Here’s a book that I’ve just added to my list Things I Should Have Read In Seminary: The Laws of Eccleiastical Polity by Richard Hooker. I recently finished reading books I through IV of this monumental work as rendered into modern English by the good folks over at the Davenant Institute. Check it out if you haven’t before; I highly recommend it.
Don’t get me wrong; I knew that Hooker’s Laws were important in the establishment of classical Anglicanism, that it was a monumental work of English prose, groundbreaking in the field of English-language philosophy, and the beginning of a distinctly Anglican perspective on Christianity as Reformed Catholicism, neither Papist on the one hand nor Radical Puritan on the other, but firmly moderated where it needed to be, in line with the other Protestant churches of Europe. A lot can be gleaned from well-written reviews and cliffnotes. But finally, ten years later than I believe I should have, I’ve finally started reading through this thing. And since today, November 3rd, is Hooker’s commemoration day, this seemed the right time to share some thoughts therefrom.
If you want or need a brief generic introduction to Hooker himself, you can jump over to Wikipedia, or read this little bio I wrote up two years ago.
A lot can be gleaned from an outline, so here are the first four books of the Laws in outline. (Some of the titles below are modernized for clarity.)
The Preface: RADICALISM, When Reform Becomes Revolution
- The Cause and Occasion for Writing this Work and What is Hoped for from Those for Whom Such Pains are Taken
- The First Establishment of Presbyterian Discipline by John Calvin in Geneva and the Beginning of the Conflict in the Church of England
- How So Many People Come to be Trained to Approve of this Discipline
- What Has Made the More Learned Approve this Discipline
- Their Call for a Trial by Debate
- No End to Conflict Until Both Sides Submit to a Definitive Judgement
- An Outline of the Remaining Books
- Why We Have Many Good Reasons to Fear the Consequences of Your Reformation, if it Indeed Took Place
Book I: DIVINE LAW and HUMAN NATURE
- The Reason for Writing this General Discourse
- The Law by which God has from the Beginning Determined to Do all Things
- The Law by which Natural Agents Work
- The Law by which Angels Work
- The Law by which Man is Directed to the Imitation of God
- How Men First Begin to Know the Law they Should Observe
- Man’s Will, which Laws of Action are Made to Guide
- Of the Natural Way to Find Out Laws by Reason to Lead the Will to What is Good
- The Advantages of Keeping the Law Taught by Reason
- How Reason Leads Men to Make the Laws by which Political Societies are Governed and to Agree about Laws of Fellowship between Independent Societies
- Why God has made Known in Scripture Supernatural Laws to Direct Men’s Steps
- Why So Many Natural Laws and Laws of Reason are Found in Scripture
- The Advantage of Having Such Divine Laws Written
- The Sufficiency of Scripture unto the End for which it was Instituted
- Positive Laws in Scripture, how Some of them are Changeable, and the General Use of Scripture
- Conclusion: How All of This Pertains to the Present Controversy
Book II: THE WORD OF GOD
- How Far Does the Authority of Scripture Extend?
- Doing All Things to the Glory of God
- Must All Things Be Sanctified by the Word of God?
- Acting Without Clear Direction from Scripture
- Negative Arguments Derived from Scripture
- Arguments from Scripture’s Silence
- The Proper Weight of Human Authority
Book III: THE WORDS OF MAN
- Defining the Church
- Must Scripture Contain a Complete System of Church Government?
- Church Government is not a Matter of Salvation
- We Do Not Dishonor Scripture
- The Word of God and the Words of Man
- All Churches Add Laws Beyond Scripture
- The Appeal to “General Rules of Scripture”
- Reason May Also Serve as a Tool of the Spirit
- The Right Use of Reason in Devising Church Laws
- Why Scriptural Commands May Not Always Bind
- Can Biblical Laws Be Changed?
Book IV: IN DEFENSE OF REFORMED CATHOLIC WORSHIP
- The Importance of Liturgy
- Their Demand for Apostolic Simplicity
- The Charge that we Follow Rome
- Must All Roman Ceremonies Go?
- The Status of the Medieval Church
- Are Papists the Same as Canaanites?
- The Example of the Early Church
- The Danger of Swerving to the Opposite Extreme
- It Does not matter what Rome Thinks of Our Liturgy
- The Laments of “The Godly”
- The Charge that our Ceremonies are Judaizing
- Stumbling-blocks for Weaker Brethren
- Conformity to Foreign Reformed Churches
- In Defense of the Church of England’s Proceedings
As you can see, this is a lengthy treatise moving lowly and carefully, step by step. One of the primary purposes of these works was actually to provide a full-scale rebuttal to early Puritan complaints that the Church of England was too “Popish” and needed further reform, particularly in getting rid of bishops in favor of Presbyterianism, and eliminating Roman-infested rites and ceremonies. Many bishops had simply appealed to the status quo or to the authority of the Queen as supreme governor of the national church in reply to such dissent, so Hooker’s defense of what would later come to be known as “Anglicanism” was something new.
Rather than tackling the complaints and objections head-on, Hooker first set out a groundwork of philosophy and theology, biblical hermeneutics and interpretation. He wanted to set out the nature of law before arguing about what laws are good or not good.
For our understanding, it is critical to realize that a “law” in this sense is not necessarily a legal rule, but more generally a rule of how something works, or is. So by that definition, God is literally a “law” unto himself – who and what God is sets out the laws by which God operates. We then turn to the laws by which nature and angels and humans operate, and dive into the long and complicated field of epistemology – the study of how we know what we know. Against the Radical Puritans of his day and in line with historic Christianity, Hooker argues that general revelation, or natural theology, or the Law of Nature, teaches man a great deal about the sciences, morality, and even something of God himself (cf. Romans 1:19-20). This becomes the foundation for his ongoing defense of the role of reason in the discernment of good laws, guided by Scripture.
The doctrine of Scripture is an important subject along the way, too, especially in Book II. There he asserts full agreement with the Radicals concerning the perfection of Scripture, but he argues that the Bible does not exist to be (as we would say today) a complete textbook about everything. Rather, that which it is meant to address, it addresses perfectly. It upholds and clarifies natural law, and reveals divine truths (particularly concerning the Gospel) that would not be knowable otherwise. He even deals with the doctrine of sola scriptura, and candidly explains the reality that the Bible’s perfect authority is not justified by itself (that would be circular logic!), but discerned by reason.
With these foundations in place, Hooker is able to wade into the murky waters of disagreement over the extent of the authority of the Church. Some of it has to do with the “Regulative Principle of Worship” (a primarily Calvinist view that worship can only contain what the Bible positively allows) versus the “Normative Principle” (the traditional view that worship can contain anything the Bible doesn’t forbid). Some of it has to do with the nature of law, already taken care of in previous sections.
Book IV is where things start to get particularly interesting for the modern reader. (I mean, I actually really enjoyed the Preface and first three Books, but on the whole Anglicanism is no longer fighting to defend itself from Presbyterian detractors.) In the 4th book Hooker brings us to a series of objections to Prayer Book worship. These are still mainly about general principles, specific elements in the Prayer Book won’t be addressed until Book V from what I can tell. Nevertheless, here there are arguments that are super helpful for us today. Many of the general questions addressed are still (or again) being asked in the 21st century: is our worship too Papist? How should we address the issues of the “weaker brethren” in our midst? Why can’t we just return to the simplicity of the Apostolic Church? What does Apostolic-age worship even really look like?
Our worship-related issues today aren’t just about Roman influences; we also have controversies over Pentecostal/Charismatic elements, popular evangelical elements, and there is (still or again) a sort of Puritan party to be found here and there, pushing in the direction of Reformed Calvinist worship principles. Richard Hooker doesn’t answer all the questions that we have today, of course, but the observations and arguments he makes in Book IV are all insightful and can ground us more solidly in the tradition we have received.
I am hoping, in my non-existent spare time, to type up specific thoughts and reflections from what of the Laws that I’ve read thus far. If you’re interested in that, you can track my progress on this index page here, and/or follow my personal blog leorningcniht (Old English for “disciple”).