Richard Hooker, Doctor of the Church

3 November 1600
On any list of great English theologians, the name of Richard Hooker would appear at or near the top. His masterpiece is The Laws Of Ecclesiastical Polity. Its philosophical base is Aristotelian, with a strong emphasis on natural law eternally planted by God in creation. On this foundation, all positive laws of Church and State are developed from Scriptural revelation, ancient tradition, reason, and experience.

The occasion of his writing was the demand of English Puritans for a reformation of Church government. Calvin had established in Geneva a system whereby each congregation was ruled by a commission comprising two thirds laymen elected annually by the congregation and one third clergy serving for life. The English Puritans (by arguments more curious than convincing) held that no church not so governed could claim to be Christian.

Hooker replies to this assertion, but in the process he raises and considers fundamental questions about the authority and legitimacy of government (religious and secular), about the nature of law, and about various kinds of law, including the laws of physics as well as the laws of England. In the course of his book he sets forth the Anglican view of the Church, and the Anglican approach to the discovery of religious truth (the so-called Via Media, or middle road), and explains how this differs from the position of the Puritans, on the one hand, and the adherents of the Pope, on the other. He is very heavy reading, but well worth it. (He says, on the first page of Chapter I: "Those unto whom we shall seem tedious are in no wise injuried by us, seeing that it lies in their own hands to spare themselves the labor they are unwilling to endure." This translates into modern English as: "If you can't take the intellectual heat, get out of the kitchen. If you can't stand a book that makes you think, go read the funny papers.")

The effect of the book has been considerable. Hooker greatly influenced John Locke, and (both directly and through Locke), American political philosophy in the late 1700's. Although Hooker is unsparing in his censure of what he believes to be the errors of Rome, his contemporary, Pope Clement VIII (died 1605), said of the book: "It has in it such seeds of eternity that it will abide until the last fire shall consume all learning."

Hooker's best short work is his sermon, "A Learned discourse of Justification." In an earlier sermon, Hooker had expressed the hope of seeing in Heaven many who had been Romanists on earth. A Puritan preacher took him to task for this, saying that since the Romanists did not believe the doctrine of Justification by Faith, they could not be justified. Hooker replied at length in this sermon, in which (1) he sets forth the Doctrine of Justification by Faith, and agrees with his opponent that the official theology of Rome is defective on this point; (2) he defends his assertion that those who do not rightly understand the means that God has provided for our salvation may nonetheless be saved by it, in which connection he says (I quote from memory): "God is no captious sophister, eager to trip us up whenever we say amiss, but a courteous tutor, ready to amend what, in our weakness or our ignorance, we say ill, and to make the most of what we say aright." His sermon is often bound with the Laws, and is also available in the paperback volume Faith and Works (ed. Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, Morehouse-Barlow, Wilton Cn 06897, ISBN 0-8192-1315-2)

To obtain a copy of Hooker's learned discours, go to the address

Click on "CHRISTIA Library by Author"
Click on "James Kiefer"
Scroll down to "Hooker's Polity."

Here there are four items to click on, which will give you the complete text of the Preface to THE LAWS OF ECCLESIASTICAL POLITY, and (in three parts) White's abridgement of the remainder of the LAWS. Most of you can then download these by a simple copy and paste (control-C and control-V) into a a document on your own machine.

If you scroll down further, past "Hooker's Polity," you will come to "Works by various Authors, submitted by James Kiefer. The last item in the list under this heading is Hooker's A LEARNED DISCOURSE OF JUSTIFICATION, described on the screen as "Justification (and Invincible Ignorance) by Richard Hooker.Click on this and get Hooker's famous sermon. Enjoy.

There is other material available at this site, submitted to the Archives by various persons. You might find it rewarding to browse.

PRAYER (traditional language)

O God of truth and peace, who didst raise up thy servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

PRAYER (contemporary language)

O God of truth and peace, who raised up your servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Here is an essay on Hooker, reprinted by courtesy of the author, Robert Rea

Richard Hooker, who lived toward the end of the reign of Elizabeth I in England, is reputed the founder of the Anglican theology of comprehensiveness and tolerance. If we want to see how Richard Hooker, as The Anglican theologian does his theology, we can look at his controversy with Walter Travers when they both served the Temple Church in London. There Hooker, the Master, preached on a Sunday Morning, and the Assistant, Travers, in the afternoon. Travers, who had been passed over as Master when Hooker was appointed, took the opportunity to defend the Puritan teaching that caused him to be passed over for Hooker. Hooker himself then undertook to defend his own position.

Hooker took a position that was more inclusive, in the sense of tolerating more variety of opinion and accepting more variety of practice in religious and state affairs. Travers was concerned to exclude those things which were not strictly scriptural. He took scripture as the ultimate rule and test. Hooker's attitude to scripture was deeply nuanced by reason. He made reason the criterion of reading scripture. Not, you note, the criterion of scripture, but of reading scripture. Hooker really did hold scripture in first place. He held reason necessary for the understanding and application of scripture in all the areas in which scripture might be applied.

Their first difference arose over the question of predestination. Some years previous to this controversy, Hooker had maintained in God two wills, the one antecedent, the other consequent, so the first will of God is that all should be saved, the second that "only those who did live answerable to that degree of grace which [God] had offered, or afforded." This contradicted the Calvinist view held by Travers, that the will of God is single and unitary, and thus that God directly damns some prior to any behavior of their own. Thus Hooker asserts the possibility, if not the fact, of the salvation of all.

Hooker further compromised himself in Travers' Calvinist eyes by asserting that Roman Catholics could be saved as Roman Catholics, because that Church, though imperfect and erring in various ways, still held to Christ and the greater part of the foundations of Christianity, and so its faithful were excused by honest ignorance of the truth. Travers replies that none who believe in justification by works can be saved, because they are in ignorance of the truth of scriptural teaching, namely, that all are saved by faith alone. Thus for Travers, any drop of falsity tends to exclude, while for Hooker truth, partial and mistaken but well-meant, tends to include. Hooker's aim was to emphasize the unity of Christendom before its divisions by pointing out first the things in which all Christians agreed: "I took it for the best and most perspicuous way of teaching, to declare first, how far we do agree, and then to show our disagreements."

Finally Travers attacked Hooker on his manner of accepting Scripture. Travers took exception to Hooker's saying that the assurance of what we believe by word is not so great as that we believe by sense. Hooker replies by asking why it is then, that if assurance by word is greater, God so frequently shows his promises to us in our sensible experience. Hooker's ultimate principle he calls reason, by which he means thought, not as propositional thinking, but as the whole process of experience, and reflection on experience, that issues in knowledge and wisdom, and supremely, the knowledge of God.

Further, for Hooker, the realm of experience is ordinary life, all of it. Of this ordinary experience, scripture is a part. As all comes from God, so scripture does. As we learn from all our experience, and learn that the world is so ordered that it works in this way and not in that, so we learn of God from Scripture. This supplies the knowledge of God which we cannot gain from the nature we discern in the world around us. But for Hooker the process of understanding is not different whatever it is that is being discerned. "So our own words also when wee extoll the complete sufficiencie of the whole entire bodie of the scripture, must in like sorte be understoode with this caution, that the benefite of natures light be not thought excluded as unnecessarie, because the necessitie of a diviner light is magnifyed.(Lawes I.14.4)"

This is an implicit critique of Travers' and the Puritans use of scripture as the ultimate rule and guide. They used scripture as a set of propositional laws, unrelated to the ordinary life of humans of their time, as eternal laws and absolute, unconnected to person and circumstance. They used them to conform person and circumstance to their mold rather than both conforming to and at the same time transforming person and circumstance. Hooker's complaint, though the words would be profoundly anachronistic, is that the Puritan's construction of scripture is unhistorical.

So in discussing the Puritan's construction of ecclesial institutions on scriptural models, Hooker points out that the words of scripture were written to address specific occasions and situations in the life of the church, and not as absolute rules. "The severall bookes of scripture having had each some severall occasion and particular purpose which caused them to be written, the contents thereof are according to the exigence of that speciall ende whereunto they are intended.(Lawes I.14.3)" His whole critique of the Puritan use of scripture is summed up in Lawes IV.11.7: "Words must be taken according to the matter whereof they are uttered." These words might well be addressed to the Fundamentalists of our own day.

Finally, in the Travers-Hooker controversy, one must take notice of the irenic tone that underlies the polemic. The two men remained on good terms personally, and both made it clear that there was no personal animosity. Among other things, Travers' brother John was married to Hooker's sister. Hooker in fact seems to have found all controversy hateful; this may have made him so kind a pleader as he was. God's saving grace to Hooker was this tone of tolerance and inclusiveness. It is to this day a fundamental note that distinguishes Anglicanism. I would pray that this grace be given to all today who find themselves as theologians compelled to one controversy or another. This fundamental personal amity, this air of openness and inclusiveness, may be as great a contribution to ecumenism as any theological contribution any of us will ever make.

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.