Eight Books of the Law of Ecclesiastical Polity, by Richard Hooker
If the value of Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity be considered in relation to the age and the state of thought prevalent at the time of its appearance, it will perhaps be considered one of the most remarkable books in English literature. It may, indeed, be said to have contained in itself the germ from which several characteristically English schools of thought ultimately grew.
It may be convenient just to mention that Hooker was born in 1553 at Exeter, and died at his living of Borne, three miles from Canterbury, in the year 1600, and probably in the month of November. His lifetime thus coincided very nearly with the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1556-1603), and with the second great outburst of Protestantism, which began after the Diet of Augsburg in 1555, and was thrown back in the later part of the century, by the efforts of the Jesuits, aided by the great Roman Catholic sovereigns, and especially by Philip II. Hooker's earlier impressions must thus have been those of hope and victory. He belonged to the party of progress in the greatest crisis which the world had seen for many centuries—a greater crisis in some respects than any which has followed it. In his later years, on the other hand, he must to some extent have felt himself more or less upon the defensive, though the firmness with which Protestantism was settled in England, and the slightness of the communication with foreign countries which existed in those days, in comparison with what exists at present, may have prevented him from perceiving the full force of the turn in the tide.
The Ecclesiastical Polity has, so to speak, a triple aspect. It is at once a philosophical, a theological, and a political treatise; and in order to do justice to the importance of this, we ought to remember how vast a change had, at that time, come over the literature of all Europe, and especially over that of England. It was the age of the great revival of letters; and books were just beginning to be published which were constructed on the classical, rather than on the scholastic model. All that we now understand by moral science—metaphysics, logic, theology, law in all its various applications—had for centuries been treated as so many branches of theology, and had been investigated, if at all, by the scholastic methods. Hooker was the first great English writer who broke through these fetters, except for exclusively controversial purposes; and although he had in other parts of Europe a few predecessors — as, for instance, Machiavel (1469-1527)—and a few contemporaries, as Bodin (1530-96) and Montaigne (1532-92), he is undoubtedly entitled to a leading place in the class of literature to which he belonged.
Nor must it be forgotten that there were peculiarities in his situation as an Englishman, which gave a degree of practical importance to his writings that belonged to those of no other man till we come to Grotius, in the next generation. The Church of England, the theory of which he did so much to form and to enunciate, was an almost unique institution. It was the most important of the Protestant bodies. Its constitution had more comprehensive aims, and was constructed on more statesmanlike principles, than that of any other church, and it was much more closely connected than any other with the active political life of a great nation.
Our own experience has shown us in many different ways how all English speculation is affected by the closeness of its relation to practice. This gives it on the one side great vigour and originality, and, on the other, a fondness for details, and an adaptation to immediate results, which more or less hampers and narrows it. This peculiarity is to be traced more or less in all our great writers, and we know of no one in whom it is more conspicuous than in Hooker. Sometimes we find him discoursing about the essence of law and the broadest principles of morals; and then again, we fall upon endless discussions with Cartwright as to the pettiest of petty matters—the turn of some particular phrase, or the propriety of some small ceremony in the Prayer Book.
Of all the limitations which his character as an Englishman imposed upon him, as on other English theological writers, none probably has detracted more from the permanent value of Hooker's writings, and from those of others like him, than the necessity of writing controversy. Most of our great theological books are more or less controversial, and though this occasionally gives them surprising spirit and precision, it certainly impedes the flow and development of their authors' thoughts, and encumbers their books with a great deal of matter, the interest of which, such as it was, has entirely died away. Most readers of Hooker must have got very much tired of Cartwright and his errors, but it is fair to say that few, if any, controversial books are so little disfigured with the polemical spirit as the Ecclesiastical Polity.
Upon the whole, it may be viewed as the first great effort made in modern times to give the full theory of a great institution, to show the ideal principles upon which it was founded, and to indicate its substantial agreement with that ideal. The number of books even now which can claim such a character is by no means great, and in that day it stood almost alone.
Taking this view in general of the character and position of the Ecclesiastical Polity, we will now attempt to give some sort of sketch of what we have called its triple aspect—its aspect, namely, towards philosophy, towards theology, and towards politics, and to show how the principles which its author inculcated, have been represented in the subsequent history of the Church and State of England. The work falls naturally into three great divisions. The first contains the first and second books, though perhaps the second book might with more propriety be put in the second division. The second contains the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh books; and the third the eighth. These divisions may not unfairly be taken to represent the three aspects of which we have already spoken—the philosophical, the theological, and the political respectively—though the seventh book is closely connected with the eighth.
The first book of Hooker is well known to every one who has anything like a competent acquaintance with English literature. Perhaps its most remarkable quality is its extraordinary poetical power. The magnificent sentences with which it ends, sum up its doctrine with such an incomparable majesty and nobility of phrase that we shall be pardoned for repeating them, familiar as they are:—
'Wherefore that here we may briefly end: of law there can be no less acknowledged than that her seat is the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world; all things in heaven and earth do her homage, the very least as feeling her care, and the greatest are not exempted from her power; both angels and men and creatures of what condition soever, though each in different sort and manner, yet all with uniform consent, admiring her as the mother of their peace and joy.'This, it is hardly necessary to say, is the keynote of Hooker. The Law of Nature is his name for that majestic order which he believed to reign over all things, divine and human, and to conform to which is the great object of human life:—
'All things do work, after a sort, according to law; all other things according to law whereof some superior unto whom they are subject is the author; only the works and operations of God have been both for their worker, and for the law whereby they are wrought. The being of God is a kind of law to his working, for that perfection which God is, giveth perfection to that he doth.'After much of this somewhat mystical but marvellously eloquent extolling of the ultimate principles of morals, as being, so to speak, identified with the Divine existence—in which both the style and the thought often recall Bossuet— Hooker goes on to show how, in all created and imperfect beings, there is 'an appetite or desire whereby they incline to something which they may be, which as yet they are not in act.' They are thus moved to seek their law or the rule of their conduct, for 'that which doth assign unto each thing the kind, that which doth moderate the force and power, that which doth appoint the form and measure of working, the same we term a law.' Reason enables them to do so, and therefore 'the sentence that reason giveth concerning the goodness of those things that they are to do' is 'the rule of voluntary agents upon earth.' Its main principles are self-evident, and the rest are to be discovered by deduction from them. This natural or rational law is, according to Hooker, the very foundation of all consistent conduct, and is, as a matter of fact, universal with but few, and those insignificant exceptions; and the highest of all the laws which reason discovers is the love of God. 'Something there must be desired for itself simply, and for no other,' and this must be infinite, otherwise it could not be infinitely desired. 'No good is infinite but only God, therefore he is our felicity and bliss.' The Scriptures are a supernatural law forming a complement to the law of nature, and resting on and guaranteed by it.
The second book is an argument to refute the Puritanical view of the Bible as being a cyclopaedia of all knowledge and all truth, so that nothing could be affirmed to be right, or to be a duty, which could not be expressly proved to be such out of the Bible. Few passages in the whole work are more interesting or vigorous than that in which this opinion is denounced:—
'Admit this, and mark, I beseech you, what would follow. God, in delivering Scripture to His church, should clean have abrogated amongst them the law of nature, which is an infallible knowledge imprinted in the minds of all the children of men, whereby both general principles for directing of human actions are comprehended, and conclusions derived from them; upon which conclusions groweth in particularity the choice of good and evil in the daily affairs of this life. Admit this, and what shall the Scripture be but a snare and a torment to weak consciences, filling them with infinite perplexities, scrupulosities, doubts insoluble, and extreme despairs.'After denouncing this doctrine, Hooker goes on to describe at length the objects for which, in his opinion, the Bible was written. He views it throughout as being the natural ally of reason, resting itself for its authority on reason, whereby alone its true character could possibly be proved. 'The authority of man, if we mark it, is the key which openeth the door of entrance into the knowledge of the Scripture.'
These, amplified and illustrated in various ways, are the points which form the philosophical introduction to Hooker's great work. Their connection with the rest of the book is not altogether clear, though probably Mr. Hallam was right in thinking that Hooker's object was to lay a foundation for his distinction between laws which are, and laws which are not, of perpetual obligation; and to reach the conclusion which is the fundamental principle of his whole work, that the laws of Church government are mutable and temporary. For it follows, from his view of the case, that those laws only are of perpetual obligation which can be shown to exist by self-evident principles of reason, or which are declared perpetual by express revelation contained in Scripture itself.
Whatever was the connection of the first book of Hooker with the remainder of the work, its connection with the subsequent course of moral and political speculation in England was most important, and is sufficiently manifest in all the great Church of England theologians. The doctrine, thrown into a very few words, is, indeed, nothing else than that the ultimate tests of moral and religious truth are conscience and reason. They are to be applied to all subjects, and especially to all subjects connected with Church government, using for their instruction all other knowledge that may be available, and especially the experience of past times, but using it in the spirit not of servility to a tradition, but of free inquiry applied to a profoundly interesting branch of knowledge, and employed in solving one of the most difficult of all the problems of the art of government. Hooker preaches this doctrine with a degree of unction and enthusiasm which it seldom excites, but which in him was obviously sincere, and quite natural.
The effect of this great example on the subsequent course of speculation in the Church of England has been prodigious. It has supplied the High Church school, from Laud downwards, with those affinities to liberalism of which it has never altogether lost the tradition; and it gave the first example of another kind of religious speculation which has been far more powerful and widely influential. It would be difficult to say whether Laud or Chillingworth had most in common with Hooker, and both Laud and Chillingworth stand at the head of a long line of intellectual and spiritual descendants.
Hooker's liberalism deserves to be fully appreciated, and we will accordingly give a few short passages from his writings which show how strong it was, and how directly it led to the well-known and more systematic liberalism of Chillingworth, to say nothing of that of Locke, whose essay on civil government is almost entirely borrowed from Hooker. Take, for instance, his appreciation of Aristotle:—
'When once (the soul of man) comprehendeth anything above (things of inferior quality), as the differences of time, affirmations, negations, and contradictions in speech, we then count it to have some use of natural reason; whereunto, if afterwards there might be added the right helps of true art and learning, there would undoubtedly be almost as great difference in maturity of judgment between men therewith inured, and that which now men are, as between men that are now and innocents. Which speech if any condemn as being hyperbolical, let them but consider this one thing; no art is at the first finding out so perfect as industry may after make it; yet the very first man that to any purpose knew the way we speak of, and followed it, hath surely performed more in very near all parts of natural knowledge, than sithence in any one part thereof the whole besides hath done.'Or take these general principles:—
'The mind of man desireth evermore to know the truth according to the most infallible certainty which the nature of things can yield. Where we cannot attain unto this, then what appeareth to be true by strong and invincible demonstration, such as wherein it is not by any way possible to be deceived, thereunto the mind doth necessarily assent, neither is it in the choice thereof to do otherwise. And in case these both do fail, then, which way greatest probability, thither the mind doth evermore incline. Scripture being, with Christian men, received as the Word of God, that for which we have probable, yea that for which we have necessary reason, yea that which we see with our eyes is not thought so sure as that which the Scripture of God teacheth. . . . Now it is not required, nor can be exacted at our hands, that we should yield unto anything our assent than such as doth answer the evidence which is to be had of that we assent unto. For men to be tied and led by authority, as it were, with a kind of captivity of judgment, and though there be reason to the contrary not to listen unto it, but to follow like beasts the first in the herd, they know not nor care not whither, this were brutish. Again, that authority of men should prevail with men either against or above reason is no part of our belief. Companies of learned men, be they never so great and reverend, are to yield unto reason, the weight whereof is no whit prejudiced by the simplicity of the person which doth allege it; but being found to be sound and good, the bare opinion of men to the contrary must of necessity stoop and give place.'Much of course might be said against Hooker's theories, if we look at them in a critical spirit. His language is by no means exact, and it is a serious defect in his theory that he does not habitually feel, though he sometimes refers to, the distinction between a law and a moral principle. It is not quite unfair to say of him that it is hard to understand how, according to his principles, there can be such things as bad laws; but there are far more important things in the world than the gift of an accurate use of language; and Hooker ought rather to be valued for the richness and magnanimity of his thoughts than blamed for their occasional vagueness—a vagueness perhaps inseparable from that love of the classics and revolt from scholasticism for which he was so remarkable.
As was natural in a writer of that age, his view of logic was essentially scholastic and imperfect. He supposed that knowledge might be indefinitely increased by arguing from self-evident first principles. 'In all parts of knowledge, rightly so termed, things most general are most strong. Thus it must be, inasmuch as the certainty of our persuasion touching particulars dependeth altogether upon the credit of those generalities out of which they grow.' According to our modern views of the nature of knowledge, this was a mistake; but it was one which in Hooker's age was a mistake on the right side, inasmuch as it tended to strengthen men's belief in the powers of their own minds, in the fixed and immutable character of truth, and in the possibility of attaining to it by the efforts of reason. Hooker affords in this respect a splendid contrast to Montaigne and Pascal, and stands on similar grounds with Bossuet, though his conclusions were sufficiently dissimilar, and in our opinion much more rational and consistent. It may not be generally known that Hooker enunciates in so many words a maxim much and justly quoted in our own times: 'No truth can contradict any other truth.'
The second aspect of Hooker is his theological aspect. We shall say but little of this, although the theological part of the book is much the largest part of it. It fills the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and perhaps the seventh book (on Episcopacy). The third is by far the most interesting. Its object is to prove that there is no ground for the assumption that Scripture must of necessity prescribe a form of Church government.
The essence of the book is that Church government is a matter of expediency, like the government of the State, that it belongs to that class of laws which are mutable, according to the circumstances to which they apply; and that we are to ascertain, from past history, and from other general considerations, what laws are best suited to the circumstances of particular churches. The following sentences are as emphatic as any in the book:—
‘For preservation of Christianity there is not anything more needful than that such as are of the visible church have mutual fellowship and society with each other. . . . The Catholic Church is divided into a number of distinct societies, every one of which is termed a church within itself. ... A church is a number of men belonging unto some Christian fellowship, the place and limits whereof are certain. . . . The several societies of Christian men, unto every of which the name of a church is given, must be endued with correspondent general properties belonging unto them as they are public Christian societies. And of such properties common with all societies Christian, it may not be denied that one of the very chiefest is ecclesiastical polity.'After an elaborate refutation of the opinion that a system of Church government must necessarily be revealed in Scripture, there follows an argument to show how laws for the 'regiment' of the Church may be made by the 'advice of men following therein the light of reason;' but that these laws, though entitled to obedience whilst they last, are not unchangeable.
The next four books are devoted to the justification of the laws actually made for the Church of England. The fourth book is a defence of the Church of England ceremonies against the charge of being Popish; and the fifth, which is far the longest of the whole eight, contains an elaborate vindication of the Church of England on all the points attacked by the Puritans. Though considerable parts of this book are of little interest in the present day, it is in some respects the most remarkable part of the whole work, for it includes by a sort of odd accident an elaborate statement of the theology of the Church of England as Hooker understood it.
The book consists of eighty-one chapters, many of which relate to very small matters. The thirty-eighth is 'of Music with psalms.' The sixty-fifth, of the cross in baptism. The seventy-eighth relates to the attire of ministers, etc.; but the chapters from the forty-second to the sixty-second contain a sort of body of theology setting forth at length the doctrines of the Trinity, of Prayer, and the Sacraments. The connection at first sight is not easy to perceive, but when carefully considered it becomes plain. They are a set of vindications of the doctrinal parts of the Prayer Book. Thus, in their zeal for the Bible, the Puritans were anxious to exclude the Athanasian Creed from public worship. Hooker insists on its importance, and is thus led into giving an account of the reasons for its adoption in the first instance, and for its subsequent retention.
They objected to several of the Church prayers, in particular to the prayer against sudden death, the expression 'which for our unworthiness we dare not ask,' the petition to be defended 'from all adversity,' and that God will have mercy upon all men.' In answer to this Hooker goes into the whole subject of prayer, and, as a branch of it, into the controversy about the two wills in Christ, which he finds it necessary to discuss in order to ascertain the precise value of Christ's prayers as precedents for human prayers.
In connection with the theory of the sacraments, and in justification of the services appointed by the Church of England, he goes at length into the whole subject of the two natures and personality of Christ, his incarnation, and other cognate topics. The leading topics of theology are thus passed in review in connection with the Prayer Book, which makes the arrangement of the matter very awkward.
As regards the substance of Hooker's doctrines we will confine ourselves to a single observation. They represent completely the characteristic features of Anglicanism, conclusions of the most orthodox and ecclesiastical kind based upon a rationalising foundation. The position of his Puritan antagonists was the converse of this. They, following the example of Calvin, regarded the authority of the Christian Revelation, as contained in the Bible, as a self-evident truth, and though this led them to be even more doctrinal and dogmatic than Hooker and his school, it also led them to disregard and disapprove of creeds, the testimony of antiquity, and the like.
In each case religion was a compound of reason and faith; but Hooker founded faith upon reason, and his disciples and successors by an inevitable consequence came to limit faith by reason. The Puritans, on the other hand, starting with faith, reasoned it out much in the spirit of the old scholastic divines, though by the use of different methods and upon the assumption of the truth of different data. The effects of these opposite methods, not only upon theology but upon the general course of thought in the two countries, would form a curious subject of investigation. The repudiation of formularies in the one case and the habit of regarding them principally, if not entirely, as historical evidence of the truth of the doctrines which they assert in the other, produced by degrees very similar results in the two cases, though by different roads.
The sixth book relates to the Presbyterian 'platform' (Hooker constantly uses this word in what we should now call the American sense) of Church government and to the doctrine and practice of confession and absolution.
The seventh book, about bishops, is much more interesting. Its general effect may be shortly described by saying that Hooker carries the dignity and importance of bishops to the very highest point. He says nothing inconsistent with the belief that their power was of divine institution, and much which rather favours that view; but upon the whole, he rests the case, as against those who attack it, on historical and political grounds. The institution is very old and venerable, perhaps it is of divine origin; at all events 'prelacy must needs be acknowledged exceedingly beneficial in the Church.' Such being the case, bishops are entitled to the highest possible honour; church property is God's property; 'ecclesiastical persons are receivers of God's rents, and the honour of prelates is to be thereof his chief receivers, not without liberty from him granted, of converting the same into their own use even in large manner,' says the marginal note of section twenty-three. It would be sacrilege to divert these endowments from them and their successors, even if they are unworthy.
There is a curious passage at the end of the book which throws some light on the condition of church property in Hooker's time. After speaking of the diminution of ecclesiastical revenues, he says:—
'Doth the residue seem yet excessive? The ways whereby temporal men provide for themselves and their families are foreclosed to us. All that we have to sustain our miserable life with is but a remnant of God's own treasure, so far already diminished and clipped that if there were any sense of common humanity left in this hard-hearted world, the impoverished state of the clergy of God would at the length even of very commiseration be spared. The mean gentleman that hath but a hundred-pound land to live on would not be hasty to change his worldly estate and condition with many of these so over-abounding prelates, a common artisan or tradesman of the city with ordinary pastors of the Church.'On the whole, Hooker's theological attitude is eminently characteristic. He rests everything ultimately on reason and conscience, informed by history and antiquity; but the verdict which, in his view, is given by history and antiquity is orthodox in the extreme. No one can take more exalted views of the Bible, of the great theological doctrines such as the doctrine of the Trinity, or of the importance of Church government and the dignity of Church officers; though, when carefully examined, the foundations of his theory appear to be capable of supporting quite a different superstructure.
The last aspect in which Hooker is to be regarded is that of a politician. His eighth book is an explanation and vindication of the doctrine of the Royal Supremacy. What he thought upon this subject is not quite so familiar to the world as it ought to be. He begins by going into the origin of legislative power, as to which he lays down principles of the utmost boldness and vigour. He asserts in express words that the consent of the people at large is the foundation of all lawful authority:—
'Unto me it seemeth almost out of doubt and controversy that every independent multitude before any certain form of regiment established, hath, under God, supreme authority, full dominion over itself, even as a man not tied with the hand of subjection as yet unto any other hath over himself the like power. God creating mankind did endue it naturally with power to guide itself, in what kind of society soever he should choose to live.'A form of government being established, those who are governors are so by divine right, but they must recollect that 'all kings have not an equal latitude.' Whatever kings by conquest may do 'touching kings which were first instituted by agreement and composition made with them over whom they reign, and how far their power may extend, the articles of compact between them are to show;' nor need this compact be express, or made 'at the first beginning,' for such articles 'are for the most part clean worn out of knowledge or else known to very few.' The articles may be 'by silent allowance famously notified by custom.'
These 'articles,' in the case of English kings, are to be found in our ancient laws. The axioms of our regal government are these: 'Lex facit regem'; the king's grant of any favour made contrary to law is void, 'Eex nihil potest nisi quod jure potest.' After this he goes on to show where, by our English institutions, the power of legislation in all matters temporal and spiritual resides, namely, in Parliament.
The Church and State, he says, are one and the same body regarded from different points of view; and its legislature is as competent to make laws on matters spiritual as on matters temporal:—
'The Parliament of England, together with the convocation annexed thereunto, is that whereupon the very essence of all government within this kingdom doth depend; it consisteth of the King, and of all that within the land are subject unto him. The Parliament is a court, not so merely temporal as if it might meddle with nothing but only leather and wool.'Bishops and other spiritual persons ought no doubt to be advised with, but nothing but the nation at large can make their resolutions into laws; for this is one of the passages in which Hooker seizes the true distinction between law and counsel:—
'In matters of God, to set down a form of prayer, a solemn confession of the articles of the Christian faith, and ceremonies meet for the exercise of religion, it were unnatural not to think the pastors and bishops of our souls a great deal more fit than men of secular trades and callings; howbeit, when all which the wisdom of all sorts can do is done for the devising of laws in the Church, it is the general consent of all that giveth them the form and vigour of the laws, without which they could be no more to us than the counsel of physicians to the sick. Well might they serve as wholesome admonitions and instructions, but laws could they never be, without the consent of the whole Church to be guided by them; whereunto both nature and practice of the Church of God, set down in Scripture, is found every way so fully consonant that God himself would not impose his own laws upon his people by the hand of Moses without their free and open consent.'He proceeds to point out that the supremacy of the King himself in the 'case of making laws resteth principally in a negative voice;' and after showing how the existence of a superior legislative power or dignity is quite consistent with respect to the office and functions of the clergy, he concludes, with admirable courage, that the King is not our lawgiver, the clergy are not our lawgivers; the nation itself and it alone has the right of deciding what are God's laws, and of attaching to them a legal sanction:-
'Laws being made amongst us are not by any of us so taken or interpreted as if they did receive their force from power which the prince doth communicate unto the Parliament, or unto any court under him, but from power which, the whole body of the realm being naturally possessed with, hath, by free and deliberate assent, derived unto him that ruleth over them, so far forth as hath been declared.'This is a higher strain of thought and feeling than most people would be prepared for under Queen Elizabeth. These are to us most memorable passages. They show what the Reformation really was, and in what sense and to what a very great extent it is true that the English nation, even at that time, was radically free. Nothing since Hooker's time has been written more soberly and wisely on the origin of government and the general theory of legislation than the passages which we have quoted. We have indeed lost something of their significance, and may need before long to relearn part of the truth which they contain. We must not, however, lengthen out, by discussing such a subject, an article which is already too long, and we will, therefore, here close our slight sketch of the first great book in English ecclesiastical literature by saying that, after an interval of 260 years, it still remains very nearly the greatest of them all.
Saturday Review, September 1, 1866.