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Reviewing Radicalism: When Reform Becomes Revolution

February 10th, 2017 | 8 min read

By Charlie Clark

In 2017, many Protestants will observe the 500th anniversary of their revolution—or at least of its most celebrated image: the promulgation of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. Though inevitably drowned out by triumphalism, some such observances will be understandably ambivalent about the Reformation’s legacy. After all, however justified or necessary, the rift between Protestants and Catholics has divided Western Christianity against itself and clouded the witness of Christian unity. And like all revolutionary movements, the Reformation has always risked slipping into currents of extremism that are contrary to prudence and even sound doctrine. We Protestants desperately need guides to help us avoid our tradition’s pitfalls while preserving its core principles.

The timely publication of Radicalism: When Reform Becomes Revolution—a modernization of Richard Hooker’s preface to The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity—is a brief and accessible introduction to one such guide. In their “Preface to the Preface,” the editors of this slim volume make the admittedly bold claim that, though he is now seldom read, Hooker “ranks third only to Luther and Calvin in both intellectual stature and historical significance among Protestant theologians.” They suggest that a major reason for his being comparatively neglected is that while translations of Luther and Calvin have kept pace with the evolution of English, because Hooker wrote in English originally, no effort at translation has been made in spite of the vast gulf between his language and the modern idiom. The new modernization will close this substantial gap.

The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity is Hooker’s exposition and defense of the episcopal form of church government in the Church of England, and his Preface is addressed to his opponents, the Puritans who advocated for the presbyterian form of church government and other changes beyond the original scope of the English Reformation. The immediate problem facing Hooker was the threat of schism. Within mere decades of its break with Rome, the Church of England had already experienced several of its own schisms as sects of “Dissenters” refused to acknowledge its legitimacy and formed their own renegade congregations.

Although they were ostensibly more moderate than the Dissenters, Hooker argued that the Puritans’ own logic led inevitably to a separatist, schismatic conclusion. He imagines the reproach that might be leveled against the Puritans by the Dissenters who had taken their arguments at face value: “[W]e noted with what zeal you insisted that English congregations, ordered by these laws, are thoroughly polluted and have a form of government borrowed from the shop of Antichrist… we reasoned that since no synagogue of Antichrist may be counted a true church, all English congregations stood condemned… Now you tell us that this is not what you meant at all.”

The Puritans had failed to establish any limiting principle in their cause of reform. If the Reformed interpretation of Scripture was to be the sole basis for ecclesiological legitimacy, than any issue could be grounds for schism if a sect became persuaded that the Church of England’s position was unscriptural. And the imperfections of human reason being what they are, the natural result was that people became convinced that whatever they wanted to believe was identical with divine Truth.  As Hooker says, “[W]hen the minds of men are once erroneously persuaded that it is the will of God for them to do those things they fancy, their opinions are as thorns in their sides, not allowing them to rest until they have put their speculations into practice.”

Beyond the immediate threat of further fragmentation within English Christianity, Hooker was also concerned with trends in Protestant doctrine driven by structural changes in religious authority. The principle of freedom of conscience meant that the institutional church was no longer trusted to pronounce authoritatively on the interpretation and application of the Scriptures. Hooker was not enthusiastic about the results of this approach to doctrine: “When they and their Bible were alone together, whatever strange, outlandish opinion happened to enter their heads, they imagined it to have been taught them by the Spirit. Their wild ideas concerning our Savior’s incarnation, the condition of departed souls, and other things we need not repeat here.” Hooker later cites the example of radical Anabaptists like the Batenburgers “who were once all about the mortification of the flesh [but] came at length to the conclusion that they might have six or seven wives apiece!”

While the examples of radical Dissenters and Anabaptists might seem narrowly religious or simply too extreme, it is not hard to see in Hooker’s critique a foreshadowing of Brad Gregory’s argument in The Unintended Reformation that the Protestant Reformation put Western civilization on a slippery slope toward doctrinal, ecclesiological, and even political anarchy. Gregory would trace a connection from the religious pluralism created by the Reformation to the political liberalism of the Enlightenment to the consumerist individualism of the Market Society. This narrative is not uncontroversial, but Hooker’s prediction that one schism would lead to another lends credibility to Gregory’s retrospective analysis. At the same time, Hooker’s project is a partial answer to Gregory’s critique as he attempts to draw a line between justifiable and unjustifiable occasions of disunity.

While he does not make his framework explicit, Hooker’s argument for the Reformation but against Radical Protestantism relies on affirming a necessary balance between two goods: the Church’s purity on the one hand, and its peace on the other. The Reformation was in large part a reaction to medieval Catholicism’s failure to maintain the purity of the gospel in cases like the indulgence system. The crisis of purity was deemed so extreme that it required action even if it meant breaking up the institutional church. But once the pendulum had swung from unity toward purity, some groups, like the Puritans, had no interest in halting its momentum and sought to purge their corner of the visible church of every imagined doctrinal, ecclesiological, or liturgical irregularity.

Hooker’s affirmation of these two goods rest upon his twin identification of the Christian God as the God of Truth but also the God of Peace. That is, while the church is called to be faithful to the truth about God, they are called to exercise this faithfulness in a peaceful and orderly fashion, not by insisting on endless debates and being willing to separate from other believers over every point of contention. Hooker writes, “Peace and quietness are not possible unless the probable voice of an entire society or body politic should overrule all private judgments within the same body. God, the author of peace, not of confusion in the church, must be the author of these peaceable decisions made by men who have agreed to think and do as their church decrees, until they have sufficient reason requiring them to act differently.”

As to what constitutes a “sufficient reason” for breaking with church authority, Hooker makes an ingenious argument that is essentially epistemological. First, he argues following Augustine that “[t]he things necessary to our salvation… [are] plainly set down in Scripture, so that whoever hears and reads may understand without great difficulty.” Thus, all doubtful theological questions must not go to the heart of the gospel. Similarly, he deprives his opponents of Paul’s instruction to the Galatians to reject even an angel who preached “a different gospel” by pointing out that the gospel Paul preached “Jesus Christ himself had revealed to him by direct revelation.” The Puritans, on the other hand, were resisting church authority based upon “mere probabilities only,” not “upon necessary demonstrative arguments.” In this way, Hooker attempts to create a principled distinction between the justifiable Reformation and the unjustifiable Radicalism.

In supporting his model of balancing peace and truth through submission to the “probable voice of an entire society” (an echo of Augustine’s “securus judicat orbis terrarum,” which so affected Newman) Hooker is clearly speaking from within the conciliar tradition whereby intramural disputes had been settled in the past. He explicitly grounds this tradition in the history of the early church: “When the church argued about whether Gentiles might be saved without circumcision or without obeying the ceremonial Law of Moses, after much dissension and debate, they agreed to let the matter be decided at Jerusalem by a council.” He challenges his opponents, “Can you give a strong enough reason why your opinions should not be overruled by a similar definitive judicial decision, whether in your favor or not, so that these tedious contentions may cease?” Hooker’s point is clear: if the Council of Jerusalem was good enough for the Apostles on a question they considered central to the Gospel, then certainly a council should suffice to settle issues of church government on which the Scriptures are comparatively silent.

Ultimately, while Hooker’s defense of the episcopal system and advocacy for a balance between purity and peace would establish the Anglican tradition, it would not halt the further fragmentation of the Protestant movement. Today’s Protestants, however, may yet benefit from Hooker’s insights into the nature of radicalism and to consider opportunities for partnership and reconciliation across the rifts it has created.

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