Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 4: The Authority of Scripture

The fifth chapter of A.J. Joyce’s book, “Hooker on the Nature and Authority of Scripture,” covers some of the most important ground when it comes to the theology of Richard Hooker.  Indeed, perhaps it covers the most important ground, given that the role of Scripture in moral and political life was at the heart of his debate with the Puritans.  It is here, then, that we especially feel the lack of a thorough introduction to Hooker’s Puritan interlocutors; despite the stress she laid in ch. 3 on the importance of understanding Hooker’s polemical context, we have been given only the most cursory overview of how his opponents argued, and are thus in a poor position to judge if and when he polemically exaggerates their position, and what motivates his own statements on Scripture.  (See here for my exposition of Cartwright and Travers’s biblicism which Hooker was opposing.)

As in the previous review, the focus here shall unfortunately be primarily on the weak points and ambiguities within this chapter, rather than on its many strengths.  Joyce’s approach in this chapter is a bit more scattered than the fairly systematic presentation she offered in ch. 4, but she does offer helpful summaries of Hooker’s defense of the concept of “things indifferent,” his teaching on the sufficiency of Scripture unto salvation, and the importance of reason as a supplement unto Scripture (or Scripture as a supplement unto reason) when it comes to things accessory to salvation (all points on which I have blogged here before).

Although generally sound, one weakness in Joyce’s exposition of this point, common to most interpreters (and to some of my own earlier writing on this) is a tendency to depend on spatial metaphors for describing Hooker’s doctrine of Scripture; his difference from the Puritans is taken to be that he limits the scope of Scripture to a certain area of concern, whereas they extend it to all things.  Strictly speaking, however, Hooker acknowledges the relevance of Scripture to all moral questions as well.  The difference is in how it exercises authority over such matters.  Whereas the Puritans understood Scripture to precede and bypass the law of reason, Hooker takes it as confirming the same, meaning that one need not derive one’s action from Scripture, so long as the action is in fact in conformity with Scripture.  Moreover, whereas Cartwright asserted that “it is the virtue of a good law, to leave as little as may be in the discretion of a judge,” thus understanding Scripture to govern our moral actions in such a way as to bypass prudence, Hooker argued that Scripture invited, indeed, required us to use prudence in applying it to particulars.

Joyce begins the chapter by critiquing a 1997 essay by Don Compier which sought to appropriate Hooker’s understanding of the moral authority of Scripture for contemporary Anglican controversies, and which unsurprisingly sought to stress that Hooker sees moral questions as time-dependent and incapable of simple adjudication by Scripture.  Compier seeks to read a woolly modern liberalism back on Hooker, and Joyce rightly calls him on it, noting that “there can be little doubt that Hooker would have regarded Compier’s suggestion that he believed that there were no ‘absolute verities’ in moral matters as quite outrageous.  She accordingly responds by emphasizing Hooker’s unambiguous teaching on the full inspiration of Scripture, its divine authority, and its sole sufficiency in matters of faith.  Regarding Compier’s attempt to liberalize Hooker, she warns that “his article demonstrates very cogently the perils of starting with a modern ethical problem and then going to Hooker’s text to see if one can unearth ideas or concepts that appear to be of relevance to it, and of quoting him selectively.”  Instead, Joyce intends, as she has told us repeatedly, to “read Hooker on his own terms.”

However, as the chapter proceeds, it becomes clear that she is not so far from Compier’s methodology as she wishes us to believe.  She displays a great interest in discerning ways in which Hooker’s doctrine of Scripture and hermeneutic was “sophisticated” and ahead of its time, a precursor to a modern understanding of Scripture.  Hooker, she tells us, is aware of the significance of context; he does not treat all parts of Scripture as equally inspired or authoritative; he recognizes historical development within Scripture; he recognizes that there are some things in Scripture which no longer apply to us today; he emphasizes the role of the human author in shaping the text; his hermeneutic is decidedly Christocentric.  The overall thrust of these observations is not hard to find, and becomes more clear in the last couple chapters of her book, which we shall come to in due course: Joyce wants to elevate Hooker above the naive Biblical literalism of his age and of fundamentalists today, showing that, although he could not transcend his age altogether, he is sophisticated enough to warrant the respect of illuminated modern readers.

Unfortunately, as with Compier, her eagerness to find examples of these recognitions in Hooker’s work leads her to occasionally distort what he’s really up to.  The first point—that “Hooker accords different degrees of authority to different parts of scripture” is a case in point.  She quotes the passage where Hooker critiques this

with whom nothing is more familiar than to plead in thesee causes ‘The law of God, the word of the Lord,’ who notwithstanding when they come to allege what word and what law they mean, their common ordinary practice is to quote by-speeches in some historical narration or other, and to urge them as if they were written in the most exact form of law. What is to add to the law of God if this be not?  When that which the word of God doth but deliver historically, we consider without warrant as if it were legally meant, and so urge it further than we can prove that it was intended, do we not add to the laws of God, and make them in number seem more than they are.

This is a fairly elementary confusion of “claim” and “authority.”  In his helpful article “Towards an Interpretation of Biblical Ethics,” O’Donovan uses the helpful illustration of hearing a voice yell “Stop!” as we are walking down the sidewalk.  We have first to determine whether the voice is speaking to us (claim), and then whether it is the voice of a policeman or someone we are obliged to listen to (authority).  In denying that a speech in a Biblical narrative binds us as divine law, Hooker denies only that the speech is addressing us in the imperative, not that it has any less divine authority, which is what Joyce tries to suggest.

Likewise, in seeking to show that Hooker acknowledges historical development within Scripture, she cites him saying “the later even of the Apostles own times had that which in the former was not thought upon,” but fails to note that Hooker is here talking about matters of church order specifically, which is to say, adiaphora that he has argued are always subject to historical variation.  The same applies to his acknowledgment that some things in Scripture no longer apply to us today.  Hooker makes a point of defining quite carefully what sort of Scriptural teachings will fall under that heading and which won’t; Joyce, in omitting all these qualifications, seems to want to suggest, just as much as Compier, that Hooker gives us the freedom to privilege modern mores over Scriptural norms.

An even greater problem within this section, as within the whole chapter, is Joyce’s failure to make almost any effort to situate Hooker within his historical context.  This is an odd feature of her declared intention to read Hooker “on his own terms” and her running polemic against those who read Hooker in order to enlist him for some contemporary agenda.  To read Hooker “on his own terms” seems for Joyce often to mean reading his text within a vacuum, without attention to the intellectual landscape that informed his thought (with the notable exception of Aquinas, whose influence she very frequently cites).  But of course, Hooker does not thing “on his own terms”; he thinks in terms of the stock of ideas and methods that he had learned from other theologians, chiefly his Reformed contemporaries.  Strangely, when scholars such as Kirby and, less successfully, Atkinson, try to consider this historical context, Joyce treats this as another failure to read Hooker historically, another attempt to enlist him for a contemporary agenda.  On several of the points, then, that Joyce represents Hooker as remarkably sophisticated and maybe even proto-modern, she could have just as readily found examples from the writings of Calvin, Vermigli, or other Reformers.  If she thinks Hooker’s hermeneutic is decidedly Christocentric, what about Luther’s?  This does not mean that I don’t think Hooker has anything original to offer on any of these points; I’m inclined to think that his hermeneutic is remarkably sophisticated for the era as well, but this is more often a matter of carrying through with greater consistency ideas that contemporaries and predecessors had already articulated, than of wholly new contributions.

This is true as well, and especially important, on the question of the relative authority of Scripture and reason.  This relates closely to the matters covered in the previous review.  There is a recurrent sense among interpreters that Hooker departs fundamentally from the Reformers in the degree of confidence he puts in the power of human reason to judge without the aid of Scripture, but scholars rarely move beyond a vague hunch to a concrete statement of wherein the departure consists.  So it is here.  The magisterial Reformers too believed that in its moral teaching, Scripture restated the law of reason, which was an innate knowledge not wholly effaced by the Fall, and that Scripture therefore, from this standpoint, should be understood as a supplement to reason, rather than vice versa.  To this extent, there should be nothing at all surprising at Hooker’s method of stating a moral principle philosophically, and then using Scripture to illustrate it—a practice that Joyce takes to imply the subordination of Scripture to reason.  Now, in the postlapsarian condition, some Reformers emphasized that so corrupt had our understanding of the moral law become that functionally, Scripture must have primacy, with reason supplementing Scripture.  But many of them emphasized that on a great many matters, particularly those of political order, fallen reason remained reasonably effective, requiring only a certain amount of illumination and redirection by Scripture.  It remains unclear to me that Hooker departed in any fundamental respect from the Reformed consensus on this.  (The one respect on which Joyce argues fairly plausible that he has is in his apparent rejection of the doctrine of the self-authentication of Scripture.  This is a point that Nigel Voak has laid considerable stress on, as decisively separating him from his fellow Reformed.  Torrance Kirby has responded in a thus-far unpublished essay, “Wisdom’s Waies,” arguing that Hooker is not, in fact, really denying autopistos; even if he is, though, it remains to be determined whether this puts him decisively out of the Reformed fold.  More work needs to be done on this question.)

Joyce, in fact, conspicuously omits that feature of Hooker’s account of Scripture that places him most clearly in line with his fellow Reformers.  In answering the question “if such [moral] laws are discernible by means of human reason, why is the testimony of scripture necessary?  Specifically, why is it that ‘so many natural or rational laws are set down in holy scripture’?” (140).  She gives three answers: “scripture can help to clarify, or to shed light upon, matters that would otherwise be less than entirely self-evident, or it can assist with the specific application of a general principle ‘unto cases particular’. . . . Moreover, scripture can serve to endorse and confirm that which we are taught by reason” (140-41).  This is an accurate summary of what Hooker says in these sections of the Laws (I.8 and I.12), but he has rather more to say.  In I.8.11, he says,

I deny not but lewd and wicked custom, beginning perhaps at the first amongst few, afterwards spreading into greater multitudes, and so continuing from time to time, may be of force even in plain things to smother the light of natural understanding; because men will not bend their wits to examine whether things wherewith they have been accustomed be good or evil.

In I.12.2 he sounds a similar theme:

The first principles of the Law of Nature are easy; hard it were to find men ignorant of them.  But concerning the duty which Nature’s law doth require at the hands of men a number of things particular, so far hath the natural understanding even of sundry whole nations been darkened, that they have not discerned no not gross iniquity to be sin.

 This is Hooker’s explanation of why it is that we would need Scripture’s aid so much in applying the natural law.  But he goes further,

Again, being so prone as we are to fawn upon ourselves, and to be ignorant as much as may be of our own deformities, without the feeling sense whereof we are most wretched; even so much the more, because not knowing them we cannot so much as desire to have them taken away; how should our festered sores be cured, but that God hath delivered a law as sharp as the two-edged sword, piercing the very closest and most unsearchable corners of the hearth, which the Law of Nature can hardly, human laws by no means possible, reach unto?

The latter two passages come immediately after two passages that Joyce does cite on pp. 140-41, but she leaves them out of consideration entirely.  However, they substantially alter the overall tenor of his account, from one in which Scripture is an occasionally helpful but essentially dispensable supplement to a self-sufficient reason, to one in which Scripture is quite necessary for the moral life, such that without it, we would often be groping around in darkness.  Joyce is thus hardly accurate when she says that for Hooker, Scripture’s “role is essentially ancillary, serving to do little more . . . than provide illustrations” (145, see also 147).  “Ancillary” is in fact an accurate term, given that the dictionary defines it as “providing necessary support to the primary activities or operation of an organization, industry, or system,” but this is clearly not quite the sense that Joyce has in mind.

Again, then, we find that while claiming to give us an objective and historical reading of Hooker, Joyce’s account is colored somewhat by a desire to undermine attempts to align Hooker with Reformed Protestantism, with the result that her own account occasionally distorts Hooker’s text, and remains frustratingly silent on the details of his relationship to Reformed contemporaries and predecessors.

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