Sola Scriptura in the Public Square, Pt. 2

(In this second half, I use Richard Hooker’s development of the tripartite division of law to suggest a healthier approach to understanding Scriptural authority in political life.)

****Edit: As this paper will be published in an extended form by T&T Clark in a volume entitled The Bible: Culture, Community, and Society, they would obviously prefer if I did not have the full-text available here.  I have thus removed most of this post, and the previous one, leaving only some tantalizing excerpts.**

First, against the Puritan impulse to draw all things to the judgment of Scripture, Hooker contended strongly for a distinction between “things necessary” and “things accessory” to salvation.  He in no way backed down from the Protestant insistence on Scripture’s sole authority, but he insisted that we must not claim for this authority a broader scope than Scripture itself claims.  We may think we honor Scripture by claiming for it the authority to govern every area of human decision-making, but we deceive ourselves therein: “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” (II.8.7).  Not only that, but by seeking to make of Scripture something that it is not, and requiring Scriptural warrant for any decision, “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)


However, it should be evident from the way that Hooker has set up the distinction that he will have no truck with the use of natural law theory that gives Scripture exclusive authority over sacred or spiritual matters, and natural law exclusive authority over everything else.  For clearly not everything of which Scripture speaks is “necessary to salvation”; it sheds light on a great deal else, not merely of a historical nature, but of an ethical nature as well.  So to say that “only Scripture speaks authoritatively of spiritual matters” is not to say that “Scripture only speaks authoritatively of spiritual matters.”  To set up such a dichotomy would remain, in Hooker’s eyes, a product of a Puritan bifurcation between nature and grace.


So if it is in fact true that we should not expect unaided man to come to a fully adequate understanding of morality and application of it in politics, if it is true that we should expect Scripture to shed light on such questions, indeed, to clarify for us the fundamental principles of morality and how to apply them in any number of situations, then how exactly does this differ from the Puritanism above?  How is Scripture’s authority in these matters “accessory to salvation” different from in matters “necessary to salvation”?  

This is where Hooker’s doctrine of “human law” comes in.  For while God is the same, yesterday, today, and forever, and the means of calling upon Him and being united to Him has not changed, human affairs change every day.  


So even to the extent that Scripture illumines for us general principles of natural law, and provides particular applications, it does not supersede the need for human beings to deliberate together and make laws for their own circumstances.  Against Puritan opponents who insisted that if Scripture declared a law for human action, we would be arrogant to ever make other laws, Hooker insists, “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)

Of course, anyone, when pressed, will grant such a distinction between general ends and particular circumstances, and thus the need to use reason and some degree of flexibility in applying Scripture.  But the point that Hooker presses against his Puritan opponents is that this is nothing to be ashamed of.  God does not reap glory at human expense, but by empowering humans to imitate him.  Therefore, we need not grudgingly admit that unfortunately, Scripture doesn’t give us precise directives on some ethical or political question, and try to resist all social change so as to keep ourselves from having to make new applications and interpretations.  On the contrary, we happily embrace our God-given task of using all the resources at our disposal–nature, experience, Scripture, and the existing laws of our societies–to seek fresh applications of very old principles to very new problems.  

2 thoughts on “Sola Scriptura in the Public Square, Pt. 2

  1. I've only just got around to reading this and just wanted to say thanks. I think you've converted me to Hookerism (or rather, revealed that I was already largely a Hookerite and didn't know it).


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