Why We Really Need a New Biography of Richard Hooker

The only modern biography of Hooker, Philip Secor’s Richard Hooker: Prophet of Anglicanism, offers a complex, detailed narrative of Hooker’s life, replete with intimate anecdotes illuminating his personality, etc.  The only problem is that half of it is fabricated out of whole cloth, spun out of the whimsical fantasies of Secor’s overactive imagination.  If this criticism merely applied to the trivial anecdotes and episodes, it might be one thing, but unfortunately, Secor’s whole understanding of the theology and thought-world of Hooker and his period derives from a similarly slipshod pastiche of fact and fiction.  I offer here for your un-edification his fanciful synopsis of the distinctive characteristics of “Puritans” and “Anglicans” in the Elizabethan period on page 51: 

The former, he says, were 

(1) theologically Calvinist—fired by the Pauline Epistles with their assurance of predestined election and emphasis on redemption, salvation, justification, and ‘living in the Spirit’; (2) believers in the primacy of Scripture as the sole authority for faith and practice; (3) generally advocates of the presbyterian as opposed to the episcopal form of church polity.

This is true enough, but the first two points are hardly distinctive, being shared by pretty much all of their English Protestant friends and foes.  But this is simply par for the course.  Secor goes on to portray their opponents, naming as representatives John Jewel, Edwin Sandys, Edward Grindal, John Whitgitft, and Richard Bancroft, in these terms:

(1) an insistence on an established Church ruled by bishops and headed by the crown; (2) use of the Book of Common Prayer and the Bishops’ Bible as opposed to the more popular Geneva Bible: these ‘anglican’ books expressed a middle-ground in biblical interpretations and liturgical expressions, somewhere between Rome and Geneva; (3) a tendency to view Holy Scripture as the primary but not the only source of faith and practice, holding that reason and religious custom were two other important sources of God’s revelation; (4) a preference for the synoptic Gospels rather than Paul’s Epistles; (5) an emphasis on the incarnation, the passion and the resurrection as central theological and liturgical themes, with concomitant stress on the importance in worship of the sacraments and common prayer rather than preaching; (6) a tendency to stress human awe and wonder before the holiness of God, and a concomitant aesthetic inclination, as contrasted with the Puritan emphasis on personal sin and God’s judgment.

Only the first two of these are recognizable as descriptors of the Elizabethan churchmen, and of these, the avowal of an established Church is hardly a distinctive, being a 16th-century Protestant commonplace, and it is hard to know what to make of the remarks about the Bishop’s Bible representing “a middle-ground in biblical interpretations . . . somewhere between Rome and Geneva.”  With the third, it is possible to see what he is trying to get at, but a nugget of truth is obscured by wildly vague and misguided terminology.  The fourth appears to be a clever notion that came to Secor in a dream.  The fifth and sixth might just be in part a fair characterisation of some of the distinctive flavours of Hooker’s thought, following some of Peter Lake’s suggestions, but one would be hard-pressed to find this an aesthetic bone in John Whitgift or Richard Bancroft’s body, and as generalizations about the “Anglicans” of this period, they fail to be much more than pious imaginations.

 

And then, of course, there’s this gem on page 111: 

“Clearly Hooker toyed with the notion that the head of State is the head of a national Church, to which all citizens must belong.  In this he was a medieval thinker, unable to grasp, much less adopt, the emerging modern idea of separation of Church and State.”

 

Dear me, dear me.

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