The Via Media in Action

The Word of God and the Words of Man: Books II and III of Hooker’s Laws: a Modernization. By Richard Hooker. Edited/translated by Bradford Littlejohn, Brian Marr, Bradley Belschner, and Sean Duncan. Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018. 142pp. $11.95 (paper).

Due to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017, I have heard more discussions on the Five Solas of the Reformation in the previous year or so than I had during the entirety of my several decades as a follower of Christ. In Anglican circles, I have observed that Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide tend to generate the most animated conversations, largely due to caricatures of the doctrines that often overlook the context of the Solas in 16th Century debates about the doctrine of justification or salvation. That is, discussions often forget that Sola Fide is about faith’s role in justification, not about the irrelevance of good works for the Christian life. Similarly, Sola Scriptura is about the sufficiency of Scripture for salvation rather than total comprehensive authority.

Richard Hooker’s classic Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity show that this was just as much of a problem in the early years following the Reformation as it is today. Facing a growing Puritan movement within the Elizabethan Church of England that thought the Reformation had not gone far enough, Hooker sought to demonstrate a balanced approach to theology and ecclesiology that avoided extremes in either a traditionalist direction (a la Rome) or a radicalizing direction (a la the Anabaptists). Hooker’s Laws are as important as Calvin’s Institutes for Reformation theology, but are unfortunately rarely studied today, largely because of Hooker’s complex style (even by 16th Century standards) that put his works out of reach for most modern readers. The Davenant Institute has undertaken a laudable project of modernizing (and in some cases actually translating) Hooker’s Laws for today’s readers. The Words of God and the Words of Man are the third volume in this project, covering books II and III of Hooker’s Laws.

In reviewing such a project, two directions could be taken: reviewing the actual content of Hooker’s arguments or reviewing the editors’ adaptation of Hooker. For the most part, this review takes the former approach. As to the latter, suffice it to say that they have done an excellent job of making Hooker accessible. According to the introduction, their stylistic approach has been closer to 19th Century English than 21st Century English, which is elevated enough to not trivialize the content, but still understandable by most modern readers (xiv). Unlike the previous volumes, this one included some abridgments, though this was kept to a minimum (xii). I look forward to comparing the abridged sections to Hooker’s original in the future.

The present volume primarily deals with the practical application of early Puritan approaches to Scripture as relates to the life of the Church. Much of Hooker’s argument is a response to Thomas Cartwright’s The Second Replie of Thomas Cartwright: against Master Whitgifts second Answer touching the church discipline in which Cartwright argues all of life should be governed directly by Scripture. In the introduction, the editors summed up the Puritan logic with a syllogism “Scripture tells us everything that is necessary. It seems to us necessary to know X. Therefore, Scripture tells us X” (iii). Hooker argues that this is actually an unscriptural approach to the Bible, and that it leads to abuse of Scripture rather than faithfulness to Holy Writ.

Book II of Hooker’s Laws argues against Scripture being the “Only Rule of All Things Which in This Life May Be Done by Men” (1). Hooker demonstrates that the evidence Cartwright and the other Puritans use from Scripture to support this approach takes Scripture itself out of context. Rather, he argues that Scripture’s scope is limited to essentials of faith and morals, but leaves the specific application of much of its principles to human reason and human authority. Additionally, a common Puritan position stated that anything done without the express purpose of glorifying God based on a Scriptural command is necessarily sin. Hooker effectively proves that such a position will lead to absurd conclusions:

Although meat and drink are sanctified by the Word of God and by prayer, this by itself is not enough to prove that Scripture must necessarily direct us in every trivial and mundane thing which happens in a man’s life. . . . This can hardly be stretched to mean that the Word sanctifies all things in such a way that food cannot be tasted nor clothes put on nor anything in the world done without sin, unless those who do such things know beforehand that they are appointed by Scripture (11-12).

Book III takes these principles and applies them to the issue of Church polity. The Puritans argued for the “regulative principle of worship” whereby the specifics of rites, ceremonies, and church polity must be explicitly commanded by Scripture. This led them to reject the episcopacy as being unscriptural, since the New Testament does not make a clear distinction between bishops/overseers and presbyters/elders. Hooker argues that Scripture leaves such details up to the discretion and reason of the Church, and implies that an episcopal system is actually more faithful to the text than a presbyterian one. Indeed, he argues that not every command in Scripture is unalterable, as shown by the fact that no Church keeps Old Testament ceremonial laws. Rather, the moral principles and essentials of faith are eternal, while many specifics are more akin to “case law” than to unalterable commands.

Many things are required for a complete form of church polity which the Scripture does not teach, and some of the rules it does teach are no longer binding, sometimes because we do not need to implement them, sometimes because we cannot. For my own part, though the Scottish and French Reformed churches do not have the government that best agrees with Scripture (namely government by bishops), I would rather lament their defects than quarrel about it (133).

It is not difficult to see how these issues continue to apply to the life of the modern Church. We still have those who insist that anything apart from direct commands by Scripture are sin or error. We still have those who insist that Scripture cannot be trusted to be the ultimate authority on faith and morals, but rather require extra-biblical tradition to provide us with the essentials of the faith. Hooker is a welcome moderating voice in such debates. Anglicanism is indeed the via media, not because the “middle way” is a compromise, but because it is the Scriptural approach to such things.

That said, this does speak to modern problems in our tradition. For example, Hooker’s concepts on church polity fly in the face of many in our ranks who consider the presence of bishops in apostolic succession to be essential to the Church. Hooker would argue that this is the best position, but not one that is Scripturally necessary, and thus essential to the Church or her sacraments. In this, Hooker has more in common with confessional Lutheranism than with our own Lambeth Quadrilateral.

On the other hand, it is easy to see how Hooker’s principles can be abused. Indeed, the more liberal ends of the Anglican Communion use similar arguments to promote innovations on sexuality and on Holy Orders. While Hooker would no doubt insist that such things violate Scriptural essentials on faith and morals, one can see the appeal of a more Puritan approach to Scripture or a more Roman approach to tradition as less messy than reasoning the principles out.

Ultimately, I highly recommend this work, as well as the other volumes in this series, to any Anglican and to any Christian who is seriously interested in classical Protestant orthodoxy. Hooker’s voice is very much needed today, and the Davenant Institute’s project of modernization/translation is an ideal vehicle for providing it to our clergy and lay faithful.

Fr. Isaac J. Rehberg

Fr. Isaac is the Archdeacon for liturgy in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations (ACNA), and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he lives with his wife, Heather, and daughters, Leah and Victoria. A bi-vocational priest, he works as a residential real estate appraiser and dabbles in various forms of music. Fr. Isaac earned his BA from the University of Texas at San Antonio and his Master of Christian Ministry from Wayland Baptist University.

'The Via Media in Action' have 2 comments

  1. April 15, 2018 @ 6:24 pm bob rainis

    Via Media was first used to describe the Church of the Augsburg Confession over/against Rome and the Reformed theologians . Lutherans were the VIA MEDIA……..come on, stop taking “credit” for things not Anglican…..


    • Jesse Nigro

      April 16, 2018 @ 9:22 am Jesse Nigro

      Hello Bob,
      The via media, “golden mean,” or middle way is at least as old as Aristotle and can be found in Aquinas too. For what it’s worth many scholars hold that the Anglican via media is between Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxy, but ultimately none of these summaries do full justice to all the facts.


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