Richard Hooker

"Common Saints" series: Anglican theology counters Puritan extremes.

If Thomas Cranmer is the heart and spirit of the early Anglican church, Richard Hooker (1554-1600) manifests its intellectual rigor. Hooker is Anglicanism’s first comprehensive and systematic theologian. Born five years after the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer was published, Hooker grew up in an England fully saturated in the spirit and language of the Reformation, however much that spirit had been and continued to be radically tested by governing powers. His status as an “inside observer” of the Reformation’s growth in England, his generational remove from the immediacy of the events of the mid-century, and his theological prowess (he studied Aquinas) afforded him a unique position in the history of Anglicanism. From his advantageous perch he was able to consider, carefully and critically, the new and yet traditional form his country’s faith had taken.

Hooker’s most important work–according to historian Hans Hillerbrand, “the beginning of what we now call Anglicanism”–was the eight-volume Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. In addition to its being one of the first and finest works of theology written in modern English, it embodies a primary component of Anglicanism’s identity, namely its view of itself as occupying a “middle way” between Catholicism and radical Protestantism. While contra-Catholic elements had been introduced into the Book of Common Prayer by Cranmer and John Knox (particularly regarding the theology of the Eucharist, or “Lord’s Supper,” which drew on Zwingli’s memorialist account), little had yet been said against the dangers of swinging to the opposite pole, into the extremes of Reformed theology.

Hooker’s Laws was the Anglican church’s rebuttal of the theological principles of the Puritans, that notorious group of English Calvinists. Walter Travers, a Puritan minister, had incited controversy when he denounced the Church of England and its governance by Elizabeth I as unbiblical. He accused Hooker of “popish” association and corrupt doctrine, and Hooker, not one to take a challenge lightly, offered his reasoned, thorough response in the Laws.

Hooker frames his response, as his title suggests, within the context of church governance. The Puritans, in all of their anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian radicalness, were generally against things that smacked of ritual, the dead letter of the law, and the church’s governance by a worldly authority. Hooker took a contrary position, although he actually believed most of the details about church governance to be of secondary importance. In the Laws, he conceives a “law” as something teleological, a form for guiding a thing to its apportioned end; and while some forms were certainly better than others, the question was not a matter of salvation or damnation. It was a matter of reason and tradition. But where Hooker did take serious issue was in the Puritans’ underlying theological framework that shaped their views on polity.

That Puritan framework, as summarized by Hooker throughout the eight books of the Laws, is comprised of the following beliefs: 1) “Scripture is the only rule of all things which in this life may be done by men” and so teaches one, unalterable form of church governance; 2) the Church of England is corrupted with “popish orders, rites, and ceremonies” and other superstitions; 3) there ought to be only lay elders instead of bishops in the church, contrary to tradition; and 4) no civil governor may be given power over the church.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because little has changed in the Puritan outlook, which you can find today in most Evangelical circles. Although most now, regardless of tradition, would agree with a few of the Puritans’ points (i.e., the value of lay leadership, the separation of church and state), their polemical stance against the Church of England betrayed some of the more unsavory elements of the Reformation. Hooker particularly pushed backed against the radical sola Scriptura view that sees Scripture as offering specific answers to and rules for every moral, ecclesiastical, or political question that should arise. Scripture is simultaneously more limited and incredibly more profound. Hooker writes: “The testimonies of God are true, the testimonies of God are perfect, the testimonies of God are all sufficient unto that end for which they were given”–namely, the disclosure of God’s person and story and the way of salvation. Scripture is not a science textbook nor a manual for church polity nor a one-to-one rulebook for permissible human actions, such that “to do anything according to any other law were not only unnecessary but even opposite unto salvation, unlawful and sinful.” Reading Scripture this way creates false binaries, and can often hinder the true work of the gospel. God created us good and gave us free will to figure out some of the everyday things for ourselves.

In his reply to this extreme, Hooker contrasts another extreme, that of the “schools of Rome.” Whereas, on the Puritan side, Scripture does not only contain “all things in that kind necessary [for salvation], but all things simply,” on the Catholic side the problem is the opposite: Scripture is taught “to be so unsufficient, as if, except traditions were added, it did not contain all revealed and supernatural truth.” (Now, I’ll take Hooker’s word for the medieval Catholic church, but I’ll leave others to determine whether his interpretation is still accurate. Catholic theology today would clearly push back against the simpleness of this interpretation, but I think we can all say it is still a possible pitfall.) Hooker navigates these two extremes with what has come to be the distinctive Anglican view: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are all important for navigating the walk of faith, and precisely in that order. The primacy of Scripture does not mean that the apostolic tradition has not given us a valuable framework for reading Scripture and living life in the church and in the world. And the importance of tradition does not rule out the freedom to use our limited reason, in accordance with divine laws, where we may do so without contradiction to Scripture.

In summary, Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity is not only a refutation of bad doctrine. It presupposes a comprehensive and coherent theology–balancing Catholicism and Protestantism, tradition and spirit–that we can confidently call Anglican theology.

More posts in the “Common Saints” series:

– Thomas Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer
– Queen Elizabeth I
Roland Allen

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