Everyman’s Hooker #1: “To Pass Away as in a Dream…”

This week, I am beginning a new project here at this blog, which I hope to keep up with on a weekly basis for the foreseeable future.  I’m calling it “Everyman’s Hooker,” and it’s an attempt to make the thought of Richard Hooker, specifically his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, accessible to general audiences. Hooker had a beautiful, but notoriously difficult, writing style even for his own time, and with the passage of 400 years, even highly educated readers of modern English often find it difficult to get a handle on just what he’s saying. We have reached the odd and unfortunate point that authors like Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin, who wrote even longer ago and not in English, should be much easier for contemporary English readers to engage with than one of the great masters of their own language, Hooker. Why? Because we have modern translations of the former, but not the latter. The best we have is a mere modernization of spelling, by A.S. McGrade, which is priced way too highly for most readers to even dream of buying.

It might be a bit impertinent to try to publish a fully paraphrased version of Hooker’s great work, not to mention being an enormous amount of work, but for now I have a more modest goal: to introduce readers to a few key ideas and passages, beginning with the first page of the Laws, and moving along from high point to high point, posting a paraphrase and commentary once a week. I recognize that to paraphrase Hooker at all is something of an abomination, given the exquisitely-crafted nature of his prose, but I’ve finally come to realize that this is a necessary evil if Hooker is ever really to be introduced to the wide readership he deserves. I will do my best to maintain as much as possible the eloquence of the original.

Each post will begin with the original text, in the mostly-modernized spelling and punctuation of the 19th-century edition of Hooker available at the Online Library of Liberty. Then I will provide a paraphrased version, paragraph by paragraph, along the lines of what you might find in Shakespeare Made Easy, followed by a bit of commentary on what we can learn today from this passage.  Once I figure out how, I’ll format the two versions of the passage in a double-column style, side-by-side, but for now, it’ll just be one underneath the other.  Some passages will be more difficult, and thus in much more obvious need of paraphrase, than others, but I will not try to prioritize on this basis, instead just following the order of the text.

So, without further ado, here is the first, taken from the first chapter of the Preface to the Laws.

Though for no other cause, yet for this; that posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream, there shall be for men’s information extant thus much concerning the present state of the Church of God established amongst us, and their careful endeavour which would have upheld the same. At your hands, beloved in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, (for in him the love which we bear unto all that would but seem to be born of him, it is not the sea of your gall and bitterness that shall ever drown,) I have no great cause to look for other than the selfsame portion and lot, which your manner hath been hitherto to lay on them that concur not in opinion and sentence with you. But our hope is, that the God of peace shall (notwithstanding man’s nature too impatient of contumelious malediction) enable us quietly and even gladly to suffer all things, for that work sake which we covet to perform.

Though for no other cause, yet for this—that posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream—for this I write, offering to posterity an account of the present state and legal establishment of the Church of England, and a vindication of those who have fought so hard to preserve and uphold it. I know I have little reason to expect from you anything but your usual harshness and bitterness toward all who disagree with you, but this bitterness will never drown the love which we have for you, our beloved brothers in Christ. Indeed we hope that God will give us the grace to bear any scorn you throw at us, for the sake of this important work we must undertake.

[2.]The wonderful zeal and fervour wherewith ye have withstood the received orders of this Church, was the first thing which caused me to enter into consideration, whether (as all your published books and writings peremptorily maintain) every Christian man, fearing God, stand bound to join with you for the furtherance of that which ye term the Lord’s Discipline. Wherein I must plainly confess unto you, that before I examined your sundry declarations in that behalf, it could not settle in my head to think, but that undoubtedly such numbers of otherwise right well affected and most religiously inclined minds had some marvellous reasonable inducements, which led them with so great earnestness that way. But when once, as near as my slender ability would serve, I had with travail and care performed that part of the Apostle’s advice and counsel in such cases, whereby he willeth to “try all things,” and was come at the length so far, that there remained only the other clause to be satisfied, wherein he concludeth that “what good is must be held;” there was in my poor understanding no remedy, but to set down this as my final resolute persuasion: “Surely the present form of church-government which the laws of this land have established is such, as no law of God nor reason of man hath hitherto been alleged of force sufficient to prove they do ill, who to the uttermost of their power withstand the alteration thereof.” Contrariwise, “The other, which instead of it we are required to accept, is only by error and misconceit named the ordinance of Jesus Christ, no one proof as yet brought forth whereby it may clearly appear to be so in very deed.”

I first decided to undertake this project when I saw how fervently you presbyterians protested against the established government and liturgy of our church; was it really true, as all your books insisted, that all good Christians were obliged to join with you in promoting this new church government, which you call “the Lord’s Discipline”? I will confess that, initially, I was disposed to think that you must have really been onto something, that there must be some very strong reasons why so many well-intentioned and pious men were so worked up about this issue. Unfortunately, however, when I looked into the matter (at least, as far as my own poor abilities would permit) in obedience to St. Paul’s admonition to “Test everything, and hold fast to that which is good,” I had no choice but to conclude otherwise. Specifically, I arrived at two conclusions. First, you have not yet proved, by Scripture or reason, that we are wrong to resist any wholesale change to the present form of church-government established by law here in England.  Second, the new presbyterian scheme which you propose in its place has no compelling claim to be called “the ordinance of Jesus Christ,” since you have at least thus far offered no clear proof to this effect.

[3.]The explication of which two things I have here thought good to offer into your own hands, heartily beseeching you even by the meekness of Jesus Christ, whom I trust ye love; that, as ye tender the peace and quietness of this church, if there be in you that gracious humility which hath ever been the crown and glory of a Christianly-disposed mind, if your own souls, hearts, and consciences (the sound integrity whereof can but hardly stand with the refusal of truth in personal respects) be, as I doubt not but they are, things most dear and precious unto you: let “not the faith which ye have in our Lord Jesus Christ” be blemished “with partialities;” regard not who it is which speaketh, but weigh only what is spoken. Think not that ye read the words of one who bendeth himself as an adversary against the truth which ye have already embraced; but the words of one who desireth even to embrace together with you the self-same truth, if it be the truth; and for that cause (for no other, God he knoweth) hath undertaken the burdensome labour of this painful kind of conference. For the plainer access whereunto, let it be lawful for me to rip up to the very bottom, how and by whom your Discipline was planted, at such time as this age we live in began to make first trial thereof.

In this book, I have undertaken to offer for you a proof of these two theses. I heartily beseech you, for the love you have for Jesus Christ, that if you really care for the peace and quietness of this church, if you have in you that gracious humility which is the crown of Christian virtues, if you care, as I’m sure you do, for the integrity of your souls, hearts and consciences (which cannot with integrity refuse to acknowledge truth merely on account of personal animus), you will be willing to set aside any partiality, regarding the truth of what I am writing, not the fact that it is I who am writing it. Please don’t think that you’re reading the words of someone who is out to oppose the reformed doctrines that you have embraced, but rather the words of someone who is eager to embrace the same truths, insofar as they are indeed truths. God knows this is the only reason that I have undertaken such a laborious and painful project as this. To make all this clearer, let me begin by going back to the very beginning, and showing where this presbyterian discipline was first planted in this our present age.

 

Commentary:

This opening passage of the Laws is justly famous for its exquisite rhetorical crafting, and indeed, the sentiments expressed here are clear enough that it is in little need of paraphrase relative to later more difficult sections. At least three matters, however, deserve some comment.

First is the famous first clause: “Though for no other cause, yet for this; that posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream.” Although contemporary scholarship has rightly emphasized the extent to which Hooker writes within a particular historical and polemical context, rather than writing a Summa for the ages, as if he were some Anglican Aquinas, this first clause should warn us against overemphasizing the occasional character of Hooker’s work. Clearly, he writes with an eye to posterity. Not, to be sure, to provide an abstract theological treatise for posterity, but rather a monument, of sorts, to the church that he loves, and which he fears will be a long-forgotten dream in ages to come. The haunting melancholy of these opening lines may be a studied rhetorical device, intended to elicit sympathy in the reader—“alas, this ship is going down, so I’m sending this message in a bottle to future generations, so at least we will not be wholly forgotten”—but if so, it is certainly an effective one. And it seems probable that Hooker was not just putting on dramatic airs. Based on his other writings, he certainly seems to have something of the habitual pessimism of the nostalgic conservative who worries that it won’t be long before the radicals tear down everything that is noble and sacred. To be sure, he hopes to avert that fate, but in his gloomier moments, he probably does wonder whether his labors and those of fellow conformists will be in vain. If so, he says, then at least his writings can serve as a testament and admonition to future generations, to show that those trying to uphold the present state of the Elizabethan Church were not mere reactionaries, but had Scripture and reason on their side.

 

Second, the remainder of this first chapter of the preface offers a great example of the tension in Hooker’s rhetorical aims throughout the Laws. On the one hand, he professes to be directly addressing his radical puritan and presbyterian opponents. If this is in earnest, then it is striking and unusual within the context of Elizabethan polemic. Most works such as Hooker’s began with prefaces addressed to the authorities, proclaiming their loyalty to the establishment and pledging to put to flight the rabble-rousers who were troubling the realm with their novelties. If these trouble-makers are later directly addressed, it is generally with an eye to refutation, rather than persuasion. On the other hand, Hooker also seems to be clearly performing for a third party audience, those people of learning and influence who might partially sympathize with the presbyterian cause, but be undecided enough to sway in his favor. These goals are obviously somewhat in tension with one another. For despite the noble sentiment expressed in the clause, “for in him the love which we bear unto all that would but seem to be born of him, it is not the sea of your gall and bitterness that shall ever drown,” anyone who writes a clause like that almost certainly knows that he is more likely to antagonize his opponents than to woo them. Such a sentence is more likely intended to sway onlookers by deliberately contrasting the hostile, uncharitable behavior of many radical puritan writers with Hooker’s own patient and charitable tone. Such proclamations of charitable intent are pretty commonplace in early modern polemics, and are often hard to take seriously, given how quickly they are often followed by blatantly uncharitable writing. So we shouldn’t simply take Hooker at face value here.

On the other hand, neither should be totally skeptical of this as all a matter of rhetorical performance meant to sway onlookers. For one thing, it is a fact that as the Laws progresses, we rarely see the kind of venomous abuse and peevish jabs that dominated most earlier polemics; when critiques are in order, they are generally more subtle and understated. For another, while it would be easy to chalk up Hooker’s autobiographical remarks here—“I used to think you guys were onto something, until I studied the matter for myself”—as mere rhetorical performance, they do match up with what we know of his life. He does seem to have been at the very least quite friendly with leading representatives of the moderate puritan party up through the middle or late 1580s, and his own attitude only seems to have hardened as the presbyterian movement itself became radicalized in those years. So there is no reason to think that he held all of its leaders in personal contempt and thought them incapable of rational persuasion, as some recent Hooker scholars have contended. On the contrary, I think we see in this introductory section that Hooker is torn between two goals. Ideally, he really would like to persuade the leading presbyterians and radical puritans of their error, and bring them to reconcile with the established church (as, in fact, Cartwright and Travers partially were in the 1590s and early 1600s). On the other hand, he knows that this goal is elusive, and he must at the same time try and persuade the Undecideds. The first objective requires that he show his opponents utmost respect, the second that he hold them up for contempt. Hooker’s attempt to hold together these two objectives results in an exquisitely-polished introduction in which it is often almost impossible to tell which phrases exude sincerity and which are dripping with irony.

 

Finally, it is worth paying attention to the crisp and carefully-worded thesis statement that Hooker offers here. If Hooker were writing a high-school composition paper, he would get top marks for such an unambiguous statement of what he intends to do in the work that follows. He would also get credit for setting such a feasible goal for himself. Although the Laws runs to around 1000 pages in most editions, its objective is really quite a modest one. The first part of his thesis statement is a masterpiece of qualification. It does not claim that the “present form of church-government” established by law in England is unambiguously good or even necessarily the best that could be managed; merely that it is such that, thus far at least, no sufficient case has been made to prove that those who defend it are wrong to do so. There is an enormous shifting of the burden of proof here, and indeed, Hooker will later state explicitly that the burden of proof should always lie on those who campaign for an overthrow of the established order. So here he feels comfortable saying that conformists are right to defend the established church unless and until Scripture or reason proves it must be changed. The second half of his thesis statement is a logical corollary of this first: just as no sufficient proof has been given that the current episcopal regime is wrong, so no sufficient proof has been given that the presbyterian scheme is right, in the sense of being a divine-ordained order. Note that Hooker does not even say here that it necessarily isn’t, merely that it hasn’t been proven to be.

 

Now, we will find that Hooker does not content himself with such a minimalist case throughout the Laws; on the contrary, he says that “we are led by great reason to observe” the laws currently established, and he will argue flatly against the truth of the presbyterian system. However, he has set forth the argument here at the outset such that, even if these large contentions were to fail, still his main case in favor of the status quo stands.

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