Richard Hooker and Puritans: Of sundry things, in the light of reason

by
14 June 2019

Richard Hooker’s engagement with the Puritans has much to teach those who debate scripture today, says John Barton

ALAMY

A 1641 woodcut in a tract which shows the godliness of the Puritan, left, holding his Bible, contrasting with the superstitions preached by Laud and his fellow bishops

A 1641 woodcut in a tract which shows the godliness of the Puritan, left, holding his Bible, contrasting with the superstitions preached by Laud and h...

RICHARD HOOKER (1554-1600) is known as the great defender of the Elizabethan Settlement of the Church of England. His work Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity offers a detailed apologia for Elizabeth’s ordering of the Church. Few readers, whether they like or dislike this apologia, have seen Hooker as important for biblical interpretation. Yet he has much to teach us.

Hooker tackled the arguments of opponents from what would come to be called the Puritan Party. Despite its clear Protestantism, the Elizabethan Church continued to have bishops and a hierarchical order. Puritans wanted to replace this with a Presbyterian system, such as prevailed in Scotland. Notable representatives of the Puritan tendency were Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603), and Hooker’s own sometime assistant (Reader) at the Temple Church, Walter Travers (1548-1635).

They maintained that a Presbyterian system of church government was mandated by scripture. Hooker, therefore, had not only to argue from philosophical principles, but also to take a position on how to read the Bible.

Hooker’s arguments, and those of his opponents, were not symmetrical. The Puritans maintained that a Presbyterian order was directly commanded in scripture; Hooker argued that episcopacy was not scripturally mandated, but was acceptable, good, and appropriate. He did not criticise other Churches for having a Presbyterian organisation; he simply denied that it was the only system consonant with the New Testament.

 

IN ACCORDANCE with the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (1563), Hooker maintained — in complete agreement with the Puritans — that “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 necessary or requisite to salvation”. This is an obviously Protestant principle: nothing may be held to be essential to Christianity, except on scriptural warrant.

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Sometimes, however, two further but unjustified corollaries were drawn from this scripture principle.

First, the belief that only what is commanded in scripture is mandatory can easily lead believers to think that nothing may be done in the Church unless scripture commands it — a subtly different and much “harder” position.

This desire to derive everything from the Bible leads to a distortion of the Bible. Not every human custom, even in the Church, Hooker argued, needs an explicit scriptural warrant:

“That which they took for an oracle, being sifted, was repelled. True it is concerning the Word of God, whether it be by misconstruction of the sense, or by falsification of the words, wittingly to endeavour that any thing may seem divine which is not, or any thing not seem which is, were plainly to abuse and even to falsify divine evidence; which injury offered but unto men, is most worthily counted heinous.

“Which point I wish they did well observe, with whom nothing is more familiar than to plead in these causes [that is, establishing customs in the Church], the Law of God, the Word of the Lord; who notwithstanding, when they come to allege what Word and what Law they mean, their common ordinary practice is, to quote by-speeches in some historical narration or other, and to urge them as if they were written in most exact form of Law.

“What is to add to the Law of God, if this be not? When that which the Word of God doth but deliver historically, we construe without any warrant, as if it were legally meant, and so urge it further than we can prove it was intended; do we not add to the Laws of God, and make them in number seem more than they are? (Laws III.5).”

“By-speeches in some historical narration or other” sounds quite a shocking way to describe a section of the Bible, and will surely have offended Hooker’s more Puritan-leaning readers. It establishes, however, the central importance in interpreting the Bible of not reading against the grain of the text’s intention. Laws cannot be derived from the occasional speeches of characters in the biblical story.

How should the Church organise its ministry — episcopally, or in accordance with a Presbyterian model? It is fairly obvious, once one looks only for explicit rulings, that the Bible provides no answer. Attempts to extract an obligatory polity from St Paul’s occasional references to types of ministry in the Church cannot succeed. Either system can perfectly well be defended, but neither is compulsory.

The question of church order is an adiaphoron: a “matter indifferent”. “Indifferent” does not mean trivial or unimportant, but underdetermined: a matter on which there can be legitimate differences of opinion, because scripture provides no certain ruling.

Yet, it is also a matter on which some definite decision is needed (one cannot both have bishops and not have them), and the powers that be have the authority to make such a decision. What they should not do is to treat their human decision as having the authority of the Bible behind it. They should regard it as a fallible human judgement, made in good faith:

“Sundry things may lawfully be done in the Church, so as they be not done against the Scripture, although no Scripture do command them; but the Church only following the light of reason judge them to be in discretion meet. (Laws III.2).”

 

A SECOND important point is this: the fact that the Bible contains all things “necessary for salvation” does not logically imply that all things contained in the Bible are necessary for salvation. This tended to be overlooked by Puritans. There can be things in the Bible that do not bear on questions of our eternal destiny, and which ought not to be twisted to force them to do so.

The Bible must be read in accordance with reason — and, indeed, common sense. If we exaggerate the perfection of scripture, we actually do it an injustice. In a central passage, which I have used as a kind of motto for my own book, Hooker teaches that the Bible is honoured more when its limitations are allowed for than when it is elevated above what it can bear:

“Whatsoever is spoken of God, or things appertaining to God, otherwise than as the truth is, though it seem an honour, it is an injury. And as incredible praises given unto men do often abate and impair the credit of their deserved commendation, so we must likewise take great heed, lest, in attributing unto Scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly, to be less reverently esteemed (Laws, II.8).”

Christians must be content with an adequate book, containing everything they need, and not hanker after absolute perfection. This was a hard message for many Christians to hear in Hooker’s day, and remains so now. Christians have a natural, and laudable, desire to praise the Bible in superlative terms. To be told that it is merely “sufficient” is not easy. Indeed, for Hooker its sufficiency had nothing “mere” about it. He had no desire to undervalue the Bible, but simply wished to insist that it should be properly valued, not unrealistically overrated; interpreted fairly, not over-interpreted.

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IN ALL this there are features that Hooker shares with what is nowadays known as biblical criticism. Modern biblical study in a critical mode is, in many ways, a child of the Enlightenment, yet the early-modern Hooker strangely anticipated some of its concerns.

First, Hooker’s reading was intentionalist. He deduced that, sometimes, the intention was that of the human author; sometimes of God; sometimes, mysteriously, of the text itself.

Second, Hooker’s reading was rational. He rejected claims that the true meaning of the text had been miraculously revealed to them by the Holy Spirit. Sound reason must be appealed to when undertaking biblical interpretation. Sometimes, he argued, scripture was plain in its meaning, sometimes “more dark and doubtful”, and questions of church order belonged to the dark and doubtful realm.

The meaning could be apprehended only “according to the nature of that evidence which Scripture yieldeth”, and, consequently, “it is not the fervent earnestness of their persuasion, but the soundness of those reasons, whereupon the same is built, which must declare their opinions in these things to have been wrought by the Holy Ghost.”

Third, Hooker, argued, biblical texts must be read in accordance with their genre. Law does not follow from speeches in narrative; psalms do not teach doctrine. The relation of the Bible to faith is an oblique one: many parts of the Bible depend on, or suggest, lines of theological thought, but are not direct sources for the doctrine or practice of Christianity. Attention to genre is arguably the foundation of biblical criticism. It deters the reader from finding simply any kind of meaning in the scriptural text, and encourages attention to what types of information a given text is capable of providing

Hooker is diminished if we read him merely as a polemicist, defending the political and religious settlement of Elizabeth I. He was a significant theologian; but he was also an expert in biblical interpretation.

 

Canon John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford, and Senior Research Fellow, Campion Hall, Oxford. A History of the Bible: The book and its faiths by John Barton is published by Allen Lane at £25 (Church Times Bookshop £22.50) (Books, 5 April, Features, 26 April).

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