Not of This World

Philip Secor’s biography of Richard Hooker is interesting on various levels, to me the most of which is the political. Secor is not your usual church historian, but rather a student of political science, and it turns out an apt preparation for the study of Richard Hooker. Richard Hooker was a principled politician.

Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity defined in writing the Anglican Church. If we were to take the Reformation and split it into two general camps, we would get one whose more radical vision was of returning Christianity to its institution, the vision of Presbyterians and Baptists. The other camp would be that which set about eliminating perceivable excess and contradiction with a more conservative result: Lutherans and Anglicans. One has an obvious standard: Scripture alone. The second needs some kind of standard to be legitimate, and this is provided by natural law and reason, besides Scripture. Though prudential concerns will arise in each (Scripture, after all, has to be interpreted, and reason is a good think to use in that process), the former is more limited, allowing only what Scripture explicitly enjoins, the latter is broader, forbidding only what explicitly contradicts Scripture. Hooker makes one of the best arguments, if not the best argument there is for a continuity of natural law and church polity.

Hooker’s rationale is that grace serves, after the fall, to redirect and restore nature. For his vision of church polity to work, he has to argue for a continuity between the natural created order and that of the Church. The Church is governed as human government is, but with the addition of special ecclesiastical considerations. It makes sense if you consider that the work of Christ serves to restore that which was damaged in the fall. Because of all this, the laws of the church are continuous with the laws of a well-ordered commonwealth. Hooker’s case becomes very particular to his time and place, but does not exclude the option of variety elsewhere. He argues for a monarchial government in the church not because he believes Scripture sets this forth, rather it is precisely because he thinks Scripture sets no definite pattern forth. So the government of the Church should follow that of the land in order to coordinate with the temporal authority, thus insuring a uniform culture (I recognize I simplify, but I do not think I distort).

It is why I say Secor is a good person to write a comprehensive biography about Hooker. Anglican church polity is essentially secular political theory, an understanding of what is possible, a taking into account of a people’s customs and traditions, a concern for a national identity. The story is the story of Hooker’s ecclesiastical take on the issues, the structures of power, the possibilities and limits of possibility, the way convictions flow in ways not disruptive to the commonwealth. It also provides an interesting view of Presbyterians and Puritans as radicals, emphasizing the subversive, intransigent, and politically obtuse activity they engaged. There is a lot of think about in that regard, and it is worth considering.

But I also think the answer to Hooker’s and the Anglican’s way is what Jesus Christ said to Pontius Pilate when speaking of his Church and the polity thereof: My kingdom is not of this world. A kingdom is more than just a king and his power, it is also the government he exercises over his people, and his laws.

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