Richard Hooker, Theologian

Richard Hooker, who lived toward the end of the reign of Elizabeth I in England, is reputed the founder of the Anglican theology of comprehensiveness and tolerance. If we want to see how Richard Hooker, as THE Anglican theologian does his theology, we can look at his controversy with Walter Travers when they both served the Temple Church in London. There Hooker, the Master, preached on a Sunday Morning, and the Assistant, Travers, in the afternoon. Travers, who had been passed over as Master when Hooker was appointed, took the opportunity to defend the Puritan teaching that caused him to be passed over for Hooker. Hooker himself then undertook to defend his own position.

Hooker took a position that was more inclusive, in the sense of tolerating more variety of opinion and accepting more variety of practice in religious and state affairs. Travers was concerned to exclude those things which were not strictly scriptural. He took scripture as the ultimate rule and test. Hooker's attitude to scripture was deeply nuanced by reason. He made reason the criterion of reading scripture. Not, you note, the criterion of scripture, but of reading scripture. Hooker really did hold scripture in first place. He held reason necessary for the understanding and application of scripture in all the areas in which scripture might be applied.

Their first difference arose over the question of predestination. Some years previous to this controversy, Hooker had maintained in God two wills, the one antecedent, the other consequent, so the first will of God is that all should be saved, the second that "only those who did live answerable to that degree of grace which [God] had offered, or afforded." This contradicted the Calvinist view held by Travers, that the will of God is single and unitary, and thus that God directly damns some prior to any behavior of their own. Thus Hooker asserts the possibility, if not the fact, of the salvation of all.

Hooker further compromised himself in Travers' Calvinist eyes by asserting that Romans Catholics could be saved as Roman Catholics, because that Church, though not perfect and erring in various ways, still held to Christ and the greater part of the foundations of Christianity, and so its faithful were excused by honest ignorance of the truth. Travers replies that none who believe in justification by works can be saved, because they are in ignorance of the truth of scriptural teaching, namely, that all are saved by faith alone. Thus for Travers, any drop of falsity tends to exclude, while for Hooker, truth, partial and mistaken but well-meant, tends to include. Hooker's aim was to emphasize the unity of Christendom before its divisions by pointing out first the things in which all Christians agreed: "I took it for the best and most perspicuous way of teaching, to declare first, how far we do agree, and then to show our disagreements."

Finally Travers attacked Hooker on his manner of accepting Scripture. Travers took exception to Hooker's saying that the assurance of what we believe by word is not so great as that we believe by sense. Hooker replies by asking why it is then, that if assurance by word is greater, God so frequently shows his promises to us in our sensible experience. Hooker's ultimate principle he calls reason, by which he means thought, not as propositional thinking, but as the whole process of experience, and reflection on experience, that issues in knowledge and wisdom, and supremely, the knowledge of God.

Further, for Hooker, the realm of experience is ordinary life, all of it. Of this ordinary experience, scripture is a part. As all comes from God, so scripture does. As we learn from all our experience, and learn that the world is so ordered that it works in this way and not in that, so we learn of God from Scripture. This supplies the knowledge of God which we cannot gain from the nature we discern in the world around us. But for Hooker the process of understanding is not different whatever it is that is being discerned. "So our own words also when wee extoll the complete sufficiencie of the whole entire bodie of the scripture, must in like sorte be understoode with this caution, that the benefite of natures light be not thought excluded as unnecessarie, because the necessitie of a diviner light is magnifyed.(Lawes I.14.4)"

This is an implicit critique of Travers' and the Puritans use of scripture as the ultimate rule and guide. They used scripture as a set of propositional laws, unrelated to the ordinary life of humans of their time, as eternal laws and absolute, unconnected to person and circumstance. They used them to conform person and circumstance to their mold rather than both conforming to and at the same time transforming person and circumstance. Hooker's complaint, though the word would be profoundly anachronistic, is that the Puritan's construction of scripture is unhistorical.

So in discussing the Puritan's construction of ecclesial institutions on scriptural models, Hooker points out that the words of scripture were written to address specific occasions and situations in the life of the church, and not as absolute rules. "The severall bookes of scripture having had each some severall occasion and particular purpose which caused them to be written, the contents thereof are according to the exigence of that speciall ende whereunto they are intended.(Lawes I.14.3)" His whole critique of the Puritan use of scripture is summed up in Lawes IV.11.7: "Words must be taken according to the matter whereof they are uttered." These words might well be addressed to the Fundamentalists of our own day.

Finally, in the Travers-Hooker controversy, one must take notice of the irenic tone that underlies the polemic. The two men remained on good terms personally, and both made it clear that there was no personal animosity. Among other things, Travers' brother John was married to Hooker's sister. Hooker in fact seems to have found all controversy hateful; this may have made him so kind a pleader as he was. God's saving grace to Hooker was this tone of tolerance and inclusiveness. It is to this day a fundamental note that distinguishes Anglicanism. I would pray that this grace be given to all today who find themselves as theologians compelled to one controversy or another. This fundamental personal amity, this air of openness and inclusiveness, may be as great a contribution to ecumenism as any theological contribution any of us will ever make.