Home Up Hooker Tradition

Centre for the Study of the Christian Church

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The Diocese of Exeter has produced three of the Church of England’s greatest theologians. In chronological order they are:


·      John Jewel. Jewel was born at Great Torrington in 1522 and died in 1571. He wrote the first major defence of the English Reformation and of the reformed English Church the Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae. Jewel was rewarded with the bishopric of Salisbury and apparently proved to be an excellent bishop. He was the patron of:

·      Richard Hooker. Hooker was born at Heavitree, now a suburb of Exeter, but then a separate village, in 1554 and died 400 years ago. In his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity Hooker provided the most accomplished and profound interpretation of Anglicanism ever given. He is the primary architect of an Anglican ecclesiology that is neither torn away from its pre-Reformation antecedents nor a muted echo of the continental Reformers.

·      Moving on a couple of centuries: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, born at Ottery St Mary in 1772 and died at Highgate in 1834. His father had been schoolmaster of South Molton and became vicar and headmaster at Ottery. Though known best as a poet, critic and philosopher, STC was a champion of Luther, was immersed in seventeenth century divinity and wrote on a range of theological issues, from ecclesiology to the inspiration of Scripture. He must surely rank as our greatest lay theologian.


I am going to concentrate on sketching some 16th C background, so I can’t range as far as STC, though I would have a good to say about him if I had the chance. But I wanted to begin with that trinity of Devon divines.


On the Cathedral Green stands a statue of Hooker, seated and holding his great work. He looks much older than the 46 years that were his allotted span, ground down with arduous study, no doubt! He is bearded, grave, venerable. Until a few years ago, the statue was unprotected and attracted graffiti. Hooker was accessible – and abused. The Dean and Chapter took steps to remedy this: they fenced him in and planted a hedge of prickly thorn bushes around him. Now he is inviolable – but remote.


That is a parable of how we are prone to treat our Anglican heritage. Either we ignore and neglect our tradition, misappropriate it and cause our forefathers to turn in their graves. Or we idealise it, romanticise it, put it on a pedestal, fence it round as holy ground, and make it remote and unusable. What we seem to find it difficult to do, it seems, is to wrestle with it, argue with it, deploy its resources and let it pervade and enrich our thinking and our prayer. Our theological imagination must indwell the past life of the Church, as well as the Scriptures and the creative, nodal points of contemporary culture. Scripture, tradition, reason must be brought into conversation. Ultimately, they must come together and coinhere in an integrated working of authority in the Church. 


Sources of Authority in Early Anglicanism

The early Anglican conception of authority in doctrine and practice was forged in the fires of controversy. The sixteenth-century Reformers were fighting on two fronts: first against Rome and second against radical protestantism. Against Rome, they invoked the authority of scripture and the primitive church, in order to counteract medieval corruptions. Against puritanism, they added reason to the appeal to scripture and the early Church, in order to retain what was good or at least harmless in the tradition.


The lines of the debate with Rome were well established before Elizabeth came to the throne, but soon after her accession John Jewel transformed the situation by turning what had been a largely defensive posture against Roman Catholic claims into an offensive. In a series of sermons of which the first and last were preached at St. Paul's Cross (1559-60), Jewel carried the attack into the enemy camp. He listed twenty-seven significant Roman Catholic beliefs and practices, mostly relating to the eucharist, and offered to convert to Rome 'if any learned man of all our adversaries or if all the learned men that be alive, be able to bring any one sufficient sentence out of any old catholic doctor or father, or out of any old general council, or out of the holy scriptures of God, or any one example of the primitive church' to prove that such had been held or done during the first six centuries of the Christian church.


Jewel's backers (Archbishop Parker and Elizabeth’s courtiers) held their breath, fearing that he had gone too far, but their fears were unfounded. Jewel was sure of his ground; his challenge could not be refuted. It was to provide the pattern of Anglican argument against Rome for the next two or three centuries - until defenders of Roman Catholicism, such as Newman, introduced the notion of development and so changed the ground rules of the debate. No longer would it be necessary to establish that controverted aspects of Roman Catholicism were apostolic or primitive: apostolicity implied develop­ment and change. Jewel followed his triumph with his Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae (1562) and the ensuing Defence of the Apology.


Jewel's appeal was to the scriptures as containing all things necessary to salvation and to the consensus of antiquity in disputed points. His tactics were effective: with massive learning and enormous polemical skill, he succeeded time and again in manoeuvering his opponents into a position where they directly contravened the authority of the Fathers. No wonder the Apology was placed, chained, in churches, to settle parish pump theological arguments, and that Archbishop Parker wanted it appended to the Articles of Religion! It is a classical document of Anglican self-definition.


Jewel’s authorities, then, are Scripture and normative tradition. For the explicit appeal to reason we have to wait for his protege Richard Hooker. But the appeal is implicit in Jewel himself: ‘Let reason lead thee,' he urges, ‘let authority move thee; let truth enforce thee' (PS, III, pp. 122f).


The Anglican Reformers did not set out to make changes to the substance of Christian truth. On the contrary, their aim was to recover and preserve the truth once for all delivered to the saints. Christian doctrine was unchanging; it was what had been, is and always would be. In this insistence the Anglican Reformers were appealing to the famous rule of St Vincent of Lerins: quod semper, ubique et ab omnibus (what has been held always, everywhere and by all). The legislation of the 1530s to remove the English church from Roman jurisdiction took pains to point out that no change of doctrine was involved. The English Church was in no way departing from the belief of Christendom.


For the Anglican Reformers the true doctrine of Christianity was to be found only in the scriptures. They contained everything necessary to be believed for salvation. The church therefore had no power to insist on any conditions as necessary to salvation that were not found clearly taught in scripture (such as absolution by a priest, the performing of satisfactions for sin committed, being in communion with the pope, etc). The message of salvation, the Christian gospel, was clearly revealed on the page of scripture and needed no interpretation.


But there were other teachings of scripture that it was incumbent on the church to follow, such as the christological and trinitarian dogmas of the Early Church and aspects of the ministry, the sacraments and church government, that were not clear from Scripture alone. Here the English church appealed to the guidance of the consent of antiquity and the general councils of the undivided church.


The Authority of Scripture

The Reformation principle sola scriptura was interpreted in various ways. For Luther it was a critical principle to cut back radically the claims of the church to elaborate the conditions of salvation and to impose heavy burdens on the consciences of Christian folk. Scripture clearly taught the way of salvation; its central message of justification by faith alone without meritorious works was the criterion of all Christian doctrine. For Luther the gospel of justification was also the criterion of canonicity and led him to disqualify certain New Testament books (especially James and Revelation) as not sufficiently Christological and evangelical.


Luther's emphasis was echoed by Hooker in his teaching that scripture is adequate to its divinely given purpose, namely to show the way of salvation, but not to prescribe for all aspects of life, as the puritans insisted. Here the puritans were the heirs of the Swiss Reformation which had tended to take the Bible (both Testaments equally) as a body of prescriptive truths legislating for every aspect of Christian worship and discipline. Luther sat lightly to such matters, emphasising evangelical freedom and categorising large areas as things indifferent - provided always that conscience was not imposed upon.


Some English Reformers seem to countenance the puritan approach. 'Scripture is the rule by which we must try all things,' asserted Whitaker. 'Thus, whatever disagrees with scripture should be rejected; whatever agrees with it, received'. Whatever the sympathies of some individual English Reformers may have been, the official formularies of the English Reformation commit the Church of England only to the limited sense of sola scriptura advocated in their different ways by Luther and Hooker. Their whole emphasis is on things necessary for salvation – on the mission and purpose of the revelation given in Scripture. The Anglican formularies do not contain any definition of the nature of biblical inspiration or of the extent of biblical authority - statements which would undoubtedly have embarrassed the church in a later, critical, age. The sixteenth century formularies worked with a distinction between things necessary to salvation and things not necessary but nevertheless prudent and edifying to be followed,


The Anglican Reformers were not crass literalists. Like their continental counterparts, they had received a humanist training. They were not merely engaged in bandying proof-texts taken out of context. That is why Whitgift, reiterating the standard Anglican position on the authority of scripture says that nothing may be put forward as necessary to salvation or as an article of faith which it is incumbent on Christians to believe 'except it be expressly contained in the word of God, or may manifestly thereof be gathered'. A similar nuance may be detected in the Thirty-nine Articles' reference to proving or testing claims by the scriptures:


Holy scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation (Article 6, my emphasis).


Incidentally, the Articles also make the scriptures the rule whereby all other forms of authority in the church are themselves to be assessed.


The Authority of Tradition: Fathers and Councils

The arguments of the Reformation were fought out, not only on the battleground of the interpretation of scripture, but also on that of the authority of the early fathers of the church. Controversialists on both sides set about proving, with immense labour, the agreement of their respective churches' positions with the teaching of the primitive church. The Reformers were not content to appeal only to the authority of scripture, though scripture was indeed the paramount and ultimate arbiter. Had they been setting out to create a church de novo rather than, as Calvin put it, to renew the face of the catholic church, they could have ignored tradition. Had they believed, with the radical spirits of the Reformation, that the church had apostatised from the truth after the death of the last apostle, the teaching of the fathers would have been irrelevant.


In fact the appeal to patristic tradition was not merely ad hominem, to counter such an appeal by Roman Catholics, nor merely tactical, to undermine such radical innovations as the rejection of infant baptism by the Anabaptists. The Reformers' appeal to patristic tradition was integral to their theological position. It was an extension and practical application of the sola scriptura principle, for the fathers were revered as biblical theologians who themselves deferred to the paramount and ultimate authority of scripture. The Reformers acknowledged that the guidance of the fathers was needed, for while the message of salvation was clear to all on the surface of the biblical text, not all the teachings of scripture were equally perspicuous.


For Jewel, a consensus of antiquity was to be sought where the scriptures were obscure. The first six hundred years of Christian history were normative; they provided a safeguard against the accretions of tradition and untrammelled private judgement alike. But the fathers were not to be awarded greater authority than they sought for themselves; it was as faithful and privileged interpreters of scripture that their guidance was to be valued. 'We despise them not, we read them, we reverence them' Jewel insisted. 'Yet may they not be compared with the word of God. We may not build upon them; we may not make them the foundation and warrant of our conscience; we may not put our trust in them'.


The reformed English church inherited the substance of the Christian faith in its integrity. It received, affirmed, preserved and defended the trinitarian and christological dogmas formulated by the early ecumenical councils and embodied in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the so-called Athanasian Creed (Quicunque vult). These doctrines and the creeds that express them are inculcated assiduously in the Book of Common Prayer and upheld in the Thirty-nine Articles with the significant comment that ‘they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy scripture.' The English Reformers, like their continental counterparts, presupposed the catholic faith and, in a sense, took it for granted. Their writings were on the whole devoted to controversial matters arising from later, medieval, developments, which they maintained not to be of the catholic faith.


The Reformers were, however, over optimistic in supposing that aspects of medieval religion such as prayers for the faithful departed, veneration of saints, the monarchical episcopate, the religious life, the eucharistic sacrifice, and so on, could not be justified by appeal to primitive Christianity. When it became apparent through the post-Reformation resurgence of Roman Catholic patristic scholarship, that these tenets could be traced back to Early Church, Lutheran and Reformed use of the fathers became more critical and selective, while the Anglican response was to make a limited accommodation to such usages.


The Church of England did not set out to make new doctrines It did not claim to have its own version of the Christian faith. It held that the message of salvation and the form of Christian life that was its appropriate response were clearly revealed in scripture. The formulation and defence of the catholic faith at the hands of the fathers and first four (or six) general councils was to be received as consonant with scripture. Jewel claimed on the basis of his patristic research that Rome had ‘forsaken the fellowship of the holy fathers'.


The Authority of the Church

'Every particular or national church (quaelibet ecclesia particularis siue nationalis) hath authority to ordain, change and abolish ceremonies or rites of the church, ordained only by man's authority, so that all things be done to edifying.' In asserting the right of a church to make laws to regulate its worship, government and life, article 34 of the Thirty-nine cuts two ways, against Rome, which insisted on uniformity of order directed from the centre and denied the claims of national churches to reform themselves, and against the extreme reformists who believed in a biblical blueprint for every aspect of life and that this blueprint was embodied in ‘the best reformed churches', i.e. Geneva. Against both, the Church of England in its official formularies maintained the right and duty of a particular national church to govern itself. True, there must be uniformity within the realm, but a uniformity imposed from Rome or Geneva is rejected, 'It is not necessary that traditions and ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like, for at all times they have been diverse, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men's manners, [yet] so that nothing be ordained against God's word.'


It was a fundamental plank of the English Reformation that, just as a particular, national church had the right and duty to undertake reformation without prejudicing its catholicity, so too a diversity of ceremonies and outward order between particular churches did not betoken a breach of unity. The Henricean formularies declared that the unity of the catholic church is ‘the unity which is in one God, one faith, one doctrine of Christ and his sacraments’ This essential doctrinal unity is not destroyed by the various rites, ceremonies, traditions and ordinances instituted by proper authority in each national church.


The Thirty-nine articles also maintained that, besides her power to decree rites or ceremonies, the church has 'authority in controversies of faith' - though she cannot ordain anything contrary to scripture or enforce any such decrees as necessary for salvation (article 20). The English Reformers in their writings support this claim. The church not only has authority in rites, ceremonies and things indifferent, but also has authority in controversies of faith. But she has no authority to make new articles of faith and cannot bind things left free by the gospel. Nothing can be enforced that is not grounded in the word of God, and the church cannot forbid what the apostles permitted.


To sum up, if there are liberties and privileges of the individual Christian, there are also liberties and privileges of the Christian church. It can regulate its life where the scriptures do not prescribe the pattern, and adjudicate in theological debate where the scriptures are unclear. But this power is subject to two constraints: the individual conscience is answerable to its maker alone (in Luther's phrase coram Deo); and in all essential matters affecting salvation, the scriptures speak with a decisive voice. There is a principle of moderation at work here and a principle of reticence in the matter of Christian dogma.


Hooker on Scripture, Reason and Tradition

Hooker set out to refute the puritan contention that scripture alone was the rule governing all the things that might be done by humankind (I, p. 334: refences to volume and page of Keble’s edition). In doing this, Hooker clarifies the question of authority in matters of doctrine and practice. He shows the proper place of scripture, reason and tradition, that famous 'threefold cord not quickly broken' which was to become the hall mark of classical Anglicanism. But Hooker defines each of these discriminatingly and distinctively. Moreover, he sets them within a perspective created by aesthetic and moral judgement, a cultivated sense of what is fitting in particular circumstances. Finally, he takes away all illusions of infallible certainty and stresses that probability is our guide. R. W. Church aptly designated Hooker's view of authority as 'the concurrence and co-operation, each in its due place, of all possible means of knowledge for man's direction’.


(1) Scripture. Hooker operates with the Thomistic and late medieval distinction between two sources of knowledge for the earthly life of humankind: the light of nature and the light of revelation, both interpreted by reason. Nature follows its ordered course according to natural laws ordained by its creator. When these natural laws are recognised, interpreted and followed by humanity we have the law of reason. Though nature and reason cannot show us the way of salvation, they overlap with the revealed scriptures. Scripture and nature are neither mutually exclusive nor fundamentally opposed. 'The scripture is fraught even with the laws of nature' (I, p. 262).


But the proper office of scripture is to teach those things 'required as necessary unto salvation . . . so that without performance of them we cannot by ordinary course be saved, nor by any means be excluded from life observing them.’ Natural reason cannot lead us to heaven. In things necessary to salvation, Hooker affirms, following the Reformers, the scriptures possess a perspicuity that makes their message available even to simple folk (I, p. 143).


While the radical protestants claimed that one required scriptural warrant for the meanest action, Hooker insisted that to consult the Bible about 'vain and childish trifles . . were to derogate from the reverend authority and dignity of the scripture' (I, p. 275). The immutable part of the teaching of the apostles is not concerned with such secondary and in­different matters as ecclesiastical ceremonies and government, where we have the light of reason and experience to guide us and can exercise our sense of what is appropriate to changing circumstances. Just as every book of the Bible was written for a particular purpose (I, p. 270), so the whole scripture is given to serve the purpose of God in leading humanity to salvation. Its perfection is that it reaches that goal.


(2) Reason. Except in its fundamental gospel, scripture is not self-explanatory; it requires the application of reason. In defending himself against the charge of Walter Travers at the Temple Church that he had introduced scholastic distinctions and rational subtleties into the exposition of scripture, Hooker explained what he meant by reason. He meant not his own individual reasoning capacity, but ‘true, sound, divine reason . . . reason proper to that science whereby the things of God are known; theological reason, which out of principles in scripture that are plain, soundly deduceth more doubtful inferences' and brings to light the true meaning of the 'darker places' of scripture (III, p. 594f).


For Hooker, as for all the Reformers, scripture holds the place of paramount authority, but, interestingly, second place he gives not to tradition but to reason. In matters of doctrine and practice alike, he writes, 'what scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason’. After these, he adds, 'the voice of the church succeedeth' (III, p. 34).


The sphere of reason is the world of law, that ordered world that derives from the God whose being is a law unto his working. The vocation of reason is to bring human existence into conformity with the order and harmony in the nature of things. 'All good laws are the voices of right reason, which is the instrument wherewith God will have the world guided' (II, p. 40). Reason for Hooker is therefore not autonomous, individualistic, arrogant or secular; it is not even particularly critical. His concept of reason is the antithesis of that of the Enlightenment. Reason is a divinely implanted faculty for apprehending the truth revealed by God in nature or scripture. It is first receptive, then discriminating. It seeks the good for humanity and moderates between appetite and will. ‘To will is to bend our souls to the having or doing of that which they see to be good. Goodness is seen with the eye of the understanding. And the light of that eye is reason' (I, p. 220f).


Reason alone, considered as the study of the light of nature, has manifest limits. It cannot reveal the ultimate destination of faith, hope and charity: These matters are the sole prerogative of revelation: 'There is not in the world a syllable muttered with certain truth concerning any of these three, more than hath been supernaturally received from the mouth of the eternal God' (I, pp. 261f).


Hooker's is probabilistic doctrine of reason. Against both the Roman Catholics with their appeal to the infallibility of the church and of the pope, and the puritans with their biblical absolutism, Hooker insisted that the highest form of certainty we enjoy is that of ‘probable persuasions'. Though the human mind craves 'the most infallible certainty which the nature of things can yield', assent must always be proportionate to the evidence. Certain knowledge is not given to humanity in its earthly pilgrimage (I, pp. 322f). This theme in Hooker is picked up later by Locke and then by Bishop Butler for whom probability is our guide in this life.


(3) Tradition. The term tradition is rather inadequate to designate this third component of Hooker's synthesis. Practice, experience and consent are all involved. They constitute the third and final test or touchstone of religious truth, after divine revelation and human reason. 'Where neither the evidence of any law divine, nor the strength of any invincible argument otherwise found out by the light of reason, nor any notable public inconvenience' are decisive, 'the very authority of the church itself. . . may give so much credit to her own laws, as to make their sentence touching fitness and conveniency weightier than any bare and naked conceit to the contrary' (II, pp. 35f).


There is a fundamental conservative principle underlying Hooker's thought at this point and it belongs to the uniformitarian presupposition that he shared with all European culture before the eighteenth century. Truth was eternal. What was right was right for all times and places: Quod semper, quod ubique quod ab omnibus. So for Hooker, universal consent was equivalent to nature itself, and the voice of nature was as the voice of God (I, p. 227). We do not have to be out and out relativists to recognise that uniformity is not the test of truth and that it is, therefore, not enough to appeal to what has been held always, everywhere and by everyone.


Hooker does not absolutise the authority of the Early Church. His appeal is largely pragmatic, born of respect and prudence. 'Neither may we . . . lightly esteem what hath been allowed as fit in the judgement of antiquity, and by the long continued practice of the whole church; from which unnecessarily to swerve, experience hath never as yet found it safe' (II, p. 30).


Hooker has already clearly established the principle that matters regarding the outward government of the church come within the category of mutable positive law. There is then no question of antiquity and tradition legislating for all future situations. Respect for what has gone before is the fruit of wisdom not obedience. It is a prudent regard for well-tried human practice - ‘that which the habit of sound experience plainly delivereth' (II, p. 31).  Moreover, the authority that Hooker does accord to tradition is subject to the restrictions provided by scripture and reason: first, tradition cannot deliver 'supernatural necessary truth’, which belongs only to scripture; second, ‘the authority of men’ should not ‘prevail with men either against or above reason’ (II, p. 325). Hooker’s version of the threefold cord is ‘nature, scripture and experience itself' (I, p. 166).


What distinguishes Hooker's use of authority in matters of religion is the absence of literalism and legalism. Neither scripture nor tradition contains a set of binding prescriptions and precedents for the life of the church. Underlying his teaching on this question is the assumption that there is an intuitive moral and aesthetic discernment that judges what is appropriate in the circumstances, a sense of what is fitting, what is becoming. In all outward aspects of the church's corporate life, what interests Hooker is the discernment of the 'con­veniency and fitness in regard of the use for which they should serve' (II, p. 28). ‘Signs must resemble the things they signify.' The outward deportment of the church in all its offices, ceremonies and discipline must be such as to convey and reveal the inward realities of worship and holiness.


The spirit of Hooker’s understanding of authority is therefore organic, corporate, sacramental and incarnational. May that vision will stay with us as we continue to explore issues of authority in the Church.

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