‘Drawn from out of the very bowels of heaven and earth’: Natural Law and Discursive Politics in Richard Hooker


Luke Zerra

Statue of Richard Hooker on Exeter Cathedral Close (Rob Brewer)

Richard Hooker (1554-1600) is credited — alongside Thomas Cranmer — as the most important theologian of the English Reformation. The six books of his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity issued a defense of the Elizabethan Church of England against more radical Protestants, calling for further reform. Hooker’s conception of law is central to this task.

If Hooker is known outside of Anglican circles, it is for his account of natural law — which he terms the law of reason. Hooker is rightly credited as a natural lawyer par excellence who mediated Thomas Aquinas’s thought into a Protestant context, and whose labor bears fruit in the work of John Locke. What is not always appreciated is the discursive and democratic aspect of Hooker’s account of natural law. For Hooker, the natural law does not issue action-guiding content apart from discursive political communities. Because these communities are contingent and fallible, so too are their applications of the natural law. The natural law is not universally accessible outside of discourse for Hooker, but emerges within particular reason-giving communities.

Let me begin with what Hooker means by law. Hooker subtly shifts the reader’s focus from law’s status as commands from an authoritative lawgiver to the good of things governed by law. A law makes something what it is, specifying its origins, ends, and relation to everything else. In Hooker’s formulation, a law is “that which doth assign unto each thing the kind, that which doth moderate the force and power, that which doth appoint the form and measure, of working . . . so that no certain end could ever be attained, unless the actions whereby it is attained were regular . . . suitable, fit and correspondent unto their end” (Laws I.2.1; 1:58.26-32).

For Hooker, the natural law does not issue action-guiding content apart from discursive political communities. Because these communities are contingent and fallible, so too are their applications of the natural law.

There is much to unpack here. Note first that laws assign each thing a kind. Everything is what it is by being placed within a species and thus being distinguished from other things. Hooker’s talk of law specifying a thing’s form, measure, force, and power points to this. Hooker’s talk of law moderating something’s force and power refers to the action of the thing governed by law. Everything has “some operation not violent or causal” that is exercised in view of “some fore-conceived end for which it works” (Laws I.2.1; 1:58.22-24). To say that a law moderates force and power is just to say law limits and directs a thing’s actions in ways appropriate for its end. Hooker’s definition of law is him working out how a world of finite and limited things exist in relation to each other. Law names the limits within which all things exist, assigning to each thing a kind, moderating its power, and appointing its form. Laws make things what they are. 

Here’s a provocative example of this claim that laws make things what they are: God just is law according to Hooker. In Hooker’s words, “the being of God is a kind of law to his working” (Laws I.2.2; 1:59.5-6). God is a law to Godself in two ways: internally, concerning God’s triune relations, and externally, with respect to God’s works in creation. In both cases, the law by which God works is God and God’s perfections. The perfection of God’s being governs God’s internal operations — namely, the processions of the trinity — and God’s actions  in creation, providence, redemption, and consummation. Call this the eternal law.

All other laws participate in the eternal law that is God. Here Hooker has in mind a Platonic conception of exit and return, wherein all things proceed from God their creator and are directed toward God as their final end. He specifies the laws of non-rational agents, the celestial law of angels, natural law, the divine law of revelation, and the positive laws of human societies as forms of eternal law. Each is a way by which various parts of creation, in their own way, participate in God’s being. In Hooker’s summation, “God therefore is a law both unto himself, and to all other things besides” (Laws, I.2.3; 1:60.17-18). The focus of Hooker’s account of law is on what law governs. Laws make things what they are, designating their origins and ends. To be a good instance of a kind, say a rock, a moose, or a human, is to participate rightly in the appropriate law governing that kind.

Laws direct all things to the good appropriate to their kind and instill in all things a desire to excel in ways appropriate to their kind. The natural law names this law for rational creatures. Natural law specifies rational creatures as a kind and orients them toward the goods proper to them in a manner that is universally and rationally discernible.

Hooker names worshipping God, honoring parents, and treating others as we would want to be treated as axioms taught by the law of reason. Each are actions appropriate to humans as rational creatures that are discernible by right reason and are universally recognized. Beyond this, Hooker does not outline much in the way of specific obligations or determinate precepts taught by the natural law. Even where he does name an axiom, say to honor parents, he leaves the application, specifications, and conditions open. For Hooker, as for Aquinas, the first precept of the natural law is simply to seek goodness and resist evil. Beyond this, the law of reason’s demands are relatively few and somewhat indeterminate. The natural law directs creatures toward goodness but does not always specify particular goods or strategies for achieving them.

For Hooker, as for Aquinas, the first precept of the natural law is simply to seek goodness and resist evil.

Complications arise when one seeks to turn the natural law’s desire for goodness into practical action. First, humans can choose evil under the aspect of some good. Second, humans can be mistaken about the good. As social animals, humans follow others in seeking or procuring the good. This is not bad in itself. However, Hooker notes it is possible that “custom inuring the mind by long practice” can instill prejudice against the good, making a long-standing tradition or practice appear natural and salutary (Laws I.7.6; 1:80.18-19).

How then are humans to derive action-guiding content from the law of reason if its axioms are indeterminate and obscured by sin? Hooker’s answer is social discourse about the good. Humans are creatures that can desire and choose things under the aspect of some good. As social beings, this reasoning never occurs apart from other humans who desire, reason, and seek the good. It is this sociality that allows the general orientation toward goodness, afforded by the natural law, to become determinate, action-guiding precepts.

Hooker consistently names “discourse,” not some pre-discursive apprehension, as the way by which the law of reason’s orientation to goodness is opened to us as determinate content with action-guiding principles. Recognizing, responding to, and applying natural law is a social achievement accomplished in conversation with one another and with God. For instance, Hooker writes that humans “are naturally induced to seek communion and fellowship with others,” but the natural law does not issue precepts concerning the specific polity of such societies (Laws I.10.1; 1:96.12-13). There is no one form of human society to which rational creatures are bound, even as the good of sociality is a dictate of the law of reason, universally known, and fitting to social animals like humans. Hooker recognizes humans are historical beings and thus acknowledges that laws and precepts can be mistaken, may be revised, and may work in one context but not another. There’s more on this to come.

This reading runs against common portrayals. Multiple examples can be found which suggest that Hooker sees reflection on the natural law as generating universal obligations apart from the contingencies of historical and social location, and in a way that does not depend on specific theological content. It is worth contesting these two points, not just for the sake of getting Hooker’s thoughts on law right, but to show how providence works through law.

Let me start with the second assumption, that the natural law’s determinate, action-guiding content, can be grasped without theological grounding. As I have shown, the natural law enters the scene within Hooker’s guiding narrative of procession and return. This means natural law is always a participation in the eternal law that is God. The natural law never stands alone, but always in reference to the expression of God’s being that is the eternal law. Discourse about the natural law’s demands is already theological work because it is discourse about God’s creative and providential agency in the world.

So much for the assumption that natural law is theologically thin. But what of the assumption that the natural law makes specific demands that are universal in scope regardless of the contingencies of historical and social location? The first point to note is that the principles of the natural law are “first found out by discourse, and drawn from out of the very bowels of heaven and earth” (Laws I.8.5; 1:86.9-11). Those determinations of the natural law are discovered discursively, which means the natural law is discovered socially and within particular communities. Reasoning about the good is likened to the work of mining, a process that only finds something of value after considerable labor. Discourse draws out precepts and positive law from natural law as ore is mined from the earth in Hooker’s analogy.

It is crucially important to note that Hooker’s reformed commitments give him a self-critical impulse concerning judgments about the natural law. For instance, after stating the universality of a claim is “the most certain token of [its] evident goodness,” Hooker immediately acknowledges the possibility of universal deception (Laws I.8.3; 1:83.17-19). “A common received error,” he writes, “is never utterly overthrown, till such time as we go from signs unto causes, and shew some manifest root or foundation thereof common unto all, whereby it may clearly appear how it hath come to pass that so many have been overseen” (Laws I.8.3; 1:83.19-23). Deception is not only possible but pernicious, requiring extensive reasoning about the first principles to uproot. When disagreements arise concerning the natural law’s claims, interlocutors can work backward “from signs unto causes, and shew some manifest root or fountain therefore common unto all” to reveal where disagreement has arisen and determine how to proceed (Laws I.8.3; 1:83.19-23). Other examples may be given, but this is precisely what Hooker takes himself to be doing in the Laws: identifying sources of disagreement in differing understandings of law. Hooker recognizes that even though natural laws are binding, human existence is nonetheless marked by finitude and sin.

Hooker’s authority has been appealed to both buttress monarchal authority and to challenge it.

This reading highlights the democratic and discursive aspects of Hooker’s account of law, a point which may appear at odds with Hooker’s conformist and royalist politics. Yet, Hooker’s authority has been appealed to both buttress monarchal authority and to challenge it. For his part, Hooker names institutions such as monarchy or episcopacy as particular ways for organizing English church and society, ones that have good reasons in their context. However, Hooker resists claims to these institutions as precepts of the natural law. Hooker recognizes that ecclesial communities on the continent have found presbyterianism a better way to organize the church, and that this is because of law’s discursive and contextual nature. Episcopal polity is a reasonable way to organize the church given reflection on scripture and nature, but another polity may be more reasonable in a different context. Hooker also claims monarchy is an acceptable authority, but not due to divine right or natural law, but in part by consent. A form of governance is only reasonable when discursively agreed to as a means to seek the good within a particular context. Once again this shows that Hooker’s account of law gives due attention to context as it applies norms. The point of law is to orient what it governs to its proper end given its proper context. Neither monarchy nor episcopacy are institutions given by the natural law, but their authority can be reasonably argued for within appropriate contexts.

Hooker is rightly credited as a natural lawyer par excellence, but this means neither that the natural law’s origin and function are intelligible apart from theological claims nor that it teaches determinate universal precepts apart from communal discourse. The natural law is always participating in the eternal law that is God’s being. It is binding on all, but its determinate precepts are discovered discursively within particular communities. Hooker’s account of natural law turns out to be more religious than secular, as theological as it is philosophical, and only universal insofar as it is particular. The action-guiding content given by the natural law is only received and discovered within discursive moral communities whose judgments are fallible and revisable. ♦


Luke Zerra is Associate Dean of the Stevenson School for Ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania. His research focuses on liturgy and moral formation, Anglican moral theology, disability ethics, and Protestant accounts of law and virtue.


Recommended Citation

Zerra, Luke. “‘Drawn from out of the very bowels of heaven and earth’: Natural Law and Discursive Politics in Richard Hooker.” Canopy Forum, August 17, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/08/17/drawn-from-out-of-the-very-bowels-of-heaven-and-earth-natural-law-and-discursive-politics-in-richard-hooker/