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Radicalism: When Reform Becomes Revolution

Radicalism: When Reform Becomes Revolution
A new organization is updating Hooker and other classic early Reformation theologians for the modern reader.

By Brian Brown,
Sept. 29, 2016

I remember when I first encountered Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, nearly 10 years ago. His Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity is one of the seminal works both of Anglican and of larger Protestant theology--but I'd never heard of it before, probably partly because so few people of my acquaintance had successfully tackled the antiquated language. I recall being startled particularly by two things.

First, he anticipated--preempted, really--many of the best ideas of the subsequent "Enlightenment," but situated them in the context of a thoroughly Christian imagination. Rather than artificially try to secularize ideas of rights and responsibilities, limited government, or the origins of human society (as Locke did), he built them right out of a more eternal grounding.

Second, the feisty theologian launched a devastating assault on the Anabaptist and Puritan strains of the Reformation, and made a powerful argument for tradition and sobriety in an age of radicalism and turmoil. At a time when much of Europe was running as far from Roman Catholicism as it could, and thereby rolling back the clock on many (in some cases most) of the good things the church had built over the centuries, Hooker laid a strong intellectual foundation for what would become the unique ground Anglicanism would occupy: a middle way that attempted to reform the church without starting from scratch. Far from urging mere moderation, Hooker made a substantive case for a way of doing Christianity that was nuanced and prudent because of how it was shaped by its theology of authority, history, and tradition.

Both of these reasons I appreciated Hooker to begin with made me excited to see the developments surrounding him now. The Davenant Trust is doing a multi-volume "translation" of Hooker, updating his language (without dumbing it down) for the modern reader. The first volume in the series is now available, called Radicalism: When Reform Becomes Revolution.

From the back cover:

The time has come to translate it into modern English so that Hooker may teach a new generation of churchmen and Christian leaders about law, reason, Scripture, church, and politics.

In this initial offering of an ongoing translation project by the Davenant Trust, we present Hooker's Preface to the work, which offer a short and accessible sample of his profound insight and rhetorical genius. Much more than a mere preface, this wide-ranging discourse on the psychology of religious and political radicalism, and the need to balance the demands of conscience with legal order, offers startlingly relevant insights for the church and the task of Christian citizenship today.

Startlingly relevant isn't an overstatement. I live in a United States where a large number of professing Christians are only too happy to follow radical leaders and support extreme measures--preferring the promise of quick change over the hard work real reform requires. And as the church navigates an increasingly secular landscape where it is under pressure to abandon many of its historic teachings, a voice from the past articulating a long-term vision for the church and society is much needed.

Hooker project leader Bradford Littlejohn (Ph.D, University of Edinburgh), is the President of the Davenant Trust and a leading scholar of Richard Hooker's thought, having authored Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work (Cascade, 2015), and The Promise and Peril of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology(Eerdmans, forthcoming 2017).

You can purchase the book and read more about the work here: https://davenanttrust.org/radicalism-reform-becomes-revolution/.

More about the project:

The Davenant Trust supports the renewal of Christian wisdom for the contemporary church. It seeks to sponsor historical scholarship at the intersection of the church and academy, build networks of friendship and collaboration within the Reformed and evangelical world, and equip the saints with time-tested resources for faithful public witness. See more at www.davenanttrust.org.

The Library of Early English Protestantism is a project to make available in new, modernized, scholarly but accessible editions seminal writings from key but neglected 16- and 17th-century Church of England theologians. Today, as the challenges of late modernity are leading to renewed growth of Protestant irenicism, and many churches both Reformed and Anglican are seeking to deepen and broaden their understanding of their theological tradition, to provide resources for a thoughtful and irenic orthodoxy, these texts deserve to be retrieved and re-read. Our aim is to make that as easy as possible for contemporary clergy, seminaries, students, and theologically-concerned laypeople. Learn more.


Brian Brown is the founder and editor of the Anselm Society, a Colorado-based organization dedicated to a renaissance of the Christian imagination.

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