Richard Hooker

We look on the life of Richard Hooker and the influence of his great work, The Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, on the Church of England and on John Wesley.

Episode 13

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. With the coming of the English Civil War, chronology shall overtake us and bring us all the way to the Epworth parsonage where Suzannah gave birth to John and Charles Wesley. Before we arrive at the Civil War, that great struggle between crown and parliament, between high church and low church, between roundheads and cavaliers, I want to look at one last theologian of the 16th century. Today’s Episode: Richard Hooker

In 1750, when John Wesley first published his 50 volume collection that was later compressed to 30 volumes titled “A Christian Library,” he dedicated a volume to the lives of Richard Hooker, Sir Henry Wotten, John Donne, and George Herbert. A Christian Library is worthy of further thought because it is a fascinating resource that the “Wesley Center Online” of Northwest Nazarene University. We can today easily access the entirety of the work and in it see what writings Wesley felt could be beneficial to folks. Many of the volumes are filled with lives of eminent figures like volume 15. Yet, as is the case with everything Wesley published, the point of these texts was not to fit inside a system of theological thought but to offer opportunities for people to grow in holiness.

Our focus, in this episode, shall be on Richard Hooker. Whose life was short but his influence was vast. Hooker was able to articulate a uniquely English theology that held together the Reformed Tradition of the Continent as well the realities the Elizabethan Church. Like Wesley almost 200 years later, Hooker responded to the pressure of Calvinists with a clear vision of the Protestant Church in England that lifted up Scripture as well as continuity with the past. As Wesley writes, “MR. RICHARD HOOKER was born at Heavy-Tree, near Exeter, about the year 1553, of parents who were not so remarkable for their extraction or riches, as for their virtue and industry, and God’s blessing upon both.” Hooker grew up during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The formative political events of Elizabeth’s reign, like the Act of Supremacy and Act of Uniformity (spoken about in Episode 9) shaped Hooker but also gave him a context and a church that was worthy of defending. Church Law was declared by powers greater than, but Hooker saw the possibility of articulating a logic for these Laws in ways that would address the concerns of the same Puritans who would later petition King James on his way to London, as mentioned in our last episode.

Hooker’s great work was called the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, first published in 1595. He explains in his preface exactly what the text is about and why he wanted to write it, quote

THOUGH for no other cause, yet for this—that posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream—for this I write, offering to posterity an account of the present state and legal establishment of the Church of England, and a vindication of those who have fought so hard to preserve and uphold it.

Hooker was able to publish books 1-5 in his lifetime. 3 more books exist which have disputed authorship but which still had influence over the Church of England. The first volume focuses on a question about law itself, moving from notions of natural law to claims about the sufficiency of Scripture. The Second book discuses Scripture even more and looks at the question of whether Scripture Alone can govern all human action. The third book looks at how helpful Scripture can be in governing Church polity, especially the question of whether Scripture offers an unchanging ideal of church polity for which Christians should always strive. The fourth book shifts from church structure to liturgy, or the way the church worships. Liturgy and polity may seem like two very different things, but this is not how folks in the 16th century understood matters. Hooker was responding to arguments concerning the form of church, and one claimed that English church polity was corrupted due to Popish orders, rites, and ceremonies. I want quote the opening of Book 4 to understand his argument and to also give a taste of his beautiful prose.

Such was the ancient simplicity and softness of spirit which sometimes prevailed in the world, that they whose words were even as oracles amongst men seemed evermore loath to give sentence against anything publicly received in the Church of God, except it were wonderful apparently evil ; for that they did not so much incline to that severity, which delighteth to reprove the least things it seeth amiss, as to that charity which is unwilling to behold anything that duty bindeth it to reprove. The state of this present age, wherein zeal hath drowned charity, and skill meekness, will not now suffer any man to marvel whatsoever he shall hear reproved by whomsoever.

Book 5 concerns the virtues and the Christian life and is longer than the first four books combined. Book Five has a number of wonderful virtues, but since Wesley never quotes it directly, it is not especially relevant for today’s discussion.

Instead of going into more details, i want to turn to my teacher, Richard Heitzenrater’s account of Hooker in his standard text, Wesley and the People Called Methodists. It is an introductory text in most Methodist or Wesleyan seminaries. Heitzenrater writes:

Richard Hooker undertook to provide an exposition of church polity and doctrine in a work that became a definitive explication of the Elizabethan Settlement, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. In his work, Hooker first raises the crucial question as to what the authorities should be for answering basic questions of ecclesiastical structure and thought. His answer, self-consciously walking a line between the poles of thought in his day (to become a model of the mediating, via media tradition of the Church of England), was three-fold: (1) Scripture (but not as used by the Puritans) provides the main source of truth and the basic test of Christian veracity, but was not to be used in the manner of the Puritans’ understanding of sola scriptura—scripture was not a handbook that provided specific answers to all questions, to be followed to the letter: doing all the things spelled out there, omitting all the things not found there. Hooker suggested that the scriptures, the primary source of truth, should be seen whole and could provide guidelines for thought and action in many areas. (2) Tradition (but not as used by the Roman Catholics) provides a view of life and thought from the earliest centuries of Christianity, closest to the purity of the apostolic witness and most liable to be (in its consensus) an authentic reflection and explication of the biblical testimony—certainly not to be venerated equally with scripture (as the Council of Trent had decreed), and by all means limited to the first few centuries of the church, excluding the “innovations” of the medieval church. Hooker saw the value of tradition as an early authoritative explanation of scriptural truths. (3) Reason (but not as used by the Platonists) furnishes the means by which scripture and tradition can be scrutinized and understood by thoughtful persons—revealed truth may at times be above reason, but can never be contrary to reason. Hooker was willing to discern connections between revelation and reason as sources and measures of truth in order to develop doctrines that were cogent and credible. Hookers’ delineation of theology and polity supplied the definitive outline and defense of the via media and the Elizabethan Settlement for generations to come. By the eighteenth century, Hooker was a standard authority. Samuel Wesley’s Advice to a Young Clergyman (1735) assumes that any aspiring cleric will be well-grounded in Hooker, and John Wesley’s own framework for authority owes an obvious debt to the Hookerian perspective that had become pervasive by his day. (10)

Wesley’s adapted biography of Hooker avoids heavy talk of theology and instead focuses upon his habits of life and his holiness, but elsewhere in his history of England, Wesley describes Hooker (as well as Sir Walter Raleigh) as “among the first improvers of our language.” By language he, of course, means English. Elsewhere, in a defense of enthusiasm, Wesley invokes the name of Hooker:

But you ask, "Has God ever commanded us to do thus?" I believe he has neither commanded nor forbidden it in Scripture. But then remember, "that Scripture" (to use the words which you cite from "our learned and judicious Hooker") "is not the only rule of all things, which, in this life, may be done by men."

Hooker died young and in some ways the church he loved and built was soon going to die, as well. Between Hooker’s time and the birth of Wesley was the English Civil War, an event rarely spoken of in American contexts but one which shaped both sides of the Atlantic tremendously. England had had internal wars before between different claimants to the crown, the Civil War was unique in that instead of pitting royal against royal, parliament rose up against the king. Why? What kind of arguments could pit the English against themselves, next time of the history of methodism.


Richard Hooker, Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity

Richard Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013).

John Wesley, A Christian Library, Volume 15

John Wesley, "The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained: Occasioned by The Rev. Mr. Church's Second Letter to Mr. Wesley, Works, 8, 449-50.

David Robert Walls, The Influence of the Greek Fathers' Doctrine of Theosis on John Wesley's Doctrine of Perfection, Dissertation, University of St. Michael’s College, 2015.