(This is an excerpt from a thesis chapter I am drafting, “Richard Hooker and the Freedom of the Christian Commonwealth”–it explores the paradoxically libertine yet legalist implications of the Puritan rejection of human authority)
For Hooker, the problem with Puritanism is a warped doctrine of Christian liberty which will assuredly destroy the liberty of the Church (and along with it, the State and the individual). As we have seen already, the doctrine of Christian liberty declared that Scripture alone had authority over the conscience, and that therefore, no other authority outside Scripture could bind the believer. Given the original thrust of this doctrine as a weapon against papal authority, it is no wonder that it should tend to abridge the liberty of the Church, pitting against it the freedom of the individual and the authority of Scripture. Rightly qualified, of course, this exclusive authority of Scripture applied only in matters of faith and salvation, in “the spiritual kingdom” into which, by definition, no man could reach, and the doctrine did not need to pose any threat to suitably humble human institutions. But as the Puritans had made Church discipline and ceremonies to be matters of faith and salvation, a clash was inevitable.
The problem this posed for the Church of England is revealed in a fascinating passage in Book V, chaper 71, where Hooker, discussing the particular case of the Church’s power to command holy days, takes the opportunity to unfold the alarming implications of Puritan biblicism:
“It is not they saie in the power of the Church to commande rest because God hath left it to all men at libertie that if they thinke good to bestow six whole daies in labor they may, neither is it more lawfull for the Church to abridg anie man of that libertie which God hath graunted, then to take awaie the yoke which God hath laid upon them and to countermande what he doth expreslie injoigne. But without some expresse commaundement from God there is no power they saie under heaven which may presume by any decree to restraine the libertie that God hath given. Which opinion, albeit applied here no farther then to this present cause, shaketh universallie the fabrick of government, tendeth to anarchie and meere confusion, dissolveth families, dissipateth colleges, corporations, armies, overthroweth kingdomes Churches and whatsoever is now through the providence of God by authoritie and power upheld. For whereas God hath foreprised thinges of the greatest waight, and hath therein precisely defined as well that which every man must perform, as that which no man maie attempt, leaving all sortes of men in the rest either to be guided by their owne good discretion if they be free from subjection to others, or els to be ordered by such commaundementes and lawes as proceed from those superiors under whome they live, the patrons of libertie have heere made sollemne proclamation that all such lawes and commandementes are voide, in as much as everie man is left to the freedom of his owne minde in such thinges as are not either exacted or prohibited by the law of God, and because onlie in these thinges the positive preceptes of men have place, which preceptes cannot possiblie be given without some abridgment of theire libertie to whome they are given, therefore if the father commaund the sonne, or the husband the wife, or the Lord the servant, or the Leader the souldier, or the Prince the subject to goe or stand, sleepe or wake at such times as God him selfe in particular commaundeth neither, they are to stande in defense of the freedom which God hath graunted and to doe as them selves list, knowing that men maie as lawfullie comaunde them thinges utterly forbidden by the law of God, as tye them to any thinge which the law of God leaveth free. The plaine contradictorie whereunto is unfalliblie certaine. Those thinges which the Law of God leaveth arbitrarie and at libertie are all subject unto possitive lawes of men, which lawes for the common benefit abridg particular mens libertie in such thinges as farre as the rules of equitie will suffer. This wee must either maineteine or els overturne the world and make everie man his own commander.”
Here Hooker attributes to the Puritans the claim that, in all matters on which Scripture is silent, the individual is left free, and human authority cannot claim to interpose itself. Although not explicitly stated, the comparison with Anabaptism, which was a standard of conformist polemics and which makes an open appearance several times in the Lawes, is clear enough. The Puritans would have vociferously denied it, to be sure, and with good reason–they certainly held that the magistrate, in properly “civil” matters, could bind by positive law on matters which Scripture left at liberty.
Nonetheless, when it came to “spiritual” matters, and the public order of the Church, many Puritans certainly held something like what Hooker attributes to them here–and since Hooker will argue that laws of ecclesiastical polity are of the same nature as civil polity, he is not unfair in here drawing out the Anabaptistic implications of their doctrine.
Clearly, however, this apparent libertinism was not incompatible with the starkest legalism. It is this latter which Hooker is seeking to combat in III.11. In the Admonition Controversy, Cartwright had argued that if God had given through Moses a thorough constitution for the people of Israel, then how could he omit this gift to the much greater new Israel, the Church of Christ? The more laws given, the more blessed, reasoned Cartwright, so we must assume that Christ gave to the Church more and stricter laws than ever Moses gave to Israel.
When Whitgift objected that on the contrary, it appeared that the opposite was the case–whereas the political organization of Israel was strictly determined, little or nothing was said of civil matters in the New Testament, Cartwright retorted that
“the leaving of us at greater libertie in things civill is so farre from proving the like libertie in things pertaining to the kingdome of heaven, that it rather proves a streighter bond. For even as when the Lord would have his favour more appeare by temporall blessings of this life towards the people under the Lawe then towards us, he gave also politique lawes most exactlie . . . so his care for conduct and government of the life to come, should (if it were possible) rise, in leaving lesse to the order of men then in times past.” (255)
Since divinely-given law is the key to receiving blessings, then just the temporal blessings of Israel’s commonwealth were provided for by detailed divine law, so the spiritual blessings of the Church cannot come except by detailed laws.
Hooker responds by refusing to accept Cartwright’s presupposition that God must have blessed the Church with detailed laws, insisting on the simple empirical fact that he didn’t: “it is manifest that our Lord and Saviour hath not by positive laws descended so far into particularities with us as Moses with them . . . [therefore] to us there should be freedom and liberty granted to make laws.” Here then it is Hooker arguing that we are “left at liberty” when Scripture is silent; only the liberty is that of an institution to make laws, not of an individual to be free from law.
The strange dynamic between legalism and libertinism that Hooker identifies in Puritanism was a recurrent one in various forms of radical Reformation movements. On the one hand, the Puritan platform asserts the absolute authority and massive scope of Biblical law, regulating in detail the conduct of a believer and leaving him, it would seem, very little liberty before God. On the other hand, so all-encompassing is this divine law that it muscles out of the way all other forms of authority–since it leaves no matter in need of legislation untouched, we are to assume that no further legislation is permissible where it does not speak. The believer is thus left a great deal of liberty before man. By failing to distinguish the different planes on which divine and human authority operate, so that freedom of conscience before the one can coexist with bondage before the latter, the Puritan has imagined the two to be competing for territory on the same plane, necessarily in conflict, and with the latter sure to give way before the superior claims of the former. Thus the assertion of Christian liberty strikes directly at the foundation of institutional liberty.
On the contrary, says Hooker, those things left uncommanded by divine law, being matters of adiaphora, are grants of liberty to political societies to frame positive laws “for the common benefit,” not chains restricting them from any legislation. If we do not say this, then nothing is left to the authority of such institutions, but all to the individual or to Scripture.
The result of this, Hooker is convinced, will be the crippling of any capacity for corporate action and hence the destruction of society.
21 thoughts on “Libertine Legalists”