Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Anglican Myths: Hooker's "Three-Legged Stool"

If you've read any on contemporary Anglicanism, I'm sure you've come across the term "three-legged stool" in relation to Richard Hooker.  This concept is meant to describe how Anglicans approach religious authority.  The idea presented is that Hooker described the "Anglican" approach to authority in religion with a "three-legged stool" of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.  The logic being that we approach Scripture first and what remains unclear in Scripture is then supplanted by what Tradition has told us throughout the centuries.  Beyond that if things remain unclear, the "Anglican" is to use human reason to approach the situation and particular hermeneutic problem in order to arrive at a safe destination.  This three-legged stool is said to demonstrate the "balance" in the "Anglican" approach to Scripture and Tradition, thus contrasting it with the Roman Catholic understanding and the more Protestant sola scriptura.

The problem with this paradigm is that it betrays both the classical Anglican understanding of Scripture and Richard Hooker's theology on the matter.  In fact, it's quite erroneous to presume that Hooker had any "three-legged stool" in mind at all.  The concept is never mentioned in his work, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.  The only instance where Hooker treats on anything resembling this stool paradigm occurs one time in his writings:

“What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience are due; the next whereunto, is what any man can necessarily conclude by force of Reason; after this, the voice of the church succeedeth.”

This statement was meant to counter two arguments.  First, it was meant to counter the Roman Catholic claim that the Bible did not contain everything necessary to salvation, and thus further revelation, as contained in Tradition was further required for man to discern how to be saved.  Hooker contends that all that is necessary for salvation is contained within the pages of Holy Scripture.  Likewise, Hooker is contrasting the Anglican position with the Puritans, who denied any human role in interpreting Scripture by saying that all that is required for Christian life is contained in Scripture.  Hooker claims that some things are not contained in Scripture and require human reason.

Perhaps you noticed but the order of the "stool" as presented by modern Episcopal apologists is a bit off from the original idea.  The modern paradigm presents: Scripture, tradition, and then reason, while Hooker presents: Scripture, reason, and then tradition.  This is an important distinction and perhaps reflects the Tractarian understanding of Tradition that led to the adaption of this order.

The modern paradigm assumes a competition between the three "sources" while Hooker presents the classical Anglican position, in accordance with the Articles of Religion, which presumes that Scripture is the sole authority for the means of salvation.  What Hooker presents can better be described of as a chain of command rather than a three-legged stool.  Scripture is primary and where it is unclear on things which are adiaphora, that being not necessary for salvation, human reason can be consulted to arrive at a conclusion, with reference to the tradition of the Church.  A word about this reason, this is not just ordinary reason but Gospel-centered and holy reason, informed by Scripture and a living relationship with Almighty God.  Reason cannot be held captive to the opinions of the age or else it will result in a faulty conclusion.  

To turn to the Formularies to present the doctrine of the Church, first:

Article VI
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. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

But not only is our Church's doctrine contained therein but in other statements in the Articles.  For instance, the Creeds are not to be received on merit of being primitive but, rather, "for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture."  Likewise, the authority of the Church is limited by the teaching of Scripture whereby the Church may not, "ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."  General or Ecumenical Councils, likewise, have no authority to declare any article of faith as necessary for salvation except if it be found in Scripture, "Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture."  

This teaching of a "three-legged stool" is so far from Anglican teaching, I'm surprised that such a falsehood has ever gained such credence in our midst.

Further Reading

"What Three-Legged Stool?" http://home.gwi.net/~ourfather/Three%20Legged%20Stool.htm

"Rethinking the "Three-Legged Stool""

"Scripture, tradition, and reason: Hooker's Supposed Three-Legged Stool"


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

A most unfortunate misunderstanding that has held our tradition captive. I often tell people that it is more like a telescope than a stool. Scripture shows us Jesus. Properly ordered reason and tradition give clarity to the picture that Scripture paints. The object of devotion, of course, is not any of these things, but Christ Himself. Personally, I think that it is rather odd that Hooker is always cited as the chief authority on these things, as his view is actually quite unusual in early Anglicanism, particularly his view of reason and natural law. Nevertheless, properly understood, Hooker's definition does not stray from the formularies, whereas the modern liberal idea of the three legged stool is unreconcilable with them.