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.