Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie and Certayne Divine Tractates
Queen Elizabeth’s religious settlement of 1559 was a compromise. It renewed the break with the Catholic Church but kept bishops as part of the structure of the Church of England, vestments in services, and many Catholic-like ceremonies. It placed authority of the Bible in line with Protestant beliefs, yet maintained order and ritual in the Church to lessen the displeasure of the many conservative English parishioners and clergy. The compromise was the Queen’s wishes; it lacked, however, a strong theological champion to counter the extremes—the Catholic leaders in exile and the Puritans. Then came Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. It provided a powerful defense of Elizabeth’s Church based on the fundamental order of nature that God created. The book’s carefully crafted prose and dignified style place it among the masterpieces of Elizabethan literature.
Richard Hooker (1554–1600) came from an impoverished background and attended Exeter grammar school. His talents won him the support of John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury, who got him into Corpus Christi, Oxford, where he rose to become a fellow. In 1585 Hooker was appointed to be master of Inner Temple, selected over a well-known Puritan, Walter Travers, who stayed on. The Master and Lecturer were soon engaged in public debate on theological questions, which served to sharpen Hooker’s Anglican beliefs and his reasoned defense of the Church of England. The present volume includes Tractates, his initial published response to Travers. Hooker then began to write the longer work.
Hooker identified “reason” as a critical foundation for deciding Church matters. Reason is a gift of God to humans; it is the basis of societal law and should be applied to theological “things indifferent”—religious practices where scriptural authority does not speak or is unclear. In those cases there are other sources of knowledge and means to discover God’s will. For “things indifferent,” such as many rites and ceremonies, a reasoned choice is to follow long-standing traditions with changes only as appropriate. The retention of Church hierarchy is another “thing indifferent,” and the Anglican choice best aligns church and state relations, which is important for the good of the people.
The eight books of Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity were published at different times. Books I–IV were first published in 1593, and Book V first appeared in 1597. The remaining (less essential) books were published posthumously. Books VI and VIII were printed in 1648; Book VII remained unknown until 1662. The present copy is the fourth edition of Books I-IV, the third edition of Book V, and the second edition of Tractates.
Chrzanowski 1622h *