Richard Hooker

The Reformed tradition has John Calvin, the Lutherans have Martin Luther, the Methodists have John Wesley… but who do Anglicans look to as our “quintessential theologian”?  Depending upon one’s disposition it may either be endlessly frustrating or a liberating relief that we have no single Great Theologian who sets the standard for our specific confession.  This is largely due to the circumstances of the English Reformation.  Martin Luther, and many others, found themselves in situation where they ended up opposed to the “established” church, and so entire schools of theology ended up revolving around their monumental works.  In England, however, the Reformation was top-down: the Bishops, backed by the King, were able to work together to reform the Church in England.  They drafted Articles of Religion together, compiled a Book of Homilies together, and assembled a Prayer Book together.  The first Archbishop during the Reformation was Thomas Cranmer, so his influence was arguably the most significant in their generation.  But as the Anglican tradition continued into the next century, permanently removed from communion with Rome and not entirely in line with the specifics of Lutheran or Calvinist teachings, the development of a unique identity and definition was somewhat inevitable.  Still, no single theologian dominated the scene.  Like the Early Church of the first millennium, the “classical Anglican” period (the 16th and 17th centuries) produced many “divines” – theologians, poets, and spiritual writers who together shaped and defined our tradition.  Still, we got no “quintessential theologian” to set an abiding standard of clearly-defined stances on every topic of doctrine.

However, in the midst of all that, there was one man who perhaps most clearly, effectively, and famously encapsulated this collegial approach to theology: Richard Hooker.  One of several great theologians in the 16th century, he is best known for the multi-volume work The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.  It is a dull title for admittedly dull reading, by modern standards, but what he wrote about therein turned out to be just what the Anglican tradition needed.  It is not a confessional document as such, systematically working through various doctrinal positions.  Rather, it is a treatise on the nature of law.  It explores the laws of nature, the law of God, the law of state.  In each of these cases, “law” refers less to rules as such and primarily to “how things work.”  How did God order creation?  How does God order an earthly State?  And finally, how does God order his Church?

This five-volume book turned out to be the perfect “apology” (or defense) of the Church of England in its time.  It rooted what we now call the Anglican tradition in the context of the full history of Christianity in England, highlighting the continuity from the Early Church through the medieval era into the Reformation of their day.  He argued for a lawful Reformed Catholic Church in England without utterly denigrating the Papists of Rome on the one hand, or the Protestants of Germany and Geneva on the other.  With the Reformers, he taught and believed in justification by faith alone, but he argued that perfect understanding of justification was not required for true faith in Christ, and therefore members of the Roman could still be justified even though teaching and believing a different version of that doctrine.

Hooker’s methodology also became widely known and popular in recent times: Scripture is the sole foundation of Christian teaching, it is interpreted by tradition, tempered by reason.  This is often represented today as a “three-legged stool” implying equality between Scripture, tradition, and reason, but this is a misappropriation of Hooker’s meaning.  His point was that Scripture is first, tradition helps us understand it, and reason helps keep tradition and biblical interpretation honest.

In all, Richard Hooker reinforced a strong intellectual foundation upon which the Anglican tradition was built.  Ultimately, our lack of “quintessential theologian” is not for lack of great thinkers, but for an abundance of them.  Hooker is simply remembered as a quintessential Anglican thinker, and our first great apologist as the dust of the Reformation settled.  He died in the year 1600, and is commemorated on November 3rd.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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1 Response to Richard Hooker

  1. pastpeter says:

    Nice article, Matt.

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