Richard Hooker's trinitarian hermeneutic of grace

Anglican Theological Review, Fall 2002 by Rasmussen, Barry G

Robert K. Faulkner has identified two tendencies in the cultural upheaval that shaped the writing of Richard Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Faulkner demonstrates how Hooker's argumentation was addressed to powerful proponents of an emerging secularism and, at the same time, a well-educated clergy who were impatient for a reformation of church and society that was in keeping with Puritan sensibilities.1 If the context of Hooker's writing is indeed addressed to more than one opponent, and if Hooker's reputation as a conciliatory theologian has some basis in fact, then it is tempting to describe Hooker's theological project as an endeavor to find an Aristotelean "middle." The matter, however, is not so simple. One of his more formidable contemporary opponents with a Puritan viewpoint described him as the very opposite of calm mediation. Faulkner reports:

To Walter Travers, the Puritan leader in England and Hooker's rival at Temple Church until silenced, Hooker's teaching was not moderation but scandal. He accused Hooker to the Privy Council of "setting forth the agreement of the church of Rome with us, and their disagreement from us, as if we had consented in the greatest and weightiest points, and differed only in certain smaller matters."2

Hooker's teachings on predestination, the role of Scripture, the nature of Christ and his presence, and the role of human senses and reason in relation to matters of faith caused apparent paradoxes from Travers's perspective. This paper will attempt to show that the hermeneutical

presuppositions of Hooker, rooted in a thoroughly trinitarian theology, brought him in conflict with Puritan assumptions and the assumptions of the burgeoning modernity that carried the tendencies that eventually secularized Western society. Instead of finding an Aristotelean "middle," Hooker's hermeneutic stands in opposition to both the Puritan movement and the assumptions that eventually led to Western secularism.

Hooker's hermeneutic resisted the nominalism characteristic of both the secularizers and the Puritans. The hermeneutical assumptions operative in Hooker's arguments over church policy and the nature of Christian piety against the Puritans of his Elizabethan England centered around the interpretation and knowledge of finite matters in relationship to the infinite Christian God. Such finite matters included questions about how one should live with others, how one should organize a society, and how the Christian church should be understood within that culture. Hooker was engaged in a struggle about human values with a group that had very different hermeneutical assumptions about the relationship between the finite and the infinite. This clash is a watershed event that marks the difference between the classical age of Western culture and the beginnings of modernity.

Michel Foucault points out that before the modern era, questions about the knowledge of finite things were shaped by their relationship to the infinite.3 Foucault continues by noting that while the various expressions of classical "rationalism" and Renaissance "humanism" gave the human being a privileged place in the cosmos, the human being becomes the measure of all things at the beginning of the modern era.4 In this hermeneutical change, the human being arises as an autonomous being through a culture that "conceives of the finite on the basis of itself."5 The autonomous subject is encountered by a finite autonomous world of objects and other subjects. To use a metaphor from chemistry, the science of substance, both subject and object harden and separate. In this distillation of language the finite world loses its character of being accidens Dei.

In such a world, the autonomous subject is given the task of creating a world of meaning with the form of matter that is encountered.

What is lost is the humility and deference that arises from an understanding that finite objects and subjects are not self-contained but exist and are defined in terms of a relationship to the infinite divine. Before the modern turn to the subject it was assumed that since human knowledge of God is necessarily limited, knowledge of the finite must also be limited.6 Hooker's hermeneutical presuppositions were set against all cultural expressions that were based on the modern hardening of language that conceptualized substances as being self-contained and autonomous.

The secularization of Western culture, although coming to fruition with the advent of the substantial and autonomous subject, had its seeds within a change in language that can be traced to Duns Scotus. The Western onto-theological project began when "being" univocally referred to God and creatures in Scotus's anti-Thomistic metaphysics where the conditions of finite knowledge focused on "being-in-itself."7 John Milbank argues that the opening of an autonomous, secular sphere of knowledge is metaphysical, "for since it cannot refer the flux of time to the ungraspable infinite, it is forced to seek a graspable, immanent security."8 Coinciding with this rupture of the infinite from the finite is a hardening of language that is predisposed to objectification.9 Catherine Pickstock explains that this tendency toward objectification is an element of modern alienation in that the participants of an event are replaced with a reified, intransitive given that permanently suspends personal responsibility while giving a dizzying array of possibilities for interpretation and the will.10


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