Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 6: Moral Theology Applied

In this sixth and final installment of my review of A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology (I salute you faithful few who have followed me all the way through this hopefully engaging but occasionally exhausting exercise), I shall look at her last two chapters, which are both quite brief and have to do, essentially, with the concrete application of Hooker’s moral theology.  Chapter Seven considers the relationship of the “exceptional case” to moral norms, the all-important balance between unchanging general norms and the demands of particular circumstances.  Chapter Eight seeks to bring together, or rather to illustrate, the themes outlined in all the previous chapters by consideration of one particular example, the understanding of marriage in Hooker’s thought.

Both are on the whole helpful chapters, though the first suffers from a frustrating vagueness as to which moral norms are exceptionable and which are not, and the difference between particular injunctions that specify general principles and those that contradict them; the second, perhaps more seriously, suffers from Joyce’s very un-Hookerian determination to try and drive a wedge between reason and Scripture.

Chapter 7 begins with an extended consideration of the Aristotelian ethical tradition, and its understanding that it was the nature of the moral life to be concerned with particulars, and general principles cannot adequately describe moral duties without exception: “for Arristotle, whatever is promulgated by the moral philosopher, political scientist, or lawgiver will only ever take into consideration the majority of cases.  It takes a wise man, whose perception has been developed through experience, to discern what it is that constitutes right action in a concrete situation.” (197-98)

She therefore argues that the development of the Christian ethical tradition of casuistry was not at odds with, but symbiotic with, the natural law tradition: “Natural law provided casuists with a strong and clearly established system of principles that were nevertheless general in nature and, to that extent, limited” (201).

Thus Hooker’s emphasis on the need for moral judgments to take account of particular circumstances and apply general norms prudentially to them (in contrast to Cartwright’s attempt to treat Scriptural norms as needing little further specification), constitutes an important contribution to the development of English Protestant casuistry, Joyce argues.

Hooker regards it as self-evidently the case that general rules do not in themselves prescribe particulars, and that there will inevitably be individual circumstances that general rules are unable to encompass adequately. . . . Similarly, Hooker is critical of what he regards as the puritans’  lack of subtlety and humanity in pursuing principles without an eye to their limitations and regardless of the negative effects that the uncompromising implementation of such principles may engender (204-5).

To speak in this way raises an important question: “whether the granting of such exceptions applies in the case of all general rules, including those laws which Hooker considers timeless and changeless, or merely to rules that govern ‘matters indifferent'” (206).  Given the importance of this question, Joyce proves remarkably elusive in answering it.  In fact, although Joyce speaks vaguely of the ways in which particular cases require us to go beyond general norms, we should distinguish five different ways in which particular moral injunctions may relate to general norms:

1) The general norm may simply be under-specified, so that a particular moral judgment is needed to bring it to bear in a specific case, but such that the particular is in no way in tension with the general (e.g., “Thou shalt not steal.”)

2) The general norm may describe an ideal goal, when in fact human beings with limited time and resources are not capable of obeying it fully, and are thus not held to be in violation of it when they follow it so far as circumstances permit.

3) The general norm may be a shorthand formulation, which in fact conceals a number of qualifications intrinsic in the norm, such that a particular that appears to be in tension with it is not in fact (e.g., “Thou shalt not kill,” which is consistent with capital punishment).

4) We may also speak of cases where we distinguish between the “spirit” and the “letter” of a law, so that there are particular actions which, while in violation of the latter, are a fulfillment of the former.

5) Finally, we can speak of cases in which a particular moral judgment does genuinely contradict a general norm, but does so in fidelity to a higher moral norm, to which the lower norm must give precedence in a case where both cannot be obeyed.

It is only in this last case that we are talking about genuine exceptions, in which “necessity” excuses what would otherwise be impermissible—a rather vague way of speaking that might seem to license all sorts of exceptions.  We must be clear that the necessity in question is a moral necessity, one which, by way of contingent circumstances, has been brought into rivalry with another moral principle that has only relative force.  Of course, not all moral principles are capable of being trumped by “necessity” in this way—some are absolutely inviolable, such as that one must never willingly kill the innocent.

Lack of attention to these distinctions causes Joyce’s discussion in this chapter to be less helpful than it might be.  She offers three examples from Hooker in which the claims of the greater good constitute a “necessity” that justifies making an exception to a general moral norm—she apparently means to be describing something like our just listed.  But only one of them clearly fits the bill: the first is “the principle that ministers should be educated.”  Cartwright and Co. took this as an absolute divinely-given norm that the church of England was in violation of.  Hooker acknowledges that it is a general norm that we are called upon to obey whenever possible—a matter of natural law, not positive law—but that in circumstances where the alternatives are either uneducated ministers or too few ministers, the moral necessity of providing some spiritual nourishment for the people trumps the requirement to make sure that that nourishment is as substantial as it may possibly be.

The other two examples are those of non-episcopal ordination and of lay baptism.  These are not generic moral questions, but quite specifically matters of ecclesiastical polity, the subject of Hooker’s entire Lawes, to which he has dedicated a great deal of attention in drawing very careful distinctions about the source, purpose, and mutability of such laws.  These would appear to be, on Hooker’s account, matters of adiaphora in the soteriological sense, matters concerning the outward administration of the church that are theoretically changeable, not supernatural matters pertaining to salvation.  In the one case—baptism—Hooker believes that divine positive law does apply, so that it is not adiaphorous in the epistemological sense: God has established that baptism is to normally be made by ordained ministers, even if there is no intrinsic reason why it need be so.  But in this case, Hooker’s whole discussion about the end and matter of a positive law applies, in determining whether the divine command in this case applies changelessly and unexceptionably.  There are good reasons for thinking that Hooker understood baptism by ministers as an example of (3) above—a generalization about what was to be the case in usual, but not all, circumstances.

With ordination, we are dealing with something that is not merely adiaphorous in the soteriological, but also in the epistemological sense.  That is to say, Hooker does not consider episcopal ordination to be a matter of divine positive law, but a matter of human positive law, albeit one which is in very close accord with the testimony of Scripture, so that few are the cases when human law is justified in providing otherwise.  In allowing that non-episcopal ordination will in some cases be lawful, then, Hooker appears to understand it as an example of (1) above—the general norm that the church ordain ministers is under-specified in Scripture, so that both episcopal and non-episcopal ordinations are valid.  This does not mean, to be sure, that Hooker is altogether indifferent on the subject.  He thinks episcopal ordination, on a variety of grounds, by far the preferable, and non-episcopal ordination to be justifiable only in certain circumstances.  However, the kind of “necessity” that justifies it is different than the kind of necessity that justifies the violation of a natural moral norm.

These may seem like somewhat tedious and scholastic distinctions, but they are just the sort of distinctions that moral theology has an important interest in making.  Given that Joyce has in fact already surveyed all the territory—the relation of natural, divine, and human law, the meaning of “things indifferent,” etc.—that underlies the way in which Hooker makes these different kinds of “exceptions,” it is more than a little disappointing to find her here, at the end, simply tossing them all together in a jumble, as if we had learned nothing from the preceding few chapters.

Now, on to chapter eight.  Here we may be fairly brief as wwell.  Joyce uses Hooker’s treatment of marriage as an example of his moral theology in action; although Hooker offers no systematic treatment of the institution, he makes a number of remarks upon it in the course of defending aspects of the church of England’s marriage rite, and Joyce culls these together to provide us a brief pastiche of his theology of marriage.  This all sounds perhaps a bit more interesting than it in fact proves; many of her observations are fairly unsurprising, such as the fact that Hooker highlights the procreative purpose of marriage as its chief, though not sole, justification, and that he argues for the necessary subordination of the woman in the relationship.

More interesting is her attention to the way in which Hooker makes use of all the different authorities that he has defended in the Lawes, Scripture, reason, church tradition, and the common practice of mankind, to undergird his arguments.  Particularly noteworthy in this respect is his willingness to argue from pagan practice—not only in describing the universality of the institution of marriage, but in defending particular Christian rites, such as the celebration of the Eucharist as part of the marriage ceremony.  Hooker’s Protestant theology of worship is fully on display here, as he justifies this particular rite not by emphasizing the sacramental character of marriage, but its natural human character as a solemn occasion deserving of particular honor; accordingly, the “laws of Romulus” that commanded special solemnities to be observed at weddings in ancient rome provide a precedent for the Church of England’s practice.

Where this chapter disappoints, however, is in Joyce’s desire to put these various authorities, particularly Scripture and reason, at odds with one another, in a way that Hooker would never have countenanced.  This flows out of her somewhat unhelpful discussion of Hooker’s hermeneutics back in chapter 5, where she seeks to display him as ahead of his time in the critical mindset that he brings to the Scriptural text.  Accordingly, at no less than three points in the chapter does she try to drive a wedge between Hooker and St. Paul: whereas Hooker claims to conform his teaching to Paul’s, in fact, he derives it from reason in a way that contradicts or undermines Paul, even while he does lip service to Paul.  In each case, however, Joyce simply shows that she has not bothered to read either Paul or Hooker carefully.

First, she says,

Although his account in Lawes V.73 opens with a fleeting acknowledgment of the Pauline notion that celibacy is ‘a thing more angelical and divine’ than the married state (the latter being, in St. Paul’s view, essentially a concession to human frailty), Hooker’s attitude toward marriage is markedly more positive than that of the apostle . . . [demonstrating] the essential part played by marriage within the overall purposes of God for both heaven and earth. (219)

Paul, Joyce seems to have forgotten, is responsible for the most fulsome praise of marriage in all of Scripture, describing it in Ephesians 5 as an analogy of the relationship of Christ and the Church.  Paul’s articulation of a preference for celibacy in 1 Corinthians is made quite specifically “in view of the present distress” and he does not elsewhere show any negativity toward the institution.

Second, she says, regarding clergy marriage,

Although the obligations of family life might be expected to impede a minister’s wholehearted dedication to the task of ministry (Hooker again expressly cites the authority of St. Paul on this point), he goes on to point out (arguing against the Pauline view) that experience teaches the advantages of married life in this context.  In effect, therefore, he rejects the Pauline view in favor of the testimony of experience: “For as the burthen of Civil Regiment doth make them who bear it, the less able to attend their Ecclesiastical charge; even so S. Paul doth say, that the married are careful for the World, the unmarried freer to give themselves wholly to the service of God.  Howbeit, both experience hath found it safer, that the Clergy should beta the cares of honest marriage, than be subject to the inconveniences which single life, imposed upon them, would draw after it” (228).

Again, however, there is in reality no contradiction.  Paul never lays down the preference for celibacy as an absolute one, but simply notes that all other things being equal, the celibate will be able to serve God more single-heartedly than the married.  However, all things are not often equal—many will “burn with passion,” and for these, celibacy will be more a distraction than a gift.  Joyce, moreover, has missed out the key words in Hooker’s sentence—imposed upon them.  Hooker is not saying that clergy should never be single, but that they should never have singleness imposed upon them, as it was during the Papacy, since they may not be able to bear the burden.

Joyce returns to this same theme later when she says that

In another passage, this time explicitly linked with Pauline teaching, Hooker considers the case of the man who chooses celibacy rather than marriage.  Interestingly, here he attempts to justify his departure from the Pauline view by deeming celibacy to be a lifestyle that is grounded in scripture, rather than commanded by it: ‘If when a man may live in the state of Matrimonie, seeking that good thereby which nature principally desireth, he make rather choice of a contrary life in regard of St. Paul’s judgment; that which he doth is manifestly grounded upon the word of God, yet not commanded in his word, because without breach of any commandment he might do otherwise.’  Indeed, the fact that Hooker here identifies marriage as the source of ‘that good . . . which nature principally desireth’, and celibacy as a choice that is contrary to it, clearly implies that, however commendable it may be, the single life nevertheless represents the anomalous option.  In general, therefore, while Hooker deems it important to concur with the broad outlines of scriptural teaching on the issue of marriage, the substance of his understanding, in this instance at least, appears to be independent, indeed somewhat at variance with the biblical text he cites. (232)

Really?  Hooker’s statement, that both celibacy and matrimony are grounded in the word of God, while being neither commanded nor forbidden categorically, is unimpeachably correct; presumably Joyce does not intend to dispute this.  The “departure” seems to lie in the fact that Hooker considers marriage to be the most common and “natural” course, but where does Paul suggest anything otherwise?  It seems clear that, however strongly one takes Paul’s preference for celibacy (and Joyce seems to quite overstate it), he never seems to think that the majority of Christians will be celibate, or that celibacy is the most natural state.  On the contrary, Paul seems to justify it primarily on supernatural grounds, as a form of special dedication to the Lord, giving up the normal natural task of procreation.

Joyce, however, is eager to drive this wedge, even if it opens Hooker “to the charge of wanting to ‘have his cake and eat it'” because, she says, “the extent to which he is open to the subtleties and complexities of biblical interpretation is itself admirable” (233).  Hooker may well be open to those “subtleties” but Joyce clearly is not; for her, “subtle” interpretation of Scripture seems to consist in a willingness to caricature it so that one may then justify sidelining it as unreasonable.  A disappointing performance, to say the least.

We are thus left a little deflated at the end of this book, one that started out so promisingly, and which has covered so much important ground, but in the end, in a spirit notably at odds with that of Hooker himself, and in service of rather different goals.  In addition to the problems that have been noted throughout these reviews, we may just express some disappointment with the brevity of these last two chapters, or the fact that they are not complemented with others on the concrete application of Hooker’s moral theology.  Whereas Joyce devotes only 20% of her book to points of concrete application, and 80% to general principles, Hooker’s Lawes is almost the reverse, devoting only around 1/4 to the statement of polemical context and general principles, and nearly 3/4 to concrete application.  Particularly striking is the omission in Joyce’s book any organized consideration of political ethics, given that for Hooker, as for the whole Aristotelian tradition he followed, the science of morals cannot be understood without the science of politics, the relationship between the moral law and the civil law being exceedingly intimate.

Nonetheless, as the first contemporary attempt to give a systematic overview of Hooker’s moral theology, we are, despite all these complaints (with which I have been perhaps too prodigal) deeply indebted to Dr. Joyce’s book, as one that will surely provide an important point of reference in Hooker studies for many years to come.

 

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