The Perils and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant political theology, by W. Bradford Littlejohn

by
22 September 2017

Peter Sedgwick finds brilliant scholarship in a work on Hooker

 

W. BRADFORD LITTLEJOHN is a United States Calvinist, or Reformed, young theologian. American culture has been riven with disputes about the relationship of Church and State, the place of conscience in accepting religious and civil authority, politics, or, more theologically, the relationship of law and gospel.

There has been a great industry, both in academia and inside the Churches on these issues in the decades after the 1960s. Much of this echoes, deliberately or not, the debates about the same issues in the first century of the Reformation, including the disputes involving the Puritans in England, and their demand for liberty, alongside complete obedience to scripture.

It was because of this that Littlejohn discovered the English, Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, who died in 1600. Littlejohn has great energy, and skill in writing popular pieces. He produced a short and readable guide to Hooker for the American market two years ago; he runs the Davenant Institute, named after a 17th-century Bishop of Salisbury sympathetic to Calvinism; he blogs a great deal; and he completed a Ph.D. under Oliver O’Donovan at Edinburgh on Hooker’s controversies with the Puritans.

This book is the Ph.D. thesis, expanded and reshaped, but essentially the original work. It is a good, and clear, guide to the Puritans who argued with Hooker, and Hooker’s replies. The thesis, and book, has the feel of “If you were making these Calvinist objections to any Church constraining your conscience, this is what Hooker said in reply.”

The book is very detailed, and reflects an interesting academic pedigree. Up to the 1960s, Anglicans around the globe believed in Hooker the patron saint of Anglicanism: bland, slightly smug, and a middle way between Roman Catholics and Protestants. That view was fiercely challenged by two different academics in very different ways.

Torrance Kirby, who is a prolific Canadian historian of theology, argued fiercely that Hooker was a Reformed theologian. Many have followed him down this path since the 1980s. At the same time, Peter Lake, originally British but now teaching in the US, argued that the Elizabethan Church was indeed Calvinist, or Reformed, but that Hooker led the counter-assault for a far more Catholic, sacramental, theology. In Lake’s view, he was the first Anglican.

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Lake is a political historian, and is now one of the grand old men of 16th/17th-century studies. Lake inspired many recent Anglican theologians such as Charles Miller and Alison Joyce, both of whom have produced fine studies of Hooker in the past decade.

Littlejohn is very much a Kirby man, though he uses Lake a great deal for the historical background. His Hooker is very much one who understands where the Puritans are coming from. The great merit of this book is its very detailed and patient reading of Hooker, and a fascinating guide to the debates about contemporary individualism, human freedom, liberty of conscience, and, indeed, liberalism in general. Littlejohn sees Hooker as a great guide in the debates about political theology, and brings him alive for the 21st century.

It is largely a book aimed at debates inside the American Church, and the reshaping of the thesis moves the text very much in this direction, although with a good appreciation of O’Donovan. It will certainly bring Hooker alive for Evangelical political theology, and the North American Church.

There will be much more to come from this brilliant young scholar. It is very different from Miller or Joyce, but a welcome addition to the revival of Hooker. Hooker as modern-day political theologian: it is an intriguing thought.

Canon Peter Sedgwick is a former Principal of St Michael’s College, Llandaff.

 

The Perils and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant political theology

W. Bradford Littlejohn

Eerdmans £29.99
(978-0-8028-7256-2)
Church Times Bookshop £27

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