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Three-Legged Stool of Anglicanism - Robert S. Munday

Three-Legged Stool of Anglicanism
A Stool or a Tower-you decide.

The Very Rev. Canon Robert S. Munday, Ph.D.

The classic Anglican theologian to whom later Anglicans have looked in speaking of sources of authority in the Church is Richard Hooker. Hooker listed the sources of authority as Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.

Later writers have, by way of analogy, described these three sources as a "three-legged stool." This analogy has led some people to speculate (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) on the relative length of the three legs, and in so doing, to treat the sources as independent entities of differing value, or even to pit them against each other. Thus, while I agree absolutely with Hooker on the three sources, I find the later analogy to be flawed and open to misinterpretation. (The reference to Hooker's sources as the "three-legged stool" is so ubiquitous in Anglican circles that even the analogy is often mistakenly attributed to Hooker himself.)

It would, I believe, be better to view Scripture, Tradition, and Reason as three ascending levels of a tower. Scripture is the foundation. Tradition, rests on Scripture and is built upon it but cannot go where there is no foundation. Reason rests on Scripture and Tradition and builds upon it but, again, cannot go where there is no supporting foundation.

Thus, Scripture provides the matter upon which our faith is based. Tradition is the guide to our interpretation of Scripture. It makes certain that our understanding of Scripture is not a matter of private interpretation but is, as in the canon laid down by Vincent of Lerins, in line with that which has been believed "everywhere, always, and by all"-the test of true catholicity.

Reason is the guide to our contemporary application of Scripture and Tradition. This is a significant point: Reason is not an independent source of authority that is the arbiter of truth, it is the tool and the method by which we apply the truth (based in Scripture and interpreted by Tradition) to our contemporary experience.

The 19th century Anglican theologian Charles Gore points out:

First, let it be clear that the Church's function is not to reveal truth. The revelation given once for all to the Apostles cannot be either diminished or added to. It is a faith "once for all delivered," and the New Testament emphasizes the Church's duty as simply that of "holding fast" and teaching what she has "received." The apostle St. Paul claims that his converts should repudiate even him-should treat him as anathema-if he were to teach anything else than what he taught at first. It is thus of the very essence of the Christian revelation that, as originally given, it is final. Whatever is new to Christian theology in substance, is by that very fact, proved not to be of the faith....

Gore then goes on to cite a number of patristic sources and then concludes:

It is not then a matter which needs proving, that novelty in revelation is equivalent to error, according to the fathers. But this evident proposition leads to an important conclusion. It follows that the authority of the Church is of a more secondary character than is sometimes supposed. She is not a perpetual oracle of divine truth, an open organ of continuous revelation: she is not so much a "living voice" as a living witness to a "once-spoken voice." (Gore, Roman Catholic Claims, pp. 38-40.)

Thus, I would have to take issue with John Wesley, who expanded Hooker's sources of authority to include experience as a fourth source in what has become known as The Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It must be noted that by "experience" Wesley means godly experience. And it must be noted that Hooker used the term "Reason" in the 16th-17th century sense of "Right Reason"-the critical application of the mind to a fixed set of data. Neither Hooker nor Wesley used reason or experience in the contemporary sense of "what seems good to me." Nevertheless, the tendency of contemporary theology has been to use both these categories in highly subjective ways.

The contemporary Anglican theologian, John Macquarrie, goes beyond Wesley's addition of experience to add "revelation"-the perception of God's activity in nature (as distinct from Scripture)-as a fifth source of authority. He also adds culture (as distinct from tradition) as a sixth source of authority. Thus, increasingly in contemporary theology, we are seeing the pendulum swing very far in the direction of the subjective, as opposed to the objective reference to Scripture and Tradition. The misapplication of reason in matters of theology may be the legacy of the modern period, just as the subjective misuse of experience may be the legacy of the postmodern period in which we now find ourselves. The task, then, for those who engage in education and formation for ministry-and who would keep that formation true to the faith "once for all delivered" to the saints-is to help the Church rediscover the "living witness" of Catholic Tradition to the "once-spoken voice" of God's Word.


The Very Rev. Canon Robert S. Munday, Ph.D., was the Dean and President of Nashotah House Theological Seminary and Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Quincy.

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