The two most compelling portraits of Richard Hooker’s theology have been offered by the great scholars Peter Lake, in Anglicans and Puritans? (1988), and Torrance Kirby, in a series of publications over the last twenty years. Both are brilliant and insightful. The only problem is that they appear, at least at first glance, to contradict. Lake identifies Hooker as the “founder of Anglicanism,” whereas Kirby eschews that term entirely as anachronistic and misleading. Kirby sees Hooker as articulating a strict Protestant distinct between the two kingdoms, between visible and invisible Church, treating the former as part of the civil kingdom, whereas Lake emphasizes the continuity between the two and argues that for Hooker, outward forms of worship serve as the means of inward grace. Can these two be convincingly bridged? I had despaired of it, but as of today, I think they can be.
The key idea on which Lake builds his case is Hooker’s concept of edification, a concept central to the debate between Puritans and conformists, and integral to his defence of the Elizabethan church establishment. Whereas the Puritans demanded that church orders and ceremonies dynamically enrich and build up the body of Christ, rooting out sin and training in godliness, most conformist apologists were content to rest their case on the “edification” that uniformity, decorum, and civil peace engendered. Hooker was willing to meet the Puritans on their own turf, as Lake argues, and yet, as Kirby argues, he had to do so without confusing the two kingdoms distinction as the Puritans had. How?
At the outset of Book IV, Hooker states his general theory of edification:
“The end which is aimed at in setting down the outward form of all religious actions is the edification of the church. Now men are edified, when either their understanding is taught somewhat whereof in such actions it behoveth all men to consider, or when their harts are moved with any affection suteable therunto, when their minds are in any sorte stirred up unto that reverence, devotion, attention and due regard, which in those cases semeth requisite. Because therefore unto this purpose not only speech but sundry sensible meanes besides have alwaies bene thought necessary, and especially those meanes which being object to the eye, the liveliest and the most apprehensive sense of all other, have in that respect seemed the fittest to make a deepe and a strong impression.”
Peter Lake thinks we can scarcely overstate the significance of this claim, a move which marks Hooker out, Lake thinks, as the founder of Anglicanism: “This was little short of the reclamation of the whole realm of symbolic action and ritual practice from the status of popish superstition to that of a necessary, indeed essential, means of communication and edification; a means, moreover, in many ways more effective than the unvarnished word. The ceremonies, Hooker claimed, must have religious meanings. That was what they were for.” Lake goes on to explain how, for Hooker “the observances of the church, if suitably well chosen and decorous, could, through a series of correspondences, use the external realm of outward performance and ritual practice to affect the internal realm of men’s minds and characters.” But if all this is so, how does it not represent a repudiation of that very two-kingdoms distinction upon which the conformist case, and indeed all of Protestantism, so depended? Perhaps we should not in fact expect to find perfect consistency in Hooker, any more indeed than in any other Protestant thinker who tried to articulate the dialectical relationship between the visible and invisible Church. However, by carefully attending to Hooker’s argument here, we may discover the nuances of how he understands these two kingdoms.
Of course, one cannot overemphasize that these two are not distinguished in terms of things “sacred” and “secular” in our modern sense. For Hooker especially, God is revealed and encountered in all the arenas of mundane civil existence; and conversely, sacred business cannot take place without using the trappings of external social and political forms. So it is that after having made the above declaration, Hooker appeals to nature and to the common practice of all ages in “publique actions which are of waight whether they be civil and temporall or els spiritual and sacred.” In other words, the outward means of moving of our hearts to awe and devotion in worship and of moving our hearts to awe and devotion in other settings, such as art or politics, are not fundamentally different. Puritans old and new will no doubt balk at this, but Hooker is a realist. We are creatures of sense, and for any great occasion or purpose, our senses need to be impressed if our hearts and minds are to be. Nor is this merely incidental; it is part and parcel of Hooker’s neo-Platonist cosmology. Having provided examples of the necessary use of sensible ceremonies in affairs both civil and religious, he quotes Pseudo-Dionysius, “The sensible things which Religion hath hallowed, are resemblances framed according to things spiritually understood, whereunto they serve as a hand to lead and a guide to direct.” But again, we must ask, as Cartwright objected to Whitgift with far less provocation—is this not “to institute newe sacraments?”
Hooker thinks that this objection has misunderstood the key function of a sacrament. This is not to serve as a visible sign of invisible things—for such signs are everywhere in human affairs—or even as a visible sign of specifically spiritual things—for Hooker believes that every creature serves as such a sign of God’s presence, manifesting the law of his being through its own law-like operations. Instead, “sacraments are those which are signes and tokens of some generall promised grace, which allwaies really descendeth from God unto the soul that duly receiveth them.” With sacraments, in short, there is a necessary link between the outward and inward, and one that establishes a direct relationship between the soul and God; not so with signifying ceremonies.
We find this theology of sign and edification elaborated in the introductory chapters of Book V. Here Hooker is considerably more careful to maintain the two kingdoms distinction, rightly understood, than is Lake.
“There is an inward reasonable, and there is a solemn outward serviceable worship belonging unto God. Of the former kind are all manner virtuous duties that each man in reason and conscience to God-ward oweth. Solemn and serviceable worship we name for distinction’s sake, whatsoever belongeth to the Church or public society of God by way of external adoration. Of the former kinde are all manner vertuous duties that each man in reason and conscience to Godward oweth. Sollemne and serviceable worship we name, for distinction sake, whatsoever belongeth to the Church or publique societie of God by way of externall adoration. It is the later of these two whereupon our present question groweth.”
Here Hooker shows himself a faithful follower of Calvin, simultaneously maintaining the importance of outward worship while distinguishing it clearly from the inward forum of the conscience. Between these two, there should be close correspondence and congruity, but never confusion. Hooker explains this relationship of correspondence with great care two chapters later, in a crucial passage:
“if we affect him not farre above and before all thinges, our religion hath not that inward perfection which it should have, neither doe we indeed worship him as our God. That which inwardlie each man should be, the Church outwardlie ought to testifie. And therefore the duties of our religion which are seene must be such as that affection which is unseen ought to be. Signes must resemble the thinges they signifie. If religion beare the greatest swaie in our hartes, our outward religious duties must show it, as farre as the Church hath outward habilitie. Duties of religion performed by whole societies of men, ought to have in them accordinge to our power a sensible excellencie, correspondent to the majestie of him whom we worship. Yea then are the publique duties of religion best ordered, when the militant Church doth resemble by sensible meanes, as it maie in such cases, the hidden dignitie and glorie wherewith the Church triumphant in heaven is bewtified. . . . Let our first demand be therefore, that in the external form of religion such things as are apparently, or can be sufficiently proved, effectual and generally fit to set forward godliness, either as betokening the greatness of God, or as beseeming the dignity of religion, or as concurring with celestial impressions in the minds of men, may be reverently thought of.”
It is easy to see here why Torrance Kirby considers Hooker’s Christology to serve as the template for his understanding of the Church in its two realms of existence, with a “communication of attributes” establishing correspondence between the inward and outward realms, conjoined as they are, but without confusion, in the act of worship. The worship and order of the visible Church is a public religious duty, which is not to be confused with the true religion of the heart, but which must never be separated from it. Through this worship, the inward reality, the “hidden dignitie and glory” of the Church in the presence of God, is imperfectly imaged by sensible means. These sensible ceremonies “testify” to the truth, “signify” spiritual realities, “betoken” the greatness of God, and hence serve to “set forward godliness.” In short, we might say, they serve toward sanctification, enlightening our hearts with better understanding of the truth and forming our affections in the virtues of holiness. For Hooker, it appears, what may not be said about ceremonies is that they serve to convey any justifying grace, improving our standing in the eyes of God or giving special pleasure to him. Indeed, it is significant that Hooker always speaks of the beneficial effects of the ceremonies towards us, and never as rites in themselves pleasing to God. If this distinction is correct then Hooker would seem, in the midst of this reclamation of ritual, to have maintained the essential Protestant protest against Rome, which revolved around the relationship of justifying and sanctifying grace, and condemned the proliferation of outward rites that were necessary to endear us to God.
Thus, Lake is largely correct but insufficiently nuanced in asserting,
“This reappropriation of symbolic action from the papists was in turn based upon those graded hierarchies of desire, experience and law (outlined in book I) which led man Godwards and held the realms of reason and grace, nature and upernature firmly together. By exploiting and mirroring the correspondences and links between these two realms, symbol and ritual were able to play a central role in that process whereby the church led the believer toward union with God.”
This neo-Platonic logic of mediated ascent to God does represent a significant thread in Hooker’s theology, but as Torrance Kirby has repeatedly and persuasively argued, it is also cut across by an Augustinian sense of hypostatic disjunction between the two realms. Thus Hooker, while enthusiastic about the rich possibilities of the liturgy, never loses sight of its fundamentally adiaphorous, changeable character; only its legal imposition, not its intrinsic merits, gives it any character of necessity.
Hooker’s concept of liturgy and ceremony, then, despite being charged with spiritual significance, remains fundamentally within the domain of nature, a domain that remains fundamentally shot through with God’s presence, or “drenched with deity,” in the words of C.S. Lewis. Hence Hooker’s comfortability with arguing from natural law, historical consensus, and civil analogues for the value of many of the disputed ceremonies. So, when it comes to vestments, Hooker will both take the traditional line, emphasizing their essentially civil function (“To solemne actions of roialtie and justice theire suteable ornamentes are a bewtie. Are they onlie in religion a staine?”) and yet also pointing to a spiritual correspondence (“it suteth so fitlie with that lightsome affection of joye, wherein God delighteth when his Sainctes praise him; and so livelie resembleth the glorie of the Sainctes in heaven, together with the bewtie wherin Angels have appeared unto men . . . [fitting for] they which are to appear fore men in the presence of God as Angels.”).
The train of thought which ties together Hooker’s understanding of natural utility and spiritual edification appears perhaps most clearly in his treatment of music. He first eulogizes music as “A thinge which delighteth all ages and beseemeth all states; a thinge as seasonable in griefe as in joy; as decent beinge added unto actions of greatest waight and solemnitie, as beinge used when men most sequester them selves from action.” It is useful for all human affairs, but not merely as ornament; so deeply does music affect us that it can contribute to our moral formation: “In harmonie the verie image and character even of vertue and vice is perceieved, the minde delighted with theire resemblances and brought by havinge them often iterated into a love of the thinges them selves.” This being the case, what could be more suitable to aid our worship? “The verie harmonie of sounds beinge framed in due sorte and carryed from the eare to the spirituall faculties of our soules is by a native puissance and efficacie greatlie availeable to bringe to a perfect temper whatsoever is there troubled. . . . In which considerations the Church of Christ doth likewise at this present daie reteine it as an ornament to Gods service, and an helpe to our own devotion.”
Equally fascinating is Hooker’s treatment of festival days. Whereas Whitgift had confined himself to insisting “The magistrate hath power and authority over his subjects in all external matters, and bodily affairs; wherefore he may call them from bodily labour or compel them unto it, as shall be thought to him most convenient,” Hooker justifies them via an elaborate disquisition on the nature of time, and the rhythms of rest and action appropriate to all created beings. All nature, and even heathen peoples, therefore testifies “that festivall solemnities are a parte of the publique exercise of religion,” and besides, he adds, working his way through the Church year holiday by holiday, they are of great importance to “keepe us in perpetuall remembrance” of God’s redeeming work. Therefore, “the verie law of nature it selfe which all men confess to be Godes law requireth in generall no lesse the sanctification of times then of places persons and thinges unto Godes honor.”
For Hooker, then, the ceremonies of the Church are simultaneously civil, natural, and spiritual—there is no need to categorize them as simply one or the other. As civil institutions concerned with outward order, they take their force from the command of the magistrate, who has lawful authority over such matters. As institutions fitting according to the order of nature, they can be determined by reason, which serves to identify their value and to make them useful in their particular times and places. And as institutions tending toward the cultivation of spiritual virtue and reverence, they serve not merely to preserve public order, but for the dynamic upbuilding of the people of God that the Puritans had demanded. Hooker, it seems, has succeeded in cutting the Gordian knot that bedevilled his predecessors.