Richard Hooker: A Companion to his Life and Work

Article by   February 2016
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W. Bradford Littlejohn, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work. Cascade Books: Eugene, OR, 2015. $24.99

Littlejohn takes seriously the role defined for his book by its sub-titular label as a "companion" to the life and work of the sixteenth-century English divine Richard Hooker. He aims, in other words, not to provide readers with an exhaustive summary or analysis of Hooker's ideas that will save them the hassle of reading Hooker's works directly, but to introduce them to Hooker in a manner that might incite them to take up those writings, and so to engage the man himself in thoughtful conversation about God and God's ways. Littlejohn's book is the trailer, not the movie itself; the appetizer, not the main course. 

Littlejohn succeeds in his aim. One walks away from his book with the distinct impression of having stumbled, almost by chance encounter, upon a thinker from the past who stands to make a considerable contribution to one's future thoughts on any number of theological and ecclesiastical matters. The success of Littlejohn's work rests on a number of factors. First, there is the author's obvious familiarity with recent trends in Hooker scholarship. Littlejohn discloses this familiarity in just the right proportion in his book, challenging misrepresentations of the man when necessary and skirting scholarly squabbles when not. There is, second, his obvious familiarity with broader, recent trends in Reformation and post-Reformation studies, which allow Littlejohn to situate Hooker in a context wider than Elizabethan England, and so to transcend the provincialism that has characterized so many studies of Hooker and other English figures of the period. There is, third, Littlejohn's literary talent and wit, which together make this book a most enjoyable read. But fourth and most substantially, there is Littlejohn's very intentional failure to assume a posture of "false objectivity" (p.x) towards Hooker. Littlejohn happily admits his admiration for his subject. And, in my judgment, that admiration for Hooker -- properly coupled with sensitivity to the danger of anachronistically projecting his own concerns and convictions on to his early modern subject -- is precisely what renders Littlejohn the ideal person to make introductions between Hooker and present-day readers, no matter how much modern scholarship might frown upon such blatant affection towards one's object of research.

Littlejohn's first chapter, titled "Richard Hooker: The Myth, " shows how Anglicanism's ever-evolving identity over the past four centuries has colored historical portrayals of Hooker, contributing much to a popular if suspect image of the man as an anti-Calvinist, anti-polemical, anti-Puritan lover of peace, liturgy, and tradition, and so a man significantly out of step with his Reformed Orthodox contemporaries. Chapter one likewise reviews the most notable recent efforts to revise that image, and in so doing helpfully situates Littlejohn's own perspective on Hooker in relation to existing views. Chapters two and three summarize Hooker's life and his most famous work, the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, respectively. These chapters alert readers to Hooker's spat with Presbyterian contemporaries, carried on both in his published Laws and, more remarkably, in the pulpit he shared with the Presbyterian Walter Travers in London's Temple Church. But they also point towards Hooker's broader interests and importance as a theologian -- as reflected in structurally significant discussions about, say, the incarnation, union with Christ, and the sacraments in Hooker's Laws -- and so anticipate later chapters in the book and Littlejohn's ultimate argument for Hooker's significance to the present day.

Chapters four through seven examine Hooker's identity as Protestant, polemicist, philosopher, and pastor in turn. Littlejohn makes good use, in the first of these, of recent literature that helpfully defines the boundaries of Reformed Orthodoxy on its own historical terms and emphasizes the variegated nature of that Orthodoxy to defend Hooker's Protestant Reformed credentials and debunk long-cherished fables about Hooker's proleptic "Anglican" distaste for Reformed thought and practice. The next, similarly, demonstrates that Hooker played the part of polemicist more avidly and ably than generally acknowledged by Hooker's modern day ecumenical fans, though Littlejohn astutely notes that early modern polemics could be pursued -- and arguably were so by Hooker -- with due deference to charity and an ultimate agenda of peace and concord. Continuing in much the same vein, Littlejohn explores Hooker's appreciation for Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas under the rubric of Hooker as "philosopher," thereby situating Hooker once again in the happy company of similarly appreciative Reformed peers. Littlejohn's chapter on Hooker as pastor reveals Hooker's deep concern for congregants, and demonstrates that Hooker's antipathy towards English Puritanism stemmed in part at least from the perception that Puritan efforts to bolster believers' assurance of salvation too often resulted in just the opposite -- a lack of assurance and consequent despair.

Chapters eight through eleven explore key aspects of Hooker's theology. Beginning with a chapter on Scripture, Littlejohn positions Hooker as Protestant in his carefully nuanced understanding of Scripture's authority, while admitting his difference with biblicist Puritan contemporaries who seemingly stretched Scripture's scope to include absolutely everything. The subsequent chapter on Hooker's understanding of law revisits Hooker's appreciation for and reliance upon Thomas Aquinas (in keeping with numerous continental Reformed contemporaries), while equally demonstrating his appreciation for his native England's legal traditions and customs. A chapter on Hooker's ecclesiology deflates the fable that Hooker collapsed the invisible church into the visible church, but equally, at least to my thinking, highlights a theological idiosyncrasy of Hooker's -- namely, his claim that persons professing faith constitute the visible church even when they've been excommunicated from the same. 

Chapter eleven, which explores Hooker's take on liturgy and the sacraments, provides a fitting final foray into Hooker's thought, and demonstrates that Hooker's doctrine of union with Christ and sacramental efficacy (presupposing faith), no matter his penchant for liturgy, was especially consistent with Calvin's sacramentology. Littlejohn's interaction with Brian Gerrish's work on this point helpfully illumines Hooker's Eucharistic perspective, but I'm not entirely convinced that Hooker's teaching, at least as summarized by Littlejohn, marked an intentional effort to reconcile Bullinger' symbolic parallelism with Calvin's symbolic instrumentalism (p. 176). Symbolic instrumentalism (of the sort propounded by Calvin and, apparently, Hooker) concedes, by its very nature, everything that symbolic parallelism advocates, but there's simply no middle ground between admitting and denying the sacraments an instrumental role (however qualified) in communicating the spiritual realities they represent and parallel. To me, at least, it seems as if Hooker was fairly forthright in his endorsement of such an instrumental role.

Littlejohn's final chapter, in which he advances an argument for what Hooker has to offer us today, is noteworthy for its creativity and discernment in highlighting gifts that Hooker stands to give, and for its analysis of certain neuroses that characterize contemporary society and Church, both conservative and liberal in kind -- neuroses that make Hooker all the more relevant to the present. Thus Littlejohn argues that Hooker stands to remind us of the value and utility of careful discrimination (in an age where discrimination, like judgment, has unfairly attained a reprehensible reputation). Hooker stands, moreover, to teach us that genuine identity can be realized in community (in an age characterized by manic fashioning and re-fashioning of personal identity), and that the best community in which to find oneself (the Church) must be rooted in history and revolve around shared love rather than shared fear or rejection of an object (in an age where ecclesiastical communions often ignore the past and/or define themselves principally by what they are not instead of what they are). Hooker stands, finally, to remind us about the difference between essential and non-essential doctrines and practices (in an age where secondary issues so often assume paramount importance, and so serve to divide us).

In summary, Littlejohn presents to readers a Hooker well worth reading in his own right, both for the elegance of his prose and for the depth and substance of his thought and the benefits to be gained from such in the present. Perhaps the best endorsement I can give Littlejohn's Hooker is my admitting that, almost immediately upon finishing it, I downloaded the 19th century edition of Hooker's Laws available via the Online Library of Liberty.



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