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Rethinking the “Three-Legged Stool”

by The Rev. Dr. Canon Christopher Brown

What makes Anglicanism unique? An earlier generation of Anglicans replied, “Nothing at all. We are a ‘bridge church’ with a vocation to draw all churches together. We hold nothing that is distinct and uniquely Anglican; our beliefs and practices are simply those that are common to the universal Church.”

Today, one is more likely to hear something like this: “Anglicans do not ascribe an absolute authority to Scripture. At the same time, Anglicanism rejects the absolute claims of an infallible papacy. Anglicanism is distinct in its reliance on the ‘Three-Legged Stool’ of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition.”

Attributed to the 16th century English writer, Richard Hooker, the “Three-Legged Stool” has become the essential feature of a distinct “Anglican Ethos.” Its popularity appears to lie in the manner in which it functions to exclude any form of religious “absolutism.” Neither the Bible, nor the authority or the Church, nor the reasoning intellect can claim the last word, but together they offer a balanced way to discern the will of God.

The “Three-Legged Stool” is so frequently invoked, and accorded such a central place in our Anglican self-presentation, that it seems un-Anglican to call it into question. Nevertheless, the time has come to retire the notion, especially as it is currently understood. Why? To put it bluntly, the “Three-Legged Stool” is part common sense, part theological slight of hand that distorts the historic “Anglican ethos.” It fails to say what needs to be said about who we are and what we have inherited as Anglican Christians.

Anglican Beginnings

In the 16th century, the Church of England went through a series of rapid and jarring changes: from Medieval Catholicism, to Henry VIII’s non-Papal, English Catholicism (Henry was never a Protestant), to a thoroughly reformed Protestantism under Edward VI, and then back to Roman Catholicism during the turbulent reign of Mary Tutor. When Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, she inherited a nation that was bitterly divided in matters of religion.

As the daughter of Anne Boleyn (whose marriage to Henry prompted the break with Rome), Elizabeth was committed to the Reformation. Yet she also had an aversion to religious zealotry, and sought to establish a broad religious consensus that would include those committed to the new Reformed religion, as well as those nostalgic for the old Catholicism. The English people were allowed a wide breadth of doctrinal interpretation, so long as they conformed to the use of The Book of Common Prayer. It was a pragmatic solution; though admittedly theologically fuzzy, it had the virtue of keeping the focus on the essentials of the faith, “it kept the main thing, the main thing.”

Hooker in Context

The “Elizabethan Settlement” held the nation together, but it had many detractors both from the Catholic side, and from Puritans who believed that the English Reformation had not gone far enough. The most notable defender of the newly emergent English Church was a quiet, scholarly priest named Richard Hooker, whose book, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Piety,is the definitive exposition of classic Anglicanism, and is justly famous for its erudition, judicious balance, and its broad and gracious vision of the Church. Hooker balances a catholic understanding of the corporate dimension of the church and the efficacy of the sacraments, with a reformed theology of salvation, and the primacy of Scripture, and encloses it within a Christian humanism that places a high value on reason.

Richard Hooker does not use the term, “Three-Legged Stool.” He does write about Scripture, reason, and what we refer to as “tradition” (though for Hooker, the actual term “tradition” has negative connotations). This might appear to justify the claim that the “Three-Legged Stool” is a sort of “short hand” that distills Hooker’s approach into a simple formula. The problem is that this formula distorts Hooker’s understanding about how Scripture, reason, and tradition relate to each other.

Perhaps the closest Hooker gets to speaking of a “Three-Legged Stool,” and the relationship between Scripture, reason, and tradition, is the following passage:

Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other, what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after this the Church succeedeth that which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever. (Book V, 8:2)

Hooker places three elements in a hierarchical ranking:

  1. “What Scripture doth plainly deliver.”
  2. That which may be concluded “by force of reason.”
  3. That which “the church by her ecclesiastical authority” thinks and defines as true.

The Sufficiency of Scripture

The image of a stool suggests a balance of three equal components, but for Hooker these three do not have equal standing. To Scripture, “first place both of credit and obedience is due,” after which reason and ecclesiastical authority follow in an ordered sequence.

By contrast, the “Three-Legged Stool” limits the determinative role of Scripture. It offers a theological “second opinion” when a passage in Scripture becomes problematic, thereby setting Scripture, reason, and tradition over against each other. To place these on the same level is to abandon classic Anglicanism and contradict the foundational Anglican principle of the “Sufficiency of Scripture” from Article VI of the Articles of the Religion,

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read
therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be
believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

There is a simple but profound issue here. We have a God who speaks, a God who provides access to Himself that otherwise lies beyond our reach. He reveals Himself in the Word made Flesh, the testimony to which is “spoken through the prophets”—and comes to us as the inspired Word of the Scriptures. The principal problem with the “Three-Legged Stool” is that it evades a crucial question: “Where do we hear the inspired Word of God? Is reason the Word of God? Is tradition the Word of God? Or is the Bible the Word of God in a manner that is unique and incomparable?” There may be some who say that God reveals Himself in reason and tradition no less significantly than in Scripture. But this is not what Hooker says; it is not what the Church has traditionally taught; and it contradicts what the Bible says about itself.

Though hardly unique to Anglicanism, there is a “common sense” relationship between Scripture, reason, and tradition that finds expression in the task of interpreting the Bible. To understand the Bible and appropriate its message requires all the resources that Christians can bring to bear. Reason is the God-given faculty by which we weigh the different elements involved in the interpretive task. And since we are not the first to strive to understand the Word of God, but stand within a theological tradition, we inevitably draw upon the reflections of those who have gone before us.

Hooker modeled this use of reason and tradition in the task of interpretation, and it enabled him to navigate between the theological extremes of his day. But for Hooker, Scripture remained supremely authoritative: there was no compromising the basic Anglican principle of the “Sufficiency of Scripture.”

"This we believe, this we hold, this the Prophets and Evangelists have declared, this the Apostles have delivered, this Martyrs have sealed with their blood, and confessed in the midst of torments, to this we cleave as to the anchor of our souls, against this though an Angel from heaven should preach unto us, we would not believe.” (Book V.8.2)

So let us retire the “Three-Legged Stool” to the closet. This is not to jettison reason or tradition, but only to accord them their proper place, and to give “first place both of credit and obedience” to the inspired Word of Scripture.

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