Thursday, August 22, 2013

Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity by Richard Hooker / Works of Love

Richard Hooker

Statue of Richard Hooker
Born in 1554, Richard Hooker lived an uneventful life devoted to scholarship. He was raised by his rich uncle who sent him to a good school, and he was sponsored by the English church apologist John Jewel when he went to Oxford. After serving as a rector in a small church, Hooker was asked to become the Master at Temple Church in London. Here, Walter Travers, Hooker's cousin and an accomplished theologian, butted heads with Richard over questions of church government, so when Hooker finally moved on to other positions, he started his work, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity to defend the Church of England's position. However, Hooker's work did far more than answer the problem of his day. It also created a new, stable way to interpret scripture that to this day characterizes Anglican theology. (In the 1590s, the Spanish Armada had just been defeated, and Shakespeare had just started writing plays) For further information, see Richard Hooker.

Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity

"Although the scripture of God therefore be stored with infinite variety of matter in all kinds, although it abound with all sorts of laws, yet the principal intent of scripture is to deliver the laws of duties supernatural. Oftentimes it hath been in very solemn manner disputed, whether all things necessary unto salvation be necessarily set down in the holy scriptures or no. If we define that necessary unto salvation, whereby the way to salvation is in any sort made more plain, apparent, and easy to be known; then is there no part of true philosophy, no art of account, no kind of science rightly so called, but the scripture must contain it... Whereunto, we may answer with truth, that there is not in the world any Art or Science, which proposing unto itself an end... hath been therefore thought defective, if it have not delivered simply whatsoever is needful to the same end: but all kinds of knowledge have their certain bounds and limits; each of them presupposeth many necessary things learned in other sciences and known beforehand."
     (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book I, Section 14.1)


Medieval Dentistry
What Hooker argues here is that everything, whether a book or a plow, is made with a specific goal in mind. If the work meets that goal, then it shouldn't be criticized. The Puritans claimed that the sufficiency of Scripture covered church government (as well as a host of other issues). Hooker responded by saying that Scripture was written for our salvation. Now by salvation, Hooker has in mind salvation as it applies to all of Creation. The goal of Scripture is to teach us about the reconciliation between Creation and its Creator. That Scripture has limits is beyond a doubt. If a dentist claimed that the Bible was a textbook for dentistry, I don't think I would let him work on my teeth. This limitation of Scripture has incredible benefits.


Hooker's argument has several helpful effects.

  1. First, it stops the abuse of Scripture. By limiting what Scripture applies to, it stops people from feeling obligated to turn to Scripture for everything which often leads Scripture's misuse.
  2. Second, it opens up a space for wisdom. Christians are free to respond to the particulars of a situation with care and discernment.
  3. Third, it creates an opportunity for community. While there are certain core doctrines related to Scripture's intended goal, Christians can differ on minor issues without incurring guilt.
Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity is not an easy read, but if more Christians could learn and appreciate the interpretive effects of Hooker's work, many common interpretive mistakes could be avoided.


I am heavily indebted to Dr. Andre Gazal, a true friend and mentor, for his class on the English Reformation, and I'm also indebted to Richard Hooker's tremendous effort, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks. This book has been so helpful, even if it is a difficult read.

  2. Thanks for mentioning the book! It was so helpful for me to recognize not only that Scripture doesn't give direct directions for day-to-day decisions, but that Scripture might not even provide exactly the clear-cut principles I might wish it did. Instead, it's full of examples of Spirit-led individuals exercising wisdom in specific circumstances. It's helped me to view Scripture as a guidebook and source of wisdom than a handbook for life.

    1. Thanks Adam. That was a great class.