How, then, do we understand Hooker's estimation of Reason?
One: regarding Church Polity
What does he mean when he speaks of Reason in connection to the Church? It must be remembered why he wrote The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. The Church of England faced a threat from the Puritans. They wanted to overthrow the Church of England and its episcopal structure, and replace it with the "Calvin's Geneva Discipline." Hooker argued quite persuasively that Calvin's form of church government was no fit basis for polity (he preferred to say "polity" since he thought of "church government" as an insufficient concept). It did not conform either to the scriptures or to anything that was practiced by the Church in its earliest generations. He especially mentioned, in more than one place, just how unwarranted he found their notion of "Lay elders."
"So as the form of polity by them set down for perpetuity is three ways faulty: faulty in omitting some things which in Scripture are of that nature, as namely the difference that ought to be of Pastors when they grow to any great multitude: faulty in requiring Doctors, Deacons, Widows, and such like, as things of perpetual necessity by the law of God, which in truth are nothing less: faulty also in urging some things by Scripture immutable, as their Lay-elders, which the Scripture neither maketh immutable nor at all teacheth, for any thing either we can as yet find or they have hitherto been able to prove." BOOK III. Ch. xi. 20
In short, he found the Calvinist discipline, as it existed in those Reformed churches, at best the result of necessity that drove men to create some kind of order where none had existed, and at worst he found Calvin's ideas to be, as he wrote, "crazed." For the Church of England, never deprived of bishops and due order, he would have none of it.
One of the ideas that he refuted was the notion that the scriptures clearly set down everything that the Church was commanded to do, and how to do it, in exact detail. And, anything that could not be found in scripture should be forbidden. To this end, the Puritans imagined all sorts of interpretations to justify their own ideas, and condemned anything that did not fit their scheme.
It was not at all difficult to show that the Bible did not contain detailed instructions about many things that the Church must do. Hooker acknowledged that the scriptures command the things that truly matter most in every generation, but that it does not give detailed rules about many particulars that must vary from time to time and place to place. These things can and must change to meet the needs of real people in real places and ages, unlike God's eternal and unchanging commandments that are always and everywhere the same.
"The matters wherein Church polity is conversant are the public religious duties of the Church, as the administration of the word and sacraments, prayers, spiritual censures, and the like. To these the Church standeth always bound. Laws of polity, are laws which appoint in what manner these duties shall be performed." BOOK III. Ch. xi. 20
He gives one obvious example:
"In performance whereof because all that are of the Church cannot jointly and equally work, the first thing in polity required is a difference of persons in the Church, without which difference those functions cannot in orderly sort be executed. Hereupon we hold that God’s clergy are a state, which hath been and will be, as long as there is a Church upon earth, necessary by the plain word of God himself; a state whereunto the rest of God’s people must be subject as touching things that appertain to their souls’ health."
He argued that the Scriptures teach the office we call "bishop," knowing that the other orders depend on this office. Having given this example of a permanent law of polity, from scripture itself, he goes on to mention those things that are necessary, but are not commanded in detail by the word of God:
"A number of particularities there are, which make for the more convenient being of these principal and perpetual parts in ecclesiastical polity, but yet are not of such constant use and necessity in God’s Church. Of this kind are, times and places appointed for the exercise of religion; specialties belonging to the public solemnity of the word, the sacraments, and prayer; the enlargement or abridgment of functions ministerial depending upon those two principal before-mentioned; to conclude, even whatsoever doth by way of formality and circumstance concern any public action of the Church. Now although that which the Scripture hath of things in the former kind be for ever permanent: yet in the later both much of that which the Scripture teacheth is not always needful; and much the Church of God shall always need which the Scripture teacheth not." (emphasis mine)
Laws of ecclesiastical polity are necessary; everything from canon law to rubrics. And, it is obvious that many of these things cannot be drawn directly from scripture, even though they must be in accord with the teaching of scripture, never violating the principles and doctrine contained in it. To this end, he had opened the third book by extolling the high place of Reason, called also Right Reason, as a light given to man from God. The wisdom that is so highly praised in the Book of Proverbs is a light that also guides, even where no exact law of God is written in his sacred word.
The simple fact is, this is one use of what is meant by Right Reason (or Reason for short). It is a source of authority, yes, but not equal to the authority of revelation. It gives wisdom needed to establish many details of Church polity. True doctrine, however, comes only from Scripture as known by the Church.
Two: Subject to Scripture and the Tradition of the Church
The other proper use of Reason for Hooker, therefore, is when he speaks of it as subject to the Church, especially the testimony of the Church, by the Holy Spirit, that the scriptures are no less than the word of God. It is earlier, in chapter VIII of this same Book III, that we find the strongest of Hooker's statements to this effect.
"The question then being by what means we are taught this; some answer that to learn it we have no other way than only tradition; as namely that so we believe because both we from our predecessors and they from theirs have so received. But is this enough? That which all men’s experience teacheth them may not in any wise be denied. And by experience we all know, that the first outward motive leading men so to esteem of the Scripture is the authority of God’s Church. For when we know the whole Church of God hath that opinion of the Scripture, we judge it even at the first an impudent thing for any man bred and brought up in the Church to be of a contrary mind without cause. Afterwards the more we bestow our labour in reading or hearing the mysteries thereof, the more we find that the thing itself doth answer our received opinion concerning it. So that the former inducement prevailing somewhat with us before, doth now much more prevail, when the very thing hath ministered farther reason. If infidels or atheists chance at any time to call it in question, this giveth us occasion to sift what reason there is, whereby the testimony of the Church concerning Scripture, and our own persuasion which Scripture itself hath confirmed, may be proved a truth infallible. In which case the ancient Fathers being often constrained to shew, what warrant they had so much to rely upon the Scriptures, endeavoured still to maintain the authority of the books of God by arguments such as unbelievers themselves must needs think reasonable, if they judged thereof as they should. Neither is it a thing impossible or greatly hard, even by such kind of proofs so to manifest and clear that point, that no man living shall be able to deny it, without denying some apparent principle such as all men acknowledge to be true.
"Wherefore if I believe the Gospel, yet is reason of singular use, for that it confirmeth me in this my belief the more: if I do not as yet believe, nevertheless to bring me to the number of believers except reason did somewhat help, and were an instrument which God doth use unto such purposes, what should it boot to dispute with infidels or godless persons for their conversion and persuasion in that point?" BOOK III. Ch. viii. 14.
We see in this that Hooker did not shy away from such Catholic principles as the Church's authority, rooted in Tradition (and notice his positive use of the word "tradition" in this case, contrary to recent assertions made about him) teaching us that the Scripture is the word of God, and that this teaching is no less than "infallible." And, lest we charge him with insufficient appreciation of mystical religious experience, it is useful to notice what follows directly:
"Neither can I think that when grave and learned men do sometime hold, that of this principle there is no proof but by the testimony of the Spirit, which assureth our hearts therein, it is their meaning to exclude utterly all force which any kind of reason may have in that behalf; but I rather incline to interpret such their speeches, as if they had more expressly set down, that other motives and inducements, be they never so strong and consonant unto reason, are notwithstanding uneffectual of themselves to work faith concerning this principle, if the special grace of the Holy Ghost concur not to the enlightening of our minds. For otherwise I doubt not but men of wisdom and judgment will grant, that the Church, in this point especially, is furnished with reason, to stop the mouths of her impious adversaries; and that as it were altogether bootless to allege against them what the Spirit hath taught us, so likewise that even to our ownselves it needeth caution and explication how the testimony of the Spirit may be discerned, by what means it may be known; lest men think that the Spirit of God doth testify those things which the Spirit of error suggesteth. The operations of the Spirit, especially these ordinary which be common unto all true Christian men, are as we know things secret and undiscernible even to the very soul where they are, because their nature is of another and an higher kind than that they can be by us perceived in this life. Wherefore albeit the Spirit lead us into all truth and direct us in all goodness, yet because these workings of the Spirit in us are so privy and secret, we therefore stand on a plainer ground, when we gather by reason from the quality of things believed or done, that the Spirit of God hath directed us in both, than if we settle ourselves to believe or to do any certain particular thing, as being moved thereto by the Spirit. BOOK III. Ch. viii. 16.
We see in Hooker an appreciation for the work of the Holy Spirit as a normal part of the life of every devout Christian who submits the mind to Scripture. He sees Reason as a tool to gather these things. The mind that comprehends and explains what we have learned from the Holy Spirit who enlightens us, expresses these things as things that have been learned and are evident. They are "gathered" by reason when reason is directed by the Scripture and the Church. Reason is not a source of authority for doctrine, but the receiver that gathers what it learns, orders it, and gives expression to the truth.
Reason is placed along with Scripture and Tradition in these two ways. It provides wisdom whereby the Church in various times and places can establish polity, including those matters not directed by any permanent and unchanging commandment, and in forming ways to obey permanent and unchanging commandments, or do other necessary things, where changes of detail are permitted. Reason is also the servant of Scripture and Tradition, and indeed, of the Holy Spirit, for everything from teaching to apologetics. It is always subject to the authority of the Scriptures and the Church (with its infallible Tradition) and whatever we receive from the Holy Spirit is known and expressed by Reason as drawn and gathered from the Scripture.