Change is not reform.
Among the Christmas gifts I was blessed to receive from my wife was a copy of Alexander Rosenthal’s Crown Under Law: Richard Hooker, John Locke, and the Ascent of Modern Constitutionalism. Rosenthal holds that Hooker is a “bridge” figure, bringing forward medieval ideas on law and government which Locke would later adapt to a changing political situation (as a result of his own evolving understanding) in post-Restoration England. I have not yet reached the appendices of the book, but Rosenthal aims to demonstrate how Leo Strauss, a founding father of American neo-conservatism, misinterpreted Locke as a “radical modern” thinker. I may return to that subject in a later post if the implications prove worthy of further discussion. Heaven knows I dread neo-conservatism.
But regarding Hooker, Rosenthal shows that he was no “modern.” Indeed, he was thoroughly conservative, but with an important twist that would influence Locke’s conversion to a restrained classical liberalism and advocacy for limited, constitutional government. But Rosenthal begins with Hooker’s theology. For me, there is nothing better than a work that deals in the two subjects – religion and politics – that ought not be brought up in social settings.
Rosenthal errs, in my view, by upholding against the scholarship Torrance Kirby (as well as Nigel Atkinson) the notion that the Elizabethan Settlement forged a “via media” between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and thus brought a new thing called “Anglicanism” onto the ecclesiastical landscape. To the contrary, I agree with Kirby and Atkinson: via media is a fiction, and “Anglican” is simply a word that identifies churches throughout the world that have doctrinal and liturgical roots in the Church of England. When Hooker wrote his magnum opus Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie he was certainly defending the Elizabethen Settlement. But what he defended was the reformed English Church from the harassment of radical Reformers who challenged not only the church’s structure and liturgy, but the civil government of England as well. More on this to follow.
That Hooker was thoroughly reformed in his theology should be manifestly clear from his Learned Discourse on Justification. During his studies at Oxford, Hooker’s principal tutor was John Rainolds, a scholar of Calvinist credentials. But the library at Corpus Christi College also contained an expansive collection of Scholastic writings. From these Hooker came to understand natural law and the role of human will in salvation and reason. Hooker’s own views on soteriology and human freedom were closer to those of Luis de Molina and the Salamancan school than to John Calvin. But Hooker upheld the classical reformed formula of sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus. And this was the position of the English Church of the settlement that Hooker defended.
Regarding law, Hooker’s system follows the descending order of:
1 1. Divine law (Scripture)
2 2. Natural law (reason)
3 3. Positive law (tradition)
As Kirby and Atkinson both affirm, Hooker did not construct a “three-legged stool” with reason and tradition on the same plane as divine revelation. Man is indeed fallen and can come to the knowledge of things pertaining to salvation only through the illumination of God’s grace. But, with Aquinas and against the hardcore Calvinists, Hooker held that man’s reason is not so impaired by the fall that he cannot arrive at a measure of truth through the discovery of natural law. The radical Reformers rejected natural law and tradition in exclusive deference to Scriptural data. This was a key distinction between Hooker and the radicals who would do away with any rite or ceremony, ecclesiastical as well as civil, that had no express warrant from Scripture.
A decisive factor involved what Hooker and others within the Church called “things indifferent.” Scripture is not a rule book on every dimension of life. The New Testament gives only the vaguest “instruction” on how a church is set up. Churches – and civil polities – evolve along lines of location, experience, and custom. To the extent that none of those elements undermine the truth of the gospel there is latitude for development.
This idea was repugnant to the radical Reformers. As Rosenthal notes, they wished to set up a theocracy in England. Hooker foresaw how this would lead to strife and was proven right a generation later by Cromwell’s War. Instead, he argued in favor of traditional church episcopacy and (reformed) liturgy, and the “mixed monarchy” of the realm – things passed down from generations by centuries of collective experience and wisdom.
To quote again John Randolph, an American statesman of a similar temperament, “I have a respect for all that is antique (with a few important exceptions).” For Hooker, those “important exceptions” had been dealt with – i.e., reformed – within the church. He found nothing in English ecclesiastical and civil polity that warranted radical change.
It is not surprising then that the “judicious Hooker” was the darling of high church Royalists and Tories that came after him. But on the Anglo-Catholic wing of the church: the “middle way” was a fancy of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century. Its influence is felt in the 1928 Prayer Book. But it is interesting to note that the 1662 Prayer Book, compiled shortly after the Restoration of the monarchy, has a decidedly “reformed” tone. The Puritans might have lost the war, but they did have a necessary influence in shaping the church’s theology and liturgy.
But now we come to the twist: Hooker was also a major source of inspiration to English Whigs. In the Lawes they found Hooker arguing against a patriarchal, divine right notion of monarchy. Rather, Hooker upheld regency, that is, monarchy under law and by consent of the ruled. It is noteworthy that Hooker believed a wicked bishop could be deposed (but, as Rosenthal observes, he offered no prescription in the case of a tyrannical king).
In Rosenthal’s most fascinating section he details how Hooker derived from Aquinas the idea of a natural state of community. Men are not born under authority to other men (apart from parents). But men quickly learn the necessity of social cooperation (a line of thought deliciously close to causal-realist economic theory), and because of sinful impulses such cooperation needs guidance. For Hooker, government is an artifice of man’s reason, not a natural condition or instinct. Given time, men discover the best means of government (trial and error may include overthrowing bad ones, though Hooker does not go that far). But here is the rub: Hooker finds sovereignty passing from God to the community (avoiding that ominously amorphous appellation “the people”). The community, through the discovery of natural law, enacts positive laws fitting its circumstances, and then delegates its authority to one or a few for its guidance and protection. To cite one example from “primitive” culture, this is precisely how ancient Cherokee polity arose. Kings rule by consent. The crown is under law. Its rule is bounded by the laws and customs of the community.
The lawful power of making laws to command whole political societies of men belongeth so properly unto the same entire societies, that For any Prince or potentate of whatsoever kind to exercise the same of himself, and not either by express commission of God, or else by authority derived at the first from their consent upon those persons they impose laws, it is no better than tyranny.
Rosenthal traces John Locke’s conversion from de facto Royalist to Whig through the study of Hooker’s Lawes. There is no question that Locke had a major influence on American thought as the colonials sought to protect their ancient English rights from an increasingly despotic empire. Constitutionally limited government is latent in Hooker’s understanding of the laws of nature and polity. For Hooker, the “mixed monarchy” of the English realm (before the empire), in which the regent was accountable to the lords and commons, was an ingenious arrangement forged over time. To overthrow it for a theocracy that excluded natural law and custom was to rip apart the fabric of society and the church.