Visible v. Invisible, Necessary v. Accessory (Hooker’s Doctrine of Law, Pt. 6)

Before moving on to Hooker’s detailed account of church polity and ecclesiastical law, we must lay one more brick in place–Hooker’s doctrine of the two kingdoms.  For Hooker inherits and expounds a bundle of crucial Protestant dualities–the two kingdoms, the two realms, the visible and invisible Church–dualities which, although shared by all the Reformers, admitted of several different mutations, which could lead in rather different directions.  One such mutation, which Hooker was convinced had led the Puritans grievously astray from genuine Protestantism, was the institutionalization of the two kingdoms.  Rather than identifying the two kingdoms with the two realms–internal/spiritual and external/civil–the Disciplinarians took them as two separate institutions within the same external realm.  In so doing, they imported much of the perfection, immutability, holiness, etc., of the invisible Church into the realm of the visible.  

Hooker’s response to this was not, of course, to drive a wedge between interior and exterior grace, between Christ and the visible Church, between the individual conscience and the corporate body–at least, not in the way we might think.  Hooker is after all fervently insistent throughout Bk. 5 of the Lawes on the reality of sacramental grace, on the deep connection between exterior means of grace and the inner reality of union with Christ, and on the spiritual power and necessity of the visible Church.  However, he is no less insistent on the importance of proper conceptual distinction–“The mixture of those thinges by speech which by nature are divided, is the mother of all error.  To take away therefore that error which confusion breedeth, distinction is requisite.  Rightly to distinguish is by conceipte of minde to sever thinges different in nature, and to discerne wherein they differ” (III.3.1).  This passage functions almost as a mantra for Hooker, who is determined to rigorously distinguish where necessary, without separating.

 

Indeed, his paradigm in this, as Torrance Kirby argues in his Richard Hooker’s Doctrine of the Royal Supremacy, is Christology, in which we must make careful distinction between the diverse attributes and operations of the two natures of Christ in order to rightly establish the unity of his person.  Something similar, Kirby argues, is going on in Hooker’s understanding of visible and invisible churches.  But more of that on another occasion.  For now, the statement of the doctrine:

This appears at the very outset of Bk. III, showing that for Hooker it was absolutely foundational to his account of ecclesiastical law.  First, then, he briefly defines the invisible church: “That Church of Christ which we properly terme his body mystical, can be but one, neither can that one bee sensiblie discerned by any man, in as much as the partes thereof are some in heaven alreadie with Christ, and the rest that are on earth (albeit their naturall persons bee visible) we doe not discerne under this propertie, whereby they are truly and infallibly of that body.  Onely our mindes by intellectual conceipt are able to apprehend, that such a reall body there is, a body collective, because it containeth an huge multitude” (III.I.2).  We know, in other words, that there is such a thing, a multitude of believers conjoined to Christ, sharers in his grace, but the nature of their union is something altogether beyond our ability to sense or fully conceive–we know that it is, but how it is and where it is we remain largely unsure.  “They who are of this societie have such markes and notes of distinction from all others, as are not object unto our sense” (III.1.2)–we have no way of knowing infallibly those who are members thereof.  

Not so with the visible church.  This too is one body, from the beginning of the world to the present.  The unity of the visible body “consisteth in that uniformitie, which all severall persons thereunto belonging have, by reason of that one Lorde whose servantes they all professe them selves, that one faith which they al acknowledge, that one baptisme wherewith they are all initiated” (III.1.3)  It is one “in outward profession of those thinges, which supernaturally appertaine to the very essence of Christianitie, and are necessarily required in every particular christian man” (III.1.4)–which is to say not only profession of faith but baptism as well: “Now although we know the Christian faith and allow of it: yet in this respect we are but entring; entered we are not into the visible Church before our admittance by the doore of baptisme” (III.1.6).  Although we might want to say that Christians are marked also by their outward behavior of a righteous life, such actions are not, Hooker says, a proper mark of membership in the Church, “because they are not proper unto Christian men, as they are Christian, but doe concerne them, as they are men.”  The lack of such virtues indeed “excludeth from salvation,” but not from the visible Church, “whose children are signed with this marke, One Lord, one faith, one baptisme” (III.1.7).

All this means that Hooker is able to provide a very generous account of the scope of the visible Church, refusing to count apostates, heretics, schismatics, or wicked men as wholly outside of it.  Inasmuch as these still bear the mark of baptism and profess Jesus Christ, they are still Christians, only unfaithful ones.  Contra his Puritan interlocutors, then, Hooker utterly refuses to unchurch Roman Catholics.  So far as possible, he says, we must maintain fellowship with them, considering that in the “main parts of Christian truth” we are still at one with them, and may hope one day for reunion.  Although some take Rome to be no Church on account of her errors, some, he points out, make the same claims of the Church of England. 

“But whatsoever either the one sort or the other teach, we must acknowledge even heretikes them selves to be though a maimed part, yet a part of the visible Church….Heretikes therefore are not utterly cut off from the visible Church of Christ….For where profest unbeleefe is, there can be no visible Church of Christ; there may be, where sound beleefe wanteth. Infidels being cleane without the Church denie directlie and utterlie reject the very principles of Christianity, which heretikes embrace and erre onely by misconstruct; whereupon their opinions although repugnant indeed to the principles of Christian faith, are notwithstanding by them held otherwise, and maintained as most consonant thereunto” (III.I.11).

This insistence on the Church a mixed multitude contrasts sharply with the Puritan tendency to purge the Church of all dross and treat only the properly reformed as the true Church. 

This visible Church, although one throughout history and throughout the world, is divided, like the sea, into diverse precincts with diverse names–it is “devided into a number of distinct societies, every of which is termed a Church within it selfe.”  Although Hooker is all in favor of as much fellowship and common counsel between the various regional churches, he argues the necessity for them to be separately governed in their various nations and regions, and to each must belong therefore “ecclesiasticall politie”– a term that “conteyneth both governement and also whatsoever besides belongeth to the ordering of the Church in publique.”  Nothing he says, is “in this degree more necessarie then Church-politie, which is a forme of ordering the publique spirituall affayres of the Church of God” (III.1.14).

 

Corresponding then to this distinction between visible and invisible churches is a distinction between things “necessarie to salvation” and things “accessorie thereunto,” the first of which corresponds to the realm of the invisible church, and the latter to the realm of the visible church.  Hooker develops this distinction with reference to the question of ecclesiastical law in chs. 2-3 of Book III, but it has been invoked already throughout Bk. II, and indeed is anticipated already in ch. 14 of Bk. I: “The sufficiencie of scripture unto the end for which it was instituted.”  Hooker has already given us to understand that while divine law at many points merely confirms, clarifies, or applies natural law, it also at points treats of matters purely supernatural, of duties necessary for salvation that could not be known by natural law alone.  In these matters, Scripture is completely and solely authoritative and sufficient.  If anything is necessary for salvation, we may be sure that it is included in Scripture, and we may be sure moreover that we could not have divined it on our own, without the aid of Scripture.  This being so, we may be sure that in such matters, we have only to carefully attend to and obey the testimony of Scripture; indeed, if we do otherwise, and import doctrines or duties from other authorities, we are sure to err, and in the end overthrow the gospel.  

But clearly not everything falls under this heading, not even everything of a “spiritual” nature.  There are many things useful for ordering the Church and our Christian lives of which Scripture tells us nothing clearly, and there are many things within Scripture that, while important, are not indispensable or universally binding to us (e.g. “Take a little wine for your stomach”).

Hooker offers a threefold distinction here in II.8.  First, while we might want to say that all actions are in some sense either good are evil, there are some things that are almost absolutely indifferent: “Some things are good, yet in so meane a degree of goodnes, that men are only not disproved or disalowed of God for them….In actions of this sorte the very light of nature alone may discover that which is so far forth in the sight of God allowable” (II.8.2).  On the other extreme, “Some thinges in such sorte are allowed that they be also required as necessarie unto salvation, by way of direct immediate and proper necessitie finall, so that without performance of them we cannot by ordinarie course be saved….In actions of this kinde our cheifest direction is from scripture, for nature is no sufficient teacher what we shoulde doe that we may attaine unto life everlasting.  The unsufficiencie of the light of nature is by the light of scripture so fully and so perfectly herein supplied, that further light then this hath added there doth not neede unto that ende” (II.8.3).  But in between these two fall the majority of moral choices we must make: “Finally some things although not so required of necessitie that to leave them undone excludeth from salvation, are notwithstanding of so great dignitie and acceptation with God, that most ample reward in heaven is laid up for them.  Hereof wee have no commandement either in nature or scripture which doth exact them at our handes: yet those motives there are in both which drawe most effectually our mindes unto them” (II.8.3).  

It is into this category (or the first) that matters of ecclesiastical polity will fall, and so Hooker returns to reiterate this distinction in III.2-3.  At this point, he is responding directly to the complaints of Thomas Cartwright in his writings against Whitgift from the 1570s.  Hooker summarizes his position, and the objection, thus: “whereas it hath been tolde them that matters of fayth, and in generall matters necessarie unto salvation are of a different nature from Ceremonies, order, and the kinde of Church-governement; that the one are necessarie to bee expresselie conteyned in the worde of God, or else manifestly collected out of the same, the other not so; that it is necessarie not to receive the one, unlesse there bee some thing in scripture for them, the other free, if nothing against them may thence be alleaged…herein…we are reprooved…[for] misdistinguishing, because matters of discipline and Church-governement are (as they say) matters necessarie to salvation and of faith, whereas we put a difference betweene the one and the other” (III.2.2).  

Hereupon Hooker undertakes, almost with an air of exasperated longsuffering, to explain again why this distinction is valid and necessary.  First, he says, all will grant a distinction between those matters of faith and matters of action–as the Puritans themselves do, between “Doctrine and Discipline.”  In each of these, however, we must recognize some as indispensable for salvation, and others as secondary though still valuable.  Of the first sort “the articles of Christian fayth, and the sacramentes of the Church of Christ are, all such thinges if scripture did not comprehende, the Church of God should not be able to measure out the length and the breadth of that waye wherein for ever she is to walke.”  In these Scripture is alone and fully authoritative.  However, other matters there are, such as secondary questions of doctrine in the realm of faith, and forms and ceremonies in the realm of action, that are clearly not so crucial, and here Scripture exercises a looser, though still important, kind of authority.  “But as for those thinges that are accessorie hereunto, those thinges that so belong to the way of salvation, as to alter them is no otherwise to chaunge that way, then a path is chaunged by altering onely the uppermost face thereof, which be it layde with gravell, or set with grasse, or paved with stone, remayneth still the same path; in such thinges because discretion may teach the Church what is convenient, we holde not the Church further tyed herein unto scripture, then that against scripture nothing be admitted in the Church, least that path which ough alwayes to be kept even, doe thereby come to be over-growen with brambles and thornes” (III.3.3).  In the former then, our principle must be, “Nothing without Scripture”; in the latter “Nothing against Scripture”; in the former, Scripture functions as guide leading us by the hand along the right path; in the latter, as a fence on either side, keeping us from straying too far.  

 

The two sets of distinctions laid out here are not exactly the same thing; after all, there some matters necessary to salvation which are clearly functions of the visible Church–e.g., the sacraments.  However, they are nonetheless closely related, and speaking generally, we might characterize them thus: The invisible Church comprises all those things in which true faith and obedience in submission to Scripture alone bring us into perfect union with Christ and make us sharers in salvation.  The visible Church comprises all those things in which the guidance of Scripture, mixed with the law of reason and applied to particular circumstances, governs the professing people of God in their quest to worship and serve God effectively, minister to one another, and pursue justice.  The visible Church then, while not identical with the State or the “civil kingdom” as we might understand that term, exists on the same plane, is governed by the same standards, and administered in analogous ways, so that if we were to talk of “two kingdoms,” all these matters of church order and Christian life “accessorie to salvation” could rightly be characterized as standing in the “civil kingdom” over against the “spiritual kingdom” in which Christ works invisibly, infallibly, and directly unto salvation.  

 

Hooker has now paved the way to treat of laws of ecclesiastical polity as things accessory to salvation, a species of human positive law, and hence as often mutable, applied according to reason and discretion, rather than conjured whole out of holy Writ and woodenly imposed upon churches of all times and places.  This discussion occupies the absolutely crucial ninth through eleventh chapters of Book III, and it is here I shall turn in the next and final post. 

 

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