Harmonizing Reason and Scripture (Hooker’s Doctrine of Law, Pt. 5)

We have already seen how Hooker is at pains to demonstrate continuity between natural and supernatural, the law of reason and the law of Scripture.  The two are not at odds, nor are they carved off into separate spheres, but they mutually depend on one another, and are mutually interpreting.  

Hooker elaborates this harmonious vision at much more length in Bk. II of the Lawes, in the context of a devastating polemic against the Puritan vision that is so determined to play Scripture and reason, divine and human, off against one another.  The effects of this antagonism, he perceives, cannot but be disastrous to the Church.  The denigration of human reason undermines any respect for the Church or her traditions, and leads to a stubborn, individualistic anti-intellectualism–it “hath alreadie made thousandes so headstrong even in grosse and palpable errors, that a man whose capacitie will scarce serve him to utter five wordes in sensible maner, blusheth not in any doubt concerning matter of scripture to thinke his own bare Yea, as good as the Nay of all the wise, grave, and learned judgements that are in the whole world” (II.7.6).

Much of this comes from a laudable desire to exalt Scripture by attributing to it exclusive and universal authority over all knowledge, but Hooker perceives that it is no honour to Scripture to claim for it attributes that it does not claim for itself; “Whatsoever is spoken of God or thinges appertaining to God otherwise then as the truth is; though it seeme an honour, it is an injurie.  And as incredible praises geven unto men do often abate and impaire the credit of their deserved commendation; so we must likewise take great heede, lest in attributing unto scripture more then it can have, the incredibilitie of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly to be less reverendly esteemed” (II.8.7).

Not only this, but if we play Scripture off against nature, we will undermine the foundations of human knowledge, with disastrous effect: “Marke, I beseech you, what would follow.  God in delivering scripture to his Church should cleane have abrogated amongst them the lawe of nature; which is an infallible knowledge imprinted in the mindes of all the children of men, whereby both generall principles for directing of humaine actions are comprehended, and conclusions derived from them, upon which conclusions groweth in particularitie the choise of good and evill in the daylie affaires of this life.  Admit this; and what shall the scripture be but a snare and a torment to weake consciences, filling them with infinite perplexities, scrupulosities, doubts insoluble, and extreme despaires” (II.8.6).

Clearly, for Hooker, much is at stake.  We cannot allow ourselves to become so carried away with reverence for Scripture that we fail to revere the rest of God’s revelation, for God speaks to us through all his works.  To heed God’s revelation in nature is not to reject his revelation in Scripture, for divine law does not “cleane abrogate” the law of nature, but reinforces and further expounds it, as we have already seen.  Therefore, in a great many of our actions, “it sufficeth if such actions be framed according to the lawe of reason; the generall axiomes, rules, and principles of which law being so frequent in holy scripture, there is no let but in that regard, even out of scripture such duties may be deduced by some kinde of consequence” (II.1.2)–but such deduction need not be explicit or self-conscious, he goes on to say.  In other words, we may comfort ourselves that we do not need to have a Scriptural command in mind for every action we take, because we may be confident that, in many ordinary matters, if we conform our actions in godly humility to the law of reason, we are thereby acting in conformity to Scripture also.


The Puritans will argue, he says, that whatever we do not do according to God’s will and command must be sinful.  Very well, but why restrain the revelation of God’s will to Scripture alone?  We have already seen Hooker’s expansive vision of the eternal law of God unfolding itself through all his works, from the actions of the smallest creatures to the laws of human societies.  They alleage “that wisedome doth teach men every good way,” but 

“The boundes of wisedome are large, and within them much is contayned.”  Indeed, before the Scriptures were written down, did not Adam and the patriarchs direct their steps by wisdom, a wisdom available outside of Scripture?  God’s wisdom teaches us in many ways: “Some things she openeth by the sacred bookes of Scripture; some things by the glorious works of nature; with some things she inspireth them from above by spirituall influence, in some thinges she leadeth and trayneth them onely by worldly experience and practise.  We may not so in any one speciall kind admire her that we disgrace her in any other, but let all her wayes be according unto their place and degree adored” (II.I.4) 

Likewise, although it be true that all things must be done to the glory of God, it does not follow from this, as the Puritans would have it, that all things must be done in express obedience to Scripture, or even with “an expresse intent and purpose to obey God therein.”  With his eminent sensibility, Hooker pleads, “Shall it hereupon be thought that S. Paule did not move eyther hand or foot, but with expresse intent even therby to further the common salvation of men?  We move, we sleepe, we take the cuppe at the hand of our freind, a number of thinges we oftenimes doe, only to satisfie some naturall desire, without present expresse, and actuall reference unto any commaundement of God” (II.2.1)  Again, the Puritan’s error here is a failure to understand how God can be glorified in all his works.  Even when we obey the involuntary law of our nature–breathing, closing our eyes when we sneeze–we glorify God therein as his well-designed creatures.  Likewise, when we consciously act in accord with the law he has set for our natures, when we take food or even when we share food with our neighbor, we glorify God therein as his rational creatures.  “For scripture is not the onely lawe whereby God hath opened his will touching all thinges that may be done, but there are other kindes of lawes which notifie the will of God, as in the former booke hath beene proved at large” (II.2.2).  He even has a Scripture proof for this–Peter exhorts the saints in 1 Pet. 2:12 to do good works that, when the Gentiles see them, they may “glorifie God in the day of visitation” (II.2.3).  How could heathens discern the godliness and goodness of these works without themselves having faith unless the law of reason revealed it to them?

 

So Hooker has argued in the first place that we understand natural revelation as conformable to special revelation, that reason may offer insight even in ethical matters that  Scripture does not directly speak to.  But surely there are matters over which Scripture exercises absolute supremacy, not natural law, reason, etc.?  Certainly there are, and Hooker ends Bk. II by carefully delineating this realm–this shall be the subject of the next post in this series.  However, Hooker goes on in Bk. III to argue that even here, the Puritan construal of sola Scriptura and the antagonism they set up between Scripture and reason is incoherent.  For even where Scripture rightly exercises sole primacy, reason plays an indispensable role.  The crucial passage comes in ch. 8.  He has just finished an apologia for reason, against Scriptural and patristic testimony that the Puritans have alleged against it.  “There is in the world,” he concludes, “no kinde of knowledge, whereby any part of truth is seene, but we justlie accompt it pretious, yea that principall truth, in comparison whereof all other knowledge is vile, may receive from it some kinde of light….To detract from the dignitie thereof [the various kinds of natural wisdom] were to injurie even God himselfe, who being that light which none can approch unto, hath sent out these lights wherof we are capable, even as so many sparkls resembling the bright fountain from which they rise” (III.8.9).  The central claim here is that “that principall truth”–the salvific truth of Scripture “may received from it”–that is, from the light of natural reason–“some kind of light.”  

The argument here is not that reason adds necessary substance to Scripture–not in salvific matters, though as we have already seen, it does to an extent in mundane matters–but that it serves as a necessary instrument.  Hooker is quite careful and lucid on this point: “Unto the word of God being in respect of that end, for which God ordeined in, perfect, exact, and absolute in it selfe, we do not add reason as a supplement of any maime or defect therin, but as a necessary instrument, without whihch we could not reape by the scriptures perfection, that fruite and benefit which it yeeldeth.  The word of God is a twoedged sword, but in the hands of reasonable men” (III.8.10) 

To be sure, God made use of unlearned men as his Apostles to proclaim the Gospel, but not by bypassing reason and wisdom altogether; rather, by endowing them miraculously with persuasive powers and knowledge from on high.  All of the Apostles, and especially Paul, use reason to make arguments and proofs for their doctrinal and ethical claims.   The Church has always used reason in argument to refute heretics.  Reason is an indispensable tool in determining and expounding the meaning of Scripture, as we see Jesus and his Apostles using it all the time. “Our Lord and Saviour him selfe did hope by disputation to doe some good,” Hooker points out, as we see in his argument about the meaning of Psalm 110.  And with some exasperation he adds, “There is as yet no way knowne how to dispute or to determine of things disputed without the use of natural reason” (III.8.17).  In short, “Exclude the use of naturall reasoning about the sense of holy scripture concerning the articles of our faith, and then that scripture doth concerne the articles of our faith who can assure us?” (III.8.16)  

 

Indeed, our confidence in Scripture itself must rest to some extent in an extra-Scriptural foundation. “Scripture indeed teacheth things above nature, things which our reason by it selfe could not reach unto.  Yet those things also we believe, knowing by reason that the scripture is the word of God” (III.8.12).  If we accept the testimony of Scripture on account of its authority as the word of God, on what account do we accept it as the word of God in the first place?  Scripture cannot contain its own first principles, for “No science doth make knowne the first principles whereon it buildeth, but they are alwaies taken as plaine and manifest in them selves, or as proved and graunted already, some former knowledge having made them evident….There must be therefore some former knowledge presupposed which doth herein assure the hartes of all believers” (III.8.13).  In the case of the authority of Scripture, this knowledge is supplied by tradition. Hooker holds “that the first outward motive leading men so to esteeme of the scripture is the authority of God’s Church.  For when we know the whole Church of God hath that opinion of the scripture, we judge it even at the first an impudent thinge for any man bredde and brought up in the Church to bee of a contrarye minde without cause” (III.8.14).  After coming to Scripture with this conviction already in place, our experience of its truth confirms us in our belief in its infallible authority.  

Furthermore, although faith comes to us supernaturally, and not by the aid of human will and understanding, it nonetheless presupposes and rests upon a foundation of reason and natural understanding.  If it were not so, “why should none be found capable thereof but only men, nor men til such time as they come unto ripe and full habilitie to worke by reasonable understanding? [Note that Hooker is far from denying that God imparts a kind of saving faith to infants and the mentally disabled, but he speaks here of the ordinary sort of faith which actively and intelligibly lays hold of God.]  In vaine it were to speake any thing of God, but that by reason men are able some what to judge of that they heare, and by discourse to discerne how consonant it is to truth” (III.8.11).  

In short, reason serves both as instrument to make Scripture more effectual for those who believe, and also, although of course in itself useless without the grace of the Holy Spirit, as an instrument to mediate the gospel to those who do not:  “Wherefore if I beleeve the gospel, yet is reason of singular use, for that it confirmeth me in this my beleefe the more: If I do not as yet beleeve, nevertheles to bring me to the number of beleevers except reason did somwhat help, and were an instrument which God doth use unto such purposes, what should it boote to dispute with Infidels or godless persons for their conversion and perwasion in that point?” (III.8.14)

 

In all of this, Hooker is careful to qualify the limits of reason–only it is not so limited as to be useless in devising church polity, which is the question at hand: “In all which hitherto hath beene spoken touching the force and use of mans reason in thinges divine, I must crave that I be not so understood or construed, as if any such thing by vertue thereof could be done without the aide and assistance of Gods most blessed spirite.  The thing we have handled according to the question mooved about it; which question is, whether the light of reason be so pernitious that in devising lawes for the church men ought not by it to search what may be fit and convenient” (III.8.18).

Both of these lines of argument that we have just surveyed–the reality and utility of God’s revelation in the law of reason outside of Scripture, and the indispensability of reason and its laws in grasping and rightly applying Scripture–will play a key role in Hooker’s argument for the latitude that ought rightly to characterize the domain of ecclesiastical affairs.  

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