Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 2

Although delayed substantially since beginning this review more than two weeks ago, I am now recommencing my thorough review of A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology with an in-depth critique of her third chapter, “Reading Richard Hooker.”  The critique grew so lengthy, however, that I thought it better to adapt it for at The Calvinist International, which has kindly hosted it under the title, “Richard Hooker, Reformed Irenic.”

For the sake of continuity, however, or for those looking for something a bit briefer, I offer here a highly-condensed version.  In chapter three, Joyce proposes to lay the groundwork for a historically sound interpretation of Hooker by teaching us how to discern his rhetorical style and agenda.  Although she purports to be breaking new ground by cutting through the thickets of misunderstanding that have grown up around Hooker’s text and setting the record straight about mild-mannered, “judicious” Hooker, she is in fact simply reciting the fashionable new orthodoxy among Hooker interpreters.  She will argue that, although cultivating a persona of cool objectivity, Hooker is fully engaged in a polemical battle to discredit and defeat his Puritan opponents.  He quotes selectively from them, uses devious little turns of phrase to make them look bad, and imputes bad motives to them, trying to convince his audience that they’re motivated by an emotional agenda, rather than reason.  The irony of all this is that this is in fact precisely what Joyce does to Hooker in this chapter. 

Although she claims to present an objective, historical reading of Hooker in Hooker’s own terms, she in fact shows herself to be motivated throughout by a desire to discredit a particular school of Hooker interpretation, which she fears is trying to align him too closely with the Reformation.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, really.  Of course our desire for truth means that we feel the need to combat error forcefully where we find it; few of us indeed can be moved to write out of a detached love of truth that has not been stirred to action by the perception of error.  So polemicism in the service of truth is no vice, as Hooker himself clearly understood.  So when Joyce thinks she has uncovered a juicy scandal—Richard Hooker was a polemicist—there really is no scandal, for he never pretended to be anything else.

Hooker never makes any attempt to deny is that he is passionately interested in seeing the Puritan position refuted.  On the contrary, he makes clear from the very beginning that he considers it dangerous to the truth, and dangerous to society, and he intends to do his best to expose its flaws.  Joyce attempts to paint him as a hypocrite because, while “presenting himself as a man of unimpeachable Christian charity: an agent of peace and reconciliation who is determined to seek unity and to find common ground with his opponents, however much they might resist such a noble and godly cause . . . if Hooker does indeed seek unity with them, it is abundantly clear that it will be entirely on his own terms” (61).  But Hooker never suggests that he wants unity on any terms other than those of the truth, which is what he intends to be offending.  This, it turns out, is the scandal, from the standpoint of modern academic objectivity—Hooker has the audacity to believe he is right, and his opponents are wrong!

Once we understand that for Hooker, polemics are a tool in the service of truth, we find that there is in fact no contradiction between Hooker’s occasionally polemical style and his overall goal of an “irenical appeal to the hearts and minds of the disciplinarian Puritan opponents of the Elizabethan Settlement,” as Torrance Kirby puts it, to Joyce’s incredulity.  As I have written before here and here, and Steven Wedgeworth has expanded upon with reference to Hooker here, irenicism is the proper end of all good polemics, but it can rarely do without some resort (often very considerable resort) to polemics.  Because it is interested in reconciliation in truth, irenic polemics aims ultimately to persuade the opponent, opposing his errors, but not assassinating his character.  

Does this description accurately characterize Hooker’s polemics?  Joyce would have us believe not, characterizing Hooker’s rhetoric as full of “waspish, acerbic, and irreverent assaults” upon the Puritans, which frequently impugn their motives.  She concedes that he in many places appears to speak positively of his opponents and to declare his goodwill toward them, but insists that we must read all such passages as dripping with sarcasm and irony.  I critique the circular nature of this hermeneutic of suspicion in more detail in the longer version of this review.   In any case, an authentically historical method would seek to evaluate Hooker’s supposed waspishness by comparison to contemporary examples of theological polemic.  And indeed, when we read Hooker alongside writers such as Cartwright, Whitgift, and especially Bancroft, it is no wonder that he has gained a reputation—overstated, certainly, but not entirely unjustified—for saintly serenity.  Of course, we need not imagine that Hooker never stooped to taking cheap shots—misrepresenting his opponents, unfairly attacking their character, using sarcastic put-downs to avoid the real issues at stake, etc.  He is, after all, human, and few polemicists have managed to always resist such temptations, especially in a 1,400-page work.  The question is whether taking cheap shots comprises part of his intentional method, or comprises the exception that proves the irenical rule.

Crucial in answering this question is learning to distinguish what constitutes a “cheap” shot, and what is quite a well-justified shot, and the means that we cannot evaluate the nature of someone’s polemics in abstraction from the question of truth.  Did Hooker’s opponents say the sorts of things he charges them with?  Were these indeed theologically or politically dangerous, as he claims?  If so, his polemic looks decidedly less “waspish.”  In fact, startlingly, Joyce makes no attempt to consider these questions of truth.  This omission is the most glaring in the chief passage she quotes as evidence of Hooker’s “not merely barbed, but quite outrageous” polemics, which she describes as a “merciless parody” of the Puritans (51).  In point of fact, in the passage she quotes, Hooker is in fact closely paraphrasing and even quoting directly from Thomas Cartwright, a fact that he is kind enough to alert us to by an extended footnote, but which Joyce entirely ignores.  Who’s being “outrageous” now?

Also central to Joyce’s re-reading of Hooker against Torrance Kirby is her attempt to show him as “unambiguously contemptuous” of John Calvin.  She achieves this reading by means of the same hermeneutic of suspicion described above, taking anything positive Hooker says about Calvin as sarcastic or a backhanded compliment, and playing up anything negative he has to say.  In point of fact, Hooker makes quite clear to us what he thinks about Calvin—he was a very wise church leader and among the greatest of Protestant theologians, but he is a mere man just the same, who made mistakes, and since “incredible praises given unto men do often abate and impair the credit of their deserved commendation” (II.8.7), Hooker will avoid giving him more credit than he is due.  The Puritan error consists partly in their unhealthy idolization of Calvin as seemingly infallible, to the exclusion of other Protestant theologians, Church Fathers, and even Scripture itself.  So we can hardly pronounce Hooker as un-Reformed merely because he refused to do due obeisance at the altar of Calvin.  Nor can we pronounce him un-Reformed because some of his Puritan readers at the time judged him such.  Joyce considers the negative reaction of A Christian Letter (1599) to be strong proof against Kirby’s theory that Hooker’s overall purpose was irenic, and committed to Reformed fundamentals, for it is “a telling indication of how Hooker’s remarks were received and interpreted by his principal target audience.”  However, anyone familiar with the world of theological controversy ought to know well enough that a that one should never interpret a theological work based on how it is received by its target audience.  Perhaps this suggests that Hooker’s hope of “resolving the conscience” was naïve, but it hardly proves that he never had any such intention.

Kirby’s, of course, is not the final word, and there is much that needs nuancing in his reading of Hooker and Hooker’s relation to the various strands of the Reformed tradition.  But rather than advancing the conversation, Joyce’s a-theological, a-historical “rhetorical criticism” of Hooker leaves us with a text that can be re-shaped according to the interpreter’s whim.  We can only be thankful, then, that for all the drama with which she presents it, the argument and methodology of chapter three ends up playing a relatively minor role in most of the rest of her book, which I will be reviewing further over the next couple weeks.

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