The Peril and the Promise of Christian Liberty

Richard Hooker, The Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology

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W. Bradford Littlejohn
Emory University Studies in Law and Religion
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , May
     314 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Judging this book by its cover, we might think it to be a retrieval of Richard Hooker (whose visage takes up most of the cover), or at least of his “political theology” (as indicated by the title). It is certainly this, but I leave it others to debate the finer points of Hooker exegesis. In fact, apart from nods in his general direction, we don’t even hear from Hooker until chapter 4. The first three chapters set the stage both conceptually and chronologically by describing the ways that “precisianist” puritans (represented by Thomas Cartwright) and “conformists” (represented by John Whitgift) each undermined in its own way the inward liberty of the justified conscience that was so central for Luther and the early Reformation” (126). This suggests that another conceivable way of understanding the project is that it is a book about the history of Protestant doctrine.

I also leave to the judgment of others W. Bradford Littlejohn’s substantial historical claims and arguments. I leave these to others not because they are unimportant, and not only because I am neither a Hooker scholar nor an historian. Rather, it is because while Littlejohn forwards very compelling arguments about the development of doctrine, and Hooker’s importance within that development, it seems to me that he intends these arguments to undergird a different—though related—argument in normative (rather than purely historical) political theology.

Works of political theology are fairly ubiquitous. This means that it is often difficult to figure out what political theology is generally, and, specifically, what makes any particular work of political theology “political theology” (apart from the fact that someone—usually the author—tells us that it is). In Littlejohn’s case, his appreciation for Oliver O’Donovan’s work invites an immediate comparison for clarification’s sake. For O’Donovan, “The work of political theology is to shed light from the Christian faith upon the intricate challenge of living in late-modern Western society” (The Ways of Judgment, Eerdmans, 2005, x). This is an apt description of the end (both telos and terminus) of Littlejohn’s project. The last chapter is concerned with the conditions of possibility for contemporary political flourishing, and it is from this chapter that the book receives its title. In other words, Littlejohn thinks that Hooker’s ability to cut the knot between the rigors of precisianism and concessions of conformity prefigures the way a Hooker-inflected interpretation of the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty “sheds light…upon the intricate challenge of living in late-modern Western society” (). But how?

The question that so bitterly divided the precisianist from the conformist in Hooker’s time had to do with the way each understood adiaphora. What makes a thing indifferent? And in relation to what (doctrine? morality? custom?) is it indifferent? And how would we know if it is indifferent or not? Littlejohn’s book is worth the read just to see how deftly he handles these very tricky questions. The upshot of Littlejohn’s Hookerian answer is that the strong Protestant emphasis on justification by faith alone, “shows that the believer can sit loosely” with regards to secular authorities, because “his true identity and freedom is secured already by God,” and so “he may face without fear the provisional structures of the civil kingdom as he navigates their ethical mazes” (262). This is true not just—and not even especially—for Cartwright, Whitgift, or Hooker; it is true for those of us burdened by the ethical quandaries of political life that modern democracy puts even more obviously on our shoulders than life under a sovereign monarch put on theirs.

Littlejohn is aware that “this line of thinking has seemed unacceptable to many modern theologians,” because, “it appears to be a stance of complete political quietism, encouraging a dangerous complacency about injustice” (264). Against this Littlejohn avers that, “while Hooker accepts this essentially inward account of freedom, he nonetheless allows it to have potentially revolutionary political implications” (264). It is Hooker’s understanding of the role of reason in deliberation over adiaphora that undergirds these “democratizing implications” (264). In the end—and further solidifying the connection with O’Donovan, the most basic political activity is the act of judgment. And Littlejohn’s Hooker “allows and indeed invites” “precisely such judgment” (265).

If an emphasis on the importance of reason for both moral/theological deliberation and political flourishing seems too passé, Littlejohn subtly fills out a picture of a “reasonable” person by emphasizing the way judgment is an act of wisdom always ordered to charity. Thus what Littlejohn has ostensibly “recovered” from Hooker is nothing less than a way of understanding the place of the Christian in the world. Perfectly freed from sin and the weight of conscience (and thus servant to none), the Christian acts out of love for the neighbor (and is thus servant to all). And the conflicts that inevitably arise in the attempt to enact neighbor love require the Christian to prudently work through the ethical mazes in which she finds herself. This prudent calculation is also the work of love, and the Christian can undertake it precisely because she is freed from the weight of conscience that otherwise overly burdens those who must (prudentially) choose a course of action when caught in a situation in which one “loyalty” (a term Littlejohn borrows from John Perry) conflicts with another (such as loyalties to scripture, the church, the queen, and so on).

As a work of political theology of this sort, I take Littlejohn to have succeeded admirably. His detailed reconstruction of debates within the early to middle Reformation period, which take up the entirety of the main chapters, obviously prefigure debates that occupy us right now. It is also worth noting that Littlejohn’s book is a work of political theology exactly insofar as it is an argument about and for Anglican ecclesiology. That might seem obvious given that Hooker is the book’s ostensible hero, but it is still worth highlighting. It is not a book about ecclesiology as such, and it does not pretend to be a doctrinal treatise; nor again does it offer a full-throated defense of the charism of Anglicanism. But it does show how, given their particular blend of Protestant doctrine and establishment political history, Anglicans might—and should—find themselves in the world. It is a gentle rejoinder to current fascinations with Benedict Options of all stripes. Not because Christians shouldn’t be free to be Christians in public; for Littlejohn, Christians are free full stop! Rather it is because Christians receive this freedom from the Christ whose full triumph over the world renders worldly sovereignties finally impotent to bind consciences, and thus to “demand our ultimate loyalty” (271). Exactly because they are freed from the pretenses of any political regime’s claims to ultimate sovereignty, however, Christians are truly free to engage “the political wisdom and competence of non-Christians” (271).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dallas Gingles is campus manager of the Houston-Galveston Program of the Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

W. Bradford Littlejohn serves as director of the Davenant Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the renewal of Christian wisdom for the contemporary church. He is also the author of Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work and numerous articles and book chapters in Reformation studies and Christian ethics.


Brad Littlejohn

Thank you for this very sympathetic review. It is a rare gift to find a reviewer who really *gets* exactly what one is trying to achieve, especially in a book with as many-layered and interdisciplinary an argument as I attempted here. Your summary here strikes me as extraordinarily on point, and I am very grateful for that.
(And I felt the same way you do about the cover!)



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