Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 3

In the first part of my review of A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology, I remarked that this was an oddly schizophrenic book, a bit of a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde.  On the one hand, it features a basically sound, thorough, and helpful exposition of the key aspects of Hooker’s moral theology out of the primary sources, and on the other hand, an uneven and confused polemic against Reformed readings of Hooker.  Chapter Four, investigating Hooker’s theological anthropology, is a case in point.

The choice to begin with an account of human nature, rather than of the sources of moral theology—reason and Scripture—might seem an odd one, but Joyce’s instincts are good here.  For Protestantism in particular, we must first start from an account of human nature, and its current fallen state, before we can say much about how the authorities of reason and Scripture function in human life.  Put simply, a very strong doctrine of total depravity would tend to demand a moral theology based almost entirely upon special revelation; a more optimistic doctrine of human nature would create more space for the use of general revelation in constructing an account of the moral life.  The classic stereotype, of course, is that Hooker gives us a remarkably rosy evaluation of human nature, one which differs notably from the Reformed understanding of total depravity, and the grim pessimism of a figure like Calvin, and therefore represents a fundamental departure from an authentically Protestant understanding of the relative authority of reason and Scripture.  

Now to her credit, Joyce sets up her chapter as if she intends to challenge this stereotype (using the dated Anglican and Puritan of J.F.H. New), although she also intends to challenge what she takes to be the equal and opposite error of Kirby, Atkinson, and Co., who try to assimilate Hooker to Calvin without remainder.  She suggests that she intends to offer us some kind of via media synthesis of the two, but in the end, it is unclear exactly how she differs from New and the standard stereotype, except by toning down the absoluteness of the opposition somewhat.  It quickly becomes clear that the polemic against Kirby and Co. is the more important for Joyce, and a point on which she is not inclined to make concessions.

Now the problem with the old stereotype is that it has a great deal of prima facie plausibility.  Hooker certainly sounds more optimistic than Calvin.  But most scholars, belying their supposed task as scholars, have been content to leave it at that.  In defense of the stereotype, we are generally offered only Hooker’s relative silence about depravity in the Lawes contrasted with a couple particularly dark quotations from Calvin on the subject.  There you have it.  Case closed.  But is it possible that in other contexts, Hooker said some rather more pessimistic things about human nature and knowledge, and Calvin said some rather more optimistic things?  Well, yes, as a matter of fact, and Joyce is honest enough to admit as much in her chapter, dedicating pp. 91-93 to looking at those places in Hooker’s corpus—essentially, all his writings except the Lawes—where he emphasizes more strongly the consequences of the Fall and the need for human reason to rely on divine grace, and quoting William Bouwsma on pp. 96-97 about Calvin’s willingness to speak much more optimistically in different rhetorical contexts.  Now, this observation in itself would seem to substantially undermine the rather thin foundation for the standard stereotype, yet Joyce , having made these observations, makes no real attempt to integrate them into a new explanation.

The way for this omission has been partly paved already by her discussion of rhetoric and polemics in ch. 3, where she treats them as sub- or anti-rational forces that take control of an author’s thought and render it difficult or impossible to coherently interpret.  She has, for instance, this to say about the different emphases in Hooker’s thought: “Part of the difficult entailed in giving a satisfactory account of Hooker’s theological anthropology is that his emphasis shifts according to the principal focus of the argument at any one time.  Certain texts seem to imply assertions about the nature of reason and its authority, and the extent of human ‘fallenness’ that appear, at face value, difficult to reconcile.” (96)  Of course, this is another example of the scholarly tendency (which I remarked on in a post last week) to construe perfectly ordinary phenomena as particularly remarkable complexities that require expert attention; it should go without saying that any author will vary his emphasis “according to the principal focus of his argument at any one time.”  There is nothing remarkable about this.  The question is whether we have merely a shift of emphasis or an outright contradiction, and that requires close attention to what the underlying principles are.  This, ostensibly, is what we scholars are supposed to do; if we aren’t doing this, it’s hard to justify our existence.  Joyce implies that she is going to do this, when she says that these statements “appear, at face value, difficult to reconcile.”  But in fact, she never goes on to do so.  She simply goes on implying that there is some sort of contradiction, without ever saying just what it is.  (And for my part, I could not discover anything beyond a garden-variety contextual difference of emphasis in the statements she quotes.)

She does not even appear decided as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.  Obviously, self-contradiction in pursuit of polemical ends looks like a bad thing at first glance, and she did not sound like she was trying to flatter Hooker in ch. 3 when she stated, “on occasions Hooker is in fact prepared to put at risk the logical coherence of his argument in order to score points at his opponents’ expense.”  True to that promise, she offers a couple examples of such here, although again it is somewhat baffling to see them construed as anything more than contextual shifts of emphasis.  (Her chief example is the fact that Hooker will sometimes emphasize the value of old traditions and decry the ignorance of contemporary innovators, while elsewhere he argues for an overall growth of understanding and civilization in human history.  Is this really a contradiction?  Could not any thinker worth his salt offer examples of both truths?)  Yet in the end, Joyce appears to think that maybe this ambiguity simply reflects the complexity of human experience, saying,

In presenting an anthropology that exhibits both a marked optimism about the capabilities and potential of human nature (an optimism that is grossly misplaced, in the view of his opponents) and a profound realism regarding the nature and extent of human depravity, Hooker engages directly with one of the paradoxes, or tensions, at the very heart of human life: the fact that human beings are capable of recognizing and pursuing goodness, yet can find themselves drawn to act against their better judgement.  We are capable of both good and evil, as Hooker recognizes, “for hath not nature furnisht man with wit and valor, as it were armor, which may be used as well unto extreme evill as good?”  In Hooker’s terminology, human nature is at one and the same time both ‘sincere’ and ‘depraved’, a motif which is at least as old as scripture. (100)

This seems like a good summary to me, but if this is the case, then wherein exactly consists the irreconcilable opposition to Reformed orthodoxy, which Joyce insists upon, contra Kirby and Atkinson?  Joyce never really tells us in this chapter, although she has two main arguments, each of which she employs several times.

The first is to emphasize the basically Aristotelian/Thomistic sources of Hooker’s theological anthropology.  These have of course been recognized by many commentators, and Joyce gives us one of the best expositions of the extensive points of similarity (and occasional points of difference) between Hooker, Thomas, and Aristotle on the relation of human nature to other creatures and to God, and of its distinctive ends and capacities.  This similarity, she takes it, renders highly suspicious or outright untenable Kirby’s claim that Hooker’s anthropology is essentially Reformed.  But why?  She never bothers to explain.  Presumably because other Reformed theologians detested Thomistic and Aristotelian categories and refused to use them in their theology?  Uh, try reading Vermigli or Zanchi.  Even Calvin is not nearly so anti-scholastic as he often makes himself out to be.  Because Aquinas is now seen as the quintessential Catholic theologian, and since Protestants are taken to have forcefully rejected all the assumptions of Catholic theology, there seems to be a recurrent assumption, understandable in popular literature, but found even in scholarly writing, that anything “Thomistic” is by definition un-Protestant.  Joyce, accordingly, throughout tries to make Kirby out to be carefully distancing Hooker from any Thomistic influence.  In fact, if she had taken into account the whole of Kirby’s work, rather than merely citing his doctoral dissertation from 25 years ago, she would’ve seen that he has no intention of doing so.  On the contrary, a key preoccupation of Kirby’s work is the scholastic and neo-Platonist roots of Reformed theology.  Protestantism, simply put, cheerfully accepts the vast majority of Aquinas’s theology.  Of course, it might be that particular commitments of Aquinas or Aristotle, which Hooker signs onto, are incompatible with Reformed theology, but Joyce never makes this argument.  (At one point, she suggests that his distinction between the “aptness” of the human will, its ability to prefer one thing above another—which sin cannot take away—and its “ableness,” its ability to reliably perceive and pursue the good—which sin has ruined—somehow refutes his commitment to Reformed orthodoxy, but she never says how this distinction is in any way un-Reformed.)

Her second main argument is to emphasize that Hooker begins his Lawes, structurally speaking, with human nature in its created integrity, rather than in its fallen depravity.  This contradicts Torrance Kirby’s assumption that “Hooker’s anthropological starting point is the conviction of man’s total corruption and sinfulness as the consequence of the Fall.”  “Starting point,” however, can mean a great many things.  In context, all Kirby means is that Hooker presupposes throughout his theology man’s fundamental depravity, and even when this is methodologically bracketed out for the sake of certain discussions, it is never forgotten.  There is nothing about Reformed theology that commits it to always talking about the Fall before it talks about Creation.  Indeed, inasmuch as it seeks to be Biblical, it might well want to do the opposite.  If Joyce thinks that putting an account of created nature structurally before an account of fallen nature is un-Reformed, she has not read enough Reformed systematic theologies.  Of course, she will go on to say that it is not merely the fact that Hooker starts with unfallen human nature, but that he never really emphasizes very dramatically how far we are not fallen from this.  To be sure, he says a great deal about the negative affects of sin on human reason even within the Lawes, but not nearly as much as Calvin might do.  However, we have already noted that elsewhere within his works, he has much more to say, and his particular purposes in the Lawes did not really require him to say more on this theme.  Now, taking up again an argument she used in chapter three, Joyce notes that the author of A Christian Letter clearly thought that Hooker was too positive about human reason, and too full of Aquinas and Aristotle, but I have already noted in the review of chapter three that one should beware of taking hostile testimony in theological conflict at face value.

Of course, as I emphasized in my review of chapter three, critiques of Kirby are worth making.  There is an unmistakable difference in tone, at the very least, between Hooker and other Reformed thinkers, and as Nigel Voak has shown (sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully) in Richard Hooker and Reformed Theology, there are some points of apparently substantive difference as well, which need to be weighed and analyzed.  This is a discussion that needs to be had; what frustrates me is that the vast majority of the literature on this topic, including by and large Joyce’s contribution, is not having this discussion.  It is merely trading stereotypes and impressions, not arguments.

I will end this review here, to avoid being overly wordy, although I regret that I have had to focus almost entirely on the negative.  It is a sad fact of writing that it is almost always much more interesting to engage in controversy than merely to nod one’s head in agreement.  This chapter offers an extremely valuable exposition of Hooker’s Thomistic understanding of creaturely being, of human nature, and of the natural human aspiration to pursue virtue and union with God.  But in this, she is mainly just summarizing and quoting from the Lawes.  Were I to summarize and quote from Joyce’s summary, all the while nodding in agreement, the reader would soon find himself nodding in slumber.  If you are interested in learning more about Hooker’s thought on these subjects, you would do better to read Joyce for yourself, or better Hooker for yourself, or even some of the posts on such topics I’ve made here, than read a précis of a précis.

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