So Natural is the Union of Religion with Justice: Blogging through Hooker’s Laws, Book V

So I know I’ve been absolutely terrible about contributing to this blog, but I am at last ready to start making up for lost time by using this blog, at the very least, as a running journal for…*drum roll*…the long-delayed Richard Hooker Modernization Project, relaunched by popular demand this month.

For those of you who haven’t seen it before, the RHMP is an initiative I started with some friends around six years ago to Make Hooker Great Again by rendering his (to many people) impenetrable Elizabethan prose into something like good clear modern English. To devout Hooker fans, this proposal sounded at first like blasphemy; after all, Hooker’s prose is, in the words of his great admirer C.S. Lewis, “for its purpose, the most perfect in English.” Still, we live in an age, as Hooker himself would say, “full of tongue and weak of brain,” and such perfection is perhaps too high for us. The initial endeavors, first published sequentially in four small volumes and then together in a larger volume, garnered, to our great encouragement, remarkable praise from Hooker scholars and churchmen alike, and have proven among the Davenant Institute’s most consistently best-selling publications. (You can see all the details here).

In any case, my move from the hinterlands of the Mountain West back to civilization on the East Coast, and the concomitant need this imposed on me to earn a living in earnest, put the RHMP on hold for as long and tragic three years (except, that is, for the extremely important side-project, just about to burst forth fully-matured into the world, a modernization of Hooker’s masterful Learned Discourse on Justification). This month, with the aid of a gifted and committed student, Caleb Smith, the project resumes.

To hold myself accountable, and to offer the impatient public some nuggets of Hookerian wisdom during the inevitably long wait before this next volume is ready for publication, I will be blogging through the project here, sharing excerpts of Hooker both in the original and in our draft modernization, and commentating upon the text as occasion demands. (Note: although the modernization excerpts shown here are drafts only, and will often be further improved, feel free to comment below if you think I’ve botched a key word or phrase.)

Book V of the Laws is dedicated to a comprehensive defense of the English liturgy against its Puritan (or as I prefer to call them, “precisianist) detractors. It is a curious (though immensely satisfying) mixture of high philosophy and nitty-gritty polemics, as Hooker pivots back and forth from offering a high-level defense of the necessity for public worship and the theological foundations of the liturgy to engaging in ground-level hand-to-hand combat with precisianist objectors over disputed details of the Book of Common Prayer.

Hooker begins Book V at the broadest possible level, offering a natural-law defense of the importance of public religion (a subject I have recently published on here), in a chapter titled “True religion is the root of all true virtues, and the stay of all well-ordered commonwealths.” Hooker confidently declares as a starting point that he and the Puritans can unshakeably agree upon:

We agree that pure and unstained religion ought to be the highest of all cares appertaining to public regiment as well in regard of that aid and protection which they who faithfully serve God confess they receive at his merciful hands; as also for the force which religion hath to qualify all sorts of men, and to make them in public affairs the more serviceable, governors the apter to rule with conscience, inferiors for conscience’ sake the willinger to obey. It is no peculiar conceit, but a matter of sound consequence, that all duties are by so much the better performed, by how much the men are more religious from whose abilities the same proceed. For if the course of politic affairs cannot in any good sort go forward without fit instruments, and that which fitteth them be their virtues, let Polity acknowledge itself indebted to Religion; godliness being the chiefest top and wellspring of all true virtues, even as God is of all good things.

Or, as I have rendered it in my initial draft:

We all agree that pure and unstained religion ought to be the highest concern in matters of public government. This is true for many reasons: societies that faithfully serve God confess that they will receive aid and protection from his merciful hands; and at the same time, religion helps men in all stations to better do their duty in public affairs, with those who govern being more likely to rule conscientiously, and their subjects more willing to obey for conscience’ sake. It is hardly a strange opinion, but rather a sound deduction, that the more religious a man is, the better he will perform all his duties. So if the course of political affairs can in no way go forward without fit instruments, and it is the virtues which fit them for their purpose, let political order acknowledge its great debt to religion, godliness being the capstone and wellspring of all true virtues, even as God is of all good things.

Hooker’s argument here is frankly pragmatic to start with: God blesses faithful nations; and, if we may be permitted the Machiavellian thought, even if religion were a pious delusion, it would still be indispensable for imbuing both rulers and citizens with a sense of conscientious obligation. A society held together by the mere threat of force, and no sense of higher moral obligation upheld by divine judgment, would be fragile indeed. This pragmatic observation, though, is embedded in a richly teleological conception of the universe, in which God stands as the summum bonum, and right devotion toward him therefore as the “capstone and wellspring of all true virtues.”

Hooker elaborates on this claim by considering two of the four cardinal virtues, justice and fortitude. Since this is meant to be just a sneak peek, I’ll leave you with just his thoughts on the former:

So natural is the union of Religion with Justice, that we may boldly deem there is neither, where both are not. For how should they be unfeignedly just, whom religion doth not cause to be such; or they religious, which are not found such by the proof of their just actions? If they, which employ their labour and travail about the public administration of justice, follow it only as a trade, with unquenchable and unconscionable thirst of gain, being not in heart persuaded that justice is God’s own work, and themselves his agents in this business, the sentence of right God’s own verdict, and themselves his priests to deliver it; formalities of justice do but serve to smother right, and that, which was necessarily ordained for the common good, is through shameful abuse made the cause of common misery.


Indeed, so natural is the union of religion with justice, that we may boldly affirm that neither is present where either is absent. For how should anyone be sincerely just, who is not motivated by religion, or how should anyone be deemed religious if they cannot be recognized as such by their just actions? Consider if those who employed all their labor and travail in the public administration of justice followed it only as a trade, with unquenchable and unconscionable thirst for gain, rather than being persuaded in their hearts that justice is God’s own work, and they but his agents, the judge’s sentence God’s own verdict, and themselves but his priests to deliver it. In such a case, the formalities of justice would serve but to smother the execution of right, and whatever was ordained as necessary for the common good would, through shameful abuse, be made the cause of common misery. 

As you’ll see, Hooker’s prose in this section is particularly lucid compared to many other sections of the Laws, and I could often afford to modernize with a comparatively light hand. You will also note that sometimes there is a sixteenth-century usage that has no modern equivalent, and must simply be embraced in all its (to our ears) oddity. The singular “right” is one such word, at least to anyone who doesn’t spend a lot of time reading Oliver O’Donovan. We are familiar, of course (much too familiar, I’d wager!) with rights, plural, but the singular “right”? Sadly it has slipped out of usage. And yet, in context the meaning is clear, at least with the aid of my clarifying phrase “the execution of.” The task of political authority, in classical usage, is not to defend rights, conceived of as individual claims upon the public or upon one another, but to execute right, conceived of as objective right order before God. As such, the word (the Latin ius) is very nearly a synonym for “justice” (the Latin iustitia) in its modern sense of objective social rectitude (its older sense of a personal virtue having fallen increasingly into disuse).


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