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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XVIII. “Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity”

§ 10. The position of his book in literature

His Ecclesiastical Polity is remarkable as being one of the few theological or philosophical works which have taken a high place in the literature of the language in which they were written, and also for its far-reaching importance. Like Plato, St. Augustine, Pascal and Berkeley, Hooker combines the often discordant elements of a deep thinker and a consummate literary artist. But, in one respect, he rose above them all: by his power of elevating a dispute of a purely temporary interest into a discussion of the great principles on which all human society must be based. Hooker has been compared to “a Knight of Romance among caitiff brawlers,” and, if this description be unjust to his contemporary opponents and supporters, it indicates the immensity of the gap which parted him from them. As surely as Bacon pointed out the right method of investigation in natural philosophy, did Hooker prepare the way for the future by indicating the true lines on which theology ought to develop. He not only called into being the language of Anglican theology; he laid down the lines on which it should proceed. His style has won the commendation of so great a master of English prose as Swift, and of a historian like Hallam. He can be fluent, easy and straightforward at times, but is equally capable of rising to a majesty of eloquence or a severity of diction according to the requirements of his subject. His singular sensitiveness to the rhythm and musical expression of his sentences has been remarked; and, even where he appears to be most obscure or involved, close attention will reveal a purpose alike in his choice of words and in the arrangement of the clauses of his sentences. It is certainly true that “such who would patiently attend and give him credit all the reading and hearing of his sentences, had their expectation ever paid at the close thereof.”

But he was far more than a great prose writer, a ripe scholar, a pioneer in bringing Greek philosophy into English literature. Hooker’s greatest merit was that he showed Anglican theologians that their object must be, not to contend about trifles, but to hold up the highest ideal of a church rooted in antiquity, ever studious in Scriptural and primitive Christianity, and, at the same time, large minded, open and tolerant. In an age of partisanship, he was not in the least a party theologian, and he appealed to the understanding of those who had no sympathy with either Anglican or puritan. Hooker, it is true, struck the decisive blow in favour of the Anglican position in the sixteenth century: but he did a more lasting work. He indicated that Anglicanism meant freedom combined with reverence, the exercise of the reason with a simple faith, and that liberality towards all churches was compatible with loyalty to that of the nation. He was greater both than his contemporaries and than his followers, and whenever the church of England has failed it has been when she has not been true to the liberal principles of her greatest apologist.