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The Good & Great Works of Richard Hooker

Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity laws, a volume of sermons and tractates, and a volume of contemporary commentary on the laws—will be published in 1978)

Preface and Books I-V by Richard Hooker. The Folger Library Edition of the Works of Richard Hooker, edited by W. Speed Hill
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Vol.II, 624 pp., $60.00 the set (three more volumes in this edition—the balance of the

I

At first sight, it seems odd that Richard Hooker should be celebrated, and his works published, in America. Hooker is a very English figure, the Doctor Angelicus of the Church of England—that established Church which, from the first publication, in 1593, of his great work, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, turned back the tide of Puritanism and sent its irreducible opponents to find a refuge,

safe from the storm’s and prelate’s rage,

in this more hospitable land. Why then should it be in this continent, which has rejected all established churches, that his works are now being republished, more splendidly and more accurately than ever, thanks to the generosity of American patrons and the devotion of American scholars? On the face of it, it is a paradox.

It is not the only paradox. Hooker’s work itself presents us with paradoxes. There is the paradox of his reputation. His great work was born of controversy. It was designed to secure the victory of a party in the bitter struggles of the Elizabethan Church. But in spite of this, he himself has always, in some mysterious way, remained an Olympian figure, standing benignly above the battle in which, historically, he had been so deeply engaged. In his lifetime, the praises of this Protestant, Anglican writer were sung, we are told, by Pope and Cardinals. After his death, King James I, arriving from Scotland to claim his new kingdom, was disappointed to find that he was too late to meet “that man from whose books I have received such satisfaction.” A generation later, King Charles I and Archbishop Laud took up the refrain. But when the Puritans have rebelled against both King and Archbishop, Hooker, we find, does not sink with them: he rises effortlessly on the new stream. The magniloquent tirades of Milton spare the name of this more sedate, more philosophical prosaist; the radical pamphleteers of the Civil War explicitly exempt from condemnation “the sweet and noble Hooker,” and the Puritan Baxter claims him as an ally.

When Church and King are restored, the Puritans sink again out of sight. But not Hooker. Now he enjoys his apotheosis as the patron saint of the narrow, high-flying, high-Tory Church of the Restoration; and there he stays—until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when behold! while dynasty and high-Tory Anglicanism go down, he surfaces again as the avowed oracle of John Locke and the Whig party. And so it goes on. In the 1830s the last complete edition of Hooker’s writings before this great American project filled six years of the life of John Keble, the founder of that Oxford movement which in some ways was the reversal of Hooker’s work: for it ended by disowning the royal supremacy, which Hooker had so uncompromisingly defended, and by sending many of its intellectual leaders back from Canterbury to Rome. No wonder he has been immortalized under the misleading title of “the judicious Hooker”!

How is it that Hooker, whose writings were hammered out in the internal party warfare of sixteenth-century religion, has so effortlessly transcended those battles? Why does his work alone survive the silent carnage of time? Who now—except the editors and commentators of Hooker—reads the controversial works of Cartwright and Travers, Whitgift and Bancroft, Stapleton and Persons? They have disappeared, and we see them only in fragmentary form: gobbets and slivers pickled in the footnotes to Hooker.

This, of course, is not unnatural. Many great works have been born in controversy, designed to serve short-term partisan ends. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Marx, all built up their systems against now forgotten adversaries. Vulgar disputants die with the disputes which have nourished them. Great works shed their turbulent beginnings and seem, in retrospect, to rise out of untroubled thought. Nevertheless, to understand them we need to know their origins as well as their originality. Therefore let us look, first, at the religious controversies of Elizabethan England, out of which The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity was born.

Richard Hooker was born early in 1554, a few months after the death of Edward VI and the accession of his Roman Catholic sister Mary Tudor. By that change of sovereign, the English Reformation, it seemed, had been fatally arrested. Some might say that the English Reformation had already outrun its original design; but we need not debate that point. The essential fact is that in the next five years numbers of English Protestants, seeing their Reformation halted, and its professors burned, fled abroad, and there, in Geneva, discovered a new model of the reformed Church very different from anything previously envisaged in England. For the concept of the Church which they had inherited was, in essentials, an Erasmian concept: they imagined a Church in which the traditional structure was purified of its abuses, and infused with a new spirit, under the protection—since the old spiritual head had been irremediably corrupted—of the lay ruler, the national Prince.

But the concept of the Church which these exiles now discovered in Geneva was quite different. What they discovered was Calvin’s model: a church reconstituted on a new base, sanctified not by the gradual test of time but by the immediate authority of Scripture and the supposed practice of the apostles. This new model was fundamentally incompatible with the Erasmian model of the English reformers. That had been historical, evolutionary, continuous. This was unhistorical, anti-historical, fundamentalist. That had been adapted to the social forms of a modern monarchy. This implied another form of society: oligarchical, radical, perhaps revolutionary. That had been comprehensive, the church of the whole Christian people. This was exclusive, the Church of a party, the Elect.

In early days, in the days of the common struggle against Rome, these differences might be obscured. Against the common danger, both parties found it best to stand together, postponing implicit differences. When the Marian exiles returned to Elizabethan England, they were ready, at first, to work within the existing structure; for they were weak and the Queen’s government was indispensable. On her side the Queen, though determined to tolerate no “innovation,” no “new-fangledness,” was ready to use their services, for she was weak too, and needed them. So the parties settled down to an uneasy co-existence made possible by two things: first, by a large middle party of miscellaneous non-Calvinist lay Puritans who had no desire for revolution; secondly, by the legal supremacy of an indispensable Queen. So long as Elizabeth lived, the Via Media, it seemed, could live too: or at least its implicit tensions could be contained.

So long as she lived…. But how long would she live? That was the great question. If she should die, who could deny the right of Mary Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots, to succeed her? Mary Stuart was a Roman Catholic. As such, Parliament might debar her; but Parliament had debarred Mary Tudor, and with what result? She had come in, and all these fragile paper barriers had dissolved before her. If Mary Stuart, like Mary Tudor, were to come in as rightful queen, how could either the unorganized forces of lay Puritanism or the fragile opportunism of a Laodicean Church resist the full force of legitimate, acknowledged, established power?

Effective resistance requires organization, discipline, political will. It also requires firm doctrine, an ideology, a myth. If we ask who, in the 1570s, had that discipline, that myth, there is only one answer. It was international Calvinism: that international Calvinism which was able to defy Church and legitimate Crown in France; which had overthrown Church and legitimate Queen in Scotland; and which would soon overthrow Church and legitimate Crown in the Netherlands. Against the possible accession of the deposed Queen of Scots in England, the Calvinists were preparing an organization which could survive even a new Counter-Reformation. Such an organization must repudiate the royal supremacy, episcopacy, historic continuity. By its very nature it must necessarily undermine and destroy the precariously established Elizabethan Church.

In those years of incubation Richard Hooker was at Oxford, first a student, then a fellow of Corpus Christi college, the college of Erasmus. At first he had been seduced by the appeal of Calvinism, with its high claims of doctrinal and structural purity: indeed, he had been suspended from his fellowship, perhaps on that account. But he had survived both that enthusiasm and that suspension; and having survived, he had found a new purpose in his own life. He would deprive the Puritans of their monopoly and create a myth, a permanent intellectual and historical justification, for the still fragile and precarious Erasmian Anglican Church.

For we are now in the 1580s, that terrible decade, when England was beleaguered by the forces of the Counter-Reformation, when plot after plot was being mounted to destroy Queen Elizabeth for the benefit of Mary Stuart, when Alexander Farnese was reconquering the Netherlands for Spain, and invincible armadas were being built for the conquest of England. At any moment now Queen Elizabeth might be struck down, as William of Orange and Henri III of France were struck down; and then the great crisis would have come: a crisis for which revolutionary Calvinism had prepared itself but Anglicanism, as yet, had not.

In the 1580s, the Calvinists were indeed ready. Themselves a small minority, they were nevertheless highly organized, well disciplined, confident. Sure of themselves, sure of their ideology and their foreign support, they claimed the leadership of the uncertain English Protestants and sought to build up, behind the temporary façade of the episcopal Church, an unbreakable organization which would deal with Mary Stuart in England as their brethren of Scotland had already dealt with her there. It was then that Thomas Cartwright and Walter Travers—the head and the neck of English Calvinism, as they would be called—set out resolutely to capture the still indeterminate Church of England from within, and it was then that the Calvinist agitator John Field—“that Field which the Lord hath blessed,” as the faithful called him—set in motion a plan to capture Parliament too. Had they succeeded, they would have destroyed one Church and created another. Their plan, Sir John Neale has written, was “tabula rasa, stark revolution.”

These were the circumstances in which Richard Hooker sat down to write The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. As Master of the Temple, he met Calvinism at close quarters, for Walter Travers was his colleague, in the Temple itself, preaching and writing against him. How tense the atmosphere must have been in the Temple in those days, among those disputatious Elizabethan lawyers. Every Sunday morning they heard the Master preach the doctrines of pure Canterbury. Every afternoon they heard him corrected by his more famous lecturer, preaching pure Geneva. For Travers was a man of note, of influence, patronized by the great Lord Burghley. Fortunately, Hooker had a patron too. This was Archbishop Whitgift, an authoritarian churchman who, though himself half-Calvinist in theology, had already struck many a blow, both controversial and disciplinary, against the leaders of that party. Hooker could safely leave the political battle to his patron. His own task was purely intellectual. He wished to discredit the ideology of the Calvinists and replace it by an Anglican ideology strong enough to capture the intellectual leadership of the Church.

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