Freedom From Oneself: Christian Liberty in the Lutheran Reformation

For the past week, I’ve been so engrossed in trying to write an epic narrative of the rise and fall of the doctrine of of adiaphora–“things indifferent”–in the Reformation, that I’ve had no time for blogging, alas.  I haven’t even had time to distill some of the salient bits properly to post here.  So instead, I will just offer you a raw, uncut, uncensored, unedited excerpt from my rough draft.  This is the bit on Luther, who always makes for an exciting read.  


The three standard components of the doctrine of Christian liberty, stated later most lucidly by Calvin, are as follows:

  1. “that the consciences of believers, in seeking assurance of their justification before God, should rise above and advance beyond the law, forgetting all law righteousness.” (III.19.2)
  2. “that consciences observe the law, not as if constrained by the necessity of the law, but that freed from the law’s yoke they willingly obey God’s will.” (III.19.4; also particularly well-put by Melanchthon: “freedom does not consist in this, that we do not observe the law, but that we will and desire spontaneously and from the heart what the law demands.”)
  3. “regarding outward things that are of themselves ‘indifferent,’ we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently.” (III.19.7)

It is critical that we understand the doctrine of adiaphora in this context if we are to understand its inner logic and guard against the misunderstandings that quickly took hold among both opponents and supporters of the Lutheran Reformation and were to plague all the reformations of the sixteenth century. 

Roughly put, we might want to say that the first part of Christian liberty consists in internal freedom, the second part consists in internal freedom in external obedience (voluntary obedience to the moral law of outward conduct), while the third part consists in external freedom.  But this would be a critical mistake (one made by many of Luther’s followers), failing to recognize the way in which all three parts of the doctrine are shot through by Luther’s “free lord of all/dutiful servant of all” dialectic, beautifully and masterfully articulated in his classic The Freedom of a Christian Man

“For man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body, in order to work on its account, but also for all men on earth; nay, he lives only for others, and not for himself. For it is to this end that he brings his own body into subjection, that he may be able to serve others more sincerely and more freely….Yet a Christian has need of none of these things for justification and salvation, but in all his works he ought to entertain this view and look only to this object–that he may serve and be useful to others in all that he does; having nothing before his eyes but the necessities and the advantage of his neighbour….Here is the truly Christian life, here is faith really working by love, when a man applies himself with joy and love to the works of that freest servitude in which he serves others voluntarily and for nought, himself abundantly satisfied in the fulness and riches of his own faith.”  

The freedom of a Christian man is not so much a freedom for oneself, but a freedom from oneself, a liberation from the preoccupation with one’s own salvation and merit, from fear that one is not toeing the line and meeting the standards; instead, he can actually focus on serving his neighbor.  “No longer does he need to use his neighbor as party to some moralistic scheme of proving himself worthy,” explains Bernard Verkamp.  “Now instead, his love of neighbor can be genuinely altruistic.” (57)  Thus confident of his standing before God and animated by love of neighbor, the Christian can let this law of love take the place, to a certain extent, of all other laws–divinely-revealed laws in Scripture will serve merely as rules of thumb about what love will require in particular circumstances, while human laws can only serve as rules of thumb about what love might require in particular circumstances.  Such laws still have their place (both sorts), but it is a place subordinated to the agenda of the law of love.  While the principles of the divine law serve as divinely authorized sign-posts as to the form that love should take, and hence must be carefully, though freely, heeded, in the adiaphora, we are called to a creative response to circumstances, which takes into account, but is not slavishly bound to, existing laws.

Luther cites the example of St. Paul circumcising Timothy, so as not to offend the weak, while later refusing to circumcise Titus, so as not to give in to Judaizers.

Since Christian freedom is an inner freedom that expresses itself in outward servitude, it is not nullified by external bondage, as Luther is careful to explain. 

“Any man possessing this knowledge may easily keep clear of danger among those innumerable commands and precepts of the Pope, of bishops, of monasteries, of churches, of princes, and of magistrates, which some foolish pastors urge on us as being necessary for justification and salvation, calling them precepts of the Church, when they are not so at all. For the Christian freeman will speak thus: I will fast, I will pray, I will do this or that which is commanded me by men, not as having any need of these things for justification or salvation, but that I may thus comply with the will of the Pope, of the bishop, of such a community or such a magistrate, or of my neighbour as an example to him.” 

Calvin puts it even more sharply, asserting that if someone is obliged to abstain from meat for their entire life out of regard for their neighbor’s weakness, they are not on that account any less free. (III.19.10)

An interesting corollary of this (which will become quite important as our narrative goes on) is that the one who insists on an outward expression of liberty thereby reduces the doctrine back to a new legalism.  As Verkamp says, “Those who, like Karlstadt, would insist that certain human traditions must be abolished and rashly proceed to do so, err no less, Luther said, than the papists.  Theirs is simply a new type of tyranny.  The papists destroy freedom by commanding, constraining, and compelling Christians to do things which God has not commanded or required; Karlstadt and his kind do so by forbidding, preventing, and hindering the Christian from doing that which is neither prohibited nor forbidden by God.”  The very indifferency of the adiaphora meant that to assert one’s external liberty in them would be to attribute to them more significance than they actually possessed, to make one’s faith dependent again on externals.  Stephen Gardiner lodged this very charge against the Reformers in his Contemptum humanae legis (1541): “Tell me I pray you how these things agree in constancy and continuity of doctrine: we are by only faith justified and made acceptable to God, according to your doctrine, and yet a large part of our controversy bears upon food and wives.  If those things do not pertain to justification, why do you who are reclaimed from the elements of the world contend about them, as if without them no happiness could find place in a Christian man?”

As the example of Karlstadt, however, and the charge of Gardiner suggest, this dialectic would prove difficult to maintain in practice.   When Karlstadt and many of the radical Reformers sought to put Luther’s assertion of Christian liberty into visible practice, ripping away all of the un-Scriptural trappings that seemed to shackle the Church, it is not hard to see where they got the idea.  It was easy to miss Luther’s own qualifications of the doctrine amidst the forceful rhetoric of liberty and sola Scriptura, and in any case, Luther himself provided precedent of this self-assertive kind of Christian liberty, insisting in On the Freedom of a Christian Man that toward “wolves” who urge ceremonies upon as as necessary, “we must resist, do just the contrary to what they do, and be bold to give them offence, lest by this impious notion of theirs they should deceive many along with themselves. Before the eyes of these men it is expedient to eat flesh, to break fasts, and to do in behalf of the liberty of faith things which they hold to be the greatest sins.”  He himself was soon to provide a particularly shocking example of this behaviour in his marriage to Katerina von Bora.  

Of course, in this same passage, Luther went on to advise precisely the opposite course of action before the weak in faith who needed to be initiated slowly into Gospel liberty, but this was precisely the problem with the doctrine–there were no fixed rules!  The whole point, after all, was to be ready to respond as love demanded in concrete circumstances.  Although he might issue some general guidelines, Luther could not establish a priori which response in the adiaphora would be right or wrong; might even Karlstadt’s actions have been more or less the right ones under slightly different circumstances?  It would be easy to attack Karlstadt and other radical reformers as unprincipled, self-serving libertines, who perverted the doctrine of Christian liberty for their own pleasure, failing to understand that it was not a freedom for oneself but a freedom from oneself, and the magisterial reformers were certainly quick to launch these sorts of attacks.  No doubt this was often enough true, and many Protestants quickly twisted liberty into license.  But this need not be the explanation for every form of radicalism, as becomes clear by the time you get to characters like the Puritans, who, whatever Anglican polemicists might try and say, hardly look like libertines.  

An externalization of Christian liberty that forcefully rejected unbiblical ceremonies could very well be motivated by a desire to love and edify the neighbor.  If one was convinced that the ceremonies were being Pharisaically demanded in a way that hinder the proclamation of evangelical liberty, or were weighed down with superstitions that would turn Christians away into various forms of idolatry and works-righteousness, then one must refuse and reject such ceremonies.  All the magisterial reformers themselves said so.  But they also said that if rejecting the ceremonies would cause the weak to stumble, or if the ceremonies were edifying, not harmful, they should be retained.  Such a dialectic, difficult enough to apply accurately in the best of circumstances, was certain to only become more difficult as Protestant churches increased in size, and whole princedoms and finally kingdoms became Protestant.  For surely, if not in an individual congregation, certainly in a whole region there would be both “Pharisees” and “the weak”–some who needed to be showed the needlessless of the ceremonies, and some for whom the ceremonies were still needful; some whom the ceremonies led astray into superstition, and some whom the ceremonies legitimately edified.  Disagreements over proper practice in the adiaphora were sure to proliferate as the infant Reformation grew and spread.  

(stay tuned for more, hopefully)

Calvin, Christian Liberty, and the Regulative Principle

Let’s recap briefly the previous post in this new series: David VanDrunen argues that the doctrine of Christian liberty undergirds Calvin’s (and the Reformed tradition’s) two-kingdoms doctrine–the doctrine ensures that in the spiritual kingdom (which he takes to mean the visible Church) the Christian cannot be bound by any human laws, by anything besides Scripture alone; whereas in the civil kingdom (which he takes to mean the realm of society and politics) the Christian can be bound by laws other than Scripture.  Free in the Church, not in the State.  However, for VanDrunen, this actually comes to mean the opposite: bound in the Church, free in the State.  For the reason we cannot be bound by human laws in the Church is the regulative principle–that Scripture has already given us full and perfect guidance for worship and church order, so that we are bound to follow its rules, and no others.  Scripture, however, leaves plenty of flexibility in the civil kingdom, and so we are free here to make other laws and follow different standards, so long as we do not contradict Scripture.  

 But does Calvin teach such a regulative principle?  And if not, does he mean by Christian liberty, and by the “two kingdoms” the same thing that VanDrunen does?  A careful read of the very chapters that VanDrunen points us to yields a clear answer: “No.”  However, VanDrunen is not an idiot.  There is plenty here in the Institutes, and elsewhere in Calvin, that sounds a lot like the Puritan regulative principle.  Let’s consider this evidence first–Book IV, chapter 10 is the place to look.


In section 6, Calvin says of bishops and church leaders,

“Yet I deny that they have been appointed lawgivers over believers as to be able by themselves to prescribe a rule of life, or to force their ordinances upon the people committed to them.  When I say this, I mean that they have no right to command the church to observe as obligatory what they have themselves conceived apart from God’s Word.”

In section 7, he says,

“In his law the Lord has included everything applicable to the perfect rule of the good life, so that nothing is left to men to add to that summary….We hear that God claims this one prerogative as his very own–to rule us by the authority and laws of his word….No man can take this to himself.  We ought, therefore, to acknowledge God as sole ruler of souls, with whom alone is the power to save and to destroy….If we duly weight this, that it is unlawful to transfer to man what God reserves for himself, we shall understand that the whole power of those who wish to advance themselves to command anything in the church apart from God’s Word is thus cut off.” (IV.10.7) 

There you have it–human authority cannot institute or command in the church anything that is not laid down already in God’s Word, because we have a “perfect rule” there, to which nothing must be added.  This is particularly the case for worship, as Paul argues 

“in the letter to the Colossians that we are not to seek from men the doctrine of the true worship of God, for the Lord has faithfully and fully instructed us how he is to be worshiped…at the end of the [2nd] chapter he condemns with greater confidence all self-made religion, that is, all feigned worship, which men have devised for themselves or received from others, and all precepts they of themselves dare promulgate concerning the worship of God.  We therefore consider impious all constitutions in whose observance the worship of God is feigned to consist.” (IV.10.8)

He cites proof of this principle from the Old Testament, and asks, 

“Why, then, should we not consider ourselves much more strictly forbidden to add anything to the law, prophets, psalms, and gospel?  The Lord, who long ago declared that nothing so much offended him as being worshipped by humanly devised rites, has not become untrue to himself.” (IV.10.17)

Finally, by section 23, the rhetoric has become quite sweeping indeed:

“[The Lord’s kingdom] is taken away whenever he is worshiped by laws of human devising, inasmuch as he wills to be accounted the sole lawgiver of his own worship….From this we gather that a part of the reverence that is paid to him consists simply in worshiping him as he commands, mingling no inventions of our own….I say further: although in some contrived worship impiety does not openly appear, it is still severely condemned by the Spirit, since it is a departure from God’s precept….We see how the Spirit loathes this insolence because the inventions of men in the worship of God are impure corruptions.  And the more clearly God’s will is revealed to us, the less excusable is our wantonness in attempting anything.” 

Well, there you have it, that’s the regulative principle.  No inventions of our own, worship God simply as he himself commands; to do anything else is sinful insolence; even if there is nothing sinful about the particular action of worship, it is sinful because it has not been commanded.  To be sure, it would be difficult to deny that the latter statements in particular (those in sections 17 and 23) amount almost to a full-blown statement of the regulative principle (though even here, Calvin is far from going to the Thornwellian extreme, which makes the principle to apply not merely in worship but in matters of order and procedure like denominational mission boards).  In the wider context of Calvin’s doctrine in IV.10, however, these statements appear as rhetorical exaggerations, which indeed is unsurprising, as Calvin is in this part of the chapter engaging in a polemic against the Roman Catholic innovations in worship, a context in which he is often prone to forget himself and get a bit carried away.  Indeed, rightly understood, even these stronger statements might harmonize with his overall teaching.  


And what is that teaching?  Well, Calvin is well aware that there will need to be rules laid down in the church for ceremonies (that is, forms of worship) and order, on human rather than Scriptural authority.  Like Hooker, Calvin recognizes that Scripture simply doesn’t speak comprehensively to many questions of worship and polity that might arise, and even when it does speak to them, its guidance may be relative to time and place.  This is spelled out most clearly in sections 27-32 of chapter 10, which I hope to get to in due course (though I have already touched on this in a recent post).  So Calvin does not believe, with VanDrunen, that Scripture can be the only guide in the visible Church.  But how does this fit with the quotes we’ve just seen?  A closer look at some of them, and at others from their context, will help illuminate what Calvin’s up to.


When we look at the first quote above, we must ask what is meant by “obligatory,” by saying that nothing can be made “obligatory” in the Church contrary to God’s word.  In fact, in section 8, Calvin tells us precisely how “to distinguish what human constittutions are contrary to the Lord’s Word.  All of these are of the sort that pretend to relate to the true worship of God, and that consciences are bound to keep, as if their observance were compulsory.”  

He says something similar in section 16:  

“But suppose, apart from present circumstances, you simply want to understand what are those human traditions of all times that shold be repudiated by the church and by all godly men.  What we have set forth above will be a sure and clear definition: that they are all laws apart from God’s Word, laws made by men, either to prescribe the manner of worshiping God or to bind consciences by scruples, as if they were making rules about things necessary for salvation.”

Ok, so we have the element of conscience-binding.  This is absolutely crucial for Calvin, was we shall see.  Presumably, then, constitutions which do not claim to bind the conscience (e.g., we kneel while praying) are permitted.  (We will look shortly at what precisely “conscience” means for Calvin.)  But he also gives another criterion–constitutions cannot be made that “pretend to relate to the true worship of God.”  Now what does this mean?  Kneeling while praying is part of worshipping God, right?  So can we not make rules about it

Another passsage quoted above may shed some light: “We therefore consider impious all constitutions in whose observance the worship of God is feigned to consist.”  This last clause gives us a clue as to what’s going on here.  The problem is not rules about anything whatsoever relating to outward worship, but rules that purport to specify wherein consists the essence of worship–understood not in its horizontal dimension (the corporate actions of the congregation) but in its vertical dimension (that which is pleasing to God, that which establishes and maintains our salvific relationship to him).  It’s not that you can’t make rules saying, “we will all kneel to pray” but you can’t make rules saying, “unless you kneel, it’s not prayer,” you can’t make rules defining, from a God’s-eye perspective, what worship is and isn’t.  Understood this way, the criterion about worship serves simply as a specification and elaboration of the overriding criterion about not “binding the conscience” and not making things “necessary to salvation”–only God’s word can bind the conscience and only God’s word can tell us what’s necessary for salvation, so only God’s word can tell us wherein consists the essence of true worship.  The terminology is misleading at times, to be sure, but this reading fits the structure of Calvin’s discussion in the Institutes, in which the overriding concern is “binding the conscience”; read otherwise, the insistence that worship must follow Scripture alone, in some regulative principle fashion, would sit quite awkwardly with Calvin’s insistence on flexibility in all matters not necessary to salvation–unless, of course, you made every aspect of worship necessary to salvation.  

Finally, this way of reading Calvin’s remarks on worship is confirmed by its context in an attack on papal traditions, traditions of which “the authors themselves define, in clear terms, that the veriest worship of God is, so to speak, contained in these very constitutions” (IV.10.9).  The problem is that they lead “one man to despise, judge, and cast out another because of what are trivial and (in God’s sight) indifferent matters” (IV.10.10).  Note the difference here from the likes of VanDrunen and Thornwell.  For them, the traditions of Catholic worship that Calvin here discusses are not indifferent–because they are not commanded in Scripture, they are wrong.  But for Calvin, in principle, they are indifferent (well, many of them at any rate; others, idolatrous ones, are flat forbidden by Scripture), and the problem is that the Catholics have made them essential, have feigned that in them the true worship of God consists.  Again, it cannot be doubted that in parts of chapter 10, Calvin’s rhetoric against these veers toward the sort of regulativism we see in later Puritanism, but it seems clear that this rhetoric does not square with his overall doctrine of Christian liberty.


To get a clearer idea of what this overall doctrine is, let’s look more carefully at his definition of conscience, since Christian liberty consists above all in the inability of conscience to be bound by human constitutions.  Calvin recognizes that confusions at this point are certain to crop up (as they certainly did for those who claimed to follow him) if we “do not sharply enough distinguish the outer forum, as it is called, and the forum of the conscience.”  So he defines conscience for us: “it is a certain mean between God and man…[an] awareness which hales man before God’s judgment” (III.19.15).  

“Therefore, as works have regard to men, so conscience refers to God.  A good conscience, then, is nothing but inward integrity of heart….properly speaking, as I have already said, it has respect to God alone….Hence it comes about that a law is said to bind the conscience when it simply binds a man without regard to other men, or without taking them into account”–that is, laws that would be morally binding even if no other man lived on earth (III.19.16).  

Conscience then refers strictly to the relationship between the individual soul and God; not to the relationship between the individual and other human beings.  Not, of course, that the two aren’t connected in important ways (which brings up all sorts of fascinating new layers to this doctrine), but they are distinct.  Christian liberty means in indifferent things–things not necessary to salvation–that human laws must only bind in the “outward forum,” in terms of the relationships between man and God.  They cannot presume to intrude on the relationship between man and God, and give or take away our standing in the sight of God.  

What this means is that we can, in fact, be outwardly bound in indifferent things, without our inward freedom being thereby compromised.  For instance, by the need not to offend a brother: “For we ought to abstain from anything that might cause offense, but with a free conscience….But however necessary it may be with respect to his brother for him to abstain from it, as God enjoins, he still does not cease to keep freedom of conscience.  We see how this law, while binding outward actions, leaves the conscience free” (III.19.16).  Later he says, “human laws, whether made by magistrate or by church, even though they have to be observed (I speak of good and just laws), still do not of themselves bind the conscience” (IV.10.5).  

Christian liberty does not, therefore, mean that individuals are set completely free vis-a-vis the visible Church, or vis-a-vis civil authority.  Inasmuch as rules made by these bodies pertain to the outward forum, Christians will be bound to obey; and when we are talking about indifferent things, there will be no reason why these bodies cannot make rules one way or another.  What Christian liberty means is that individuals are set free in the realm of conscience, from fearing that their actions in things indifferent necessarily affect their relationship to God.  


This, then, is the proper two-kingdoms distinction that Calvin derives from his doctrine of Christian liberty, a distinction that bears almost no resemblance to that which VanDrunen attributes to him.  He has just said, in III.19.14, that in indifferent things, “we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them”; otherwise, conscience is threatened by superstition.  Therefore “we conclude that they [believers’ consciences] are to be released from the power of all men.”  But he immediately recognizes that some will understand this to mean that “all human obedience were at the same time removed and cast down.”  Far from it.  For, in Calvin’s famous statement, “There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority….Through this distinction it comes about that we are not to misapply to the political order the gospel teaching on spiritual freedom, as if Christians were less subject, as concerns outward government, to human laws, because their consciences have been set free in God’s sight; as if they were released from all bodily servitude because they are free according to the spirit” (III.19.15).  By “political order” it is clear that we are not to understand merely “civil government,” “the State” or anything of that sort, but a synonym of “outward government” and “human laws”–in short, what Calvin then goes on to call the “external forum” as contrasted to the “internal forum” of conscience–the domain of the spiritual kingdom.  

The nature of this distinction thus means that what we have are not two different spatial spheres of action, so that some actions belong to the civil kingdom (e.g., paying your taxes, executing murderers) and some to the spiritual kingdom (going to church, caring for the poor), but two different modes of action, or we might say two different planes or dimensions, so that an action is simultaneously in the spiritual kingdom, inasmuch as we do it before God, and in the civil kingdom, inasmuch as we do it before man.  This is why our Christian freedom can express itself even in a complete outward bondage–we are no less free, Calvin says, if we abstain from meat for our entire lives because of the weakness of our brother–”Indeed, because they are free, they abstain with a free conscience” (III.19.10)  In this, Calvin is following some of Luther’s finest passages in On the Freedom of a Christian Man.  


Because, however, these two kingdoms exist side-by-side, simultaneously, the freedom of the conscience and the bondage of inward action unavoidably “interpenetrate,” we might say, at key points.  My conscience (the internal forum) does demand that I treat my brother in a certain way in the external forum; my response to laws made in the external forum, inasmuch as God has given me commands to be subject to such laws, do affect the internal forum.  I hope in a further post to explore the rich complexities of this relationship which leave Calvin’s paradigm in a state of creative tension–a tension which unfortunately proved quite difficult to sustain for his followers.  (I say, “I hope,” however, because the demands of putting out a roughly-finished product of this chapter for my supervisor might have to take precedence over the leisurely business of piecing it together bit-by-bit here, as I did for “Hooker’s Doctrine of Law.”) 

The Church’s Gag Order (Christian Liberty in the Reformation, Pt. 1)

At several points in his Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, David VanDrunen states that the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty was foundational to the Reformed understanding of natural law and the two kingdoms, and hence to his own two-kingdoms project.  But has he rightly characterized that foundational doctrine?  Whose liberty, after all, are we talking about? 

One person’s liberty is always asserted over against another person or entity, conditioning their liberty in some way.  That I have a liberty not to be assaulted means that you do not have the liberty to assault me.  So whose liberty are we talking about when we talk about Christian liberty?  Is this liberty corporate or is it individual?  It makes rather a difference, you see, since if it’s the former, then it is the liberty of the Church body over against its individual members, but if it’s the latter, then its the liberty of the individuals over against the Church body, which has quite the opposite effect.  Which is the true Protestant doctrine? 

The dilemma is neatly illustrated by an example that VanDrunen himself examines–a rather bizarre debate in 1860 that could only have happened between two Presbyterians, and two particularly prickly ones at that: Charles Hodge and James H. Thornwell.  The question was: “Is it legitimate for the denomination to create a mission board?”  (Not, mind you, “Is it a good idea?” but “Is it even allowed?”)  Charles Hodge argued a resounding “Yes,” appealing to the doctrine of Christian liberty.  As VanDrunen tells it, “He claimed that Thornwell’s idea ‘ties down’ the government and action of the church to what is prescribed in the New Testament and, toward the end of his article, he writes: ‘There is as much difference between this extreme doctrine of divine right, this idea that everything is forbidden which is not commanded, as there is between this free, exultant Church of ours, and the mummified forms of mediaeval Christianity’” (NLTK 258).  In other words, if the Church is not free to do things neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture, then we are back to a new legalism as bad as that of the Papacy.

VanDrunen immediately lets us know what he thinks about this:

“The Reformed doctrine of Christian liberty was never about the church being freed to to things (such as create boards to which it could delegate the work of missions) about which Scripture was silent.  Instead, with direct reference to the two kingdoms doctrine, Reformed theologians and confessions spoke of Christian liberty in regard to the justified individual, who was freed in the civil kingdom from any obligation to do things contrary to the teaching of Scripture and in the spiritual kingdom from any obligation to do things beside the teaching of Scripture….Thus, when Hodge taught, as the Presbyterian’s doctrine of Christian liberty, that the church is permitted to do what is not forbidden in Scripture, he was in fact transferring the traditional Reformed standard for the civil kingdom to the spiritual kingdom and thus giving the church precisely the power (speaking and acting beyond the teaching of Scripture) that the Reformed tradition had tried to take from it” (NLTK 258-59).

This, he said, was Thornwell’s contention, who responded with, we are told “an incisive, biting, and at times humorous response” which “lamented on the one hand the lack of candor and honor in his [Hodge’s] article and, on the other hand, his ineptness in regard to ecclesiology.”  Hodge, he said, had it backward–his “principle that the church is permitted to do all that Scripture does not forbid it to do was not the Reformed principle of Christian liberty over against Rome but the principle of Rome which the Reformed doctrine of Christian liberty sought to overthrow” (NLTK 259).  In short, “Thornwell sought to limit the government and action of the church to the prescriptions of the Bible only, and did so with reference to historic Reformed convictions about the church’s ministerial authority and about Christian liberty” (260).

VanDrunen is in no doubt what the proper Protestant doctrine is–Christian liberty means the individual believer is freed from having to do anything not directly commanded in Scripture, and therefore the Church is bound not to authorize anything that is not directly commanded in Scripture.  (There is already a tension, mind you–one could understand how this construal of Christian liberty would mean that the Church could not require individual believers to serve on church boards, etc.; but it is a bit harder to see why it would mean that the Church could not authorize them in any way as an option for its members.  But more on this anon.)  Believer free, Church bound.  This dialectic is even further intensified in Thornwell’s doctrine of the spirituality of the Church, which is much more relevant to VanDrunen’s own project: the liberty of the individual Christian means that he is free from having to receive any guidance from the Church on anything not directly contained in Scripture (e.g., political issues like, say, slavery)–the Church is bound not to speak on any such matters.  

Now, Hodge’s concern seems justified here–surely this is not freedom but legalism!  Surely this cannot be the traditional Protestant doctrine.  But earlier in the book, VanDrunen has already shown that it is, hasn’t he?  Let’s follow the trail backwards.  He sprinkles the appeal to Christian liberty throughout his narrative, but a significant focus of the discussion comes near the end of chapter 5.  


Thornwell’s legalism may be understood as an application of the “regulative principle of worship” (or RPW), which, says VanDrunen, “states that the public worship of the church may consist only of those elements that the New Testament itself teaches are proper elements of worship” (191).  This comes from the doctrine of Christian liberty: “Because the church has no power to impose anything beyond the teaching of Scripture upon the consciences of believers, it has no power to demand that believers worship God in any other way than what Scripture ordains” (191-2).  This is again all wrapped up in the two kingdoms doctrine:

“In the spiritual kingdom of the church, ecclesiastical authorities, dealing only with spiritual things, have no power to bind consciences beyond the declaration of what Scripture itself teaches (a ‘ministerial’ authority) and believers have no conscientious obligation to believe or do anything that the church says otherwise.  Believers are free from anything ‘beside’ the word of God.  In the civil kingdom and with respect to civil matters, however, believers are free only from commands ‘contrary’ to Scripture, meaning that they are conscientiously bound to do all things that the magistrate commands (however disagreeable) so long as they do not contradict some biblical teaching” (191). 

In fact, this is all in Calvin, VanDrunen tells us on the previous page: “in Institutes 3.19, alongside 4.11 and 4.20, Calvin lays down the principle that while ecclesiastical authorities cannot bind the conscience of believers in anything beyond what Scripture teaches, civil authorities do in fact bind consciences when they command anything that is not contrary to biblical teaching” (190). 

Well, by Jove, there you have it.  Calvin said it, in the Institutes no less, so it must be the proper Christian doctrine.  Following the narrative back further, we come to chapter 3, where Calvin is dealt with in great detail.  So let’s look at this closely.

For Calvin, christian liberty consists in 1) “having one’s conscience assured of justification and no longer seeking justification by the law,” 2) “being obedient to the law voluntarily rather than under legal compulsion,” and 3) “being freed from obligation to do or not to do external things that are in themselves morally indifferent” (NLTK 73).

However, this last point is immediately qualified by the two kingdoms doctrine–since “Christian liberty is in all its parts a spiritual matter,” this freedom from obligation to things indifferent does not apply in the civil sphere: “By attending to this distinction, we will not erroneously transfer the doctrine of the gospel concerning spiritual liberty to civil order, as if in regard to external government Christians were less subject to human laws, because their consciences are unbound before God…” (Inst. 3.19.15).

The redemptive doctrine of Christian liberty, VanDrunen explains,“applies to life in the spiritual kingdom but not to life in the civil kingdom.  No human authority can bind the believer’s conscience in regard to participation in the spiritual kingdom of Christ.  Over against Roman Catholic claims, Calvin teaches that Scripture is the only authority in this realm.  Hence, as he explains in Institutes 4.10-11, the church can minister the word of God alone and never its own opinions, and it can prescribe for worship only those things that Scripture provides….In other words, the officers of the church have authority to do and command only those things prescribed in Scripture, and Christians in the spiritual kingdom are thus free in conscience from anything beyond this”; on the other hand, “civil magistrates have a broader discretion to promote justice and order in the civil kingdom, and Christians are bound to obey them except if their commands contradict their biblical obligations” (NLTK 74).

Was this, then, the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty–the believer’s freedom from any command outside Scripture in the visible Church, and the Church’s corresponding gag order not to say, do, or command anything besides what is specifically laid down in Scripture?  I have already argued in a recent post that such a notion of sola Scriptura is simply impossible and incoherent–no church could function if it took VanDrunen’s rhetoric seriously.  So was Protestantism really so incoherent at such a key point?


I would suggest that the answer is a resolute “No,” and that VanDrunen has in fact distorted the teaching of the magisterial Reformers almost beyond recognition at this point.  He has done so by equivocating at the exact point where Calvin is so careful to be absolutely precise–the notion of “conscience.”  VanDrunen slides carelessly from saying “the Church cannot bind the conscience beyond Scripture” to “the Church cannot command anything beyond Scripture” to “the Church cannot do anything beyond Scripture.”  Not only are the last two quite different statements (as I already pointed out parenthetically above with regard to church boards), but for Calvin, the first two are quite different statements.  Indeed, because of this, VanDrunen has in fact gotten Calvin wrong on the other side of the duality as well–magistrates cannot bind the conscience in the civil kingdom, for Calvin, because in fact there is no one but God himself who can bind the conscience. 

In a series of posts over the coming weeks, preparatory to a chapter draft for my Ph.D., I will be exploring this question in Calvin, but also in several of his contemporaries, in the Puritans who claimed to follow him, and of course in Hooker.  VanDrunen’s construal is not, I will argue, completely alien to the Reformation–it was certainly there, and popped up from time to time in incendiary outbursts, but it was always resisted by the magisterial Reformers–Luther, Melanchthon, Bullinger, Bucer, Vermigli, Calvin.  Hooker, I hope to argue, helped resolve some of the tensions thus raised that his predecessors had not quite been able to deal with satisfactorily.  


(For some of my initial critiques of VanDrunen on some the chapters quoted above when I read them last year, see here and here–take all with a grain of salt, however.)

(For an initial sketch of my Ph.D thesis, or what I aspire to be my thesis, covering a lot of the ground discussed above, see here.)

(For an excellent review of VanDrunen that exposes the category confusion that lies at the heart of this problem, see this article by Steven Wedgworth.)

Sola Scriptura as Rhetorical Posturing

At the end of his long argument against the Puritan doctrine of the regulative principle in Book III of the LEP, Richard Hooker makes a fascinating move.  Having mounted a deft and devastating critique of their assumptions about Scripture, reason, law, ecclesiology, etc., Hooker turns around and says that actually, he agrees with them, and they with him.  This is all just one great big misunderstanding, it seems.  Well, no, not quite; but Hooker does suggest that when it really comes down to it, most of the Puritan dissent was nothing but rhetorical posturing.  And it strikes me that Hooker is really onto something here, something relevant not merely for his own dispute, but for so many that we are familiar with today in theology and politics.

The Puritans, you see, had set themselves up as the defenders of sola Scriptura, against the “wicked inventions of men.”  They claimed that nothing should be done in the Church except according to the direction of Scripture, while their opponents were happy to bring in laws and ceremonies on merely human authority.  Big difference, right?  Well, it wasn’t quite that simple.  The conformists, as a matter of fact, were quite insistent on Scriptural authority in all areas of church practice as well, but they argued that, as Scripture did not give direct guidance on most particulars, and as the guidance that is given in Scripture is mostly only by way of examples, it was necessary to use discretion, reason, and tradition in applying them.  The Puritans, Hooker was convinced, ultimately believed the same thing!  Or rather, inasmuch as they were able to achieve anything like a consistent practice, they believed the same thing; for, if they really believed that Scripture alone and entirely provided all the answers and applications, it would be impossible for them to put in place any kind of complete liturgy and polity.  Instead, they had to grant that “in matter of circumstance they alter that which they have received, but in things of substance they keepe the lawes of Christ without chaunge”–and, said Hooker, this is precisely what the conformists believed.

The difference, then, was not on the level of general principle–Scripture alone vs. Scripture and reason–but on the level of particulars and the level of consistency.  The Puritans and the conformists disagreed a great deal over which particular bits of guidance in Scripture were changeable circumstances and which were of perpetual substance, and over what the best way was to apply the permanent principles in their own circumstances.  They also differed in that the conformists were able to consistently follow through on their stated principles, whereas the Puritans were destabilized by the felt need to be faithful to a rhetorical ideal that was completely impracticable.  This disconnect between rhetoric and reality did not merely make it difficult for them to achieve consistency and stability in their own practice, but even more seriously, made it impossible for them to have a civil and rational discussion with their opponents over differences.  If differences were merely over particular applications of generally shared overarching commitments, then a rational adjudication or a charitable bearing with one another ought to have been possible.  But once differences were elevated to the level of fundamental presuppositions–of faith vs. infidelity, God’s authority vs. man’s, Protestantism or popery–discussion and mutual edification prove almost impossible.  

No doubt this disconnect partially explains why Puritanism in all its forms (I use the term now in its broadest possible sense) has proven so uniquely fissiparous, splintering and schisming for the last four centuries.  Having often committed itself rhetorically to a standard of sola Scriptura that it simply could not follow through on, it was always dogged by discontents who thought it was compromising too much; and given the polarizing tendency of the rhetoric, small disputes over church order could readily be elevated to questions of basic orthodoxy, making reconciliation impossible. 


This same tendency, it seems to me, has come to epitomize so much of American Reformed and evangelical church life today.  For at least a couple centuries now our churches have been characterized by an endless contest of one-upsmanship, in which everyone struggles to prove that they take sola Scriptura with utmost seriousness, more seriously than anyone around them.  Something about our national psyche, it seems, has made us almost universally susceptible to this fundamentalist malaise–”Scripture alone, Scripture alone!” we cry, “Down with all merely human authority, with the vain inventions of ungodly reason.”  In the 19th century this battle-cry was unleashed against existing denominations and church authorities in favor of the individual Christian’s supposedly pure interpretation of Scripture.  In the 20th century, it has more often taken the form of a stalwart refusal to have anything to do with “secular academia”–whether that be historical or scientific scholarship–or “secular politics.”  (Don’t get me wrong, of course–in many particular battles, the sola Scriptura rally-cry has been deployed on the side of truth, and important truth, but the ethos conjured up has often been dangerous and destructive.)  

For the Reformed, this impulse has often taken the form of Scriptural absolutist movements like theonomy or presuppositionalism, movements which, like their 16th-century antecedents, find themselves uncomfortably perched between a rhetorical commitment that they can’t really follow through on, and a more sober articulation that they must follow in practice but which unfortunately puts them on the same general ground as their imagined opponents.

In each of these cases, the problem of course is not that sola Scriptura is not a valid principle, but that Scripture is not, alas, self-interpreting.  Scripture is never alone–it is always mediated through people, places, and times, mediated to particular circumstances on which other principles must necessarily be brought to bear.  The rhetorical commitment  to an extreme construal of sola Scriptura leads either to a frighteningly un-Scriptural radicalism on the part of those who try to follow through on the rhetoric, or an uncomfortable schizophrenia for those who try to bridge the rhetoric with the reality of their practice.  Worst of all, it proves terribly polarizing.  Opponents are cast as those who don’t take Scripture seriously, or don’t care about it, those who are worldly-minded, rationalist, secularist, liberal–in short, they are idolatrous, because they erect another authority alongside, or above, Scripture.  This makes dialogue and edification impossible, and pride and schism inevitable.  

Something similar, I should add (though briefly, to keep this post from ranging too broadly), seems to infest American political discourse.  Ideologues who dominate public discourse (particularly those whom evangelicals like) are dedicated to propositions like “the government should have nothing to do with the economy” or “private property is an absolute and sacred right” or “that government is best which governs least”–propositions that, I am convinced, hardly any of them can really mean, or consistently act upon, at any rate.  In reality, the question isn’t whether the government shouldn’t be involved with the economy, but merely how much and in what ways it should be involved–complete uninvolvement is by the nature of the case impossible.  The rhetoric functions as a polarizing weapon, one that demonizes the opposition, makes dialogue impossible, and actually drives more and more people toward a radicalism at odds with their existing practice.  


No doubt the Church bears some responsibility for helping to foster this black-and-white, total war mindset.  And if we are to regain sanity in our culture and the ability to talk to one another again, it must begin with repentance in the Church and a renunciation of the self-justifying rhetorical smokescreens that obscure the issues at hand, demonize the opposition, and absolve us of any responsibility for the schisms we thus generate.  

Another reason to love Hooker. 🙂

The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (Hooker’s Doctrine of Law, Pt. 7)

Now I’m finally wrapping up this series, which has helped give me the first chapter of my dissertation–or more likely, the third chapter, but the first one written.  Congratulations to anyone who actually had the perseverance to read it.  Now I’ll try to get back to Christology and to some less meaty matters, including hopefully some more concise attempts to apply some of this Hooker material to concrete questions of our own context.

Hooker has thus far established that all laws in the Church must be made in obedience to God, but this obedience does not preclude the use of reason and natural law–indeed, it requires it.  God, he has shown, is the author of all wisdom and truth, which comes to us through various vehicles, of which Scripture is the most important–in all things relevant, in many things of chief authority, and in some things of exclusive authority.  Even when we rely on Scripture alone in framing laws, reason will play an indispensable role.  

Hooker is now ready to parse out exactly how reason and Scriptural authority play out in the making of laws of ecclesiastical polity; but before summarizing this, it may be helpful to recap briefly some key points made earlier. 

Three types of law are of particular concern to us: the law of reason, divine law, and human law.  We may categorize these three in terms of an overarching twofold distinction: natural laws and positive laws–the former of which are binding always and everywhere by the nature of things, and the second of which are binding by virtue of being promulgated at some point in time–though they may thereafter be permanent.  The law of reason is natural, while divine and human laws are positive.  (Scripture, in this scheme, is not to be understood as synonymous with divine law: it includes both natural laws–laws of reason spelled out more clearly and precisely–and divine laws, either applications of the law of reason or additions to it.)  Human laws are concrete applications of either the law of reason or the divine law, and can be either mixedly human–that is, applications or specifications of duties already made clear in the law of reason or divine law; or merely human–that is, specifications of duties that are not already clear in the law of reason or divine law, but are nonetheless conformable to it and can be probably deduced from it.  


All these distinctions are in the background of III:9-11, but most important here will be Hooker’s elaboration of a notion he has repeatedly touched on earlier: mutability.  Natural laws are immutable, but will take on a great deal change and variability whenever applied to the mutable circumstances of human laws.  Divine laws, although promulgated by God himself, are not therefore necessarily immutable, though they may be.  Hooker’s task now is to show just where and how mutability enters into law.  

Hooker begins III.9 by affirming adamantly that Scripture plays an indispensable role in framing laws of church polity.  But lest we should ask why indeed such laws should need to be framed at all, if we already have Scripture, Hooker reminds us, “yet because both in that which we are commanded, it concerneth the duty of the Church by law to provide, that the loosenes and slacknes of men may not cause the commandements of God to be unexecuted; and a number of things there are for which the scripture hath not provided by any law, but left them unto the carefull discretion of the Church; we are to search how the Church in these cases may be well directed to make that provision by lawes which is most convenient and fit.”  These two needs for laws correspond to his much earlier distinction betweeen mixedly and merely human laws.   

In both cases, “partely scripture and partly reason must teach to discerne,” a claim for which he has laid all the groundwork in previous sections.  Scripture gives us three kinds of direction–examples, laws natural, and laws positive.  Examples “can but direct as precedents onely.  Naturall lawes direct in such sorte, that in all thinges we must for ever doe according unto them; positive so, that against them in no case we may doe any thing, as long as the will of God is that they should remaine in force.  Howbeit when scripture doth yeelde us precedents, how far forth they are to bee followed; when it giveth naturall lawes, what particular order is therunto most agreeable; when positive, which waye to make lawes unrepugnant unto them; yea though all these shoulde want, yet what kind of ordinances woulde be moste for that good of the Church whch is aimed at, al this must be by reason founde out.”  So in each of these three kinds of scriptural direction, and when such direction is lacking altogether, reason plays a necessary role.  The most important distinction made here is between the diverse ways that natural and positive laws bind.  Natural laws being general in their scope, we must take them as fully regulative for our conduct.  But positive laws, being promulgated for particular ends, are such that we may not, depending on the circumstance, be bound to follow them, only to make sure that we do not act contrary to them: “Lawes humane must be made according to the generall lawes of nature, and without contradiction unto any positive law in scripture.  Otherwise they are ill made.”


In chapter 10, he will turn to distinguish precisely the subcategories of scriptural positive law, and when it is mutable.  Laws of church polity, he says, can be changed in three ways: “when either altogether abrogated, or in part repealed, or augmented with farther additions.”  Some positive laws will state just how long they continue in force; many, however, will not.  In the latter case, the only way for us to determine whether they are still in force is “by considering the nature and qualitie of such lawes,” which is to be judged by “by the ende for which it was made, and by the aptnes of thinges therein prescribed to the same end.”

Of course, some laws are such that we do not know the end of them–it has simply not been disclosed to us by the lawmaker, and we are unable to divine it on our own.  As an example, Hooker gives God’s original command to Adam, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Adam simply did not know why God made the law, and Satan took advantage of this ignorance.  We know it must have had a good reason, but not knowing what that reason was, we cannot be sure whether the command had permanet force or would’ve expired when certain conditions changed.  Indeed, theologians have debated precisely this point, some concluding based on a certain construal of the purpose of the law that in time, Adam would’ve received permission to eat of it, others imagining this as a permanent condition.  When the end of the law is unknown, says Hooker, only the lawmaker has power to change the law; otherwise, we must assume it to be perpetually binding.  

But what if we do know the end for which a law was instituted?  Well, if that end is known to be permanent, then so is law, though not absolutely:  “But if the reason why thinges were instituted may be knowne, and being knowne do appeare manyfestly to be of perpetuall necessitie, then are those thinges also perpetuall, unless they cease to be effectuall unto that purpose for which they were at the first instituted.”  The qualification here is a crucial one, so it’s worth paying attention to Hooker’s elaboration: “we cannot be ignorant, howe sometimes that hath done great good, which afterwardes, when time hath chaunged the auncient course of thinges, doth growe to be either very hurtfull, or not so greatly profitable and necessary” (III.10.1).  Hooker will return to this distinction later, but for now he turns to the other main classification, positive laws with temporary ends: “Whether God bee the author of lawes by authorizing that power of men whereby they are made, or by delivering them made immediatly from him selfe, by word onely, or in writing also, or howsoever; notwithstanding the authoritie of their maker, the mutabilitie of that end for which they are made doth also make them chaungeable” (III.10.2).  Examples here include the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, and even New Testament laws such as the decree of the Council of Jerusalem.  These are laws made to serve temporary purposes, which expire when these purposes expire.  Hooker is particularly insistent on this category because his Puritan opponents are arguing that the divine authority of the lawmaker should be sufficient proof that we have no right to change his laws–to do so would be to assert our authority above his.  This argument rests on a fundamental confusion, and an inability to distinguish the different kinds and purposes of laws, says Hooker.  

Those who concede this point, however, insist that any law with a permanent end must be unchangeable: “for us to change that which he hath established, they hold it execrable pride and presumption, if so be the end and purpose for which God by that meane provideth be permanent.  And upon this they ground those ample disputes concerning orders and offices, which being by him appointed for the government of his Church, if it be necessary alwaies that the Church of Christ be governed, then doth the end for which God provided remaine still, and therfore in those meanes which he by lawe did establish as being fittest unto that end, for us to alter any thing is to lift up our selves against God and as it were to countermaund him.”  

This too, however, manifests a crucial misunderstanding:

“they marke not that lawes are instruments to rule by, and that instruments are not only to bee framed according unto the generall ende for which they are provided, but even according unto that very particular, which riseth out of the matter wheron they have to work.  The end wherefore lawes were made may bee permanent, and those lawes neverthelesse require some alteration, if there bee anye unfitnes in the meanes which they prescribe as tending unto that end and purpose” (III.10.3)  

Here is his elaboration of his earlier remark about laws becoming in time no longer “apt” to their purpose.  The end of the law (e.g., “good order in the Church” is completely good, and remains as long as the world lasts), but the matter may change, so that a law formerly good ceases to be so, and must be altered so as to realize the original end in new circumstances.  There is plenty of evidence for this happening in the Old Testament itself, and it is clear that many of the apostolic injunctions to the New Testament church, while their general aim remains constant, may require alteration when the Church finds itself in new settings.  To be sure, it will be hard to reach agreement about precisely which injunctions fall under this heading, but all will ultimately have to grant that some laws do.   “And therefore lawes though both ordeyned of God himselfe, and the end for which they were ordeined continuing, may notwithstanding cease, if by alteration of persons or times they be found unsufficient to attain unto that end.  In which respect why may we not presume that God doth even call for such change or alteration, as the very condition of things them selves doth make necessary?” (III.10.4)

Hooker has thus arrived at three categories–laws in which both the end and the matter remain constant, and thus can never be changed; laws in which the end is temporary, and which thus expire once the end has been accomplished; and laws in which the end is permanent, but the matter changes.  These correspond, he argues, to the conventional threefold division in the Old Testament law: moral, ceremonial, and judicial.  The first of these concerns matters necessary to salvation; the latter two things accessory thereunto.


It then remains merely for Hooker to answer a few objections.  He has already dealt with the argument that the authority of the lawmaker in itself proves Scriptural laws unchangeable; indeed, he has developed this whole schema in response to this objection.  But at the end of chapter 10, he turns to a variation on it: they argue that it is sacrilege to innovate upon the Gopsel, “And the Gospell as they say containeth not onely doctrine instructing men howe they should beleeve, but also preceptes concerning the regiment of the Church.  Discipline therefore is a part of the Gospell: and God being the author of the whole Gospell, as well of discipline as of doctrine, it cannot be but that both of them have a common cause.  So that as we are to beleive for ever the articles of evangelicall doctrine, so the preceptes of discipline we are in like sorte bounde for ever to observe” (III.10.6).  In other words, since matters of faith and of outward discipline were delivered together in the New Testament, they must be equally permanent.  However, the distinctions already drawn dissolve this objection: “There is no reason in the world wherefore we should esteem it as necessarie alwaies to doe, as alwaies to believe the same things; seing every man knoweth that the matter of fiath is constant, the matter contrariwise of action daily changeable, especially the matter of action belonging unto Church politie” (III.10.7).

The last objection occupies Hooker throughout the lengthy chapter 11, and runs as follows: very well, in principle, it may well be that the laws of polity given in Scripture are mutable; however, if the divine lawmaker made a point of making them immutable, then we lose that freedom to modify them.  And since God laid down rules of strict perpetuity in the Mosaic law, how could we imagine that he would leave his Church less well-provided in the New Covenant?  Hooker’s response to this objection, apparently a popular one among the Presbyterians, proceeds by several stages.  He argues first that there is no reason why just because Christ was a more perfect mediator, he had to give an equally permanent polity–it was not in this that his perfection consisted.  Moreover, it is false that the laws of Mosaic polity were so unchangeable as they allege–many fell into what we designated above IIIB2.  Moreover, a look at the New Testament witness makes it quite clear that Christ, as a matter of fact, simply didn’t lay down a system of law like Moses did.  So that Hooker can conclude with the stinging retort: “As for those mervelous discourses wherby they adventure to argue that God must needs have done the thing which they imagine was to be done, I must confesse I have often wondered at their exceeding boldnes herein.  When the question is whether God have delivered in scripture (as they affirme he hath) a complet particular immutable forme of Church-politie, why take they that other both presumptusous and superfluous labour to prove he should have done it, there being no way in this case to prove the deede of God saving only by producing the evidence wherein he hath done it?  But if there be no such thing apparent upon record, they do as if one should demaund a legacie by force and vertue of some written tesatment, wherein there being no such thing specifyed, he pleadeth that ther it must needs be, and bringeth arguments from the love or goodwill which alwayes the testatour bore him, imagining that these or the like profes will convict a testament to have that in which other men can no where by reading find.”


Hooker concludes Book III by arguing that as a matter of fact, the Puritans make plenty of distinctions of their own between fixed forms and changeable circumstances; there are plenty of commands regarding church order even in the New Testament that they consider  temporary (Hooker gives several examples, including the provisions for widows and the practice of love feasts).  Likewise, the Anglicans recognize that there are many matters of church orders that are not flexible, in which we are not permitted to make new laws.: ultimately, the question is not about generalities, but particulars. 

“The fault which we finde with them is, that they overmuch abridge the Church of her power in these things.  Whereupon they recharge us, as if in these things we gave the Church a libertie which hath no limits or bounds, as if all things which the name of discipline conteineth, were at the Churches free choice….They graunt that in matter of circumstance they alter that which they have received, but in things of substance they keepe the lawes of Christ without chaunge….we say the same in our owne behalfe….For our constant perswasion in this point is as theirs, that we have no where altered the lawes of Christ further then in such particularitis onely as have the nature of thinges changeable according to the difference of times, places, persons, and other the like circumstances” (III.11.13).

The debate, then, is not in fact about generalities, as it has seemed all along.  This is, Hooker claims, merely a smoke-screen, a bunch of bombastic rhetoric exalting Scripture and implying that the Puritans take Scripture seriously while the Anglicans run roughshod over it.  In fact, no sane party to the dispute denies some difference between unchanging substance of biblical law and changing applications.  The rest of the debate, then, must revolve around particulars–specific questions in which the Puritans take Scripture to have laid down unchanging law which forbids the Church of England’s practice.  Hooker will spend the remaining 1150 pages of the Lawes addressing these particular compaints with enormous systematic thoroughness.