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The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 4: Richard Hooker

The following comprises the fourth part of an ongoing series (See Part I here, Part II here, Part III here), which shall comprise six parts in total, rather than the five originally advertised.

Few figures in the history of theology can boast as contested a legacy as Richard Hooker, the purported forefather of a protean via media that is redefined with dizzying frequency.  Until recently, many readings of Hooker suffered from the insularity that characterized much of Anglican historiography, doggedly committed to the assumption that England had its own history, blissfully independent from goings-on on the Continent.  So when historian Torrance Kirby suggested that in fact, Richard Hooker should be read as a theologian of the magisterial Reformation, he touched a raw nerve among Hooker scholars, generating a hostile backlash that, after two decades, shows no sign of letting up.  Perhaps tellingly, none of the responses to Kirby and his followers has bothered to engage the thesis at the heart of his re-interpretation, that Hooker’s theological response to Puritanism rested throughout on his Protestant—indeed, Lutheran—two-kingdoms doctrine.

Given the prominence of the doctrine in earlier conformist/Puritan polemics, it is no surprise that we should find Hooker relying on it in his magisterial defense of the Church of England, The Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie.  However, it would be a mistake to imagine that Hooker is merely re-stating the consensus teaching of the Tudor church.  On the contrary, although the paradigm of the two kingdoms had been frequently invoked by his predecessors, it was bedevilled by significant tensions, in at least two respects.

First, his predecessors, while saying that the sphere of the magistrate’s authority in the church was only over “things indifferent,” not over the substance of faith or the ministry of word and sacraments, had a tendency to say that this authority itself was not a thing indifferent.  Rather, the royal supremacy over the church was grounded on divine law; it was the model God had established in the Old Testament, and Christian polities had no right to alter it.  If a key feat of Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine had been to desacralize earthly kingship, and indeed all human rule, some Elizabethan Protestants who invoked the doctrine clearly didn’t get the the memo.  In texts such as Bishop Jewel’s classic Apology of the Church of England (1563), the idea of sacred kingship was alive and well.  To this extent there was some justice in the complaint that the Tudors merely substituted the prince for the Pope—although certainly such apologists held firmly to the crucial two-kingdoms idea that the prince had no authority over conscience.  Their tension here was part of a larger ambiguity that vexed Protestant discussions of adiaphora—was this category defined by all those things “not necessary to salvation” or those things “not commanded or forbidden in Scripture”?  Things “indifferent” in the first sense might well not be in the second sense, and this equivocation began to confuse discussions considerably, particular as Puritans began to insist, in a very un-Lutheran turn, that obedience to all God’s Biblical commands was in some sense necessary to salvation.  In critiquing Puritanism, then, Hooker also set himself the task of “sorting out conformism,” as Peter Lake puts it, clarifying the relation of these different senses of adiaphora, and decisively undermining the idea of sacred kingship by rooting the royal supremacy squarely in the soil of natural and human law, rather than divine law.

Indeed, he famously begins the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie with a masterful disquisition on the various forms of law, their relation to each other, and their relation to the one eternal law in the bosom of God within which they all find their unity and common telos.  In this account, which constituted an influential revival of Protestant Thomism, Hooker classifies human law, which governs all “politique societies,” as the product of rational discernment of the natural law (or what Hooker calls the “law of reason”) and its application by an act of corporate will (legislation) upon a body politic.  Supernatural, or divine law is not to be understood as everything in Scripture—everything that is supernatural in respect of origin—but rather as that which is supernatural in respect of its end.  In other words, the supernatural law is that which directs us to our end of union with God of which sin has made us utterly incapable, it establishes the way of salvation; in short, it governs the spiritual kingdom.  But what does Hooker do with the fact that so much of Scripture talks about things besides the way of salvation, about matters of the civil kingdom—that is, how does he resolve the discontinuity between the two senses of adiaphora?  His answer of course is that the divine law of Scripture contains not merely the supernatural law, but restates much of the content of natural law, as well as offering by example many human law applications of natural law.  Why?  Because Hooker, as a good Protestant, understands that fallen reason is very prone to go astray even in earthly matters, and will profit greatly from this clearer teaching.  However, Hooker insists that Scripture is here restating and clarifying something in the moral law that is already binding—it is already normative by virtue of creation, not by virtue of Scripture.  The same, crucially, is true for human law, and this is at the core of his response to both Puritans and over-enthusiastic conformists.  If a law contained in Scripture has, formally, the character of human law—that is to say, positive law which applies the principles of the natural law to the changeable needs of human polities—then the fact that it is contained in Scripture does not change this status.  So, for instance, inasmuch as our circumstance remain the same as those of ancient Israel or the New Testament church, the positive laws there established, as infallible (because given in Scripture) descriptions of what natural law required then, still bind us.  But if our circumstances have changed, we are free to use reason, illuminated by attention to Scriptural principles and precedents, to do otherwise.

The mention of the “New Testament church” highlights the fact that for Hooker, when we are talking about “human law” we are not talking only strictly civil law.  This is where his two-kingdoms doctrine plays a key role.  The church, he insists, exists in two aspects: invisibly, as a perfect body of the redeemed, before God, and visibly, as a mixed community of professing Christians, before the world.  In its latter identity, the church is a “politique societie,” requiring rule, authority, and public order like any other.  As such, it is governed by human law, which may be derived from natural law.  However highly we esteem the authority of Scripture then, says Hooker, there is thus no reason why we should expect to find detailed regulations of church order in Scripture—as we do not in fact, contrary to earnest Puritan attempts to find them.  Even where we do find such regulations, they are subject to the proviso about changing circumstances—they may or may not still be binding in detail for church polity and liturgy.  Accordingly, it is because, in Protestant England, the company of professing believers is coterminous with the commonwealth, that the head of state may legitimately exercise supreme juridical authority over matters of church polity.  This need not always be the case—although Hooker believes that Christian rulers should always be concerned for the protection and advancement of true religion in their realms—but it is an eminently reasonable and Scripturally defensible arrangement under the conditions pertaining in Elizabethan England.

 

Hooker’s second key corrective to his conformist predecessors lies in the way this royal headship is conceived.  Since Henry VIII, there had been a tendency (though there were exceptions) among Tudor Protestants to conceive of the royal supremacy as a personal prerogative of the monarch, for whose exercise he was accountable to God alone.  From the royal will, there was little appeal.  To be sure, Scripture could trump royal commands in theory, but since the monarch claimed that he exercised authority over nothing but adiaphora, Scripture ought to have nothing to say against him; and who was to argue with the magistrate’s determination of what was and wasn’t adiaphora.  Naturally, this sat very uneasily with the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty, which emphasised that even in things indifferent, the Christian must be free to seek the good of his neighbor through an edifying use of adiaphora.  A cold call to check private judgment at the door, such as many of Hooker’s predecessors issued, was hardly conducive to the freedom of a Christian man.  Accordingly, Hooker was at pains throughout the Lawes to show how genuine freedom of conscience cohered with submission to England’s laws.  This involved a careful attempt to “resolve the conscience” by showing that the disputed ceremonies were edifying, rational, and compatible with Protestant theology.  And just as importantly, it involved a thoroughgoing account of corporate moral agency and a strengthening of the role of Parliament and Convocation as representative bodies in concert with which the royal will was to be exercised.  By this means, Hooker re-established the Protestant doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” even in the midst of an unyielding defense of the established authorities—through their representatives, the whole body of believers in England exercised their moral agency, so that the laws in adiaphora that they were called to obey were those to which they had already freely assented.

We can now see why, despite being a stalwart defense of the status quo and religious uniformity, Hooker’s Lawes has always enjoyed a reputation as a book of decidedly liberal sentiment.  Of course, this reputation has often rested partly on a somewhat misplaced sense that Hooker was a defender of the authority of reason in an age of biblicism; as we have seen, he is, but his rehabilitation of reason is circumscribed within a two-kingdoms framework, which affirms sola Scriptura in matters spiritual, and maintains also the rich value of Scripture as a resource of all sorts of human knowledge, especially moral.  But Puritanism’s legalistic concept of Scripture, which has remained deeply influential in the Protestant tradition, he decisively opposed.  Although not without his fair share of weaknesses and tensions, then, Hooker deserves credit for freeing Christian consciences from the tyranny of Scripture conceived as an exhaustive law-book, desacralizing human authority in both church and state, and resisting the Puritan tendency to immanentize Christ’s eschatological rule in the visible church; in all this he both re-affirmed the core agenda of Luther’s reform and helped set the stage for a flowering of Protestant jurisprudence in the century that followed.

See next week’s installment for more on the use of two-kingdoms thinking in seventeenth-century Protestant political theology and jurisprudence.

 

Key sources used in the foregoing include the books Richard Hooker’s Doctrine of the Royal Supremacy and Richard Hooker: Reformer and Platonist, by Torrance Kirby, Anglicans and Puritans? by Peter Lake, and the articles “The Philosopher of the ‘Politic Societie’” by Cargill Thompson, “Richard Hooker and the Problem of Authority in the Elizabethan Church,” by Mark Perrott, and “Richard Hooker’s Synthesis and the Problem of Allegiance,” by Robert Eccleshall.

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Brad Littlejohn has just completed a Ph.D at the University of Edinburgh, where he worked on the relationship between law, loyalty, and liberty in the thought of Richard Hooker under the supervision of Oliver O’Donovan. He has written one monograph and edited another on the 19th-century movement known as the Mercersburg Theology, but his real passion is in the fields of political theology and early modern history, in which fields he has written several articles and book chapters. He blogs at www.swordandploughshare.com.