H is for Hooker

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When we think about the Reformation, names like Calvin and Luther come easily to mind. Geographically, we think of Germany and Geneva as strategic centers for reformational truth. However, England is not without its significant contribution. Richard Hooker was one of those that influenced history within England. His influence was felt in the church world as well as the arenas of prose and legal philosophy.

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Born around March of 1554 in Heavitree, Exeter, Devon, England, Hooker’s family did not have a great deal of financial means. They desired to send him to the University of Oxford, but were unable to afford that quality of an education. However, John Jewel, the Bishop of Salisbury, became his patron and funded this promising student’s academic career. The Church of England during Hooker’s days was very much influenced by Calvin’s Institutes. Therefore, the Genevan reformation was a key and pivotal influence in young Hooker’s life, a fitting start for any great theologian. Many of the academic minds at the university were loyal to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer as required by law. Remember, this was largely the product of Thomas Cranmer and his First Book of Prayer in 1549. We see both influences clearly throughout Hooker’s writings. Other influences included the finest exegetical work of his day – the Church Fathers – as well as Renaissance Thomism. (Stay tuned for more on that when we discuss Thomas Aquinas)

Richard Hooker’s influence is keenly felt in the developing theology of the Anglican Church. Traditionally, he has been considered to have endorsed a middle road between Protestantism and Catholicism, but recent scholarship has shown that to be a misjudgment of his work. He is better understood to oppose some of what he considered to be extremes of Puritanism. He was solidly within the mainstream of Reformed theology of his era.

Hooker had some differences with another minister of Calvinist influence by the name of Walter Travers. Hooker represented the Church of England while Traverse spoke for a strong Puritan influence. The Puritans were radical on the issue of not recognizing a state church. Thus, their influences were instrumental in early America. There were many differences between these two men, but they actually had more in common than in contrast. Hooker did not see the necessity for rejecting a state church; the lengthy book, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie is Hooker’s response to Traverse ideas on church and government. There were five issues that puritanism raised. They are:

1. Scripture alone is the rule of all things which may be done by men;

2. Scripture prescribes an unalterable form of Church government;

3. The English Church is corrupted by popish orders, rites etc.

4. The law is corrupt in not allowing lay elders; and

5. There ought not to be in the Church Bishops.

This was Hooker’s careful, methodical, and detailed response to each of these claims. Puritanism was marked by a strong opposition to establishmentarianism. Space does not allow for a thorough analysis of this work, but it should be noted that this was a major contribution to the areas of theology, political theory, and English prose. In retrospect, we can see the leading of men such as Hooker and Traverse. They were used in their day to forge the church world that we have become. Should we oppose a state church or embrace that form of polity? What are the dangers? Are there benefits and securities that this form of government would afford us? That is the significance that men who wrote centuries ago hold for us today. They grappled with issues that were catalysts to the world in which we now live. How will the next generations see our influence upon their world?

Hooker was a theologian who changed the world.

Much of what Hooker penned can be read easily today in either print or digital media. A simple web search will unearth much research. A sermon that Hooker once preached called, “Learned Discourse on Justification” provides an excellent perspective on Hooker in the context which he lived. He was accused by Traverse of being “popish” but, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. What he asserted was quite interesting. He contended for the classical understanding of justification by faith, very similar to the stances of both Luther and Calvin. His idea was that some people within the Roman Catholic Church might not correctly perceive the means by which justification is granted. According to Hooker, though, that did not necessarily mean that they were not justified. Just as this idea might not fly in certain theological circles today, it did not to over well with Traverse. However, that does not indicate that Hooker articulated a theology consistent with the greiveous errors of the Roman Catholic Church of his day.

We prefer to see Hooker, like any other man, as a product of his times. He was quite human and he made mistakes. We might differ with him on important matters, but at the end of the day, he would seem to be a faithful minister of the Word. He is held in esteem by those that are Calvinistic in doctrine as well as those who support the church governance of the Church of England. He did, in fact, shape the times in which we live.

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