Richard Hooker, Presbyter, 1600

Richard Hooker is one of the greatest theologians that the English Church has ever produced, who conveyed his teaching in masterful English prose. Born in the year 1553 at Heavitree, near Exeter, he was admitted in 1567 to Corpus Christi College at Oxford through the influence of John Jewel, bishop of Salisbury. He became a Fellow of Corpus Christi ten years later and in 1579 was appointed deputy professor of Hebrew. He vacated his fellowship in 1581 in order to marry, and after ordination was appointed rector of the Church of St Mary the Virgin in the parish of Drayton Beauchamp in Buckinghamshire. In 1585 he became Master of the Temple in London, and he later served country parishes in Boscombe, Salisbury, and Bishopsbourne near Canterbury.

While serving as Master of the Temple, he became embroiled in a controversy with the advanced Puritanical views of the afternoon lecturer (or Reader) at the Temple, Walter Travers, a controversy that led Hooker to prepare a comprehensive defense of the Reformation settlement of the Church of England under Queen Elizabeth the First. This work, Hooker’s masterpiece, is entitled Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. In conception the Laws was a a livre de circonstance, designed to justify the constitutional structure of the Elizabethan Church, but it embodied a broadly conceived philosophical theology. Opposing the Puritans, who held that whatever was not expressly commanded in Scripture was unlawful, Hooker elaborated a whole theory of law, based on the absolute fundamental of natural law, whose “seat is the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world” (Laws, 1.16.8). This natural law, which governs the universe and to which the polity of both church and state are subservient, is the expression of God’s supreme reason. “Laws human must be made according to the general laws of nature, and without contradiction unto any positive law in Scripture. Otherwise they are ill made” (Laws, 3.9.2).

Book Five of the Laws is a defense of the Book of Common Prayer, directed primarily against Puritan detractors. Hooker’s arguments are buttressed by immense patristic learning, but the formative aspect of the Prayer Book is paramount, and he draws deeply and effectively on his twenty-year experience of using the Book.

Though he made a robust defense of the Elizabethan Settlement against the Roman Catholics and the Puritans, Hooker nevertheless held that the Church of Rome was a true Church, though in need of reform doctrinally and morally; and against anti-catholic detractors, he held that Roman Catholics would be saved, noting that justification was by faith itself, and not by believing in justification by faith. In his unreadiness to condemn the ministry and holy orders of Continental Protestants, he denied the necessity of episcopal ordination.

Concerning the nature of the Church, Hooker writes: “The Church is always a visible society of men; not an assembly, but a Society. For although the name of the Church be given unto Christian assemblies, although any multitude of Christian men congregated may be termed by the name of a Church, yet assemblies properly are rather things that belong to a Church. Men are assemble for performance of public actions; which actions being ended, the assembly dissolveth itself and is no longer in being, whereas the Church which was assembled doth no less continue aftewards than before.”

Hooker’s argument on points of detail is not infrequently difficult to grasp and not always clear, but he remains one of the greatest of English theologians. His vast learning and the masterfulness of his prose style reveal him as a man of moderate, patient, and serene character. Izaak Walton, the seventeenth century writer and biographer, writes that Pope Clement the Eighth (†1605), having had the first book of the Laws read to him in Latin, pronounced: “There is no Learning that this man hath not searcht into; nothing too hard for his understanding: this man indeed deserves the name of an Author; his Books will get reverence by Age, for there is in them such seeds of Eternity, that if the rest be like this, they shall last till the last fire shall consume all Learning.”

prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980),
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, and other sources

The Collect

O God of truth and peace, you raised up your servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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The propers for the commemoration of Richard Hooker, Priest, are published on the Lectionary Page website.

The image above is of a statue of Richard Hooker on the grounds of Exeter Cathedral.

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