Richard Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity

Hooker McGradeA review of the new edition of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: A Critical Edition with Modern Spelling (3 volumes) edited by Arthur Stephen McGrade (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) is a new standard edition of the classic work of Anglican theology by Richard Hooker (1554-1600). It is possibly a little overblown to describe this, as the preface does, as “the first substantial contribution to theology, philosophy, and political thought written in English,” (much depends on what counts as “substantial” of course), but it remains a vitally important work for Anglican self-understanding nonetheless. Hooker’s reputation has evolved over the years, but he is still considered by many to be the prophet of Anglicanism par excellence, the first systematic defender of the via media. Whether this concept of a middle way between Rome and Geneva is quite what Hooker was getting at is a contentious point, but there is certainly much here that would challenge the modern notion that the Church of England is a designedly broad and inclusive church which is intended to simply reflect the values and mores of the nation in religious guise.

This edition is essentially the corrected Folger Library text of Hooker but with updated, modernized spelling. A substantial appendix in the third volume gives all the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin from Hooker’s text and footnotes, but these have been translated into English in the main text itself, which may be a little irritating for the purist scholar but is certainly a generous help to the modern reader. The editor has also done sterling work to translate Hooker’s often cryptic references to other authors and works into much fuller citations to available English editions. The glossary, guide to sources, and indexes make this a truly excellent study resource.

McGrade’s introduction provides a grand overview of Hooker’s magnum opus. The structure of the whole is made clear so that readers can navigate the eight books of material with greater ease.   Since the Restoration in the seventeenth century, Hooker has been seen by many as the guardian of a distinctively Anglican identity, rather than as an English Reformed theologian. The debate over how to locate him in the taxonomy of religious parties will continue, but readers are now more than adequately served with a very serviceable modern edition of this seminal work over which to continue that argument. His half a million words of polemic appear to me to be designed to maintain a particular form of Reformed Protestantism against adversaries on several sides, both Roman and separatist Puritan. Hooker, and of course the Church of England, embraced the Reformation wholeheartedly, and as Nigel Atkinson showed some time ago in his monograph on the great Elizabethan, Hooker “adopted a Reformed position in all cardinal doctrinal tenets.” There are many things here which will make modern Anglicans squirm, not only so-called liberals and Anglo-Catholics, but also some evangelicals. Whether we ultimately want to agree with everything Hooker asserts or not, he is always bracing and worthy of close attention.

The smaller, two-volume Everyman Library edition of Hooker (covering Books 1-5 of the Ecclesiastical Polity only) is much easier to hold on the bus, in bed, or in the bath. This new edition is far easier to understand and to use in the study. Its price ensures it will be consulted mainly in libraries or by the devoted, but Hooker fans everywhere should be delighted by what will now surely become the standard critical edition of a breathtaking work of Anglican erudition and argument.

This review was first published in Churchman 128/1 (2014).


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