Worms or Gods? Hooker, Rushdoony, and the Creator/Creature Distinction

A friend of mine, Robin Phillips, recently emailed me an amusing excerpt from Rousas John Rushdoony, accusing my beloved Hooker of being nothing less than an Arian!  Rationalist I’ve heard, bootlicker of the powers that be, I’ve heard, but Arian?  The particular passage he alleged (which I will get to in a moment) was willfully and absurdly misread, but the broader accusation was quite revealing:

Having introduced man into the Godhead, Hooker plainly made man God’s associate in the government of all things. Thus, the British monarchy now had indeed a divine right of amazing dimensions….It is not surprising that the British monarchs loved their Mr. Hooker! Hooker introduced man into the Godhead, subordinated British subjects firmly to an absolute monarch on religious grounds, and saw the monarchy, and the English church-state as a divine order.

Now, let’s leave aside for a moment the complete incomprehension of Hooker’s political thought that this displays, and look closely at that first sentence.  Here, I think, Rushdoony has read Hooker right.  But the problem is that Hooker has read the Bible right.  Man has been introduced into the Godhead; man has been made God’s associate in the government of all things.  If that’s not what the doctrine of the Incarnation and Ascension teach us, then what does it teach?  Isn’t that what Phillippians 2:9-11 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 are all about?  The astounding wonder of the Gospel is not merely that God came down to be among men, but that God then brought man up to be among God; that is what we especially celebrate now during the Feast of the Ascension.  God was not content to bring us from death to life, for us to forever adore him for his mercy, but he does incredibly more–he brings us from lowliness to lordship, from powerlessness to power.  

And this is where the favorite Calvinist mantra–the “Creator-creature distinction”–breaks down, because God himself broke it down.  Creator became creature, and then brought creature up to share in the glory and the dominion that is proper only to the Creator; Christ as man rules over all, and we share with him in that glory, we in him are brought up to the heavenly places.  I know little of Rushdoony’s work, but I would surmise that is it no coincidence that Rushdoony can’t stand Hooker at this point, because this is precisely the point where Hooker critiques the whole Puritan tradition of which Rushdoony is an heir–for thinking that God can only be exalted at man’s expense.

 

Before fleshing that out, let me go back and make sure Hooker is adequately defended against the particular charges that Rushdoony brings.  This is the passage that he alleges as evidence of Arianism

“Seeing therefore the Father alone is originally that Deity which Christ originally is not (for Christ is God by being of God, light by issuing out of light,) it followeth hereupon that whatsoever Christ hath common unto him with his heavenly Father, the same of necessity must be given him, but naturally and eternally given, not bestowed by way of benevolence and favour, as the other gifts both are. And therefore where the Fathers give it out for a rule, l that whatsoever Christ is said in Scripture to have received, the same we ought to apply only to the manhood of Christ; their assertion is true of all things which Christ hath received by grace, but to that which he hath received of the Father by eternal nativity or birth it reacheth not.” (from LEP V.54.2–for context, see here)

This is not Arianism, however, but classical Christology–albeit of a more Easter than Western stamp.  The Orthodox have always been quite emphatic (and some are even concerned that Protestants lean toward heresy on this point) that the Father is the sole fons divinitatis–fount of divinity.  This is what the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit mean–that although both Son and Spirit are co-equal and co-eternal, nevertheless they are derivative, not originative.  This seems somewhat paradoxical, to be sure, but then so does all Trinitarian theology.  And it is what conservatives have tried to say about male-female relations–the female derives from the man, and so is n that sense subordinate, but is nevertheless equal.  There has been a tendency for Western theology since Arianism to be so allergic to subordinationism of any kind that it denies even that subordination which is manifestly attested in the New Testament.  And I think that’s what’s going on here with Rushdoony.  Note that Hooker says, “naturally and eternally given, not bestowed by way of benevolence and favour.”  This is blatantly anti-Arian.  The Arians said “there was when he was not”–a time when Christ was not God.  But Hooker says that the Son’s Godhood was “eternally” given. The Arians saw it as a matter of creation–the gift of being to a creature of another nature from the Creator God, rather than the generation of a being from within his own nature.  Hooker says that Godhood is “naturally” given to the Son–it belongs to him by nature; he never was of any other nature than that of God Himself.  

 

What about the accusation of divinising the British monarchy?  Pshaw.  In fact, the English monarchy resisted absolutization and divinisation during this period more than any other European monarchy, and for that, people like Hooker can take considerable credit.  There was a brief stage with Charles I and Charles II that tended toward the kind of absolutism Rushdoony is critiquing here, but it would be hard to argue that Hooker bears responsibility for that development.  Indeed, on my reading, Hooker actually pushes toward a more provisional, human-law understanding of the royal supremacy, and of political authority than that which was common in the 16th century, including that offered by the magisterial Reformers.  Folks like Cranmer, Bullinger, and Vermigli, and even in certain respects Calvin, were prone to sacralize political office and make it a direct mediation of the divine will in a way that Hooker judiciously stops short of. 

 

But let’s get back to the larger theological point.  Hooker’s theology of the Incarnation certainly is explicit in insisting that through the Incarnation, human nature is made “God’s associate in the government of all things.” (See, for instance, posts here, here, here, and here.)  This is, after all, the inescapable implication of the doctrine of the hypostatic union.  But, some will object, that is Christ only, not us.  We are not hypostatically united to God.  True, but we are united to Christ and made participants in the glory that is his.  Indeed, the hypostatic union is not, as it turns out, some odd anomaly–this is the pattern of all of Scripture.  On the sixth day of creation, after finishing the animals, did God say, “Well, now I’ve got me my creation.  I guess I’d better start governing it”?  No, he created mankind–in his image–and invited them to exercise rule over it, in fellowship with him.  When mankind failed, God neither gave up on them, nor engaged in some deus ex machina rescue mission to reverse their mistakes.  Instead, he made them the actors in his redemption drama.  He raised up Israel to be the emissaries of God to the world, his associates and partners in the glorious task of redemption.  And then when they too failed, he still didn’t resort to a deus ex machina, even if we sometimes treat the Incarnation that way.  No, the solution was still deus in homine–God chose to work redemption through human means, clothing himself with humanity even while doing what only God can do.  And no sooner was the deed accomplished then he empowered humanity again to be his partners and associates in redeeming and transforming the world.  

Does any of this detract from the glory of God?  There is an age-old human tendency for man to try to exalt himself at God’s expense.  The Gospel laughs down all such pretensions.  But there has been an age-old theological tendency, which has reached perhaps its most sustained and refined embodiment in many forms of Calvinism, to seek to curb man’s pride by an equal and opposite reaction–to try to exalt God at man’s expense.  God must have all the glory, which means that we must repeat over and over that we are but worms.  We are nothing, God is everything.  From this tendency flows the hyper-Calvinism that is so afraid even to give man “credit” for meriting damnation by his sins, that it insists upon giving God the “glory” of being the exclusive cause of the sin and the damnation.  From this tendency flows the theonomy that is so hostile to any kind of human authority that it rules out all law but that given directly by the voice of God.  From this tendency flows the fundamentalism that is so skeptical of the powers of the human mind that it would reject all sources of knowledge and wisdom but the Bible.  The more we ascribe to Scripture, the better.  And Scripture itself must be de-humanized and thought of as a divine dictation, lest we demote God and exalt man by thinking of God’s truth as mediated through weak human instruments.  

But this is of course to get it all wrong.  The greatest God is not the one who could be so great that everything else is dust and worms; the greatest God is the one who could make others great without becoming any smaller himself, the one who was so great that he could give himself away without becoming any less.  The most powerful God is not the one who could accomplish any work by his sole power alone, but the one who could somehow accomplish just as glorious and perfect a work while working through mere creatures.  The true God is not the one who defines himself over against everything else, by subtraction, but through all else, by addition.  That is why he is Trinity, not monad.  That is why he became man, that man might become God.  He is the God who looks on us and says, “You are not worms, you are not dust; I have said ye are gods.”  This is the God who actually is willing to make us stewards of the infinite riches of his word–to give us the most important job in the world, even when we’ve proven ourselves to be unreliable, unfaithful, forgetful.  This is the God who said, “Go, make disciples of all nations.  Go ahead, do it.  And while you’re at it, make laws, build cities, compose the Fifth Symphony, discover Proxima Centauri, breed golden retrievers, invent pizza.”  And this is the God who looks on it all at the end and says, “It is very good.” 

5 thoughts on “Worms or Gods? Hooker, Rushdoony, and the Creator/Creature Distinction

  1. Peter Escalante

    Brad,You're absolutely right about Rushdoony's complete misreading of Hooker, and your exposition and defense of Hooker is strong too. The only caveat I'd offer is that the Calvinist distinction between Creator and creature- which is, of course, simply the classical Christian distinction, expressed in a logically rigorous rather than rhetorically florid fashion- is in no way broken down here. The natures, for Hooker, remain absolutely distinct and unmixed in Christ, and in our organic union with Christ, we are not hypostatically united to the divine nature. There is not a trace of Monophysite tendency in Hooker, he is a very good Calvinist in this, and he certainly isn't going in for any modern-style blurring of the radical difference between God, who is a se, existence itself, and creatures. It is the special glory of the Reformed to have maintained the Biblical doctrine of the absolute distinction between Godhead and creaturehood. But as with all virtues, there are corrupt versions which are vicious.And here, you are right that God calls men to cooperate with Him in many respects, exclusive of course of justification. To say that man is the vicar of God in the creation is just old-timey Biblical theology, and likewise, to say that the just, merciful, and pious magistrate is the vicar of God in the political order. Also, as Hooker shrewdly points out, the kinds of extremists you mention here, who claim to be glorifying God by denying the order of God's creation and accusing all other of "autonomy" and "rebeliion", are in fact themselves engaged in a project of radical human autonomy and rebellion against God's order, in order to make room for themselves as tyrants. The god they seek to exalt is more their own will than the God of the Bible. To paraphrase a recent and excellent remark from Doug Wilson, if you think that being faithful to the Bible means damning all other books, you're not being faithful to the Bible in the first place.P

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Peter. Of course I agree with your caveat–rightly understood, as a logically rigorous statement of the metaphysical incommensurability of the Creator and his creatures, I have of course no quarrel with the "Creator/creature distinction," whether in Calvinist or any other form. My concern is when it becomes a mantra that serves to undergird forms of biblicism and anti-humanism, and actually dishonors God by giving so little credit to his creation. And so of course my rhetorically florid counterblast is not intended to push in any kind of monophysite direction. There remains an irreducible ontological distinction between God and man, and hence divine agency must always precede and undergird human agency; nonetheless, human agency is invited to and enabled to participate in God's works.

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  3. Albert

    I was wondering for a minute whether you had just finished reading some really inspiring Eastern Orthodox treatise. I guess Rushdoony can bring about another sort of inspiration…

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  4. Kent Will

    Good stuff, Brad. Your comment about the Puritan tendency to exalt God by degrading man was illuminating–helped me put a finger on what was bothersome about this.

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