Ancestors of the Faith: Richard Hooker

Many Anglicans will have read some of Richard Hooker’s writings, although he is now mostly known by reputation (1554-1600). His major work, The Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, was published over a period of years beginning in 1593. Hooker was a complex, brilliant theologian and widely read. Born in Exeter, Devon, educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Hooker trained under the Puritan scholar John Reynolds. He was a tutor in Hebrew and one of the preachers at the Temple Church in London. It is somewhat ironic (or strategic) that it was to Hooker that the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, turned to rebut Puritan dissent. The result was the Lawes.
A few things need to be kept in mind: Puritanism during the Reformation period existed on a wide

Photo: University of California Libraries
Photo: University of California Libraries

spectrum, but Hooker does not generally discriminate between the shades of Puritan opinion. Interestingly, many of the later Puritan theologians sound a lot like Hooker. During Hooker’s lifetime, there was no Anglican Church; there existed the Church in England but no Church of England. The English Church of the late 16th century was highly varied, but the Puritan ideal was a purified English Church modelled along rigorous Calvinist lines which varied in intensity (purified that is, from Roman Catholic influence and practice).
Hooker’s response to this involved a defence of Prayer Book theology through his vast learning in Aquinas, Augustine, the later Fathers, and a comprehensive biblical mindset that was as dynamic as that of Calvin. His concern was that Genevan reform in England was extreme and actually more Calvinist than Calvin, for whom he had respectful admiration. By way of example, Hooker understood predestination much as Calvin did, with the exception that while Calvin thought predestination should be preached, Hooker did not, because he saw the doctrine of election as one of pastoral comfort rather than a veil over divine inscrutability.
Although modern Anglicans have learned that Richard Hooker was an original shaper of an Anglican mindset, they may also need to unlearn a few things about him. “Scripture, tradition, and reason”, a triad often used to characterise a comprehensive Anglican identity, was never used by Hooker. Rather, he discusses “scripture, nature, and experience”, a very different conflation of ideas. Hooker is really asking how the Church can think through difficult issues, but in each case, nature and experience are subordinated to Scripture. In doing this, Hooker took on the Puritans at the level of their favourite subject: biblical interpretation and antagonism toward Rome.
At a time when the Pope was suspected of being the antichrist, Hooker’s toleration of Roman Catholics as actually being Christian at all speaks to a measure of acceptance not apparent across the English ecclesiastical spectrum. Hooker was and was not a man of his times. The debates and quarrels of the 16th century may seem very remote, but there is much to learn from them. Above all, Hooker addresses major questions theologically. The Anglican tendency has been to situate the elements of the so-called triad in equal relation, yet Hooker never does this. For him, reason and experience constitute the means by which Scripture is studied so we can perceive the “mystical participation” that joins us to Christ.
Still, Hooker was a Calvinist. The common view that Anglicans represent a via media between Canterbury and Rome is not true — this is a much later representation of Hooker which fails to read Hooker’s context. The English debate was how far Genevan reform could be allowed to progress in England; the commitment to Calvinist reform in England was already established, and Hooker himself was committed to it, though with restraints. The tensions lay between Canterbury and Geneva, not Canterbury and Rome. Hooker’s polemic with the Puritans was framed consistently around the role and interpretation of Scripture.
The status of Scripture was of deep importance to reformation thought, both at the level of its inspiration, and interpretation. For Hooker, Scripture was self-evidently of divine origin. He declares that “we have no word of God but the Scripture”. Its capacity to transform human action derives from its attendant character as “intuitive revelation”. God speaks in Scripture and the human imagination can be drawn to that voice because the order of nature is susceptible to the actions of divine grace. Scripture is revelation in that we could not come to such knowledge without it. As Hooker describes it, the first sense of divinity persuades us, but it is reason that moves us toward God by virtue of God’s spiritual action in baptism and Eucharist. By “reason” Hooker does not mean our mere capacity to think — rather, he means redeemed reason. Reason is not mere natural intelligence (which in itself can actually lead to the sort of pride that causes us to flee God).

 John Stafford is the Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Providence University College and an Anglican priest.
John Stafford is the Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Providence University College and an Anglican priest.

In Hooker’s mind, Puritan suspicion of nature as being so corrupt that nothing in it can aid human knowledge of God was excessive. We were made to probe and understand the natural order and also Scripture itself; in this respect, Hooker does not approach Scripture prescriptively, but understood it as God’s way of teaching us to think theologically. Prescriptive readings of Scripture make faith inaccessible to inquiry. The study of Scripture can complicate matters, but joyfully so. Hooker knew the orders of nature and grace to be distinct but connected by the same God who brought both into being, and so, mystically, conjoined in Christ. Scripture cannot speak to all questions any more than natural science can, yet it speaks to our situation as humans in relation to the natural order, and to God in a way which nature alone cannot.
Any reading of Hooker calls forth some serious theological and biblical energy. He is a major figure whose achievements have been appreciated by Christians of many different persuasions. If we have forgotten how to debate and think theologically, we can learn from Hooker how to do so once again and achieve the sort of ecclesial community that Hooker imagined.

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