Deliberation, Obedience, and Scripture

Another gem from the O’Don, this time on the relation of Christian ethics to Scripture:

“Ethics reflects on the conditions of good moral thinking .  Were it to posit an ideal relation of text to action which, in the name of obedience to scriptural authority, effectively abolished thinking, it would abolish morality, and thereby abolish itself.  There is a necessary indeterminacy in the obedient action required by the faithful reading of the text.  Acts are ordered in a basic repertoire of kinds and types, and of these kinds and types Scripture has a great deal of normative force to tell us; but Scripture does not determine the concrete act itself , the act we must perform now .  If Scripture totally determined our actions, there would be no obedience, for there would be no deliberation.  Deliberation does not simply repeat what it has heard; it  pursues the goal of faithful and obedient action by searching out actions, possible within the material conditions that prevail, which will accord with the content of the testimony of Scripture.  On the conditions of success in this pursuit Ethics as a theological discipline reflects.  Those Anglicans between the Reformation and the English Civil War who took issue with the Puritan use of Scripture, did so in defense of faithful and obedient discipleship as they understood it.  Hooker’s advocacy of ‘reason,’ often misunderstood in later generations, saw it as a hermeneutic servant of the text, giving concrete deliberative form to the normative demand:

‘For whereas God hath left sundry kinds of laws unto men, and by all those laws the actions of men are in some sort directed; they [the Puritans] hold that one only law, the Scripture, must be the rule to direct in all things, even so far as to the “taking up of a rush or a straw.”  About which point there should not need any question to grow . . . if they did but yield to these two restraints: the first is, not to extend the actions whereof they speak so law as that instance doth import of taking up a straw . . . the second, not to exact at our hands for every action the knowledge of some place of Scripture out of which we stand bound to deduce it, as by divers testimonies they seek to enforce; but rather as the truth is, so to acknowledge, that it sufficeth if such actions be framed according to the law of Reason; the general axioms, 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 kind of consequence.’ (LEP II.1.2).”
—O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time , p. 77

(See also “Obedience Without Cost: The Necessity of Moral Thinking“)



Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 1

Alison Joyce’s recently-published Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology (Oxford University Press, 2012) is a landmark work in Hooker studies and promises to be a touchstone for discussions in years to come.  That said, this ringing endorsement is as much a criticism of the incomplete, scattered, and occasionally incoherent state of Hooker scholarship as it is a complement to Joyce, for this book is not without significant flaws.  It is, truth be told, a bit of a Dr. Jekyll/Mr.Hyde of a book, with two quite distinct objectives tossed together between two covers, without much attempt to tie the two together within a single argument.  

The first of these objectives, which is to provide a systematic survey of the logic of Hooker’s moral theology, beginning with his account of human nature, progressing through his view of the relative authorities of Scripture and reason in moral reasoning, his account of how moral principles are discerned and operate, and his use of casuistry, is by and large effective.  It is not, on the whole, bold or groundbreaking, contenting itself instead with tracking very closely with Hooker’s text, from which Joyce quotes copiously.  Yet, as I am aware of no other book that provides this kind of systematic walk-through of the key pillars of Hooker’s moral theology, the survey is valuable.  There are, to be sure, several points of interpretation that warrant criticism, which I will flag as they arise.  

The second objective, hinted at in chs. 1-2, foregrounded in ch. 3, and making intermittent appearances thereafter, is to mount a polemic against Torrance Kirby and the school of interpretation that argues for a Reformed Hooker.  While occasionally helpful in identifying oversimplifications within this interpretation, Joyce’s arguments here consist by and large of straw men and non-sequiturs, as we shall have occasion to critique in detail throughout this review.  Moreover, her arguments in this regard usually do not follow clearly from her systematic survey—instead, we find arguments like this: “I’ve just shown that Hooker relies heavily on Thomistic categories in his account of the different varieties of law; therefore, Kirby is clearly wrong that he is aligning himself with the magisterial Reformers.”  This only follows if the magisterial Reformers rejected these Thomistic categories, which by and large, they didn’t.  

Over the next couple weeks, I hope to work through the eight chapters of this book in a series of posts, using this as an opportunity to elucidate both the structure of Hooker’s thought, and the problems with contemporary Hooker scholarship—some of which Joyce avoids, but some of which she exemplifies.  Here, I shall quite concisely cover chapter 1, “Introduction,” and chapter 2 “Hooker in Historical Context.”

In her introductory chapter, Joyce surveys briefly the place of Hooker within the development of Anglican moral theology as a whole, and the diverse ways he has been appropriated.  This is a balanced and useful section, on the whole, acknowledging the anachronism or imprecision of various concepts often attributed to Hooker, such as the famous Anglican “three-legged stool.”  However, while acknowledging that there may be some anachronism in the very concept of Anglicanism at this period as a via media and in Hooker as a formulator of it, Joyce appears oblivious to the extent to which her own determination of context—Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology—has set the terms of her interpretation in a way that a priori leaves key issues out of consideration.  By choosing to narrate Hooker as a distinctively Anglican thinker, within a distinctively Anglican tradition (one which he is taken to have essentially started), Joyce de facto accepts, despite her protestations, the old via media account, and also relieves herself of the responsibility to engage in any detail with Reformed moral theologians antecedent to and contemporary with Hooker.  

Her introductory chapter issues two prominent promissory notes about the method which she will follow, and we should take note of them here, so that we can trace throughout whether she makes good on them.  First, she tells us that

“the principle aim of this book is, therefore, to examine in detail the moral dimension of the writings of Richard Hooker in its own terms, and attempt to set this within the broader context of his theological thought.  It is this, rather than any attempt to argue for (or against) the continued relevance and lasting authority of his thought, that will provide the chief focus of its concerns, in an endeavor to avoid some of the more serious difficulties and distortions that have characterized certain earlier studies. . . . It is intended that this volume, which sets out to examine Hooker’s moral theology in its own terms, with no investment in claiming his perspectives for any particular theological, ecclesiological, or moral tradition, will provide a clearer and more informed understanding of Hooker’s work in general, as well as his specific contribution to Anglican moral theology.” (15)

In other words, Joyce is seeking to occupy a very Hookerian sort of high ground when it comes to interpreting Hooker—unlike other writers, she will be impartial, objective, interested only in the truth of the matter, without any eye to contemporary controversies.  In short, she will seek to be the sort of writer that Hooker has often been presented as, timeless, objective, and unruffled.  It is ironic, then, that her second methodological objective is to puncture this portrait of Hooker, to show that in fact his objective persona is a rhetorical construction, and he is in fact very polemically motivated:

“Fundamental to this entire enterprise will be a careful evaluation of the nature of Hooker’s prose style and mode of argumentation, including in particular his use of rhetoric and irony.  As we shall see in Chapter 3 and elsewhere, it is instructive to observe how often Hooker’s text has been misinterpreted by commentators who fail to take adequate account of this aspect of his writing.” (15)  

“One of the reasons why Hooker has been subject to such divergent interpretations throughout the history of his reception is that the tone of his work is often disputed, particularly in those instances where some commentators take his words at face value, while others discern an irony that, in effect, renders his meaning the precise opposite of that stated.” (17)  

As will become clear in the following chapters, by “some commentators” she has in mind primarily Torrance Kirby and his allies.  In other words, just as she thinks Hooker pretends to be objective and systematic, but is in fact pursuing a polemical agenda, so her book pretends to be objective and systematic, but is in fact pursuing a polemical agenda.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with this in principle—part of what I will argue in response to her Chapter 3 is that the ideal of “objectivity” shorn of polemical objective is itself not merely anachronistic but absurd.  The question about her polemic, then, will be how well it hits home.

What about her objective of reading Hooker “in his own terms”?  This sounds like a laudable goal; however, it is rather unhelpful to try to interpret a historical thinker only with reference to himself, rather than with reference to the intellectual atmosphere in which he is working and the thinkers he is responding to.  Thankfully, in chapter 2, Joyce declares that “the importance of reading Hooker in light of that context cannot be over-emphasized” and complains that “one of the problems that has bedeviled much Hooker scholarship in recent years is the extent to which his work has been lifted out of its historical setting and mined for insights or quotations that are deemed to be of relevance to the Church in the modern world, with inadequate reference to, or acknowledgement of, the original context of his writings.”  Given the importance of this historical context, it is notable, and troubling, that Joyce devotes a scant 25 pages to sketching the history of Elizabethan England and its theological controversies, introducing the puritan and conformist polemics that made up the background for and occasion of Hooker’s own writing, narrating the life of Richard Hooker and how the Lawes came to be written, and outlining the overall structure of the Lawes.  Were Joyce to engage in frequent asides later on in the text to relate Hooker to Cartwright or Calvin or Bancroft or Bullinger, this quick fly-by might be adequate, but as it is, this is pretty much all we get as far as historical and theological context.  

A fully adequate account of Hooker’s context would include at least the following: (1) a consideration of medieval scholasticism; (2) a consideration of other 16th-century English moral theologians; (3) a consideration of other 16th-century Protestant theologians, particularly the more scholastically-inclined, such as Melanchthon, Vermigli, and Zanchius, but also of course the Luther, Calvin, and Bullinger; (4) a consideration of 16th-century Catholic theologians, such as Suarez; (4) a consideration of the Elizabethan establishment and its controversies; (5) a close consideration of the theological commitments of both Puritans and conformists; (6) an account of Hooker’s own life, and the events that led up to the writing of the Lawes.  What Joyce offers us here is only a highly-condensed version of (4) and (5), with (5) in particular making little effort to investigate the theologies of the disputants, and a fairly adequate account of (6).  (1) appears in bits and pieces in the following chapters, as Hooker’s relation to Aquinas in particular is frequently discussed.  Now, it is probably asking too much for any one book to cover all six of these bases thoroughly, but given Joyce’s ambitious aim to provide a systematic overview of Hooker’s thought in the context of his own era, one would have hoped for a bit more.  The lack of (3), in particular, proves harmful at later points in the exposition.

Although the sins in this chapter are primarily those of omission, rather than commission, there are a two of the latter worth mentioning.  On page 23, she says that

“Many of those who had returned from exile [in 1559] brought with them hopes of a new life within a fully Protestant regime; in this context, Lake has noted the particular appeal of a presbyterianism based on the Geneva model.  Their frustration at finding in the Elizabethan Settlement an English Reformation that remained only partial and, in their view, awaiting its completion, fueled their calls for further reform.”  

This narrative manages to almost entirely remove the 1560s from the historical record—the events of this decade occupy only a single sentence before Joyce goes on to describe the aggressive promotion of Presbyterianism in the 1570s.  In point of fact, although a number of exiles did return from Geneva in 1559, there is little evidence of any real push for Presbyterianism at this time; unsurprising, since Calvin himself had no real problem with the English episcopate.  That came later, as a reaction against the bishops’ perceived role in the Vestiarian Controversy.  That is to say, it was as a response to the trials of conscience created by controversies over “things indifferent” that Puritanism initially emerged, not as a Genevan presbyterian colony in England.  Recognition of this could help provide at key points a fuller account of Hooker’s apologetic purpose than Joyce is able to offer.

Likewise, on p. 37, we have one of the strongest of Hooker’s polemicism, a hint of what is to follow in ch. 3:

“Interestingly, Knox is at pains to stress that the conflict between Hooker and Travers was not personal, stressing the mutual respect that, in his view, they appear to have had.  However, aside from the fact that it is questionable how far the tone of the recorded comments upon which Knox bases this judgment was anything other than purely politic, I shall be demonstrating in the following chapter that both Bauckham and Knox significantly underestimate the vitriol that Hooker was capable of directing against his opponents, thinly disguised as it was under a carefully constructed literary persona of cool, objective rationality. . . . It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the force that drove the specifically polemical aspects of his writing was, at some level, deeply personal.  Indeed, as MacCulloch has observed: ‘One of the major and admirable features of his work is that he was not out to please anyone: he was an unusually wealthy clergyman who had apparently turned away from the clerical career ladder, and he seems to have written to satisfy himself.'”

It is striking here how Joyce has managed to turn MacCulloch’s compliment into an insult. Where MacCulloch means that Hooker undertook the Lawes for the sake of his own intellectual satisfaction regarding the issues at stake, and out of genuine loyalty to the Church that was being impugned, Joyce manages to narrate it as if he wrote out of personal bitterness and vindictiveness against Walter Travers and other Puritans.  There is no evidence for this, even if the evidence to the contrary may be dismissed by saying that such remarks were “purely politic.”  It is worth observing here the prevalence of this hermeneutical method in contemporary scholarship—anything kind or generous that a writer says about an opponent must be read as “purely politic,” disguising their true feelings, and anything critical they say must be read as personal vindictiveness.  Whether the charge of vitriol—”cruel and bitter criticism”—can be sustained, we will decide in the following chapter.  However, for now it is worth noting Alexander Rosenthal’s helpful observation in this regard:

“Hooker regards the contentions of the extreme Calvinist party as involving dangers of the utmost gravity. . . .  At the same time he strives on a principle of charity to distinguish between the error and the personal sincerity of those who err. . . . A fair approach would be to accept that Hooker does not endeavor to judge the motives and intentions of his opponents (whose earnestness he is prepared to concede), but finds that the issues, which divide them, are pregnant with profound implications for the theology and indeed the polity of the English church and commonwealth.” (Crown Under Law, 4)

Rosenthal, I think, overstates his case a bit here—Hooker was human, like all of us, and quite able to fall prey to the temptation of insinuating evil motives of his adversaries at points.  But I think Rosenthal is right about his overall goal.  His polemic is directed at his adversaries’ dangerous ideas, rather than at his adversaries themselves.  We will have occasion to consider this much more closely in the review of Joyce’s third chapter.

Are You Alone Wise? Reading Notes on Susan Schreiner

There are two kinds of historians in the world—or let us rather say, two ideal types, since most historians blend some of each.  There is the historian as avid collector, enthusiastically rummaging around in the attic of the history of ideas, carting down boxes full of interesting primary source material (as well as a few boxes of secondary source material), dumping them out on the living room floor, sorting them into little piles, and then setting out some of the choicest items on display tables for other historians to come ooh and ahh at.  Then there is the historian as story-teller or debater, mining through the data, finding nuggets that will prove a point or fill a blank in a narrative, carefully organizing them, and then telling you his story, or making his argument, pulling them out and holding them up for demonstration at the appropriate point in his story or argument.  Susan Schreiner’s acclaimed new book Are You Alone Wise? The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era is clearly an example of the first type.  

In it she offers five hundred pages worth of heavily-laden display tables full of primary source material, with relatively little attempt at synthesis or commentary.  The sheer number of footnotes (averaging over 200 per chapter) and volume of quotation (easily over half the total word count) are testament to this, and it can get a bit tiresome.  Since her strategy in each chapter is usually to pick three or four figures that illustrate the particular phenomenon under discussion, and then to camp out in a couple of their primary texts, she sometimes seems to fall into the trap of simply patiently regurgitating the argument of those texts, including bits that really don’t seem particularly relevant to the question at hand.  Or, if they are relevant, the relevance is not always shown.  

But the lack of a firm interpretive hand is most keenly felt not within the argument of each chapter, as in the interstices between them.  What we clearly have before us in the six main chapters of this book (the first being largely introductory) are six distinct display tables, addressing, respectively: (1) existential/experiential certainty in the Protestant Reformers, (2) Epistemological/interpretative certainty in the Protestant Reformers, (3) Epistemological/interpretative certainty among Counter-Reformation Catholics, (4) existential/experiential certainty in the Protestant Reformers, (5) The struggle to discern divine from demonic certainty, (6) Late 16th-century comings-to-terms with the problem of uncertainty.   Quite clearly, these could all be strung together into a very fascinating narrative.  But they remain each rather separate; six separate inquiries fused together into one book.  In particular, there is no attempt to put into conversation with one another the Protestant and Catholic treatments of epistemological/interpretive certainty; we meet the arguments of counter-Reformation writers, but never hear how various Protestant writers might have attempted to meet these objections.  Nor is there much attempt to analyze or evaluate the differences between Protestant and Catholic searches for existential/experiential certainty.  We wait eagerly for a conclusion in which the preceding threads will be synthesized or evaluated, but when it comes, it is only 3 pages long.  Alas.  


Rather than attempting to summarize her elaborate investigations, then, I’ll just offer, in a musing rather than conclusive way, a couple of the sort of reflections I’d have loved to see her offer.   

First, long-time readers may recall my post here, a year and a half or so back, “Why I Won’t Convert,” summarizing why I remained, and intended to remain, quite Protestant, and found the seductions of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy decidedly un-seductive.  A big part of my argument there was to oppose as an idolatrous illusion the quest for complete epistemological certainty.  For many today, the appeal of Catholicism or Orthodoxy is that they offer, it seems, an objective, verifiable, unchanging, and clear testimony as to what the truth is; they provide, in short, a sure defensive bulwark and a sharp offensive weapon against the tide of liberalism and postmodernism which seeks to throw everything into doubt.  Protestantism, on the other hand, looks hopelessly stuck in the subjectivism of individual interpretation, incapable of providing a clear or unified answer to the skeptical attacks of postmodernity.  To all this, I said, 

There is, in short, an objective truth to the Christian faith. but it is an object so great, so large, so multi-faceted that each of us can only see certain parts of it at any given time, so we must always be ready to compare what we have grasped of it with what others have grasped, seeking to gradually put together a mosaic that will capture more and more of the whole picture. This is not postmodernism, because it presupposes that we all are actually looking at the same object, and seeing something real there outside ourselves. But it is not naive objectivism, which assumes that the object simply is what we have perceived–no more, no less.

You may be right in being concerned that this seems to give no simple, straightforward basis of combating “liberalism.” I believe that the search for some kind of magic weapon that will level all forms of liberalism with one well-placed blow, leaving only orthodox forms of the faith standing, is a fool’s errand. I believe that the kind of patient and humble submission to Scripture that I have described does give us the ability to identify and defeat inauthentic forms of the faith, false testimonies to Christ, but it will always have to be a patient and careful struggle. The magic weapons of the Magisterium or the Seven Ecumenical Councils are illusory–they are themselves embedded in the ambiguities and vicissitudes of history from which they claim to rescue us. The latter may provide a reliable guide to the issues that confronted the Church in that time, but new issues are always confronting the Church. The former may promise an authoritative answer to all of these new issues, but at the cost of its own consistency over the centuries, and without escaping the problem of interpretation–think of how many contradictory forms of Catholicism right now claim to be in submission to Vatican II.

The alternative is a commitment to semper reformanda.  This need not mean, as critics will say, opting for a self-indulgent “continual smorgasbord” and “convenient selectivity.” Rather, it’s about a constant wrestling with the voice of Scripture, and the voice of its interpreters through all the ages of the Church, a willingness to never rest satisfied that we have all the answers, and instead to always allow ourselves to be interrogated by the Word. In this, we must always be open to the possibility that our understanding will grow and lead us to new theological insights, but in confidence that God does not change, and he has been faithful in leading his Church into truth in the past. Therefore, we may rest confidently upon the historic creeds of the Church, determined that even as our growing comprehension of the truth of the Gospel may shed new light on these foundations, it must never lead us to contradict them.”

In short, then, I argued that the quest for certainty is a misguided one, and one that Protestants should not attempt.  Ironically, according to Schreiner, the very opposite seems to have been the perception in the Reformation.  It was the Catholics who denied that the troubled soul could ever find certainty in this life, could know that it would inherit the kingdom, whereas Luther proclaimed, as the glory of the Gospel, that faith meant knowing, with absolute certainty, that one had God’s favor and would attain eternal salvation.  Assurance of salvation, then, was not merely ancillary to faith, but was for the early Reformers part and parcel of justifying faith, since faith that doubted, that wondered whether it was worthy, was a faith still preoccupied with itself and its own works, rather than anchored on Christ.  Of course, later on, Protestants realized that this route led to something of a dead-end; the insistence that true faith have absolute assurance proved to be an extra burden, rather than a salve, to Christian consciences, who, as soon as they found themselves doubting, could conclude that this was proof they were not saved at all.  Unfortunately, Schreiner does not tell this tale of how Protestants came to reconsider the doctrine of assurance, and to find ways of describing justifying faith without laying such a burden on subjective certainty.

In any case, though, this is clearly a somewhat different matter from what I was referring to above.  This “existential” certainty, a certainty of salvation, seems in principle distinct from the “epistemological” certainty, a certain knowledge of true doctrine.  Indeed, it would seem, perhaps, that the former certainty ought to discourage us from seeking too much the latter.  After all, if “faith” is understood not primarily in cognitive terms, but as a clinging to Christ, who alone is sure, then why should we seek or expect to be able to anchor our certainty anywhere else—on precise doctrinal formulations, particularly on secondary matters?  However, as a matter of fact, as Schreiner shows, for the early Reformers, certainty of one’s own salvation went hand-in-hand with certainty that one possessed absolute doctrinal truth, gained directly from Scripture.  It was on this score that Catholic apologists sought to beat Protestants at their own game.  Although they were uninterested in attempting to provide the conscience with certainty of salvation, the Catholic writers did claim to be able to provide certainty of doctrinal truth, of which the collective testimony and authority of the Church was a much surer guide than the individual conscience.  It is this section of Schreiner’s book that sounds most familiar to our ears, for the arguments of Catholic apologists today on this score have changed little from those five hundred years ago.  In the meantime, however, the counter-apologetic strategy of Protestants has changed considerably, from insisting that Scripture alone could supply the desired certainty, to admitting that no human interpreter, whether the individual reader of Scripture or the magisterium, could provide the certainty we crave; accordingly, we must beware either claiming it for ourselves, or seeking it idolatrously in human authorities.

The question I have, then, is how Protestants have been able to so considerably revise their stance, and attenuate their quest for certainty, while remaining true to their original teachings, teachings which according to Schreiner rested so much weight on the need for, and possibility of, certainty.  Have they been able to?  As a good Protestant, I certainly hope (and think) the answer is yes, but it does need further thought and attention.


As a good starting point, I suggest (surprise surprise) that we might look at the thought of Richard Hooker.  In fact, it is remarkable to me that Schreiner does not do so.  He is clearly thoroughly absorbed in the issues surrounding the quest for certainty, addressing a number of the themes that Schreiner describes in her book.  In particular, he would have fit very nicely in the final chapter (alongside his contemporary Shakespeare) since, more than any of the figures identified in that chapter, he not only diagnoses the failures of the quest for certainty, but seeks to provide a way forward, one based not on a complete capitulation to uncertainty, but by a turn to probability.  

This, in fact, is a central pillar of his response to the Puritans, or the “precisianists,” as I have called them in a recent post.  These, unable to deal with the uncertainty that the vague and variable category of “adiaphora” left them with, insisted that Scripture must provide strict and precise legal guidance for the moral and political questions with which the Christian was daily faced.  Because certainty was so highly prized, Cartwright could declare, “it is the virtue of a good law to leave as little as possible within the discretion of the judge.”  

I hope to explore in depth in future (perhaps in a formal article) how Hooker constructs his argument in the Lawes as a response to this false idea of certainty, and indeed as a response to the whole problem of the sixteenth-century quest for certainty that Schreiner traces, but for now, as a teaser, I shall just offer an extended quotation from Hooker where he squarely addresses the issue:

“The truth is, that the mind of man desireth evermore to know the truth according to the most infallible certainty which the nature of things can yield. The greatest assurance generally with all men is that which we have by plain aspect and intuitive beholding. Where we cannot attain unto this, there what appeareth to be true by strong and invincible demonstration, such as wherein it is not by any way possible to be deceived, thereunto the mind doth necessarily assent, neither is it in the choice thereof to do otherwise. And in case these both do fail, then which way greatest probability leadeth, thither the mind doth evermore incline. Scripture with Christian men being received as the Word of God; that for which we have probable, yea, that which we have necessary reason for, yea, that which we see with our eyes, is not thought so sure as that which the Scripture of God teacheth; because we hold that his speech revealeth there what himself seeth, and therefore the strongest proof of all, and the most necessarily assented unto by us (which do thus receive the Scripture) is the Scripture. Now it is not required or can be exacted at our hands, that we should yield unto any thing other assent, than such as doth answer the evidence which is to be had of that we assent unto. For which cause even in matters divine, concerning some things we may lawfully doubt and suspend our judgment, inclining neither to one side nor other; as namely touching the time of the fall both of man and angels: of some things we may very well retain an opinion that they are probable and not unlikely to be true, as when we hold that men have their souls rather by creation than propagation, or that the Mother of our Lord lived always in the state of virginity as well after his birth as before (for of these two the one, her virginity before, is a thing which of necessity we must believe; the other, her continuance in the same state always, hath more likelihood of truth than the contrary); finally in all things then are our consciences best resolved, and in most agreeable sort unto God and nature settled, when they are so far persuaded as those grounds of persuasion which are to be had will bear.

Which thing I do so much the rather set down, for that I see how a number of souls are for want of right information in this point oftentimes grievously vexed. When bare and unbuilded conclusions are put into their minds, they finding not themselves to have thereof any great certainty, imagine that this proceedeth only from lack of faith, and that the Spirit of God doth not work in them as it doth in true believers; by this means their hearts are much troubled, they fall into anguish and perplexity: whereas the truth is, that how bold and confident soever we may be in words, when it cometh to the point of trial, such as the evidence is which the truth hath either in itself or through proof, such is the heart’s assent thereunto; neither can it be stronger, being grounded as it should be.

I grant that proof derived from the authority of man’s judgment is not able to work that assurance which doth grow by a stronger proof; and therefore although ten thousand general councils would set down one and the same definitive sentence concerning any point of religion whatsoever, yet one demonstrative reason alleged, or one manifest testimony cited from the mouth of God himself to the contrary, could not choose but overweigh them all; inasmuch as for them to have been deceived it is not impossible; it is, that demonstrative reason or testimony divine should deceive. Howbeit in defect of proof infallible, because the mind doth rather follow probable persuasions than approve the things that have in them no likelihood of truth at all; surely if a question concerning matter of doctrine were proposed, and on the one side no kind of proof appearing, there should on the other be alleged and shewed that so a number of the learnedest divines in the world have ever thought; although it did not appear what reason or what Scripture led them to be of that judgment, yet to their very bare judgment somewhat a reasonable man would attribute, notwithstanding the common imbecilities which are incident into our nature.” (LEP Bk. II, ch. 7)

What’s Wrong with the Regulative Principle?

After two weeks of hibernation (well, excluding the comments thread on the most recent post), the lights will be slowly flickering back on here.  And where better to re-start than with S&P’s patron saint, Richard Hooker?  In this post, I want to look squarely at a question that has been dancing around in the background of many of my Hooker and Puritanism posts, and much of my research on those topics: What did Hooker think about the so-called “regulative principle of worship”?  

The RPW, as any self-respecting Presbyterian knows, runs something like this: “In its worship, the church is to be so guided by Scripture that it must include only those elements for which there is a Scriptural basis, whether it be by way of command or example.”  There are of course looser and stricter applications of this rule, and many of the stricter ones seem to reach bizarrely unbiblical conclusions, such as excluding all musical instruments (um, ever read the Psalms, fellas?).  In principle, though, regulativists agree in denying the so-called “normative principle,” viz., that the Church may worship in any way that is not forbidden by Scripture.  

In reality, of course, the practical difference between the two parties—at any rate with mature, intelligent, and theologically sensitive representatives of them—turns out to be rather less than that bald opposition implies.  For both sides can usually recognize that Scripture offers much more than merely commands and prohibitions; for the most part, it offers principles and historical examples that can and should inform our worship, but in indirect ways that do not necessarily admit of one-to-one application.  Both sides usually draw upon historical precedents as well in forming their liturgies.  The difference then often reduces to one of emphasis, so that regulativists say, “We need to let our worship be always guided by Scripture, always mindful of course of history and common sense” and normativists say “We need to let our worship be guided by history and common sense, always mindful of course of Scripture.”

In particular, the differences are blurred by a key qualification that advocates of the regulative principle have, since their earliest days, had to make: we must distinguish, they say, between “elements” and “circumstances” of worship.  The former are perpetual, essential, commanded by God in Scripture, and must be justified out of it; so we cannot add any additional elements not given in Scripture.  The latter are variable, accidental, not necessarily given in Scripture, and open to improvisation within the general rules of Scripture.  The first consist of the basic building blocks of worship, the latter of the particular ways in which they are manifested in a particular congregation.  It is not hard to see how such a distinction could admit of enormous elasticity.  So, for instance, a loose regulativist might well say merely that “songs of praise” are an “element” whereas the selection of what to sing, how to sing it, and how to accompany it, are “circumstances” that may vary a great deal, and for which we need not seek detailed Scriptural justification.  Stricter regulativists, however, might well contend that the use of musical instruments constitutes an “element,” not a “circumstance,” or that, if singing is an “element,” only Scriptural words must be sung.  A thoughtful non-regulativist, on the other hand, if pressed, could justify many liturgical practices, whether traditional (e.g., a liturgical procession) or contemporary (e.g., a skit) as a “circumstance” or a form of embodying one of the basic elements—prayer, praise, proclamation, offerings, and sacraments.

Moreover, not only must it be conceded that some things may clearly be done in worship that are not prescribed in Scripture, but it also seems clear that not all things prescribed in Scripture for worship must be done in our worship.  Most regulativists today tend to also be cessationists, maintaining that the gift of tongues has ceased and therefore was not intended as a permanent fixture of Christian worship.  

On these basis, some critics have suggested that the terminology of the regulative principle vs. the normative principle isn’t all that useful.  


So if we asked, “Was Richard Hooker—or is Anglican worship—opposed to the regulative principle of worship?” the answer is not that simple.  The Puritan critics of Prayer Book worship were insistent that a matter of basic principle was at stake—Are we going to be ruled by God’s Word or not?  Thriving on dualistic oppositions, they saw the entire debate as hinging upon the clash between this regulative principle—worship *according to* the Word of God—vs. the normative principle—worship *not contrary to* the Word of God.  At the end of Book III of the Lawes, however, Richard Hooker disarmingly dismisses this dualism.  In point of fact, he says, they share the same basic principles regarding worship; they just differed over the particular applications:

“For our constant perswasion in this point is as theirs, that we have no where altered the lawes of Christ further then in such particularities onely as have the nature of things changeable according to the difference of times, places, persons, and other the like circumstances.  Christ hath commanded prayers to be made, sacraments to be ministred, his Church to be carefully taught and guided.  Concerning every of these somewhat Christ hath commaunded which must be kept till the worldes ende.  On the contrary side in every of them somewhat there may be added, as the Church shall judge it expedient.  So that if they will speake to purpose, all which hitherto hath been disputed of they must give over, and stand upon such particulars onely as they can shew we have either added or abrogated otherwise then we ought, in the matter of Church-politie. Whatsoever Christ hath commanded for ever to be kept in his Church, the same we take not upon us to abrogate; and whatsoever our laws have thereunto added besides, of such quality we hope it is, as no lawe of Christ doth any where condemn.” 

In other words, we too stick firmly to all those things that Christ has commanded us to keep, omitting those things that were merely temporary ordinances, and all those things we add are mere matters of changeable circumstance.  The real debate is simply which particular matters fall under which heading, and whether, in the matters of changeable circumstance, the Anglican orders be beneficial or not—it is not whether or not Scripture is to be authoritative for our worship:  

“they must agree that they have molested the Church with needless opposition, and henceforward as we said before betake themselves wholly unto the trial of particulars, whether every of those things which they esteem as principal, be either so esteemed of, or at all established for perpetuity in holy Scripture; and whether any particular thing in our church polity be received other than the Scripture alloweth of, either in greater things or in smaller.”

Hooker will therefore occupy hundreds of pages in Book V working through these particulars one by one.  Does this mean, then, that Hooker accepts, ultimately, the regulative principle, but merely applies it in a very different way?  In the end, no.  The clever rhetorical move of reducing the whole debate to one over particulars comes only after Hooker has dismantled the principle in the form stated by the Puritans, leaving them as the only valid logical interpretation of the principle the watered-down version that Hooker will “agree” with.

Hooker’s preference, however, would be to reject the principle as a useful starting-point, and not only because it proves so useless and ambiguous when pressed, but on the basis of two underlying assumptions that taint the Puritans’ invocation of it.  First, it proceeds on the assumption that, as Cartwright says, “it is the virtue of a good law to leave as little as may be in the discretion of the judge,” so that the most specific form of a law is the most perfect.  So while it may be that a moderate and judicious use of the regulative principle would be unproblematic from Hooker’s standpoint, he recognized that the impulse that led to the advancing of the principle in the first place militates against such moderation.  All Protestants, after all, had always maintained that Scripture must guide our worship, but faced with the uncertainty and diversity that this general commitment left unresolved, the Puritans proposed the regulative principle as a more precise rule.  The goal from the beginning then was to attempt to restrict the scope of what might be considered “changeable circumstance.”

Second was the Puritan conviction that it was only because it had been set down in Scripture that any element of worship could be legitimate.  According to the reasoning of the regulative principle, public prayer would not be an acceptable element of Christian worship had it not been prescribed in Scripture.  But this was to mistake the uniqueness of Christian worship, which consists not so much in its elements as in its object, not so much in form as in content.  Of course, this is not to deny that the distinctive content of Christian faith does shape the form of our worship in many ways, or that Scripture provides plenty of guidance in that distinctive shape.  But consider that prayer, singing, praise, penitence, offerings, instruction, reading from Scripture all may be found in other world religions.  Indeed, Scripture itself teaches that the instinct to worship is natural to mankind.  On consideration, it is really only the sacraments that constitute truly unique elements of Christian worship, though even here it is the content—Christ Himself—that makes them unique more than the forms, which have parallels in other religions (washing rituals, sacraficial meals).  In this, as in so much else, Hooker insists that grace restores and perfects nature, rather than replacing it.

Of course, we do as a matter of fact find justification for these elements in Scripture, so why does it matter whether we could theoretically justify them from nature as well?  Because it affects our view of the purpose of Scripture.  Scripture, Hooker argues, presumes us already instructed by nature of the propriety of certain matters of liturgy and polity, rather than seeking to offer a complete blueprint starting from scratch.  But if we approach it assuming that it is only by being first set down in Scripture that an element of worship becomes valid, and assuming that the most precise instruction is the best, then we will find ourselves sifting the Scriptures in vain for detailed teaching on matters they simply do not address.  The result will be a stretching and warping of the Scriptures, a dishonor to them rather than an honor:

“As for those marvellous discourses whereby they adventure to argue that God must needs have done the thing which they imagine was to be done; I must confess I have often wondered at their exceeding boldness herein.  When the question is whether God have delivered in Scriptrue (as they affirm he hath) a complete, particular, immutable form of church polity, why take they that other both presumptuous and superflous labour to prove he should have done it, there being no way in this case to prove the deed of God, saving only by producing that evidence wherein he hath done it?  But if there be no such thing apparent upon record, they do as if one should demand a legacy by force and virtue of some written testament, wherein there being no such thing specified, he pleadeth that there it must needs be, and bringeth arguments from the love or good-will which always the testator bore him; imagining, that these or the like proofs will convict a testament to have that in it which other men can no where by reading find.  In matters which concern the actions of God, the most dutiful way on our part is to search what God hath done, and with meekness to admire that, rather than to dispute what he in congruity of reason ought to do.”

“A word of God for all things we have to do”

The long-promised discussion on Elizabethan theonomy, although it turns out to be a rather short one, developed amidst a discussion of Puritan biblicism more generally—adapted from the draft of ch. 3 of my thesis.

Unfortunately, Cartwright does not rest content with asserting the supremacy of our duty to God’s glory and our brethren’s salvation over civil concerns.  Indeed, how could he, after long battles in the Vestiarian controversies had ended indecisively, with conformists earnestly insisting that God’s glory and the salvation of the brethren was not in fact at stake?  A more certain rule for resolving the doubtful conscience and adjudicating clashing loyalties was needed—Scripture.

“No man’s authority . . . can bring any assurance unto the conscience,” Cartwright concluded.  Perhaps in “human sciences” the word of man carried “some small force” but “in divine matters [it] hath no force at all.”  Of course, whether the matters in question were “divine matters” or “human sciences” was precisely the point at issue between him and Whitgift.  Whitgift would concede that in divine matters, Scripture alone was our guide, but if the disputed orders and ceremonies were merely civil ordinances, Scripture did not necessarily have much to tell us.  When pressed, then, Cartwright would go so far as to insist that in all actions of moral weight, Scripture was our guide: unless we “have the word of God go before us in all our actions . . . we cannot otherwise be assured that they please God.”  Recognizing the boldness of this claim, Cartwright offers a syllogism to back it up: “But no man can glorify God in anything but by obedience; and there is no obedience but in respect of the commandment and word of God: therefore it followeth that the word of God directeth a man in all his actions.”  Whitgift, breathless at such a declaration, answers that this would make not merely the matters in question, but all civil matters as well dependent on the Word, indeed, any action whatsoever, even “to take up a straw.”

Cartwright happily swallows the reductio, acknowledging that the guidance of Scripture is needed for the taking up of a straw.  Why?  Because although a class of action may be indifferent in itself, any particular action takes on the moral quality of goodness or badness based on the motive, and the motive, says Cartwright, must always be a desire to please God; since he has already argued that no man may be confident he pleases God except when acting in adherence to the Word, Scripture must in some sense go before us even in the most trivial of actions.  Cartwright has thus, under pressure to find some certain rule for guiding the Christian amidst doubtful and disputed moral decisions, collapsed any distinction between indifference epistemologically construed and morally construed, with the result of rendering the concept largely meaningless.  Since no action is morally neutral, and since the Christian must have guidance in all moral matters, and since Scripture is the Christian’s surest guide, Scripture must be taken to pronounce positively or negatively on all matters.

Even the relative indifference of the adiaphora, it would seem, would have to come from the positive permission of the Word.  And indeed, when Whitgift expresses concern on this score, Cartwright confirms that this is his meaning: “For even those things that are indifferent, and may be done, have their freedom grounded of the word of God; so that unless the word of the Lord, either in general or especial words, had determined of the free use of them: there could have been no lawful use of them at all.“  This is a remarkable transformation of the doctrine of adiaphora; no longer is Scriptural silence regarding a matter demonstrative of its moral lawfulness, but it is constitutive of it, so that this silence is to be construed as a positive act of  permission, without which the matter would have remained morally illicit. 


The fundamental difference between the conformist and the precisianist, then, is not merely that the precisianist considers that fewer matters have been left indifferent than the conformist does, although that is certainly the case; nor is it merely that the precisianist considers Scriptural guidance on matters that are indifferent to be more detailed and constraining than the conformist does, although that is certainly the case; rather, it is that the precianist considers all the relevant moral criteria to derive from Scripture, rather than merely being expressed in it.  We may see what this difference of approach entails by considering the role of the Mosaic judicial laws in Cartwright’s system.  Whitgift, worrying that the precisianist principle of Scriptural direction for every action would lead not merely to the abridgement of the magistrate’s freedom over ecclesiastical matters, but over strictly civil matters as well, was met with a curious waffling on the part of his adversary.  On the one hand, Cartwright and other precisianists would frequently insist that as ministers of the Gospel, they disclaimed all interest in merely civil and political matters, leaving those to the lawyers; moreover, they denied that the principles they advanced regarding ecclesiastical polity necessitated a similar reconfiguration of civil polity.  On the other hand, however, they at times forthrightly admitted that the laws of England ought to take the laws of Moses as their guide, and were to be condemned as unjust whenever they failed to do so.

This emphasis on the abiding validity of the Mosaic judicial laws has frequently attracted the interest of scholars for its idiosyncrasy among the Protestant Reformers (with the exception of the Scotch Presbyterians, who were in this of a similar mind as their English brethren), and its lasting influence on later Puritan theonomic/theocratic aspirations.  Paul Avis, in his instructive article “Moses and the Magistrate,” has shown that even where they used similar language, there was a compelling difference between a Calvin and a Cartwright on this issue.  The former, although much more emphatic about the positive uses of the law than Luther was, took a fundamentally similar tack on the judicial laws.  Luther believed that the while the Ten Commandments summed up the natural law, the latter temporally and logically preceded this formal expression, and the same principle applied to the rest of the Mosaic laws.  They were expressions and applications of natural law in a particular polity, and so, although its accuracy as a good application was, by virtue of its divine revelation, more assured than that of the law of Solon, it was not intrinsically more binding.  Only inasmuch as our own circumstances were the same as those of the Hebrews should we expect our own judicial laws to be similar to theirs.  Calvin’s argument is similar, viewing the natural principle of equity, perfected in the gospel principle of charity, to be instantiated in the Mosaic judicial laws, but to exist independently of them, so that it might and often should be instantiated quite differently in a contemporary Christian polity.  Cartwright, however, while he will use Calvin’s term of the “general equity” of the law, understands this as something posterior, rather than prior, to the particular positive law, extracted from it, rather than instantiated in it.  Accordingly there is some room for flexibility in application, but not a great deal:

“And as for the judicial law, forasmuch as there are some of them made in regard of the region they were given, and of the people to whom they were given, the prince and the magistrate, keeping the substance and equity of them (as it were the marrow), may change the circumstances of them, as the times and places and manners of the people shall require.  But to say that any magistrate can save the life of blasphemers, contemptuous and stubborn idolaters, incestuous persons, and such like, which God by his judicial law hath commanded to be put to death, I do utterly deny.”


This is because, for Cartwright, as Joan O’Donovan says, “the particular command . . . is the perfect form of law because it ‘leave[s] as little undetermined and without the compass of the law as can be.’”  Accordingly, we ought never to rest content with a mere general moral intuition if a clear Scriptural directive can be found; indeed, the latter is the only basis upon which the former can be valid.  This conviction leads Cartwright to a preposterous dependence on Scriptural prooftexts at many points in his debate with Whitgift where mere common-sense would have more than sufficed.  For instance, when complaining that in the Prayer Book service, the minister cannot be clearly heard by the congregation when he stands at the far end of the chancel, Cartwright feels the need to allege a Scriptural positive law for the principle, and resorts to Acts 1:15: “Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples.”  When Whitgift raises his eyebrows, Cartwright holds his ground: “The place of St. Luke is an unchangeable rule to teach that all that which is done in the church ought to be done where it may be best heard, for which cause I alleged it.”  At another point, discussing the requirements for elders, he says “The holie Ghost prescribing by Jethro what officers are to be chosen doth not only require that they should fear God . . . be wise and valiant, but also requireth that they be trusty.”  Jethro’s counsel to his son-in-law can no longer be read merely as prudent counsel, the prudence of which ought to be obvious in similar situations, such as the choosing of church officers, but must appear as a specific prescription of the Holy Spirit, intended for use as a positive law for the church.

This style of reasoning permeates the writings of Cartwright, Travers, and other precisianists, and is undergirded by two syllogisms that we find frequently repeated.  The first finds perhaps its most amusing expression when Whitgift queries the Admonition’s statement that in the Apostles’ time, there was always a careful examination of communicants before they were permitted to receive the Supper—how, he asks, do they prove this in Scripture?  “After this sort,” replies Cartwright: “all things necessary were used in the churches of God in the apostles’ times; but examination of those whose knowledge of the mystery of the gospel was not known or doubted of was a necessary thing; therefore it was used in the churches of God which were in the apostles’ time.”

It should not surprise us to find this sort of reasoning given the precisianist obsession with finding certainty; for the Christian convinced that he must please God in all actions, it was clear that the Church needed detailed guidance in all its practices, and since God must love and favor His church, it stood to reason that he must have provided such guidance in Scripture.  Moreover, since the most specific form of law was the most perfect, the more God loved his Church, the more detailed legislation we should expect.  Accordingly, we frequently find the following form of a fortiori syllogism:

“To prove that there is a word of God for all things we have to do: I alleged that otherwise our estate should be worse, than the estate of the Jews.  Which the Adm. confesseth to have had ‘direction out of law, in the least thing they had to do.’  And when it is the virtue of a good law, to leave as little undetermined and without the compass of the law as can be: the Answerer in imagining that we have no word for divers things wherein the Jews had particular direction: presupposeth greater perfection in the law, given unto the jews, then in that which is left unto us.  And that this is a principal virtue of the law may be seen not only by that I hade showed that a conscience well instructed and touched with the fear of God seeketh for the light of the word of God in the smallest actions.”

In a remarkable early passage of his Full and Plaine Declaration, outlining the Scriptural plan of Presbyterian polity, Walter Travers manages to combine both syllogisms side-by-side.  God’s care for his people, he says, is apparent in the precise and detailed legislation for the building of the tabernacle in the Old Testament; even though Scripture describes David and Solomon’s changes to the worship and building of the temple without narrating God’s prescription of them, we may safely conclude, given the obvious approval of their actions, that they would have only made such changes by express divine command.  “And,” concludes Travers, “how absurd and unreasonable a thing is it, than especially to think the love and care of God to be diminished towards his Church” that he would omit such express commands in the New Covenant?  


In their quest to safeguard Christian liberty, then, the precisianists have so hedged it in with unchangeable divine law that even Whitgift’s cold call to submission seems a charter of freedom by comparison.