“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.


Whether Idols Ought to be Destroyed by Magistrates

The following is a passage I translated from Peter Martyr Vermigli’s massive Commentary on 1 & 2 Kings, published in 1571. Only it is not, it turns out, written by Vermigli, but by his colleague in Zurich, Johannes Wolff, who completed the Commentary after Vermigli died, since it was left unfinished after the first few chapters of 2 Kings. The substance, however, is very similar to what Vermigli wrote elsewhere. It is a fascinating example of how the Reformers argued for the magistrate’s cura religionis—responsibility for overseeing the good order and right teaching of the church in his realm—within the terms of their two-kingdoms distinction between the realm of faith and that of practice. Moreover, although Wolff is convinced that the Old Testament laws provide a rule to direct magistrates in this work, we can see also the idea, one particularly prominent in Vermigli’s work, that the care for religion is a natural duty, since there is a natural knowledge of God to which commonwealths are accountable. Read More

Vermigli on the Natural Duty of Magistrates to Promote Religion

From his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

It is also shown here that the magistrate’s main duty (for when Aristotle mentions the political faculty, he is speaking of him) is to produce good citizens.  It is doubtless important for him to enrich his subjects, to extend the limits of empire, and to fortify the city with defenses and ramparts; but the magistrate’s main job is to produce good citizens.  Those who hold the reins of government should think nothing that contributes to this irrelevant to their duty.  They will not, as some do, regard the pure and chaste observation of religion as beyond their purview.  This being so, the best view is that a very close connection between the magistrate and the ministers of the church is beneficial for states. (Peter Martyr Library Edition, p. 227)

We should now add to this that it ought to be a magistrate’s concern that his people behave virtuously and that their prime virtue be piety.  So it will be a good magistrate’s responsibility to do everything possible to see that pure and sincere religion prevails in his territory.  Those who do not do this do not keep the true way of governing a state.  It is easy to understand how the application of virtue follows from a design to make the citizens good, since the virtues are the causes of goodness. . . .

We see here very clearly which virtues are excluded from this consideration, namely, those of the body.  These are commonly said to be four in number—health, shape, clarity of the senses, and strength. . . . Only those located in the soul are to be treated. . . .

Since the soul is the subject of the virtues, he must find out some things about it before discussing its accidents.  Aristotle confirms this procedure with a comparison: a doctor acts in exactly the same way, for he studies the nature of the body and the ey before turning his hand to cure them. . . . For medical science is considered far inferior to political science; if therefore the doctor is not ignorant of the limbs he is about to treat and heal, it will be much more important for the politician to learn about the soul in which the virtues are located.  This comparison between doctor and politician is quite apposite and appropriate.  For just as the former heals the body, the latter seeks to care for the soul with good customs.  It is almost as if we were saying that the two principal parts of man are to be governed and restored by a twofold faculty: the soul is entrusted to the statesman and the body to the doctor.  Before everything, the doctor wants to know what is proper to each part of the body in its own particular nature, then he observes what thing contrary to its nature is brought on by disease; once he has understood this, he looks for remedies that will bring those parts of the body back to the proper state of their nature. (pp. 266-67)

It is striking in particular how in this latter passage, by appearing to say that the politician’s task is chiefly concerned with the good of the soul, rather than with the body, Vermigli almost perfectly inverts the consensus of modern liberal politics (in both its right-wing and left-wing forms).