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.

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