“Height of Learning and Depth of Judgment”—An Excerpt from *Richard Hooker*

An excerpt from Chapter Two—”Richard Hooker: The Man”—of my new book Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work.

In itself, the life of Richard Hooker is perhaps remarkable above all for its unremarkableness. As mentioned already, his was much more the contemplative than the active life, unlike the thunderous movers and shakers of the first decades of the Reformation, and equally unlike some of his more hot-headed Puritan opponents in England. His famous controversy with presbyterian leader Walter Travers at the Temple (about which more below), is perhaps so well-known and frequently-discussed chiefly because it was Hooker’s only notable moment of public conflict during a time and place when public conflict seemed more the norm than the exception for many churchmen.

Nor did Hooker ever hold any particularly high office, neither bishopric nor deanery, nor a mastership at one of the great colleges of Cambridge or Oxford. In this he was virtually unique among the leading English theological writers of his time, especially those who took up their pen on behalf of the established church, who could generally expect swift promotion into and perhaps within the ranks of the twenty-seven bishops of Elizabeth’s church. This lack of promotion may owe something to Hooker’s relatively early death at 46, though younger consecrations were not uncommon. But it also seems that Hooker had no strong desire for high ecclesiastical office, requesting to be transferred from his influential post at the Temple to a rural parish in 1591. Indeed, whatever criticisms his opponents then and now have had for him, none have ever been able to accuse him of using theological polemic as a tool for personal ambition.

On account of this relatively quiet life, we have for Hooker even less biographical information than for many in this era (and as Shakespeare scholars well know, that isn’t much even for the most well-known figures). Our chief resource is the 1665 biography by Izaak Walton, often mocked for its dubious anecdotes and unabashedly hagiographical tone. However, in Walton’s defense, subsequent biographical research, and the study of Hooker’s texts, has uncovered little to contradict Walton’s flattering portrait of a man characterized chiefly by humility, piety, charity, and extraordinary learning. Indeed, one of Hooker’s friends, John Spenser, wrote shortly after Hooker’s death,

What admirable height of learning and depth of judgment dwelled in the lowly mind of this true humble man, great in all wise men’s eyes, except his own; with what gravity and majesty of speech, his tongue and pen uttered heavenly mysteries, whose eyes in the humility of his heart were always cast down to the ground; how all things that proceeded from him were breathed, as from the spirit of love, as if he like the bird of the Holy Ghost, the dove, had wanted gall; let those who knew him not in person judge by . . . his writings.

Modern scholars have been inclined to raise an eyebrow or two at this halo-tinged description, not least because they have taken Spenser’s advice and looked more closely at Hooker’s writings. In particular, we now have access to his handwritten marginal notes in response to the one published criticism of his writings to appear in his lifetime, A Christian Letter of Certain English Protestants (1599). They range from the mildly snarky “A doctine which would have pleased Caligula, Nero, and other such monsters to hear,” to the obviously ill-tempered “Ignorant ass!” to the frankly hilarious, “Your godfathers and godmothers have much to answer unto God for not seeing you better catechised.” Many modern scholars have taken these as evidence that Hooker was only mild-mannered and charitable until poked; then he could react with as much ire as anyone. However, C.S. Lewis has observed that in fact what these marginal notes tell us is how hard Hooker worked to discipline his personal emotions (which were not always saintlike) to keep them from distorting his public discourse. For we also have access to the incomplete manuscript of Hooker’s response to the Christian Letter which he intended for publication, and in this there is no trace of the rancour or personal insults which come through in the private notes. This stands in notable contrast to the typical conventions of 16th-century theological polemic, even (perhaps especially) among such Protestant heroes as Luther or Calvin.

Of course, this does not at all mean that Hooker could not be moved to strong passions at what he saw to be in error, nor that the grand prose of the Laws is free from passages of fairly sharp polemic or cutting backhanded compliments. But all this shows is that Hooker cared deeply about the truths at stake. Although a number of recent scholars have sought to accuse him of deliberate and slanderous misrepresentation of his opponents, thus far they have failed to substantiate their charges with much evidence.

“Nature Hath Need of Grace”: An Excerpt from *Richard Hooker*

The following is an excerpt from chapter 6, (“Hooker as Philosopher”) of my new book, Richard Hooker: A Guide to His Life and Work.


When Hooker says that “nature hath need of grace,” he does not merely have in mind fallen human nature’s desperate need for the redemption promised in Christ. To be sure, this is affirmed unequivocally in the Laws, but this need is so pressing precisely because mankind is meant for life in God. All created things, says Hooker, following an Aristotelian metaphysic, strive by nature not merely toward particular goods, but to a comprehensive final good, “our sovereign good or blessedness, that wherein the highest degree of all our perfection consisteth, that which being once attained unto there can rest nothing further to be desired” (I.11.1). And since “there can be no goodness desired which proceedeth not from God himself, as from the supreme cause of all things,” it is clear that “all things in the world are said in some sort to seek the highest, and to covet more or less the particiation of God himself” (I.5.2). Although this is true of all creatures, it is especially true of mankind, the capstone of creation, who is capable of participating in God by his reason and will, knowing God and loving him: “Then are we happy therefore when fully we enjoy God, as an object wherein the powers of our souls are satisfied even with everlasting delight: so that although we be men, yet by being unto God united we live as it were the life of God” (I.11.2).

Now this desire for supernatural happiness, Hooker is at pains to establish, is itself natural, for all men have it. It is not in our power not to desire this, he says. Therefore, being naturally desired, it must in some sense within natural capacity since “It is an axiom of nature that natural desire cannot utterly be frustrate” (I.11.4). So man’s reason is not enclosed within the bounds of creation, but naturally transcends these bounds, by desiring and striving unto the supernatural end of union with God.

Of course, Hooker has no doubt that, fallen as we are, we have lost this natural capacity for the supernatural, but we have not lost the desire, nor have we lost all knowledge of the object of this desire. On the contrary, Hooker is convinced, with Paul in Romans 1, that unbelievers are still dimly aware of it, and that the greatest amongst pagan philosophers succeeded in discerning many fundamental truths about God as the supreme source of being and governor of the world. At their best, says Hooker, they have been able to recognize our creaturely dependence on Him, and to discern such duties as “that in all things we go about his aid is by prayer to be craved,” and “that he cannot have sufficient honour done unto him, but the utmost of that we can do to honour him we must” (I.8.7, quoting Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotle’s Ethics).

This natural knowledge of and desire for God has important consequences not only for Hooker’s attempt to lay out the foundations of natural law in Book I of the Laws, but throughout his defense of the English Church. Although we often think of liturgy, church government, and all the rest falling within some self-contained bubble of “grace” over against “nature” or “redemption” over against creation, Hooker recognizes that nothing could be further from the case. On the contrary, he argues, the public exercise of the Christian religion is simply the full, purified, and rightly-directed expression of this natural impulse to do “the utmost of that we can do to honour him.” Christ is the fulfillment of long ages of pagan yearning, and so our worship of Christ, far from seeking to rid itself of any resemblance to non-Christian religions, should seek to adopt and perfect all that is best in them.

A great example of how this conviction informs Hooker’s method can be found in his discussion of festival days and the legitimacy of the church calendar in Book V of the Laws. He begins with an elaborate disquisition on the nature of time, the rhythms of rest and motion appropriate to all created beings, and on God’s action within created time. All of these things lead men naturally to “the sanctification of days and times” as “a token of that thankfulness and a part of that public honor which we owe to God for his admirable benefits” (V.70.1). Even heathen peoples therefore testify “that festival solemnities are a part of the public exercise of religion” (V.70.5), and besides, he adds, working his way through the church year holiday by holiday, they are of great importance to “keep us in perpetual remembrance” (V.70.8), of God’s redeeming work. Therefore, “the very law of nature itself which all men confess to be God’s law requireth in general no less the sanctification of times than of places, persons, and things unto God’s honor” (V.70.9). Hooker follows a similar method in his discussion of matrimony a few chapters later, even going so far as to justify the appropriateness of celebrating the Eucharist within the wedding ceremony by referencing “the laws of Romulus” which “established the use of certain special solemnities, whereby the minds of men were drawn to make the greater conscience of wedlock” (V.73.8).

The same conviction undergirds Hooker’s understanding of the place of religion in a political commonwealth. Rather than seeking to justify the Queen’s authority in the church by reference to Old Testament examples like Hezekiah and Josiah, as many of his predecessors did, Hooker begins with Aristotle:

For of every politic society that being true which Aristotle hath, namely, “that the scope thereof is not simply to live, nor the duty so much to provide for life, as for means of living well”: and that even as the soul is the worthier part of man, so human societies are much more to care for that which tendeth properly unto the soul’s estate, than for such temporal things as this life doth stand in need of. (VIII.1.4, quoting Aristotle, Politics III.6)

Political theology, on this understanding, is simply rightly-ordered political philosophy.


Excerpt from “Richard Hooker: The Myth”

The following is an excerpt from chapter 1 (“Richard Hooker: The Myth”) of my new book, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work.  You can buy the book from Cascade or Amazon.

“Hooker,” it has been aptly said, “is the name of a book rather than the name of a man.”[1] And it is true that there are few authors in the Western tradition who disappeared so completely into their writings, who encapsulated so perfectly the type of the quiet and unassuming scholar, shunning the public eye and content to throw his weight upon the wheel of history from the shelter of a candle-lit study. Among the great names of his own era, many were known for their extraordinary learning, but are remembered so well in part for the very active role they took in the tumultuous affairs of the age. When we think of Luther and Calvin, Knox and Cranmer, these were men who, like the great prophets of Israel from whom they drew inspiration, preached before princes or corresponded with kings, and felt called “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer. 1:10).

Not so Hooker. We are not sure that he ever even found himself in the presence of the monarch whom he so revered, Queen Elizabeth, nor did he even dare to formally dedicate any of his books to her with an appropriately flattering introductory letter (a common practice in those days). Nor was he much interested in plucking up or breaking down; quite the contrary, nothing filled him so much with dismay as the seemingly contagious fashion for such “plucking up” that he saw in the Puritan reformers of this era. He wrote, in fact, quite expressly to preserve the church he knew and loved—if possible in being, if not, at least in memory, as the haunting first lines of his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity express: “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 endeavor who would have upheld the same” (I.1.1).

In saying that Hooker is the name of a book, not of a man, we also highlight the towering shadow of this magnum opus, the Laws, which has loomed so large as to often obscure his worthy and profound sermons and tractates (though these total just a few hundred pages). Calvin may be known by his Institutes, and Aquinas by his Summa Theologiae, but good Calvinists will turn also to the Commentaries, and good Thomists to the Summa Contra Gentiles. For Hooker, it is only the Laws, a volume that is a world unto itself. In it we find theology in abundance, in most of its various branches, liturgics, law, political theory, sociology, hermeneutics, metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, polemics and irenics, and more, all in a prose style that, as C.S. Lewis observed, “is, for its purpose, perhaps the most perfect in English.”[2]

Hooker wrote in the 1590s, that high tide of Elizabethan intellectual and literary culture which defined the shape of our language and culture right down to the present. While Hooker was in London drafting his Laws, Shakespeare was just on the opposite bank of the Thames writing The Taming of the Shrew (which has some interesting thematic parallels with the Laws, actually),[3] and Spenser had just returned to Ireland after coming to London to publish and promote his Faerie Queene. Francis Bacon was a leading advisor at court, just beginning his literary career. Like these other men, the scale of Hooker’s achievement looms up out of the relative mediocrity of his predecessors with a suddenness that can baffle the historian. Stanley Archer observes, “It is no more possible to account for Hooker’s achievement than for those of Shakespeare and Milton, Spenser and Bacon.”[4]

[1] Christopher Morris, “Introduction” to Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: in Two Volumes, I:v.

[2] English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, 462.

[3] See Ken Jacobsen, “Law of a Commonweal.”

[4] Richard Hooker, 1.

“Not Just for Anglicans” says Oliver Crisp

Oliver-Crisp-theologian-at-Fuller-SeminaryA couple weeks ago, I shared the endorsements of my new book from Paul Avis and Torrance Kirby, both leading Anglican scholars, for which I was profoundly grateful. But as I have been eager all along to get Hooker on the radar of not just Anglican Christians, but Reformed folks and evangelicals more generally, I was particularly gratified to receive this endorsement from the possessor of Reformed world’s finest beard-spectacles combination, bar none, Oliver Crisp:

“Richard Hooker is the Theologian of Anglicanism. But is he a theologian for Anglicans alone? Assuredly not! In this Companion to Hooker, Bradford Littlejohn has produced a clearly written and accessible work that utilizes the recent resurgence of scholarly interest in Hooker to commend him to a wider audience. Not only does Littlejohn give an overview of key themes in the magisterial Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. He also situates Hooker philosophically and theologically, and explains his enduring theological significance. It is sure to be a resource of choice for those seeking a way into the thought of this great post-Reformation divine.”

My Book is Now Published!

Littlejohn.RichardHooker.Littlejohn.RichardHooker.47351I’m pleased to announce that my book, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work is now published and available to order from Cascade Books. Here’s the description from the back cover:

Although by common consent the greatest theologian of the Anglican tradition, Richard Hooker is little known in Protestant circles more generally, and increasingly neglected within the Anglican Communion. Although scholarship on Hooker has witnessed a dramatic renaissance within the last generation, thus far this has tended to make Hooker less, not more accessible to general audiences, and interpreters have been sharply divided on the meaning of his theology. This book aims to draw upon recent research in order to offer a fresh portrait of Hooker in his original historical context, one in which it had not yet occurred to any Englishman to assume the label “Anglican,” and to bring him to life for all branches of the contemporary church.
Part One examines his life, writings, and reputation, puncturing several old myths along the way. Part Two seeks to establish Hooker’s theological and pastoral vision, exploring why he wrote, how he wrote, whom he was seeking to persuade, and whom he was seeking to refute. Part Three analyzes key themes of Hooker’s theology–Scripture, Law, Church, and Sacraments–and how they related to his late Reformation context. Finally, the concluding chapter proposes Hooker’s method as a model for our confused contemporary age, combining fidelity to Scripture, historical awareness, and a pastorally sensitive pragmatism.


I really do think that a renewed appreciation for Richard Hooker is profoundly important for the Protestant church today—in all its branches—and so I hope you will consider ordering a copy and spreading the word.