Hooker on Romans 1

Most every Anglican knows that Richard Hooker was the founding theological visionary of Anglicanism. But many have not read his writings nor sought to apply his insights to the present controversies in the Communion. The Archbishop of Armagh luckily has risen to the task.

In an address to the USPG Conference in Swanick today, the Archbishop AET Harper OBE traces the primary lines of Hooker’s thinking on the ways that scripture and reason can serve as theological norms. (Norms are the tools that we use to make decisions between two competing ideas or claims.)

You can read Ruth Gledhill’s take on this paper here.

The full text is found here.

It’s a very long and densely written lecture, but well worth the time to read.


Here are some of the most interesting points:

“Largely because of the centrality of sacramental theology to the debates of the last two centuries in Anglicanism, attention has been almost exclusively focussed upon Book V of ‘The Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity’ to the neglect of the Preface and the other seven books. This is unfortunate and a matter that requires swiftly to be remedied, especially in respect of the manner in which Hooker dealt with Holy Scripture, how is to be esteemed and how it may be interpreted: an issue central to ou contemporary concerns. In particular, the crucial distinctions that Hooker makes between the whole body of scripture and what may be identified as the Law of God needs swiftly to be recovered. It seems, on the face of it, that such essential distinctions, which are central to the theological understanding of all things Anglican, have been allowed to disappear from view in the current ferment. Those distinctions were crucial in securing the Anglican position during the Presbyterian attacks of the 16th and 17th centuries specifically because those attacks were couched in terms of the biblical inappropriateness of the basis of Anglican polity. The arguments and understandings developed by Hooker in his day remain essential now to exploration of the scriptural dimensions of the current disputes amongst Anglicans.

It is no exaggeration to say that the debate within Anglicanism on the place of homosexuality in human society and the relationship of homosexual acts to the Law of God has become deeply visceral and that the quality of debate has suffered as a result. Furthermore, this specific issue has become the battleground upon which the authority and the interpretation of scripture within the Anglican tradition is being re-fought. Regrettably, most of the discussion appears to be taking place in ignorance of the earlier controversy and its outcome. However, the nature and the urgency of these matters are not dissimilar to those of the 16th and 17th century debate which gave rise to Richard Hooker’s magisterial treatise.

…The point that Hooker is making very clearly […] is this: adjudications found in that type of Holy Scripture that is essentially narrative in character have application in the circumstances, situation and historical context in which they originally arose but are not, without additional and compelling warrant, to be assumed to have subsequent universal application. Rulings that may have applied and been deemed valid at one time and in one specific circumstance need not necessarily retain that applicability and validity at another.”

…Hooker makes an important distinction between material in Holy Scripture that can be determined as being the direct oracles of God and that which may be, or may have been, derived from what he calls “by-speeches in some historical narration or other.” Hooker specifically criticizes the use of such “by-speeches” by those who “urge them as if they were written in the most exact form of law.” He goes on, “What is to add to the Law of God if this is not?” Therefore, in seeking to identify those scriptural elements that possess universal application as the Law of God it is necessary to exclude all that may be accounted “by-speeches” associated with some form of mere narration and to refrain from interpreting them in any sense as “the most exact form of law.”

Self evidently, to distinguish between direct oracles and “by-speeches” requires the application of reason to the study of scripture. Reason cannot be excluded from the appropriation of the word of God in scripture. Indeed, Paul himself, as well as the Fathers, applied reason to the interpretation of scripture. In Paul’s case it was the interpretation of Old Testament scripture. In the case of the Fathers it was both Old Testament and the New. This being the case, it is inappropriate to exclude the application of reason to the writings of Paul, especially in respect of those sections in which Paul specifically exercises his own faculty of reason.

The Archbishop demonstrates then how Hooker would have approach a text such as Romans 1 (which is generally read to contain a condemnation of homosexual practice by St. Paul) and after examining the text, the Archbishop writes in conclusion:

Romans 1, therefore, provides no declaration of the Law of God in respect of homosexuality and homosexual acts. Reference to such acts is what Hooker might call “by-speeches” in the context of an historical narrative and, as such, not a declaration of God’s Law. Furthermore, Paul, in his treatment of the issues, employs reason based upon the knowledge and presuppositions accessible to him in his day. These may be challenged if the knowledge base changes definitively. It is therefore inappropriate on the basis of Romans 1.18-17 and ff to judge or anathematize persons on the basis of sexual orientation. It will be necessary to scrutinize other sections of scripture in a similar way to discover whether elsewhere there may be established evidence of the Law of God in this matter and I have not attempted to do that in this essay. I remain committed to the view, however, that the tools of analysis which Hooker articulated are essential to our contemporary purpose and are especially relevant for the purpose of distilling the Law of God from the total corpus of Holy Scripture.

Finally, let us be clear on this: it has not yet been conclusively shown that for some males and some females homosexuality and homosexual acts are natural rather than unnatural. If such comes to be shown, it will be necessary to acknowledge the full implications of that new aspect of the truth, and that insight applied to establish and acknowledge what may be a new status for homosexual relationships within the life of the Church.

Category : The Lead

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9 Comments
  1. grace for all

    I am an Episcopalian but spent many years as a United Methodist pastor and have spent some time studying Anglican historical theology (which John Wesley centered his own writing within). The traditional Anglican approach is partly based on the early church fathers and partly on the Anglo-Saxon world view. Authority is viewed as a ‘sign post” and is more organic than the traditional Roman approach to theology (and to some extend to many of the reformers, including John Calvin, from which the calvinist have their roots).

    This organic approach begins with the pilliars of authority: scripture, tradition, and reason (and for Methodist, experience). It could be read by those outside the tradition as a bit fuzzy until one realizes that those who take it seriously are persons who have literally “lived within the tradition” and use intuition (the right part of the brain) along with logic (the left side of the brain). The result is a more balanced and nuanced sense of doing theology. It has worked brilliantly for centuries, but finds itself challenged in our own time because we do not put value on the nuanced in a world of sound bites. The Anglician communion would do itself a favor by remembering this foundational sense of its own theology in the present crisis. This is trually what has been its strength and will be what leads it out of this crisis, a little worn, but hopefully a little stronger.

    Tim Lusk

    Tucson, AZ USA

  2. Some good stuff here about Hooker but going down the “natural” trail – is a dead end. Lots of things are natural but not good – arsenic – for instance.

  3. Donald Schell

    Archbishop Harper’s article is well worth reading. I do wish he’d followed James Alison’s lead considering the full context of the argument in Romans 1. Harper insists that good exegesis (following Hooker) does require reading the passages referencing same-sex intercourse in the context of the whole passage and the kind of argument Paul is making. Alison makes a compelling case that this piece of Paul’s argument flows continuyously from Romans 1:18 to Romans 2:1, noting that verse and chapter breaks (which seem to frame an argument and outline) were simply not there in the original text.

    Appreciating the openness of Harper’s concluding paragraph – “Finally, let us be clear on this: it has not yet been conclusively shown that for some males and some females homosexuality and homosexual acts are natural rather than unnatural. If such comes to be shown, it will be necessary to acknowledge the full implications of that new aspect of the truth, and that insight applied to establish and acknowledge what may be a new status for homosexual relationships within the life of the Church.” I commend to Archbishop Harper and any interested Anglican Joan Roughgarden’s valuable exposition of current biological research into sexual differentiation, “Evolution’s Rainbow” (University of California Press). Joan is a distinguished professor biology at Stanford University and a devout, practicing Episcopalian. Her book presents the complex spectrum of sexual differentiation and sexual behaviors in nature (with broad observation of mammals, reptiles, and fish). Harper asserts that the evidence is not yet conclusive (and when he says that I hope he remembers that scientific evidence is always provisional, taking into account a body of observaton and experiment that continues to grow and add data). If we take Hooker (and Harper) seriously good exegesis must take into account the strong and compelling evidence in nature and reason’s reflection on it that for some males and some females (with statistically predictable frequency and predictable behaviors varying from species to species) homosexual acts are natural.

  4. Donald Schell

    Ann, “lots of things are natural but not good,” needs further nuance. The hymn of St. Francis is a good hint as is Gregory Nazianzen’s wonderful line of praise to the Creator, ‘All that is prays to you.’ As part of the creation, arsenic is good. Does it give life? Not when ingested? Is non-reproductive same-sex relation part of the natural world. Demonstrably yes. How do we read creation to see God’s purpose? Roughly, we look for what is expressive of love and gives life. Can the marriage of a couple demonstrably past child-bearing years be holy and celebrated in church. We do (the whole church, not just Anglicans, even Roman Catholics with their attenton to natural theology) affirm and bless this possibility. Can such a relationship be loving and life-giving. I think we actually know what we mean by saying yes to that too. And what about a community that welcomes gay partners into the community/village it takes to raise a child? I’m reminded immediately of the non-reproductive male and female members of wolf packs who are an essential, ordered part of the pack’s raising and feeding of the offspring of the breeding pair.

    Francis brings us up short in celebrating the goodness of all creation (even death). How we ‘read’ and understand our place in nature takes a scripturally (and intuitively) formed grid. I’m suggesting something like, ‘Is [whatever we’re talking about] loving and lifegiving?’ Nuance and development of that grid is possible, of course, but I think it’s wholly consistent with Hooker’s effort to spare us the killing rigors of simple-minded, reductionist fundamentalism.

  5. Nicholas Knisely

    I think the point of the Archbishop’s paper is not to come to a fixed point on the “rightness” or “wrongness” of same-sex blessings, but rather to demonstrate a biblical hermeneutic based on Richard Hooker’s thinking and how it might be applied.

    Perhaps the “test case” he chooses to demonstrate the methodology is too emotionally loaded at the moment for us to be able to separate the importance of what he’s trying to do from the vehicle he’s employing.

    Much of GAFCON’s critique of modern Anglicanism is that we’re backing away from a high understanding of Scripture and the ultimate norm. I think what we really see here is an example of how classical Anglican thinking is supposed to be employed to read the meaning of Holy Scripture in a way that is consistent with Hooker’s original methodology.

  6. Donald – “Harper asserts that the evidence is not yet conclusive (and when he says that I hope he remembers that scientific evidence is always provisional, taking into account a body of observaton and experiment that continues to grow and add data). ”

    Amen! I too, wondered about that when I read his comments.

    Nicholas – I think you are right that the Archbishop is not driving us to a fixed point – except scientifically: the one place I do not expect us ever to reach such a point!

    The problem is that many people seem to desire us to reach such a point – either a clear yes, or a clear no. I think on something – about which the tradition clearly does not speak *yet* – all we can offer is a clear maybe. For all sides the topic “has become deeply visceral and that the quality of debate has suffered as a result.” We resort to name-calling rather quickly.

    It should take a few generations for that maybe to move beyond itself to yes or no. And, while we’re waiting, we need to be open to all sides: not only to the possibility that the other side might, ultimately, be right, but to the very real truth that the other side is still our fellow Christians.

    GAFCON looses the point in their focus on “Sola Scriptura” because it is the Church that makes scripture: we are the ones that apply the meaning, from textual inclusion, to translation to hermeneutics and homiletics. This is where Hooker’s ideas break down: as any Eastern Orthodox theologian will tell you, scripture is only a *part* of the tradition without which scripture can not be understood at all.

    THe possibility exists that my eventual marriage may be included within the tradition. But it may not, also. Only our experience as the People of God over a few generations will resolve that. It is a case of using our experience to develop our reasoning within and to the expansion of the Tradition (which last includes scripture).

  7. Scott – I think I should have explained more than using shorthand – I just think that using natural law is not a good basis for theology.

  8. Interesting.

    I would say first off that Hooker’s method was and has never been accepted as the only Anglican method, nor his outlook on particular matters, even the working of grace or on Baptism. So, no matter how much we might like this method or not, it never was the only Anglican one, and that continues to leave us with a quandry. To assert that this is “the” Anglican approach ignores other vital Anglican thinkers in the tradition contemporary with Hooker and certainly thereafter, and itself closes down the reality that we’ve had a rather more generous and differentiated body of works that are “Anglican”.

    I think avering for a clear and final scientific consensus on matters “natural” does not necessarily tell us anything about matters ethical, where ethical is understood as living life in response to Jesus Christ. “Natural” has been used to cover up behaviors that look quite unChristlike in retrospect and too quick resource to such thinking has often not been self-critical enough to recognize error in pronouncement. If there is something such as “natural”, it seems to me that it can take centuries for us to understand such in light that we are Fallen, and in the midst of unlearning/learning, it’s fairly safe to resort to the Golden Rule as a starting point for further reflection in the long meantime. And from there proceed to consider what markers of grace look like and note if we find them there.

    I would note, however, that we really do need to expand this discussion to not only same-sex coupling but also to the fruits of the present ways communities, including the Churches, treat those seemingly inclined to homosexuality. From here, much of what I’ve experienced doesn’t seem “natural” at all. I can’t imagine the kids on the streets in SF find such treatment “natural” either. We continue to want to think of this as a one-way discernment or engagement by those heterosexually inclined by those seemingly homosexually inclined, when in truth the entire community is finding itself in some sense “under judgment”, under scrutiny in the light of Christ, not just the seemingly homosexual.

  9. Christopher, I see your point that “Hooker’s method was and has never been accepted as the only Anglican method, nor his outlook on particular matters.” However, I think the Archbishop makes the important point that Hooker’s method is sufficiently Anglican so as to make inappropriate rejection of it in favor of sola Scriptura. For us on the progressive end of things, that is a commonplace. For those still trying to find their place in all of this, it is an important counterpoint to the assertion by GAFCON that theirs is the Anglican tradition.

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