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Law, Liturgy, Wisdom: An Introduction to Richard Hooker

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Friday, October 29, 2010 at 4:54 pm
Richard Hooker is oftentimes described as the founding figure of the Anglican tradition. The following essay introduces his theological vision by focusing on his highly influential Laws. As we will see, Hooker was a theologian of law and liturgy who first and foremost discerned the majesty of divine wisdom as the guiding principle of all theological orthodoxy.
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Richard Hooker is oftentimes described as the founding figure of the Anglican tradition. This is, however well intentioned, a half-truth. It is certainly true that Hooker’s great, unfinished theological work, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie (hereafter, Laws), was a key text in Anglican arguments against Puritanism. Indeed, the Laws remains the most thoughtful and detailed refutation of Puritanism ever written. It is also true that although Thomas Cranmer gave us The Book of Common Prayer, Richard Hooker is the one who most shaped our understanding of it. But it is unfair to see Hooker as the founder of Anglicanism. He was, instead, one of several key figures in the early history of our church, neither more nor less important than Cranmer, Lancelot Andrewes, and William Laud — not to mention Queen Elizabeth I, King James I, and King Charles the Martyr. Without Hooker, Anglicanism would not be what it is today, but this point also holds for each of these other foundational saints.

This essay introduces the theological vision of Richard Hooker by focusing on his highly influential Laws. The impetus behind this multi-volume treatise was twofold. First was Hooker’s opposition to the claim, made by Puritans, that they were free to disobey both civil and ecclesiastical law when these infringed upon the convictions of conscience. Second was Hooker’s rejection of the ardent Puritan belief that the Church of England’s retention of liturgical ceremonies made it a handmaiden of anti-Christ. Against the first argument Hooker offered a robust theology of law that was rooted in the work of Thomas Aquinas; against the second argument Hooker lovingly and painstakingly detailed the meaning and purpose of liturgy. As we will see, Hooker was a theologian of law and liturgy who first and foremost discerned the majesty of divine wisdom as the guiding principle of all theological orthodoxy.

Of Law and Grace

Law was among the flash points of hot ecclesiastical debate in the 16th century. All Christians, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, agreed that obedience to the law did not make a sinner righteous before God. Beyond this, however, consensus broke down. The Council of Trent claimed that obedience was necessary for righteousness, and that each and every spiritual debt created by sin would be paid for either in this world or in Purgatory. Lutherans and Calvinists, however, believed that law was, at best, a deterrent from wrongdoing which revealed human sinfulness. The earliest expression of the Protestant view was Martin Luther’s burning of Roman canon law in 1520. Believing himself justified by grace through faith alone, Luther denied that positive law — whether biblical, canonical, or civil — was necessary for Christian living.

The Church of England occupied a curious position in these debates, as the Anglican Reformation proceeded by way of canonical and legal reform, rather than the sharp protests of theologians. The contrast with Luther is instructive. Unlike the German reformer, Cranmer believed that canon law was worth reforming rather than discarding. He did not live to complete the project, but left behind his unfinished Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum (the Reformation of Ecclesiastical Laws) as a testament to his belief that law should serve as a guide for the wellbeing of Church and State.

Hooker picked up precisely where Cranmer left off: “That which doth assign unto each thing the kind, that which doth moderate the force and power, that which doth appoint the form and measure of working, the same we term a Law” (Laws, I.2.1). Or, more succinctly, law “is a directive rule unto goodness of operation” (Laws, I.8.4). This view, borrowed from Aquinas and Aristotle, is sometimes called teleological (from the Greek word telos, which means end). Hooker believed that all of creation is teleological — that is, every created thing has a divinely appointed end or purpose. Law exists less to point out our sins, failures, and shortcomings, and more to direct us toward the end for which we were made.

This outlook is one of created order and divine providence. On the one hand, Hooker writes that God alone is “that law which giveth life unto all the rest” (Laws, I.1.3). On the other hand, Hooker follows Aquinas in dividing all created law into five distinct categories: natural law, celestial law, the law of reason, divine law, and positive law (Laws, I.3.1). With the exception of positive law, which is created by human beings, each of the other four laws claims God alone as its author. When civil societies or churches create laws for the wellbeing of their communities, they imitate God’s own act of creation. It is here that we glimpse Hooker’s theology of divine providence. God orders by way of law and we are never free of these laws. Similarly, we are never free of the positive laws that define our human communities. If we are citizens of England, we are not free of the civil law; if we are priests in the Church of England, we are not free of the canon law. Human existence is defined by a harmony of laws.

All laws, however, are not created equal. Hooker writes that the “school of nature” teaches things that “profit many ways for men’s instruction” (Laws, I.12.1). Yet, as he also makes clear, human use of the law of reason is “darkened” by sin, such that we cannot even discern the sinfulness of “gross iniquity” (Laws, I.12.2). In such a situation, the law of nature remains but the law of reason cannot apprehend it. In a poetic turn of phrase, Hooker writes that nature thus “calls for a more divine perfection” (Laws, I.11.4). This is the reason why God inspired prophets and apostles to compose the Scriptures: “the principal intent of Scripture is to deliver the laws of duties supernatural” (Laws, I.14.1). Holy writ is a gift of grace that offers both nature and humanity a “more divine perfection.” Through revelation, human reason is restored so that it can know what God requires for salvation. With Hooker, we behold the harmony of creation and providence, law and grace, and we are invited to contemplate the uncreated wisdom that has ordered these relationships.

“With Angels and Archangels”

The fifth book of Hooker’s Laws was published in 1597. Totaling nearly 500 pages in its current critical edition, it is longer than the sum total of the preface and first four books combined. Here we see the architecture of Hooker’s vision. Law is not just about the fabric of the universe, but about the fabric of every society, civil and ecclesiastical. And, although violating positive law entails violating the divine purpose for law as such, it also entails tearing into the heavy, historical tapestry of communal existence. Against those whom he described as “pretenders of reformation,” Hooker defended not just The Book of Common Prayer, but also a way of life (Laws, V.4.1). Hooker approached liturgy in fundamentally mystical terms. This was due, at least in part, to his deep reading in the Greek Fathers, but the real source of Hooker’s understanding was the Prayer Book itself. Before the Holy Communion, the priest prayed the Sanctus: “Therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious name, evermore praising thee, and saying: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts; heaven and earth are full of thy glory; glory be to thee O Lord most high.” This made clear that the Communion was not just any meal, but a holy event, prefaced by human and angelic voices uniting in one ecstatic hymn.

In the liturgy, Hooker tells us, “Angels are intermingled as our associates.” Their presence comes about through doctrine no less than prayer (Laws, V. 25.2). Through doctrine we receive the “heavenly inspirations” of “Angels descended from above.” Through prayer we offer “holy desires” with “the sending of Angels upward” (Laws, V. 23.1). One suspects that although Hooker believed in angels as heavenly beings, his claim that doctrine and prayer are angels was based upon his knowledge of Hebrew: the word angel simply means messenger. Doctrine and prayer are each, in their own way, messengers of truth. In the liturgy, we not only join with heavenly song, but participate in the truth given by doctrine and prayer.

As one might expect, the fifth book had a deeply sacramental thrust; Hooker described even the Scriptures in sacramental terms: “the reading of scripture is effectual” (Laws, V.22.4). This language, which goes back to St. Augustine, is found in the Articles of Religion, where the sacraments are described as “effectual signs of grace.” Hooker claimed that the sacraments were “necessary,” and he envisioned the Eucharist as the primary means of sacramental grace (Laws, V.57.6). In the Eucharist, “a creature is exalted above the dignity of all creatures,” because in it we receive Christ and “by virtue of this grace man is really made God” (Laws, V.54.3). Here again we see Hooker’s debt to the Greek fathers, who taught that deification — becoming by grace what God is by nature — is the end result of faithful sacramental life. Already participating with angels in hymnody, doctrine, and prayer, the Christian is united with Christ. In the words of the Prayer Book, we are filled with “grace and heavenly benediction.”

Hooker’s Legacy

As with all great works of the theology, Hooker’s Laws was not an immediate bestseller. It aroused a small controversy among a group of English Calvinists, but Hooker fell asleep in Christ before he was able to complete a response to their accusations that he taught heresy. In the early years of the 17th century, however, he was increasingly read and revered as one of the great defenders of the Church of England against both Roman Catholicism and Puritanism. It is noteworthy that shortly before he was executed by Puritan revolutionaries, King Charles I exhorted his daughter Elizabeth to read three works of Anglican theology: Hooker’s Laws, Lancelot Andrewes’s Sermons, and Archbishop William Laud’s Conference with Fisher the Jesuit. Together these books would, as the princess said, “ground” her “against popery.”

Not all Anglicans approached Hooker’s work as merely an antidote to popery. This is well evidenced by Izaak Walton’s influential account of Hooker’s life, which was published in 1665. Walton had already authored biographies of John Donne and George Herbert, and had also composed the Compleat Angler, which remains the most popular book on fishing ever published. In his research, Walton came across a commendation of Hooker by Pope Clement VIII, which he included in his biography. The pope said of Hooker’s Laws that “there is in them such seeds of Eternity, that if the rest be like this they shall last until Fire shall consume all Learning.” Walton had no especial interest in portraying Roman Catholicism favorably, but he knew important praise when he saw it, and his use of the pope’s words helped cement Hooker’s reputation as “the judicious Mr. Hooker.”

Walton’s Life of Hooker influenced the Anglican understanding of Hooker in a second way. As noted earlier, Hooker did not complete the Laws, but only the preface and the first five books. The last three books were published in the mid-17th century, but under much suspicion. For reasons that are not wholly clear, it was widely believed in the 17th century that Hooker’s study had been broken into by Puritan opponents after his death and that many of his papers had been destroyed and that others had been altered. The sixth, seventh, and eighth books of the Laws were thus presented by Walton as untrustworthy, and this remained the dominant view for centuries. Only in the late 20th century, with the publication of the Folger Library Edition of the Works of Richard Hooker, was this view finally put to rest.

Hooker’s intellectual legacy was most concentrated in political theory and liturgical theology. On the one hand, even long after his death, Hooker was studied and cited approvingly by figures as diverse as John Locke and Edmund Burke, and still today he is recognized as one of the forerunners of modern constitutionalism. On the other hand, when Anglicans began composing stand-alone commentaries on The Book of Common Prayer in the 17th century, Hooker was one of the first authorities they turned to. The Oxford Movement of the mid-19th century saw Hooker as an important source for the intensification of Anglican liturgical life. This conviction continued on into the century that followed, particularly with Francis Paget’s Introduction to the Fifth Book of Hooker’s Treatise of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. First published in 1899, it has been reprinted many times since.

If we are to sum up Hooker’s theology, how might we do so? In the second book of the Laws, Hooker explains that wisdom should be our teacher: “Some things she openeth by the sacred books of Scripture; some things by the glorious works of nature: with some things she inspireth from above by spiritual influence, in some things she leadeth and traineth only by worldly experience and practice. We may not so admire her in any one special way that we disgrace her in any other, but must let all her ways be adored according to their place and degree” (Laws, II.1.4). Richard Hooker was a theologian of law, liturgy, and above all wisdom. Despite his clear arguments and poetic prose, he did not believe that theological battles could be won with rhetorical violence. Rather, he trusted that “There will come a time when three words uttered with charity and meekness shall receive a far more blessed reward than three thousand volumes written with disdainful sharpness of wit” (Laws, Preface, 2.10). Such is the order of wisdom made manifest. It is the sound of “grace and heavenly benediction.”


The standard edition of Richard Hooker’s works is W. Speed Hill (ed.), The Folger Library Edition of the Works of Richard Hooker, 7 vols. (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press/Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1977-98). An excellent introduction to Hooker’s Laws is the fine selection of key passages available in Raymond Chapman, Law and Revelation: Richard Hooker and His Writings (Canterbury Press, 2009). John Keble’s 19th-century edition of Hooker’s Laws is frequently reprinted and is available free from Project Canterbury (http://www.anglicanhistory.org/hooker). John Booty (ed.), The Book of Common Prayer, 1559 (University of Virginia Press, 2005), is an elegant edition of the liturgies that Hooker so cherished.

Those interested in further study should begin with Arthur Stephen McGrade (ed.), Richard Hooker and the Construction of Christian Community (Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1997). There is no finer collection of essays on Hooker. A detailed study of Hooker’s relation to Calvinism is available in Nigel Voak, Richard Hooker and Reformed Theology: A Study of Reason, Will, and Grace (Oxford University Press, 2003). Perfectly complimenting this is Daniel Eppley, Defending Royal Supremacy and Discerning God’s Will in Tudor England (Ashgate, 2007), which convincingly places Hooker in the context of earlier English political theology. Two books by W.J. Torrance Kirby, Richard Hooker’s Doctrine of the Royal Supremacy (E. J. Brill, 1990) and Richard Hooker, Reformer and Platonist (Ashgate, 2005), study Hooker in the context of international Protestantism over and against Puritanism. The pervasive influence of Hooker on the development of early Anglicanism is discussed in Michael Brydon, The Evolving Reputation of Richard Hooker: An Examination of Responses, 1600-1714 (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Benjamin Guyer is a graduate student in British history at the University of Kansas.
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