Richard Hooker was the most influential theologian of the late Elizabethan age. He was a student of theology from 1569 in Oxford, and his tutor was the influential Puritan and theologian, John Rainolds. From 1579 Hooker taught Hebrew and was later appointed Master of the Temple in London in 1585, where his sermons emerged as a vision of a religion which was far removed from any radicalism and inspired by the belief of a merciful God. While he was Master of the Temple, he had a long dispute with the Puritan Walter Travers, who accused him of excessive moderation. The most important works of Hooker were the eight books Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, where the theologian defended the still young Anglican via media of the pressures of the Presbyterian Puritans and the counter-reformed Catholics. The Lawes reflect the theological disputes that Hooker had while at the Temple with Travers on soteriology and ecclesiology. In the eight books, Hooker decisively shaped the doctrinal, political, and official profile of Anglicanism: the theologian reaffirmed the principle of the sola scriptura, the legitimacy of the episcopate, and of the Anglican liturgical forms adopted in the Church of England. Above all, Richard Hooker argued vigorously in favor of the full legitimacy of the laws which were divided into revelation, reason, and tradition, and they also accounted the insurmountable limit that the royal power could not exceed. His legacy was changing: from the traditional view of the theoretics of Anglicanism, Hooker’s thoughts were interpreted in various ways, through virtue of the multiplicity of the ideas and theories that pervaded his work so that no category could confirm and contain, once and for all, his thinking which was his major work.
KeywordsLegal Philosophy Hierarchical View Spiritual Power Reading Matter Double Identity
Richard Hooker studied theology at Corpus Christi College in Oxford, where he was admitted in 1569 thanks to the patronage of John Jewel, and following the latter’s death in 1571, of Edwin Sandys. Hooker’s tutor was the cultured and influential Puritan theologian John Rainolds. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1574, Hooker became a fellow of the College in 1579, and the same year, he was ordained a deacon, and, thanks to the support of Robert Dudley, he was appointed deputy professor of Hebrew. In 1585, following the recommendation of Sandys, he was appointed Master of the Temple at Church of the Inns Court. His sermons at the Temple did not focus on a deep theological analysis, but, moreover, they tended toward accentuating the interior dimension of faith, through which the soul is approached by a merciful God (Hooker 1612a). For this moderate view of religion, Hooker was attacked at length by the Puritan and preacher of the Temple, Walter Travers, who chided him for his excessive restraint when dealing with religious dissidents. In 1591, Hooker was appointed subdean of Salisbury and left the Temple and began working on Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, whose first four books saw the light in 1593, just as Parliament exuded its first action against the Puritans. The works were to be published in their entirety in separate posthumous phases: the fifth time in 1579, while the sixth and the eighth were only published in 1648 and the seventh in 1661.
The Lawes were conceived by Hooker as an impressive work in defense of the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559 (Collinson 1997). The theologian traced the profile of Anglicanism as midway between the extremes of the Catholic counter-reformation and puritanism (Shagan and Shuger 2016). The spectrum of ideas which inspired Hooker was very large, as well as the scope of his interventions, which included ecclesiology, adiaphora, soteriology, and he even tackled the sensitive issue of relations between temporal and spiritual power (Hooker 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998). Hooker reaffirmed the principle of sola scriptura and defended the emphasis on episcopal authority in Anglicanism – and the hierarchical view of society that was implied – the liturgy was the defense of the principle of royal supremacy over the church. In the eighth book of the Lawes, which contrasted with the Puritans, Hooker outlined an inclusive profile of the church in which basically “church” and “commonwealth” coincided (Eppley 2008).
Hooker did not theologically justify the supremacy of the king over the church (Torrance Kirby 1990): this was legitimate as it had been established with the consent of the community and was limited by the laws of God, the kingdom, and the region. Underlying this conception did not involve the merger of church and state but was his peculiar conception of what was right (Lynch 2004). The theologian decided what was law, according to a hierarchy that reflected a Neoplatonic cosmology mold, at the top of which God sat (Torrance Kirby 2008). In this view, laws were divided into divine, natural, and “municipal” (McGrade 2004), a form of territorial law capable of limiting royal powers. Hooker was the only thinker of his time to put such an emphasis, not only on law but also on the “Lawes whereby we live” (Hooker 2013) and looked forward to a consensual idea of sovereignty. Hooker’s masterpiece was also the first of its kind written in English to deal systematically with theology, politics, and legal philosophy (McGrade 2004).
The richness of the sources and the breadth of his thinking, combined with the delayed edition of the last three books of the Lawes, allowed Hooker’s luck and interpretation to change. “Drowned in the torrents of Political and Religious confusion” (Brydon 2007), during the English Civil War, in the course of the eighteenth century, Hooker was attributed a smooth double identity, “as Whig and Tory” (McGrade 2004). Universally considered the most important defender of the via media (Atkinson 1997), if not the true inventor of Anglicanism (Lake 1988), Hooker was also deemed the precursor of English Enlightenment (Beiser 1996), while in light of manuscripts which resurfaced in recent years, he was confirmed a defender of the most reformed aspects of the Elizabethan church. However, the depth and breadth of Hooker’s thoughts meant that no reading matter was able to defend, so comprehensively, his belief in the doctrine of justification by faith in his most important piece of literature within such a rigid category (MacCulloch 2008).
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