Reviewed for CTE by David Carter
By any standards, Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity was a major theological achievement. It is not however an easy read on account of its long flowing Elizabethan periods. One may, and certainly can, find theological gems in it, but sustained reading is not easy. It is therefore both on that account and for its seminal importance in so much later Anglican thought that it is good to welcome this clearly written and thorough account and appraisal of Hooker’s work, reference also being made to his other occasional writings.
The author, who has taught both in the is country and America, is currently Team Rector of Abingdon. Whilst stressing the overall continuing value of Hooker for Anglicanism, he is careful to locate Hooker clearly in his Elizabethan context, in which moderate Calvinism was still dominant and to show the extent to which Hooker reflected that ethos whilst also asking important questions that had not really been addressed by the earlier reformers.
One of Miller’s main aims in writing is to introduce the general reader to what he regards as the best modern appraisal of Hooker, that of the French scholar, Charles Loyer, whose work remains, regrettably, untranslated into English. A key feature of his analysis is the pointing up of the extent to which Hooker is indebted to medieval theologians, particularly Aquinas, and to some of the later eastern theologians, most especially John of Damascus. Clearly Hooker, though loyal to the Elizabethan settlement, did not feel a need to confine himself to the Scriptures and the fathers of the first four or five centuries. Indeed, as Miller comments, it may well be that the increasing division between the moderate Calvinists, who still prevailed and remained loyal to the Established Church, and the more radical Puritans gave Hooker and others space for thinking new thoughts and saying what would have been unthinkable earlier.
Miller deals not just with Hooker’s defence of the Prayer Book and its rites but also with his basic theology, his sacramental theology and his understanding of the relationship between faith and works, the divergence of which from that of Luther and Calvin he clearly illustrates. There are chapters on his moral and spiritual theology and finally one on his political theory and theology.
In his defence of the 1559 Prayer Book, Hooker stresses the value both of repetition and of festival days in the formation and strengthening of Christian faith and devotion. Miller shows how he neatly turned the tables on the Puritan argument that only that specifically authorised in Scripture was legitimate in worship. He took a favourite Puritan proof text Proverbs 2:9 and argued that it did legitimate a role for the use of natural wisdom as well as Scripture in such matters.
Important as Miller believes Hooker’s overall theological and spiritual approach to be, he is not uncritical of him. He calls his treatment of the theology of baptism and the eucharist ‘uneven and in some ways disappointing’, though he later pays due, and in my opinion, proper respect to Hooker’s eirenic intention in seeking to identify the common factors in the diverse eucharistic theologies of his time. His unwillingness to be too over definitive in terms of the precise nature of the eucharistic presence of Christ seems to me to anticipate the similar wisdom of Charles Wesley with his ‘sure and certain is the grace, the manner is unknown’ or ‘Who shall tell how bread and wine, God into man convey?’
Miller, Charles. Richard Hooker and the Vision of God. Exploring the Origins of Anglicanism. James Clarke and Co, 2013, pp. 349. ISBN 978-0-227-17400-5. £25.