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Revisiting the Three Streams - Gillis Harp

Revisiting the Three Streams

By Dr. Gillis Harp
Sept. 27, 2012

The September/October 2009 issue of Mandate printed an article that explored some concerns about a historical and theological paradigm that was fast becoming a popular way to explain the peculiar genius of Anglicanism.

Since then, this Three Streams model has become very fashionable in some circles. Although versions of the paradigm vary considerably, most iterations contend that Anglicanism can best be understood as synthesizing the Evangelical (or Protestant), the Catholic, and the Pentecostal (or Charismatic) traditions within Western Christianity.

Recently, the organ of the ACNA, The Apostle, published an interesting and informative piece that used three historical vignettes to define the Three Streams. Without repeating the arguments developed in the initial Mandate article, the following discussion seeks to explore several further problems with this sort of interpretation.

Given the deep divisions that have characterized global Anglicanism since at least the 1960s, virtually any attempt to identify and emphasize common ground among creedally orthodox Anglicans is a laudable exercise. Highlighting the important core beliefs we share as Anglicans, and more generally as Christians, can be invaluable.

Still, Anglicans need to take care that we don't indulge thereby in historical fantasies or in theological wishful thinking. Back in the 1980s, an Anglican academic commented wryly that sometimes he preferred the bygone era when Anglicans identified themselves plainly as Evangelicals, or Anglo-Catholics. "These days," he quipped, "everyone claims to be both evangelical and catholic. It can sound glib and, frankly, makes me a little suspicious." In addition to the difficulties identified in the first Mandate article, the following discussion explores four additional problems with this popular conceptualization.

To begin, sometimes the Three Streams hermeneutic can treat our current theological muddle as a virtue rather than honestly recognizing its incoherence. As Peter Toon often observed (and he was rarely thanked for doing so), one should never underestimate the negative influence that the confused Protestant mainline had for decades on its members.

The muddled thinking and bad habits of The Episcopal Church had a subtle but formative influence on those who chose (often for legitimate reasons) to stay. It encouraged some to make a virtue out of necessity; it discouraged drawing clear lines, and it induced otherwise faithful clergy to compromise Biblical standards with the comforting reflection that the church on earth would always be a mixed bag.

In order to avoid being labeled a fundamentalist, few pursued consistency or precision in doctrinal matters. Listening to liberal bishops and seminary faculty repeat endlessly that the Scriptures don't in fact affirm what they plainly appear to affirm undermined confidence in the perspicuity and sufficiency of Holy Writ. In short, Anglicans today may need to ask if the muddled thinking of TEC has had a deeper and more pervasive influence on us than we often recognize. Perhaps not all of the diversity celebrated by Three Streams champions should be prized.

Second, some Three Streams interpretations tend to focus exclusively on individual personal narratives and implicitly treat them as normative standards. Clearly, evangelical Anglicans have long stressed the importance of a personal faith commitment. Leaders of the eighteenth-century evangelical revival criticized formalism and rightly advanced what Wesley and others called an "experimental faith."

Church history includes many inspiring stories of holiness and personal sacrifice, but ultimately God's Word written is our objective standard. While a pious individual may think she or he has had a "word from the Lord," we are told to "test everything" (1 Thes 5:21) by the high standard of truth rather than simply the sincerity or the fervency of a man's commitment. It would seem that something other than a simple subjective interpretation of Scripture is required to make a claim for 'truth'.

 Similarly, defenders of the Three Streams are guilty of philosophical pragmatism.

"Our system may appear contradictory," they counter, "but the odd mixture really works in our parish." When the standard is practice rather than doctrine, it is clear American evangelicals haven't been thinking and so they should consider carefully the theological implications of certain doctrines or practices. The history of American evangelicalism in the twentieth century demonstrates how common this sort of pragmatism has been.

Third (and clearly related to the preceding point), some proponents of the Three Streams view subscribe to what resembles a Post-Modern attitude toward truth, seeming unbothered by holding views that traditionally have been seen as incompatible. Embracing contradictory views is celebrated as preserving a creative tension and engaging in a deeper sort of thinking that transcends modernist "rationalism."

Occasionally, their approach veers away from theology and toward pop-psychology or even pop-anthropology. Robert E. Webber (a popular authority among Three Streamers) cites Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson when he describes assorted non-BCP rituals as "all prelogical forms of expression. These symbols communicate through the senses to a level of consciousness deeper than our thoughts. The point of contact that builds the bridge between this world and the next is not the mind, but the heart."

Similarly, advocates sometimes will sometimes speak of the Three Streams as part of a larger movement of "convergence" that understands itself as seamlessly reconciling Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Yet the sort of convergence one actually witnesses on the ground in Three Streams parishes looks decidedly untheological.

Few have attempted the sort of historical and theological investigation required to, say, understand the opposed positions staked out in the 39 Thirty Nine Articles and the Decrees of the Council of Trent. Certainly progress has been made in ecumenical discussions since World War II, but few Three Streams treatments work through the assorted ARCIC reports (given their tendentious character this may be understandable) or the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification agreed to by a committee of Lutherans and Roman Catholics in 1999.

Instead, there is a lot of emoting about the importance of personal relationships and the supra-rational power of symbols. One often witnesses believers from fundamentalist backgrounds blithely adopting Roman Catholic vestments and ritual. But what if the revived medieval ceremonial teaches doctrines that the Anglican Articles explicitly repudiate? Those who press such questions are usually greeted with quizzical stares.

Finally, the Three Streams approach tends to either denigrate or neglect both the Anglican Reformers and the Anglican Formularies. Because Cranmer 's role within Anglicanism was different from that of Luther within Lutheranism, some argue that Anglicans need not defer to Cranmer's theological views.

Following the dated and partisan work of Benedictine Dom Gregory Dix, they characterize the chief author of the Book of Common Prayer and the Articles as a gifted liturgist but not a deep or sophisticated theologian. His gift to Anglicanism was a sort of studied ambiguity that his successors were then free to develop in their distinctive directions. Yet recent historical scholarship on Cranmer by academics (and not Anglican partisans) clearly contradicts this portrait. Cranmer's knowledge of the Patristic literature was surpassed by no one during his lifetime and his mature doctrinal positions came only after years of intense and wide-ranging study. 

Surely a better way to understand Anglican identity and its peculiar genius would be to study its foundational documents - the Book of Common Prayer (especially in its definitive 1662 edition), the Articles of Religion, the 1662 Ordinal, and the First and Second Books of Homilies. The writings of later Anglican thinkers (including - but not limited to - those of Jewel, Hooker, and the Caroline Divines) can certainly help interpret that bedrock foundation, but where later thinkers wander from the Formularies, they are less able to claim to be authentically Anglican in any historic sense.

The original title of the Articles included a significant description of their larger purpose: "for the avoiding of diversities of opinions and for the establishing of consent touching true religion." Prior to the destabilizing changes that came during the mid-nineteenth century, most Anglicans of either the Evangelical or High Church party (and even many Broad Churchmen) neither ignored the Formularies nor sought to impose upon them far-fetched interpretations that flatly contradicted the views of their authors.

By the turn of the century, a difference of emphasis among the traditional parties had led to an unwieldy heterogeneity; by the 1960s, there was diversity bordering on incoherence. Some treatments of the Three Streams resemble an attempt to baptize this incoherence. The approach to Anglican history here is problematic at best. It is not necessary to affirm all historical movements within Anglicanism as equally helpful and positive in order to avoid a narrow fundamentalism.

John Henry Newman later came to understand his earlier theological efforts as reflecting a similar error. After entering the Roman Catholic Church, he remarked that his fanciful attempt to remake Anglicanism into something at odds with its actual history was "an impossible idea" and ultimately "untenable" because it was "indeterminate in its provisions, and without a substantive existence in any age or country."

The Church of England emerged from the Reformation with distinctives (such as an episcopal polity and traditional liturgical forms, to mention only two) that had not been preserved by Protestant Reformers elsewhere. High Church Anglicans can legitimately celebrate these features. But all Anglicans would do well not to read back into the formative sixteenth and seventeenth centuries an easy synthesis that is, in some respects, at odds with the historical reality.

Dr. Gillis Harp, is a professor at Grove City College, NJ and a Board Member of the Prayer Book Society. This article first appeared in Anglican Way, The Magazine of the Prayer Book Society

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