Monthly Archives: November 2012

Sarah Coakley on Hooker

The subtlety of Richard Hooker’s account of the relation of Scripture, tradition and reason in Book V of the Ecclesiastical Polity is one of the most distinctive and remarkable features of historic Anglican theology and, I believe, of considerable importance for our current dilemmas about women bishops. But I am not sure that sufficient account has yet been taken of this strand of our heritage…

Hooker’s perspective does indeed allow for novelties in the rational reception of Bible and tradition: the plastic nature of Hooker’s conception of reason, and its deep understanding of historical embeddedness, does allow for creative development in response to the primacy of Scriptural authority and the deposit of tradition, without the danger of a merely historical or moral relativism. There is nothing in Hooker, then, that would give credence to the slogan that “nothing new is ever true.” But there is everything to suggest the possibility of hopes for future creativity and renewal.

Sarah Coakley, “Has the Church of England finally lost its reason? Women bishops and the collapse of Anglican theology

Coakley’s piece reminds me that our task of reading through the Laws is extremely important, if I may be so bold to say so.




In chapters XIII and XIV, Hooker addresses the question of scripture and tradition, and the relation between the two. It is in these chapters that Hooker establishes the distinct Anglican perspective on scripture and tradition, at odds with both a Reformed and Roman Catholic understanding.

Hooker begins by noting that before the advent of books humankind relied on oral tradition. The problem with oral tradition, according to Hooker, is that it is too easily corrupted. Like the game of telephone, traditions become distorted over time. Therefore God, in his mercy, has provided the surety of scripture – solid, immutable texts, which remain constant over time. As an aside, I’m currently reading Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars. According to Duffy, folk religion and oral tradition were widely regarded with skepticism by many reformers.

In itself though, this argument is rather weak, and thankfully Hooker doesn’t place too much emphasis on it. But for now, Hooker is intent to stress the sufficiently of scripture alone when the question concerns ultimate salvation. Presumably, this is drastically at odds with the Roman tradition, which in Hooker’s time appears to have stressed tradition as also being necessary for Salvation.

However, Hooker is careful when it comes to stating that that scripture contains all things necessary unto salvation. For instance, in chapter XIV qualifies his understanding: “Scripture do profess to contain in it all things that are necessary unto salvation; yet the meaning cannot be simply of all things which are necessary, but all things that are necessary in come certain kind or form” (14.1, italics mine).He then goes on to state,

when we extol the complete sufficiency of the whole entire body of the Scripture, must in like be understood with this caution, that the benefit of nature’s light be not though excluded as unnecessary, because the necessity of a diviner light is magnified (14.4).

Hooker seems to be arguing that scripture contains all things that are necessary unto salvation, but this does not necessarily exclude other things; namely, reason, tradition, and I would hope to some degree, folk practice. That this is self-evident for Hooker is displayed in the simple fact that nowhere in the Bible is there an explicit mention of the Trinity and infant baptism (14.2). His point is not only to show that tradition – understood as the light of natural reason in accordance with the scriptures – is valid, but to also show that interpretation is a continuous process. “For let us not think that as long as the world doth endure the wit of man shall be able to sound the bottom of that which may be concluded out of the Scripture,” writes Hooker (14.2).

Concerning the Roman understanding of tradition, Hooker’s problem is that it excludes natural reason. As such, Hooker does not offer a simple ‘Protestant’ rejection of tradition, but an argument against regarding tradition in a fideistic matter or as a “vertical drop” from above. “For we do not reject them only because they are not in Scripture, but because they are neither in Scripture, nor can otherwise sufficiently by any reason be proved to be of God,” states Hooker (14.5). Hooker is clear that an apostolic understanding of tradition, rites and custom are of God, “which doth give them their force and credit” (14.5). It’s an interesting argument against the Roman Catholic understanding of tradition. Thankfully, the nouvelle theologians in the 20th century also pushed against an abstract and sub-human understanding of reason and tradition.

Overall, I found these to be some of the more interesting chapters in the Laws given Hooker’s ability to sail between Reformed and Roman understandings of tradition and scripture. Often times it’s easy to simplify Hooker’s thought as advocating the three-legged stool of Anglicanism: scripture, tradition and reason, as if that’s the end of the matter. Yet in reading through Hooker, it’s clear that this Anglican balance of interpretation and tradition is no easy task, and certainly isn’t one that can easily be summarized as a mere stool.