Richard Hooker on schism

Richard Hooker is best known for his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. However, among his lesser known works is a sermon entitled, “A Learned Discourse on Justification, Works, and how the Foundation of Faith is Overthrown.” In this sermon, he examines the doctrine of justification and shows how the Anglican position differs from the Roman Catholicism. Hooker is conscious not only of the Roman position but also the position of the Puritans, with their more radical understanding of justification. Since the understanding of the doctrine of justification is what caused many of the Reformers to leave the Roman Church, Hooker’s sermon also touches on the question of schism.

What teachings (or lack thereof) constitute error, and which ones constitute heresy? When is it appropriate or lawful to separate from a larger church body? These are the questions for which we turn to Hooker for answers.

Hooker, in the course of the sermon, occasionally raises objections to his own argument as a way of clarifying his argument. He argues that God has mercy on many who lived and died in the Roman church, even though the Roman view of justification is incorrect. His fictitious objector responds that this cannot be true because, in Revelation 18:4, God commands his people to “Go out of her [Babylon, as understood to be the Roman Church], my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.” Hooker responds by saying,

He who saith, “Depart out of Babylon lest ye be partakers of her sins”, showeth plainly that he meaneth such sins as, except we separate ourselves, we have no power in the world to avoid; such impieties as by law they have established, and whereunto all that are among them either do indeed assent or else are by powerable means forced in show and in appearance to subject themselves.1

By this, he means that separation is not necessary simply because one is part of a sinful church. Indeed, all churches are sinful in some way or another. Instead, separation becomes necessary when the sins of the church are codified in such a way that forces those that are part of the church to participate in the sins.

Later in the sermon, Hooker makes a distinction between error and heresy. He even makes a distinction between the seriousness of various heresies. He continues with his example of justification. Hooker writes that Anglicans rightly see works as having no part in salvation. However, he thinks that many who hold to the Roman Catholic view of justification actually

agree with the Anglican view, despite wording that may make it appear otherwise. Hooker cites English Roman Catholics living and training on the Continent:

[They] make the like answer, that they seek salvation no other way than by the blood of Christ, and that humbly they do use prayers, fasting, alms, faith, charity, sacrifice, sacraments, priests, only as the means appointed by Christ, to apply the benefit of his holy blood unto them: touching our good works, that in their own natures they are not meritorious nor answerable unto the joys of heaven; it cometh by the grace of Christ, and not of the work itself, that we have by well-doing a right to heaven and deserve it worthily.2

Hooker writes that this doctrine is not agreeable with the foundation of the Christian faith. He argues, however, that simply because it is not agreeable does not mean that it overthrows the Christian faith. Therefore, it is error, but not heresy.

Heresy, in this instance, would occur when teaching that justification does not come by grace but, rather, solely by works. Should we condemn to hell those who are perhaps only in error? If error is damnable, then shouldn’t we be in continual fear because there are none able to perfectly interpret scripture and perfectly discern the mind of God? Hooker writes, “Surely, I must confess unto you, if it be an error to think that God may be merciful to save men even when they err, my greatest comfort is my error: were it not for the love I bear unto this error, I would neither wish to speak nor to live.”3

What can we conclude regarding Hooker’s view on schism? It seems that Hooker distinguishes between error and heresy. He also holds that there are some that die while holding to error and heresy unwittingly. In these cases, we can trust that God will treat them mercifully in terms of their salvation. Lastly, in considering whether to leave a church that is in error, Hooker states that it is not necessary to leave that church unless one is forced to participate in its errors and sins.

What relevance does this have for us today? There are an endless multiplicity of denominations today. Granted, not all denominations are the results of schism, nor are all denominations due to different doctrinal views. Some denominational differences are due to factors such as geography, language, or social or political realities that are rooted in the past (e.g., slavery and war). However, the North American church has had more than its fair share of doctrinal schisms. North American Christians regularly break fellowship with one another over relatively minor points of doctrine. The result is that we are not upholding Jesus’ prayer that we “might all be one” (John 17:21).

Hooker would encourage us to not break fellowship over minor errors that we are prone to fall into. For the major issues, his advice is straightforward: stay until you are forced to leave or have no other way of avoiding the sins of the church.

  1. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/hooker/just.v.html[]
  2. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/hooker/just.xiii.html[]
  3. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/hooker/just.xiv.html[]

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