Monthly Archives: November 2012

A Four-Legged Stool? Blogging Richard Hooker on Ecclesiastical Polity

Richard HookerIn his disputation with Puritans, Richard Hooker assumes that people on both sides of the argument agree on basic theological matters and participate in a broadly reformed consensus shared with Protestant counterparts in continental Europe. So Hooker’s argument with Puritans rests in matters of practice, or what he describes in the title of Book V, chapter 6 as “the outward publique ordering of Church affaires.”

Hooker sets out four propositions for evaluating arguments over the ordering of the Church. As mentioned in a prior post, he draws these arguments from the Preface and the statement “Of Ceremonies” in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer.  These principles are that of reason, ancient practices of the Church, ecclesiastical authority, and equity. It is a commonplace to argue that Hooker introduces a three-fold hermeneutic of Scripture, tradition, and reason into Anglicanism, commonly referred to as a three-legged stool. Yet nowhere does Hooker explicitly lay out this hermeneutic. In light of his proposals here, one could just as easily refer to a four-legged stool for evaluating Anglican ecclesiology and practices. A quick look at these four propositions is fruitful.

Regarding reason, it is important to keep in mind that Hooker does not understand reason in our contemporary sense of something like common sense or rational deliberation or personal insight. Rather, reason for Hooker is aligned with the concept of natural law, that there are universal principles of the universe ordained by God. Humans, made in the image of God, operate according to natural law. Reason is one of the clearest ways that humans operate according to natural law. In this sense, Hooker can speak of reason this way: “In the powers and faculties of our soules God requireth the uttermost which our unfained affection towards him is able to yeeld” (V.6.1). Reason is one way in which humans know how to and are capable of conforming themselves to God. Crucially, religion, especially the act of worship, as expressed in the life of the Christian Church is the vehicle for this conformity. Furthermore, because there is one God and one natural law, so also there ought to be only one form of religion for any given commonwealth so that all can alike perform worship of the one God. This first proposition is designed to militate against the Puritan view that multiple approaches to the worship of God might be possible in any given commonwealth.

Hooker’s second proposition concerns ancient practices of the church. He argues that any practices in the life of the Church must be taken seriously if they have been “allowed as fitt in the judgment of antiquitie and by the longe continewed practise of the whole Church” (V.7.1). Here Hooker resists the Puritan charge that existing practices in the Church of England should be eliminated because they are not found within the New Testament. Affirming the importance of the traditions of the Church, Hooker counters with a general rule of thumb for evaluating practices. “Whereby wee are taught both the cause wherefore wise mens judgments should be credited, and the meane how to use theire judgments to the increase of our own wisdom. That which showeth them to be wise is the gatheringe of principles out of theire owne particular experimentes. And the framinge of our particular experimentes according to the rule of their principles shall make us such as they are” (V.7.2). In other words, wisdom is a collective process. Long standing practices are sustained by a collective discernment of the wisdom of past practices preserved in the contemporary life of the Church. Change in practices then should be undertaken judiciously. “In which consideration there is cause why we should be slow and unwillinge to chaunge without verie urgent necessitie the ancient ordinances rites and long approved customes of our venerable predecessors” (V.7.3).

The third proposition of Hooker’s concerns ecclesiastical authority to make decisions about practice. As he notes, “All thinge cannot be of ancient continewance whoch are expedient and needfull for the orederinge of spirituall affares: but the Church beinge a bodie which dyesth not hath alwaies powers, as occasion requireth, no less to ordeine that which never was, then to ratifie what hath bene before” (V.8.1). In other words, the Church itself can ordain new practices or laws; it can also abolish pre-existing ones. In both cases, Hooker says, the Church “doe well” (V.8.2). But this authority to alter practice does not extend to doctrine. “But that which in doctrine the Church doth now deliver rightlie as a truth, no man will saie that it may hereafter recall and as rightlie avoutch the contrarie. Lawes touching matter of order are changeable, by the power of the Church; articles concerning doctrine not so” (V.8.2.). In other words, Hooker argues that the Church of England properly embraces the universal faith of the Church as represented especially in the core doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity (more on the Incarnation later in Book V). But Hooker, arguing against the Roman Catholic and Puritan perspective of that period, also holds that each local Church (here England) can adapt its order and practices as befitting it. In other words, neither the polity of Rome or that of Geneva is fitting for England but that represented in the current structure of the Church of England at his time are most fitting.

The three-legged stool is a popular distillation of Richard Hooker’s theological method. While he himself never uses that concept, I believe a toehold for it as popularized by later writers is embedded in this chapter. As he tries to explain how a Church can appropriately decide how to alter or retain aspects of its order, he writes “Be it in matter of one kinde or of the other, what scripture doth plainelie deliver, to that the first place both of creditt and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever anie man can necessarelie conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiasticall authoritie also shall probablie think and define to be true and good, must in congruitie of reason overrule all other inferior judgmentes whatsoever” (V.8.2). Here we find embedded the three legs of the fabled stool of Hooker: Scripture, tradition, and reason. Three things stand out to me. First, if this is a locus for Hooker’s stool, it is a decidedly wobbly stool. Scripture is clearly set apart as a primary locus of authority. Second, reason here again means something that is clearly discernible to any person. Reason then is not a private realm of personal interpretation or insight in the modern sense but rather a commonly held consensus. Finally, the function of this method is limited to the areas of order, polity, and practice. Theological doctrines around which the Church has derived consensus, especially Christological and Trinitarian doctrines, are not a subject for this approach.

Hooker’s fourth proposition is that of equity.  By this he means all of the grey areas in which church polity, as with any institution, necessarily operates. Here he states, “when the best thinges are not possiblem the best maie be made of those that are” (V.9.1). Implicit in this is the notion that no Church polity or governance is in itself perfect. Rather, allowances must be made on a regular basis for contingent circumstances in matters of order and polity. The specific issue lying behind this was Puritan concerns over ecclesiastical appointments. Hooker here argues that ecclesiastical appointments ought to occur on the basis of equity rather than abiding by hard and fast rules. Day to day affairs often need to be ordered according to the principle of equity as applied to widely diverging circumstances.

Following upon his four principles of reason, ancient practices of the Church, ecclesiastical authority, and equity, Hooker elucidates the principle that the “rule of mens private spirits [are] not safe in these cases to be followed” (V.10). Hooker urges that in matters where “the worde of God leaveth the Church to make choise of hir own ordinances, if against” the four principles he has set forth “it should be free for men to reprove, to disgrace, to reject at theire owne libertie what they see done and practised accordinge to order set downe . . . what other effect could hereupon ensewe, but the utter confusion of his Church under pretense of being taught, led, and gudied by his spirit” (V.10.1). In other words, when deciding upon matters of order and practice for the Church of England, these four principles are the means of discerning a way forward. Crucially, Hooker urges against individual interpretation of these matter or competing approaches followed by one congregation in one place and another approach by a congregation in a different place.

This final point helps us appreciate Hooker’s larger attempt to elucidate his four proposition for ordering the life of the Church of England. Against the his fear of a sectarian Puritan impulse, Hooker emphasizes a collective approach that mitigates against individualized interpretations or application concerning order and practice. This is a stance against an individual or sectarian application of reason or experience or interpretation of tradition. Whether one decides to imagine Hooker proposing a four-legged stool of reason, ancient practices of the Church,ecclesiastical authority, and equity or a traditional interpretation of Scripture, tradition and reason as a sort of three-legged stool, one must remember that Hooker envisions a method that is performed collectively for the life of the entire Church. It concerns order and practice, not settled doctrine. Personal preferences and insights are not the drivers of the decision making process but rather a consultation of a collective repository embedded within the life and structures of the Church itself.


Filed under Ecclesiology, Episcopal Church and Anglicanism, Richard Hooker