Vol I No. 7
English Reformation

On the Three Legged Stool of the Anglican Via Media

by sinetortus

The Anglican Via Media

upholding a real Anglican continuity

from Richard Hooker to Charles Gore and beyond….


It is striking that Richard Hooker is so often spoken of by Anglicans even though there is often a want of attention to what exactly he actually said. The one thing almost always attributed to him illustrates this point:  namely the image of Anglicanism’s “three legged stool” whereby Anglicanism is deemed to rest upon  Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Charming as the image of a stool may be, it is not his. The closest he got was the simple three-fold statement that “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. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgements whatsoever”(Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie V,8,2: 39, 8-14).

One of the points of interest in this original statement is the difference in the sequence from what is usually said today, for here tradition (from the Greek, paradosis, παραδοσις; that which has been handed down) comes last and not second in the order of consideration. This coheres with the emphasis in Article VI of the Thirty-nine Articles, affirming that “Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation” in contradistinction to the position of the Post-Tridentine teachings of Rome. Nonetheless as Lee W Gibbs puts it, “Properly interpreted and subordinated to Scripture and reason, therefore, tradition takes its rightful place as the consensus based upon long usage or acceptance within the Christian community.”  (Cf. “Richard Hooker’s Via Media Doctrine of Scripture and Tradition”, Harvard Theological Review, 95, 2, April 2002)

To recognise this, does not however mean that his overall articulation of what we now tend to call the Anglican Via mediawas merely the ingenious creation of the nineteenth century Oxford Movement –in attempting to obscure  the real Hooker who was but a follower of Luther and most particularly Calvin.

Certainly, Hooker should be understood to stand within a robust tradition which articulated the unique character of the Church of England’s position in contrast with that of Rome. A tradition of which his patron, Bishop John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury was a leading proponent, through his Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae (Apology of theChurch of England, 1562) and Defence of the Apology(1567). But his was a tradition which was also balanced on the other side of the argument as it were, through active contention with the Puritans, in the tradition of such figures as John Whitgift in his Answer to Admonition to Parliament(1572) and Defence of the Answer(1574). John Bridges in A Defence of the Government Established in the Church of England (1587) and Matthew Sutcliffe in A Treatise of Ecclesiastical Disciplineand De Presbyterio(1591).

Viewed in this perspective, Hooker stands amidst a prior background which had already claimed for the English Church a space between both Tridentine Roman Catholicism and radical Protestantism,  a perspective already in place thus by the end of the sixteenth century.

Where Hooker is unique is in the scale and sophistication with which he elaborates a subtle and dialectical understanding of the via mediawhich achieves uniquely systematic expression in the eight book of his  Lawes (1593-1692)

Of central concern here was achieving a right understanding of the relation between Scripture and tradition (Paradosis) as this was fundamental to the differences between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation, since it had ramifications for so many other major points of contention including our understanding of the source(s) of Christian faith (sola scriptura), biblical hermeneutics, and especially the nature and authority of the church.

Hooker’s most extensive discussion of the relation of Scripture and tradition occurs in the final chapters of Book I of his treatise Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie

Having earlier discussed the differences between laws eternal, and human, Hooker begins in chapter 11 and continues through chapter 15 to explicate the divine or supernatural law which, as a gift of grace, transcends perfects while it does not annihilate the natural knowledge and observance of the law of reason or the making and enforcing of just human laws.

Hooker initiates his treatment of divine law with a description of the striving of human beings for an “infinite and soveraign good or blessednessthat wherein the highest degree of al our perfection consisteth”; and  he concludes that “No good is infinite but only God: therefore he [is] our felicitie and blisse”

Hooker here as elsewhere in the Laws thus clearly affirms the central Reformation principle of sola scriptura under the rubric of “the sufficientcie” of scripture unto the end for which it was instituted.

However, he makes two very significant caveats, namely:

  • That Christians are first persuaded by other means (namely, by reason and / or by church authority that the Scriptures are the oracles of God and
  • That many deep profound points of doctrine (and he specifically designates belief in the Trinity, the coeternity of the Son of God with the Father, the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son, along with the baptizing of infants) are nowhere to be found “by express literal mention” in the Scripture but only to be deduced by “collection” (that is by reasoning or logical inference upon the scale of which Hooker is arguably not entirely clear before the “all things necessary” condition is met)

Nonetheless, he finally explicitly states that God ceased speaking to the world after the publication of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that no other means for the full instruction of Christians is needed than that which God has already furnished in the written Scriptures.

That there is a real continuity within Anglicanism subsequently upon this, can be brought out by quoting the much later nineteenth century figure of Charles Gore on this terrain (as Dr Robert Munday pointed out in his article, “The Three-Legged Stool of Anglicanism”

Gore wrote:

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.)