Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Prudence and Custom: Revisiting Hooker on Authority

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Prudence and Custom: Revisiting Hooker on Authority

Article excerpt

There is a standard Anglican rule on theological authority, quoted so often that it has become a commonplace. "Scripture, reason, and tradition," we are told, "are the authorities upon which Anglicans rely when doing theology; this is the grand synthesis which we inherit from Richard Hooker and his masterwork, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie."

That may or may not be the ground for much of Anglican theology; there is room for debate on the issue. More immediately relevant, though, is the problem that this is not a particularly subtle account of Hooker's method. Hooker employs something which I call "prudential method." In the Lawes, he discusses questions of ecclesiastical polity, as the title suggests.1 Hooker treats this variety of issues related to church order as a series of practical questions. They become matters of action, in the Aristotelian sense, to be resolved by the deliberative activity of human intelligence. Prudential method, which combines attention to custom with the use of prudence, is the means by which reason is employed in the resolution of such questions.

Prudential method has two parts. These parts bear some relation to the standard authorities of "reason" and "tradition." The astute observer will note the exclusion of the third "leg of the stool," so to speak. Scripture does not appear. I will take a moment to justify its absence.

Setting Scripture Aside

For Hooker, Scripture is not an authority to be used at random; like everything else, it has its own telos, or purpose. Scripture, in the Lawes, is the vehicle which God employs to convey the message of grace to people, "the lawes of duties supernaturall."2 Scripture reveals to us the means which God has provided for our salvation, the route by which we may enter into participation in the divine life. The true end of humanity is to enter into union with God, but the only way to perfection known through "the light of nature" is by performing exactly "the duties and workes of righteousnes," something manifestly impossible for fallen humanity.3 Perfection in fulfilling the most evident demands of justice is beyond human capacity, so that we cannot serve our true end. We need salvation. In Scripture, "God hath revealed a way mysticall and supernaturall"; only through Scripture can one know the way of "faith hope and charitie without which there can be no salvation."4 Because Scripture conveys that revelation from God, it is the ground for all doctrine. "Matters of fayth, and in generall matters necessarie unto salvation are ... necessarie to bee expresslie conteyned in the word of God, or else manifestly collected out of the same. . . it is necessarie not to receive [them], unless there bee something in scripture for them."5

Discussion about matters directly concerning God's plan of salvation must be settled by reference to Scripture. However, that is the limit of Scripture's authority. Hooker explicitly rejects the Puritan position, as he understands it, on the omnicompetence of Scripture.

In Book III, Hooker distinguishes between the mystical and the visible Body of Christ.6 The mystical church is known only to God, who can see into the human heart. Hence, this church has little relevance to the practical issues which Hooker wishes to address. He discusses the mystical Body of Christ for one section of one chapter of Book III and promptly drops it, although the notion will occasionally reappear in Book V.

Instead, Hooker's concern is for the visible church, which must attend to practical matters. "When we reade of any dutie which the Church of God is bound unto, the Church whome this Both concerne is a sensiblie knowne company."7 This church is divided among many politic societies ("the Church of Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, England"), but all churches have some characteristics in common. For Hooker, one of the most important of these is "Ecclesiastical) Politie." This term is meant to include all things pertaining to "the publique spirituall affayres of the Church of God. …

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