jQuery Slider

You are here

Navigating the “Three Streams” - Dr. Gillis Harp

Navigating the “Three Streams”
Some Second Thoughts about a Popular Typology

by Dr. Gillis Harp

As theologically conservative Anglicans have in recent years sought to cooperate in constructing an orthodox Anglican province in North America, many have referred to the process as a coming together of “three streams.” Usually, they are referring to Catholic, Evangelical (or Protestant) and Pentecostal (or Charismatic) traditions or “tributaries” being channeled into a single “river.” It is difficult to determine exactly where this model originated. Church of South India Bishop Lesslie Newbigin wrote a short book, The Household of God, back in 1953 that referred to these three elements and how their distinctive characteristics complimented each other.1

More than thirty years later, Gordon-Conwell church historian Richard Lovelace wrote a brief (though influential) article for Charisma magazine that argued that “there are many signs that history is moving” in the direction of organic unity between Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal streams. Among the signs he cited was the work of David du Plessis with Roman Catholic and Protestant Charismatic groups, and pointed to a large rally of Catholic and Protestant neo-Pentecostals held in Kansas City in 1977.2

But not only Charismatics are fond of this “three streams” language, since the late 1970s, this terminology has come into favour with evangelicals of different sorts who have discovered church history and been drawn toward liturgical Christian traditions, including Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and, most significant for readers of Mandate, Anglicanism.

Many of the goals that the “three streams” advocates identify are laudable. Those of us committed to classical Anglicanism can endorse the first three put forth by the late Robert E. Webber:
1. A restored commitment to the sacraments, especially the Lord’s Table.
2. An increased motivation to know more about the early church.
3. A love for the whole church and a desire to see the church as one.3

Yet the thinking behind these goals and the ways some have sought to blend the three streams call for further, less sentimental reflection based upon better historical and theological analysis. The three streams paradigm celebrated by one Episcopal congregation long involved in the Charismatic renewal is typical. Its “statement of identity” distinguishes the three streams as “defining its essential character.” It contends that St. John was actually referring to these very streams in 1 John 5:8 when he wrote that “there are three witnesses – the Spirit, the water, and the blood – and these agree.” The blood represents the Catholic stream emphasizing the sacramental and liturgical life of the church; the water stands for the washing of the Word and individual cleansing; the Spirit signifies the Pentecostal stream and the power of the Holy Spirit. (Commentators may be divided about the original context of this particular passage and what heretical view the Apostle was rejecting in it, but reading this modern model into these verses seems an extraordinary stretch, a remarkable example of eisegesis rather than exegesis.) The statement goes on to highlight how each tradition or stream has handled different aspects of Christian teaching, ecclesiastical practice or personal piety.

Purportedly, Catholics have stressed works (especially sacrificial service), whereas Evangelicals have emphasized faith, and Pentecostals Spirit-guided discernment “rather than [measuring orthodoxy by] objective criteria.” The statement concludes that the church at its best should knit together these “apparently incompatible approaches.”4 Some Episcopalians see this schema as normative of Anglicanism and confuse today’s talk about the ‘three streams’ with the historical division of the Church of England into high church, low church and broad church “parties,” as those terms were used in Anglican circles in the eighteenth century. At that time, the national church included within it clergy and laity who could be divided into at least three distinct groups; that is, a high church element that stressed the visible church (including it distinctive polity and traditional liturgical forms), a low church group that stressed the need for personal conversion and what eighteenth century evangelicals called an “experimental faith,” and a broad church party that stressed the reasonableness of the Christian faith and thus natural revelation over Scripture.

Notably, this interpretation was primarily a description of the contemporary situation within the established church; it was rarely celebrated as an ideal, and it was almost never viewed as the way toward some sort of desired future theological synthesis. Moreover, prior to the mid-nineteenth century, members of all three parties would have defined themselves as Protestants in a general sense (indeed, traditional high churchmen sometimes expressed views sharply critical of Roman doctrine and practice). Also, there would not have been major differences in clerical vesture or ceremonial among the clergy of these three parties, and there was a common reading of the Bible rooted in the Book of Common Prayer.

The emergence and growth of two groups in the late 1800s changed this picture, however. These were the Anglo-Catholics and theological modernists. The latter transformed the restrained liberalism of the Broad Church, making it far more radical, and the former turned the High Church party away from some tenets of the Reformation and low church worship that had characterized most of the Church of England since the Reformation.

The result was an Anglican comprehensiveness that went far beyond that envisioned by the Anglican Reformers and has, as we see, made for theological and ethical incoherence in latter part of the twentieth century. But in looking at the new “three streams” typology, one meets with at least four difficulties. First, it takes a possibly helpful (but over-simplified) descriptive model of the Western church during the middle part of the twentieth century and turns it into a prescriptive theological ideal. Newbigin’s original description may be an easy way to conceptualize some of the different traditions within Christianity in the effort to facilitate ecumenical discussion, understanding and cooperation. But using it to create a kind of doctrinal synthesis is, however, an entirely different matter. The differences between the three streams (at least as commonly identified by champions of the model) are not all simple differences of emphasis; some actually constitute opposed positions based upon very different readings of the Bible.

Two of the three streams, for instance, reject the classical Pentecostal teaching about a postconversion baptism of the Holy Spirit or the normative practice of Glossolalia and prophecy. Two of the three have historically repudiated the Roman Catholic understanding of the ordained ministry as sacerdotal, and would have a very different view of the nature and number of the sacraments. And, despite measured progress in ecumenical dialogue since the 1950s, one of the three does not understand justification as primarily the gracious imputation of Christ’s righteousness to individual believers received through faith alone. These are not peripheral matters. Wishful thinking about a tidy Hegelian historical synthesis of the three streams will not erase the contradictions.

As Philip E. Hughes once wrote about dialogue between Roman Catholics and Anglicans during the early 1970s, “to resort to fine-sounding but ambivalent terminology is to paper over the cracks and then to call attention to the attractiveness of the wallpaper.”

Second, to effect this synthesis, some advocates of the three streams approach have handled Scripture in a highly problematic way (as already noted above), lifting verses out of their original contexts. Some have extended certain metaphors in the Bible, applying them in ways incompatible with their plain sense. A few leaders of the Charismatic renewal have viewed such fanciful applications of certain Biblical passages as genuinely prophetic. In this way, Newbigin’s modest insight has gained virtual divine imprimatur. Paul W. Boosahda, an archbishop in the Communion of Convergence Churches USA, describes the development this way:

The key Scriptural passage that began to act as a prophetic matrix of understanding for this discovery was found in Psalm 46:4, 5 – “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall.”

The insight that was given from this passage was that there is “A” river (singular) “whose streams (plural) make glad the city of God (the Church, His covenant people and dwelling place), the holy place where the Most High dwells.”

As leaders from across the Church pondered this insight, it began to be clear they were all hearing the same Voice explaining that the one River of God’s Spirit and grace poured out into the world through the birth of His one Body, the Church on earth, had over time been fragmented into separate streams by breaking off from the unity and oneness and fullness of the River.5

As the passages are detached from their original historical contexts, there has developed a kind of far-fetched argument not strictly exegetical or theological. Again, Boosahda justifies the popular application this way: “River analogy runs all through the Scriptures when speaking of God’s saving and healing activity in history to bring about renewal, restoration, sanctification or spiritual Life.”6 It would be difficult to disagree with this general observation but it hardly constitutes a persuasive argument from Scripture for the three streams as a prescriptive theological model. In Psalm 46, the “streams” more likely imply the abundance of water that is a metaphor for closeness to God. The metaphor seems to be drawn from the description of the river that flowed out of Eden in Gen 2:10-14. There, the river divided into four “river heads.”

Third, some champions of the three streams often display a simplistic and romantic view of the early church. They sometimes portray the first four centuries as a time of tidy doctrinal consensus and ecclesiastical harmony. The historical record, as evidenced by early church councils and the heated debates about everything from Christology to iconography, paints a different picture. The Ancient Fathers did not speak with a single voice on all theological and ethical matters, in fact, they disagreed about some questions. There is certainly a lot that the church can learn today from the teaching of the early Fathers and ignorance of their writings has definitely harmed contemporary evangelicals. But they are to be deferred to only insofar as their teaching is based upon “most certain warrants of holy Scripture” (see Article VIII). As Article XXI puts it succinctly, general councils “may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God.” While the portrait of the early church in these circles is romanticized, the adherence to Patristic teaching is highly selective. Many appear eager to follow Hippolytus to the letter with regard to fine liturgical points but the same individuals are less enthusiastic about what the Fathers said about the ordination of women or the remarriage of divorced persons. Similarly, they are eager to employ the 1979 American book in worship, yet overlook its Pelagian catechism.

Fourth, because they follow the work of Robert Webber, they fall victim to his biases toward two twentieth-century theologians, Dom Gregory Dix and Gustaf Aulen whose work should be viewed with some skepticism by defenders of classical Anglicanism. Some “three streams” teaching either misunderstands the Protestant Reformation, summarizes it cursorily, leaps over it, or virtually ignores it. Although Webber occasionally noted the superiority of the Reformers’ worship over that of modern American evangelicals, he focused far greater attention in his many books on the first five centuries of church history.

When handling subjects where the Reformers disagreed with Patristic positions, Webber rarely sided with the Reformers. Significantly, he invariably drew upon the 1979 American book rather than the historic 1662/1928 BCPs. Much of his understanding of the eucharist was based upon Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy. (Dix was no fan of Cranmer’s theology. He agreed that the 1662 communion service brilliantly communicated the doctrine of justification by faith but bluntly dismissed the latter teaching.) Although Webber rejected a late medieval understanding of the eucharist as a re-sacrifice of Christ, he still argued that it should “be regarded as an offering of Jesus Christ to the Father.”7 Similarly, Webber stressed Gustaf Aulen’s ‘Christus Victor’ understanding of the atonement over against the substitutionary interpretation followed by the Reformers, which constitutes the heart of the 1662/1928 eucharistic canon.

Consequently, looking at their writings from the standpoint of the Reformed Catholicism of the Prayer Book, three stream spokesmen mistakenly attribute the errors or distortions of nineteenth or twentieth-century evangelicals to the sixteenthcentury Reformers. One Pentecostal theologian recently asserted that the Magisterial Reformers had sacramental and liturgical emphases in their theology but they weren’t reflected in their practice. 8 Even a rudimentary historical study of the actual practice of Luther, Calvin and Cranmer would quickly prove the inaccuracy of that argument. This sort of bias against the English Reformation should be openly acknowledged.

If this is the path of the new Anglican movement in North America then it distorts and caricatures the position of the Anglican Reformers. The theological divide of the Reformation is happily not in some respects as wide as it once was; for that fact we can all be grateful. Nevertheless, it is important to confront its central Biblical and theological questions head-on and without fudging the remaining differences. Since the three streams theology is rooted more in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than in the sixteenth, it is important to note how it shares in the Pietistic tendency to allow subjective (inward) experience to trump propositional (external) truth. Yet classical Anglicanism holds both together while affirming the supremacy of “God’s Word written.” Also, if through its putatively Anglo-Catholic stream, the three streams approach now adopts select medieval traditions along with Pentecostal experience, one might logically wonder whether what we are seeing here is actually mostly contemporary American culture.

Along these lines, it is striking how Lovelace’s original article based its argument almost entirely upon experience, a reading of significant “signs of the times,” rather than upon doctrinal reflection. His conclusion was particularly revealing: “There will be many knots to be untied before we have a united church which is truly Catholic, evangelical and Pentecostal. In the meantime, we should design events which model the mixture, which form signposts pointing toward the meeting of the streams.”9

Back in 1978, David F. Wells expressed similar concerns about the movement of evangelicals that was just then emerging. The movement’s leaders, said Wells, had commendably “done much to isolate those aspects of evangelicalism that needed to be reformed.” Yet, “in their search for answers they ranged so widely and so indiscriminately among traditions that are essentially incompatible with evangelical belief. The vacuity of contemporary evangelicalism is inadvertently exposed by” this sort of response, he concluded.10

For orthodox Anglicans, aspects of this ‘three stream’ approach are problematic since our traditional formularies (i.e., the Book of Common Prayer, the Articles of Religion, the Ordinal and the two Books of Homilies) are all products of the Magisterial Reformation and the Elizabethan Settlement. The chief author of the Prayer Book and architect of the English Reformation, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, certainly sought (where Scripture allowed) to maintain continuity with the undivided church. Through its preservation of set liturgical forms, orders, an episcopal polity and the parochial system, the English Reformers preserved aspects of the Church of England’s catholicity better than did some of the other Continental Reformers. They definitely sought to construct what the late Peter Toon liked to call a “Reformed Catholicism.” But their understanding of catholicity was not romantic; nor did it attempt to synthesize opposites. Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer were unsparing in how they pruned beliefs and practices (including even some ancient ones) if they deemed them harmful to evangelical truth. The authors of our Prayer Book and the other Anglican formularies brought everything to the bar of the Apostolic witness of the New Testament, at the heart of which stood the Gospel message of God’s unmerited grace via the crucified and risen Savior.

1 Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God (New York: Friendship Press, 1954).
2 Richard Lovelace, “Three Streams, One River?” Charisma (September 1984), 8.
3 Source: Robert Webber, “Synthesis: The Convergence Worship Movement” at
4 See: http://www.churchoftheapostles.org/index.php/coa/detail/three-streams-one-river/
5 Paul W. Boosahda, “A Threefold Cord,” See: http://saintcolumban.co.cc/pdf/cord.pdf
6 Ibid.
7 Robert E. Webber, Worship Old & New: A Biblical, Historica,l and Practical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 236.
8 See Simon Chan’s lecture at: http://ancientwisdomanglicanfutures.blogspot.com/2009/05/simon-chan-callschurch-to-liturgical.html
9 Lovelace, “Three Streams, One River?” p. ?? Emphasis added.
10 David F. Wells, “Reservations About Catholic Renewal in Evangelicalism,” in Robert Webber and Donald Bloesch, eds., The Orthodox Evangelicals (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1978), 223-224

Gillis Harp teaches History at Grove City College and attends Grace Anglican Church in Slippery Rock, PA with his wife and three daughters.

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top