Richard Hooker’s Message from the Past

In light of the Supreme Court decision on marriage this past week, and the controversy from opposing sides that has ensued, it is worthwhile, in my opinion, to seek the wisdom of the past. Oftentimes the human perspective living in the moment is skewed by the immediate concerns and needs of the present; to have a perspective of time, granted by historical study, allows for the ability to form more balanced judgments not driven by the enthusiasm of the moment.

Richard Hooker was arguably the greatest English theologian, who wrote The Laws of the Ecclesiastical Polity in 1594. In this book he argued for the validity of the established Church of England, that the wisdom and tradition of the Christian past focused through human reason based on the study of natural and human history, provided moral stability and theological order that surpassed the superficiality of the passing moment.

For Hooker, whereas Catholics claim the authority of the Church infallible, and the Bishop of Rome the ability to provide statements of Church doctrine that have the force of truth, the Anglican church has the Book of Common Prayer, which is a written testament based on Scripture, tradition, and reason, hence has a sense of authority and power that transcends the individual believer. The Book of Common Prayer, like Scripture, can embrace various peoples of different times and places, to share a broad communion over time, that is, to provide a liturgical, scriptural, traditional anchor for transient individual lives. The individual can still interpret for self within the overarching umbrella, as it were, of the Book of Common Prayer, Scripture, and Church. The Anglican church provides more freedom of individual interpretation than does Catholic Dogma but not so much freedom as to allow for the particular whims of the moment, by groups or individuals, to take hold, as Calvinists did in the past, and independent congregations do today.

Hooker pointedly criticized the Puritans for focusing too much on personal beliefs, for focusing too much on the moment, for deciding that whatever they feel or think in time is in accord with God. He argued that they sought power as the moment, circumstance, and whim struck them. As a result, they were often inconsistent.

He wrote regarding the human proclivity to believe what is the priority of the moment: “Nature works in us all a love to our own counsels. The contradiction of others is a fan to inflame that love. Our love sets on fire to maintain that which once we have done, sharpens the wit to dispute, to argue, and by all means to reason for it.” “When the minds of men are once erroneously persuaded that it is the will of God to have those things done which they fancy, their opinions are as thorns in their sides, never suffering them to take rest till they have brought their speculations into practice.”

People, Hooker wrote, who dispute the current order will always have hearers because of human restlessness and dissatisfaction, whereas those who defend the current order are supposedly doing so for their own benefit or out of preconceived bias.

On human morality, Hooker wrote that “nature teaches men to judge good from evil, as well in laws as in other things” by “the force of their own discretion.” It follows then that “whatsoever we do, if our own secret judgment consent not unto it as fit and good to be done, the doing of it to us is sin, although the thing itself be allowable.” In short, it might be legal to do something though it is, according to God’s law, immoral.

Respecting the laws of God and humans, Hooker wrote that God is a law unto Himself, in that He is both the Author of Law and the Doer of Law, both equally in perfection. Human natural and civil laws are learned from nature, learned from God, not original to humans, who perceive disorder and chaos because we are ignorant of God’s true purposes and His eternal laws: all things work according to His will, which is good and perfect.

Some things in nature in human hands do not work perfectly, which is a consequence of human sin, “divine malediction, laid for the sin of man upon these creatures which God had made for the use of man.”

Humans want to do good, Hooker wrote. All things yearn for what is more perfect, all things therefore yearn for Goodness, and by this yearning, all things are good. All things therefore yearn for God. “There was never sin committed, wherein a less good was not preferred before a greater, and that willfully.” The Deceiver misleads us as to what is good. In doing evil, we seek the good, but there is a greater good we ignore, usually through indolence and what is convenient in the moment.

Humans who behave most closely to apriori truths of nature most closely imitate nature, hence mirror the universal morality and truth brought forth by God.

“The general and perpetual voice of men is as the sentence of God himself. For that which all men have at all times learned, Nature herself must needs have taught; and God being the author of Nature, her voice is but his instrument. By her from Him we receive whatsoever in such sort we learn.” By listening to the voice of reason and the authority of teaching over time we know the Good.

The human challenge, according to Richard Hooker, is to discover the truths that transcend the individual moment, the current fad or whim. The difficulty in accomplishing this is revealed starkly by the tendency of the Protestant Episcopal Church, the American expression of the Anglican Communion that still calls Richard Hooker their intellectual father, to embrace the whims of the moment to satisfy the individual, particular needs of humans now irregardless of what appears to be the ongoing transcendent truth as revealed in Scripture and countenanced by by God.

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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