Hooker’s Doctrine of Law I: Basic Schema

For Richard Hooker, the father of Anglican theology and one of most powerful reflective and synthetic minds of his century, the basic structure of Christian theology, because the basic structure of the whole world, was law.  Thus did Protestantism come full-circle by the end of the century, from Luther’s repudiation of law in favor of the grace and the “freedom of a Christian” at the outset, through a reclamation of law, both natural and civil, in the late Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin, finally to a kind of Reformed Thomism, hailing law as the reflection of God’s nature and the foundation of all that is, in Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.  This was certainly not a return to legalism, as we might at first imagine; indeed, Hooker’s project was to rescue law from the legalistic mold into which the Presbyterians had forced it, to recover a broader, fuller, freer concept of law that served as the very form and foundation of freedom, rather than its antithesis.  Hooker’s treatment of law is a watershed in Protestant thought, and is critical for my dissertation research, so I hope to undertake a few posts offering an outline of the essential features (although no doubt these first forays will have to be revisited and corrected in light of future research).

In his Richard Hooker and Contemporary Political Ideas, F.J. Shirley summarizes the difference between Hooker and the earlier Reformers, as he sees it:

“However freely the Reformers might use the term, they denied to the Law of Nature any existence in the reason of man, any character of law, any value as a source for positive law.  Law for them was the Jewish Law, which included the moral within it–a confusion of the civil and moral spheres logically resulting from their doctrine of justification by faith.  Positive Law was for brigands, bandits, and sinners, compelled by its sword to be outwardly virtuous, but the Christian had no need of it.  Law was robbed of its spiritual element, and stood only for command as naked as the sword that, in the hands of the law-giver, should avenge every breach of it: ‘lex coactiva, non directiva’.  But the Catholic world had held that, while law was physically coercive, it was also morally obligatory; hence positive laws must be founded in reason: the force of law must come from its own virtue, not merely from the constraint of the law-giver; from its matter as well as from its form.”

While this is a wonderfully neat and lucid summary, it has the disadvantage of being patently false.  The early Luther and perhaps the Puritans, each in their own quite different ways, might correspond to parts of this picture, but as a whole portrait, it certainly does not fit the magisterial Reformation, which had not departed nearly so dramatically from the Catholic natural law tradition as Shirley, a typical Anglo-Catholic, imagines.  I nevertheless quote it because it highlights nicely what was at stake, and what Hooker rightly saw as the dangers of the Puritan position.  And Shirley is surely on to something in highlighting the extent to which the Reformers emphasized the intrinsically coercive character of law–‘lex coactiva, non directiva.’  Hooker’s theology dramatically reversed this trajectory and rendered coercion almost accidental, rather than essential, to law. (I say, “almost accidental” not because that’s a valid metaphysical category, but because I am not yet confident enough to state it without qualificaiton).  Before considering this dimension, though, it will be crucial to outline the basic schema of law that Hooker lays out.

Hooker begins by rooting law at the very heart of metaphysics.  The world is a place of order, not caprice, of purpose, not aimlessless, of coherence, not chaos, and this order, purpose, and coherence is called Law.  “All things that are have some operation not violent or casuall.  Neither doth any thing ever begin to exercise the same without some foreconceaved ende for which it worketh.  And the ende which it worketh for is not obteined, unlesse the worke be also fit to obteine it by.  For unto every ende every operation will not serve.  That which doth appoint the forme and measure of working, the same we tearme a Lawe.” (I.2.1)

God himself operates by law, not as if there were a law external to his being, of course, but by a law that is intrinsic to Himself: “The being of God is a kinde of lawe to his working: for that perfection which God is, geveth perfection to that he doth…God therefore is a law both to himselfe, and to all other things besides.” (I.2.2, 3)  Because of this, all of God’s doings are rational, not arbitrary: “God worketh nothing without cause.  All those things which are done by him, have some ende for which they are done: and the ende for which they are done, is a reason of his will to do them…it doth not work infinitely but correspondently unto that end for which it worketh.” (I.2.3)  Hooker is thus robustly anti-voluntarist and anti-nominalist.  As Shirley and many older interpreters would have it, he is in this running quite counter to the earlier Reformers; however, this contrast is overstated, and it is increasingly recognized that for all nominalist and voluntarist currents running under the surface in the Reformation, they remain substantially loyal to an older metaphysics.  

This rationality in God’s works is certainly not always discernible for us, but it is for that reason no less present: “The particular drift of everie acte proceeding externally from God, we are not able to discerne, and therefore cannot alwaies give the proper and certaine reason of his works.  Howbeit undoubtedly a proper and certaine reason there is of every finite worke of God, in as much as there is a law imposed upon it; which if there were not, it should be infinite even as the worker himselfe is.” (I.2.4) 

This law, then, of God’s operation, encompasses every kind of law, inasmuch as God’s operations encompass all that is.  Hooker terms it the “eternall” law, and defines it as “that order which God before all ages hath set down with himselfe, for himselfe to do all things by.” (I.2.6)

The rest of law may be treated as subdivisions of this eternal law, as follows:

“That part of it which ordereth naturall agents, we call usually nature’s law: that which Angels doe clearely behold, and without any swarving observe is a law coelestiall and heavenly: the law of reason that which bindeth creatures reasonable in the world, and with which by reason they may most plainely perceive themselves bound; that which bindeth them, and is not knowen but by speciall revelation from God, Divine law; humane law that which out of the law either of reason or of God, men probablie gathering to be expedient, they make it a law.  All things therfore, which are as they ought to be, are conformed unto this second law eternall, and even those things which to this eternall law are not conformable, are notwithstanding in some sort ordered by the first eternall lawe.” (I.3.1)

By this last remark, he seeks to distinguish how things may occur that are contrary to the law of God, unnatural, wicked, etc., and yet according to the decree of God.  The Calvinist solution to this dilemma, crudely put, is to divorce the two, positing a law which has force merely by virtue of divine fiat, while God himself acts (and causes us to act) according to an independent eternal decree, his secret will which is a law to itself.  I can’t say that I’m convinced that Hooker really solves the dilemma (I’m not convinced it is soluble by earthly minds), but he does try to hold it together more harmoniously: “For what good or evill is there under the sunne, what action correspondent or repugnant unto the law which God hath imposed upon his creatures, but in or upon it God doth worke according to the law which himselfe hath eternally purposed to keep, that is to say, the first law eternall?  So that a twofold law eternall being thus made, it is not hard to conceive how they both take place in all things.” (I.3.1)

Of the five subdivisions of law, the coelestiall law is of least interest to us and indeed, to Hooker himself, given that we can say no more about it than that it must exist in some fashion.  The distinction between the law of nature and the law of reason is one that, while I will not say it is unique to Hooker, is certainly distinctive.  I will remark briefly on the relationship here, and in future posts, I will look at the relationship of the law of reason to the Divine law, and the relationship of both to humane law–both matters of great importance, and of great interest to myself.

The distinction, then, between the laws of nature and of reason lies in the element of will.  Whereas it is general to use the blanket term “natural law” for the moral law that guides men, Hooker wants to reserve this term more precisely to the law that governs nature in the strictest sense–the operations of the natural world.  By doing this, he makes sure that we don’t forget that when we talk about “laws of nature” like gravity, we are talking about something integrally related to the other senses of law, and that “natural law” is first and foremost something metaphysical, not merely moral:

“Those things which nature is said to do, are by divine arte performed, using nature as an instrument: nor is there any such arte or knowledge divine in nature her selfe working, but in the guide of natures worke.  Whereas therefore things naturall which are not in the number of voluntarie agents (for of such only we now speake, and of no other) do so necessarily observe their certaine lawes, that as long as they keepe those formes which give them their being, they cannot possiblie be apt or inclinable to do otherwise then they do.” (I.3.4)

To this law, man is like all other creatures bound, inasmuch as our bodies do involuntarily grow toward their appointed end.  However, man has the additional ability to discern and choose to conform toward ends appointed as the perfection of his nature.  In relating these ends, Hooker waxes Augustinian, asserting that being is goodness, goodness proceeds from God, the source of all being, and all creatures strive to seek to conform to that goodness whence they proceed: 

“there is in all things an appetite or desire, whereby they inclyne to something which they may be: and when they are it, they shall be perfecter then nowe they are.  All which perfections are conteyned under the generall name of Goodnesse.  And because there is not in the world any thing wherby another may not some way be made the perfecter, therefore all things that are, are good.  Againe sith there can bee no goodnesse desired which proceedeth not from God himselfe, as from the supreme cause of all things, and every effect doth after a sort conteine, at least wise resemble the cause from which it proceedeth: all things in the worlde are saide to seeke the highest, and to covet more or lesse the participation of God himselfe.” (I.5.1-2)

This is especially true of man, who seeks not merely those general perfections of all creatures–to continue and propagate itself, and to continue “in the constancie and excellenceie of those operations which belong unto their kind,” (I.5.2) both operations of the law of nature–but to further perfections: “such as are not expressely desired unlesse they be first knowne, or such as are not for any other cause, then for knowledge it selfe desired.  Concerning perfections in this kind, that by proceeding in the knowledge of truth and by growing in the exercise of vertue, man amongst the creatures of this inferiour world, aspireth to the greatest conformity with God.” (I.5.3)

Thus it is that we come to the law of reason, that which we discern as the pattern or rule governing those perfections of our being that are attained only by consciously knowing them and choosing to pursue them.  By the reason that is part of our nature we discover those goods which constitute the perfection of our nature, and by recognizing these and experience in pursuing them, we derive maxims and axioms as a guide to right conduct–it is these that make up what is generally referred to as the “natural law.”  Of course, these are not always easy to discern, since there are a multitude of possible goods to choose from, and we often choose a less over a greater, or a faulty route to a genuine good.  Nevertheless, “There is not that good which concerneth us, but it hath evidence enough for it selfe, if reason were diligent to search it out.” (I.7.6)  That which all men have by reason deduced, then, must be taken for law, part of the eternal law, no less: “The generall and perpetual voyce of men is as the sentence of God him selfe.  For that which all men have at all times learned, nature her selfe must needes have tuught; and God being the author of nature, her voyce is but his instrument.” (I.8.3)

Now, for all of us natural law skeptics, we will of course want to ask why it is that if natural law is so natural, and as universal to all men as Hooker claims it to be, the vast majority of men do not observe it, and not only that, often seem ignorant of its principles.  To this, Hooker has a pretty good answer, which I will also explore in a later post.


But for now, I will close with Hooker’s own summary roundup: 

“A law therfore generally taken, is a directive rule unto goodnes of operation.  The rule of divine operations outward, is the definitive appointment of God’s owne wisedome set down within himself.  The rule of naturall agents that worke by simple necessity, is the determination of the wisedome of God, known to God himselfe the principall director of them, but not unto them that are directed to execute the same.  The rule of naturall agents which worke after a sort of their owne accord, as the beasts do, is the judgement of common sense or phancy concerning the sensible goodnes of those objects wherwith they are moved.  The rule of ghostly or immateriall natures, as spirits and Angels, is their intuitive intellectual judgment concerning the amiable beautie and high goodnes of that object, which with unspeakable joy and delight, doth set them on worke.  The rule of voluntary agents on earth is the sentence that reason giveth concernng the goodnes of those things which they are to do.  And the sentences which reason giveth are some more, some lesse general, before it come to define in particular actions what is good.  The main principles of reason are in themselves apparent.  For to make nothing evident of it selfe unto man’s understanding were to take away al possibility of knowing any thing.” (I.8.4)

Here it is worth drawing attention again to that feature that Shirley highlighted: law as “directive” rather than coercive.  We are accustomed, I think, to thinking of law as a set of barbed wire fences enclosing a somewhat amorphous space, defining where we must not go if we want to avoid evil, but leaving undefined just how we are to pursue virtue; or perhaps we are willing to see the fences as standing forbiddingly on either shoulder of a road that leads to virtue.  Either way, law is essentially coercive, binding us to refrain from evil, but incapable of itself to lead us to good.  Hooker doesn’t it that way, though; for him, law is the road that leads to virtue, that guides us to our appointed perfection.  If of necessity the road must have fences around it, so be it, but they are not of its essence, nor is it necessary that they be necessary.  

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