by Jonathan Clatworthy

The sixteenth century English clergyman Richard Hooker has been a major influence in the development of Anglican theology. He explored the relationship between scripture, reason and tradition in a way which was later described as the classic Anglican 'three-legged stool'.

His authority is acknowledged so widely that Anglicans today claim his support for widely varying positions. Did he insist that scripture was the supreme authority, with reason and tradition only subordinate, as many evangelicals now argue, or was he making more substantial claims for reason, as he has traditionally been understood? The most commonly cited text is:

What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience are due; the next whereunto, is what any man can necessarily conclude by force of Reason; after this, the voice of the church succeedeth (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 5,8,2).

To apply this text to today's debates without reference to Hooker's other writings can easily lead to the impression that he intended to emphasise the role of scripture above reason. Such an impression is of course attractive to many evangelicals. However it is easy enough to cite other texts of Hooker's stressing the role of reason. For example, he argues against Calvin that the Bible cannot be self-authenticating. 'It is not the word of God which doth or possibly can assure us that we do well to think it his word' (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 2,4,2). The point is that it would be a circular argument; only if we already accept the bible's authority will we be convinced by the claim). Instead he argues that 'the authority of man is, if we mark it, the key which opens the door of entrance into the knowledge of the Scripture', for 'Scripture could not teach us the things that are of God, unless we did credit men who have taught us that the words of Scripture do signify these things' (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 2,7,3).

Similarly in questions of ethics, Hooker differed from the Calvinist theologians of his age by arguing that as well as Scripture, reason also has a part to play in revealing how God's will should be obeyed, through interpreting natural law:

concerning the inhabilitie of reason to search out and to judge of things divine, if they be such as those properties of God and those duties of men towards him, which may be conceived by attentive consideration of heaven and earth, we know that of meere naturall men the Apostle testifieth how they knewe both God, and the lawe of God  (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 3,8,6).

Recent views about Hooker

This leaves differences of opinion about his real views. Scholars agree that his views changed over time, becoming less sympathetic to Calvinism, and that his meaning is often unclear. However uncertainty arises in the fact that he presents himself as defending the Anglicanism of his day. Although many Anglicans since the nineteenth century have credited him with developing the Anglican 'middle way' between Calvinism and Catholicism, recent scholars have shown to be an anachronism promoted by the Oxford Movement: in fact, during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, most senior clergy in the Church of England had a Calvinist outlook. This leaves two options: either Hooker was indeed a defender of the church of his day, in which case his views were much more Calvinistic than was previously believed, or alternatively that his views were more original than he claimed, even though he presented them in terms of defending the tradition.

Much of the debate depends on close scholarly examination of the texts. In addition, however, there are three strong arguments in favour of the view that he intended to promote the value of reason at the expense of sola scriptura. Firstly, this is how his contemporaries understood him: it is difficult to see why the Puritans would have opposed him so fiercely if he had agreed with them on this central point. Secondly, this is how seventeenth and eighteenth century theologians understood him; Chillingworth and the Latitudinarians did indeed develop the role of reason further than Hooker explicitly did, but they understood themselves to be standing in his tradition, drawing out the implications of his arguments.

Thirdly, this theory would explain some of the obscure texts. Although Hooker openly opposed Puritans and Presbyterians, he needed to avoid writing anything which could be interpreted as disagreeing with the Thirty-Nine Articles. His opponents were constantly looking for an opportunity to denounce him, and if he could be shown to have disagreed with the Articles he would have been stripped of his office; indeed, his last writings before his death, the Dublin Fragments, were an attempt to defend himself against this accusation. Under such pressure, it is hardly surprising that his reaffirmation of reason had to be worded carefully.

Further reading

More analysis of the relation between scripture, reason and tradition

For historical information about Hooker's relationship to Puritanism and the development of his arguments see:
  • Lake, Peter: Anglicans and Puritans? Presbyterian and English Conformist thought from Whitgift to Hooker, London, 1988.
  • Voak, Nigel: Richard Hooker and Reformed Theology: A Study of Reason, Will, and Grace, OUP Oxford, 2003.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and (at the time of writing) was Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.