Church HistoryMinistry

The Myth of the Via Media, and other Canterbury Tales – Part 3

Mark continues from part 2 of his Gafcon 2022 talk. You can read the entire text here.

  1. Classic Confusion #2: The ‘Three-Legged-Stool’

So much for the myth of the Anglican via media. But alas, there is one more tall Canterbury tale which needs to be busted: the so-called Anglican Three-Legged Stool. This is a story about sources of authority within Anglicanism. And it claims that there are three equal sources of authority: Holy Scripture, tradition, and reason. The key word there is ‘equal’ – that the Bible, the creeds and confessions of the church, and the sanctified reason available to believers, all ought to have equal authority when drawn upon to resolve theological and liturgical questions. Here’s a good example of the Three-Legged Stool, from a certain metropolitical diocesan website in Australia which shall remain nameless:

The analogy suggests that the three legs are all needed. Take one away, and the stool topples over. If one is under-valued, or over-emphasised, the balance may not be right. A particularly Anglican approach to matters of belief is, then, to attempt to hold all three legs together in a balanced way.

Ok, so how did this piece of Anglican fudge become such a regularly plated up dish? To be honest, I am not entirely sure. I would love to know who was the first to apply the Three-Legged Stool analogy to Anglicanism – and I’ll shout a coffee to anyone here who can give me a good steer! But here’s what I do know, and it has to do with the theologian I mentioned earlier: Richard Hooker.

Richard Hooker is the theological doyen of most Anglicans. Sometimes he is spoken about as the greatest theologian of the English Reformation, though for my money, John Owen was probably a greater theologian, and Thomas Cranmer a more significant one yet. At any rate, the ‘Judicious Mr Hooker’ was an influential English theologian who hailed from Devon in the south-west of England and who lived between 1554 and 1600. He debated with those who were trying to presbyterianise the Church of England, and under the watchful gaze of his Queen and his Archbishop, penned a five-volume book called the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Strangely, it was not a best seller in its day. But it became a hit when, in the nineteenth century, the Oxford academic John Keble republished it to help the Anglo-Catholic cause. Indeed, Keble’s editorial preface positions Hooker between Rome and the reformers – a via media without so many words. And although Keble did not explicitly use the analogy of the Three-Legged Stool, he suggested that Hooker’s theological method involved Holy Scripture, human reason, and the history of the church.

Here, as in all other cases, [Hooker] recommends the safe and reverential course of inquiring what the New Testament, as interpreted by natural reason and church history, contains, rather than determining beforehand what in reason it ought to contain.[1]

Now, on the surface of things, this is not so controversial a quote. But what seems to have happened, is that over time this bundle of three things (Scripture, reason, and tradition) became associated with the image of a Three-Legged Stool. And that somewhere along the line (I suspect in The Episcopalian Church of the USA), the three legs came to represent three traditions: Reformed (Bible), Catholic (tradition), and Liberal (reason). And thus, Anglicanism equally represents the Reformed, the Catholic, and the Liberal streams just as it sees the Bible, tradition, and reason as equal sources of authority. In an influential book called What is Anglicanism? published in 1982, the Episcopal Church priest and academic Urban Holmes III summarised just this:

Hooker articulates for Anglicanism its answer to the question of what is our authority. Our authority is the association of Scripture, tradition and reason. Subsequent commentators have spoken of this as a “three-legged-stool.” If one removes a leg, any leg, the stool topples.[2]

Now, that is also, almost certainly where Archbishop Phillip Aspinall lands in his recent series on Anglican Identity for the Diocese of Brisbane.[3] In his short Youtube video course, Archbishop Aspinall tells us that these are the “three main emphases in Anglicanism” and that “At the heart of Anglicanism is a constant tension between these three perspectives.” This enables him to conclude that “This Anglican ethos is both classical and contemporary, catholic and reformed, orthodox and open. What more could anyone want?”[4] Well, personally, I’d want something a bit more authentically Anglican. The tension between these three emphases and perspectives might be the ideal Anglican identity in the Diocese of Brisbane, but they most certainly are not, in terms of historic Anglicanism.

And why not? Well firstly, the idea of a Three-Legged Stool is completely foreign to the thought of the Judicious Mr Hooker. That is to say, that scholarship in the last fifty years has completely debunked the myth of his supposed Three-Legged Stool. Reformation historians have re-examined the theology of Richard Hooker, and have discovered that he has remarkably Reformed credentials. This, of course, shouldn’t surprise us, given the reformed nature of the Elizabethan Settlement. And it shouldn’t surprise us, given that Hooker’s pivotal patrons were reformed stalwarts John Jewel and Edwin Sandys. Indeed, the undisputed academic consensus is that Richard Hooker wholeheartedly believed in the supreme authority of the Bible, and that all reasoning and traditions were subordinate to God’s Word. Hear the words of the great Elizabethan divine himself:

What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must incongruity of reason over-rule all other inferior judgments whatsoever.[5]

So, Hooker cannot be easily enlisted by Anglo-Catholicism or Liberalism as an example of “Three-Legged Stool Anglicanism.” But the second, and most conclusive reason why the Three-Legged Stool ought not to characterise Anglicanism, is that it is completely contrary to the doctrine of Scripture embedded in Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. This is one of the reasons why advocates of the Three-Legged Stool so often downplay or decline to mention the Articles of Religion in their writings (especially true in the case of the American Episcopalians who began their tinkering with the articles upon their independence from England). This is one of the reasons why orthodox Australian Anglicans fought so hard for their inclusion in the Anglican Constitution of Australia. And this is why the GAFCON leadership wisely concreted the Articles of Religion into the Jerusalem Declaration. Hear the force of the Articles in light of the fantasy of the Three-Legged Stool:

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. (Article VI)

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation. (Article XX)

[1] ‘Editor’s Preface’, in John Keble (ed.), The Works of that Learned and Judicious Divine Mr Richard Hooker … 3 vols. (Oxford: OUP, 1836), lxxiii.

[2] Urban Holmes III, What is Anglicanism? (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1982), 11.

[3] Sometimes referred to as the Anglican Church of Southern Queensland.

[4] See and (last accessed 12 August 2022).

[5] Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, 8:2; Folger Edition 2:39,8-14.