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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Posted by Charlie Clark

Charlie Clark is the executive director of the Eleazar Wheelock Society.


  1. The unity-purity distinction makes sense to me.

    I grew up in the Protestant mainline, where there was probably too much emphasis on unity. In many instances, the church became little more than an extension of upper-middle-class culture. As long as people lived respectable upper-middle-class lives, it didn’t much matter whether they had a credible profession of faith.

    When I went away to college, I started attending an evangelical-ish church. This was in the early 1990s, when evangelicalism seemed to moving away from its focus on purity and moving toward a healthier balance between unity and purity. But that balance didn’t hold. By the late 1990s, the Culture Wars had heated up again, and purity-oriented evangelicals showed little interest in fellowshipping with those who were less enthusiastic about becoming dittoheads of St. Rush Limbaugh. Panic over homosexuality became rampant, and a whole series of silly books emerged with guidance on how to recover “biblical masculinity,” I guess, before the gays turned us all into men who liked trendy haircuts and skinny jeans.

    I kept waiting for calmer heads to prevail, and for the spirit of unity to balance out the push for purity. It never happened. And I’m not sure that it will, at least not within evangelicalism. During my time in evangelicalism, I had generally attended PCA churches. These days, most PCA churches are little more than affiliates of the local homeschooling network. The Tim Keller phenomenon never really took hold outside of a few urban pockets. Among those under 50, evangelical churchgoers are a very homogeneous crowd: middle-income white families with 2+ kids at home who grew up in fundamentalist churches.

    Evangelicalism is fast becoming what fundamentalism once was. After all, most of us mainline refugees who made our way into the movement during the 1990s have made our way back out. Even kids who grow up in evangelical churches rarely stick around into adulthood. By my observation, evangelicalism maintains its numbers by absorbing young adults who grew up in fundamentalist churches and now want to have a beer every once in a while. But they want to have that beer with other aficionados of “biblical manhood,” who see the world with black-and-white Biblical Clarity (TM). After all, the evangelical gatekeepers at the Gospel Coalition keep coming up with an ever-longer list of beliefs that one must hold in order to be a Real Christian (TM). Unsurprisingly, most of the beliefs are just the same old hobby-horse issues of the Culture War.

    And purity also governs in many mainline churches today, although of a more left-wing variety. I don’t know that Protestantism necessarily leads to en emphasis of purity at the expense of unity. I suspect that much of our current crisis at church is a reflection of our political crisis. I have long believed that the Culture Wars have very little to do with abortion, homosexuality, etc. Those issues are just the window-dressing for a larger cultural rift between educated, white-collar professionals (who have done well in the last few decades) and working-class folks (who have seen their economic power erode in the past few decades). Attacks on abortion and homosexuality are really indirect attacks on cosmopolitanism. For example, HB2 in North Carolina is not really about keeping women safe from Caitlyn Jenner. Rather, it’s about anti-cosmopolitans making a show of political force in an effort to stick it to the state’s cosmopolitan minority that’s clustered in urban centers.

    Before his untimely death, Michael Spencer wrote a series of articles on the coming collapse of evangelicalism. He primarily attributed that coming collapse to the fact that evangelicalism took a hyper-partisan role in the Culture Wars, often providing religious justification for the anti-cosmopolitan side’s efforts in that struggle. In the early 1990s, it seemed that evangelicalism might be able to resist that temptation, and provide a unifying force that ameliorated the emerging cultural divide. But, as Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes realized, it was easier to exploit that divide than to repair it. And the church too often allowed itself to become part of the emerging right-wing echo chamber. And anyone who objected was not a Real Christian (TM) with a commitment to Biblical Clarity (TM).

    In the West, orthodox forms of Christianity have largely opposed every shred of cosmopolitanism. This was egregiously unwise. Sure, there are aspects of cosmopolitanism that are worthy of objection. Even so, there’s nothing about cosmopolitanism that’s inherently antithetical to the Gospel. In fact, I’d argue that it’s a lot more consistent with the Gospel’s cultural universalism than the anti-cosmopolitan project of of racial and cultural purity. Protestantism in America didn’t devolve into purity clusters because that’s inherent to Protestantism; it did so because too many Protestant leaders lacked the courage to challenge their flocks with the Gospel’s call to embrace people of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. Our current situation is the result of a crisis in moral imagination. It was not necessary, even if it was the path of least resistance.


  2. You can write your pants off kid.

    The fracturing of Protestantism’s logical conclusion is the LDS and Jehovah Witness, where full circle is reached, the church redeclared, and its most precious theology jettisoned. This threat remains for slack-jawed American evangelicals not forming doctrinally-sound (credal) converts.


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