Everyman’s Hooker #1: “To Pass Away as in a Dream…”

This week, I am beginning a new project here at this blog, which I hope to keep up with on a weekly basis for the foreseeable future.  I’m calling it “Everyman’s Hooker,” and it’s an attempt to make the thought of Richard Hooker, specifically his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, accessible to general audiences. Hooker had a beautiful, but notoriously difficult, writing style even for his own time, and with the passage of 400 years, even highly educated readers of modern English often find it difficult to get a handle on just what he’s saying. We have reached the odd and unfortunate point that authors like Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin, who wrote even longer ago and not in English, should be much easier for contemporary English readers to engage with than one of the great masters of their own language, Hooker. Why? Because we have modern translations of the former, but not the latter. The best we have is a mere modernization of spelling, by A.S. McGrade, which is priced way too highly for most readers to even dream of buying.

It might be a bit impertinent to try to publish a fully paraphrased version of Hooker’s great work, not to mention being an enormous amount of work, but for now I have a more modest goal: to introduce readers to a few key ideas and passages, beginning with the first page of the Laws, and moving along from high point to high point, posting a paraphrase and commentary once a week. I recognize that to paraphrase Hooker at all is something of an abomination, given the exquisitely-crafted nature of his prose, but I’ve finally come to realize that this is a necessary evil if Hooker is ever really to be introduced to the wide readership he deserves. I will do my best to maintain as much as possible the eloquence of the original.

Each post will begin with the original text, in the mostly-modernized spelling and punctuation of the 19th-century edition of Hooker available at the Online Library of Liberty. Then I will provide a paraphrased version, paragraph by paragraph, along the lines of what you might find in Shakespeare Made Easy, followed by a bit of commentary on what we can learn today from this passage.  Once I figure out how, I’ll format the two versions of the passage in a double-column style, side-by-side, but for now, it’ll just be one underneath the other.  Some passages will be more difficult, and thus in much more obvious need of paraphrase, than others, but I will not try to prioritize on this basis, instead just following the order of the text.

So, without further ado, here is the first, taken from the first chapter of the Preface to the Laws. Read More

The “All I Really Meant…” Syndrome

Lately, I’ve been having to field a lot of questions along the lines of “Your pastor just said WHAT?” with the expectation that I have to come up with something to say in their defense.  Sometimes, frankly, there isn’t much to say in their defense, but that’s OK, because, as my wife said pertly in answer to such a query from a Catholic friend yesterday, “We’re Protestants, so we don’t have to agree with everything our church leaders say.”  Indeed, I have the Christian liberty to stand up (respectfully) and say so if I think they’ve just gone off their rocker, while remaining a happy parishioner all the while.  Sometimes it’s better to just let love cover it and let others carry on the controversy, if controversy there need be.  But as I’m increasingly troubled by the rhetorical trend—the “All I Really Meant” Syndrome—and as I’ve blogged extensively in the past to reflect on the challenges to responsible rhetoric posed by new media (i.e. here), I thought I would weigh in with a few reflections.  (IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: This post should not be taken by anyone as my “firing a salvo” against either of my pastors or “throwing them under the bus.”  I refuse to be sucked into the “If you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality that dominates in so many circles.  Friendly critique can and should go hand in hand with love and loyalty.  This is a point I want to elaborate on in a post hopefully later this week: “The Guru Syndrome and the Fear of Difference.”)

The particular posts that prompt this reflection (though many examples of similar rhetorical bent could be found) were by my current pastor Toby Sumpter’s “Free-Range Gluten-Free Yoga vs. Jesus” posted just yesterday, and, to a considerably lesser extent, my mentor and former pastor Peter Leithart’s “The End of Protestantism” posted a little over a month ago on First Things.  Although very different in subject area, intended audience, and quality, both had at least this in common: both created quite the online kerfluffle of controversy (Leithart’s, of course, in a wider sphere), and both knew they would do so, and intended to do so.  Both, for the sake of maximizing rhetorical effect and provocation, avoided defining their terms, and indulged in broad generalizations.

I am not interested in evaluating or critiquing those original posts in any detail (for excellent, simultaneously charitable and hard-hitting responses to each, with which I largely agree, see respectively here and here), but rather in assessing the interesting follow-up posts, the “All I Really Meant, Guys…” posts (see Toby’s here, Leithart’s here).  In both cases, the author admitted that the original post had clearly caused offense, but insisted that he thought it had been misunderstood, and defended it on the basis that there was a genuine problem out there that he was trying to critique, and those to whom the critique didn’t apply should just relax.  What both conspicuously lacked was a recognition that much of the offense caused may have been their fault, and accordingly needed to be recanted of. (Leithart’s, I should note, did strike a humble note, and made concessions at several minor points, but it unfortunately did not do so on the really key points.  Leithart admitted that there was probably a lot of unclarity in his choice to designate contemporary American sectarian Protestantism as simply “Protestantism,” but maintained unapologetically that this helped give him the “rhetorical edge” he was looking for.  And when confronted over the fact that his article had conflated historical Reformational Protestantism with contemporary pseudo-Protestantism, he simply denied ever making any historical claims, despite several lines in the original article that could hardly be read as anything else.)

And this, it strikes me, is a major problem.  Let’s assume that the follow-up posts, in each case, cleared up all the potential misunderstandings and dealt with all the objections (I don’t think, in fact, they did in either case, but leave that aside).  First, the fact that such follow-ups were necessary is still probably evidence that something had gone seriously awry in the initial salvos.  To be sure, that isn’t necessarily the case.  It’s possible for people to take offense when none has been given, or to misunderstand and misrepresent what has been very clearly set forth.  But when you have a large number of intelligent charitable folks who know your work quite well taking offense or misunderstanding your target, then odds are, you didn’t put things as clearly as you should.  Especially if you admit that you were intentionally being rhetorically edgy.  So such follow-up posts need to strike a more penitential tone.

Second, even if the follow-up clears everything up, that doesn’t mean, “Ok, we’re all good now.”  There seem to be a lot of bloggers out there (and I’ll be the first to admit I used to be one of them, and still can get worked up and fall prey to the temptation) who think they can be as provocative as they want at the front end, so long as they’re ready to qualify and clarify and soften things later on.  Unfortunately, the medium doesn’t work that way.  You can’t throw a verbal grenade into a crowded e-audience and just plan to clean up the pieces afterward anymore than you can throw a real grenade into a crowded audience so long as you have paramedics on hand nearby.  The fact is that follow-up posts almost never get anything like the hit count of the original post.  Even after the follow-up has been posted, there are still plenty of people out there sharing and re-sharing the original and taking offense at it (or using it as ammo to generate offense, just as likely) heedless of all the ex post facto qualifications.  Moreover, studies show that our minds have a very difficult time forgetting first impressions and overwriting them with subsequent corrections.  Like it or not, your first take is likely to stick in most people’s minds, especially given that it is going to be the more rhetorically explosive and the more likely to appeal to those of short attention span.

So, all of that to say, adding clarifications after the fact is nice, but it’s a heck of a lot nicer to speak clearly in the first place.

Read More

Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 1—Introduction


PrintAbout three months ago, Cascade Books published a book with the provocative title, Dismissing Jesus: How We Evade the Way of the Cross. I had the opportunity to read a pre-publication PDF of the book, and had determined to write a careful review and critique as soon as it came out, but what with the whirlwind of completing a PhD thesis and moving internationally, I am only now sitting down to undertake this task—a Herculean labor, in twelve parts, as I envision it.

Never have I begun a book review with such mixed feelings. It is hard to imagine being more personally entangled with a book than I am with this one. Its author, Douglas Jones, was my teacher and mentor during two of the most crucial and theologically formative years of my life, and I have been blessed to count him as a friend since. Its foreword comes from the pen of Peter Leithart, my pastor, teacher, and closest mentor for many years. Some of my closest friends helped see this book to publication, and there is scarcely a name that appears in the Acknowledgments that I do not know personally, if not intimately. Worse, this book grows out of a series of debates and controversies a few years ago, in which I was personally involved. Though not always agreeing with Jones, I was one of his most forceful advocates during those controversies, and during the years since, in which he has written little (before this book), I have publicly carried forward many of the lines of critique and provocation that he begun.

With this book, Jones seeks to do on a larger scale what he did with many of us students a few years ago—to shake conservative evangelicals out of their dogmatic slumber, to reveal the extent to which we seek to defang and domesticate Jesus, blithely blunting the sharp edges of His very uncomfortable summons to discipleship. At the same time, he aims to unmask the idols of the Christian Right (this book, it should be said up front, may be confusing to Christians outside America, since it is tailored to address our peculiarly American vices), the comforting ideological fictions we tell ourselves in order to quietly set aside the ethical demands of our Scriptures and many of our Christian forebears. Finally, he seeks to stimulate our imaginations with ideas for how we might, as Christian individuals and communities, seek to live out the way of the cross more intentionally, missionally, and radically (to use three over-used buzzwords). These three aims correspond to the three main parts of the book: (1) What is the Way of the Cross?, (2) Special Blinders to the Way of the Cross, and (3) Constructing the Way of the Cross.

All that being the case, I would like nothing more than to be able to welcome this book with trumpets and fanfare onto the evangelical theological scene, to sing its praises, argue its cause, and bask in its reflected glory. Instead, however, I find myself dismayed by it as often as I am encouraged, confused as often as inspired. Have my own views changed that much, or do the differences just loom larger now that the positive effects of Jones’s teaching have sunk in to my thinking? Certainly, although I learned a very great deal from Doug Jones, his contribution was primarily deconstructive: he unmasked idols, shook me out of dogmatic slumbers, and raised a myriad of questions. In the intervening years, I have set to work answering these questions, attempting to discern the shape of Christian discipleship, and see now that I would like to put things quite differently at many points. I write this review in part to clarify such things for myself, and, to the extent that Jones’s views more closely match things I used to say, to offer something of a retraction to anyone who has been reading me for years. Read More

Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 3

In the first part of my review of A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology, I remarked that this was an oddly schizophrenic book, a bit of a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde.  On the one hand, it features a basically sound, thorough, and helpful exposition of the key aspects of Hooker’s moral theology out of the primary sources, and on the other hand, an uneven and confused polemic against Reformed readings of Hooker.  Chapter Four, investigating Hooker’s theological anthropology, is a case in point.

The choice to begin with an account of human nature, rather than of the sources of moral theology—reason and Scripture—might seem an odd one, but Joyce’s instincts are good here.  For Protestantism in particular, we must first start from an account of human nature, and its current fallen state, before we can say much about how the authorities of reason and Scripture function in human life.  Put simply, a very strong doctrine of total depravity would tend to demand a moral theology based almost entirely upon special revelation; a more optimistic doctrine of human nature would create more space for the use of general revelation in constructing an account of the moral life.  The classic stereotype, of course, is that Hooker gives us a remarkably rosy evaluation of human nature, one which differs notably from the Reformed understanding of total depravity, and the grim pessimism of a figure like Calvin, and therefore represents a fundamental departure from an authentically Protestant understanding of the relative authority of reason and Scripture.   Read More

Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 2

Although delayed substantially since beginning this review more than two weeks ago, I am now recommencing my thorough review of A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology with an in-depth critique of her third chapter, “Reading Richard Hooker.”  The critique grew so lengthy, however, that I thought it better to adapt it for at The Calvinist International, which has kindly hosted it under the title, “Richard Hooker, Reformed Irenic.”

For the sake of continuity, however, or for those looking for something a bit briefer, I offer here a highly-condensed version.  In chapter three, Joyce proposes to lay the groundwork for a historically sound interpretation of Hooker by teaching us how to discern his rhetorical style and agenda.  Although she purports to be breaking new ground by cutting through the thickets of misunderstanding that have grown up around Hooker’s text and setting the record straight about mild-mannered, “judicious” Hooker, she is in fact simply reciting the fashionable new orthodoxy among Hooker interpreters.  She will argue that, although cultivating a persona of cool objectivity, Hooker is fully engaged in a polemical battle to discredit and defeat his Puritan opponents.  He quotes selectively from them, uses devious little turns of phrase to make them look bad, and imputes bad motives to them, trying to convince his audience that they’re motivated by an emotional agenda, rather than reason.  The irony of all this is that this is in fact precisely what Joyce does to Hooker in this chapter. 

Although she claims to present an objective, historical reading of Hooker in Hooker’s own terms, she in fact shows herself to be motivated throughout by a desire to discredit a particular school of Hooker interpretation, which she fears is trying to align him too closely with the Reformation.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, really.  Of course our desire for truth means that we feel the need to combat error forcefully where we find it; few of us indeed can be moved to write out of a detached love of truth that has not been stirred to action by the perception of error.  So polemicism in the service of truth is no vice, as Hooker himself clearly understood.  So when Joyce thinks she has uncovered a juicy scandal—Richard Hooker was a polemicist—there really is no scandal, for he never pretended to be anything else.

Hooker never makes any attempt to deny is that he is passionately interested in seeing the Puritan position refuted.  On the contrary, he makes clear from the very beginning that he considers it dangerous to the truth, and dangerous to society, and he intends to do his best to expose its flaws.  Joyce attempts to paint him as a hypocrite because, while “presenting himself as a man of unimpeachable Christian charity: an agent of peace and reconciliation who is determined to seek unity and to find common ground with his opponents, however much they might resist such a noble and godly cause . . . if Hooker does indeed seek unity with them, it is abundantly clear that it will be entirely on his own terms” (61).  But Hooker never suggests that he wants unity on any terms other than those of the truth, which is what he intends to be offending.  This, it turns out, is the scandal, from the standpoint of modern academic objectivity—Hooker has the audacity to believe he is right, and his opponents are wrong!

Once we understand that for Hooker, polemics are a tool in the service of truth, we find that there is in fact no contradiction between Hooker’s occasionally polemical style and his overall goal of an “irenical appeal to the hearts and minds of the disciplinarian Puritan opponents of the Elizabethan Settlement,” as Torrance Kirby puts it, to Joyce’s incredulity.  As I have written before here and here, and Steven Wedgeworth has expanded upon with reference to Hooker here, irenicism is the proper end of all good polemics, but it can rarely do without some resort (often very considerable resort) to polemics.  Because it is interested in reconciliation in truth, irenic polemics aims ultimately to persuade the opponent, opposing his errors, but not assassinating his character.  

Does this description accurately characterize Hooker’s polemics?  Joyce would have us believe not, characterizing Hooker’s rhetoric as full of “waspish, acerbic, and irreverent assaults” upon the Puritans, which frequently impugn their motives.  She concedes that he in many places appears to speak positively of his opponents and to declare his goodwill toward them, but insists that we must read all such passages as dripping with sarcasm and irony.  I critique the circular nature of this hermeneutic of suspicion in more detail in the longer version of this review.   In any case, an authentically historical method would seek to evaluate Hooker’s supposed waspishness by comparison to contemporary examples of theological polemic.  And indeed, when we read Hooker alongside writers such as Cartwright, Whitgift, and especially Bancroft, it is no wonder that he has gained a reputation—overstated, certainly, but not entirely unjustified—for saintly serenity.  Of course, we need not imagine that Hooker never stooped to taking cheap shots—misrepresenting his opponents, unfairly attacking their character, using sarcastic put-downs to avoid the real issues at stake, etc.  He is, after all, human, and few polemicists have managed to always resist such temptations, especially in a 1,400-page work.  The question is whether taking cheap shots comprises part of his intentional method, or comprises the exception that proves the irenical rule.

Crucial in answering this question is learning to distinguish what constitutes a “cheap” shot, and what is quite a well-justified shot, and the means that we cannot evaluate the nature of someone’s polemics in abstraction from the question of truth.  Did Hooker’s opponents say the sorts of things he charges them with?  Were these indeed theologically or politically dangerous, as he claims?  If so, his polemic looks decidedly less “waspish.”  In fact, startlingly, Joyce makes no attempt to consider these questions of truth.  This omission is the most glaring in the chief passage she quotes as evidence of Hooker’s “not merely barbed, but quite outrageous” polemics, which she describes as a “merciless parody” of the Puritans (51).  In point of fact, in the passage she quotes, Hooker is in fact closely paraphrasing and even quoting directly from Thomas Cartwright, a fact that he is kind enough to alert us to by an extended footnote, but which Joyce entirely ignores.  Who’s being “outrageous” now?

Also central to Joyce’s re-reading of Hooker against Torrance Kirby is her attempt to show him as “unambiguously contemptuous” of John Calvin.  She achieves this reading by means of the same hermeneutic of suspicion described above, taking anything positive Hooker says about Calvin as sarcastic or a backhanded compliment, and playing up anything negative he has to say.  In point of fact, Hooker makes quite clear to us what he thinks about Calvin—he was a very wise church leader and among the greatest of Protestant theologians, but he is a mere man just the same, who made mistakes, and since “incredible praises given unto men do often abate and impair the credit of their deserved commendation” (II.8.7), Hooker will avoid giving him more credit than he is due.  The Puritan error consists partly in their unhealthy idolization of Calvin as seemingly infallible, to the exclusion of other Protestant theologians, Church Fathers, and even Scripture itself.  So we can hardly pronounce Hooker as un-Reformed merely because he refused to do due obeisance at the altar of Calvin.  Nor can we pronounce him un-Reformed because some of his Puritan readers at the time judged him such.  Joyce considers the negative reaction of A Christian Letter (1599) to be strong proof against Kirby’s theory that Hooker’s overall purpose was irenic, and committed to Reformed fundamentals, for it is “a telling indication of how Hooker’s remarks were received and interpreted by his principal target audience.”  However, anyone familiar with the world of theological controversy ought to know well enough that a that one should never interpret a theological work based on how it is received by its target audience.  Perhaps this suggests that Hooker’s hope of “resolving the conscience” was naïve, but it hardly proves that he never had any such intention.

Kirby’s, of course, is not the final word, and there is much that needs nuancing in his reading of Hooker and Hooker’s relation to the various strands of the Reformed tradition.  But rather than advancing the conversation, Joyce’s a-theological, a-historical “rhetorical criticism” of Hooker leaves us with a text that can be re-shaped according to the interpreter’s whim.  We can only be thankful, then, that for all the drama with which she presents it, the argument and methodology of chapter three ends up playing a relatively minor role in most of the rest of her book, which I will be reviewing further over the next couple weeks.