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 Issues | Church History | Richard Hooker

 

Richard Hooker by C Sydney Carter

The Ecclesiastical Polity

<<Hooker's Marriage

Hooker had commenced this “justification of the laws of our Ecclesiastical Polity” at the Temple, but in order to secure the necessary peace and quiet to complete such a serious undertaking, he persuaded Whitgift in 1591 to appoint him to the country parish of Boscum near Salisbury. But although he resigned his Mastership of the Temple this year, it is doubtful if he spent much, if any, time at Boscum, as he apparently continued to reside at his father-in-law's house in London from 1591 to 1595. It was here he wrote most of his famous treatise. Employing Churchman's servant as his amanuensis, he was able to profit from the assistance and advice of his former pupils Sandys and Cranmer, and also that of his learned friend Dr. John Spenser.

By 1593 he had written and, with the financial backing of his friend Edwin Sandys (now a prominent M.P.), had succeeded in publishing the first four books of his Ecclesiastical Polity, which he had vainly tried to persuade publishers to print at their own risk! It is interesting- to learn that Sandys paid his friend £10 for the first four books of this famous work, which as Professor Sisson well says “was a manifesto of the first importance to which the Church returns at every crisis to seek justification and vindication.” It was a work of conspicuous literary merit. In fact, Professor Sisson adds that “in the long and crowded roll of great English men of letters there is no figure of greater significance to the instructed mind than Hooker.” The work was written with such evidence of ability and learning and in such a sweet and reasonable spirit as to earn the high praise even of Pope Clement VIII, who declared that it contained “the seeds of eternity.”

In this great treatise Hooker reviews the whole Puritan controversy from its inception at the beginning of Elizabeth's reign. Further, at Whitgift's request, he continues the latter's controversy with Thomas Cartwright (the very able presbyterian Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge), which the Archbishop's numerous pastoral duties prevented him from finishing. The crisis of the Puritan attack on the Elizabethan Church Settlement was very real at this time. The presbyterian faction possessed most able advocates and champions, and the scurrilous Marprelate Tracts were in full swing. Hooker's book therefore appearing at this juncture, was certainly used as a political and ecclesiastical buttress for the Government's severely repressive laws against Puritan and Separatist worship. But inevitably also it contained a clear exposition of his evangelical theology.

In his Preface Hooker gives a lamentable picture of the unsavoury and unchristlike development of fanatical censoriousness and intolerance, of which each age, including our own, can furnish melancholy illustrations. Hooker's sincere, but inevitably unattainable, design in his writings was “not to provoke any, but rather to satisfy all tender consciences.”

On Calvinistic Discipline. - To the Puritan contention that the Calvinistic form of discipline should be binding on all Churches, Hooker declared that although he considered Calvin " incomparably the wisest man that ever the French Church did enjoy," yet no Scripture could prove his discipline to be necessary for all Churches, however beneficial it may have been for the city of Geneva. It was impossible as well as unsuitable, Hooker argued, to bring Church discipline to the exact standard of the Apostles' days, of which we were now ignorant. Moreover, in opposition to the Puritans, he had declared that Scripture had not enforced any one special form of Church polity and that “laws touching matters of Order are changeable by the power of the Church, articles concerning doctrine not so.” But he maintained that episcopacy “agrees best with the sacred Scripture.” The Puritans asserted that the Church of England had corrupted the right form of Church polity with manifold Popish rites and ceremonies.”

Scripture as the Rule of Faith. – In his Second Book Hooker exposes the fallacy of the Puritan platform that “Scripture is the only rule of our actions.” “The Scripture,” he retorts, “is only part of the rule by which to discern when the actions of men are good.” He makes it clear, however, that we are “forever bound to believe what the Scripture teaches in the special mysteries of salvation.” God teaches, he affirms, “not only through the sacred Scriptures, but by the glorious works of Nature." Archbishop Tillotson, a century later, emphasized the reasonableness of Christianity, and Hooker in a measure forestalls him, as he certainly does not regard the divine Revelation as excluding the use of reason. The light of reason, he declares, binds men “to the natural law whose seat is the bosom of God,” although this needs supplementing by " the inner light of
the Gospel.”

For Hooker fully emphasizes the supremacy and final authority of Scripture. “There is great odds,” he asserts, “between things devised by men, although agreeable with the law of Nature, and things in Scripture, set down by the finger of the Holy Ghost.” He is also in no doubt about its full inspiration. “We are to know,” he declares, “that the Word of God is His heavenly truth touching matters of eternal life and uttered unto men, unto Prophets and Apostles, by immediate divine inspiration, from them to us by their books and writings…. We have therefore no Word of God but the Scripture.” But he replies to the Puritans: “Make all things sin, which we do by the direction of Nature's light and by the rule of common discretion without thinking at all upon Scripture, and parents will cause their children to sin, as oft as they cause them to do anything, before they come to years of capacity and be ripe for knowledge in the Scripture.”

Puritan Intolerance. - Hooker recalled the progressive development of Puritan intolerance which strikingly resembled that of the early Montanists in their claim that the Spirit had instructed them that their discipline was divinely commanded, and that its adoption had sealed them as God's children. The natural next step was to declare, “We are of God : he that knoweth God heareth us. As for the rest, ye are of the world.” You cannot reason, Hooker well says, with complacent and self-confident Christians who are convinced that they alone are God's elect. His sweet spirit of moderation is well displayed when he predicts that " there will come a time when three words uttered with charity shall receive a far more blessed reward than three thousand volumes written with disdainful sharpness of wit.” Had both Laud and the Puritans realized this truth, their intolerant persecuting policy would not have disgraced the pages of Church History.

Hooker had no patience with the censorious spirit. “Let us beware,” he says, “lest if we make too many ways of denying Christ we scarce leave any way for ourselves truly and soundly to confess Him." But his Christlike and tolerant outlook was in striking contrast to the prevailing persecuting spirit of those days as illustrated by Thomas Cartwright, who declared, “Heretics ought to be put to death now. If this be bloody and extreme, I am content to be so counted with the Holy Ghost.”

 

>>His ecclesiastical position

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Related Links
Richard Hooker
BulletIntroduction

BulletRichard Hooker by Sydney Carter
BulletHooker's Marriage (Carter)
BulletThe Ecclesiastical Polity (Carter)
BulletEcclesiastical position (Carter)
BulletClosing Years (Carter)
BulletHooker's character (Carter)


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