August 25, 2007

Hooker’s Ladder

Hooker’s Stool or Tripod is one of the great myths of Anglicanism, at least as far as the attribution of it to Richard Hooker. Hooker would have been quite surprised to see some of the explanations of this principle expounded in his name.

The stool or tripod of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, alleged to be Hooker’s, doesn’t stand upright. When one examines Hooker’s actual argument — which extends over many pages — with care, it is plain that his attitude towards these three elements is uneven. First comes Reason, both historically (in time) and naturally (for without Reason we could not understand anything, including the Scripture).

Unto the word of God… we do not add reason as a supplement of any maim or defect therein, but as a necessary instrument, without which we could not reap by the Scripture’s perfection that fruit and benefit which it yieldeth… If knowledge were possible without discourse of natural reason, why should none be found capable thereof but only men; nor men till such time as they come unto ripe and full ability to work by reasonable understanding? — III.viii.10

But Reason can guide people only up to a certain point. “Natural” religion has its limits (at a kind of theism), and it cannot supply the details which only Revelation can provide — the eternal Gospel of salvation in and through Christ. This is where the Church (preceded by God’s chosen people Israel) comes in, with the Revelation and eventual recording of God’s Truth in Scripture. The saving message transmitted by Scripture to us in these latter days could not be discovered by Reason alone, although Reason is essential to understanding the saving message. The two work together in harmony.

Ultimately, when it comes to authority, Tradition doesn’t figure at all in Hooker’s scheme. That’s the surprising thing one discovers in reading Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Now that the Church has been commissioned as the keeper of Holy Writ, Hooker argues that

what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. —V.8.1

Tradition, or custom (as he usually calls it), is to be looked to or retained only when no good reason for change can be brought forth. If good reason can be shown, then, Hooker says, away with Tradition! He eloquently states,

Neither councils nor customs, be they never so ancient and so general, can let [i.e., prevent] the Church from taking away that thing which is hurtful to be retained. Where things have been instituted, which being convenient and good at the first, do afterwards in process of time wax otherwise; we make no doubt but that they may be altered, yea, though councils or customs general have received them. —IV.14.5

and

All things cannot be of ancient continuance, which are expedient and needful for the ordering of spiritual affairs: but the Church being a body which dieth not hath always power, as occasion requireth, no less to ordain that which never was, than to ratify what hath been before... The Church hath authority to establish that for an order at one time, which at another time it may abolish, and in both it may do well... —V.8.1,30

So, as an alternative to the stool or the tripod, I offer the following analogy. Hooker’s so-called stool is really a ladder: the twin legs of which are Scripture and Reason; the rungs are Tradition. When a rung is worn or broken, it may be replaced, but it must always be supported at both ends. And let us not forget that ladders are for climbing; they are not an end in themselves. For at the top of this ladder (upon which sometimes we appear to climb, but more often are being carried in rescue) there awaits us a Wisdom which puts all our human argument to utter shame.

Tobias Haller BSG


21 comments:

Deacon Charlie Perrin said...

Thank you Tobias. I have, for a long time, believed that Tradition, while not without value, can be and has been used to legitimize error. It is as if to say that anything that has been done wrong for a long time must be right.

Christopher Evans said...

Or rather through this ladder, God "descends" to us? An excellent revisioning of an oft noted but too little distributed note on Hooker's supposed stool.

Tobias said...

Indeed, Christopher, the angels both ascend and descend upon the Son of Man... Perhaps God is like the brave firefighter who rescues us from the burning building of our own devices and desires, and carries us to safety on the firm Ground of His Being.

Tim said...

I'm beginning to like the sound of this Hooker chap already :)

Been thinking much the same, also as deacon charlie perrin said, that tradition (in particular) has noticeably introduced error.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Jacob's Ladder - anabasis/katabasis is a lovely image.

But then, why and whence the oversized Tradition of our late Time?

Political, to be sure.

But is it just suppsed to be a guard against any more changes in late Modernity?

Surely anyone must understand that fossilizing evil with good can´t bring us the American 1950ies back?

(I mean the kitchen novelties: stoves, fridges and the rest, carried to the World at large by Hollywood ;=)

Personally, I like to think of tradition eschatolgically, as not the day before yesterday but the day after tomorrow.

Change in continuity.

Tobias said...

Amen Deacon C., and Tim. Hooker expands on the notion that Tradition can maintain wrong even in the face of reasonable good offered to the contrary:

"We are not to marvel at the choice of evil even then when the contrary is probably known. Hereby it cometh to pass that custom inuring the mind by long practice, and so leaving there a sensible impression, prevaileth more than reasonable persuasion what way soever. Reason therefore may rightly discern the thing which is good, and yet the Will of man not incline itself thereunto, as oft as the prejudice of sensible experience doth oversway." (I.7.6)

Surely an error gains nothing by being held for a long time!

Göran, thanks as well for this observation. It is in times of peril that folks reach for their traditions (or their parents' traditions) to bolster themselves. The desire to nail things down -- even to the cross -- is part of the misguided human effort to limit God's freedom to be God, and our human freedom to respond. WE cannot receive the gift when our hands are full.

Bryan+ said...

I like the ladder image.

What do you make of those who argue in favor of a tricycle image - with the big wheel being scripture, the small wheels being tradition and reason?

I guess it depends on how one reads Hooker, but there may be some value to it insofar as scripture reveals truths which unaided reason alone cannot ascertain (a point which you acknowledge). Also, no matter how big the front wheel of scripture is, you can't go anywhere without both of the smaller wheels (so much for the Protestant sola scriptura view that purportedly eschews tradition and reason for "the Bible alone").

But on the other hand, as I believe Hooker also maintains, we cannot grasp the import of special revelation without the use of reason.

Perhaps you could develop this more by noting the differences between Hooker's conception of right reason versus, say, a Kantian conception of autonomous reason. As heirs of the Enlightenment, I think we sometimes confuse the two ...

Tobias said...

Thank you, Bryan. I'm not really quite sure that Hooker would draw the clear distinction between "right reason" and "autonomous reason" -- though I doubt he'd use the Enlightenment term, there are in his thinking some articulations of the independence of reason (from revelation) as an innate human faculty (given by God, naturally, as all gifts are given) that is not quite as rigorous as, say, the Stoic understanding of right reason. For instance, just prior to the section I quoted above, Hooker describes "right reason" as a faculty that exists in people other than children, "innocents" (by which I take it he means persons suffering from mental debility), and "madmen." This thus hardly seems to be a rigorous understanding of reason, but something closer to a simple ability to function rationally, along the lines of common sense.

In short, I'm suggesting that Hooker is not so much a sophisticated philosopher as a fine legalist; and his conception of "reason" is actually much closer to our current popular understanding of "rationality, common sense, reasonableness." I dare say, many people today have little interest in the fine distinctions of epistemology that Kant, Locke, Hobbes, or whoever might have advanced in the Enlightenment.

I'm not fond of the tricycle image in that I think it gives too little weight to reason, which plays such a large part in Hooker, not only in unpacking the Scripture itself, but also, as he says elsewhere, helping us to address the situations on which Scripture is silent. I think he is also quite clear that if reason can be shown to set aside even Scriptural injunctions, that is permissible. At section I.15.3 he contrasts the eternal gospel with the "the whole law of rites and ceremonies, [which] although delivered with so great solemnity [i.e., in Exodus], is notwithstanding clean abrogated." The "reason" advanced is that the purpose for which those rites were instituted has ceased to be, and "the laws of God himself which are of this nature, no man endued with common sense will ever deny to be of a different constitution from the former, in respect of the one’s constancy and the mutability of the other."

Bryan+ said...

I'm not quite as confident that Hooker is willing to allow "common sense" to trump scripture (not everyone's "common sense" is equal, after all). But perhaps when I've got the Laws at paw's grip I can say more.

As I recall from days long since past (graduate school, seminary, etc.), Hooker's conception of "right reason" is worlds away from what Immanuel Kant (among other Enlightenment philosophers) was calling for in essays such as "What is Enlightenment?" (1784). Contrary to Kant's call for liberation from "the church and its despots," "right reason" is shaped by submission to and immersion in scripture and tradition - a far cry from holding them at arm's length until they suit one's private judgment.

Again, I don't have the Laws in my paws, but in the section you quote in your original post from V.8.1, Hooker's ladder has scripture at the top, followed by reason, with tradition at the bottom (perhaps it's a pyramid rather than a three-legged stool or a ladder?).

You write: "I dare say, many people today have little interest in the fine distinctions of epistemology that Kant, Locke, Hobbes, or whoever might have advanced in the Enlightenment."

No doubt, you are correct.

And yet, even without knowing diddly about the fine distinctions of these astute philosphers, many (most? all?) of us think it well within our "rights" to stand outside of scripture and received tradition as individually competent judges of what is good, right, and true. Without even realizing it, many of us are perhaps more Emersonian than Anglican.

I have a hard time seeing Richard Hooker as a person who would be in the least comfortable with individuals standing aloof from scripture and tradition to exercise their individual reason in deciding what is right and what is true - whether in its manifestations as left, right, or centrist.

I think it would be helpful if you would write more about what Hooker means by "reason."

John-Julian, OJN said...

I've always thought of it in terms of God's own chronology:

1. His first gift in the Creation of humanity was Reason - considered by most to be the "image" of God in humans. So, God says: "First of all, you need reason - that's what makes you human!"

2. Then the Tradition(s) started, and they took several wrong turns and needed to be corrected now and then by Reason (and by revelation).

3. And Tradition begat Holy Scripture - indeed, Scripture is part of Tradition, and the Christian Church somehow struggled through over 300 years with only the Hebrew Scriptures as "canon", and then the need seemed to rise and Reason suggested that more words were needed and produced the Epistles and Gospels.

Anyway, it seems to me that in God's eyes, Reason rules and produced Tradition which produced Scripture - both of which Reason corrects as needed.

Jon said...

Another problem with the tricycle image is that it makes reason and tradition equal. They clearly aren't equal in Hooker, and if we look at how useful each one is it is pretty clear that Hooker is correct.

Jon

Michael said...

It is interesting to put this in Hooker's historical and cultural context. During the reformation (anglican included) there is a great desire to "undo" some of the customs of the Roman church (indulgences etc.) Hooker and many other theologians are explaining how that can make sense in light of the message of Christianity. Indeed what the message of the gospel really is.

It is interesting to reflect on how our customs and the ways of society can make us blind to what the gospel may be calling us to. Perhaps it is as important to look at changes in using reason to help us distinguish between changes that one would make to stay with the crowd (our society) and changes that resonate with good news given to us in scripture.

Tobias said...

Dear Bryan,
No, I think Hooker would indeed say -- as indeed he does -- that reason precedes and stands apart from Scripture and Tradition. The purpose of Scripture, for Hooker, is to introduce to us those eternal truths which cannot be known by natural reason: doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. That really is what he says.

And it is only logical, as to some extent he is building on a "natural reason" tradition that comes from a non-Jewish, non-Christian conception of the human being as a rational creature. Where he disagrees with those sources, and with the later philosophers, is in his affirmation that Revelation plays a role in human life that Reason alone cannot attain to. So, yes, Hooker's notion of reason is not that of strict autonomy -- but it is not really all that far from a modern (or post-Enlgihtenment) conception of reason as rationality, or the capacity to understand.

The section of the Laws you refer to (V.8.1) poses dangers when taken out of context: it is, indeed, the source of the "stool." Scripture is only granted a superior place in its exposition of those things reason cannot attain to. This is his only limit on the autonomy of reason, but it is a significant one -- however, it only concerns, as he makes clear in other places, the eternal gospel of salvation in and through Christ, and the theological doctrines not discerned by bare or unaided reason. Scripture is, as the Articles say, "sufficient unto salvation" -- and does not supply guidance for "all things." For example:

"Two opinions therefore there are concerning sufficiency of Holy Scripture, each extremely opposite unto the other, and both repugnant unto truth. The schools of Rome teach Scripture to be so unsufficient, as if, except traditions were added, it did not contain all revealed and supernatural truth, which absolutely is necessary for the children of men in this life to know that they may in the next be saved. Others justly condemning this opinion grow likewise unto a dangerous extremity, as if Scripture did not only contain all things in that kind necessary, but all things simply, and in such sort that to do any thing according to any other law were not only unnecessary but even opposite unto salvation, unlawful and sinful. Whatsoever is spoken of God or things appertaining to God otherwise than as the truth is, though it seem an honour, it is an injury. And as incredible praises given unto men do often abate and impair the credit of their deserved commendation, so we must likewise take great heed, lest in attributing unto Scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly to be less reverently esteemed." -- II.8

Bryan+ said...

Thanks Tobias. I quite agree that Hooker is building on a "natural reason" tradition.

At the same time, what I was taught about Hooker is that his conceception of "right reason" (recta ratio) means that thinking with the mind of Christ is rational, thinking without the mind of Christ is irrational (even if still logically sound). It would seem that thinking with the mind of Christ is not something one does all on one's own (the model of autonomous reason), but rather in the context of a tradition-formed faith community.

Although I have yet to read it, I was taught that this angle of interpretation is laid out by scholars such as Robert Hoopes in his book Right Reason in the English Renaissance (Harvard University Press, 1962).

This conception of "right reason" stresses good moral character as a precondition for rationality. If that's the case, then Hooker's conception of reason may be closer to patristic thought. I note, for example, the following passage from Christopher A. Hall's Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity Press, 1998):

"The fathers affirmed a deep connection between the spiritual health of biblical interpreters and their ability to read the Bible well. For the fathers, the Scripture was to be studied, pondered and exegeted within the context of worship, reverence and holiness. The fathers considered the Bible a holy book that opened itself to those who themselves were progressing in holiness through the grace and power of the Spirit. The character of the exegete would determine in many ways what was seen or heard in the text itself. Character and exegesis were intimately related" (p. 41).

In your view, would it be fair to read Hooker as an advocate for the connection between character and exegesis?

Hall also writes the following about the judgments of autonomous reason and scripture:

"The ideal of the autonomous interpreter can more easily be laid at the steps of the Enlightenment than the Reformation. Rather, Reformers such as Luther and Calvin [and Hooker] wisely considered the history, councils, creeds and tradition of the church, including the fathers' writings, as a rich resource ignored only by the foolish or the arrogant" (pp. 13-14).

I'm reminded in this regard of one of my favorite Hooker quotes: "The bare consent of the whole Church should itself in these things stop their mouths, who living under it, dare presume to bark against it" (V.viii.3).

Tobias said...

something else I neglected to mention...

Hooker is indeed talking about common sense -- that is the rational faculty that is "common" to all people (other than infants and the mentally challenged).

The problem with this, as with all notions of natural reason defined as "that which all rational people understand" is that it leads to the "no true Scotsman" fallacy.

For example, in the sexuality debate, it leads to the assertion that no rational person could see same-sexuality as good -- and therefore the "choices" in favor of it stem from a corrupted culture, or a deficient moral sense ( the inability to see as bad that which is bad), or from mere perversity knowingly to do what the actor knows is wrong. The failure here, of course, lies in the fact that the "conservative" view may equally stem from a cultural conditioning, a moral blindness (the inability to see as good that which is good) or even a willful and evil perversity that desires to inflict harm on others with whom the actor disagrees.

This is not to say, that there may not be many moral principles that can indeed be held in common --- but the lists of such moral principles drawn up in various places and times will differ considerably; and so it is probably best to accept the fact that moral reason is strongly conditioned by culture.

For myself, as a Christian, I think the summary of the law and the Golden rule represent a good rule of thumb. I hope to post a longer article on that subject at a later time.

Tobias said...

Dear Bryan,

Two things, briefly... and then I must be off to work!

I see Hooker as working under the influence of humanism: hence his willingness to posit a role for reason prior to Revelation, functioning apart from it, and at times even departing from it.

But this is very far from a completely autonomous reason (as Immanuel Kant would articulate it) although not so far, I would contend, from our contemporary understanding of reason as always functioning within a context: there is no "pure" reason. (This is part of what I was getting at in my earlier postscript comment.)

So, while Hooker does not limit reason to "thinking with the mind of Christ" neither does he give it complete autonomy. In fact, as I said earlier, I don't think he is particularly rigorous in his epistemology, and he wanders a bit as it suits his purpose, between a patristic and a rationalist model. (There is a kind of eclecticism in Renaissance humanism.)

So, yes, reason should function with in an appropriate context; but always with an awareness that the context can deform the reason because of unquestioned assumptions or false premises that are accepted without the necessary rational review.

In that quote from book 5 it is important, I think, to stress what "these things" are, to which Hooker refers, which is, issues of church government (polity). In paragraph 5 of that section, when he finally gets to the proposition he is intending to propound, he says:

"We therefore crave thirdly to have it granted, That where neither the evidence of any law divine, nor the strength of any invincible argument otherwise found out by the light of reason, nor any notable public inconvenience, doth make against that which our own laws ecclesiastical have although but newly instituted for the ordering of these affairs, the very authority of the Church itself, at least in such cases, may give so much credit to her own laws, as to make their sentence touching fitness and conveniency weightier than any bare and naked conceit to the contrary; especially in them who can owe no less than childlike obedience to her that hath more than motherly power."

As you can see, the isolated quotation from paragraph 3 is part of a larger argument. Note especially that a persuasive argument from reason is one of the means by which an action of the whole Church might be overturned. What he is most setting himself in opposition to is the bare power of opinion unsupported by argument.

I think he would be dismayed at tle level of debate in the Church today!

Bryan+ said...

This has been an excellent discussion. I hope you will write more about Hooker and his importance.

And I quite agree that Hooker would be deeply dismayed by the level of debate in the Church today - and particularly at how much of it lacks civility.

seamus said...

A simple thanks Tobias for responding so generously and thoroughly, especially regarding your differentiation between papal and sola scriptural points of view that serves to illustrate again the underpinnings of the via media.
Furthermore, even in the leap of faith one takes to receive revelation, one does not abandon the most godly attribute in humans, that of reason in understanding and responding to the scriptures.

Bryan seems to be arguing for reasoning in "the mind of Christ" similairly to the understandings of an informed conscience.
While both are in essense true, both ideas could be used to adhere to a party line, as you recognize.
As a sinner I tremble to say that I act in the mind of Christ(and many have truely trembled before those that have said they do) but if my reasoning is sound I should be receptive to the Word,to Logos,to Reason.
Isn't it thus that we can move "in a Godward direction" forward in our living faith rather then standing firm and ossified.

With you Tobias and Bryan I agree concerning the level of the debate. Reason and simple logic alone should quell most for what takes place as theological arguement.

Bryan+ said...

Actually, by reasoning in the "mind of Christ," I mean more than just informed conscience. Since conscience is prone to sin and error, I mean also communal discernment and consent. True, corporate discernment and decision making is also prone to sin and error, but it still serves as a necessary counter-balance to autonomous reasoning gone wild.

An excellent resource along these lines is Luke Timothy Johnson's Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church (Abingdon Press, 1996).

Mark said...

Hooker's Ladder - How Rahab got the Israelit spies out of Jericho.

seamus said...

Perhaps it is more a question of emphasis rather then a definite choice, for while we are redeemed not one by one but corporately in the church, perforce we can only individually assent or dissent. And granted prone we maybe to error, the primacy of conscience is what makes each individually responsible if not redeemed.(At the risk of repeating myself in a response in another blog) this internet summary of Mark Twain's famous coming of age story is a wonderful example of individual conscience rising up in what I think can be seen as a epiphanic moment of grace.
"Huck's and Jim's quest for freedom on a raft on the Mississippi River provides a panoramic view of Southern society, which Twain saw as beset by greed, violence, and coldhearted brutality in the guise of virtue. At the end of the book, Huck definitively abandons the hypocrisy and cant on which he has been raised when he makes the shocking decision to go to hell rather than betray his friend Jim and send him back to slavery."
Am I off the mark here but isn't it really the autonomous reasoner gone amuk that moves the discerment process along for the whole?
I'll close here and leave someone else the last word.