Robin Ward draws attention to the importance of Richard Hooker in the emergence of what came to be called Anglicanism, and argues that his moral theology continues to speak to the Church today


A.J. Joyce

Oxford University Press, 288pp, hbk 978 0199216161, £65

This is an excellent book. The title alone gives confidence: moral theology is a discipline founded on Christian anthropology and capable of systematic exposition, and for Anglicans Hooker is the key figure in ensuring that the Thomist synthesis of ordered virtue oriented towards beatitude remains foundational to our preaching of discipleship. Indeed, at just the moment that on the Continent the Jesuit manualist tradition led by Azor was reducing moral theology to a grid of obligations based on natural law, with only tacit reference to what it might all be for, so Hooker preserves in the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity the corporate hope for the beatific vision: ‘Yea then are the public duties of religion best ordered, when the militant Church doth resemble by sensible means…that hidden dignity and glory wherewith the Church triumphant in heaven is beautified, Ecclesiastical Polity’.

One of the principal strengths of this book is to make this clear. Some recent commentary on Hooker, most notably the work of Nigel Atkinson, has tried to reclaim him for Calvinism, and so stress not only the commonality of his thinking with the reformed tradition, but also the want of justification for his appropriation by the Arminian Laudians as their archetypal Anglican divine. Now insofar as Hooker unsurprisingly inclines to the position of the Anglican formularies rather than the Council of Trent on controversial points to do with justification by faith, sacramental theology and so forth this is true. But Joyce demonstrates conclusively the fundamental importance of the ‘law of reason’ in Hooker’s exposition, and thus his endorsement of the essential Thomist premise that the law of nature is rational in its character, in contradistinction to the voluntarist-nominalist position most obvious in Luther, which perceives it as something simply commanded.

Part of the problem here has been a failure to appreciate Hooker as a consummate prose stylist and dry wit. Joyce is very good at bringing thisout, in particular the sharp but often overlooked ironic reference to John Calvin as ‘incomparably the wisest man that ever the French church did enjoy, since the hour it enjoyed him’. Too many commentators have been content to leave out the second part of that sentence. Hooker presents himself as judicious, humble, rational and detached; but from behind this carefully crafted carapace, sharp darts of waspish polemic shoot out.

The literary quality of Hooker’s achievement is complemented by the originality and good sense of his engagement with the scriptural authorities he employs. Against his Puritan opponents who wanted to treat the Bible as the only source of human law in all things, Hooker argues that Scripture is not self-authenticating, is conclusive insofar as it contains all that is necessary for salvation but not all that is necessary to order every aspect of the Christian life, and that respect needs to be given to both the idiom of translation and the relevance of genre. Joyce stresses in particular here Hooker’s aversion to the Puritan practice of quoting ‘by-speeches in some historicall narration or other as the most exact forme of written law’.

What are the key theological insights that Joyce identifies in Hooker’s work, having established the measured register of his polemical style and the hermeneutic sophistication with which he articulates it? First, Hooker articulates a theological anthropology that remains confident in the capacity of fallen human beings to act with ‘a reasonable understanding, and a will thereby to frame good things’, provided that God assists us: in a crucial distinction, we are apt to act well, but not able without grace. Hooker does not believe in total depravity, albeit he acknowledges robustly ‘the foggie damp of originall corruption’ that prevents us from acting consistently in the light of our aptness for the good.

Second, Hooker’s classic Ihomist account of the rationality of natural law, to the extent that he prefers to call it the law of reason, poses an important question about its mutability. Hooker deals with some originality in distinguishing certain laws as primary and secondary not in the classic Thomist sense but insofar as they relate to those which address the ‘sincere’ and those which address the ‘depraved’ aspects of our nature. Furthermore, in considering the application of laws to cases, he not only envisages the usual casuistic process of judging between conflicting obligations, but also admits as a general principle that although divine law is uniquely reasonable and therefore invariable, yet this invariability is qualified by the proviso, ‘If the end for which, and the manner according whereunto God maketh his lawes, continue alwaies one and the same’. This is the crucial point at which the moral scheme of Hooker’s theology touches contemporary dilemmas about human sexuality: not with a glib claim that reason can somehow trump Scripture and tradition, but by considering how mutable creatures properly discern and participate in the immutable rationality of God.

Joyce concludes with some consideration of Hooker’s casuistical method and in particular his defence of the Prayer Book marriage rite. Diarmaid MacCulloch has suggested that Hooker sometimes gives the impression of being a fundamentalist fuss-pot about the minutiae of the Elizabethan settlement, and it is interesting here how much importance he attaches to the compulsory reception of holy communion at a wedding, a rubric dropped in 1662. But keeping order in the nursery is never an easy job, and like the Queen, Hooker realized that the puritan attacks on the various (admittedly rather random) ritual survivals of 1559 were motivated by something rather more thorough-going than contested antiquarianism.

At the end I think that Joyce perhaps underplays a little the fundamental importance of Hooker in transmitting to the Church of England the classical ‘Ihomist understanding of natural law as both reasonable and apprehensible with the aid of divine grace. The English Reformation was iconoclastic, Calvinist-minded and vividly suspicious of Popery. The emergence from out of this unpromising raw material of what came to be called Anglicanism is a curious thing, and the legacy of Hooker is to have preserved within what looked like an unassailably protestant theological superstructure enough of the scholastic apprehension of what human living is about to reappear as the Calvinist tide went out. He is the theologian of the virtue of religion, in which reverence for external practice is not a substitute for personal faith, but instead its inspiration and its stay: ‘we have reason to think that all true virtues are to honour true religion as their parent, and all well-ordered commonwealths to love her as their chiefest stay’. ND