Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 1

Alison Joyce’s recently-published Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology (Oxford University Press, 2012) is a landmark work in Hooker studies and promises to be a touchstone for discussions in years to come.  That said, this ringing endorsement is as much a criticism of the incomplete, scattered, and occasionally incoherent state of Hooker scholarship as it is a complement to Joyce, for this book is not without significant flaws.  It is, truth be told, a bit of a Dr. Jekyll/Mr.Hyde of a book, with two quite distinct objectives tossed together between two covers, without much attempt to tie the two together within a single argument.  

The first of these objectives, which is to provide a systematic survey of the logic of Hooker’s moral theology, beginning with his account of human nature, progressing through his view of the relative authorities of Scripture and reason in moral reasoning, his account of how moral principles are discerned and operate, and his use of casuistry, is by and large effective.  It is not, on the whole, bold or groundbreaking, contenting itself instead with tracking very closely with Hooker’s text, from which Joyce quotes copiously.  Yet, as I am aware of no other book that provides this kind of systematic walk-through of the key pillars of Hooker’s moral theology, the survey is valuable.  There are, to be sure, several points of interpretation that warrant criticism, which I will flag as they arise.  

The second objective, hinted at in chs. 1-2, foregrounded in ch. 3, and making intermittent appearances thereafter, is to mount a polemic against Torrance Kirby and the school of interpretation that argues for a Reformed Hooker.  While occasionally helpful in identifying oversimplifications within this interpretation, Joyce’s arguments here consist by and large of straw men and non-sequiturs, as we shall have occasion to critique in detail throughout this review.  Moreover, her arguments in this regard usually do not follow clearly from her systematic survey—instead, we find arguments like this: “I’ve just shown that Hooker relies heavily on Thomistic categories in his account of the different varieties of law; therefore, Kirby is clearly wrong that he is aligning himself with the magisterial Reformers.”  This only follows if the magisterial Reformers rejected these Thomistic categories, which by and large, they didn’t.  

Over the next couple weeks, I hope to work through the eight chapters of this book in a series of posts, using this as an opportunity to elucidate both the structure of Hooker’s thought, and the problems with contemporary Hooker scholarship—some of which Joyce avoids, but some of which she exemplifies.  Here, I shall quite concisely cover chapter 1, “Introduction,” and chapter 2 “Hooker in Historical Context.”

In her introductory chapter, Joyce surveys briefly the place of Hooker within the development of Anglican moral theology as a whole, and the diverse ways he has been appropriated.  This is a balanced and useful section, on the whole, acknowledging the anachronism or imprecision of various concepts often attributed to Hooker, such as the famous Anglican “three-legged stool.”  However, while acknowledging that there may be some anachronism in the very concept of Anglicanism at this period as a via media and in Hooker as a formulator of it, Joyce appears oblivious to the extent to which her own determination of context—Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology—has set the terms of her interpretation in a way that a priori leaves key issues out of consideration.  By choosing to narrate Hooker as a distinctively Anglican thinker, within a distinctively Anglican tradition (one which he is taken to have essentially started), Joyce de facto accepts, despite her protestations, the old via media account, and also relieves herself of the responsibility to engage in any detail with Reformed moral theologians antecedent to and contemporary with Hooker.  

Her introductory chapter issues two prominent promissory notes about the method which she will follow, and we should take note of them here, so that we can trace throughout whether she makes good on them.  First, she tells us that

“the principle aim of this book is, therefore, to examine in detail the moral dimension of the writings of Richard Hooker in its own terms, and attempt to set this within the broader context of his theological thought.  It is this, rather than any attempt to argue for (or against) the continued relevance and lasting authority of his thought, that will provide the chief focus of its concerns, in an endeavor to avoid some of the more serious difficulties and distortions that have characterized certain earlier studies. . . . It is intended that this volume, which sets out to examine Hooker’s moral theology in its own terms, with no investment in claiming his perspectives for any particular theological, ecclesiological, or moral tradition, will provide a clearer and more informed understanding of Hooker’s work in general, as well as his specific contribution to Anglican moral theology.” (15)

In other words, Joyce is seeking to occupy a very Hookerian sort of high ground when it comes to interpreting Hooker—unlike other writers, she will be impartial, objective, interested only in the truth of the matter, without any eye to contemporary controversies.  In short, she will seek to be the sort of writer that Hooker has often been presented as, timeless, objective, and unruffled.  It is ironic, then, that her second methodological objective is to puncture this portrait of Hooker, to show that in fact his objective persona is a rhetorical construction, and he is in fact very polemically motivated:

“Fundamental to this entire enterprise will be a careful evaluation of the nature of Hooker’s prose style and mode of argumentation, including in particular his use of rhetoric and irony.  As we shall see in Chapter 3 and elsewhere, it is instructive to observe how often Hooker’s text has been misinterpreted by commentators who fail to take adequate account of this aspect of his writing.” (15)  

“One of the reasons why Hooker has been subject to such divergent interpretations throughout the history of his reception is that the tone of his work is often disputed, particularly in those instances where some commentators take his words at face value, while others discern an irony that, in effect, renders his meaning the precise opposite of that stated.” (17)  

As will become clear in the following chapters, by “some commentators” she has in mind primarily Torrance Kirby and his allies.  In other words, just as she thinks Hooker pretends to be objective and systematic, but is in fact pursuing a polemical agenda, so her book pretends to be objective and systematic, but is in fact pursuing a polemical agenda.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with this in principle—part of what I will argue in response to her Chapter 3 is that the ideal of “objectivity” shorn of polemical objective is itself not merely anachronistic but absurd.  The question about her polemic, then, will be how well it hits home.

What about her objective of reading Hooker “in his own terms”?  This sounds like a laudable goal; however, it is rather unhelpful to try to interpret a historical thinker only with reference to himself, rather than with reference to the intellectual atmosphere in which he is working and the thinkers he is responding to.  Thankfully, in chapter 2, Joyce declares that “the importance of reading Hooker in light of that context cannot be over-emphasized” and complains that “one of the problems that has bedeviled much Hooker scholarship in recent years is the extent to which his work has been lifted out of its historical setting and mined for insights or quotations that are deemed to be of relevance to the Church in the modern world, with inadequate reference to, or acknowledgement of, the original context of his writings.”  Given the importance of this historical context, it is notable, and troubling, that Joyce devotes a scant 25 pages to sketching the history of Elizabethan England and its theological controversies, introducing the puritan and conformist polemics that made up the background for and occasion of Hooker’s own writing, narrating the life of Richard Hooker and how the Lawes came to be written, and outlining the overall structure of the Lawes.  Were Joyce to engage in frequent asides later on in the text to relate Hooker to Cartwright or Calvin or Bancroft or Bullinger, this quick fly-by might be adequate, but as it is, this is pretty much all we get as far as historical and theological context.  

A fully adequate account of Hooker’s context would include at least the following: (1) a consideration of medieval scholasticism; (2) a consideration of other 16th-century English moral theologians; (3) a consideration of other 16th-century Protestant theologians, particularly the more scholastically-inclined, such as Melanchthon, Vermigli, and Zanchius, but also of course the Luther, Calvin, and Bullinger; (4) a consideration of 16th-century Catholic theologians, such as Suarez; (4) a consideration of the Elizabethan establishment and its controversies; (5) a close consideration of the theological commitments of both Puritans and conformists; (6) an account of Hooker’s own life, and the events that led up to the writing of the Lawes.  What Joyce offers us here is only a highly-condensed version of (4) and (5), with (5) in particular making little effort to investigate the theologies of the disputants, and a fairly adequate account of (6).  (1) appears in bits and pieces in the following chapters, as Hooker’s relation to Aquinas in particular is frequently discussed.  Now, it is probably asking too much for any one book to cover all six of these bases thoroughly, but given Joyce’s ambitious aim to provide a systematic overview of Hooker’s thought in the context of his own era, one would have hoped for a bit more.  The lack of (3), in particular, proves harmful at later points in the exposition.

Although the sins in this chapter are primarily those of omission, rather than commission, there are a two of the latter worth mentioning.  On page 23, she says that

“Many of those who had returned from exile [in 1559] brought with them hopes of a new life within a fully Protestant regime; in this context, Lake has noted the particular appeal of a presbyterianism based on the Geneva model.  Their frustration at finding in the Elizabethan Settlement an English Reformation that remained only partial and, in their view, awaiting its completion, fueled their calls for further reform.”  

This narrative manages to almost entirely remove the 1560s from the historical record—the events of this decade occupy only a single sentence before Joyce goes on to describe the aggressive promotion of Presbyterianism in the 1570s.  In point of fact, although a number of exiles did return from Geneva in 1559, there is little evidence of any real push for Presbyterianism at this time; unsurprising, since Calvin himself had no real problem with the English episcopate.  That came later, as a reaction against the bishops’ perceived role in the Vestiarian Controversy.  That is to say, it was as a response to the trials of conscience created by controversies over “things indifferent” that Puritanism initially emerged, not as a Genevan presbyterian colony in England.  Recognition of this could help provide at key points a fuller account of Hooker’s apologetic purpose than Joyce is able to offer.

Likewise, on p. 37, we have one of the strongest of Hooker’s polemicism, a hint of what is to follow in ch. 3:

“Interestingly, Knox is at pains to stress that the conflict between Hooker and Travers was not personal, stressing the mutual respect that, in his view, they appear to have had.  However, aside from the fact that it is questionable how far the tone of the recorded comments upon which Knox bases this judgment was anything other than purely politic, I shall be demonstrating in the following chapter that both Bauckham and Knox significantly underestimate the vitriol that Hooker was capable of directing against his opponents, thinly disguised as it was under a carefully constructed literary persona of cool, objective rationality. . . . It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the force that drove the specifically polemical aspects of his writing was, at some level, deeply personal.  Indeed, as MacCulloch has observed: ‘One of the major and admirable features of his work is that he was not out to please anyone: he was an unusually wealthy clergyman who had apparently turned away from the clerical career ladder, and he seems to have written to satisfy himself.'”

It is striking here how Joyce has managed to turn MacCulloch’s compliment into an insult. Where MacCulloch means that Hooker undertook the Lawes for the sake of his own intellectual satisfaction regarding the issues at stake, and out of genuine loyalty to the Church that was being impugned, Joyce manages to narrate it as if he wrote out of personal bitterness and vindictiveness against Walter Travers and other Puritans.  There is no evidence for this, even if the evidence to the contrary may be dismissed by saying that such remarks were “purely politic.”  It is worth observing here the prevalence of this hermeneutical method in contemporary scholarship—anything kind or generous that a writer says about an opponent must be read as “purely politic,” disguising their true feelings, and anything critical they say must be read as personal vindictiveness.  Whether the charge of vitriol—”cruel and bitter criticism”—can be sustained, we will decide in the following chapter.  However, for now it is worth noting Alexander Rosenthal’s helpful observation in this regard:

“Hooker regards the contentions of the extreme Calvinist party as involving dangers of the utmost gravity. . . .  At the same time he strives on a principle of charity to distinguish between the error and the personal sincerity of those who err. . . . A fair approach would be to accept that Hooker does not endeavor to judge the motives and intentions of his opponents (whose earnestness he is prepared to concede), but finds that the issues, which divide them, are pregnant with profound implications for the theology and indeed the polity of the English church and commonwealth.” (Crown Under Law, 4)

Rosenthal, I think, overstates his case a bit here—Hooker was human, like all of us, and quite able to fall prey to the temptation of insinuating evil motives of his adversaries at points.  But I think Rosenthal is right about his overall goal.  His polemic is directed at his adversaries’ dangerous ideas, rather than at his adversaries themselves.  We will have occasion to consider this much more closely in the review of Joyce’s third chapter.

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