If you were to try to sum up the significant contributions of Anglican theologian Richard Hooker in the words of a Broadway musical, you could do no better than to point to the lyrics of Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So — referring of course to the chorus and not the verses. Now I am not sure why you would want to do it that way, but if you were, that would be the way to do it. Hooker’s central contribution, in my view, was to answer “the precisionists” of his day with a learned retort that it is not really that simple.
This companion to Hooker’s life and work by Brad Littlejohn is fascinating, learned, straightforward, well-written, engaging, and balanced. The title is Richard Hooker: a Companion to His Life and Work. I really enjoyed it, and the point of this review is that you or someone you love should enjoy it as well. I understand Christmas is coming up.
Because of the historical importance that England came to occupy in the centuries after the Reformation, it became important for some later anachronistic Anglicans to project a “neither fish nor fowl” Anglicanism back on the period of the Reformation. But Littlejohn does a marvelous job showing how Hooker and company considered themselves, quite accurately, to be simply Reformed theologians within a broad Protestant consensus. The Reformation was not a denominational affair — it was an essential and huge part of the history of the culture of the West. The point of this book could be summarized as arguing that just as Luther belongs to more than the Lutherans, so Hooker belongs to more than the Anglicans. The Reformation was a huge river, not a consortium of mountain brooks.
The chapter on Hooker as polemicist was particularly good. Hooker had his own unique style of theological reasoning that governed the structure of his Laws as a whole, and even worked down into the syntax of his sentences. What you might have initially thought was a tedious run-on sentence turned out by the end to be the wind-up to a haymaker.
The first part of this book deals with Hooker as myth, Hooker as man, and Hooker as his book (Laws). The second analyzes Hooker as Protestant, as polemicist, as a philosopher, and as a pastor. The last third of this companion surveys certain key doctrines — Scripture, law, the Church, and liturgy and sacraments.
As a Puritan myself, I appreciated the distinctions that Littlejohn made among Hooker’s opponents, even though there are a number of points where I would agree with (some of) them over against Hooker. Not all the Presbyterians were “precisionists,” against whom Hooker easily carried the day. C.S. Lewis points out in his book English Literature in the 16th Century that it is in Thomas Cartwright that we first encounter the Puritan of common caricature, and Cartwright was one of Hooker’s main opponents.
While reading this book, I also noticed that many of the qualifications that the early Presbyterians needed to make were in fact made by the time of the Westminster Confession. In other words, if you were feeling impish, Hooker could be considered an honorary ex officio member of an early Westminster editorial committee, for which we should all thank him.
Littlejohn is fair-minded in his handling of all such disputes, and where the Puritans had a point he is not afraid to acknowledge it. Where they demanded too much, insisting on jure divino authorization for every detail of their whole project, down into the nooks and crannies, Littlejohn points out what Hooker pointed out, which is that such exegesis cutteth no ice.
The problem was that a number of the early English Presbyterians adopted a form of reasoning that shows up later in Baptist hermeneutics, or among the strict regulativists. That is, that unless something is expressly authorized by Scripture, then it is forbidden by Scripture. The problem is found in that pesky word expressly. We have no express warrant for infant baptism, for worship on Sunday, for women taking communion, for pianos in worship, for stated clerks, etc. If you insist on express warrant for everything, you either wind up doing hardly anything at all, or stretching multiple texts quite thin in order to get your “express” warrant. It was the latter approach that the precisionists adopted, and was a classic case of overreach.
But all Protestants must be regulativists of some stripe, and I much prefer the formulation of it provided by Hughes Oliphant Old, when he says that “worship must be according to Scripture.” That’s the way you do it.
This short book by Littlejohn is really valuable in all the issues related to this that it makes you think through. As a convinced (jure divino) Presbyterian and as someone who is also convinced by Hooker’s cautious and conservative approach to all reform, I commend the careful approach to ecclesiastical reform, with Hooker as one of our models. Reformation is not revolution. A friend recently pointed out that some radical elements of the Reformation had all the pastoral instincts of the Khmer Rouge, and standing against them was a necessity. You don’t want to turn anything over to those who are in the grip of an idea. But neither do you want to leave the ship of the church with the status quo johnnies, who never met a barnacle they didn’t love. So we should not just look at Hooker’s positions, but also at his process. In other words, for the Reformation in England to have allowed the precisionists to bulldoze everything in order to build a glorious New City would have been beyond destructive. The only thing we can be certain of is that there would have been no glorious new anything.
I let slip that I was a jure divino presbyterian, so I should say something briefly about that. In a debate with express warrant presbyterians, who were rummaging in the New Testament for their express justifications, someone of Hooker’s abilities could just roll their socks down and pull their kirtles over their heads. But if we are allowed to bring in the Old Testament (as we all must do with baptism), appealing to the government of the synagogues, the nature of the Sanhedrin, and so on, the picture changes dramatically. At the same time, my sympathies would still have been with Hooker over against the men with the bulldozers. But that’s all right — postmillennialists can afford to be patient. A time is coming when the whole church will gather in the general assembly (Heb. 12:23). A little joke there. Well, mostly a joke.
It is also worth pointing out that a downstream Hookerian approach in our day will be profoundly conservative about different institutions, particularly for Americans. If we learn our lessons rightly, we can invoke Hooker while defending something he would never have defended. But to pursue that right now would take me too far afield.
Back to Littlejohn’s work. Well-written, well-done. The main value of the book is, I believe, in getting narrow and truncated Reformed Christians to see just how big their tradition actually is.