“Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other, what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after this 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 judgments whatsoever.” (Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book 5.VIII.2)
Richard Hooker has been both praised and blamed for creating the “Three-legged Stool.” I am not alone in rejecting this image of three equal legs as the meaning of Hooker’s own argument. But, not a few modern Anglicans have decided that this is the way best to summarize the essence of his teaching about epistemological authority, that is specifically, how we know the truth. As a result of this idea of a Three-legged Stool, some have created a system of checks and balances. Furthermore, they have recast the terms of this in endless and creative fashions, with no fidelity to anything but their whims.
The Three-legged Stool, by correct definition, is “Scripture, Right Reason and Tradition.” These three as sources of knowledge can rightly be said to come from Hooker’s work. However, the word “tradition” was not often used this way by Hooker himself, who used it sometimes in a negative way referring to excesses and distortions associated with the papists of his times. It is, however, quite correct to use the word “Tradition” for the collective mind of the Church, and therefore the mind of Christ (I Cor. 2: 16), and in this way to understand part of Hooker’s meaning in the words, “the Church by her ecclesiastical authority.”
Nonetheless, the problem with the Three-legged Stool is, as I said, that it carries the idea of three equal legs. For Hooker the idea of equality among these three things was simply wrong. The Scriptures have the highest place of authority, for in the Scriptures it is God Himself who speaks, since the word of God is directly revealed there, teaching and setting forth “all things necessary for salvation.” Second, to Hooker, is Reason. In light of the whole of his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity we must add the word “right.” Right Reason (see Books 1.VIII.3, and 3.IX.3), rather than simply reason, is best understood in light of the opening chapters of Book II, where he teaches that wisdom, as it is explained in the Proverbs of Solomon, and mentioned in other passages of the Bible, includes more than simply what is revealed in scripture. It includes knowledge of the natural world, and practical matters of understanding. We can draw from this that a mad man possesses reason, but not Right Reason (the same may be said of an untrustworthy Enthusiast, whose claims to private revelation defy credibility if only on the basis of his apparent instability). We can draw, as well, that Right Reason placed after Scripture, rules out the notion that human reason is equal by its own weight to the Word of God.
That the teaching and authority of the Church comes third tells us that to Hooker, only a mind enlightened by the Word of God and possessing Right Reason responds truly to the teaching and authority of the Church. So he says in Book 3.IX.3:
“Is it a small office to despise the Church of God? ‘My son, keep thy father’s commandment,’ saith Solomon, ‘and forget not thy mother’s instruction: Bind them both always about thine heart.’ It doth not stand with the duty we owe to our heavenly Father, that to the ordinances of our mother the Church we should show ourselves disobedient. Let us not say we keep the commandments of the one, when we break the law of the other: for unless we observe both we obey neither.”
In this way, he upholds not only the teaching of the Church (to which we add the words, Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est: “What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”), but also, what he calls “her ecclesiastical authority,” not to be redundant, but to extend the meaning to include Government and Canon Law.
The first mistake concerning the Three-legged Stool is conveyed by the image itself. Hooker taught a hierarchy of authority with Scripture at the highest place, Right Reason as second because it is necessary that the word of God communicate to human minds, and what we call Tradition, but that he called the Church, as the third. (Yes, Hooker meant as well to include the Church’s Government and Canon Law, but for purposes of Epistemology these need to be placed on the back burner.) However, not everyone means to imply equality when using the phrase “Three-legged Stool.” Here the weakness of analogies as a method can meet with innocence. But, the image tends to convey equality nonetheless. Better we should think of a small ladder with three rungs. The revelation of Holy Scripture is the highest rung. This is essential and absolutely necessary to understand because of the deceptive ways in which this idea of three sources of authority is misused. It is misused every time that it is applied as a system of checks and balances.
When used this way it is a method for any party that wants to eliminate from authority the disfavored commandments of God. They find that the Scriptures are against their innovation. So, they pretend that the Scriptures can be weighed either against Tradition or Reason. Furthermore, because Tradition cannot be used as easily as Scripture itself- by misapplication and sophistry of “interpretation”- they replace Tradition with Experience, pretending that these two mean the same thing. The result is a new “Three-legged Stool” of Scripture, Reason and Experience, always put forth as “the historic understanding of comprehensiveness in Anglicanism.” But, in fact, it is nothing but a new invention of dishonest minds relying on the credulity of the uneducated. It is sophistry, not wisdom; a sales-pitch, not teaching; politics, not doctrine. It is a wide gate and a broad path that leads to destruction.
By this means, every teaching of Scripture can be ruled out, whether it is the fact that a bishop must be the husband of one wife rather than simply the spouse of one spouse, or that only when a man cleaves to his wife are the two made one flesh. By claiming that “reason” or “experience” teach things contrary to Scripture, and that these two “legs” must be weighed against that one “leg,” they manage to overthrow all true teaching whenever it stands in the way of Satanic progress.
The older perpsective
It was relayed to me that a popular blog (weak in theology and content) contained an article in which one of their writers claimed that she did not worry about the Anglican Catechism having always taught that two of the sacraments are “generally necessary for salvation,” because for her the scriptures were good enough. What she really meant was not the scriptures, but her very limited understanding of the scriptures. Then she said that for Anglo-Catholics the scriptures are not enough: “They need something from tradition too.” This is not a “liberal” speaking, but rather a sort of theological “new conservative” whose foundation is every bit as innovative as that of the revisionists. She decides for herself what is and is not “a salvation issue” with absolutely no regard for the Anglican heritage she claims as her own. This is also a misuse of the Three-legged Stool as a system of checks and balances.
The Catholic mind of a Traditional Anglican does the opposite of what this writer said. For us the tradition is not enough; we must also be persuaded by Scripture. But, this is in response to what the writer meant when she used the word “tradition.” She thinks of the tradition in strictly superficial terms. For such people, the tradition is only as old as the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and the 1940 Hymnal, the pattern of church buildings and other practical matters to do with how we carry out the Form in which we worship God together. But these things are not the Tradition, even though they are traditional.
When we really understand it is sufficient to say, simply, the Tradition. However, for the sake of clarity and communication, it is not always possible to speak this way to everyone. The Tradition always refers to teaching; it is a purely doctrinal Tradition. As such it safeguards the validity of the Sacraments, and in fact cannot continue without them, nor they without it. Properly understood, even the three things put forth by Hooker are within the Tradition. The Scriptures, Right Reason and the Church-with-her-Authority live inside this Tradition, that is, the teaching carried on along with the Apostolic Succession from age to age. Our liturgical life has taken useful forms due to the wisdom of Right Reason that helped the Church to form them in the earliest years, and that has from time to time and place to place given variety in details according to the needs of the people. But, always, within the Tradition, it is the same Gospel, the same Sacraments, and the same Teaching commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ, quickened and empowered by the same Holy Spirit, taking us into the presence of God the Father. In a sense, speaking of the Scriptures and the Tradition as two separate things is itself a mistake. The Scriptures are part of the Tradition, and these speak not with voices that must be weighed against each other in the scales. These speak to us with the one voice of God. And, as wisdom teaches, they cannot contradict or vary.