Evils Must Be Cured by Their Contraries?

We theologians (yes, that includes me) are often tempted to justify a one-sided indulgence of our pet theological themes or rhetorical outbursts directed against one particular set of bogeymen by insisting that one cannot afford to be “balanced” when trying to correct an existing imbalance—one must lean hard in the opposite direction.  If you think your tradition is too word-centered, you go all-out sacramental and ignore the Word.  If it’s too sacerdotalist, you go all-out on preaching and faith and ignore the sacraments.  If it’s too antinomian, you talk up the Epistle of James and the parable of the sheep and the goats.  If it’s too legalistic, you only ever talk about free grace.  

While this might make sense as a temporary pastoral strategy for an individual minister seeking to rectify the imbalances of his particular congregation, it works less well as an overall theological policy, since it is more likely simply to engender even more radical one-sidedness, as Richard Hooker points out in a perceptive passage.  Addressing the Puritan claim that “evils must be cured by their contraries,” that an imbalanced repudiation of all traditional ritual is the best way to cure the temptation to popery, he declares,

“We are contrariwise of opinion, that he which will recover a sick and restore a diseased body unto health, must not endeavour so much to bring it to a state of simple contrariety, unto those evils which are to be cured.  He that will take away extreme heat by setting the body in extremity of cold, shall undoubtedly remove the disease, but together with it the diseased too.  The first thing therefore in skilful cures is the knowledge of the part affected; the next is of the evil which doth affect it; the last is not only of the kind but also of the measure of contrary things whereby to remove it. . . . 

“They reply, that to draw men from great excess, it is not amiss though we use them unto somewhat less than is competent; and that a crooked stick is not straightened unless it be bent as far on the clean contrary side, that so it may settle itself at the length in a middle estate of evenness between both.  But how can these comparisons stand them in any stead?  When they urge us to extreme opposition against the church of Rome, do they mean we should be drawn unto it only for a time, and afterwards return to a mediocrity? or was it the purpose of those reformed churches, which utterly abolished all popish ceremonies, to come in the end back again to the middle point of evenness and moderation.  Then have we conceived amiss of their meaning.  For we have always thought their opinion to be, that utter inconformity with the church of Rome was not an extremity whereunto we should be drawn for a time, but the very mediocrity itself wherein they meant we should ever continue.  Now by these comparisons it seemeth clean contrary, that howsoever they have bent themselves at first to an extreme contrariety against the Romish church, yet therein they will continue no longer than only till such time as some more moderate course for establishment of the Church may be concluded.  

“. . . They have seen that experience of the former policy, which may cause the authors of it to hang down their heads.  When Germany had stricken off that which appeared corrupt in the doctrine of the church of Rome, but seemed nevertheless in discipline still to retain therewith very great uniformity; France by that rule of policy which hath been before-mentioned, took away the popish orders which Germany did retain.  But process of time hath brought more light into the world; whereby men perceiving that they of the religion in France have also retained some orders which were before in the church of Rome, and are not commanded in the word of God, there hath arisen a sect in England, which following still the very selfsame rule of policy, seeketh to reform even the French reformation, and purge out from thence also dregs of popery.  These have not taken as yet such root that they are able to establish any thing.  But if they had, what would spring out of their stock, and how far the unquiet wit of man might be carried with rules of such policy, God doth know.”

5 thoughts on “Evils Must Be Cured by Their Contraries?

  1. Brad Belschner

    Yes, but emphasis on this sentence: "<i>this might make sense as a temporary pastoral strategy for an individual minister seeking to rectify the imbalances of his particular congregation</i>." The more you zoom in, the more this policy makes sense. For example, it makes a lot of sense on an individual level for fighting personal sins, and maybe sometimes in the worst cases it ought to be a permanent policy rather than a temporary one (Mark 9:43, for example). Desperate times call for desperate measures.


  2. Brad Belschner

    Argh, I accidentally deleted the latter half of my comment. And apparently html tags don’t work anymore. Hmm.

    I was just going to say, on the other hand, the more you zoom out the less this policy makes sense. Theology is just about as zoomed-out as you can get, since theology is usually concerned with abstract truths and principles apart from any human individuals. Therefore, it makes the least sense in that context.


    • Brad Littlejohn

      Sorry about the html tags. I’ll see what I can figure out about that.

      But yes, I think you are quite right about the zooming in/zooming out thing. What really doesn’t work is when people try and say, "I think the problem with the church in general today is X. So I’m going to exclusively talk about Y instead, in hopes that this will create an XY theological balance." The diagnosis is way too sweeping, the prescription much too abstract.

      Of course, we may well sometimes legitimately claim that our circumstances call for us to *emphasize* certain things more and other things less, and I think it’s a fine line between when one is legitimately doing this and when one is doing what Hooker is critiquing here.


    • Brad Belschner

      What I meant was, *older* comments get pushed to the bottom. But now I’ve noticed that it’s customizable for every user, so nevermind.


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