Why We Really Need a New Biography of Richard Hooker

The only modern biography of Hooker, Philip Secor’s Richard Hooker: Prophet of Anglicanism, offers a complex, detailed narrative of Hooker’s life, replete with intimate anecdotes illuminating his personality, etc.  The only problem is that half of it is fabricated out of whole cloth, spun out of the whimsical fantasies of Secor’s overactive imagination.  If this criticism merely applied to the trivial anecdotes and episodes, it might be one thing, but unfortunately, Secor’s whole understanding of the theology and thought-world of Hooker and his period derives from a similarly slipshod pastiche of fact and fiction.  I offer here for your un-edification his fanciful synopsis of the distinctive characteristics of “Puritans” and “Anglicans” in the Elizabethan period on page 51: 

The former, he says, were 

(1) theologically Calvinist—fired by the Pauline Epistles with their assurance of predestined election and emphasis on redemption, salvation, justification, and ‘living in the Spirit’; (2) believers in the primacy of Scripture as the sole authority for faith and practice; (3) generally advocates of the presbyterian as opposed to the episcopal form of church polity.

This is true enough, but the first two points are hardly distinctive, being shared by pretty much all of their English Protestant friends and foes.  But this is simply par for the course.  Secor goes on to portray their opponents, naming as representatives John Jewel, Edwin Sandys, Edward Grindal, John Whitgitft, and Richard Bancroft, in these terms:

(1) an insistence on an established Church ruled by bishops and headed by the crown; (2) use of the Book of Common Prayer and the Bishops’ Bible as opposed to the more popular Geneva Bible: these ‘anglican’ books expressed a middle-ground in biblical interpretations and liturgical expressions, somewhere between Rome and Geneva; (3) a tendency to view Holy Scripture as the primary but not the only source of faith and practice, holding that reason and religious custom were two other important sources of God’s revelation; (4) a preference for the synoptic Gospels rather than Paul’s Epistles; (5) an emphasis on the incarnation, the passion and the resurrection as central theological and liturgical themes, with concomitant stress on the importance in worship of the sacraments and common prayer rather than preaching; (6) a tendency to stress human awe and wonder before the holiness of God, and a concomitant aesthetic inclination, as contrasted with the Puritan emphasis on personal sin and God’s judgment.

Only the first two of these are recognizable as descriptors of the Elizabethan churchmen, and of these, the avowal of an established Church is hardly a distinctive, being a 16th-century Protestant commonplace, and it is hard to know what to make of the remarks about the Bishop’s Bible representing “a middle-ground in biblical interpretations . . . somewhere between Rome and Geneva.”  With the third, it is possible to see what he is trying to get at, but a nugget of truth is obscured by wildly vague and misguided terminology.  The fourth appears to be a clever notion that came to Secor in a dream.  The fifth and sixth might just be in part a fair characterisation of some of the distinctive flavours of Hooker’s thought, following some of Peter Lake’s suggestions, but one would be hard-pressed to find this an aesthetic bone in John Whitgift or Richard Bancroft’s body, and as generalizations about the “Anglicans” of this period, they fail to be much more than pious imaginations.


And then, of course, there’s this gem on page 111: 

“Clearly Hooker toyed with the notion that the head of State is the head of a national Church, to which all citizens must belong.  In this he was a medieval thinker, unable to grasp, much less adopt, the emerging modern idea of separation of Church and State.”


Dear me, dear me.

What Good Ol’ Days?

Even among us postmillenial types, it is a common enough foible to imagine that we are living in a dark and decadent age.  We look back with nostalgia and longing to an earlier Christian culture, to a time when everyone went to church, society lived basically in accord with Christian morality, Biblical teaching was enshrined in law and followed in national and international affairs, and orthodoxy was universally accepted and taught in the pulpits.  Nowadays, it is clear, we have rejected God and are suffering His judgment.  

So it is strange when one starts reading works from these good ol’ days and finds the same old complaints about the irreligiousness of society, the same laments about impending judgment. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to read two things which helped reveal just how one-sided this narrative really is–Patrick Collinson’s brilliant study The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society, 1559-1625, and an essay in the Wall Street Journal, “Violence Vanquished” 


In the first, Collinson offers a wonderfully thorough and lively portrait of ecclesiastical life in Elizabethan and Jacobean society–the period following a successful reformation, and before the waning of piety that an ensuing formalism is thought have caused–here, more than any time, we might have expected a picture of the good ol’ days in action.  And yet, wherever we look, we find the familiar problems of modern society?  Power-hungry and amoral rulers?  Check.  Corrupt church leaders?  Check.  Incompetent, uneducated, and/or immoral ministers?  Check.  Widespread ignorance of Scripture and orthodox theology?  Check.  A populace that seems by and large apathetic about the faith and inconsistent at best in putting into practice?  Check.  Absence of children and young people from church altogether?  Check.  Loose sexual mores, with widespread practice and acceptance of premarital sex?  Check.  

Not that Collinson’s point is to paint a gloomy, cynical picture.  Far from it; one of his main burdens in the book is to demonstrate the relatively robust health of the English church in this period.  The bitter invectives of the Puritans, and their certainty that theirs was a church rotten almost to the core, are shown to be just as without foundation as the “good ol’ days” mirage.  The reality?  The English Church in this period was a lot like many churches in many periods–a mixed bag, with a  large number of inconsistent professors and practitioners, and a small minority of fully dedicated and zealous believers, whose leadership consisted of a few true saints, a few true villains, and a generous helping of well-intentioned but imperfect and usually undereducated clergy, who were sometimes too strict, sometimes too lax, but on the whole, slowly nurtured their parishioners into greater piety and maturity.  


Very well, then.  Perhaps they had their problems back then too.  But one can hardly say that we have much improvement to be thankful for, right?  Well, not quite.  When was the last time one of your friends was robbed and murdered while traveling?  Or when your town was attacked by a neighbouring town over a resource dispute?  In his recent WSJ article, “Violence Vanquished” (a précis of a book he has just published, The Better Angels of Our Nature), Steven Pinker challenges us to come to grips with just how peaceful a society we (and by we, he means the whole world) enjoy now.  Homicide rates in the Western world are only a few percent of what they were five centuries ago; violence and execution as a form of legal punishment has been dramatically reduced (except in Texas 😉 ); feudal conflicts and tribal violence have been banished from most of the world; leaving inter-state conflict as the only large-scale form of organised violence.  But inter-state violence is huge nowadays, right?  Wrong.  The death rate today from inter-state conflict is only a few hundredths of a percent.

Pinker’s narrative is a bit overstated, perhaps, relying too much on the relatively short period of history that has elapsed since the end of the Second World War, and his explanations are decidedly secular, giving the credit to evolutionary factors, the Enlightenment, and the rise of the State (though perhaps these latter two deserve more credit than we are usually wont to give them), and none at all to the leavening effects of Christianity.  Nonetheless, he certainly has a point, and one well-worth attending to in an age of ubiquitous media, when single murder cases from thousands of miles away can dominate the headlines for months on end, creating an illusion of ubiquitous violence.


The moral of all this is certainly not complacency.  There is more than enough sin in the world to get worked up about, more than enough that still needs to be done for Christ’s kingdom to get us up off our lazy bums.  But discontentment with our present lot and ingratitude for our present blessings are vices; and constantly assessing the present by comparison, not with the realities of fallen human existence, but with some utopian Golden Age, leads readily to an extremism that sets its face against the wickedness of the world and embraces dangerous creeds and schemes in a vain attempt to restore the lost Golden Age.  When we realise that every age has had its share of vices and virtues, we will be more able to exercise patience in our efforts to make our world a godlier place today.  

Relics of the Amorites?

When (if) we read about the controversies over vestments that inaugurated the English Puritan movement, we’re probably tempted to wonder how people got quite so worked up about this.  Were a mere robe, surplice, and cap really the “relics of the Amorites”? “filthy rags culled from the popish dunghill”?  Was it really worth abandoning the ministry rather than agreeing to wear such vestments, vestments that after all were simply the uniform that the clergy had always worn?  So what if the papists wore them–hadn’t the papists worshipped in the same church buildings too?  And no one was saying that these should be simply abandoned and torn down.

But on second thought, this mania, bizarre as it seems to be, appears relatively explicable when one considers the fact that there are apparently still a great many Protestants who recoil in horror and revulsion from the the idea of distinctive clerical garb.  It’s one of those things I grew up around so much that I never stopped to reflect just how bizarre it was.  Just what is the objection?

In his magisterial The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, Patrick Collinson offers some hint as to why the vestments proved so polarizing, which puts the Puritan protest in a more sympathetic light (but renders modern objections all the more inexplicable).  

It was not, he said, so much that the non-conformist clergy were themselves unable to stomach the thought of clerical garb, or even of clerical garb that was similar to that the papists had worn.  Many would have preferred to do without it, for a variety of reasons, but would not have gotten up in arms about it on their own account.  For most, their objection was founded on an honest conscientious concern for their more simple-minded parishioners:

“However much they might detest the old ceremonial, men of learning could preserve a measure of detachment toward the more incidental trappings of popish worship, distinguishing between the thing itself and its superstitious use….But for ‘simple gospellers’ (as the London ministers describe them) the symbols themselves were a concrete, visible offence.  Their emotional reaction reminds Dr. T.M. Parker of the attitude of the revolutionary sans-culottes to the knee-breeches of the ancien regime, and even of the artorial principles of the first Socialist Cabinet ministers of 1924.  The comparison is not strained, for Elizabethan protestants regarded the surplice and the square cap as the uniform of an oppressive class.  Unlike the new bishops and many of the preachers, they were witnesses of the Marian burnings, and they were well aware that many hangers-on of these cruel proceedings continued to hold office in the Elizabethan Church, and that it was for them that the English ministry was still saddled with some portions of ‘the pope’s attire.’”   

In other words, for many of the ordinary folks in the pew, it felt as it might have felt to a German in 1950 if all their policemen were going around in Gestapo uniforms and swastikas.  The vestments in themselves have nothing to do with the errors of the Roman church, and certainly nothing to do with the murderous persecution under Mary, but one can certainly understand your average Joe in the pew for honing in on such visible symbols, and having trouble abstracting them from the context he had originally encountered them.  If this was how many parishioners felt, one can begin to understand the conscientious scruples of some of their ministers.


But of course, this sharpens the question–Why is it that so many Protestants today maintain this phobia for vestments?  The closest thing to a sensible answer I’ve heard seems to be that in the apostolic church such things would not have been worn, but all things would have been done with simplicity.  But this shaky skeleton of an argument (which was boldly asserted by many of the Elizabethan Puritans) invites a host of objections: how do we even know that?  It is entirely an argument from silence.  Even if it were so, on what basis is that normative, any more than the fact that back then, they met in houses rather than church buildings for worship?  And the simplicity that is so often extolled when it comes to ceremonies and such was of course not simply a feature of apostolic worship (if it was that–again, this is mainly an argument from silence), but was clearly a feature of the whole lifestyle of the early Church, in which all things were held to be common and luxury was eschewed.  Until Protestants are ready to return to that kind of simplicity across the board, it’s hard to see what force a call for such simplicity in clerical vestments could have.

It seems to me, then, that the main impetus for the objection today is not all that dissimilar from the phobia that Collinson identifies above.  Then, it was understandable…but now?  How many modern Protestants have had friends burned at the stake by Catholic zealots?  How many have witnessed an oppressive economy of indulgences and works-righteousness?  Indeed, given that vestments have now been honored with hundreds of years of use by fine Protestant clergymen, one can scarcely complain that they carry the inescapable association with “popery.”  What is it with the seemingly unshakeable phobia of all things Catholic that still dominates large sections of American Protestantism at any rate?  Are we fated always to be a religion of reaction?  Can Protestantism ever grow up and stop defining itself in merely negative terms, desperate to prove above all that “We’re not Catholics” (and now, more recently, “We’re not liberals”)?  

Anglicanism gets a bad rap for being a lukewarm middle way, with no positive contribution, but in many ways, it seems better positioned to demonstrate what a positive Protestantism looks like than so many Reformed and evangelical churches, which remain trapped in a perpetual reaction to imaginary foes.  

Puritan Hypocrisies

Where I grew up, the Puritans were always the good guys in the story.  New England Puritans, English Civil War Puritans, Elizabethan Puritans, you name it.  They were always good guys.  Unlike the wicked corrupt Anglicans who would put them in prison and used their wealth and power to try to trample on them.  The Puritans wanted to purge the Church of its papist abuses, and that must be a good thing.  They wanted toleration for religious minorities, and that must be a good thing.  They opposed the idea of a state church, and wanted the Church to be free to rule itself, and that must be a good thing. 

I first sensed that something was amiss with this narrative when I realized (I wouldn’t say “learned” because in all probability I already knew it, it had just never hit home) that the Puritans (loosely defined) had beheaded their Archbishop in 1645.  That couldn’t be a good thing.  And then when I encountered someone in our circles who wanted to lionize Martin Marprelate, and I started looking at the kind of filthy slander Marprelate had written against his pastors, I knew that something was amiss.  And more recently, the truth has been laid bare in all its ugliness–the Elizabethan Puritans, at any rate, were characteristically petty, self-righteous, slanderous, vindictive, theologically naive, and unprincipled, to an extent that almost justifies the authoritarian response of Elizabeth, Whitgift, and Bancroft (which was, in any case, not all that authoritarian by the standards of the day).   

But, they were at least in favor of the freedom of the Church from the State, right?  For religious freedom, rather than authoritarian conformity?  And that’s gotta be a good thing, right?


So I’ve been inclined to think.  In reality, though, it’s not at all clear that we can cast the Puritans as the noble fighters for the freedom of the Christian conscience and the freedom of the Church from the State.  Both claims are somewhat anachronistic impositions from a later era.  In reality, the Puritans were not fighting so much for permission of a righteous minority to pursue its own church polity within the commonwealth, but were fighting for the complete makeover of the commonwealth along the lines demanded by the righteous minority.  Neither Puritan or Anglican envisioned religious diversity; they envisioned either a Church of England ruled according to Anglican principles, and nothing else, or a Church of England ruled according to Puritan principles, and nothing else.  All minorities want tolerance as long as they’re minorities, but if they can become the majority (or at least the most powerful), few show much interest in tolerance anymore.

The second claim is more interesting.  Is it true that the Puritans were fighting for the freedom of the Church from political control?  Well, again we might cynically say that this was just a pragmatic stance, and one that they were happy to reverse if they seized political power.  However, at the theological level, there was an important sense in which the Puritans were fighting for ecclesial autonomy (though whether they were theologically right is questionable).  What’s interesting here is how, for pragmatic purposes, they set aside that principle from the get-go, and were actually, throughout the Elizabethan controversies, the ones trying to manipulate the Church.   

See, what’s interesting about the Elizabethan settlement is that it’s not simply the subjection of the Church to the State that we moderns might imagine.  On the contrary, political and ecclesial power are set up as separate parallel governments in the Elizabethan constitution, united only in the person of the sovereign.  Queen Elizabeth was head of the Church and of the State, but she governed the one through the bishops, and the other through Parliament.  For Parliament to seek to govern the Church was, in Elizabeth’s mind, an unacceptable political intervention in the affairs of the Church.  Yet it was precisely this that the Puritans sought to effect.  Having marked out the bishops as their irreconcilable foes (on the whole, quite unfairly, since most of the Elizabethan bishops were actually quite moderate and reasonable), the Puritans radicalized their position and called for the abolition of the episcopacy.  Clearly this was a “reform” that they could not try to pursue through the existing structures of the Church, so they turned to political machinery to accomplish their goal, using Parliament to propose legislation that would remove power from the bishops.  And it was this, more than anything, that Queen Elizabeth would not tolerate–the idea that Parliament should be permitted to set ecclesiastical policy, which was the responsibility of the bishops.  Hence, she vetoed every bill that came forward, not always on account of their content, but chiefly on account of what she saw as their unconstitutionality.   

Throughout the Elizabethan period, the story is the same–the Puritans working for a politically, rather than ecclesiastically, determined government of the Church.  So which side was it that stood for the freedom of the Church from political manipulation, from subjection to the State, if this is our ideal?  Well, neither really, since our ideals were simply not the ideals of the sixteenth-century, but if one had to pick, one might well say the Anglicans, not the Puritans, and that’s what you call ironic.