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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”

§ 9. His place in the reformation

It is this large view of matters, this broad and tolerant sympathy, which gives Hooker a unique place among theological writers.

When we reach the third book, dealing with the question whether a definite form of church polity is prescribed in Scripture, it may be well to bear in mind that the title of Hooker’s work is not The Laws of but Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, it being no design of his to lay down definite laws of church government but, rather, to discuss the principles whereon they are based. Strong churchman as he was, Hooker’s aim was not to set up the laws of the church to which he belonged as a third code claiming the same infallibility as that which the advocates of the Roman and puritan ecclesiastical systems claimed. He was, as his whole argument shows, fighting the battle of toleration and progress, to which the assertion of infallibility must oppose an unsurmountable barrier. Circumstances tended, in after days, to cause posterity, rightly or wrongly, to identify puritanism with civil and religious liberty; but the demand for the establishment of a discipline, rigidly defined and sanctioned by the unerring voice of Scripture, must, if granted, have meant ecclesiastical tyranny and stagnation.

The error of the puritans was, as Hooker points out, the same as that of the African church in the time of St. Cyprian and the controversy on rebaptism, and was due to the failure to distinguish the visible from the mystical church. Even heretics are acknowledged to be “though a maimed part, yet a part of the visible church.” For,

  • if an infidel should pursue to death an heretic professing Christianity, only for Christian profession’s sake, could we deny unto him the honour of martyrdom? Yet this honour all men know to be proper unto the Church. Heretics therefore are not utterly cut off from the visible Church of Christ.
  • This generous sentiment was completely at variance with the tenets of Calvinism, which held that Romanism was a worse sin than idolatry, and Hooker considers Calvin’s answer to Farel, regarding the baptism of the children of papists, “crazed, because, in it, he says, ‘It is an absurd thing for us to baptise them which cannot be reckoned members of our body.” This large conception of the church as opposed to the narrower view of the puritans pervades the whole argument.

    The principal contention in this third book is, naturally, that Scripture lays down only what is absolutely necessary for doctrine and practice, and that this does not include the externals of church worship or government. An ecclesiastical polity is as necessary to all societies of Christian men as a language, but it no more follows that all should adopt the same form of government in church matters than that they should use the same tongue. Episcopal government seems, however, to be more in consonance with Scripture than any other, though Hooker does not consider that a church ceases to be truly one because it lacks this advantage.

  • “In which respect for mine own part,” he remarks, “although I see that certain reformed churches, the Scottish especially and French, have not that which best agreeth with the sacred Scripture, I mean the government that is by Bishops, inasmuch as both those churches are fallen under a different kind of regiment; which to remedy it is for the one altogether too late, and too soon for the other during their present affliction and trouble: this their defect and imperfection I had rather lament in such case than exagitate, considering that men oftentimes without any fault of their own may be driven to want that kind of polity or regiment which is best, and to content themselves with that, which either the irremediable error of former times, or the necessity of the present, hath cast upon them.”
  • In his fourth book, Hooker undertakes to defend the church of England against the charge of Romanism because certain ceremonies were retained which the other reformed churches had rejected. And here it may not be irrelevant to remark that the question of toleration never entered into the dispute. The object of the Elizabethan settlement was to establish a church on the broad basis of comprehension; that of the puritans to set up a procrustean institution and to force every Englishman to conform to it in all particulars. The point at issue between Anglican and puritan in the days of Elizabeth was which of two ideals of a national church should prevail. This was recognised generally in the country, and puritanism, discredited by the violent language of the Marprelate libels, was, when Hooker, in 1594, issued his fourth book, manifestly on the wane, while Anglicanism, after an unpromising beginning, was daily gaining strength, so that he was able to say:

  • That which especially concerneth ourselves, in the present matter we treat of, is the state of reformed religion, a thing at her [Elizabeth’s] coming to the crown even raised as it were by a miracle from the dead; a thing which we so little hoped to see, that even they which beheld it done, scarcely believed their own senses at the first beholding. Yet being then brought to pass, thus many years it hath continued, standing by no other worldly mean but that one only hand which erected it; that hand which as no kind of imminent danger could cause at the first to withhold itself, so neither have the practice of so many so bloody following since been ever able to make weary.… Which grace and favour of divine assistance having not in one thing or two shewed itself, nor for some few days or years appeared … what can we less thereupon conclude, than that God would at leastwise by tract of time teach the world, that the thing which he blesseth, defendeth, keepeth so strangely, cannot choose but be of him. Wherefore, if any refuse to believe us disputing for the verity of religion established, let them believe God himself thus miraculously working for it, and wish life even for ever and ever unto that glorious and sacred instrument whereby he worketh.
  • When we reach the fifth book, which, in itself, is almost as extensive as the rest of the work, we find ourselves at the very heart of the controversy and discover that the same master hand has the same capacity for dealing with detail as it exhibited in regard to general principles. It would be impossible to show here at length how Hooker defends the prayer-book against the criticisms of Cartwright and Travers; and we must be content with a cursory examination of the chapters wherein Hooker rises to the highest point of excellence as a theologian, namely those dealing with the sacraments. With questions purely ritual in character, Hooker is not a little impatient; the controversies of his own day about “rites and ceremonies of church action” appear, as he remarks in the dedication of this book to Whitgift, “such silly things, that very easiness doth make them hard to be disputed of in serious manner.” But, in treating of sacramental grace, he feels himself to be engaged in a congenial occupation, and he lavishes on it all the treasures of his wide reading and erudition combined with skill and judgment. He takes us back to the great controversies of antiquity and, with masterly skill, unfolds the doctrine of the Divinity of the Word and the relation of the Divine and human natures in Christ. From the Person he goes on to speak of the Presence of Christ, and from Presence to the participation we have of Him. Thoroughly acquainted as he is with all the theories of sacramental grace prevalent in his day, especially in regard to the Eucharist, he recognises that here, if anywhere, all parties are fundamentally agreed, now that the theories of Zwingli and Oecolampadius were rejected “concerning that alone is material, namely the real participation of Christ and of life in his body and blood by means of this sacrament.” “I wish,” he adds, later, “that men would more give themselves to meditate what we have by the sacrament and less to dispute of the manner how.”

    Hooker went further on the path of conciliation than any other divine in seeing that a recognition of the fact of the presence of the Saviour, however defined, was the essential point to which all others were really subsidiary. A passage of remarkable beauty in the 67th chapter he brings to the following conclusion:

  • What these elements are in themselves it skilleth not, it is enough that to me which take them they are the body and blood of Christ, his promise in witness hereof sufficeth, his word he knoweth which way to accomplish; why should any cogitation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this.
  • O my God thou art true, O my soul thou art happy!
  • The fifth book was, as we have seen, the last to be published in Hooker’s lifetime; and the remaining three can only be mentioned in brief. The sixth deals with the question of church discipline and contains a valuable survey of the system of penance, not only of that in the early church, but, also, of that in vogue among the Jews. Hooker also discusses the Roman view of the subject as put forward by cardinal Bellarmine. The seventh book answers the puritan objections to episcopal government, and is remarkable for the temperate way in which each is stated and discussed as well as for the erudition displayed. While he professes his belief in the apostolical origin of episcopacy, Hooker does not consider the institution absolutely indispensable, though, when he speaks of cathedral establishments, his knowledge of history enables him to see in them the outlines of the primitive churches, and he gives way to a moment of enthusiasm foreign to his usual habit:

  • For most certain truth it is that cathedral churches and the bishops of them are as glasses wherein the face and very countenance of apostolical antiquity remaineth even as yet to be seen.… For defence and maintenance of them we are most earnestly bound to strive, even as the Jews were for their temple … the overthrow and ruin of the one if ever the sacrilegious avarice of Atheists should prevail so far, which God of his infinite mercy forbid, ought no otherwise to move us than the people of God were moved … when they uttered from the bottom of their grieved spirits those voices of doleful supplication Exsurge Domine et miserearis Sion, Servi tui diligunt lapides ejus, pulveris ejus miseret eos.
  • Hooker, it may be remarked, insists on the necessity of episcopal ordination except “when the exigence of necessity doth constrain to leave the usual ways of the church, which otherwise we would willingly keep.”

    The eighth book treats of “the power of supreme jurisdiction” and the relation of the civil magistrate to the church. To Hooker a Christian church and state are identical; but an English monarch’s power is strictly limited by law. “The axioms of our regal government,” he says, “are these, lex facit regem … and rex nihil potest nisi quod jure potest.” In all the king’s proceedings “law is itself the rule.”

    Such, then, is the main outline of a great work which had an abiding influence on English history. It showed the strength of the argument in favour of the Elizabethan settlement of religion, and the real weakness, despite the moral fervour which it evoked, of the puritan position. But, though Hooker’s work had no small influence on the subsequent development of the Anglican ideal, his position was not that of the Laudian, much less of the tractarian, school of clergy. He had the advantage of living at the time when the first bitterness of the conflict between puritanism and Anglicanism had spent itself and before the struggle had entered upon its second phase. He lived too early to witness the final breach between Anglicanism and continental protestantism, and too late to experience the predominance of the latter in the time of the Zürich letters. The result is that his views are broad, sympathetic and tolerant. His singularly calm and dispassionate intellect enables him to rise superior to the prejudices of his age and, like St. Paul, he makes the problems of the hour turn on everlasting principles. The remark of Clement VIII on hearing the first book translated at sight into Latin by Stapleton, related by Walton, is as creditable to the judgment of the pontiff as to “the poor obscure English priest who had writ … such books.”

  • There is no learning that this man hath not searched into; nothing too hard for his understanding. This man indeed deserves the name of an author; his books will get reverence by age, for there is in them such seeds of eternity, that if the rest be like this, they shall last till the last fire shall consume all learning.
  • Of Hooker’s style, perhaps the most remarkable feature is the singular calmness and dignity with which he deals with the burning questions of his time. It was an age of literary scurrility, employed on both sides without either scruple or blame and thoroughly appreciated even by the learned public. This is conspicuously absent from Hooker’s published work, and rarely indeed does he allow his real humour and power of retort to display itself. Fortunately, however, his notes to the Christian Letter, preserved in the library of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, reveal the man in his private study, and show how extraordinary a self-restraint he must have exercised in curbing his natural powers of sarcasm. On a remark upon the “moral virtues” by the puritans in the letter, Hooker’s note is:

  • “A doctrine which would well have pleased Caligula, Nero, and other such monsters to heare. Had the apostles taught this it might have advanced them happily to honour.” Again he asks, “Have you been tampering so long with Pastors, Doctors, Elders, Deacons; that the first principles of your religion are new to learn?”
  • Hooker speaks of his age as a learned one, but his knowledge of books must have been pre-eminent at any time. Of the thousand and ninety-two pounds which he left at his death, we are not surprised to hear that “a great part of it was in books.” It was not merely that Hooker was well read in the Scriptures and the Fathers: it is the range of his learning that is remarkable. In the first book, which is not primarily theological, but deals, as we have seen, with the general principles of law, we have quotations from Mercurius Trismegistus, Stobaeus, Aquinas, Theophrastus, Aristotle, Clement of Alexandria, Ramus, Sallust, Vergil, Plato, Nicholas of Cusa, Telesius, Augustine, Cicero, Tertullian, Josephus, Lactantius, Duns Scotus, Gratian, the Carmina of Orpheus, Eusebius of Emesa and several other authors. His knowledge of Hebrew is shown in the fourth book, where he rebuts the charge that the ceremonies of the church were Judaic, whilst his extensive acquaintance with patristic literature is most evident in the fifth and sixth books. How keenly he was alive to the importance, not of the popular controversies of the day but of those which, if they attracted less attention, revealed dangerous tendencies, is seen in his dealing with the ubiquitarian doctrine of some Lutherans, who taught that the human body of Christ by reason of its union with his Godhead, was everywhere present, and that, as the body of the Son of God, it had the property of ubiquity: an error which would have deprived it of the true and essential character of a human body. This opinion is discussed in the great section of the fifth book L-LVII which speaks of the sacraments.