Everyman’s Hooker #2: “Jealousies, Heartburnings, Jars, and Discords”

 

From Preface, Chapter 2, paragraph 2:

It was the manner of those times (whether through men’s desire to enjoy alone the glory of their own enterprises, or else because the quickness of their occasions required present dispatch), so it was, that every particular Church did that within itself, which some few of their own thought good, by whom the rest were all directed. Such number of Churches then being, though free within themselves, yet small, common conference before hand might have eased them of much aftertrouble. But a greater inconvenience it bred, that every later endevoured to be certain degrees more removed from conformity with the Church of Rome, than the rest before had been: whereupon grew marvelous great dissimilitudes, and by reason thereof, jealousies, heartburnings, jars and discords amongst them. Which notwithstanding might have easily been prevented, if the orders which each Church did think fit and convenient for itself, had not so peremptorily been established under that high commanding form, which tendered them unto the people, as things everlastingly required by the law of that Lord of Lords, against whose statutes there is no exception to be taken. For by this mean it came to pass, that one Church could not but accuse and condemn another of disobedience to the will of Christ, in those things where manifest difference was between them; whereas the self same orders allowed, but yet established in more wary and suspense manner, as being to stand in force till God should give the opportunity of some general conference what might be best for every of them afterwards to do; this I say had both prevented all occasion of just dislike which others might take, and reserved a greater liberty unto the authors themselves of entering into farther consultation afterwards. Which though never so necessary they could not easily now admit, without some fear of derogation from their credit; and therefore that which once they had done, they became for ever after resolute to maintain.

Whether because the necessity of their circumstances required quick decision-making, or because everyone wanted the glory of doing things on their own, it was typical for the church of each city or region to order itself as its own self-appointed leaders saw fit. Since these churches were all free and self-governing and yet small at that time, they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by taking counsel together to come up with common policies, instead of each doing their own thing. But the biggest problem was this: every new reformed church that came along aspired to remove itself even further from any hint of Roman Catholicism than the churches before it. Thus they grew more and more dissimilar from one another, and so more and more quarrelsome and jealous of one another.

Even with their differences, such discord might have been easily enough prevented if each, in establishing their various church orders as was most convenient for each, had not claimed to be following the direct command of God, presenting their system of church government unto their people as something everlastingly required by the law of God, against whom no one could dare take exception. By doing this, they guaranteed that each church, if it found it differed in any way from its neighbors, could hardly help but accuse them of disobeying the will of Christ. If instead they had simply established the same orders in a more modest and provisional form, as those rules which they would follow for themselves at least until such time as God gave an opportunity for a general church council that would establish some common procedures, none of this need had happened! Rather, they would have prevented these unnecessary strifes and indeed left themselves a lot more liberty to each adjust their own church orders as need and further consultation dictated. As it was, however, by taking such a hard line from the beginning, they made it very difficult for themselves to ever back down for fear of losing face. Accordingly, anything these church leaders had once established, they felt compelled to resolutely defend to the end.

 

Commentary

This passage, appearing early in Hooker’s account of Calvin’s establishment of church government in Geneva, offers something of a preview, in narrative form, of the whole basic thesis of the Laws: that it is all well and good for polities and churches to establish laws fit for them, but everything starts to go wrong when they claim that these laws of human invention are actually a matter of divine ordination. In other words, why you do what you do, or on what authority you claim to do it, matters just as much as what you actually do. Better, in his mind, to have a church or polity governed by less-than-ideal laws, that are acknowledged to be such, than one governed by very good laws that falsely claim to be infallible. Such, he will go on to argue, was the main mistake of Calvin at Geneva. “That which Calvin did for establishment of his discipline,” he will say a bit later, “seemeth more commendable than that which he taught for the countenancing of it [once] established.” At this point, however, although he has begun talking about Calvin’s Geneva, he is making a wider observation about the Reformed churches in Switzerland (at least), or on the Continent in general (perhaps).

Their first problem, as he sees it, is that they each came to embrace the Reformation one-by-one, in rather chaotic fashion, with some influential religious teacher or whatever prevailing on the city council to throw out the church of Rome, and then each city, having done so, trying to cook up more or less on its own a blueprint for how a properly reformed church should function. Such a disorderly procedure was perhaps unavoidable in the nature of the case, particularly given the thoroughly decentralized political structure of Germany and Switzerland. But, observes Hooker, one problem with such uncoordinated action is that mimetic rivalry develops. If one church prides itself on having thrown out popery, another one then prides itself on having even more thoroughly ridded itself of the rags of anti-Christ, and another even more so. Logically, this process could continue until almost all identifiers of Christianity in general have been abandoned, on the basis that they resemble the Catholics too much. Of course, the reason Hooker draws attention to this phenomenon is because he witnessed the same thing happening in the increasingly radical Puritanism of his own England. Of course, as Hooker goes on to say, even this somewhat foolish obsession with purging all dregs of popery need not have led to much strife if each church had remained humble about what each was claiming. But once each one invoked divine warrant for its particular system and liturgy, then every disagreement was prone to become a life-and-death matter, with no room for compromise. Indeed, it made it almost impossible for any church to ever back down if opportunies for more common action later presented themselves.

All of this is probably a bit melodramatic as an account of continental Reform or even the Swiss situation in particular (although there were plenty of conflicts between the Swiss Reformed churches). But again, Hooker probably takes the time to give this sobering account as a warning to the attitudes he sees taking shape among many English Puritans. Given the sharp disagreements that would open up between the Puritans themselves in the New World and during the English Civil War (as well as among their heirs in America down to the present day), his diagnosis seems perceptive indeed.

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