act of intentional duplicity. Spinoza cultivated a “dual language”: beneath the exoteric veneer of insincere Christian gesturing hides the real Spinoza, anti-religious and Enlightened. This schizophrenic magician’s Spinoza is the Spinoza of commonplace assumption in the scholarship.

Graeme Hunter attempts to overhaul the commonplace. His book directly engages both Spinoza and his interpreters in order to re-evaluate the level of Spinoza’s religious sincerity. In the philosophy classroom, we read the Ethics first and only give an occasional – often dismissive – glance at the much more religion-friendly TTP. Hunter’s proposal is simple and bold. He proposes that we read the TTP first (it was published first), and that we take Spinoza at his word.

Hunter does away with any notion of a hidden esoteric core and an exoteric sheen. The result is a profoundly religious – and profoundly Christian – Spinoza whose “religious teachings of the TTP are fully compatible with what is taught in the Ethics” (4).

One of Hunter’s goals is to establish Spinoza’s Christian sincerity without forcing on him a Christian identity. He thus must navigate his view of Spinoza away from commentators wishing to find in Spinoza either a Jewish core or the germs of a new type of Jewish identity: “Jewishness” or Jewish philosophy. However, in avoiding the identification of Spinoza with his Jewish religious background in light of his voluntary exile and rational-philosophical ethics and lifestyle, Hunter must also establish that some religious sentiment, and specifically Christian sentiment, remained.

Hunter thus argues that what Spinoza says about religion and Christianity is far too consistent to be insincere, and he locates Spinoza in the milieu of the Dutch second-reformation Christian movements, amongst the shadows of Remonstrants, Collegiants, Quakers, and Mennonites. Overall, Hunter is well aware of his Scyllas and Charybdises, and treads a careful if at times pedantic path in his analysis and presentation.

Hunter divides his book into “Context,” “Christian Philosophy?,” and “Ethics Reconsidered.” In the first section he narrows in on potential candidates for Spinoza’s religious affiliation with a fairly straightforward biography, offering good historical background and incorporating some recent biographical scholarship. Clearly the historical context of Spinoza’s religiosity is not nearly as important to Hunter as the philosophical evidence, so he quickly moves to a philosophical analysis of the sincerity of Spinoza’s Christianity in the TTP as it is related to Spinoza’s Ethics.

Although Hunter neither wishes nor is able to identify Spinoza as a confessed Christian (the Collegiants and some Dutch Mennonites were anti-confessional and had nebulous membership criteria), he does not spend nearly enough time on the subject. One gap is in his discussion of the Mennonites. Although “Mennonites” is missing from the index, Hunter does consider them briefly in discussing Collegiantism in chapter 2 (40-46). After Spinoza left the Jewish community, most of his closest friends were Mennonite – and influential Mennonites at that: Jarig Jellesz (writer of the preface to Spinoza’s posthumously published Ethics), Pieter Balling (influential to the Quakers), Jan Rieuwertsz (publisher of the first Dutch translations of Descartes as well as Spinoza’s Ethics), Pieter Serrarius, Simon de Vries, and others. Most of these were also Collegiants. But Hunter only draws us into their Collegiantism without looking at their Mennonitism.

Collegiantism was closely associated with the Arminian Calvinist heresy and its repression at the Synod of Dordt. Since these radical Calvinists were not legally allowed to meet publicly or have ministers, Arminianism went underground and met at informal colleges, and the movement as a whole became known as Collegiantism. Due to the contingencies of their repression, Collegiantism developed an anti-hierarchical, anti-creedal universalist and minimalist ecclesiology. “The Collegiants soon began to find a theological justification for their religious convictions going back into the earliest Reformation theology” (41).

Although the similarities to Dutch Mennonites are both well documented and striking, Hunter doesn’t even raise the option. He notes that the Collegiants around Spinoza were interested in early Reformation theology, but uninterested in Calvin and Luther. Since they were also Mennonite, it seems natural that they would have appealed – and did appeal – to their Anabaptist radical roots.

Anabaptism is a clear influence on Spinoza, and Hunter misses much detail that could aid his story. Further, he says the Collegiant movement as a whole “depleted” and “demoralised” (42) the Dutch Mennonite church by attracting its members away. But later he observes that many Collegiants, including those in Spinoza’s circle – Pieter Balling, for example – were both Mennonite and Collegiants; neither was an exclusive club (46).

A closer analysis of the Mennonite nature of Collegiantism and the influence of Anabaptist theological and religious thinking would benefit Hunter’s attempt to understand Spinoza’s own religious thinking. At the very least he could have admitted the existence of such a connection, as do his sources Leszek Kolakowski and Andrew Fix.

Another insoluble problem is one Hunter is well aware of: Is Spinoza’s use of Christianity and Christian terms insincere salt pinching and hand waving, sincere political golden mythologizing, or sincere religious sentiment?  Hunter’s solution – the last option – is to find in Spinoza a type of Christianity that is far too consistent and thought-out to be insincere (4ff.) Yet Plato’s golden myth in the Republic was thought-out, rational, and coherent, but for all that it was really insincere. Here, Spinoza’s many letters would have added gravitas to the argument, but Hunter restricts himself to the TTP and the Ethics, with only brief remarks about the earlier Emendation of the Intellect and nearly nothing on the letters.

The second part of the book offers Hunter’s interpretation of Spinoza’s theological and political arguments in TTP. Hunter is primarily dedicated to debunking Robert Misrahi’s thesis in “Spinoza and Christian Thought: A Challenge” that resists “the very idea of there being a Christian discussion of Spinoza’s thought” (52). Hunter offers a Spinoza who is sensitive not only to figures of the Old Testament but to figures and ideas in the New – a sensitivity that suggests he held positive feelings for such Biblical figures. The purpose of Spinoza’s TTP, Hunter argues, was reform; it was a sincere attempt at reforming the Church from false religious belief.

Here Hunter either passes too quickly over theological and religious questions or spends too much time on obvious points. For example, he gives two long explanations, one describing what the Pentateuch is, the other describing what the New Testament is. Yet he fails to discuss what the confessional differences between Remonstrants, Calvinists, and Mennonites were. Such a tactic is consistent with his general approach, but surely the audience for such a specialized monograph already grasps the structure of the two Testaments, and it is rather the denominational subtleties that would influence Spinoza’s religious sentiment.

But this is a problem that straddles the whole book: Who is Hunter’s audience? The philosopher has little truck with Spinoza’s religious sentiment anyway, no matter how sincere or rational it might be, and the Christian theologian has little interest in Spinoza’s religious credentials since Spinoza isn’t a theologian.

In the final part of the book, “Ethics Reconsidered,” Hunter looks at the philosophical consequences of Spinoza’s views put forward in the TTP on the Ethics. He finds Spinoza’s theological views abundantly consistent with his philosophical views. In general, this is where Hunter shines. His skills as a philosopher and his erudite, precise analysis of problems in Spinoza’s thought are a breath of fresh air. He handles the material with grace and efficiency.

Hunter’s book will provide much material for discussion on Spinoza’s religious affinities and their consequences on his philosophy. His novel yet straightforward reading of Spinoza answers many puzzling questions, and it should help future readers of Spinoza better understand some of the consequences and issues at stake when comparing the Ethics with the TTP.