The Word Made Flesh for Us: Richard Hooker on the Sacraments

This post is a lightly edited extract from Davenant Press’s forthcoming publication The Word Made Flesh for Us: A Treatise on Christology and the Sacraments from Hooker’s LawsPreorder now for just $14.95. Publication 25th April 2024.

The idea of Christian “worship wars” is nothing new. Christians have been intensely debating differences in worship since long before clashes between guitars and organs or hymns and choruses. This was certainly the case in Elizabethan England in the second half of the 1500s. As the decades after the Reformation wore on, and people realized Protestantism was here to stay in England, sharp intra-Protestant disputes arose about whether the structure and practice of the Church of England was sufficiently reformed. Such disputes were not merely the stuff of backroom disagreements among clergymen–they were a matter of potential civil disorder.

It was in this context that Richard Hooker (1554-1600) penned his magnum opusThe Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. In the first four books of his Laws, Hooker set out to demonstrate that the liturgical practices of the Elizabethan Church of England were at least potentially defensible and edifying. Then, in Book V, he gave a thorough defense of them as edifying in fact.

Readers of the Laws, after clambering their way through the difficult prose of Books I through IV (averaging around fifty pages in length), are often brought up short when they find themselves faced with the mammoth Book V, which clocks in at over 300 pages in most editions. No wonder that it took fully four years for it to appear after the first volume of the Laws (published in 1593). Why the imbalance? Research into the origins of Book V suggests that Hooker did not originally intend it to be nearly so long. On the contrary, sticking to his plan to avoid getting drawn into the weeds of controversy and to carry out the debate at the higher levels of principle, he initially penned a relatively short Book V that offered a positive exposition of the basic principles and elements of liturgical theology. Hooker scholar John Booty suggests that the original table of contents for Book V ran as follows:[1]

1-11: Introduction to a theology of worship, and the need to avoid the ditches of “atheism” and “superstition”

12 [18 in the final version]: A theology of preaching

13-15 [23-25]: A theology of prayer and the purpose of public prayer

16-22 [50-56]: Christ’s incarnation and union with his people—the foundation of sacramental theology

23-25 [57-58, 67]: The sacraments in general, with a chapter each on Baptism and the Eucharist

26-27 [76-77]: The office of ordained ministry

Such a Book V would have been only around double the length of the earlier books, and would have marked a beautiful and timeless treatise of liturgical theology. However, evidence suggests that Hooker was heavily pressured by his friends and former pupils George Cranmer and Edwin Sandys to get deeper into the trenches with Puritan polemicists, offering a detailed response to their many particular criticisms of the Book of Common Prayer and English church practices. Accordingly, Hooker kept adding chapters, many of them addressing specific objections to the church’s practice of public prayer (e.g., the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, Ch. 35), the sacraments (e.g., the use of godparents, Ch. 64), or ordination (e.g., ministerial vestments, Ch. 78). Other chapters touched on a range of other liturgical issues that do not fit neatly under any of these headings, such as his defense of the Athanasian Creed in Chapter 42 and of feast and fast days in chapters 69-72. Among the most beautiful and memorable chapters, probably added in the expanded version, is Chapter 38: “Of Music with Psalms.” Notably, his section dealing with sacramental rites contains chapters on confirmation (Ch. 61) and matrimony (Ch. 73), although he does not consider these to be sacraments properly speaking.

The expanded Book V is a marvelous resource for any Anglican seeking to understand the meaning and practice of the Book of Common Prayer, as well as any historian investigating what typical English church practices looked like in the Elizabethan era. Many of the particular issues debated continue to be points of hot contention between Anglicans and Presbyterians today, or indeed between more liturgically-minded and anti-liturgical wings within both communions. Readers may be surprised for instance to find that on issues such as the recitation of creeds or set prayers, or the celebration of the church calendar, the terms of the debate have moved little from Hooker’s day—although many of his arguments seem, at least to us, so compelling that you might think they would have settled the discussion long since.

However, it also cannot be denied that the expanded Book V is quite tedious at points, consumed sometimes with liturgical minutiae or largely obsolete practices like baptism by midwives and the churching of women. Accordingly, for the purposes of our new modernization, The Word Made Flesh for Us, we elected not to modernize the entirety of Book V. Instead, in order to provide a readable resource of value to a very wide range of readers, and to whet the public appetite for more, we opted to begin first with the electrifying section on Christology and sacraments, widely renowned as the high point of the entire Laws. In these chapters Hooker first explains how God is in Christ Jesus through the hypostatic union, then how Christ is in his people by the mystical union, and finally how the sacraments serve as God’s ordained means for initiating and strengthening this union. More than any other section of the Laws, these chapters represent something of a freestanding treatise in systematic theology that rises above the partisan conflict of the sixteenth century—although of course it can be frequently glimpsed in the background, as in references to the Lutheran doctrine of ubiquity and the doctrine of transubstantiation.

Although frequently celebrated as the great theologian of the Anglican Communion, Protestants of other traditions—and indeed Roman Catholics—should not be too quick to pass by on the other side of the road. Much of the theology expressed in these chapters represents nothing more or less than mere Christianity—a luminous and sometimes lyrical exposition of the central mysteries of the Christian faith confessed in the early councils and the ecumenical creeds. Even when he gets to the disputed territory of sacramental theology, Hooker is extremely keen to “keep the main thing the main thing,” as it were, seeking to clear the ground of distracting debates over secondary issues (such as the mode of Christ’s eucharistic presence) and focus our attention on Christ himself, as he truly offers himself to us in the sacrament. Of course, there is no way to do this without taking controversial stands vis-à-vis other Christian traditions, since when it comes to sacramental theology, much of the disagreement concerns what are the primary issues and which issues are secondary. So it is that Hooker’s valiant attempt to find the common ground between Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic eucharistic theologies in Chapter 67 can only go so far, and remains in the end a forthrightly Reformed formulation, albeit an unusually rich and irenic one.

Some readers may be surprised to hear Hooker described as “forthrightly Reformed,” since Anglicans and “Reformed” today are liable to think of themselves in opposition to one another. But this certainly was not the case in the sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries, when there was no “Anglicanism,” but simply the “English Reformed church,” a national branch of a diverse international movement that included Swiss, French, Dutch, Scottish, German, and indeed Hungarian Reformed churches. The English were far from the only Reformed church in that day to practice a more elaborate liturgy than that typical of modern Presbyterians, although their retention of bishops was unusual (but not one that overly troubled most of the continental Reformed). Still, it has been hard for modern readers—including many scholars—to shake the sense that there is something distinctively “Anglican” and thereby un-Reformed about Hooker’s work, especially in the crucial Book V. Indeed, the chapters appearing in this volume include two sections that have prompted frequent claims that Hooker is trying to steer the English church toward a more Lutheran and perhaps even more Catholic theology.

These readings, however, stem from largely from inattention toward the broader contours of sixteenth century Reformed theology across Europe, which turns out to have been much more sacramental than most of its modern offspring.[2] It is to be hoped that a re-discovery of Richard Hooker will not only spur today’s Anglican churches to reconnect with the riches of their heritage, but will also encourage a sacramental renewal among Presbyterians and other Reformed churches. Three points in particular warrant careful attention, although I will touch on them only briefly here in this introduction so that readers can hasten on to read Hooker’s own exposition.

Key Doctrinal Themes

The Mystical Union

The chapters in this volume could be summed up as “Hooker’s theology of participation.” Yet this word, so important to the history of Christian theology, is a notoriously slippery one, and especially so in modern theology, where few words have become more pervasive. It is difficult to resist the sense that the newfound popularity of this theme owes much to its vagueness, the readiness with which it can be invoked to serve any number of purposes, tying together different theological topics, or creating the illusion of ecumenical convergence, without the hard work of distinction and definition. So it is that many readers of Hooker have tried to see in Book V a sub-Protestant blurring of the boundaries between Christ and us, in line with Roman Catholic or modern ecumenist theologies of the church as an “extension of the incarnation.”

In fact, however, Hooker is very careful here, as elsewhere, to distinguish his terms. “The union or mutual inward hold which Christ has of us and we of him” (56.1) is simply not the same thing as the union or mutual inward hold of Christ’s divine and human natures in the incarnation, although it is certainly made possible by it. We are not in God the same way that Jesus Christ was:

God is not so in any creature, nor any creature so in God, as Christ—whether we consider him as the personal Word of God, or as the natural Son of man. All other things that are of God nonetheless do have God in them, and he has them in himself. Yet because their substance and his wholly differ, their coherence and communion either with him or among themselves is in no way like that union between the Persons discussed above.(56.4-5)

Indeed, there are at least four sorts of union worth distinguishing: the union between the eternal persons of the Trinity; the union of the Word with Christ’s human flesh; the union of the God-man with his people; and the union which all humans, saved and unsaved, have with God by virtue of creation: “All things have received from him their first being, and their continuance in being. All things are therefore partakers of God; they are his offspring; his influence is in them” (56.5). If we do not rightly distinguish between at least these four different unions or “participations,” heresy lurks around every corner.[3]

To say this, of course, is not to minimize or spiritualize the profound union that does exist between the natural body of the incarnate Christ and the church as his mystical body. Like Calvin, Hooker is keen to emphasize that while hidden and invisible, this union is not merely some spiritual connection of our souls with Christ’s divine nature, as in much modern evangelical theology:

Can anyone doubt that our own bodies receive from the flesh of Christ itself that life which shall make them glorious at the last day, and for which they are already accounted parts of his blessed body? Our corruptible bodies could never live the life they shall live were they not joined here with his incorruptible body…. Christ is therefore, both as God and as man, that true vine of which we are both spiritually and corporeally branches.(56.8)

These remarks about the mystical union serve as the ground of Hooker’s sacramental theology, as he turns to consider the visible rituals that establish, nurture, and sustain this invisible union.

The Necessity of Sacraments

Here too, though, there has been ample confusion among many of Hooker’s readers, who often hasten on from Chapter 56 (on the mystical union) to Chapter 58 (on the enactment of that union in baptism) without careful attention to Chapter 57, perhaps one of Hooker’s most carefully-argued expositions in the Laws. Here he gives close attention to the all-important question of why and how it is that sacraments are necessary if, on a Protestant account, redemption is accomplished by grace alone through faith alone, by imputation of Christ’s righteousness rather than by a medicinal infusion of it. Hooker is keen to avoid both a Socinian rationalism, in which sacraments have no purpose other than “to teach the mind—by other senses—what the Word teaches by hearing” (57.1), and a Roman Catholic ex opere operato theology, in which the sacraments accomplish the grace they signify automatically and almost mechanically.

Choosing his words extremely carefully, he writes that sacraments are “heavenly ceremonies, which God has sanctified and ordained to be administered in his Church: first, as marks by which we know when God imparts the living or saving grace of Christ to all who are capable of receiving it; and second, as conditional means which God requires for those to whom he imparts grace” (57.3). Hooker’s formulation here may be seen as an effort to forge a synthesis between what Brian Gerrish has called symbolic parallelism, in which the elements are symbols that signify that God is simultaneously but invisibly bestowing the grace of union with Christ upon worthy recipients, and symbolic instrumentalism, in which the elements actually serve somehow as the instruments through which God bestows that grace upon worthy recipients.[4] (Hooker clearly rejects the doctrine, common among modern Protestants, that Gerrish designates as symbolic memorialism, in which the elements are symbols that serve as an occasion to publicly declare and remember the work of Christ.)

Thus we note that the first part of his definition clearly expresses parallelism: “marks by which we know when God imparts the living or saving grace of Christ to all who are capable of receiving it.” Here, it is clearly God who does the imparting, and the sacraments serve simply as marks to tell us when. Hooker goes on to emphasize this in 57.4, rejecting any concept of an ex opere operato efficacy to sacraments: “they are not necessary to supernatural life in just the same way that food is to natural life, because they do not contain in themselves any vital power or efficacy.” Thus it is that not all who receive the elements receive the grace—the grace is only for those who are “capable of receiving it.” Hooker, however, is willing to go beyond parallelism and speak of an instrumentalism, if carefully defined. Hence the second part of his definition, that sacraments are “conditional means which God requires for those to whom he imparts grace.” In other words, not merely does God freely bestow grace alongside the sacraments, but he has so ordered the economy of redemption that the grace thereby bestowed is made contingent on our faithful reception of them: “it is not ordinarily his will to bestow the grace of the sacraments on anyone except by the sacraments” (57.4, emphasis Hooker’s). From this standpoint, they may be spoken of as instruments, not because there is anything in the sacraments themselves that makes them effectual in this regard, but simply because God has chosen to designate them as prerequisites, as it were, for pouring out his grace.

This is what he means by calling them “moral instruments of salvation”: they are “duties of service and worship, which are unprofitable unless we perform them as the author of grace requires” (57.4). I may promise my son that if he cheerfully performs his regular chores, he will enjoy the blessing of quality time reading with me; by this, I make the chores to be a “moral instrument” of receiving the promised grace. The metaphor is of course inadequate in that the quality time is temporally separated from the chore, whereas the union enjoyed by means of the sacraments is ordinarily simultaneous. But it highlights the essentials of what Hooker wishes to convey: (1) the grace is not internal to the physical action, but conditioned upon it; (2) the physical action is not enough, but rather the attitude of faith and gratitude that accompanies it; (3) the promise is nonetheless sure: God will not fail to bestow the grace; (4) the grace is genuinely gracious; it is not owed to us. Hooker’s own example is that of the bronze serpent: the Israelites had to turn to it in faith to be healed, but “he who turned toward it was saved, not by what he saw, but by thee, the Savior of all.”

This careful formulation establishes the basis upon which Hooker is willing to use the language of “instruments” or “causes” of grace in relation to the sacraments, and it is unfortunate that so many readers of Hooker have read the expositions on baptism and the eucharist without first digesting the definitions he lays down in V.57. These definitions enable Hooker to consistently make three points throughout his exposition of baptism and the eucharist: (1) to be sure, God can, and in extraordinary cases does, give sacramental grace without the administration and reception of the sacraments; (2) however, given his clear commands to us to observe the sacraments, we have no business testing him, but must make it our first priority to receive (and, in the case of clergy, to administer) the sacraments; (3) since the sacraments are not “physical instruments,” we must receive them with faith in order to enjoy the promised benefits.

What then are these promised benefits? We know already from V.56 that they must pertain to the mystical life-giving union with the incarnate Christ, so vividly described there. But is there any difference between baptism and the eucharist? Yes. “We receive Christ Jesus in baptism once as the first beginner of our life, and in the eucharist repeatedly to bring our life by degrees to its completion” (57.6). Having cautioned clearly against putting too much stock in the elements themselves, Hooker feels free to speak in very strong terms of what God intends to accomplish by means of our reception of them. Regarding baptism, Hooker elaborates that by it we are “incorporated into Christ” and thus “obtain that saving grace of imputation, which takes away all former guilt through his most precious merit, as well as that infused divine virtue of the Holy Ghost that gives the powers of the soul their first disposition towards future newness of life” (60.2), and that it is “the door of our actual entrance into God’s house, the first apparent beginning of life—perhaps a seal to the grace of election previously received, but the first step to our sanctification here on earth” (60.3).[5] Regarding the eucharist, Hooker elaborates, “those who have laid the foundation and reached the first beginning of new life in baptism find here in the Eucharist the nourishment and food that ensures the continuation of this life in them. Those who desire to live the life of God must eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, for without this diet, we cannot live” (67.1).

Eucharistic Ecumenism?

Hooker’s exposition of the eucharist in Chapter 67 of Book V is justly accounted as one of the greatest sections of the Laws, or perhaps of all English theological literature. It also represents a moving call, at the end of a century of bitter controversy which had divided not only Protestants from Catholics, but from one another, to “Let disputes and questions—the enemies of piety and hindrances to true devotion, which on this matter have been too patiently heard—take their rest” (67.12). But its beauty and irenicism have sometimes also conspired to obscure some of the clear theological lines being drawn here.

To be sure, Hooker is indeed very eager to forge a pathway to peace when it comes to the all-important eucharistic question. As large as the issues of justification by faith or sola Scriptura loom in hindsight when we consider the battle-lines of the Reformation, we can often forget that if Protestants were burned at the stake, it was usually because of their refusal to affirm transubstantiation. And the early rift between Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Reformation, crystallized by the Formula of Concord in 1577, stemmed above all from rival understandings (or misunderstandings of one another’s understandings) of Christ’s eucharistic presence. Hooker thus frames his chapter on the eucharist, penned toward the very end of the tumultuous sixteenth century, as a call to put aside all such bitterness and get back to the point of the sacrament.

Accordingly, Hooker begins his account by trying to highlight what nearly all the warring doctrines have in common. He takes for granted that all parties in his day are agreed in rejecting the mere memorialist doctrine,[6] in which the sacrament is “a shadow, destitute, empty, and void of Christ.” The Reformed then (whether Bullingerian or Calvinistic), the Lutheran, and indeed the Catholics are all agreed in affirming a “real participation in Christ and in the life of his body and blood by means of this sacrament,” so why “should the world continue to be distracted and torn apart by so many fights, when the only remaining controversy is where Christ is?” Indeed, all parties agree that “the soul of man is the receptacle of Christ’s presence” (67.2, emphasis Hooker’s), so that the disagreement only concerns whether the presence is only there (as the Reformed say) or also somehow in the bread and wine (as the Lutherans and Catholics say in their own distinctive ways). Hooker laments this as a foolish debate: “I should wish that men would spend more time meditating with silence on what we have by the sacrament, and less on disputing about how. . . . Curious and intricate speculations hinder, abate, and quench those inflamed motions of delight and joy which divine graces raise when extraordinarily present to us” (67.3).

However, Hooker’s call to peace is certainly not the anti-intellectual’s throwing up of the hands and saying, “Oh, who cares about these abstract speculations? Let’s just agree to disagree!” Hooker takes some time to explain why it is that the Reformed doctrine conveys all that Scripture and patristic reason require, and makes clear that he deems both Lutheran consubstantiation and Catholic transubstantiation to be confusing, baseless, and contrary to reason. To be sure, he does not exactly object to people believing these doctrines, so much as insisting on the necessity of others believing them; while he thinks both doctrines wrong-headed, his main point is that they are simply unnecessary. Thus he asks,

Why then do we vainly trouble ourselves with such fierce contentions about consubstantiation and transubstantiation, and whether or not the sacrament itself first possesses Christ or not? Whatever the answer might be, it can neither help or hinder us…. Take what we all agree on, and then consider whether we should not leave the remaining questions to one side as superfluous, rather than insisting on them as necessary.(67.6-7)

But we should note that this is itself a controversial claim, however much Hooker wishes it were not, for both Roman Catholics (at Trent) and Lutherans (in the Formula of Concord) were on record as indeed insisting upon their claims about Christ’s bodily presence in the consecrated elements as indeed necessary. Thus, while Hooker is proposing the Reformed doctrine of the eucharist as a kind of ecumenical meeting-ground on which he hopes conflicts may be laid to rest, we must not lose sight of the fact that he is indeed proposing the Reformed doctrine of the eucharist as this meeting-ground; there is indeed strictly speaking no neutral third ground between those who say that a doctrine is necessary and those who say it is not.

This controversial stance in Chapter 67, of course, rests upon an earlier set of positions that Hooker states out in chapter 54-55. All the eucharistic controversies of the sixteenth century quickly led back to Christology, with the various disputing parties seeking to map their positions onto the coordinates established by the fifth-century Councils of Chalcedon and Ephesus. Thus it is that Hooker prefaces his discussions of sacraments with the luminous exposition of Chalcedonian Christology that occupies the first few chapters of this volume. Less historically-attuned readers, however, may miss the significance of the lengthy discussion of “the personal presence of Christ everywhere” in Chapter 55. This had been a subject of fierce debate both among Lutheran theologians, and between Lutheran and Reformed theologians beginning in the 1550 and continuing through at least the 1580s. Many Lutherans, following Wurttemberg theologian Johannes Brenz, had contended that the eucharistic presence of Christ was made possible by the “ubiquity” of his human body, which was supposed to have received the properties of divinity by virtue of the hypostatic union. The Reformed argued that this represented a violation of the Chalcedonian Definition’s insistence that there was no “mixture” or “confusion” of the two natures, and that although Christ’s humanity could be said to be present in some sense wherever his divinity was, this sense must be carefully circumscribed to avoid Christological heresy. Although Hooker has sometimes been misunderstood or misrepresented on this point, a careful reading of chapters 54-55 in the context of sixteenth-century debates shows him siding resolutely with the Reformed position, although he seeks to frame it as irenically as possible.[7]

Finally, there is no point obscuring the fact that Hooker’s eucharistic theology is unambiguously receptionist. That is to say, in keeping with his general remarks about the sacraments as “moral instruments,” he seeks to stress that is, there is no gracious change, nor presence of Christ, in the elements as such, but only in the faithful receiver. This would seem so clear as to be unworthy of comment except for the fact that a striking number of Hooker scholars (influenced often by an Anglo-Catholicism that seeks to align English liturgical practice more closely with the medieval era) have sought to claim otherwise. A few passages will suffice: “the real presence of Christ’s most blessed body and blood should not be looked for in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament.” “I do not see any way to gather from Christ’s words when and where the bread becomes his body or the cup his blood, except within the heart and soul of the one who receives them. The sacraments really exhibit, but from what we can gather from the text are not really, nor do they really contain in themselves, that grace which it pleases God to bestow with them or by them.” “There is no sentence in Holy Scripture that says we cannot be made partakers of his body and blood by this sacrament unless the sacrament itself first contains or is converted into them” (all from 67.6).

Chapter 67, then, paradoxically represents both an attempt to forge a pathway of peace through the midst of seemingly interminable doctrinal controversy, and at the same time a forthright statement of one side of that controversy—namely, the Reformed view. In this, it is representative of much of the Laws, which is notable not so much for offering a uniquely Anglican theological synthesis, but rather for offering a distinctive theological tone or posture: one which takes doctrine extremely seriously, but also goes out of its way to understand opposing viewpoints, demonstrate the wide extent of common ground, and which refuses to major on the minors. May such a posture of Reformational irenicism re-animate our churches today.

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

  1. John E. Booty, ed., The Folger Library Edition of the Works of Richard Hooker, vol. 6.1: Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie, Commentary (Binghamton,: Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1993), 189. 
  2. As John Williamson Nevin demonstrated nearly two centuries ago. See John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence and The Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper, edited by Linden J. DeBie, The Mercersburg Theology Study Series, vol. 1 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012). 
  3. For an excellent and comprehensive discussion of Hooker’s theology of participation, see Paul Anthony Dominiak, Richard Hooker: The Architecture of Participation (London: T&T Clark, 2020). 
  4. Brian A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude: the Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 167. 
  5. Hooker does not, alas, explain how to reconcile this saving grace given to all who are baptized with the fact that clearly not all the baptized are saved in the end. Clearly for Hooker, apostasy from a state of initial justification is a real possibility, even if the elect will surely persevere to the end. The thorny questions regarding the relationship of sacramental grace, election, and apostasy that were to trouble the Reformed in the seventeenth century, had not yet been pressed as forcefully as they would soon be, and although Hooker’s Dublin Fragments might have given us a fuller exposition on the issue, they never came close to completion before his untimely death. 
  6. An intriguing remark, given that much secondary literature today continues to mistakenly claim that Zwinglian memorialism was a dominant doctrine in the Elizabethan Church, especially among Puritans. 
  7. For a full discussion see my essay, “A Reformed Irenic Christology: Richard Hooker and the Question of Ubiquity in the 16th century,” in W. Bradford Littlejohn, ed., Beyond Calvin: Essays on the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Press, 2017): 63-106.