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 Issues | Church History | Richard Hooker

 

Richard Hooker by C Sydney Carter

Hooker's ecclesiastical position

<<The Ecclesiastical Polity

Hooker’s ecclesiastical position was almost identical with that of his early friend and patron, Bishop Jewel, whom he revered as “the worthiest divine that Christendom hath bred for the space of some hundreds of years.” Jewel's famous Apology of the Church of England had clearly outlined the Catholic foundation principles of the Reformed English Church with its appeal to apostolic and primitive antiquity. Hooker practically applied this position to Anglican discipline against the Puritan clamour for the adoption of the Genevan discipline. Jewel was concerned to expose Romish errors and superstitions, while Hooker dealt directly with Puritan attacks on the English national religious settlement. He had no sympathy with the Genevan ideal of the Church ruling the State as God's Kingdom, for with Hooker Church and Commonwealth were practically convertible terms, since “regal power must be concerned with man's eternal as well as his temporal welfare.” His Tudor interpretation of the Royal Supremacy was that the State must exercise an Erastian domination over the Church, whereas the Puritans declared that “the civil magistrate is none officer at all of the Church,” and he must “subject himself unto the Church . . . and willingly abide the censures of the Church.”

The Unity of the Church.

Jewel, in treating of the unity of the Visible Church, had stressed the importance of an orderly episcopal ministry, although he declared that “God's grace is promised to one who feareth God and not to sees or successions.” Keble in his Preface to Hooker's Works states that the Elizabethan bishops and divines were content “to show that the government by Archbishops and Bishops was ancient and allowable: they never ventured to urge its exclusive claim or to connect it with the validity of the Holy Sacraments.” In confirmation of this statement we find that Hooker's patron, Archbishop Whitgift, clearly asserts that “no certain manner or form of electing ministers is prescribed in Scripture and that every Church may do therein as it shall seem most expedient.” Hooker fully concurred in this opinion, since he declares that the unity of the Church consists in three essentials, the possession of “the one Lord, the one Faith, and the one Baptism.” Although he insisted that “without the work of the Ministry religion by no means can possibly continue,” he asserts clearly that “the complete form of Church polity . . . is not taught in Scripture,” while “much that it hath taught may become unrequisite, sometime because we need not use it, sometime because we cannot.” And in this latter category he placed the Reformed non-episcopal Churches, including the Scottish and French, who, he declares, “have been driven without any fault of their own by the necessity of the present times” to practise a presbyterian form of government. He tells us that in his earlier days he inclined to the view that on the death of the Apostles the Churches agreed “for the preservation of peace and order" to make one presbyter in each city chief over the rest,” and “to translate into him that power by virtue of which the Apostles, while they were alive, did preserve and uphold order in the Church.” But in later years he was more doubtful of this conjecture and he even boldly declared that “surely the first institution of bishops was from heaven and the Holy Ghost was the Author of it.”

Episcopacy and Ordination.

At the same time Hooker warned the Bishops that “the Church can by universal consent upon urgent cause take away this special authority” because “it is rather the force of custom, whereby the Church having so long found it good to continue under the regiment of her virtuous bishops doth still uphold and honour them in that respect, than that any such true and heavenly law can be showed by the evidence whereof it may of a truth appear that the Lord Himself hath appointed presbyters for ever to be under the regiment of bishops, in what sort soever they behave themselves.” It is therefore fair to conjecture that modern research into the origins of the early Christian Ministry would probably have led Hooker to modify or revise somewhat his definite assertion regarding the unique claims of episcopal government. But in spite of his later “higher” view of episcopacy, which was probably occasioned by the increasing insistence of the extreme Puritans on the exclusive necessity of a Presbyterian polity, Hooker was still prepared to admit, as he did in commenting on the case of Theodore Beza's ordination by Calvin, that “there may be sometimes very just and sufficient reason to allow ordination without a bishop.”

He further recognizes a direct call of God to the Ministry, “when God Himself doth of Himself raise up any, whose labour He uses without requiring that men should authorize them; but then He doth ratify their calling by manifest signs and tokens from heaven.” He would therefore almost certainly have regarded Spurgeon or Moody or General Booth as in this category. Again, in cases where it is not possible to secure a bishop for ordination, Hooker admits that the ordinary institution of God must be waived. And so he adds: “we must not simply without exception urge a lineal descent of power from the Apostles by continued succession of bishops in every effectual ordination.” Professor Sisson is therefore surely correct when he affirms that “there is nothing in Hooker to serve as a foundation for an episcopacy by Apostolic Succession and divine institution; indeed, his reservations upon this matter might furnish ammunition for an opposition.”

Hooker also makes it quite clear that ordination, once it is conferred, should not be repeated since it is received from “the whole Catholic Church” to be “exercised effectually in any part of the world without iterated ordination.” He would not therefore approve of modern proposals for “supplementary” ordination for non-episcopal ministers.

The Mystical Body

Again, Hooker, like Jewel, fully affirms his belief in what our post-Communion thanksgiving calls the “mystical body of Thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people.” “Men predestinated in His secret purpose,” he declares, “have their actual vocation or adoption likewise intended unto that fellowship or society which is invisible and really His true Church, through the grace of the Spirit of Christ given them.” So Hooker adds that the failure to distinguish between “the Church of God mystical and visible has caused oversights not few nor light.” This mystical body is, he asserts, invisible, since it cannot “be sensibly discerned by any man, inasmuch as the parts thereof are some in heaven already with Christ, and the rest are on earth, although we do not discern whether they are truly and infallibly of that body.” But, he adds, it is “concerning this flock that our Lord and Saviour promised. ‘I give unto them eternal life, they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hands.’ They who are of this society have such marks and notes of distinction from all others, as are not object unto our sense, only unto God, who seeth their hearts and understandeth their secret cogitations ; unto Him they are clear and manifest.”

Hooker clearly affirms his belief in the Calvinistic tenet of final preservation of all such true believers in Christ. “The faith of true believers,” he declares in his Sermon on the “Certainty and Perpetuity of Faith in the Elect,” “though it have many grievous downfalls, yet it doth still continue invincible, it conquereth and recovereth itself in the end.”

But Hooker equally asserts the unity of the Visible Church of Christ, which, he declares, is “a sensibly known company, continued from the first beginning of the world to the last end.” For “the Visible Church of Jesus Christ is one in outward profession of those things which supernaturally appertain to the very essence of Christianity and are necessarily required in every Christian man” - that is, their acceptance of “the one Lord, whose servants they all profess to be, and the one Faith they all acknowledge, and the one Baptism with which they are all initiated.”

Scripture and Tradition

In dealing with ecclesiastical tradition, Hooker admits its authority regarding indifferent matters of “rites and customs” which the Apostles ordained, although “they did not commit them to writing,” and they were “of the nature of things changeable.” On the other hand, the doctrine of the Trinity and Infant Baptism were, he says, “not dependent on Tradition but were deducible from Scripture.” And he declares that “they which add traditions as part of supernatural necessary truth, have not the truth, but are in error.” “Whatsoever to make up the doctrine of man's salvation is added, as in supply of the Scriptures’ insufficiency, we reject it, Scripture purposing this, hath perfectly and fully done it.” “Scripture,” he adds, “is such a perfect storehouse of wisdom and knowledge that nothing can ever need to be added.” Hooker would therefore scarcely endorse the Rumanian Church declaration of 1935, “that the Revelation of God is transmitted through the Holy Spirit and the Holy Tradition.”

“The Scripture,” he declares, “yea, every sentence thereof, is perfect and wanteth nothing requisite unto that purpose for which God delivered the same.” And in speaking of the profundity of Scripture Hooker anticipated, in slightly different words, the oft-quoted statement of John Robinson of Leyden-spoken to the Pilgrim Fathers as they set out on their perilous adventure to the New World, “I am persuaded that God hath much more light and truth to break forth from His holy Word” - when he said, “Let us not think that as long as the world doth endure, the wit of man shall be able to sound the bottom of that which may be concluded out of the Scripture.” And he adds that “there is in Scripture no defect, but that any man, what place or calling soever he hold in the Church of God, may have the light of his natural understanding so perfected by Scripture that there can want no part of needful instruction unto any good work which God Himself requires.” “How miserable,” he declares, “had the state of the Church of God been, if wanting the sacred Scripture we had no record of His laws but only the memory of man receiving the same by report and relation from his predecessors.”

The Church of Rome

The attitude to the Church of Rome of Jewel and Hooker was practically identical. Jewel admitted that Christ's Gospel had “once been truly set forth in it,” and that we only left it “of necessity and much against our wills because it was manifest that it had departed from God's Word.” Similarly Hooker declared that in “the main points of Christian Truth we gladly acknowledge them to be of the family of Jesus Christ.” But he adds: “We dare not communicate with Rome concerning her gross and grievous abominations,” and he includes in these her doctrine of the sacrifice of the Mass. “He cannot love the Lord Jesus with his heart who can brook to see a mingle-mangle of religion and superstition, ministers and massing priests, light and darkness, truth and error.”

Hooker fully justifies the Anglican breach with Rome when he says: “That which the Papists call schism, we know to be our reasonable service unto God and obedience to His voice, which crieth shrill in our ears, ‘Go out of Babylon, My people, that ye be not partakers of her sins.’ ” But he makes me it quite clear that this separation involved for the Church of England no departure from the ancient Catholic Church, because “to reform ourselves is not to sever ourselves from the Church we were of before. In the Church we were and we are so still.”

The Eucharist, Priesthood, and Absolution.

In dealing with the burning controversy of the Presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper, Hooker stated clearly that “the real Presence of Christ's most blessed body and blood is not . . . to be sought for in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament.” And he wishes that “more would give themselves to meditate with silence what we have by the sacrament, and to dispute less of the ‘manner how’ we feed on Christ.” He confesses that “I see not which way it should be gathered by the words of Christ when and where the bread is His body or the cup His blood, but only in the very heart and soul of him which receiveth them” - language perfectly in accord with the injunction in the words of delivery, “Feed on Him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.” Hooker had no sacerdotal leanings and his teaching on priesthood, absolution, and confession is quite definite. He asks how the word “priesthood” can be applied to the Ministry since “sacrifice is now no part of it.” He explains that it was due to the Fathers calling the Ministry of the Gospel priesthood, “in regard to what the Gospel hath proportionable to ancient sacrifices, namely, the Communion of the blessed Body and Blood of Christ,” although “it has properly now no sacrifice.” The clergy, he says, “are either presbyters or deacons.” And he remarks that he would rather call them presbyters than priests, because to many “the name priest is odious, though without cause, for the people when they hear the name no more draw their minds to any cogitation of sacrifice than the name senator or alderman causeth them to think upon old age.” He adds: “In truth the word presbyter doth seem more fit, and in propriety of speech more agreeable, than priest with the drift of the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ.” What better title, he concludes, “could be given them than the reverend name of presbyters or fatherly guides”?

Although, like Jewel, Hooker would not condemn private Confession as “unlawful”, he points out that “the Church of England hath thought it the safer way to refer men's hidden crimes unto God and themselves only”; and he explains that the Anglican view of repentance relies “chiefly upon the inward conversion of the heart.” Auricular Confession had, he declared, “no warrant in Scripture.” “St. John says, ‘If we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.’ Doth St. John say if we confess to the priest God is righteous to forgive, and if not, that our sins are unpardonable? No, but the titles of God – ‘just’ and ‘righteous’ - do import that He pardons sin only for His promise's sake.” “The cause of remission of sins,” Hooker declares, “is grace, and the condition repentance.” Absolution does not really take away sin, “but only ascertains us of God's most gracious and merciful pardon.” “The priest doth never in absolution,” he says again, “either forgive the act or remove the punishment of sin. . . . God alone doth truly give, and private ministerial absolution only declares remission of sins.” “If,” he adds, “the penitent is truly contrite, he hath absolution . . . before absolution.”

Theological Position

Hooker, as we have seen, was a strong opponent of Calvinistic discipline; but in doctrine, in common with practically all the contemporary Anglican divines, he was definitely Calvinist. His views on Predestination are in line with the praeterition theory of St. Augustine. “To God’s foreknown elect, final continuance of grace is given,” he declares. That such elect souls “should be finally seduced and clean drawn away from God is a thing impossible.” “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not,” is, he affirms, our safety. On the other hand he declares that “inward grace, whereby to be saved, is deservedly not given unto all men.” But he explains that it is “only their sins which condemn those to whom God's saving mercy does not extend.” In fact his conclusions on this deeply mysterious subject are only a slight modification of the Lambeth Articles Of 1595, agreed to by Archbishops Whitgift and Bancroft, one of which asserted that “it is not placed within the will and power of every man to be saved.”

 

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Richard Hooker
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