Richard Hooker’s Biblical Defense of Reason

Much of Hooker’s concern in the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity deals with the legitmacy of natural revelation and reason.  His opponents, in order to boost their views of church government, had advocated that we could rely upon nothing but positive Biblical revelation.  Hooker argues that this goes too far, rejecting what is necessary in order to properly receive positive Biblical revelation.  He even goes further and shows that the Bible itself requires the right use of reason:

“Judge you of that which I speak,” saith the apostle. In vain it were to speak any thing of God, but that by reason men are able somewhat to judge of that they hear, and by discourse to discern how consonant it is to truth. Scripture indeed teacheth things above nature, things which our reason by itself could not reach unto. Yet those things also we believe, knowing by reason, that the Scripture is the word of God. In the presence of Festus a Roman, and of King Agrippa a Jew, St. Paul omitting the one, who neither knew the Jew’s religion, nor the books whereby they were taught it, speaks unto the other of things foreshewed by Moses and the prophets, and performed in Jesus Christ, intending thereby to prove himself so unjustly accused, that unless his judges did condemn both Moses and the prophets, him they could not choose but acquit, who taught only that fulfilled, which they so long since had foretold. His cause was easy to be discerned; what was done, their eyes were witnesses ; what Moses and the prophets did speak, their books could quickly shew: it was no hard thing for him to compare them, which knew the one, and believed the other. ” King Agrippa, believest; thou the prophets ? I know thou dost.” The question is, how the books of the prophets came to be credited of King Agrippa. For what with him did authorize the prophets, the like with us doth cause the rest of the Scripture of God to be of credit. Because we maintain, that in Scripture we are taught all things necessary unto salvation ; hereupon very childishly it is by some demanded, what Scripture can teach us the sacred authority of the Scripture, upon the knowledge whereof our whole faith and salvation dependeth ? As though there were any kind of science in the world which leadeth men unto knowledge, without presupposing a number of things already known. No science doth make known the first principles whereon it buildeth; but they are always either taken as plain and manifest in themselves, or as proved and granted already, some former knowledge having made them evident. Scripture teacheth all supernatural revealed truth; without the knowledge whereof salvation cannot be attained. The main principle whereupon our belief of all things therein contained dependeth, is, that the Scriptures are the oracles of God himself. This in itself we cannot say is evident : for then all men that hear it, would acknowledge it in heart, as they do when they hear that every whole is more than any part of that whole, because this in itself is evident. The other we know, that all do not acknowledge when they hear it. There must be therefore some former knowledge presupposed, which doth herein assure the hearts of all believers. Scripture teaches us that saving truth which God hath discovered unto the world by revelation; and it presumeth us taught otherwise, that itself is Divine and sacred. The question then being, by what means we are taught this: some answer, that to learn it we have no other way than only tradition; as namely, that so we believe, because both we from our predecessors, and they from theirs have so received. But is this enough? That which all men’s experience teacheth them, may not in anywise be denied. And by experience we all know, that the first outward motive leading men so to esteem of the Scripture, is the authority of God’s church. For when we know the whole church of God hath that opinion of the Scripture, we judge it even at the first an impudent thing for any man bred and brought up in the church, to be of a contrary mind without cause. Afterward the more we bestow our labour in reading or hearing the mysteries thereof, the more we find that the thing itself doth answer our received opinion concerning it. So that the former inducement prevailing somewhat with us before, doth now much more prevail, when the very thing hath ministered farther reason. If infidels or atheists chance at any time to call it in question, this giveth us occasion to sift what reason there is, whereby the testimony of the church concerning Scripture, and our own persuasion, which Scripture itself hath confirmed, may be proved a truth infallible. In which case the ancient fathers being often constrained to shew, what warrant they had so much to rely upon the Scriptures, endeavoured still to maintain the authority of the books of God by arguments, such as unbelievers themselves must needs think reasonable, if they judged thereof as they should. Neither is it a thing impossible, or greatly hard, even by such kind of proofs, so to manifest and clear that point, that no man living shall be able to deny it, without denying some apparent principle, such as all men acknowledge to be true. Wherefore if I believe the gospel, yet is reason of singular use, for that it confirmeth me in this my belief the more: if I do not as yet believe, nevertheless to bring me into the number of believers, except reason did somewhat help, and were an instrument which God doth use unto such purposes, what should it boot to dispute with infidels or godless persons for their conversion and persuasion in that point ? Neither can I think that when grave and
learned men do sometime hold that of this principle there is no proof but by the testimony of the Spirit, which assureth our hearts therein, it is their meaning to exclude utterly all force which any kind of reason may have in that behalf; but I rather incline to interpret such their, speeches, as if they had more expressly set down, that other motives and inducements, be they never so strong and consonant unto reason, are notwithstanding ineffectual of themselves to work faith concerning this principle, if the special grace of the Holy Ghost concur not to the enlightening of our minds. For otherwise, I doubt not but men of wisdom and judgment will grant that the church, in this point especially, is furnished with reason to stop the mouths of her impious adversaries; and that as it were altogether bootless to allege against them what the Spirit hath taught us, so likewise, that even to our ownselves it needeth caution and explication, how the testimony of the Spirit may be discerned, by what means it may be known, lest men think that the Spirit of God doth testify those things which the spirit of error suggesteth.

The operations of the Spirit, especially these ordinary which be common unto all true Christian men, are, as we know, things secret and undiscernible even to the very soul where they are, because their nature is of another and a higher kind than that they can be by us perceived in this life. Wherefore albeit the Spirit lead us into all truth, and direct us in all goodness; yet because these workings of the Spirit in us are so privy and secret, we therefore stand on a plainer ground, when we gather by reason from the quality of things believed or done, that the Spirit of God hath directed us in both, than if we settle ourselves to believe or to do any certain particular thing, as being moved thereto by the Spirit. But of this enough. To go from the books of Scripture, to the sense and meaning thereof, because the sentences which are by the apostles recited out of the Psalms, to prove the resurrection of Jesus Christ, did not prove it, if so be the prophet David meant them of himself. This exposition therefore they plainly disprove, and shew by manifest reason that of David the words of David could not possibly be meant. Exclude the use of natural reasoning about the sense of Holy Scripture concerning the articles of our faith, and then that the Scripture doth concern the articles of our faith who can assure us? That which by right exposition buildeth up Christian faith, being misconstrued, breedeth error; between true and false construction, the difference reason must shew. Can Christian men perform that which Peter requireth at their hands? Is it possible they should both believe, and be able without the use of reason, to render a reason of their belief; a reason sound and sufficient to answer them that demand it, be they of the same faith with us, or enemies thereunto ? May we cause our faith without reason to appear reasonable in the eyes of men ? This being required even of learners in the school of Christ, the duty of their teachers in bringing them unto such ripeness must needs be somewhat more than only to read the sentences of Scripture, and then paraphrastically to scholy them, to vary them with sundry forms of speech, without arguing or disputing about any thing which they contain. This method of teaching may commend itself unto the world by that easiness and facility which is in it; but a law or a pattern it is not, as some do imagine, for all men to follow that will do good in the church of Christ. Our Lord and Saviour himself did hope by disputation to do some good, yea, by disputation not only of, but against the truth, albeit with purpose for the truth. That Christ should be the son of David, was truth; yet against this truth, our Lord in the gospel objecteth, “If Christ be the son of David, how doth David call him Lord?”‘ There is as yet no way known how to dispute, or to determine of things disputed, without the use of natural reason. If we please to add unto Christ their example, who followed him as near in all things as they could, the sermon of Paul and Barnabas, set down in the Acts, where the people would have offered unto them sacrifice; in that sermon, what is there but only natural reason to disprove Acts their act? “O men, why do ye these things I we are men even subject to the self-same passions with you: we preach unto you to leave these vanities, and to turn to the living God, the God that hath not left himself without witness, in that he hath done good to the world, giving rain and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with joy and gladness.” Neither did they only use reason in winning such unto a Christian belief, as were yet thereto unconverted, but with believers themselves they followed the self-same course. In that great and solemn assembly of believing Jews, how doth Peter prove that the gentiles were partakers of the grace of God as well as they, but by reason drawn from those effects which were apparently known amongst them: ” God which knoweth the “hearts, hath borne them witness in giving unto them the Holy Ghost as unto you.” The light therefore, which the star of natural reason and wisdom casteth, is too bright to be obscured by the mist of a word or two, uttered to diminish that opinion which justly hath been received concerning the force and virtue thereof, even in matters that touch most nearly the principal duties of men, and the glory of the eternal God. In all which hitherto hath been spoken, touching the force and use of man’s reason in things Divine, I must crave that I be not so understood or construed, as if any such thing, by virtue thereof, could be done without the aid and assistance of God’s most blessed Spirit.

~ Laws Book 3.8

This entry was posted in reason and revelation, Richard Hooker by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

One thought on “Richard Hooker’s Biblical Defense of Reason

  1. Pingback: My Own Natural Law Thinking | The Calvinist International

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