Grace Perfects Nature: Hooker on Nature's Threefold Need for the Supernatural

(The following is a fragment of a thesis chapter draft I've been working up; it restates and repackages a number of matters that I've touched on here before, hopefully in a more satisfying and systematic way.)

Although Hooker lays great stress on the independent integrity and perspicacity of the order of nature, which has moral weight on its own, apart from the provision of special revelation, Hooker's valorization of reason and nature is often overstated by his interpreters.  In fact, I would suggest, there are three crucial qualifications on the "autonomy" of nature and reason.  First, nature and reason cannot be autonomous in the sense of encompassing their own end; nature cannot be considered a self-enclosed compartment, nor can reason be satisfied merely with the task of investigating creation.  This much is clear already from Hooker’s inclusion of the first great commandment as one of the prescriptions of the law of reason, however, he will have much more to say in support of this claim in Book I, chapter 11, insisting that man’s final end is one beyond nature—God.  Second, nature and reason cannot be autonomous in the sense of being capable, on their own, of reaching their final, supernatural end.  On this point, Hooker is particularly nuanced, attributing most of this incapacity to the reality of sin, but acknowledging a dependence on divine grace even in the state of innocence.  Third, nature and reason cannot be autonomous in the sense that the gift of revelation serves solely to provide a path to the supernatural end, and leaves reason perfectly adequate on its own for all natural purposes.  Let us investigate each of these three points in turn.  

Hooker begins chapter 11 by returning to his statements early in chapter 5, where he introduced the law of reason, saying that it was the way in which man sought the unique goodness proper to his nature.  Everything created, he says, must have not merely particular goods, but a final good, “our Sovereign Good or Blessednessness, that wherein the highest degree of all our perfection consisteth, that which being once attained unto there can rest nothing further to be desired.”  Indeed, when we look at created goods, we see how they each serve not as goods in themselves, but as instruments unto some higher good: “we labour to eat, and we eat to live, and we live to do good, and the good which we do is as seed sown with reference to a future harvest.”  However, if this merely continued in an infinite regress, “whatsoever we do were in vain. . . . For as to take away the first efficient of our being were to annihilate utterly our persons, so we cannot remove the last final cause of our working.”  Therefore, he concludes, “something there must be desired for itself simply and for not other.”  For animals, mere continuance in being is an end in itself, but not for man.   For man, as the highest order of being, “doth seek a triple perfection: first, a sensuall, consisting in those things which very life it selfe requireth as necessary supplementes, or as beauties and ornaments therof; then an intellectuall, consisting in those things which none underneth man is either capable of or acquaineted with; lastly a spiritual and divine, consisting in those things wherunto we tend by supernatural meanes here, but cannot here attain unto them.”  This last, the  “spiritual and divine” good, must be infinite, for it is that final good “which is desired altogether for itself,” a desire that would be evil if bestowed on anything finite. 

So what is this final spiritual good, this supernatural end?  It is union with God.  For “No good is infinite but only God; therefore he is our felicity and bliss.  Moreover, desire tendeth unto union with that it desireth.  If then in Him we be blessed, it is by force of participation and conjunction with Him. . . . Then are we happy therefore when fully we enjoy God, as an object wherein the powers of our souls are satisfied even with everlasting delight: so that although we be men, yet by being unto God united we live as it were the life of God”.  (This description of man’s blessedness will be very important later on for our discussion of Christology.)  Hooker goes on to specify further this condition of blessedness: it must be “according unto every power and faculty of our minds apt to receive so glorious an object”—”both by understanding and will”; it must be perpetual, a perpetuity that cannot proceed from any natural necessity within us, but “from the will of God, which doth both freely perfect our nature in so high a degree, and continue it so perfected.”

Now this desire for supernatural happiness, Hooker is at pains to establish, is itself natural, for all men have it.  It is not in our power not to desire this, he says.  Therefore, being naturally desired, it must in some sense within natural capacity: “It is an axiom of Nature that natural desire cannot utterly be frustrate.  This desire of ours being natural should be frustrate, if that which may satisfy the same were a thing impossible for man to aspire unto.  So man’s reason is not enclosed within the bounds of creation, but naturally transcends these bounds, by desiring and striving unto the supernatural end of union with God.  If natural desire, then, is not “frustrate,” is natural reason capable on its own of achieving this end? 

Certainly not as man now finds himself.  For “this last and highest estate of perfection whereof we speak is received of men in the nature of a reward,” for works of obedience to the Creator.  This would have been Adam’s path to perfection and bliss had he not fallen.  However, Hooker is careful to qualify here, quoting “the wittiest of the school-divines” (Scotus) that we do not speak of this reward in terms of strict justice, as if God were “bound to requite man’s labours in so large and ample a manner as human felicity doth import; inasmuch as the dignity of this exceedeth so far the other’s value.”  Even in man’s natural state, then, the supernatural end of blessedness could only come “by the rule of that justice which best beseemeth him [God], namely, the justice of one that requireth nothing mincingly, but all with pressed and heaped and over-enlarged measure,” (ibid.) and the perpetual continuance of that blessedness infinitely transcends mere natural justice.  In any case, however, says Hooker, this is a moot point, for Adam failed, and what man now living can present his works, such as they are, before the throne of the Almighty and demand such a reward?  “There resteth therefore either no way unto salvation, or if any, then surely a way which is supernatural, a way which could never have entered into the heart of man as much as once to conceive or imagine, if God himself had not revealed it extraordinarily.” Thankfully for us, this latter is the case, and God has revealed a means, transcending any capacity of reason, whereby we might be granted this highest end of our desire.  

This supernatural duties thereby revealed are faith, hope, and charity, and are not merely beyond natural capacity to do, but even to know.  “Laws therefore concerning these things are supernatural, both in respect of the manner of delivering them, which is divine; and also in regard of the things delivered, which are such as have not in nautre any cause from which they flow, but were by the voluntary appointment of God ordained besides the course of nature, to rectify nature’s obliquity withal.” 

This last distinction leads us to a third point.  Thus far, we might be excused for understanding Hooker to say that nature falls short only of encompassing its naturally-desired supernatural end, but not of merely natural ends.  On this reading, the revelation of divine law would serve merely to establish supernatural duties, which would serve merely to lead us to God, while reason remained perfectly adequate to guide us in natural, civil duties toward our fellow man.  Certainly Hooker has already said a great deal in praise of reason’s ability to guide us in such endeavors, and will continue to say a great deal throughout the laws.  After all, God’s wisdom comes to us in many ways, all of which are to be respected and valued in their particular place: “Some things she openeth by the sacred bookes of Scripture; some things by the glorious works of nature; with some things she inspireth them from above by spirituall influence, in some thinges she leadeth and trayneth them onely by worldly experience and practise. We may not so in any one speciall kind admire her that we disgrace her in any other, but let all her wayes be according unto their place and degree adored.”  However, Hooker does not in fact think that the law of reason is so self-sufficient even within the realm of natural duties, or that Scripture has nothing to say about such duties (the conclusion that VanDrunen implies).  Nor does he think the converse (which proceeds from the same misunderstanding) that the supernatural law, being once delivered, can serve as a substitute for the law of reason (the conclusion that the Puritans implied).  

Rather, he declares at the outset of ch. 12, “When supernatural duties are necessarily exacted natural are not rejected as needless.  The law of God therefore is, though principally delivered for instruction in the one, yet fraught with precepts of the other also.  The Scripture is fraught even with laws of Nature.”  In re-directing us to our final end, Scripture cannot but re-direct us also with respect to our finite ends, since these are ultimately oriented toward that final end of union with God.  If we pursue finite goods with a view toward possession of God as highest good, then our dis-orientation from our final end, as a result of sin, cannot but distort our grasp of finite ends.  Consequently, the re-orientation provided by revelation will set us back on our natural path and illuminate that path again for us.  

We must distinguish, therefore, between “supernatural law” in the sense of origin and object.  Inasmuch as divine law reveals supernatural duties, it is, as Hooker has just said, supernatural both in respect of its origin (we could not know it but by special revelation) and in respect of its object (it concerns those duties which comprise our supernatural path to our final end).  However, divine law also reveals natural duties; in these it is supernatural in respect of origin, but not of object.  This distinction—between divine laws that are strictly soteriological, and divine laws that are also natural—is of course absolutely crucial for Hooker throughout the Lawes, and corresponds again to the two kingdoms distinction.  It is this which enables him to maintain sola Scriptura strictly within the arena of supernatural duties, while insisting that Scripture and the law of reason can be mutually interpreting in the arena of natural duties.

After delineating at some length the ways in which the law of reason can fail to adequately inform us of our natural duties, Hooker recapitulates with admirable concision and precision the triple dependence of the natural on the supernatural:

“We see, therefore, that our sovereign good is desired naturally; that God the author of that natural desire had appointed natural means whereby to fulfil it; that man having utterly disabled his nature unto those means hath had other revealed from God, and hath received from heaven a law to teach him how that which is desired naturally must now supernaturally be attained.  Finallie we see that because those later [the supernatural] exclude not the former [the natural] quite and cleane as unnecessarie, therefore together with such supernaturall duties as could not possiblie have been otherwise knowne to the world, the same lawe that teacheth them, teacheth also with them such naturall duties as could not by light of nature easilie have bene knowne.”