The Three-Legged Stool

Anglicanism was given a profound gift in the reflections of Richard Hooker (d. 1600), who articulated a threefold cord that must underlie all informed reflection on the Christian faith: Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. Finding here a hierarchical triumvirate of authority, the Anglican Way has mostly avoided identifying itself with specific theological systems and focused instead on grounding “its judgements in the authority of Scripture and reason illumined by tradition.” [1]

In so doing, the Anglican Way has preserved the primacy of Scripture as the word of God—not man—and of the necessity of semper reformanda in subjecting tradition to evaluation by Scripture-ruled reason. While it is not difficult to find broad agreement on the inclusion of all three legs of the so-called “three-legged stool,” ever since the Oxford Movement there has been a perpetual challenge to the requisite hierarchical ordo of these three authorities, despite the fact that Hooker himself was crystal clear:

“What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto, is what any man can necessarily conclude by force of Reason; after these, the voice of the Church succeedeth.”

– Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, 8.2 (London, 1597)

I’ll continue to stand with Hooker on this topic, although not primarily because he said it, but because it is congruent with reason so to hold. It is, however, significant that a voice of tradition backs up the exercise of reason, as it must always do or the tradition is to be rejected.

“[continuing from the above quote]… 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.” [2]

Ultimately, I hold that reason must precede tradition in the hierarchy because of the impossibility of the contrary. The expression of the judgement of tradition is itself an exercise of reason in the application of Scripture’s authoritative voice to a specific time and place.

No voice of tradition may exert an authority prior to reason or it becomes Scripture, which alone expresses the reason of God rather than of man, and so speaks in a universal and timeless manner; to be accepted as in accordance with faith and reason, but not established by faith or human reason: the reason of God being transcendent, the reason of man being derivative. To reason otherwise is 1) to be irrational, 2) to accept the place of the Magisterium, and 3) to obliterate the possibility of the validity and necessity of the Reformation. I think you can see, therefore, why I’ll be rather inflexible on this point.

“Primary authority, that is to say, belongs to Scripture as ‘God’s Word written’; but whatever may be deduced from Scripture by the proper use of reason carries a derivative authority with it. As for ‘the voice of the Church’, which is certainly one form of tradition, that was placed by Hooker on the third level of authority, but it carries real authority when it is agreeable to Scripture and not contrary to reason.” [3]


[1] Sykes, Stephen, John E. Booty, and Jonathan Knight. The Study of Anglicanism. London: SPCK/Fortress Press, 1998. p. 11.

[2] Richard Hooker, The Works of That Learned and Judicious Divine, Mr. Richard Hooker, ed. John Keble, vol. 2, book 5, 8.2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1874), 34.

[3] F. F. Bruce, “Scripture in Relation to Tradition and Reason,” in Scripture, Tradition, and Reason: A Study in the Criteria of Christian Doctrine : Essays in Honour of Richard P.C. Hanson, ed. Richard Bauckham and Benjamin Drewery (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 35–36.

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