Skip to comments.The Three-Legged Stool
Posted on 05/21/2005 3:37:29 PM PDT by sionnsar
[This is actually an older series of pieces which I have not seen before, but they were referenced by a blog today. After following it through I thought I'd post the debunking of this persistent error for the list, starting with the reference, for those who might be interested. --sionnsar]
On titusonenine 5/21/2005:
Notable and Quotable
In the Anglican Catholic tradition, of which the Episcopal Church of the United States is part, faith is said to rest on a three-legged stool. Those three legs are Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, each of equal importance. Each one is a guide, but none is infallible.
Saint Christophers by-the- Sea, Key Biscayne, Florida
One again now with feeling, there never was a three-legged stool, Hooker never spoke of one, and none of the Anglican reformers would have agreed with the above Southeast Florida parish statement.
The link takes one to a posting on titusonenine dated 12/07/2003. Unfortunately the article there is gone. But thanks to Trushare it's still online, as follows:
Leslie Fairfield considers three legged stools, cookie jars and wise men
ANGLICANISM'S "three-legged stool" is not a helpful image. It describes no theological method that has ever existed, past or present. It's time we found a better metaphor.
The image would be relatively innocuous if it meant simply that Anglicans doing theology should pay attention to Scripture, Tradition and Reason (and possibly Experience, whatever that amorphous concept means). But there are problems. Even as a metaphor to describe a plurality of theological considerations, the stool doesn't work very well.
How far can we push the metaphor? What does the seat of the stool represent? The Church? Authority? What? We're left guessing.
The Real Problem
The real problem is with the legs. The fact that the legs are identical parts conveys the idea that Scripture, Tradition and Reason (and Experience?) are equal and independent sources upon which Anglican theology may draw. This is a mistake, historically and theologically, as we shall see.
And that train of thought encourages a further error, namely that individual theologians may pick and choose amongst the sources, freely emphasizing this one or that, according to choice. "Which leg is the longest?" Well, it depends on whom you ask. (But if one leg is longest, what becomes of the stool?)
The misconception which the image encourages can be expressed more clearly by the picture of a child and her cookie jars. There are three or four of these cookie jars, labelled Scripture, Tradition, Reason (and now Experience). The child is free to take whatever she wants from any of the jars ad lib.
The assumption behind this way of thinking about theology is the Enlightenment notion that the Absolutely Sovereign Self stands facing all bodies of data, scrutinizing them objectively and then making a free and unconditioned choice of those data which the Self reckons to be useful and relevant. Obviously this last sentence is a verbal cartoon. But the unexamined assumption which it enunciates is a central axiom of the modern world and is the error which the "Anglican stool" metaphor encourages to the detriment of our theology.
The fact is that nobody has thought in this Enlightenment fashion, ever in all the world's history. We can now recognize that "objective" thought by an independent and Absolutely Sovereign Self simply doesn't happen. We now know that thought is a complex and communal process.
We cannot think without language, and we are dependent for language upon our human environment. Nor can we think without axioms which we must accept on faith, such as that what goes on in my head bears some meaningful relation to what goes on outside of it. We get these axioms also from our human environment.
And then there are the myriad aids to thinking, such as traditions in every discipline which exempt us from needing constantly to re-invent wheels, and which also focus our attention on the data which are useful and relevant, and away from other data which are not so considered. The Creeds perform this service in Christianity. High school biology textbooks exercise a similar credal function in that discipline. And so on.
In his book Personal Knowledge Michael Polanyi sums up the complex, derivative and communitarian quality of all human thought.
We must now recognize belief once more as the source of all knowledge. Tacit assent and intellectual passions, the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community: such are the impulses which shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework (Polanyi, 1962, 266).
The Enlightenment myth of the isolated and objective knower is not a helpful guide to understanding what goes on in our heads. And because the three-legged stool image encourages and perpetuates this error, it undermines our ability to think clearly about how we do theology.
Bearing in mind the complexity of human thought, we recognize that Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience are not discrete jars from which we may freely select our theological materials. Rather, each one of them represents a necessary component of theology each a distinct and unique component, with a particular and hierarchical relation to the others. Not one of them is to be confused with any of the others, as if they were all identical legs of a stool.
An Alternative Metaphor
Let me offer an alternative metaphor which comes closer to describing what really happens when we do theology. Think with me about the story of the Magi in the East, contemplating the Star of Bethlehem. There are four parts to this image: the Star, the astrological tradition, the Magi's eyes, and their hearts.
The Star was the Magi's datum: the thing outside them, the object and idea which they contemplated. For Christians the Star represents Scripture. We contemplate the Bible as God's revelation to us. We reckon that it means something, that it's telling us something we need to know. And so we look at it intently.
But how did the Magi know that the Star was telling them something important? And how did they begin to grapple with what it meant? The Magi needed all their astrological scrolls, and all their conversations with older astrologers, to certify to them that the heavens were worth scanning and to suggest what such a Star as this might signify. They needed their astrological tradition.
Tradition focuses and informs our attention to Scripture. The Christian communities in the 2nd century Mediterranean world recognized the Canon on the basis of the apostolic tradition which they had received. They distilled the essence of that tradition into the "Rule of Faith," the early creeds. And they acknowledged the bishops in apostolic succession to be the authorized interpreters of Scripture through the lens of these creeds.
In similar fashion, Tradition continues to focus our attention on Scripture today, and to help us grasp its meaning. Without it, we wouldn't know what to look for, or what the things we see mean.
The Magi's eyes and hearts
And then there were the Magi's eyes, which saw the Star the Tradition directed them to contemplate. Their eyes received the light of the star, and in the complex way in which vision operates, their eyes transmitted representations to their minds of that object in the heavens.
The Magi's eyes stand for Reason, the human receptor and processor of the data to which Tradition guides our attention. Notice that each Wise Man had two eyes, two complementary ways of receiving and processing data. Each of the Magi could contemplate the Star intuitively and holistically, appreciating its position in the heavens, grasping its importance, and responding to its brilliance effectively.
At the same time, each Wise Man could study the Star analytically, separating its brightness, colour, distance and size into discrete categories. The Enlightenment would later emphasize this second form of knowing far above the first, and claim objective certainty for the results of scientific analysis.
By contrast, the Magi remind us that human knowledge consists of both Faith and Reason, both intuition and analysis, both "right brain" and "left." And the Magi's bifocal Reason because it included intuitive faith as well as analytical dissection reminds us that the Enlightenment's confidence in "value-free" certainty failed to understand how people actually think.
As Christians, we use both "eyes" when we study Scripture. Holistically and intuitively we affirm the authority and the importance of the biblical Story. Analytically and discursively we try to understand what it means and apply it to our lives. As in all systems of thought, so also in Christianity, bifocal Reason serves as the indispensable processor of the data which tradition guides us to examine.
Finally, the Magi had hearts also, and their hearts' hope sustained them during those long cold nights when they scanned the heavens, and on their long journey to Jerusalem. When the Star appeared, their hearts' love fixed upon that significance which their intuitive, "right-brained" way of knowing was grasping. And so they saddled their camels and set out on the road which the Star beckoned them to follow.
A similar passionate commitment sustains all disciplines of knowing, as Polanyi reminded us. Students don't become astrophysicists in a fit of inattention. Doctors need to love medicine if they're to survive a residency.
And Christians know that unless they follow the Lord whom the Scriptures reveal, their religion is vain and their study unprofitable. Indeed, only by doing what the Scriptures command us can we know what they mean. The disciplined response of the heart is the key to understanding the truth.
The Star the Magi saw, the scrolls and the community that taught them, the eyes the Magi saw with and their hearts that responded don't these elements together form a better metaphor for the way we know God's Word than the three- legged stool? But, you'll reply, this model of human knowing is surely not peculiar to the Anglican tradition.
You're absolutely right. We need to look elsewhere for an "Anglican way of theology," if there is one. In the meantime, stools won't help.
Leslie Fairfield is Professor of Church History at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.
Posted 3:05 PM by kendall
Comments on the Three Legged Stool
The three pieces below ought to be enough, I hope, to generate some discussion about the three legged stool. I will only make two comments at this point.
First, Richard Hooker never spoke about a stool with three legs. The correct quote is: "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 this, the voice of the church succeedeth" (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Vol. 5). It ought to get our curiosity up that Hooker not only doesn't use the image of the stool, but when he discusses the threesome at all it is in a different order than nearly all of those who claim the existence of such a stool.
I also have questions about the precise meaning of the term reason. Often this word is defined as human analytical capacity, and sometimes even as simple common sense. The picture seems to be of a person examining the evidence and then deciding what is the most reasonable interpretation. But many of the prominent classical Anglicanspeople such as Thomas Cranmer, Richard Hooker, and their contemporaries meant something quite different when they used the term reason.
Reason for them was the means by which they could try to understand Gods revelation in Jesus Christ; neither it nor Tradition was given equal weight with Scripture. Rather than being isolated from Scripture and Tradition, reason was formed by these two sources: it was a faculty saturated by revelation and grace. The closest idea in modern parlance may be Christian character or virtue, and it is character of a particular kind, best seen in Jesus' very important statement in John 7:17: "if any one's will is to do his will, he shall know..." Part of the mystery of revelation is that it is given "through faith for faith" (Romans 1:17), and therefore a spiritual disposition to seek after God in one's heart is one of the preconditions that enables a person to better hear his voice.
Posted 2:46 PM by kendall
Christopher Seitz on the Three Legged Stool
At some point in the twentieth century, Anglican Christians became persuaded they possessed a special divining rod for discerning Christian truth. Indeed, it was raised to the status of Anglicanisms special signature as such, against the denominational distinctives of others. It so took hold in the last century, in the vacuum created by the loss of a serious, pre-Tractarian doctrine of scripture, that it succeeded in cutting a wide swath through ecclesial discussions before it won a major victory: claim to antiquity and venerable, across-the-ages authority. That is, it became just the sort of comprehensive, sufficiently vague, allegedly distinctive Anglican principle needed to do duty once it was no longer clear what Pusey had been worried about. This principle stood ready to accommodate Anglicans of every stripe, and indeed one might argue that it was the most lethal agent of obfuscation ever foisted upon Christian people, by virtue of its ability to confuse and forestall and shift and defer. The ultimate insult to history was to suggest that Richard Hooker was its progenitor.
Scripture, Reason, Tradition (and its various cousins) is a train able to stop at every station, and always add one more carriage. There is practically nothing it cannot accommodate.We should probably not be surprised that an organic notion found in Hooker would be perverted by Western, consumerist Christians and turned into a sort of channel-changer, to find the a stool-leg to suit. How could homosexual behavior run this three-legged gauntlet? Is the scripture leg not clear? Would Hooker have regarded scripture as unclear on this matter? The answer is so obvious as to invite sheer puzzlement as to how anything so clear could have become unclear in the intervening centuries. This query into Gods will would have been a real home-run ball for Hooker, where he got to touch all three bases and walk into home plate. In Hookers universe, Tradition would have been clear, and Reason would have been even clearer. Hookers Natural Law appeals are far closer to those of Calvin than of any post-Tractarian. Hookers natural law was divine law, such as was described in scripture itself. It is precisely the same sort of appeal that Paul makes in Romans 1, and indeed it is uncontroversial that until the 19th century, Reason and Natural Law cohered and derived their status as Christian authority because of scriptures own revealed word about creation and Gods sovereign design therein (prior to the technological manipulation of all things natural scare quotes now being required).
The conclusion to be reached is that a vacuum was created after the failure of Anglicanism to retain a doctrine of scripture into the 20th century, and the three-legged stool suddenly emerged as precisely the sort of comprehensive lens needed to accommodate varieties of Anglicans who had simply lost their way. Some could hear it as a very conservative principle, and did; others could see it as a channel-changer for an Anglican TV-set inherently diverse and ambiguous. Indeed, it defined what Anglicanism is at its very center: a divinely given right to chose, and defer, and study, and then worship (in a Eucharist). At least we should be fair and stop attributing such a view to Hooker.
The most tragic episode in Anglicanisms recourse to the stool is difficult to pinpoint, because the so-called principle is, in the nature of the thing, a study in ambiguity, so soon as it is removed from the environment in which it was originally deployed. Reformed catholicism of Hookers day can only be dragged violently into the 20th century. Legs would get sawed off, inevitably, and then used as clubs: some wielding one, and others another. It is hard to imagine a better way to mislead and confuse Christians seeking guidance and revelation from a scripture called holy, within a church called catholic, in a world that scripture tells us bears Gods design and glory, however poorly perceived by sinful women and men, than by claiming a three-legged stool as a distinctive feature. This would wreak havoc, and indeed it has.
--The Rev. Dr. Christopher Seitz is Professor of Divinity at the University of Saint Andrew's in Scotland
Posted 2:27 PM by kendall
Janice Newton on the Three-Legged Stool
I have often been troubled by the three-legged stool concept of Bible, tradition and reason as the stable grounding for the Christian faith and for the Christians faith.
I have a three-legged stool at home and when my young grandchildren climb on to it, it is so unstable that it tips over. It is not a good place to try and sit. Three-legged stools were designed in olden times to enable the stool not to wobble when placed on uneven floors. If the basis for our faith is already unstable, maybe we want to compensate by giving our explanation of it as three-legged, so it wont wobble so much when tested. However, as Christians we have a much more secure base upon which to build our faith. We build on the rock that is Christ, upon his words that supply the firm ground for our belief. 
I remember in my teenage years how we would leave the young peoples Bible Study on a Saturday evening and congregate in our favourite place - the coffee bar at the end of the High Street. There the high stools with yellow, red, green and blue seats were bright and attractive. Their support was a strong steel pole that brought a stylish, shiny appeal to the whole place. Raised above ground level we would sit and discuss everything, from the passage of the Bible we had been studying to the latest in fashions and music, whilst solving the worlds problems, which our parents had failed to address!
It is bar stools like these that seem to me to represent a truer picture of the basis for discerning our true Christian inheritance. As Gods people we are set in the world, in the hustle and bustle of ordinary life. We need a secure basis for our faith so that we are not blown about by the latest fads and theories. 
God has given us the book of books as our inheritance. Through it the God of Truth has communicated with his people down the ages. This is not a God who lies. He has not misled those Christians who taught us the truth and gave us examples to follow. He does not change his mind on a whim or a fashion or a desire to show how intellectually clever he is. In the Bible God speaks to his people, whether they like what they hear or not. Thus the Bible is like the solid, single supporting leg of the stool upon which we sit. Just as the steel bar stools were set in immovable concrete, so, our God has given us a stable support in his word, both in The Word, - our Saviour Christ - the scriptures given for our learning. These are our main and solidly founded support. Nothing equals them. From the beginning they speak of Christ and Christ used them as his yardstick.  How much more should we, his disciples.
However, God has also given us means for making that scriptural word understandable. Tradition is one of those means. Different people in my youth group chose a different coloured stool to sit on. We each had our favourite colour. Thus, with tradition. This adds colour to the church. In our denominations, in our reading of the early church fathers, in our choice of creeds, we all find the ones we like most. The ones who provide the most comforting or challenging way of helping us unravel some of the truths about God. The padded seats of the bar stools in their vibrant differences provide a comfortable place to sit upon a Bible which often challenges us to be uncomfortable about our prejudices, judgments and ideas. We could sit on the Bible pillar alone, but the padding of tradition makes it easier. We have the rich inheritance of former learning to prevent us making the same mistakes of heresy and apostasy. Tradition helps the sometimes painful truth of God to become absorbable. Tradition helps us to observe the truths of God within the conduct of worship and fellowship in a way that leads us to acknowledge how the old truths have meaning for our lives today.
Gods Bible truths should lift us above our earthly selves towards our Maker. The coffee bar stools were too high to slide on easily. In order to perch on them, we needed help to lift ourselves off the ground. There was always a ring around the steel pillar to aid us, to lift us up and to keep our feet firmly based on the metal, so that we neither swung needlessly around nor fell off.  The steel ring of reason helps to keep our thought and intellect firmly concentrated on the truth as we look at the Bible.
Reason is a God-given, creative part of how God made us like himself in the very beginning. He intends us to be a thoughtful people. However, that thoughtful reasoning is a support. It is not equal to the mind of God and Christ as revealed in His word. How arrogant of humankind that we think we can re-interpret the truths of God to fit our sinful circumstances, in order to justify our actions and thoughts. How meager is our judgment of what is best, when all along God has a better, fuller life to offer us. How egotistically self-centered is our failure to listen to his loving desire to transform us through the forgiving, cleansing actions of Christ, who died to save us.
The three-legged stool only serves to instruct our arrogance. It sets two man-centered concepts, tradition and reason, against the God-centered Bible. It provides a false analogy whereby the created being raises itself to claim equality with the Creator. The ring near the base of single legged bar stool reminds us that our reason is only a support to interpret the word of God. The padded seat provides some traditional comfort as we tackle the hard issues of that word challenging us. The steel beauty of the single pillar of the Bible is the major support and strength of the Christian Faith. This is where God speaks to his people. Let us be humble enough to learn from him. How magnificently, wondrously awe-filling it is, that our God communicates to his people through His written word and reveals the truth about His Living Word, our beloved Savior, Jesus Christ.
1 Tim. 1.3-6
II Tim. 3.14-17
Luke 24. 25-27
--Since January 1999, Janice Newton and her husband Peter, an Anglican clergyman, have led the Advent House ministry in Birmingham, Alabama for part of every year. Its purpose is to provide a place for concentrated prayer and learning to grow in the Christian faith.
Posted 2:14 PM by kendall Chuck Collins on the Three Legged Stool
A sick paradigm has made its way into everyday Episcopal thinking. It comes pretending to be an ancient truth, but it's only a modern idea. It threatens some pillars of our Anglican and Episcopal identity. Maybe it even means to do so. I am referring to the spurious analogy of the "three-legged stool."
Like a million other teenagers, I first encountered the three-legged stool in confirmation class. I learned that the legs stand for the three sources of authority: scripture, reason and tradition. As it was taught, each is equally important and necessary to counterbalance the other two. Innumerable times since then I have heard Sunday school teachers, priests and even seminary professors dish this out as standard Episcopal fare.
At first glance, there is much to like about this teaching. The three legs appear to constitute a steady stool on which to rest our faith as Episcopalians. But I have discovered it is unfaithful to our heritage.
Richard Hooker (1554-1600), recognized as perhaps our greatest theologian, is routinely credited with this teaching, but he never used the analogy of the stool. In his famous work, Ecclesiastical Polity, he did call the relation of scripture, tradition and reason a "threefold cord not quickly broken," but he never referred to the three as equal sources of authority. In fact, Hooker stood firmly with his predecessors, the English reformers, all upholding the Bible as the primary source of authority.
There is no doubt Hooker raised the value of reason and tradition, and that these help to define the unique "Episcopal way" for framing theology. It's even fair to say that reason and tradition keep our interpretation of scripture guided and on track. Nevertheless, Hooker never suggested that they were anything other than subordinate to scripture. For Hooker, reason makes it possible to receive revelation, the word of God. And tradition was understood as the church's interpretation of scripture over time. It should be evident that our understanding of reason and tradition is vastly different from Hooker's. To quote Hooker in context is to give scripture unrivaled priority.
The stool myth has its origins in the 19th century. John Keble in 1836 wrote an introduction to Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity in which he spoke of "tradition" as a separate authority alongside scripture. Keble and others involved in what came to be called the Oxford Movement predate the formal idea of three separate sources of authority but they opened the door for its future development. They took a step in the direction of shaking loose the long-held understanding that tradition is under scripture and judged by it.
Nearing the turn of the century, Charles Gore edited a famous collection of essays which is credited (or blamed) for Anglican endorsement of the new learning of their day, the historical critical view of the Bible (Lux Mundi, 1889). The steamroller of the Enlightenment's confidence in human reason would not be stopped! Although the merits of the Oxford Movement and modern biblical criticism will be debated until the cows come home, one unfortunate side effect was what happened to our understanding of authority. Granted, many secondary matters fall within the area of what is affectionately known as "Episcopal ambiguity," but this doesn't include the defining principles of our faith. The preface of our prayer book makes this important distinction between doctrine and discipline, doctrine being the essentials of the gospel that are true for all peoples at all times, "the faith once and for all delivered" (Jude 3). The 19th-century movements indicate the beginning of the erosion of the doctrine of the primacy of scripture. And the three-legged stool was as good as ordered.
The three-legged stool represents a dangerous departure from historic Episcopalianism. It's a 20th-century idea, and a bad one.
Who could question that the closest thing we Episcopalians have to a confession, the 16th-century "Articles of Religion," thoroughly uphold the primacy of the Bible? Read, for examples, Articles 6,7,8 and 20. Article 34 plainly says that church traditions must bow to the authority of the Bible (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 867-876).
Likewise, there is not a trace of the three-legged stool in the prayer book. Rather, the Bible is consistently affirmed as primary. For example, the collect for Proper 28 affirms the divine authorship of the Bible (p. 236). And when the catechism asks how someone determines if a teaching comes from God, we respond: "We recognize truths to be taught by the Holy Spirit when they are in accord with the Scriptures" (p. 853).
When tradition and reason (and "experience," for that matter) are elevated to be "complementary" to scripture, they, in fact, become competing standards. It's obviously that a Bible story cannot be equally "reasonable" and "miraculous." The definition of "miracle" involves something outside the grasp of human reason. When "reason" is raised to become an equal authority, the old test for truth (Is it scriptural?) is replaced by the new test: Is it reasonable?
Obviously, large portions of the Bible (miracles, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, etc.) will be dismissed for failing the new test. Reason just can't get its mind around someone walking on water! We've seen many, including bishops, walk away from the creedal faith on these grounds.
A variant of this is the teaching that Jesus Christ, not the Bible, is our final authority. This is certainly true as far as it goes, but this is often used as a theological slight of hand to justify moral behaviors the Bible clearly denounces. Yes, Jesus is our final authority, but he never judges scripture. He obeys and fulfills it.
"Tradition," as important as it is to Episcopalians, is another undeserving candidate to stand on equal footing with scripture. If a pope (or any bishop) speaks for God, extra-biblical and unbiblical teachings can assume the status of doctrine. In 1950, for example, the Roman Catholic Church declared the doctrine of the bodily assumption of Mary even though this lacks any scriptural basis.
It may sound pretty distant, but it is conceivable that the church, in the name of "developing tradition," could require this for admittance to holy communion. She did this once. Or she could require agreement with the practice of blessing same-sex couples before someone can gain access to the ordination processes. It's not too far-fetched. A not altogether dissimilar action happened at the last General Convention when bishops and dioceses were forced to accept ordination of women (a strange juxtaposition for an era of tolerance and diversity). With the Episcopal Church more fractured than ever, this is no time to hide behind unhelpful paradigms. The hope for healing the church is in rediscovering our biblical foundation. The Bible remains today what it has been to Christians throughout the centuries, "God telling us things in order to make friends with us" (J.I. Packer's phrase). It is clearly a human document with human personality. But no less it is the inspired word of God. As we humbly acknowledge the authority of God's word and seek to bend our lives to fit its message, he will show us his plan and lead us to the Savior. There is no hope for the sick paradigm of the three-legged stool, and no use hanging on to it.
--The Rev. Chuck Collins is former rector of St. Mark's-on-the-Mesa Church, Albuquerque, N.M., and former canon theologian in the Diocese of the Rio Grande. He is now the rector of Christ Episcopal Church, San Antonio, Texas. This essay is from the Living Church.
The venerable blogboys are so unconvincing. Hooker has never been your Anglican God, and distaste for the three-legged stool as an image is just tough luck for all of you. It is the metaphor used. It has a long history. As a Catholic, I can even say it is not bad as a theological method. But it is disastrous as a substitute for Authority. Therefore, I understand the almost desperate clutching after the Protestant vision of the Holy Bible (verging on a similar place as the Quran in Islam), but such a clutching is Protestant in the extreme and it does not bear up under the weight of Anglican witness.
Please put me on the Anglican ping list? Thanks
No, that would be Cursillo.....