Anglican Notables – Richard Hooker (Divines, Theologians) – 3 November

Anglican Notables – Richard Hooker (Divines, Theologians) – 3 November

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

Richard Hooker

Born ca. 1554 (Heavitree, near Exeter, Devon, England) – Died 3 November 1600 (Bishopsbourne, near Canterbury, Kent, England)

[The image is of a statue of Richard Hooker outside Exeter Cathedral]

Richard Hooker’s theological works, especially his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594), are of such importance in the Anglican patrimony that if Anglicanism can claim the title “doctor of the church” for any of its theologians, preeminent among them—perhaps at the top of the list—would be Hooker.  Pope Clement VIII came close to recognizing as much when he observed that “There is no learning that this man hath not searched into.  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 until the last fire shall consume all learning.”[1]

Clement VIII also recognized the limitations of what Hooker “took to be the errors of Rome.”[2]  But though Hooker was trying to establish the Church of England as the via media between Catholicism and continental Protestantism, most scholars agree that Hooker’s sights were set much more on the latter than on the former.  The defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) had convinced many—including Hooker, no doubt—that Catholicism was no longer going to be the dominant religion of the land and that the Elizabethan Settlement was secure from Catholics, notwithstanding the influence of a few Recusant families.  The Puritans, on the other hand, both seemed a considerable threat to what was emerging as Anglican ecclesiology and proved to be exactly that as England headed towards religio-political Civil War.

This focus on Hooker’s part helps make sense of his claim that Anglicanism distinguishes itself in Western Christendom by its “threefold cord” of Scripture, the Church’s Tradition, and reason. Setting aside for some other time the question of the relative weight given to Scripture and Tradition by the Catholic Church compared to Anglicanism, Hooker’s claim of reason as a distinctive aspect of Anglicanism poses a major difficulty when compared with the Catholic tradition.  After all, Hooker himself not only read the Church Fathers and the works of St. Thomas Aquinas but relied on them.  Even a cursory knowledge of patristic literature and the reasoning of the scholastics of that era and earlier—and Hooker had far more than a cursory knowledge—would defeat the claim that reason is not one of the essential characteristics of the Catholic tradition.  Hooker’s insistence on reason was for the purpose of charting a course for the Church of England that would have to leave behind the Puritans.  Their voluntarist, nominalist perspective left little or no room for reason.

It had been an Englishman, William of Ockham, who was one of the first to undermine the tradition of natural law, which had begun with some of the pre-socratics and had been cultivated and developed through the minds of Plato, Aristotle, the Church Fathers, the schoolmen, and was, in short, at the epistemological core of the entire Western intellectual tradition.  What William of Ockham had begun to dismantle, Luther continued to do.  William of Ockham’s and Luther’s voluntarist view of God emphasizes divine omnipotence to such an extent that divine will is everything and order—logos, reason—is nothing.  This view effectively does away with the need for theology, and Luther’s claim of humanity’s utter depravity because of the Fall did away, Luther claimed, with the ability to think theologically (except in the limited sphere of an un-patristic scriptural exegesis).

Hooker, on the other hand, “stands predominantly within the medieval rationalist and realist tradition represented by Aquinas.”[3]  For the anglophone world, then—and one that was in the throes of profound religious controversy that, at that moment, veered towards Geneva—Hooker staked an important claim for Catholic anthropology, human reason, and theology.  He might well have squirmed at being identified as “Catholic” tout court.  And some scholars might argue that had the balance of power in England been slightly more in Rome’s favor than was the case, Hooker might have made as strong a case against Catholicism as he did against Puritan voluntarism and nominalism.  But the fact is that, thanks to Hooker, Anglicanism insisted on reason and had a basis for putting nature and grace “back in partnership, the latter perfecting the former, as Aquinas held.”[4]  Look for a theological reason for the Catholic Church to establish Ordinariates based on the Anglican patrimony, and Hooker is part of the answer.

Another of Hooker’s contributions dovetails splendidly with the coincidence of his annual mind (3 November) occurring on or around the United States of America’s national elections.  For an excellent, readable presentation of this contribution, I recommend Robert R. Reilly’s America on Trial.  Reilly’s scholarship leaves no question as to Hooker’s influence in the drafting of America’s Constitution.  By taking a well-reasoned stand against Protestant voluntarist-nominalism and against what was to become the notion of the divine right of kings, Hooker effectively helped school some of the influential Founding Fathers in the tradition of Aquinas, Bellarmine, and Suárez.  And because this tradition had been filtered, so to speak, through the Anglican Hooker, none of the non-Catholic Founding Fathers (i.e. everyone but Charles Carroll, Daniel Carroll, and Thomas Fitzsimmons) had to acknowledge their debt to Catholic authors.

Archbishop Michael Ramsey regretted the absence in Anglicanism of a strong tradition of systematic theology.  The “reaction against Rome,” he wrote in one of his statements on the matter, “may have led to loss through our neglect of the angelic doctor.”  But just as Cranmer and the Prayer Book had insinuated the Church Fathers into the first generation of the English Reform—thereby sowing seeds of a more Catholic theology than they would have predicted or sought—Hooker, in the next generation, established at least a foothold in Anglicanism for scholasticism.  For it was from the angelic doctor, as Ramsey observed, that Hooker “learnt not a little.”[5]

Br. John-Bede Pauley OSB, PhD


[1] Robert Reilly, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020), 169, taking from Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (Malibu: Pepperdine University Press, 1977), 246.

[2] Robert Reilly, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020), 169, taking from Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (Malibu: Pepperdine University Press, 1977), 246.

[3] W. J. Kirby, “Richard Hooker’s Discourse on Natural Law in the Context of the Magisterial Reformation,” Animus 3 (1998), 31, cited by Robert Reilly, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020), 164.

[4] Reilly, 164.

[5] Michael Ramsey, “What is Anglican Theology?,” available at: https://stbenetoblates.wordpress.com/2017/10/23/anglican-before-anglican-after/

One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s