The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (Hooker’s Doctrine of Law, Pt. 7)

Now I’m finally wrapping up this series, which has helped give me the first chapter of my dissertation–or more likely, the third chapter, but the first one written.  Congratulations to anyone who actually had the perseverance to read it.  Now I’ll try to get back to Christology and to some less meaty matters, including hopefully some more concise attempts to apply some of this Hooker material to concrete questions of our own context.

Hooker has thus far established that all laws in the Church must be made in obedience to God, but this obedience does not preclude the use of reason and natural law–indeed, it requires it.  God, he has shown, is the author of all wisdom and truth, which comes to us through various vehicles, of which Scripture is the most important–in all things relevant, in many things of chief authority, and in some things of exclusive authority.  Even when we rely on Scripture alone in framing laws, reason will play an indispensable role.  

Hooker is now ready to parse out exactly how reason and Scriptural authority play out in the making of laws of ecclesiastical polity; but before summarizing this, it may be helpful to recap briefly some key points made earlier. 

Three types of law are of particular concern to us: the law of reason, divine law, and human law.  We may categorize these three in terms of an overarching twofold distinction: natural laws and positive laws–the former of which are binding always and everywhere by the nature of things, and the second of which are binding by virtue of being promulgated at some point in time–though they may thereafter be permanent.  The law of reason is natural, while divine and human laws are positive.  (Scripture, in this scheme, is not to be understood as synonymous with divine law: it includes both natural laws–laws of reason spelled out more clearly and precisely–and divine laws, either applications of the law of reason or additions to it.)  Human laws are concrete applications of either the law of reason or the divine law, and can be either mixedly human–that is, applications or specifications of duties already made clear in the law of reason or divine law; or merely human–that is, specifications of duties that are not already clear in the law of reason or divine law, but are nonetheless conformable to it and can be probably deduced from it.  

 

All these distinctions are in the background of III:9-11, but most important here will be Hooker’s elaboration of a notion he has repeatedly touched on earlier: mutability.  Natural laws are immutable, but will take on a great deal change and variability whenever applied to the mutable circumstances of human laws.  Divine laws, although promulgated by God himself, are not therefore necessarily immutable, though they may be.  Hooker’s task now is to show just where and how mutability enters into law.  

Hooker begins III.9 by affirming adamantly that Scripture plays an indispensable role in framing laws of church polity.  But lest we should ask why indeed such laws should need to be framed at all, if we already have Scripture, Hooker reminds us, “yet because both in that which we are commanded, it concerneth the duty of the Church by law to provide, that the loosenes and slacknes of men may not cause the commandements of God to be unexecuted; and a number of things there are for which the scripture hath not provided by any law, but left them unto the carefull discretion of the Church; we are to search how the Church in these cases may be well directed to make that provision by lawes which is most convenient and fit.”  These two needs for laws correspond to his much earlier distinction betweeen mixedly and merely human laws.   

In both cases, “partely scripture and partly reason must teach to discerne,” a claim for which he has laid all the groundwork in previous sections.  Scripture gives us three kinds of direction–examples, laws natural, and laws positive.  Examples “can but direct as precedents onely.  Naturall lawes direct in such sorte, that in all thinges we must for ever doe according unto them; positive so, that against them in no case we may doe any thing, as long as the will of God is that they should remaine in force.  Howbeit when scripture doth yeelde us precedents, how far forth they are to bee followed; when it giveth naturall lawes, what particular order is therunto most agreeable; when positive, which waye to make lawes unrepugnant unto them; yea though all these shoulde want, yet what kind of ordinances woulde be moste for that good of the Church whch is aimed at, al this must be by reason founde out.”  So in each of these three kinds of scriptural direction, and when such direction is lacking altogether, reason plays a necessary role.  The most important distinction made here is between the diverse ways that natural and positive laws bind.  Natural laws being general in their scope, we must take them as fully regulative for our conduct.  But positive laws, being promulgated for particular ends, are such that we may not, depending on the circumstance, be bound to follow them, only to make sure that we do not act contrary to them: “Lawes humane must be made according to the generall lawes of nature, and without contradiction unto any positive law in scripture.  Otherwise they are ill made.”

 

In chapter 10, he will turn to distinguish precisely the subcategories of scriptural positive law, and when it is mutable.  Laws of church polity, he says, can be changed in three ways: “when either altogether abrogated, or in part repealed, or augmented with farther additions.”  Some positive laws will state just how long they continue in force; many, however, will not.  In the latter case, the only way for us to determine whether they are still in force is “by considering the nature and qualitie of such lawes,” which is to be judged by “by the ende for which it was made, and by the aptnes of thinges therein prescribed to the same end.”

Of course, some laws are such that we do not know the end of them–it has simply not been disclosed to us by the lawmaker, and we are unable to divine it on our own.  As an example, Hooker gives God’s original command to Adam, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Adam simply did not know why God made the law, and Satan took advantage of this ignorance.  We know it must have had a good reason, but not knowing what that reason was, we cannot be sure whether the command had permanet force or would’ve expired when certain conditions changed.  Indeed, theologians have debated precisely this point, some concluding based on a certain construal of the purpose of the law that in time, Adam would’ve received permission to eat of it, others imagining this as a permanent condition.  When the end of the law is unknown, says Hooker, only the lawmaker has power to change the law; otherwise, we must assume it to be perpetually binding.  

But what if we do know the end for which a law was instituted?  Well, if that end is known to be permanent, then so is law, though not absolutely:  “But if the reason why thinges were instituted may be knowne, and being knowne do appeare manyfestly to be of perpetuall necessitie, then are those thinges also perpetuall, unless they cease to be effectuall unto that purpose for which they were at the first instituted.”  The qualification here is a crucial one, so it’s worth paying attention to Hooker’s elaboration: “we cannot be ignorant, howe sometimes that hath done great good, which afterwardes, when time hath chaunged the auncient course of thinges, doth growe to be either very hurtfull, or not so greatly profitable and necessary” (III.10.1).  Hooker will return to this distinction later, but for now he turns to the other main classification, positive laws with temporary ends: “Whether God bee the author of lawes by authorizing that power of men whereby they are made, or by delivering them made immediatly from him selfe, by word onely, or in writing also, or howsoever; notwithstanding the authoritie of their maker, the mutabilitie of that end for which they are made doth also make them chaungeable” (III.10.2).  Examples here include the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, and even New Testament laws such as the decree of the Council of Jerusalem.  These are laws made to serve temporary purposes, which expire when these purposes expire.  Hooker is particularly insistent on this category because his Puritan opponents are arguing that the divine authority of the lawmaker should be sufficient proof that we have no right to change his laws–to do so would be to assert our authority above his.  This argument rests on a fundamental confusion, and an inability to distinguish the different kinds and purposes of laws, says Hooker.  

Those who concede this point, however, insist that any law with a permanent end must be unchangeable: “for us to change that which he hath established, they hold it execrable pride and presumption, if so be the end and purpose for which God by that meane provideth be permanent.  And upon this they ground those ample disputes concerning orders and offices, which being by him appointed for the government of his Church, if it be necessary alwaies that the Church of Christ be governed, then doth the end for which God provided remaine still, and therfore in those meanes which he by lawe did establish as being fittest unto that end, for us to alter any thing is to lift up our selves against God and as it were to countermaund him.”  

This too, however, manifests a crucial misunderstanding:

“they marke not that lawes are instruments to rule by, and that instruments are not only to bee framed according unto the generall ende for which they are provided, but even according unto that very particular, which riseth out of the matter wheron they have to work.  The end wherefore lawes were made may bee permanent, and those lawes neverthelesse require some alteration, if there bee anye unfitnes in the meanes which they prescribe as tending unto that end and purpose” (III.10.3)  

Here is his elaboration of his earlier remark about laws becoming in time no longer “apt” to their purpose.  The end of the law (e.g., “good order in the Church” is completely good, and remains as long as the world lasts), but the matter may change, so that a law formerly good ceases to be so, and must be altered so as to realize the original end in new circumstances.  There is plenty of evidence for this happening in the Old Testament itself, and it is clear that many of the apostolic injunctions to the New Testament church, while their general aim remains constant, may require alteration when the Church finds itself in new settings.  To be sure, it will be hard to reach agreement about precisely which injunctions fall under this heading, but all will ultimately have to grant that some laws do.   “And therefore lawes though both ordeyned of God himselfe, and the end for which they were ordeined continuing, may notwithstanding cease, if by alteration of persons or times they be found unsufficient to attain unto that end.  In which respect why may we not presume that God doth even call for such change or alteration, as the very condition of things them selves doth make necessary?” (III.10.4)

Hooker has thus arrived at three categories–laws in which both the end and the matter remain constant, and thus can never be changed; laws in which the end is temporary, and which thus expire once the end has been accomplished; and laws in which the end is permanent, but the matter changes.  These correspond, he argues, to the conventional threefold division in the Old Testament law: moral, ceremonial, and judicial.  The first of these concerns matters necessary to salvation; the latter two things accessory thereunto.

 

It then remains merely for Hooker to answer a few objections.  He has already dealt with the argument that the authority of the lawmaker in itself proves Scriptural laws unchangeable; indeed, he has developed this whole schema in response to this objection.  But at the end of chapter 10, he turns to a variation on it: they argue that it is sacrilege to innovate upon the Gopsel, “And the Gospell as they say containeth not onely doctrine instructing men howe they should beleeve, but also preceptes concerning the regiment of the Church.  Discipline therefore is a part of the Gospell: and God being the author of the whole Gospell, as well of discipline as of doctrine, it cannot be but that both of them have a common cause.  So that as we are to beleive for ever the articles of evangelicall doctrine, so the preceptes of discipline we are in like sorte bounde for ever to observe” (III.10.6).  In other words, since matters of faith and of outward discipline were delivered together in the New Testament, they must be equally permanent.  However, the distinctions already drawn dissolve this objection: “There is no reason in the world wherefore we should esteem it as necessarie alwaies to doe, as alwaies to believe the same things; seing every man knoweth that the matter of fiath is constant, the matter contrariwise of action daily changeable, especially the matter of action belonging unto Church politie” (III.10.7).

The last objection occupies Hooker throughout the lengthy chapter 11, and runs as follows: very well, in principle, it may well be that the laws of polity given in Scripture are mutable; however, if the divine lawmaker made a point of making them immutable, then we lose that freedom to modify them.  And since God laid down rules of strict perpetuity in the Mosaic law, how could we imagine that he would leave his Church less well-provided in the New Covenant?  Hooker’s response to this objection, apparently a popular one among the Presbyterians, proceeds by several stages.  He argues first that there is no reason why just because Christ was a more perfect mediator, he had to give an equally permanent polity–it was not in this that his perfection consisted.  Moreover, it is false that the laws of Mosaic polity were so unchangeable as they allege–many fell into what we designated above IIIB2.  Moreover, a look at the New Testament witness makes it quite clear that Christ, as a matter of fact, simply didn’t lay down a system of law like Moses did.  So that Hooker can conclude with the stinging retort: “As for those mervelous discourses wherby they adventure to argue that God must needs have done the thing which they imagine was to be done, I must confesse I have often wondered at their exceeding boldnes herein.  When the question is whether God have delivered in scripture (as they affirme he hath) a complet particular immutable forme of Church-politie, why take they that other both presumptusous and superfluous labour to prove he should have done it, there being no way in this case to prove the deede of God saving only by producing the evidence wherein he hath done it?  But if there be no such thing apparent upon record, they do as if one should demaund a legacie by force and vertue of some written tesatment, wherein there being no such thing specifyed, he pleadeth that ther it must needs be, and bringeth arguments from the love or goodwill which alwayes the testatour bore him, imagining that these or the like profes will convict a testament to have that in which other men can no where by reading find.”

 

Hooker concludes Book III by arguing that as a matter of fact, the Puritans make plenty of distinctions of their own between fixed forms and changeable circumstances; there are plenty of commands regarding church order even in the New Testament that they consider  temporary (Hooker gives several examples, including the provisions for widows and the practice of love feasts).  Likewise, the Anglicans recognize that there are many matters of church orders that are not flexible, in which we are not permitted to make new laws.: ultimately, the question is not about generalities, but particulars. 

“The fault which we finde with them is, that they overmuch abridge the Church of her power in these things.  Whereupon they recharge us, as if in these things we gave the Church a libertie which hath no limits or bounds, as if all things which the name of discipline conteineth, were at the Churches free choice….They graunt that in matter of circumstance they alter that which they have received, but in things of substance they keepe the lawes of Christ without chaunge….we say the same in our owne behalfe….For our constant perswasion in this point is as theirs, that we have no where altered the lawes of Christ further then in such particularitis onely as have the nature of thinges changeable according to the difference of times, places, persons, and other the like circumstances” (III.11.13).

The debate, then, is not in fact about generalities, as it has seemed all along.  This is, Hooker claims, merely a smoke-screen, a bunch of bombastic rhetoric exalting Scripture and implying that the Puritans take Scripture seriously while the Anglicans run roughshod over it.  In fact, no sane party to the dispute denies some difference between unchanging substance of biblical law and changing applications.  The rest of the debate, then, must revolve around particulars–specific questions in which the Puritans take Scripture to have laid down unchanging law which forbids the Church of England’s practice.  Hooker will spend the remaining 1150 pages of the Lawes addressing these particular compaints with enormous systematic thoroughness.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s