A reasonable Hooker: What is Anglicanism (Part 6)

By Joshua Penduck 

In the last post we looked at the development of the division between those who supported maintaining the old church structures of bishop, priest, and deacon, and those who wanted to reform it on what they viewed as Biblical grounds, the Puritan Presbytarians. But it was the brilliant scholar Richard Hooker (1554-1600) who summed up and then developed the kind of Reformation that Thomas Cranmer, John Jewell and John Whitgift had developed. Whilst Hooker doesn’t have the exalted place that Luther has in the Lutheran Church, and Calvin has in the Reformed Churches, he is still regarded as the premier theologian in Anglicanism. Nevertheless, whilst other Anglican thinkers such as Cranmer have had theological seminaries named after them, for perhaps understandable reasons the same hasn’t been the case with Hooker…

Hooker first became an enemy to the radical Puritans because of his subtle criticisms of Calvin’s understanding of predestination and defence of the Elizabethan Settlement. However, it was his appointment to the Master of the Temple Church in London which caused him to become the key defender of the established church. At the Temple, there was a Puritan lecturer, Walter Travers, who preached in the evenings. On one occasion Hooker preached a sermon on theme of justification (how we become righteous in God’s sight), in which he affirmed the Protestant understanding of justification, but with a qualification: because we are justified by faith and not works, Roman Catholics can still be saved. For Hooker, this was a reasonable thing to argue. After all, was it really the case that all our ancestors in the Middle Ages went to hell simply because they were living in Popish superstition? But Travers didn’t like it, and publicly criticised Hooker. Thereafter followed several months of theological battle: Hooker would preach in the Temple Church in the morning, and Travers would criticise Hooker’s sermon in the evening. After a year, the increasingly radical Travers was silenced by Archbishop Whitgift. But the year-long debate had left its mark on Hooker. He decided to begin to write a book to combat the increasingly radical Puritan views which threatened to destabilise the whole country.

What followed was the mammoth eight books of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Hooker set about dismantling the radical Puritan way of thinking at the root. For Puritans like Travers, all of society should be governed by the Bible, and this included how we order society and churches. Furthermore, the Bible prescribes a model of organisation, which – for Travers and those like him – was Presbyterian, and certainly didn’t include bishops. So there was only one sphere of ‘Law’ – the Biblical one. But for Hooker, God hasn’t just given one form of Law (found in the Bible), but several forms. He writes at the end of his first book:

We have endeavoured in part to open, of what nature and force laws are, according unto their several kinds; the law which God with himself hath eternally set down to follow in his own works; the law which he hath made for his creatures to keep; the law which angels in heaven obey; the law whereunto by the light of reason men find themselves bound in that they are men; the law which they make by composition for multitude societies and politic societies to be guided by; the law which belongeth unto each nation; the law that concerneth the fellowship of all; and lastly the law which God hath supernaturally revealed.

If this is all a bit abstract for you, let me ask you a question: should we base our legal, political, or economic system on the Bible? I’m not saying can the Bible be helpful – even vital – for helping us to understand those systems. I’m asking, do you think we should restrict our modern economic system to only what the Bible says? This means that we wouldn’t have democracy (as the Bible doesn’t have a democratic system of government), human rights (as although the Bible holds the dignity of people in high regard, it doesn’t have our modern system of human rights), or interest rates (as the Bible specifically condemns interest). If you would say ‘yes’ to all these, you would side with radical Puritans like Travers. If ‘no’, then you’re siding with Hooker.

What Hooker was doing was setting the Bible’s Law in a wider theological context which the Bible itself promotes: God’s Creation. God is a God of Law – that is, order and stability – and he has instilled Law in every part of Creation. And not all of these Laws – such as the Laws of Nature – are governed by the Bible. Furthermore, God has given us as humans our own Law called Reason, which although corrupted by sin is still redeemed by Christ on the Cross and in the Resurrection. Hooker would argue that how we order the church is not explicit in the Bible, so we must use reason to organise the Church. It is reasonable to recognise the authority of the government (especially the Monarch), and it is reasonable to look to the early Christians for advice. But the emphasis was on reason. In fact, Hooker would later even argue that bishops aren’t even necessary for the church to be a church, but it was the best system. In short, how we ordered the church wasn’t important in relation to salvation – you could go to heaven whether your church had bishops or not – but it was important in relation to the stability of society.

It was this emphasis on using redeemed reason as a tool, and recognising that there are some things (like church order) which aren’t as important as other things, that would make its mark on Anglicanism. How Hooker would be read would change from decade to decade, but still to this day, a flexibility of thinking in many areas would be a permanent feature of most parts of Anglicanism. 

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