Harmonizing Reason and Scripture (Hooker’s Doctrine of Law, Pt. 5)

We have already seen how Hooker is at pains to demonstrate continuity between natural and supernatural, the law of reason and the law of Scripture.  The two are not at odds, nor are they carved off into separate spheres, but they mutually depend on one another, and are mutually interpreting.  

Hooker elaborates this harmonious vision at much more length in Bk. II of the Lawes, in the context of a devastating polemic against the Puritan vision that is so determined to play Scripture and reason, divine and human, off against one another.  The effects of this antagonism, he perceives, cannot but be disastrous to the Church.  The denigration of human reason undermines any respect for the Church or her traditions, and leads to a stubborn, individualistic anti-intellectualism–it “hath alreadie made thousandes so headstrong even in grosse and palpable errors, that a man whose capacitie will scarce serve him to utter five wordes in sensible maner, blusheth not in any doubt concerning matter of scripture to thinke his own bare Yea, as good as the Nay of all the wise, grave, and learned judgements that are in the whole world” (II.7.6).

Much of this comes from a laudable desire to exalt Scripture by attributing to it exclusive and universal authority over all knowledge, but Hooker perceives that it is no honour to Scripture to claim for it attributes that it does not claim for itself; “Whatsoever is spoken of God or thinges appertaining to God otherwise then as the truth is; though it seeme an honour, it is an injurie.  And as incredible praises geven unto men do often abate and impaire the credit of their deserved commendation; so we must likewise take great heede, lest in attributing unto scripture more then it can have, the incredibilitie of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly to be less reverendly esteemed” (II.8.7).

Not only this, but if we play Scripture off against nature, we will undermine the foundations of human knowledge, with disastrous effect: “Marke, I beseech you, what would follow.  God in delivering scripture to his Church should cleane have abrogated amongst them the lawe of nature; which is an infallible knowledge imprinted in the mindes of all the children of men, whereby both generall principles for directing of humaine actions are comprehended, and conclusions derived from them, upon which conclusions groweth in particularitie the choise of good and evill in the daylie affaires of this life.  Admit this; and what shall the scripture be but a snare and a torment to weake consciences, filling them with infinite perplexities, scrupulosities, doubts insoluble, and extreme despaires” (II.8.6).

Clearly, for Hooker, much is at stake.  We cannot allow ourselves to become so carried away with reverence for Scripture that we fail to revere the rest of God’s revelation, for God speaks to us through all his works.  To heed God’s revelation in nature is not to reject his revelation in Scripture, for divine law does not “cleane abrogate” the law of nature, but reinforces and further expounds it, as we have already seen.  Therefore, in a great many of our actions, “it sufficeth if such actions be framed according to the lawe of reason; the generall axiomes, rules, and principles of which law being so frequent in holy scripture, there is no let but in that regard, even out of scripture such duties may be deduced by some kinde of consequence” (II.1.2)–but such deduction need not be explicit or self-conscious, he goes on to say.  In other words, we may comfort ourselves that we do not need to have a Scriptural command in mind for every action we take, because we may be confident that, in many ordinary matters, if we conform our actions in godly humility to the law of reason, we are thereby acting in conformity to Scripture also.

The Puritans will argue, he says, that whatever we do not do according to God’s will and command must be sinful.  Very well, but why restrain the revelation of God’s will to Scripture alone?  We have already seen Hooker’s expansive vision of the eternal law of God unfolding itself through all his works, from the actions of the smallest creatures to the laws of human societies.  They alleage “that wisedome doth teach men every good way,” but 

“The boundes of wisedome are large, and within them much is contayned.”  Indeed, before the Scriptures were written down, did not Adam and the patriarchs direct their steps by wisdom, a wisdom available outside of Scripture?  God’s wisdom teaches us in many ways: “Some things she openeth by the sacred bookes of Scripture; some things by the glorious works of nature; with some things she inspireth them from above by spirituall influence, in some thinges she leadeth and trayneth them onely by worldly experience and practise.  We may not so in any one speciall kind admire her that we disgrace her in any other, but let all her wayes be according unto their place and degree adored” (II.I.4) 

Likewise, although it be true that all things must be done to the glory of God, it does not follow from this, as the Puritans would have it, that all things must be done in express obedience to Scripture, or even with “an expresse intent and purpose to obey God therein.”  With his eminent sensibility, Hooker pleads, “Shall it hereupon be thought that S. Paule did not move eyther hand or foot, but with expresse intent even therby to further the common salvation of men?  We move, we sleepe, we take the cuppe at the hand of our freind, a number of thinges we oftenimes doe, only to satisfie some naturall desire, without present expresse, and actuall reference unto any commaundement of God” (II.2.1)  Again, the Puritan’s error here is a failure to understand how God can be glorified in all his works.  Even when we obey the involuntary law of our nature–breathing, closing our eyes when we sneeze–we glorify God therein as his well-designed creatures.  Likewise, when we consciously act in accord with the law he has set for our natures, when we take food or even when we share food with our neighbor, we glorify God therein as his rational creatures.  “For scripture is not the onely lawe whereby God hath opened his will touching all thinges that may be done, but there are other kindes of lawes which notifie the will of God, as in the former booke hath beene proved at large” (II.2.2).  He even has a Scripture proof for this–Peter exhorts the saints in 1 Pet. 2:12 to do good works that, when the Gentiles see them, they may “glorifie God in the day of visitation” (II.2.3).  How could heathens discern the godliness and goodness of these works without themselves having faith unless the law of reason revealed it to them?


So Hooker has argued in the first place that we understand natural revelation as conformable to special revelation, that reason may offer insight even in ethical matters that  Scripture does not directly speak to.  But surely there are matters over which Scripture exercises absolute supremacy, not natural law, reason, etc.?  Certainly there are, and Hooker ends Bk. II by carefully delineating this realm–this shall be the subject of the next post in this series.  However, Hooker goes on in Bk. III to argue that even here, the Puritan construal of sola Scriptura and the antagonism they set up between Scripture and reason is incoherent.  For even where Scripture rightly exercises sole primacy, reason plays an indispensable role.  The crucial passage comes in ch. 8.  He has just finished an apologia for reason, against Scriptural and patristic testimony that the Puritans have alleged against it.  “There is in the world,” he concludes, “no kinde of knowledge, whereby any part of truth is seene, but we justlie accompt it pretious, yea that principall truth, in comparison whereof all other knowledge is vile, may receive from it some kinde of light….To detract from the dignitie thereof [the various kinds of natural wisdom] were to injurie even God himselfe, who being that light which none can approch unto, hath sent out these lights wherof we are capable, even as so many sparkls resembling the bright fountain from which they rise” (III.8.9).  The central claim here is that “that principall truth”–the salvific truth of Scripture “may received from it”–that is, from the light of natural reason–“some kind of light.”  

The argument here is not that reason adds necessary substance to Scripture–not in salvific matters, though as we have already seen, it does to an extent in mundane matters–but that it serves as a necessary instrument.  Hooker is quite careful and lucid on this point: “Unto the word of God being in respect of that end, for which God ordeined in, perfect, exact, and absolute in it selfe, we do not add reason as a supplement of any maime or defect therin, but as a necessary instrument, without whihch we could not reape by the scriptures perfection, that fruite and benefit which it yeeldeth.  The word of God is a twoedged sword, but in the hands of reasonable men” (III.8.10) 

To be sure, God made use of unlearned men as his Apostles to proclaim the Gospel, but not by bypassing reason and wisdom altogether; rather, by endowing them miraculously with persuasive powers and knowledge from on high.  All of the Apostles, and especially Paul, use reason to make arguments and proofs for their doctrinal and ethical claims.   The Church has always used reason in argument to refute heretics.  Reason is an indispensable tool in determining and expounding the meaning of Scripture, as we see Jesus and his Apostles using it all the time. “Our Lord and Saviour him selfe did hope by disputation to doe some good,” Hooker points out, as we see in his argument about the meaning of Psalm 110.  And with some exasperation he adds, “There is as yet no way knowne how to dispute or to determine of things disputed without the use of natural reason” (III.8.17).  In short, “Exclude the use of naturall reasoning about the sense of holy scripture concerning the articles of our faith, and then that scripture doth concerne the articles of our faith who can assure us?” (III.8.16)  


Indeed, our confidence in Scripture itself must rest to some extent in an extra-Scriptural foundation. “Scripture indeed teacheth things above nature, things which our reason by it selfe could not reach unto.  Yet those things also we believe, knowing by reason that the scripture is the word of God” (III.8.12).  If we accept the testimony of Scripture on account of its authority as the word of God, on what account do we accept it as the word of God in the first place?  Scripture cannot contain its own first principles, for “No science doth make knowne the first principles whereon it buildeth, but they are alwaies taken as plaine and manifest in them selves, or as proved and graunted already, some former knowledge having made them evident….There must be therefore some former knowledge presupposed which doth herein assure the hartes of all believers” (III.8.13).  In the case of the authority of Scripture, this knowledge is supplied by tradition. Hooker holds “that the first outward motive leading men so to esteeme of the scripture is the authority of God’s Church.  For when we know the whole Church of God hath that opinion of the scripture, we judge it even at the first an impudent thinge for any man bredde and brought up in the Church to bee of a contrarye minde without cause” (III.8.14).  After coming to Scripture with this conviction already in place, our experience of its truth confirms us in our belief in its infallible authority.  

Furthermore, although faith comes to us supernaturally, and not by the aid of human will and understanding, it nonetheless presupposes and rests upon a foundation of reason and natural understanding.  If it were not so, “why should none be found capable thereof but only men, nor men til such time as they come unto ripe and full habilitie to worke by reasonable understanding? [Note that Hooker is far from denying that God imparts a kind of saving faith to infants and the mentally disabled, but he speaks here of the ordinary sort of faith which actively and intelligibly lays hold of God.]  In vaine it were to speake any thing of God, but that by reason men are able some what to judge of that they heare, and by discourse to discerne how consonant it is to truth” (III.8.11).  

In short, reason serves both as instrument to make Scripture more effectual for those who believe, and also, although of course in itself useless without the grace of the Holy Spirit, as an instrument to mediate the gospel to those who do not:  “Wherefore if I beleeve the gospel, yet is reason of singular use, for that it confirmeth me in this my beleefe the more: If I do not as yet beleeve, nevertheles to bring me to the number of beleevers except reason did somwhat help, and were an instrument which God doth use unto such purposes, what should it boote to dispute with Infidels or godless persons for their conversion and perwasion in that point?” (III.8.14)


In all of this, Hooker is careful to qualify the limits of reason–only it is not so limited as to be useless in devising church polity, which is the question at hand: “In all which hitherto hath beene spoken touching the force and use of mans reason in thinges divine, I must crave that I be not so understood or construed, as if any such thing by vertue thereof could be done without the aide and assistance of Gods most blessed spirite.  The thing we have handled according to the question mooved about it; which question is, whether the light of reason be so pernitious that in devising lawes for the church men ought not by it to search what may be fit and convenient” (III.8.18).

Both of these lines of argument that we have just surveyed–the reality and utility of God’s revelation in the law of reason outside of Scripture, and the indispensability of reason and its laws in grasping and rightly applying Scripture–will play a key role in Hooker’s argument for the latitude that ought rightly to characterize the domain of ecclesiastical affairs.  

The Revelation of Divine Law (Hooker’s Doctrine of Law, Pt. 4)

So now we come to what has traditionally been one of the thorniest problems of theology–what is divine law, and how does it relate to natural law (or what Hooker calls “the law of reason”)?  Put in other terms, this is the question of the relationship between special revelation and natural revelation, or, even more broadly put, between grace and nature.  Any proper Christian doctrine of these two has to orient itself between two sets of two poles.  First, supernatural truth must be neither a separable tack-on to the natural, but nor must it be such an integral part of the natural, that it is merely subsumed into it as a natural component; nature must not be so complete in itself that it doesn’t need grace, nor so incomplete without grace that grace is simply a part of it.  Second, supernatural truth must not be a complete replacement for natural truth, but neither can it be a mere republication; special revelation must not render natural revelation superfluous, nor must natural revelation render special revelation superfluous.  Therefore, the supernatural must be intrinsically related to, yet independent of; continuous with, and yet transcendent of the natural.  Hooker’s challenge in chapters 11-14 of Book I is to successfully navigate this minefield in his doctrine of divine law.  

First then, he must show that man has a natural desire for a supernatural end (the language here is that of nouvelle theologie Catholicism, which has made debates on these issues the daily fare of theologians and ethicists in all traditions for the past few decades), that nature was not so whole in itself that grace is merely tacked on like icing on a pound cake.  For natural law and divine law particularly–the realm of ethics–this will have the effect of showing that natural law does not rule some autonomous sphere of creation, in which divine law, confined to the sphere of redemption plays no necessary part.  So Hooker begins at the very foundation.

The desire for an infinite good–for the divine–is necessary and primordial.  Lest there be an infinite regress of goods that we do for the sake of other goods, there must be something which is desired merely for its own sake; for this, we have an infinite desire, and it must therefore be an infinite good.  God is the only infinite good, and thus the final end of our desire.  “Then are we happie therfore when fully we injoy God, as an object wherein the powers of our soules 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)  Since this desire is shared by all men, and is thus natural, it must not therefore be impossible to obtain, since “It is an axiome of nature that naturall desire cannot utterly be frustrate.”  Thus “man doth seeke a triple perfection, first, a sensuall, consisting in those things which very life it selfe requireth as necessary supplementes, or as beauties and ornaments therof; then an intellectuall, consisting in those things which none underneth man is either capable of or acquaineted with; lastly a spiritual and divine, consisting in those things wherunto we tend by supernatural meanes here, but cannot here attain unto them” (I.11.4).  The supernatural end, while naturally desired, cannot be naturally attained on our own, but must be given as a divine reward–this reward, though, appears to follow of necessity from justice.  “In the natural path of everlasting life the first beginning is that hability of doing good, which God in the day of man’s creation indued him with; from hence obedience unto the wil of his creator, absolute righteousness and integrity in all his actions; and last of al the justice of God rewarding the worthines of his deserts with the crowne of eternall glory.  Had Adam continued in his first estate, this had beene the way of life unto him and all his posteritie” (I.11.5)  We’ve thus established the “naturalness” of the supernatural, but is it still supernatural–how does it remain free, independent, surprising, gratuitous, rather than being merely part of the nature of things?  Hooker draws several distinctions along the way to do justice to this pole.

First, although we naturally desire to cleave unto God, the power to do so in perfect perpetuity is not ours by nature (even in the state of innocence), but a free gift of God.  It “doth neither depend upon the nature of the thing it selfe, nor proceede from any natural necessitie, that our souls should so exercise them selves for ever in beholding and loving God, but from the will of God, which doth both freely perfect our nature in so high a degree and continue it so perfected” (I.11.3).  

Second, he makes an important distinction about the “justice” with which God would have rewarded Adam under the original covenant: this would not have been owed as a matter of strict justice, inasmuch as the infinite good of communion with God could not be reached by any natural effort.  Instead, it was given “by the rule of that justice which best beseemeth him, namelie the justice of one that requiteth no thing mincingly, but all with pressed and heaped and even over-inlarged measure; yet coulde it never hereupon necessarily be gathered that such justice shoulde adde to the nature of that reward the propertie of everlasting continuance; sith possession of blisse, though it should be but for a moment, were an aboundant retribution” (I.11.5).

Finally, once man has lost original righteousness, nature is of course wholly inadequate, and it is only by an unforeseen and unforeseeable invasion of grace from outside nature that man can be saved.  That which pertains to this redemption is such that natural man not only could not have accomplished (which goes without saying), but such that he could not have conceived.  Under this heading are the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which are not merely the restoration of natural faculties but something altogether new.  “Lawes therefore concerning these things are supernaturall, both in respect of the maner of delivering them which is divine, and also in regard of the thinges delivered which are such as have not in nature any cause from which they flow, but were by the voluntarie appointment of God ordeined besides the course of nature to rectifie natures obliquitie withall” (I.11.5)


So much for the first pair of poles.  What about the second set of poles?  We are first assured that “When supernaturall duties are necessarily exacted, naturall are not rejected as needlesse.  The lawe of God therefore is though principally delievered for instruction in the one, yet fraught with precepts of the other also.  The scripture is fraught even with lawes of nature” (I.12.1).  Scripture is not thus a replacement of natural law, nor do the two function in totally separate spheres–natural law is embedded in Scripture, which takes it up, expands it, clarifies it, and refines it.  There clarification answers to thrre main deficiencies in our grasp of the law of reason.  First, principles of the law of reason may be such that we could not easily find out–Hooker has earlier explained that although the principles of the law of reason may be theoretically knowable, many secondary and tertiary principles may be quite difficult to ascertain with precision, even for a properly functioning intellect, and we may readily go awry when we seek to apply the principles to particulars.  Therefore, the divine law’s “applying of them unto cases particular is not without most singular use and profite manye waies for mens instruction” (I.12.1) And when we are vexed with doubt as to whether we have determined correctly, the clear divine authority of these specific pronouncements is a great help to us.  “The first principles of the law of nature are easie, hard it were to finde men ignorrant of them: but concerning the duty which natures lawe doth require at the handes of men in a number of thinges particular, so far hath the naturall understanding even of sundry whole nations bene darkned, that they have not discerned no not grosse iniquitie to bee sinne” (I.12.2)  This first would apply in part even in the absence of sin, but as a result of sin, a second need for illumination comes in.  

We are so prone, says Hooker, “to fawne upon our selves, and to be ignorant as much as may be of our owne deformities” that we need to be told where our faults are and how they are to be fixed.  Our nature has been distorted by sin, but that very sin keeps us from so much as recognizing the deformitie; hence divine law comes to our aid and points it out to us.  An example of this is the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus reveals even secret concupiscence to be sin, where we might have deceived ourselves into imagining that the natural law required only outward purity.  Finally (and here he gives another reason that would have applied even in the absence of sin), there are some truths which while “not impossible to be discerned by the light of nature it selfe” are still such as “no man’s [natural capacity] hath beene able to finde out” (I.12.2) and he includes here as an example the resurrection of the dead.  This is a particularly odd argument, both in that it seems strange to assert that the resurrection of the dead could in theory belong to natural knowledge, and that it seems problematic to claim that something so important could belong to natural knowledge even if it were such that no natural man ever succeed in finding it out.  In any case, these important truths that remain unknown, though not unknowable, by nature, grace has made clear to us.

Hooker later summarizes:

“The lawe of reason doth somewhat direct men how to honour God as their Creator, but how to glorifie God in such sort as is required, to the end he may be an everlasting Saviour, this we are taught by divine law, which law both ascertayneth the truth and supplyeth unto us the want of that other law.  So that in morall actions, divine law helpeth exceedingly the law of reason to guide man’s life, but in supernaturall it alone guideth.” (I.16.5)  

Divine law then augments and clarifies the duties of the natural law, but does not overturn or transform them–except inasmuch as they are relatively transformed by being set within a new context.  


Is divine law the same as Scripture, then?  Well, not quite.  It is not of the essence of divine law that it be written, says Hooker; God has simply chosen to do so because of the great benefits of having a written law.  We are thus to particularly venerate the Scriptures as the principal repository of divine law, but not idolize them as its sole repository.  Traditions, Hooker will say, cannot be excluded by the mere fact that they are not in Scripture, but only “because they are neyther in Scripture, nor can otherwise sufficiently by any reason be proved to be of God.  That which is of God, and may be evidently proved to be so, we denie not but it hath in his kinde, although unwritten, yet the selfe same force and authoritie with the written lawes of God” (I.14.5).  However, lest we impute too much to such extra-Scriptural revelations of divine law, Hooker is careful to lay down the sufficiency of Scripture for all things necessary to salvation, and its ample value for all things accessory thereto.  In a wonderfully-put summary statement, he attests, “they [the books of Scripture] are with such absolute perfection framed, that in them there neither wanteth any thing, the lacke whereof might deprive us of life; nor any thing in such wise aboundeth, that as being superfluous, unfruitfull, and altogether needlesse, wee should thinke it no losse or daunger at all if we did want it” (I.13.3).


So how does the divine law in Scripture cash out in terms of laws for the Church?  Hooker will have much more to say about this in Books II and III, but he offers a few key definitions here before concluding his general survey of law.  

For all spheres of human activity, he says, we must distinguish between laws natural and laws positive–laws that always have and always will bind, by the nature of things, and laws that are added at some point in time, that bind only by virtue of having been “expreslie and wittinglie imposed” (I.15.1)  Those parts of divine law that merely clarify and further specify natural duties are natural–always binding in principle, even if they were only revealed at some point in time (for instance, Jesus’ exposition of several of the Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount).  However, by definition, those that lay down supernatural duties must be positive laws.  This does not mean, Hooker hastens to add, that they are necessarily mutable and dispensable, which he recognizes is how many people think of “positive law.”  All mutable laws are positive, he says, but that doesn’t mean that all positive laws are mutable.  “Positive lawes are either permanent or else changeable, according as the matter it selfe is concerning which they were first made.”  These positive laws of supernatural duties can be subdivided into those that concern men in themselves (parallel to the “law of reason”), and those that concern men in society (parallel to “human law”)–the supernatural society of the Church.  The former Hooker describes thus: “To concerne men as men supernaturallie is to concerne them as duties which belong of necessitie to all, and yet could not have bene knowne by any to belong unto them, unlesse God had opened him selfe, in as much as they do not depend upon any naturall ground at all out of which they may be deduced, but are appointed of God to supplie the defect of those naturall wayes of salvation, by which we are not now able to attaine thereunto” (I.15.2)  

The latter is absolutely foundational for the rest of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie, so pay close attention.  The Church is a society, like other societies and yet unlike–“although as it is a societie it have the selfe same originall grounds which other politique societies have, namely, the naturall inclination which all men have unto sociable life, and consent to some certaine bond of association, which bond is the lawe that appointeth what kinde of order they shall be associated in: yet unto the Church as it is a societie supernaturall this is peculiar, that part of the bond of their association which belong to the Church of God, must be a lawe supernaturall, which God himselfe hath revealed concerning that kinde of worship which his people shall doe unto him” (I.15.2).  Hooker is exceedingly careful in his definition here–the Church exists in the unique position of having a composite constitution, consisting both of laws of political society (human law), which are interpenetrated by a directly revealed divine law that provides the end of the society–its worship of God–and its means to that end.  This latter law, “so far forth as it hath in it any thing more then the lawe of reason doth teach” (a qualification that plays an important role later in Hooker’s attack on the regulative principle) we are not at liberty to change or invent, “but must be received from God himselfe” (I.15.2).  

All these laws, however, and all laws of every sort that God lays down, positive or naturall, must be distinguished into two categories–immutable and mutable.  The former are those that “without any further respect had unto any such variable accident as the state of men and of societies of men and of the Church it selfe in this world is subject unto” are binding for ever on men “unless being positive God him selfe which made them alter them.”  The latter are “lawes that were made for men or societies or Churches, in regarde of theyr being such as they doe not alwayes continue, but may perhaps be cleane otherwise a while after, and so may require to be otherwise ordered then before” (I.15.3).  There are permanent laws that concern permanent things, and there are permanent laws that concern mutable things, and nevertheless admit of no change, but there are some laws that concern mutable things which are for this reason themselves quite mutable, though always in subordination to the principles of the immutable laws. 


With this framework in place, we are now in a position to explore in depth the all-important role of the positive political laws of the Church in their relation to divine law and the law of reason, and what this means for Scriptural authority.