Guyer’s Weblog

November 30, 2010

In Praise of Rhetoric? Anti-Covenantal Myths of Puritanism and Anglicanism (Part Two)

Filed under: Communio Anglicana,Theologoumena — guyer @ 2:59 am

In part one of this essay, we noted the ways that the anti-Covenant lobby misconstrues Puritanism. In what follows, we turn to their abuse of Anglican orthodoxy, particularly the work of Richard Hooker. We conclude that adoption of the Anglican Covenant is wholly faithful to Hooker’s claim that even as the Church must remain faithful in doctrine, it is free to construct its polity as it sees fit.

Those unfamiliar with the broad outlines of Hooker’s theology may wish to peruse the article “Law, Liturgy, Wisdom: An Introduction to Richard Hooker (or here, with illustrations).

Myths of Anglicanism

No Anglican Covenant Coalition (hereafter, NACC) launched its website on November 3, 2010, stating the feast day of Richard Hooker was the “ideal” day for beginning their campaign.  However admirable this sentiment may be, their understanding of Hooker fails on three fronts.  First, they tell us that “Hooker argued that the Church should use the full range of reasoning faculties in matters of faith and should develop in light of changing circumstances.  New ideas and differences of opinion, therefore, have a proper place within the Church.”  It is worth noting that NACC offers us only one citation of Hooker on their website: “The Church hath authority to establish that for an order at one time, which at another time it may abolish, and in both do well.”  Regrettably, they do not offer the reference, thus disguising that they have, in the worse sense of the phrase, given us a mere “proof-text.”  Second, and like MCU/IC, NACC misunderstand what Hooker and the Puritans were arguing about, especially in terms of reason.  They claim that Puritans believed that the Bible “wholly transcends reason” and thus denied reason a place in the Christian life.  As Hooker himself notes, this is quite wrong.  Finally, they claim that Hooker “is best known for his appeal to three authorities—scripture, reason, and tradition—often described as his ‘three-legged stool.’”  Yet, this latter claim has been decisively rejected by current Hooker scholarship.

Let us begin with NACC’s last point – the so-called “three-legged stool.”  Generally speaking, this is a curious claim as Hooker considers the relationship of these three only once in the Laws – and even then, they are considered only in passing.[1] The interrelationship of scripture, reason, and tradition can hardly be the pivot around which Hooker’s theology moves.  Nonetheless, let us look to the wider body of Hooker studies for additional insights.  One of the companion volumes to the recently-completed Folger Library Edition of the Works of Richard Hooker is A. S. McGrade’s Richard Hooker and the Construction of Christian Community, an excellent collection of essays by leading historians and theologians concerning Hooker and his times.  In an essay entitled “Hooker on Scripture, Reason, and ‘Tradition’,” W. David Neelands writes that only in the last hundred years has it become “a commonplace of Anglican self-understanding to refer to the triple authority of Scripture, reason, and tradition.”  During this same time period, Neelands continues, “Richard Hooker has been identified as a principal and original source of this position.”  Neelands cautions us, however, that we should in fact be “more cautious in implicating Hooker in the development of the triad.”[2] He offers two reasons for this warning.

First, he notes that Hooker was a Thomist in his views on Scripture and reason.  The relationship between these is the same as that between grace and nature: the former perfects the latter.  Hence Hooker’s point that “the principal intent of Scripture is to deliver the laws of duties supernatural.”[3] Reason cannot attain to what Hooker calls “a more divine perfection” without the revelation mediated through Scripture.[4] Under the tutelage of divine truth, human reason does not stand alone but is instead corrected and enabled to pursue what is right and good for all.  Hooker writes, “the laws of well doing are the dictates of right reason.”[5] Hooker locates authority not in reason as such, but in right reason.  Second, and as Neelands puts it, Hooker looked upon tradition as a Roman Catholic idea that was “merely human” and inferior to Scripture and reason.[6] Ergo, even if Hooker had argued for a “three-legged stool” – and Neelands is clear that Hooker did not – there would be no reason why any of us would be bound to accord independent authority to tradition, given Hooker’s own views on the primacy of Scripture and right reason.  Furthermore, if Neelands is correct that the image of the “three-legged stool” is first found in Francis Paget’s 1899 Introduction to the Fifth Book, then we cannot claim that this metaphor represents the Anglican tradition.  Other historians agree with Neelands that the “three-legged stool” is a misrepresentation of Hooker’s theology.[7] Why then use it?

Surely the answer has to do with the curious understanding of “reason” advocated by NACC.  To understand Hooker, we should outline some of the broader context.  Hooker’s Puritan opponents were Thomas Cartwright and Walter Travers, two Reformed Englishmen who believed that the Church of England was under the sway of antichrist because it had an episcopal polity and shared liturgical practices with Roman Catholicism.  Cartwright and Travers first claimed that they were free to disobey the civil and canonical laws of England and its church.  Hooker wrote against this in his monumental work Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, a work of political theology.  In the beginning of its first book, he writes, “the point about which we strive is the quality of our laws” (not, we should note, a three-legged stool).[8] Cartwright and Travers, after claiming the right to some form of civil and canonical rebellion, advocated a new reformation for the Church of England which would bring it into line with the Presbyterian churches abroad, especially in Geneva, Switzerland, where John Calvin had led his brand of reform.  This new, Puritan reformation would have resulted in rejecting the Book of Common Prayer, further destruction of English churches, the end of the episcopate and – if Scotland’s Presbyterian movement is any indication – the demotion of the monarchy beneath the sometimes violent sway of a Presbyterian theocracy.

This latter point is especially important.  John Calvin had offered a theological justification for revolution in the final chapter of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which concluded with these words: “we should not enslave ourselves to the wicked desires of men – much less be subject to their impiety.  God be Praised.”[9] Hooker never came out and directly accused his Puritan opponents of fomenting revolution, but his printer John Spenser felt the need to make clear these political concerns.  To this end, Spenser appended a short letter to the end of the first volume of Hooker’s Laws.  In it, he writes against the “unnatural growth and dangerous fruits” of the Puritan stance, and expresses his hope that Hooker’s Laws might “help give an end to the calamities of these our civil wars.”[10] As is well known, religious controversy continued into the seventeenth century, and with the advent of the Anglican Counter-Reformation, took a decidedly bitter and eventually violent turn resulting in murder of both the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1645 and then King Charles I in 1649.[11] At the very least, we do well to consider that the Puritan complaint against the Church of England was no product of anti-intellectualism, but part of a broader and wholly articulate worldview that offered a sophisticated vindication of religious violence.

Unlike his opponents, Hooker maintained a view of church order which was found among the first European reformers – namely, that church order was not a matter of divine command but was, instead, a “thing indifferent” which each national church could reform as it saw fit.[12] Hooker’s argument for the use of reason rather than Scripture can only be understood against this backdrop.  He was not arguing for a theological method that could flourish in any context.  Rather, he was arguing about church order and whether or not Scripture itself offers a command concerning it.  He believed that it did not.  Therefore, he writes, “matters necessary unto salvation are of a different nature from ceremonies, order, and the kind of Church-government.”[13] For the latter – ceremonies, order, and ecclesiastical polity – right reason is sufficient.[14] Hooker thus writes that “laws human must be made according to the general laws of nature, and without contradiction unto any positive law of scripture.”[15] What is not prohibited in Scripture is a matter open for consideration and development as any given church sees fit.

There is, however, a second point that should be made about Puritans and reason.  As the above makes clear, every church needs both grace and nature – that is, both revelation and reason.  The Puritans rejected nature and reason when it came to ordering the church and determining the content of its liturgy.  Hooker argues that this is irrational on the part of his opponents: “they never use reason so willingly as to disgrace reason.”[16] We do well to meditate upon this argument.  Our Anglican divine claims that far from being anti-intellectual, Puritans were instead “learnedly mad.”[17] He goes on to claim,

These being wholly addicted unto their own wills, use their wit, their learning, and all the wisdom they have, to maintain that which their obstinate hearts are delighted with, esteeming in the frantic error of their minds the greatest madness in the world to be wisdom, and the highest wisdom foolishness.[18]

MCU/IC and NACC claim that Puritans were opposed to reason – and yet, this is precisely the opposite of Hooker’s argument.  Hooker’s point is that all claims to the contrary, Puritans did believe in reason.  The problem is that their belief in reason was so wrapped up in their own desires that they had become “learnedly mad.”  Hooker’s argument is well summed up in his brilliant one-liner: “The word of God is a two-edged sword, but in the hands of reasonable men.”[19] Claiming that Puritans simply denigrated reason rather misses what Hooker was arguing.  Puritanism was for more complex, idiosyncratic, and tortured than MCU/IC and NACC concede.

Finally, we turn to NACC’s claim that according the Hooker, the Church “should develop in light of changing circumstances.  New ideas and differences of opinion, therefore, have a proper place within the Church.”  In order to back up their claim, NACC offers an unreferenced statement by Hooker: “The Church hath authority to establish that for an order at one time, which at another time it may abolish, and in both do well.”  We cannot help but notice that this statement comes from the eighth chapter of the fifth book of the Laws – the very same section in which Hooker offers his only discussion of interrelationship of Scripture, reason, and tradition.  Perhaps this is all of Hooker that the members of NACC have read?  One wonders.  Their citation of Hooker appears in context as follows:

The Church hath authority to establish that for an order at one time, which at another time it may abolish, and in both do well.  But that which in doctrine the Church doth now deliver rightly as a truth, no man will say that it may hereafter recall and as rightly avouch the contrary.  Laws touching matter of order are changeable, by the power of the Church; articles concerning doctrine not so.[20]

We saw above that the idea of a “three-legged stool” is erroneous.  We also saw that Hooker divides matters necessary for salvation from matters which are unnecessary – namely, liturgical rites and church order.  Here we see the same.  The Church may change its order but cannot change its doctrine – not least because it has no “three-legged stool” to appeal to.  We may therefore thank NACC, for they have offered us a sweeping argument for why the Anglican Communion has every right to adopt the Anglican Covenant.

III. Conclusion: Anglicans Covenanted

The Anglican Covenant does not change doctrine – indeed, in the first part of its first section, the Covenant text merely restates the basic outlines of long-standing Anglican norms.  Because the Church is bound by doctrine but free in matters of polity, as Hooker rightly notes, the provinces of the Anglican Communion are indeed free to change their polity by entering into a covenanted life together.  This does not, of course, alter polity in the way that the Puritans argued for; the Covenant envisions complete continuity in episcopal order (1.1.6; 3.1.3), conciliar consultation (3.1.2), and the Instruments of Communion (3.1.4).  One cannot claim that the Anglican Covenant envisions any changes in current Anglican structures.  One must recognize, however, that a covenanted Communion will be one that recognizes the need for seeking “a shared mind” (3.2.4) and for living in a committed and robust form of “interdependence” (4.1.2; cf. 3.2.2).  This is very different than envisioning constitutional changes for any province – and the Covenant in fact eschews a centralized push for such alterations (4.1.3).  The only changes in polity that the Covenant envisions are those which are created locally by a given province so that it may live faithfully in covenanted interdependence (4.2.9).  The Covenant thus bolsters the creative capacity of each Anglican province to enter “freely” into deeper communion with other Anglican provinces by structuring and reforming itself for the good of the whole (4.1.1).

Richard Hooker advocated reason in matters which were otherwise indifferent.  There is no divine command that Anglicans enter into Covenant with one another, but there is indeed the Biblical command of charity and unity (John 13:34 – 35, 17:21).  The Church is free to order its common life so that charity and unity might be witnessed to, and the Anglican Covenant has been proposed as the primary means for doing so in the Anglican Communion at this point in time.  If it is rejected, Anglicans must be willing to answer two questions.  First, how will the Anglican Communion embody charity and unity given that the current state of the Communion is now so fractious?  Before any province in the Communion rejects the Covenant, it should keep in mind how much division and chaos has ensued amidst Anglicans in the five years between the time that the Covenant was proposed, drafted, and then finalized for adoption.  To reject the Covenant is to prolong this process of division and chaos.

Second, and on a more personal note for the present author, I ask each province to consider how, if it rejects the Covenant, the Anglican Communion will be passed on to the next generation.  Every generation is given particular institutions on trust.  Does any generation have the right to deny its own children these same gifts?  As someone who is young, I hope to inherit and pass on the Anglican Communion to my own children.  The Anglican Covenant offers a way of doing so.  Interdependence, we are so often reminded today, is a central principle of ecological order.  Can it therefore be any less important for the Church?  As Hooker advocated, nature itself is a sure guide in some things.  Surely, right reason apprehends this.  Voting for the Anglican Covenant is not merely a vote for the present, but a vote for all future generations.  It is a recognition that the Church of Christ is not delimited by the horizons of the present but reaches out in loving and sanctified arms to the future, wholly aware that it is not only called to imitate the eternal steadfastness of the Holy Trinity but that any and every failure to do so will be called to account and judged.  We profess to believe in the communion of saints.  But how can this be true if our own Communion is content to abandon its children and its children’s children to a faithless tomorrow?

May the bishops order themselves according to the messianic vision and become nursing mothers and fathers to all later generations (Isa. 49:23).  May they affirm the Covenant and thereby show the world that when it comes to the Communion’s future, hope – the hope of a new world, which no generation should have denied it – will not be disappointed.  If the bishops follow the anti-Covenant lobby, they will in fact give place to what Richard Hooker fought against: “For the scope of all their pleading against man’s authority is to overthrow such orders, laws, and constitutions in the Church, as … would peradventure leave neither face nor memory of the Church to continue long in the world, the world especially being such as now it is.”[21] That the Church should die out among a particular people – that the Anglican Communion should die out among Anglicans, and especially those who are young – would be a great betrayal of not just one saint and not just one ecclesiastical vision.  It would, in this world, be the total dissipation of our own “great cloud of witnesses” and a wholesale abandonment of all perseverance (Heb. 12:1).  As for ourselves, we advocate the vision of Hooker:

Though for no other cause, yet for this; that posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream, there shall be for men’s information extant thus much concerning the present state of the Church of God amongst us, and their careful endeavour which would have upheld the same.[22]

We hope that we are heard.

[1] Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, in W. Speed Hill (ed.), The Folger Library Edition of the Works of Richard Hooker (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977), V.8

[2] W. David Neelands, “Hooker on Scripture, Reason, and ‘Tradition’,” in A. S. McGrade (ed.), Richard Hooker and the Construction of Christian Community (Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1997), 75

[3] Hooker, Laws, I.12.2

[4] Hooker, Laws, I.11.4

[5] Hooker, Laws, I.7.4

[6] Neelands, “Hooker on Scripture, Reason, and ‘Tradition’,” 89

[7] Nigel Voak, Richard Hooker and Reformed Theology: A Study of Reason, Will, and Grace (Oxford University Press, 2003), 251 – 265; W. J. Torrance Kirby, Richard Hooker: Reformer and Platonist (Ashgate, 2005), 1 – 28

[8] Hooker, Laws, I.1.3

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John McNeil (Westminster/John Knox, 2006), IV.XX.32; a thoughtful account of Calvin’s theology of revolution may be found in Roland Boer, Political Grace: The Revolutionary Theology of John Calvin (Westminster/John Knox, 2009)

[10] John Spenser, “To the Reader,” in Folger Library Edition, vol. I, 346 & 348

[11] Conrad Russell, The Causes of the English Civil War (Clarendon Press, 1990)

[12] Helpful background may be found in Kirby, Richard Hooker: Reformer and Platonist, 23 – 28; W. J. Torrance Kirby, Richard Hooker’s Doctrine of the Royal Supremacy (E. J. Brill, 1990), 80 – 86; Daniel Eppely, Defending Royal Supremacy and Discerning God’s Will in Tudor England (Ashgate, 2007), 168 – 172

[13] Hooker, Laws, III.2.2

[14] Notably, Hooker seems to have had no conception of morality as a separate category for consideration.  Any attempt to use his theology in the construction of a moral theology (whether “liberal” or “conservative”) is thus problematic as it forces upon him a category that he did not use.

[15] Hooker, Laws, III.9.2

[16] Hooker, Laws, III.8.4

[17] Hooker, Laws, III.8.6

[18] Hooker, Laws, III.8.9

[19] Ibid.

[20] Hooker, Laws, V.8.2

[21] Hooker, Laws, II.7.1

[22] Hooker, Laws, Preface, 1.1



  1. Hello and good afternoon. Just came across your blog. Really enjoyed the read. I look forward to future posts. Hope you don’t mind, but I wanted to tell you about my own blog.

    I’m an aspiring clergy-writer who’s new to the Anglican tradition, and am trying to find Anglican readers. The title of my blog is “Musings of a Hard-Lining Moderate: The assorted thoughts of an evangelical Anglican.” I write about theology, culture, politics, movie/book reviews, pet theories… anything that’s on my mind. Right now I’m doing a series on the doctrine of Scripture, which was prompted by the crisis in the global communion. I also recently wrote a post on the value of the christian calendar.

    Anyway, I don’t know if you’d be interested, but here’s the link: Have a great day.

    Grace & Peace,


    Comment by Carson T. Clark — December 7, 2010 @ 6:43 pm | Reply

  2. Carson –

    Any blog entitled “Musings of a Hard-Lining Moderate” is surely worth checking out. I love your statement about liturgy: “I’d rather be bored than annoyed.” I confess, however, that I don’t find it boring.

    Welcome to this blog. Not much goes on here, although I occasionally post things that I have written and posted elsewhere.

    I look forward to perusing your blog.


    Comment by guyer — December 9, 2010 @ 1:29 am | Reply

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