Saint of the Week: Richard Hooker

At a small meeting of people from the Presbyterian church I currently attend, a man said (in a grrrea’, rrrrolling Scots’ brrogue) that the Reformation never went as far in England as it did in Scotland. If by ‘Reformation’ we mean producing a national church that little resembles Roman Catholicism, then this is true. But if by ‘Reformation’ we mean putting Scripture high again, placing justification by faith to the fore, eliminating clerical abuses, and various other things, perhaps England went far enough.

Either way, we have folks like Richard Hooker (1554-1600) to thank for it.*

My first encounter with Richard Hooker was his Learned Discourse on Justification. In this, originally a sermon preached in 1585 when he was Master of the Temple, he proclaims justification by faith so completely and radically, perceiving the grace of God to transform us into righteous persons, that he says:

God, I doubt not, was merciful to save thousands of them [pre-Reformation Catholics], though they lived in popish superstitions, inasmuch as they sinned ignorantly; but the truth is now laid before our eyes.

Even if someone holds faith ‘but weakly and as it were by a slender thread’, God will smile upon that faith and save the soul at hand.

This stirred up the ire of the Puritans. Of course. Immediately upon working through Hooker’s florid, sixteenth-century prose, I was fond of the man.

Hooker, born in Devonshire, studied at Corpus Christi in Oxford, and was ordained priest in 1579. His first posting was as one of the preachers at Old St. Paul’s (no longer standing) in London, and three years later was rector of St. Mary’s Drayton Beauchamp, Buckinghamshire.

HM Queen Elizabeth I took an interest in Richard Hooker and appointed him Master of the Temple Church in London, one of the most prominent pulpits in England, the next year, 1585. His preaching there and then elsewhere as the years went by, as noted above, drew fire from Puritans who were scandalised by the idea of Roman Catholics being saved and who felt that Hooker’s support for further reforms in the Church did not go far enough.

In 1594, as part of his response to the Puritan reaction to his preaching, Hooker published the first four volumes of his eight-volume Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie. The next year, 1595, he became rector of the parishes of St. Mary the Virgin in Bishopsbourne and St. John the Baptist Barham in Kent. In 1597, he published the fifth volume of the Lawes, but the last three were published posthumously, following his death in 1600.

Hooker helped forge the beast ‘Anglicanism’ into what it historically has been. He saw the value in tradition and chose not throw it all away as the Puritans were urging. Instead, he believed that tradition and Scripture working together with our God-given reason can lead us to a proper understanding of Christian doctrine and the interpretation of sacred Scripture.

This ‘three-legged stool’ has survived in Anglican thought through the centuries, as we seek to understand the Scriptures anew with every generation, as we seek to explain the words of life in new ages. Our understanding of Scripture, exegesis, salvation, and the Church are much affected by Hooker; he helped steer us between the Presbyterianism of the Puritans and the Catholicism of some of his other contemporaries.

Would that we could find a safe path along this historic middle way today, using the critical faculties of our reason as we seek to be creatively faithful to our tradition and the Scriptures.

*See also Saints of the Week Thomas Cranmer and Lancelot Andrewes.

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