Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Polemic and Reconciliation

Hooker’s continued discussion of the problems of the English Puritan position through the rest of the Preface of the Lawes can be reduced to the question of how Scripture operates as a norm for the established church. In considering the educated Puritan leadership in England, Hooker charges that their interpretation of Scripture, especially as it pertains to church orders, is idiosyncratic.

“A verie strange thing sure it were that such a discipline as ye speake of should be taught by Christ and his Apostles in the word of God, and no Church ever have found it out, nor recyved it till this present time . . .” (Preface 4.1, lines 23-25)

In developing his critique of Puritanism, he emphasizes the threat it could pose to English society by raising the specter of Anabaptism. The Anabaptists were the specters that haunted other Christians on both the Protestant and Catholic side in the sixteenth century. Anabaptism as expressed by thinkers like Menno Simons or Jakob Hutter, was ignored in favor of the extreme example of radical reform and ensuing social chaos that happened in the city of Muenster. Hooker charges that Anabaptism, by assuming that all answers can only be found in Scripture, undermines existing social structures (Preface 8.8).

In Hooker’s view, the potential chaos of a Puritan view of church and society would be “more easie for us to prevent then they would be for them to remedy” (Preface 8.14, lines 21-22). This means a reading of Scripture that is informed by both attention to tradition and reason that discerns what practices are appropriate for a given local context. “The orders therefore which were observed in the Apostles times, are not to be urged as a rule universallie either sufficient or necessarie” (Preface 4.5, lines 15-16). As one of his examples, Hooker observes that the kiss of peace attested to in New Testament communities in his time should not be reinstituted in his time because it would cause scandal. In other words, not all New Testament practices ought to be followed; reason needs to be a guide.

Despite the polemic of his Preface, Hooker holds out hope and a desire for reconciliation with the Puritan side in England. Hooker conjures a biblical model of fraternal reconciliation as he ends his Preface:

“But our trust in the almightie is, that with contentions are now at their highest floate, and that the day will come (for what cause of despaire is there) when the passions of former emnitie being allaied, we shal with ten times redoubled tokens of our unfainedlie reconciled love, shewe our selves each towards other the same which Joseph and the brethren of Joseph were at the time of their enterview in Aegypt” (Preface, 9.4, lines 5-11).

Hooker’s vision of Puritan and supporters of the established church eventually being reconciled much like Joseph and his brothers is a hopeful one. It is a vision that speaks to Christians throughout the ages, but especially one that Anglicans today certainly should yearn for. Just as England was rent asunder four hundred years ago over how Scripture ought to be interpreted within local contexts, Anglicans today across the communion are rent asunder over these same questions. What is it all can learn from Hooker’s arguments?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Clarity of Doctrine and the Ambiguity of Practice

After examining last week Hooker’s critique of the polity implemented in Geneva, this week the reading group turned to the third chapter of the Preface, on how unlearned people in England were persuaded to embrace Puritanism. In this section Hooker goes to great lengths to explain how unlearned people are persuaded to follow Puritan arguments not by virtue of reason but by appeals to the emotions (including an extended explanation of why women, due to impaired rational faculties, comprised a majority of Puritan followers).

Lying behind this polemic against simple followers of English presbyterian leaders is an argument about the clarity of scripture in matters of doctrine and its latitude regarding church practices. Hooker is adamant that all things necessary for salvation are clearly set forth in scripture (cf. Article 6 of the Thirty-Nine Articles; 2 Tim 3:16-17):

“Some things are so familier and plaine, that truth from falsehood, and good from evill is most easily discerned in them, even by men of no deepe capacitie. And of that nature, for the most part are things absolutely unto all mens salvation necessarie, either to be held or denied, eyther to be done or avoided . . . they are not only set downe, but also plainely set downe in Scripture” (Preface 3.2, lines 5-11).

While Scripture plainly states that all things needed for salvation are within it and all can access it, nonetheless Scripture is not as clear when it comes to questions of practice and church structures. Hooker emphasizes that questions about practice and polity are best left to experts that “God hath appointed some to spende their whole time principally in the studie of things divine” (Preface 3.2, lines 15-16). Indeed, while Scripture is plain in matters of doctrine, “in some things, as in these matters of discipline, [it is] more darke and doubtfull” (Preface 3.10, lines 1-2).

It is useful here to remember that Hooker’s quarrel with English Puritans was not in their reformed theology. We saw in the previous week that Hooker admired Calvin; the Elizabethan Church of England’s theology was permeated with reformed thought. Rather, Hooker disagreed with Puritan critique of the polity of the Church of England, claiming that it indeed was corrupt. In its places, Puritans claimed that only the polity of Geneva was ordained in Scripture (Preface 3.6-9).

For the people who gathered to read this chapter, parallels with the current debates within the Anglican Communion emerged. For example, it was noted that the current debate over human sexuality might reflect a debate over practice or polity and not doctrine. Hence, following Hooker’s critique of an exclusivist reading of Scripture regarding practice ought to be heeded. Indeed, Hooker claims that Puritans who claim such exclusivist readings distort Scripture itself. Following this argument in our context, some conservative factions in the Anglican Communion who claim that acceptance of sexual diversity is a betrayal of Anglican identity might find the shoe on the other foot.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Calvin, yes. Geneva, no.

In the second meeting of our group, we managed to finish chapter two of the Preface to the Lawes. This chapter is Hooker’s explication of the development of reform in Geneva under the leadership of John Calvin. Hooker was part of a “reformed consensus” in the Church of England that accepted as an important theological voice. One only need to read the Thirty-Nine Articles to see the importance of reformed theology on the English church. Hooker himself notes that Calvin is worthy of respect for “his exceeding paynes in composing the Institutions of Christian religion” and “his no lesse industrious travailes for exposition of holy Scripture” (Preface 2.8).

Nonetheless, Hooker disagrees with the argument of English Puritans influenced by exiles who fled England and lived in Geneva due to the policies of Queen Mary I who, upon their return to England, argued that the form of church governance Calvin established in Geneva was necessary because it alone is ordained by scripture. In particular, Hooker resists the notion that lay elders could possess the power of excommunication, a power he holds only bishops are imbued with in the Church of England. In Hooker’s mind, Calvin’s efforts at reform in Geneva were well-suited to that place, but they do not translate well to an English context. “That which Calvin did for establishment of his discipline, seemeth more commendable than that which he taught for the countenancing of it established” (Preface 2.7).

Our group saw in Hooker’s argument here the continuing development of his notion of church polity as something contextual and necessarily organic. Hooker could not imagine the level of lay leadership made available in Geneva being exercised in England. It makes one wonder what he would make of vestry meetings and all other forms of lay leadership in the contemporary Episcopal Church.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Beginning at the Beginning

This past Thursday saw the first meeting of the Richard Hooker reading group at CDSP. About a dozen students joined me. Most were first and third year Master of Divinity students with a smattering of students from other programs, plus an exchange student from Ripon College Cuddesdon in England. We gathered as people seeking to learn about Hooker and his Lawes. Some of us had read significant parts of his work before, some none at all.

We began at the beginning, with the Preface. People in turn read aloud from Hooker, one sentence at a time. We stopped after each sentence, mulling it over before moving on. Sometimes, explanatory comments were offered or questions posed. Other times the sentence spoke for itself. We got through five pages in an hour, reading the short first section of the Preface in which Hooker set forth the rational for the work and half of the second section in which Hooker narrated the history of John Calvin’s Geneva.

Even in five pages Hookers distinctive ethos has emerged. Take this passage for example:

“Thinke not that ye reade the words of one, who bendeth him selfe as an adversarie against the truth which ye have alreadie embraced; but the words of one who desireth even to embrace together with you the selfe same truth, if it be the truth, and for that cause (for no other God he knoweth) hath undertaken the burthensome labor of this painefull kinde of conference.” (Preface I.3, lines 1-6)

Upon hearing this passage one participant commented on how Anglican it sounded. Hooker here sets forth his argument with his Puritan opponents not as argument for the sake of argument, but as ultimately a search for truth. Granted, Hooker argues vigorously and perhaps polemically for his view but he does so with the hope that he can unite with those he disagrees at least in the search for the truth found in God. And this perhaps is one of Hooker’s important contributions: the disagreements and arguments over the form of the church ultimately ought to yield to the truth established in God alone.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Blogging of Richard Hooker: The Idea

I recently came in possession of the Folger Library edition of Richard Hooker's Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity. As I stood in my office hefting volume one in my hands, I thought, "When on earth will I actually read this?" In Anglican circles Hooker's work is like Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time -- often referenced and rarely read. I have read my share of Hooker as a historian of Christianity and professor of church history at an Episcopal seminary. But I knew very few people who had ever read the whole thing.

So I stood in my office and thought, "I am only going to read this if I do it with someone." I thought of offering an elective course, but I doubted either that many students would register or that we could finish the entire work in a semester. An informal reading group seemed like the right vehicle for a project as daunting as reading all of Richard Hooker's Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity.

So this is the project that has been undertaken at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific this fall semester. We will gather as a group of faculty, staff, and students to read Richard Hooker from beginning to end. We will read him aloud, deciphering his Elizabethan prose and spelling one sentence at a time. We will begin with the preface and work our way through all eight books talking about his argument as a group. I have no idea when this project will end; it may take years. But it seems like a project worth doing.