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Book review: Richard Hooker: Theological method and Anglican identity by Philip Hobday

by
08 March 2024

Paul Avis welcomes a study of convergence in three theologians

THE aim of this former Durham University doctoral thesis is to assert significant common ground between the greatest of Anglican divines, Richard Hooker (1554-1600), and the greatest of medieval theologians, St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), and the greatest of Reformed theologians, John Calvin (1509-64).

The author’s aspiration to bring these three giants of the Christian tradition into dialogue is admirable. I have long hoped to see this done so thoroughly. The bane of Christian theology through the ages has been the tendency to play off one school of thought against another polemically, to assert difference where there is little or none, and thus falsely to boost the theological distinctiveness of our own Church and tradition at the expense of others. The ecumenical potential of the author’s achievement is obvious.

But, to facilitate further ecumenical convergence, the results of this and similar studies, especially the reports of ecumenical dialogues, need to be disseminated and absorbed into the thinking and policy of the Churches — here Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Reformed — but the track record in this respect is disappointing.

Hobday centres on the “theological method” of his three subjects. By theological method, he intends the “grounds” and “sources” of their theological constructions and how those grounds and sources “relate to each other”. There is more to method than the basis of argument, but it is a necessary starting point.

In reality, Hobday engages at length with the content, as well as the methods, of the three bodies of theological work. He is able to show highly significant common ground between their teachings. The areas under investigation fall into the category of fundamental theology and include: the authority of scripture and of tradition in church teaching and practice; the place of human reason in arriving at Christian truth; and natural theology derived from the natural knowledge of God without recourse to divine revelation in scripture.

Hobday believes that the manifest theological convergence of Hooker, Aquinas, and Calvin has been obscured in each case by tendentious subsequent interpretations: in the case of Calvin, by a more rigid modern Neo-Calvinism; in the case of Aquinas, by a more metaphysical modern Neo-Thomism; and in the case of Hooker, by the man who edited Hooker’s works in the mid-19th century and in the process doctored and distorted certain aspects of his thought, notably on episcopacy — the otherwise estimable John Keble. Hobday seeks to correct distortions, overcome prejudice, and display convergence. This he has done effectively and unanswerably.

To read Hooker in the original is a literary and intellectual education, but also a challenge, until we become acclimatised to his sometimes obscure and often convoluted style. For the sake of accessibility, most Hooker sources are here given in modernised English, though I assume that this was not the case in the author’s doctoral thesis. There is a large, though not quite complete, bibliography of secondary studies.

Some incomplete quotations affect the sense. A couple of regrettable confusions blur the argument throughout. First, the labels “reformed” and “Reformed” are used interchangeably. But, in normal usage, “reformed” refers to any Church that has been significantly shaped by the Reformation; while “Reformed” refers specifically to the Churches of the Swiss Reformation and to the theological tradition of which Calvin remains the formative influence. “Reformed” is not equivalent to “Protestant”. Martin Luther is “reformed”, but not “Reformed”. That is why two of the largest Protestant world communions today are the Lutheran World Federation and the World Communion of Reformed Churches.

Second, the slogan sola scriptura is treated as an undifferentiated pillar of Reformation theology, and it is claimed that Aquinas and Hooker endorsed it in their own way. It is correct that all three subjects affirm the supremacy of scripture in Christian teaching. The phrase sola scriptura, however, is an elephant trap into which many writers, including academics, have fallen through ignorance of the niceties and nuances of Reformation theology.

For Luther, Calvin, and Hooker, holy scripture was given to show the way of salvation, over against late-medieval human traditions and practices that obscured that pathway. It was the sole source of the doctrine of salvation (soteriology), but not the sole source of doctrines and practices concerning worship and governance. Hooker wrote his Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie explicitly to refute that notion, advanced by reformist Presbyterians within the Church of England. Sola scriptura was not equivalent, as the author variously puts it, to “Christian doctrine”, “distinctive Christian doctrines”, or even the “unique source of doctrine”.

 

The Revd Dr Paul Avis is an Hon. Professor in the School of Divinity, in the University of Edinburgh, and Editor-in-Chief of Ecclesiology.

 

Richard Hooker: Theological method and Anglican identity
Philip Hobday
T & T Clark £85
(978-0-567-70803-8)
Church Times Bookshop £76.50

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