The Soul of a Christian Commonwealth

(An excerpt from a recent thesis chapter draft; citations removed)

Nowhere is Hooker’s dependence on the dictum “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it more true than his treatment of the role of religion in the commonwealth. While Hooker understood public religion as a natural and civil phenomenon, not as exclusively Christian or spiritual, this did not mean it was a mere simulacrum of the spiritual; rather, although achieving its effect through natural and outward instruments, Christian worship can serve as a real pathway toward our growth in grace.  The key point, however, was that the civil kingdom, in addition to being concerned with all the mundane concerns of public order, economic prosperity, and outward protection that characterize our modern conception of the domain of politics, was also properly a religious order; it existed under God, toward God, and animated and structured by worship. 

Given Hooker’s argument in Book I, it is not hard to see why this should be the case.  Human nature is not satisfied with mere finite, earthly ends, but constantly seeks a happiness beyond the bounds of temporal existence, a happiness to be found in God.  This restless longing for God, which subordinates and orders all other desires, will always, thinks Hooker, be reflected in the life of human society, which will always establish some kind of religious devotion at the heart of its public life.  Because of the centrality and ultimacy of this religious devotion, worship is not merely of value for its own sake, but serves as an anchor for the public life of the community, guaranteeing unity around a common object of love, and reverent esteem for the magistrates who are the guardians of this common life.  Hooker describes the importance of religion for the commonwealth at the outset of Book V: 

We agree that pure and unstained religion ought to be the highest of all cares appertaining to public regiment: as well in regard of that aid and protection which they who faithfully serve God confess they receive at his merciful hands, as also for the force which religion hath to qualify all sorts of men, and to make them in public affairs the more serviceable, governors the apter to rule with conscience, inferiors for conscience’ sake the willinger to obey.  It is no peculiar conceit, but a matter of sound consequence, that all duties are by so much the better performed, by how much the men are more religious from whose abilities the same proceed.  For if the course of politic affairs cannot in any good sort go forward without fit instruments, and that which fitteth them be their virtues, let Polity acknowledge itself indebted to Religion; godliness being the chiefest top and wellspring of all true virtues, even as God is of all good things.

Hooker then goes on to outline how religion helps preserve and perfect each of the four cardinal virtues, to the great benefit of the commonwealth, going so far as to say, regarding the greatest of the cardinal virtues, “So naturall is the union of Religion with Justice, that wee may boldly deny there is either, where both are not.” 

Hooker will return to this argument early in Book VIII, where he constructs his defence of the Royal Supremacy on two chief pillars.  The first is the personal identity of the visible Church (being an outward society of those who profess the faith) and the Commonwealth in Elizabethan England.  The second is the natural responsibility of commonwealths for religious concerns, for which Hooker is not afraid to cite Aristotle: 

“That the scope thereof is not simplie to live, nor the duetie so much to provide for life as for meanes of living well,” and that even as the soule is the worthier part of man, so humane societies are much more to care for that which tendeth properly unto the soules estate then for such temporall thinges as this life doth stand in need of.  Other proof there needes none to shewe that as by all men the kingdome of God is first to be sought for: So in all commonwealths things spirituall ought above temporall to be provided for.  And of things spirituall the chiefest is Religion.  

From all this, however, it might appear that Hooker has been so eager to demonstrate nature’s receptivity to the supernatural, religion’s integral place in the commonwealth, that he has perhaps naturalized religion altogether, reducing Christianity to a mere prop of political order.  He anticipates this objection in V.1 and V.2, attacking both skeptics and atheists.  The latter conclude from the “politique use of religion . . . that religion it selfe is a mere politique devise, forged purposelie to serve for that use.”  The former imagine “that it greatly skilleth not of what sort our religion be, inasmuch as heathens, Turks, and infidels, impute to religion a great part of the same effects which ourselves ascribe thereunto.” Against these objections, he takes care to argue that on the contrary, it is not merely religion, but true religion, after which all men instinctively seek, and that finding the true religion, Christianity, makes a great difference, both in this life, and in that which is to come.  He has no hesitation in recognizing the many virtues and benefits which flowed from heathen religion, as “certain sparks of the light of truth intermingled with the darkness of error,” but he maintains nonetheless that “the purer and perfecter our religion is, the worthier effects it hath in them who stedfastly and sincerely embrace it.”


Hooker thus develops his account of public religion under his overarching logic of nature and grace.  The desire for and worship of God is natural to man, and indeed, so central to human nature that it serves to ground and orient the other virtues, and is a mainstay of civil polity.  Fallen as man is, however, this religious devotion is tainted with “heaps of manifold repugnant errors,” on account of which we desperately need the gracious revelation of true religion.  This true religion, then, serves not only to set us on the path to everlasting life, which the false religions cannot even begin to do, but also reorients our temporal existence, crowning the natural virtues with a perfection beyond the capacity of false religion, and enabling a more harmonious life together in civil society.  For all these reasons, Hooker can argue for the Christian magistrate’s overarching concern for the spiritual well-being of his subjects, which is found only in their redemption by Christ; for in this rests their ultimate good, to which they are naturally oriented, and from it flows all subsidiary goods which will ensure a peaceful and virtuous life for the commonwealth.  On Hooker’s definition, then, the Church, considered as an external, visible society, is a commonwealth ordered toward the true religion: 

the care of religion being common unto all societies politic, such Societies as doe embrace the true religion, have the name of the Church given them for distinction from the rest; so that every body politic hath some religion, but the Church that religion which is only true.  Truth of religion is that proper difference whereby a church is distinguished from other politic societies of men.

He concludes, therefore, attacking what he perceives as the disastrous implications of the Presbyterian separation of church and commonwealth, 

A grosse errour it is to think that regall power ought to serve for the good of the bodie and not of the soule, for mens temporall peace and not their eternall safetie; as if God had ordained Kings for no other ende and purpose but only to fatt up men like hogges and to see that they have their mash? Indeed to leade men unto salvation by the hand of secret, invisible and ghostly regiment or by the externall administration of thinges belonging unto priestly order (such as the worde and Sacramentes are) this is denied unto Christian Kings, no cause in the world to think them uncapable of supreme authoritie in the outward goverment which disposeth the affayres of religion so farr forth as the same are disposable by humane authoritie and to think them uncapable thereof only for that, the said religion is everlastingly beneficiall to them that faythfullie continue in it.  

This passage highlights at the same time to Hooker’s haste to qualify what he envisions by the magisterial care for religion.  After all, if the prince is responsible for the good of his subjects, and their highest good is to be found in union with God, then does this not make the prince the pontifex maximus, both priest and king, arbiter of his subjects’ eternal destiny as much as their temporal?  Certainly, in some of the ambitiously caesaropapist declarations of the Henrician era, these implications would not have been far from the surface.  Hooker protects himself against these excesses by two sets of distinctions.  The first, of which we have already seen a good deal, is his two-kingdoms doctrine, which we see on display here in his qualification about “secret, invisible and ghostly regiment.”  The salvation of believers lay entirely within the hands of Christ alone, working invisibly by his Spirit in the hearts of men.  External means he may use to ready the soil and water the sapling, but only he could plant the seed of spiritual life.  No human servant could usurp his kingship here; they could only point to it.  

The second distinction, mentioned here in Hooker’s reference to “the externall administration of thinges belonging to priestly order,” designates a distinction of roles or orders, within the one civil kingdom.  While insisting that church and commonwealth are one society, he is careful to preserve a diversity of duties within this society, so that those activities in which the activity of the spiritual kingdom is outwardly manifested—the preaching of the Word, leading of worship, and administration of sacraments—are entrusted to priests, not kings.  He resists, however, the implication that “they that are of the one can neither appointe, nor execute in part the dueties which belong unto them which are of the other.”  On the contrary, throughout his argument for the royal supremacy, he maintains that the monarch, by virtue of his office as highest guardian of the common good, ought in England to have final (though not sole) authority for directing the various offices within the Church toward the good of the whole.  In other words, while the magistrate’s arena of direct concern is temporal affairs, and he can by no means lay claim to the power of order—which is the priestly authority over word and sacrament—he nonetheless exercises dominion over all matters in his realm, as the repository of sovereignty and the deputy of Christ in the civil kingdom. 

By virtue of these distinctions, Hooker tries to resolve the ambiguity inherent in the Puritans’ constant insistence that the affairs of the visible Church are “spiritual” and hence belong to Christ’s “spiritual kingdom”; he is willing to accede to this language, so long as it be qualified rightly:

To make thinges therfore so plaine that henceforth a Childes capacitie may serve rightly to conceive our meaning, we make the Spiritual regiment of Christ to be generally that wherby his Church is ruled and governed in things spirituall.  Of this generall wee make two distinct kindes, the one invisibly exercised by Christ himself in his own person, the other outwardly administred by them whom Christ doth allow to be the Rulers and guiders of his Church. 

 This outward administration of the “spiritual regiment” belongs within the orbit of what will elsewhere be called the “civil regiment,” which contains also matters of strictly temporal concern.

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