Richard Hooker as Interpreter of the Reformed Doctrine of Sola Scriptura

By Ingalls, Ranall | Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Richard Hooker as Interpreter of the Reformed Doctrine of Sola Scriptura


Ingalls, Ranall, Anglican and Episcopal History


In 1899 Francis Paget published a book on the thought of Richard Hooker (1554-1600) that would profoundly shape Anglican self-understanding in the twentieth century.1 Paget, an English priest, had helped to revise John Keble's edition of Hooker's Works in 1867. Well known as a representative of the "liberal catholic" circle of Charles Gore, he would later succeed Gore as bishop of Oxford. Like Gore, Paget wanted to help the English church come to terms with the new biblical criticism that was arriving from Germany and France. His book was an important contribution to this project. Hooker had been read by many as the authoritative interpreter of the faith of the Church of England since shortly after his death.2 Paget could therefore make a powerful and persuasive case for an important dimension of that rapprochement with modernity advocated by the liberal catholics by means of a commentary on the fifth book of Hooker's longest and best-known work, The Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie.3

In the Lawes Hooker replied to Protestant critics of the English church as reformed under Queen Elizabeth I who sought a "further reformation" in the direction of John Calvin's "Discipline" at Geneva.4 At the same time, he helped to clarify the principles on which the reformed Church of England stood. Paget argued that as Hooker did this he turned away from the Reformation principle that the church is able to teach authoritatively about those things necessary to be believed and done for salvation on the basis of the scriptures alone - sola scriptum. He replaced it with a threefold account of religious authority that defined a peculiarly Anglican middle way. On one side of this via media was the Magisterial Reformation, represented by sixteenth-century reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli. On the other was Roman Catholicism as defined at the Council of Trent (1545-63).

Hooker's appeal in things spiritual is to a threefold fount of guidance and authority - to reason, Scripture, and tradition - all alike of God, alike emanating from Him, the one original Source of all light and power. . . . And in maintaining the rightfulness and the duty of thus appealing, Hooker rendered his highest service and did his most abiding work. For on equal loyalty to the unconflicting rights of reason, of Scripture, and of tradition rest the distinctive strength and hope of the English Church.5

A mark of the influence of Paget's interpretation is the fact that in a recent monograph on Hooker and reformed theology, Nigel Voak described this understanding of Hooker as "traditional." Voak argued that "Hooker articulated, and was possibly the originator of the idea that there exists a triple source of religious authority: scripture, reason, and tradition, in diat order."6 In fact, however, the "triple source" theory is relatively recent. It draws attention to true and important aspects of Hooker's thought, but does this by obscuring others. The evidence suggests instead that Hooker's intent was to be a faithful interpreter of the Reformation principle of sola scriptum in a historical and polemical context very different from the early sixteenth-century arguments between Protestant reformers and Roman Catholic apologists. As he described the nature and purpose of the Bible he recalled the magisterial reformers' "middle way" between Roman Catholicism and Anabaptism and the language of the Thirty-nine Articles and the Homilies. The substance of what the early reformers maintained about the Bible is preserved in Hooker's argument with Protestant critics of the reformed Church of England. At the same time, however, Hooker drew deeply on the resources of the western theological tradition in order to defend it. He especially relied upon St. Augustine, the reformers' favorite among the church fathers. This does not mean that Paget was wholly wrong. He was right to insist that Hooker championed reason. Hooker, however, understood reason and the scriptural revelation in ways that are often strange and unfamiliar to his modern readers. …

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