I’m pleased to host this excellent interview between Mere Fidelity contributor Alastair Roberts and my friend Dr. Brad Littlejohn. Dr. Littlejohn, who did his doctoral work at Edinburgh with Mere O favorite Oliver O’Donovan, has just published a popular level introduction to 16th century English theologian Richard Hooker. If you’re like me, you’ve probably come across Hooker’s name somewhere, but don’t know much about him. His lone major work, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, is hard to track down in an affordable edition. So Hooker is just a name for most of us, like other obscure theologians in the church’s past. Brad’s book will go some way toward addressing this problem. Having read it, I now want to find a way of reading Laws, if only I can find an affordable edition. Enjoy the interview! (Full disclosure, Brad is the president of the Davenant Trust, an organization I’m pleased to serve as a board member. But even if I were not his friend and fellow board member I would be delighted to host this interview here at Mere O.)

Thank you for agreeing to join me to discuss the subject of your new book, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work. For the sake of those who may not be familiar with Hooker, can you give a very brief description of who he was?

Sure thing. Basically, when I’m talking to Reformed people, I say something like “Think of him as Anglicanism’s John Calvin.” He became within a few decades after his death the preeminent theologian of the tradition that came to call itself “Anglican,” even though Hooker wouldn’t have thought of himself in these terms, just as Calvin never thought of himself as the first “Calvinist.” His life was comparatively short (1553-1600), almost entirely coinciding with Queen Elizabeth’s long reign (1558-1603), so he is mostly known only for his one great work, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

As an Anglican, I am familiar with the importance ascribed to Hooker within our tradition. However, your book stands out from a number of treatments of Hooker I have encountered by identifying him strongly as a Protestant and, indeed, as a self-consciously Reformed theologian. Beyond his immediate Anglican context, why and how does Hooker belong to the Reformed tradition?

Well, a lot of it is a matter of reconceiving what it meant to be “Reformed” in that period. Nowadays we often think in terms of the Westminster Confession of Faith, but that was of course still fifty years off when Hooker was writing. Even Dordt, which would try to codify predestinarian orthodoxy for the Reformed churches, wasn’t for another quarter century. The various 16th-century confessions tended to be shorter, focusing on the key points and leaving ample room for debate on lesser points (of course, even Dordt and Westminster were much more like this than they have come to be treated by many of their modern heirs). The mistake of many Anglican writers who distance Hooker from the Reformed tradition is to imagine that Calvin’s own emphases were definitive of what it meant to be Reformed—hardly! Bullinger, equally a father of the Reformed tradition, and more influential on England, talked about predestination, the Eucharist, and the relation of church and state in very different terms than Calvin. Vermigli, who would’ve had the most direct impact on Hooker, made extensive use of scholastic methods and ideas associated with Thomas Aquinas, an approach that many used to suggest was illustrative of Hooker’s break with the Reformed tradition. This kind of diversity was the norm, rather than the exception, well into the 17th century if not later. English Protestants, whether they were puritans or conformists, thought of themselves as part of this international community of Reformed churches of diverse polities and emphases right up through 1630 at least. 

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It is also the case that it has become increasingly clear that on many particular points where Hooker has always been read as un-Reformed and distinctively “Anglican” in the later sense of that term, such as his treatment of the visible church and the sacraments, these readings have been less driven by what he actually wrote than how he was appropriated by later writers. Hooker is a very precise writer, and has to be read much more carefully than is often done.

I should emphasize, though, that the point of my work is not to “steal” Hooker from the Anglicans and give him to the Reformed, in some zero-sum way. Rather, the point is that this was simply not a meaningful distinction in Hooker’s time, or for several decades after him. Of course Anglicans should take pride in what Hooker contributed to their tradition, but they shouldn’t define their tradition in a way that tries to exclude its Reformed roots.

Reading your book, I was struck by what seemed to be an underlying concern on your part to rediscover the generous bounds of our theological traditions beyond a supposed ‘mainstream’, to reacquaint us with the wealth of their variegated sources, and simultaneously to draw deeply upon yet maintain freedom with regard to their many voices. Both in your description of the richness of his immediate context of theological conversation—an ‘international community of Reformed churches of diverse polities and emphases’—and in your account of the ways in which he related to the voices of the past, Hooker seems to be a very cosmopolitan thinker, operating within a capacious tradition and also drawing upon philosophical and theological minds far beyond Protestant circles. It is hard to imagine a mind and voice like Hooker’s apart from a tradition that is deep, rich, open, and diverse enough to nourish it and expansive enough in scope to accommodate it. It seems to me that the question of whether Hooker is Reformed is a different question from that of whether he was Reformed. In what manner can Hooker still be appropriated as a Reformed voice? Or, approached differently, what sort of tradition do we need to be able to recognize Hooker as one of our own?

I really like how you’ve summarized my objective here—I may have to borrow some of these lines in the future! Another way of saying it is that, rather than recovering Hooker as “Anglican,” or as “Reformed,” my book tries to recover him as a paragon of “mere Protestantism” (it is perhaps no coincidence that he was one of C.S. Lewis’s favorite theologians), jealously safeguarding the central gains of the Reformation by strenuously opposing attempts to turn every doctrinal distinction or polity decision into a hill to die on. But as I argue in the last chapter in particular, such a flexibility has to be arrived at, paradoxically, by anchoring oneself within a tradition and then sorting out its essential and non-essential features, rather than by trying to pre-emptively adopt a vantage point from nowhere, or a least-common-denominator evangelicalism, as so many try to do today. But as you note, not just any conception of a tradition will do.

So I think you are exactly right to say that whether or not Hooker was Reformed (or was Anglican, for that matter) is a very different question from whether he still is. Traditions develop, and the way that most Protestant traditions developed in the century after Hooker was toward much greater differentiation and exclusivity. In 1600, you could still have a figure who might be neither quite Calvinist nor quite Arminian, neither quite Lutheran or Reformed, neither quite presbyterian nor quite episcopalian, certainly not in the senses those labels would come to take on. But that got progressively harder as the 17th century went on. Lutherans and Reformed became mutually exclusive, as did “Anglicans” and “Puritans,” with the latter increasingly owning the Reformed label and the former increasing rejecting it. Now there are some today who will celebrate this, taking the more exclusive later developments of these traditions as definitive for how we should understand them, and own them, today (though they have to be very historically selective, since the narrowing process rapidly reversed itself in the 1700s). In their more honest moments, they will patronizingly say to a Calvin or Hooker that we must forgive their fuzziness and “inconsistency” because they hadn’t yet worked all the implications out, but we now know much better than they did. But there is a difference between the healthy growth of a tradition working out the implications of its basic commitments and the unhealthy shriveling of a tradition trying to close off legitimate variation in search of the comfort of uniformity. The result of the latter is that whenever anyone comes along expressing reservations about a few particulars, they are told that it’s a package deal and that if they won’t have all of it, they can’t have any of it. Accordingly, many of our best and brightest, disenchanted, jump ship to Rome or Orthodoxy, when if they’d read a little more widely, they might have found their early misgivings well-represented within their own traditions.

Another way of saying this is that a contemporary construal of the Reformed tradition in which someone like Hooker could not find a place at the table is a tradition that is not long for this world. Sorry for such a long answer—I’ll try to keep them shorter from here on!

One of the issues to which you give close attention in your treatment of Hooker is his ecclesiology, of which two elements in particular stood out to me. First, you address his concern to resist spiritualizing the visible church and the manner in which something akin to Luther’s simul justus et peccator principle informed his thinking on the subject. Second, your portrait of Hooker’s mind highlights his acute awareness of the bounds placed upon certainty and human judgment by historical contingency, the particularities of our situations, and human fallibility, finitude, and sin. Hooker located determinations that many of his contemporaries located in the realm of absolute certainties or universal norms within the realm of contextual prudence, admitting both the legitimacy of variation and recognizing the limits of our knowledge. These features seem to be conducive to the breadth and hospitality of tradition that we have been discussing, but also have much wider implications for our theological posture. What does Hooker have to teach us here?

Yes, once again I think you have summarized my argument very neatly, and this is indeed the feature of Hooker’s thought that I have personally found most helpful and most important for contemporary Christians. This is basically my argument in my dissertation, which should be coming out from Eerdmans in a year or two. Luther’s call to Protestants to live by grace alone through faith alone is a scary one. We would much rather retreat sometimes into the comfort of a rule-bound religion, one in which we could consult an exhaustive checklist to see when we were doing God’s will, building the walls of the kingdom straight and sturdy, calling down blessings on our churches rather than curses. Protestantism is supposed to be riskier and more improvisatory than that. Of course, it’s a risk grounded on a firm assurance: God’s promise that he is well-pleased with us before any of that, which frees us to respond creatively in the ever-changing social and political circumstances that are simply what it means to be called to live in history. This historical contingency stands as a warning against the attempt to absolutize the perfect liturgy or the perfect polity or the perfect form of church discipline, none of which Scripture promises to give us. Hooker’s thought is above all concerned to simultaneously deconstruct such false attempts at certainty in the domain of practical reason, and to guard against the idea that lack of certainty means total uncertainty or relativism. His ecclesiology is profoundly grounded in Scripture, in history, in reason and law, all of which work together to guide us in framing our lives together toward flourishing and the glory of God, but none of which direct us in such a way as to dispense with the need for prudence, disagreement, and creative reformulation in the face of change.

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Within your book you discuss some of the deep pastoral concerns that motivate and inform Hooker’s thought. How is this seen in this challenge to false forms of and quests for certainty? What are some further ways in which Hooker’s pastoral sensibility is evidenced within the Laws?

Yeah, this is absolutely central, and under-emphasized, I think, in many readings of Hooker. The attitude he is opposing goes something like this: “We are facing these profound uncertainties about how God wants us to respond in the face of these conflicting claims that are being made upon us as Christians in society. We need to have certainty about how God wants us to respond, lest we incur his wrath. The Bible tells us everything we need. Therefore it must give us an answer to this.” This leads to at least two problems, in Hooker’s view. 

First, it creates “high terms of separation,” as Hooker puts it, between all those who buy in to the interpretation and those who don’t—it’s not a matter of a mere difference of judgment, but of failure to listen to the (ostensibly) clear words of Scripture. And this in turn can breed a kind of spiritual arrogance, as those who “get it” think of themselves as the true Christians, and everyone else as false or at least worldly and lukewarm. It should be noted that the same dynamic plays out over and over in the church today, whether it’s about Christians who fail to buy in to homeschooling (or classical schooling), or voting for the most pro-life candidate, or weekly communion, or a certain conception of gender roles. This isn’t to say that none of these things matter—as I said above, his goal is to show that just because we lack a clear-cut answer doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter and we shouldn’t wrestle toward an answer. But it matters how we think they matter.

Second, it can create profound insecurity of conscience, since there will be plenty of people in the movement clear-sighted enough to realize that Scripture is not in fact clear on the matter in question. But of course, told as they are that failure to “get it” is evidence of worldliness, they can be plunged into self-doubt, such that, as Hooker says, “what shall the Scripture be but a snare and a torment to weak consciences, filling them with infinite perplexities, scrupulosities, doubts insoluble, and extreme despairs?” Some will jump ship for more radical sects, some will react into antinomianism or drift away into genuine lukewarmness; others will retreat back to Rome, with its more tangible claims to provide certainty and guidance. All of these reactions happened in Hooker’s day, and all of them happen still in our day.  

Hooker wants to teach people how to live with uncertainty without freaking out, and how to navigate the conflicting loyalties that are part and parcel of life in society (he has a great line about how his opponents are such as “whose betters amongst men would be hardly found, if they did not live amongst men, but in some wilderness by themselves”—they are, like the Desert Fathers, absolutely sold out to obey God, but unable to figure out how to make this obedience work in the messiness of social life). I could add a lot more about how his pastoral sensibility shapes the Laws—one key thing is his reclamation of the value of liturgy for forming the whole person, in reaction to the arid intellectualism that dominated much Reformed spirituality then and now. This is one of his great contributions that the Reformed today should appropriate as well instead of leaving it to the Anglicans. But I’m going way too long again, so I’ll leave it there.

Hooker’s profound relevance to the contemporary church is something that has been clear in all of your answers so far; you even devote the final chapter of your book to this point. One matter that you discuss within your book, but don’t address in that chapter, is Hooker’s attention to and exemplification of a particular mode and style of Christian discourse. You speak of him as a polemical and irenical writer and also remark upon his rather distinct literary style. Over the last few years the importance of giving close thought to and reforming the character of our Christian discourse has been increasingly impressed upon me. In what ways do you think Hooker can teach those of us involved in the world of Christian discourse today?

Yes, this is a particularly interesting issue, especially as Hooker’s rhetoric has been the subject of a lot of  recent research, though I find a lot of this research singularly unconvincing, drawing as it tends to do on various forms of a postmodern hermeneutic of suspicion. Hooker used to be misread as an altogether dovish gentleman with no love for controversy, who just wanted everyone to get along; now he is misread as a nasty and cunning polemicist, with all kinds of tricks up his sleeve for demonizing his opponents. The truth, it seems quite obvious to me at least, lies between these two poles. One reason why I think it is apt to characterize him as an “irenical polemicist” is his interest in deconstructing just how and why his opponents err. He does not do the typical sixteenth-century thing and accuse them of being animated by the devil or the spirit of antichrist or even an incorrigible spirit of self-will and rebellion. Instead, he engages in some rather subtle and acute psychology, particularly in his Preface, to illustrate how readily the love of truth can lead us into error. This task, which I think he models so wonderfully for us, is one incumbent on us in every age—too easily in the heat of disputation we are apt to dismiss or pigeonhole our opponents, instead of asking what missteps (perhaps quite well-intentioned) led them into error.

Hooker’s own style of writing is of course the flipside of this. His sentence structure is famously long and convoluted (although elegantly so, if that makes any sense), with clauses and qualifiers piled on top of one another, and the main clause usually coming last. It has been remarked that this is no coincidence. Rather, it mirrors the structure of his thought, and his conviction that one should only state a conclusion after carefully weighing the various qualifying factors and supporting evidence. Now I certainly don’t want to say we all need to learn to write just like Hooker, but it is striking how the online medium has driven us in recent years further and further away from carefully qualified, measured discourse. When hit count is what matters and attention spans are short, then terse, unqualified, and even outrageous assertions are the favored mode of discourse. Sure, you may add all manner of qualifications afterward, but the key is to get people’s attention with the bold and bald statement or headline right up front. I think it is incumbent on Christian writers today to resist as much as possible the pressures of the medium, and find ways of writing engaging yet thoughtful prose that captures people’s imagination without manipulating their emotions or sacrificing their reason.

Very briefly, in conclusion, how would you sum up in a couple of sentences the chief lessons that the contemporary church can learn from Hooker?

Sure. Hooker provides us a way of talking about how something—most things, in fact—can be a domain of Christian freedom without opening the door to libertinism, how it can be an area of legitimate disagreement without giving way to mere relativism, and provides us the tools for how to reason through such prudential questions. He also models for us a “reformed catholic” theology, that draws deeply on a very wide tradition of Christian thought, yet from a very specific vantage point—his beloved English church—and with its practical needs chiefly in mind. Too many ecumenical theologies are hopelessly decontextualized; Hooker’s is anything but.

Thank you so much for taking the time for this conversation, Brad!

I highly encourage readers to buy Brad’s book, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work. After reading it, I took down my volumes of Hooker from the shelf again. Readers who share Brad’s desire to see often forgotten or neglected wisdom of the tradition recovered for the benefit of the contemporary church may also be excited to hear about his work with the Davenant Trust. If anyone would like to hear Brad discuss Hooker further, Wordmp3.com has a free download of a lecture based on the book, Richard Hooker: Reformed, Anglican, or Both?. You can also find more of Brad’s writings on his new website.

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mwf2005/16694847762

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy, and son Wendell. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

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  • Bill

    You can read The Laws of Ecclesial Polity online at Project Canterbury: http://anglicanhistory.org/hooker/

  • Jim Skaggs

    At least the first part of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity can be found here: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/921 That might suffice until an affordable physical copy can be found.

  • Stephen Crawford+

    This interview was fantastic. This was a very helpful introduction to Hooker, which I, as an Episcopalian, very much appreciate. We read snippets of Hooker in seminary, I liked that his supposedly natural-law laden theology began with the Trinity, I liked his appreciation for Blessed Thomas (mainly as buttressing my own appreciation for Thomas), and that was about it.

    In particular, I’ve often seen people try to arbitrate continuing tensions between self-consciously Evangelical Anglicans and self-consciously Catholic Anglicans by appealing to the breadth of our tradition. My response has long been that Anglicans have traditionally disagreed about these things as if they matter, rather than moving immediately for a fuzzy “let’s all get along.” This was a helpful counterbalance to that impulse of mine, for which I’m thankful. Just this small exposure to Hooker, even by a couple of removes, has been helpfully challenging.

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  • TW

    The two vol. Everyman edition of the “Laws” I-V can be had cheap. Includes good ancillary material and the Discourse on Justification.