In the modern Episcopal Church there are frequent references made to what is sometimes called “the three-legged stool” [Scripture, tradition & reason] or “the four-legged stool” [Scripture, tradition, reason & experience]. These expression are commonly believed to derive from the reign of Elizabeth 1 and to be associated with the name of Richard Hooker (died November 2, 1600), the theologian. However, the common belief is at best a half truth, as we shall see.
Before actually seeking to state what for Hooker are the relations of Holy Scripture, human reason and church tradition, let me comment on the origins of the supposed “three-legged stool” attributed to Richard Hooker, famous as the author of the multi-volume apologetic for the Church of England by law established and entitled, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.
The reference to “Hooker’s threefold, â€˜Scripture, tradition and reason'” appears to be a 20th century phenomenon with roots in the late 19th century. [ See Francis Paget, Introduction to the Fifth Book Of the Lawsâ€¦, 1899, p.226.] It seems to have been an attempt by high churchmen to make use of the prestige of Hooker to buttress what was later to be called the Anglican theological method (see the Report of the Lambeth Conference 1968, page for a reference to the authority of “reason” as a special Anglican tool).
Those who know Hooker’s writings know that he did not use this modern expression. There is only one place in his writings where he seems to come near to asserting this 20th century formulation:
“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 in congruity of reason over-rule all other inferior judgments whatsoever” ( Laws, Book V, 8:2; Folger Edition 2:39,8-14).
We notice that he speaks of Scripture, reason and the voice of the Church, and in that order.
Hooker differs from the Puritans (Presbyterians) of his day in the relation of Scripture and reason. He is much nearer to Thomas Aquinas than to say Walter Travers or Thomas Cartwright or even to John Calvin or Theodore Beza. All these men agree that the Scripture delivers to us knowledge from God and that this knowledge is not available anywhere else in a world infected by sin. That knowledge pertains unto the identity of God as a Trinity of Persons, the Incarnation of the Second Person, our Lord Jesus Christ, the nature and means of salvation, the Christian hope and the mystery of the Church.
But Hooker departed from many of his fellow Elizabethans, especially the Puritans, in asserting that Scripture does not destroy nature but perfects it, that Scripture presupposes reason and requires its use and that Grace presupposes nature. For Hooker reason was God’s greatest gift to human beings, enabling them to understand God’s plan for the whole of reality, to situate themselves within it and to specify proper moral forms of human activity. This approach to Reason is rather different than that which is attached to the modern expression “Scripture, tradition and reason,” where reason is separated from Scripture and seems to be that understanding of reason’s place that we find in modern philosophy since the Enlightenment and the work of Immanuel Kant.
By “the voice of the Church” he meant the major decisions of ecumenical councils and of national churches which relate to important matters on which Scripture is silent or only supplies hints – e.g., the structure and content of Liturgy in terms of Rites and Ceremonial. These rules are morally and spiritually binding on Christians, part of the Christianity to which they are attached by providence and grace. They are not things indifferent left to the individual conscience.
We may note that Hooker did not normally use the word “tradition” in a positive sense. Like many in his day, for him it referred to that which is merely human and had been added by Rome as an authority independent of Scripture and reason.
As to the extension of the three-legged stool into a four-legged so that it now is Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, we may say that this is much removed from where Hooker (and the standard divines of the C of E in the 17th century) sat. They would have found the claim incomprehensible that modern experience of (sinful) life is a major source of Revelation from God superseding or correcting that which Scripture interpreted by right reason has delivered to us.
Revelation as traditionally understood
There was a time in the Church of God when one could speak of experience of God and not be claiming to have received new revelation from God. One was speaking of communion and fellowship with the Father through the Son and by the Holy Ghost through prayer, Bible reading, meditation, contemplation and sacrament. A right relation with God was seen as very much experienced in the affections because joy, peace, love, reverence, faith and hope are the fruit produced by the indwelling Spirit of Christ Jesus. Some of the Christian classics deal with true religion known in the affections – e.g., Jonathan Edwards, “The Religious Affections” and St. Bernard, “On the Love of God.”
The historic, Christian claim to experience God, the Holy Trinity, is related to a specific view of Revelation from God as being closed until the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus to the earth. All that God the Father has chosen to reveal of himself, his nature, attributes, will and ways is made known and recorded in the Holy Scriptures. The focus of this revelation is the Lord Jesus Christ. Through space and time Christians experience God and interpret that experience by the content and principles of the revelation recorded in Scripture. And Christian experience may be said in certain circumstances to confirm, illuminate, explain and personalize revelation for devout believers. But such experience however precious or mystical does not change Revelation or supersede or nullify it.
Thus God is known in His providence and grace through space and time especially within the Body of Christ but He is not truly known in any way that is contrary to the Revelation He has provided in Holy Scripture.
Revelation as understood by some modern Christians
In recent times there has arisen the view that God (whoever precisely Deity is taken to be) reveals Godself to people today in and through modern Experience. Here Experience is taken to mean the human experience of liberation from bondage (via social, political and economic movements) and the explanation of human life and behavior by social scientists, economists, anthropologists, behavioral scientists and psychologists.
So there is Revelation recorded in the Bible and there is Revelation through history and particularly in and through modern western liberation movements. The latter revelation supersedes the former where it provides different and superior ways of understanding the nature and the naming of God, the nature of human life and relations as well as matters concerning the created order. The Revelation recorded in the Bible is taken to be seriously warped because those who received it and wrote about it were the victims of sexism, patriarchalism and heterosexism and they allowed these ideologies to color their understanding and writings.
Therefore it is possible for modern liberated Christians to affirm as the will of God for people today that which was clearly understood to be sin in former times. Not that God has changed as such, but that human beings have changed in their ability to read, appreciate and understand what God is wanting them to know and do. Modern Christians are thus reading the signs more perceptively than did the ancient believers and in so doing are experiencing greater freedom.
So to take the most well-known example. The traditional reading of the will of the God, Holy Trinity, states that all forms of sexual relations between persons of the same sex are wrong. The modern reading of the will of Deity states that there can be faithful partnerships between persons of the same sex which are blessed of God. Here the opposed positions both claim to be based on Revelation – the first on Scripture as traditionally understood and the second on the content and testimony of modern Experience understood as revelatory.
Religion based upon modern Experience is always in flux for it is always open to the future, as God continues to reveal Godself and people experiencing God are liberated into a growing ability to receive and understand this revelation.
Religion based upon Revelation recorded in Scripture is always looking to see how the will of God can be obeyed in every changing social, cultural, political and economic circumstances as the power of technology and science increase in society. The eternal law as it were is always being applied to a changing human scene. This is no easy task and leads to differing results in a complex world as honest attempts are made to grasp the problems.
So to return to the example of same-sex relations. Religion based on Experience is open to developing new forms of faithful, dynamic partnerships between persons of the same sex, persons of both sexes and people who are bisexual and transgendered. In contrast, religion based on Revelation in the Bible accepts only Christian marriage between a man and a woman as right, but is open to deepening its understanding of such things as “sexual orientation.”
In the end, when all the differences between the two approaches have been stated and explored, the major difference between historic, catholic Christianity based on the full authority of sacred Scripture and the new form of Christianity based upon both Scripture and modern Experience as revelational, is the Naming of God. For the first, Trinitarian Theism is foundational and God is known as first Transcendent, present beyond creation, and then as Immanent, present in creation. Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, in His Person and by His Spirit bridges the Transcendent and the Immanent.
For the second, God is the God of process who is in a relation to the world like that of a mother everlastingly birthing her child. Thus God is not truly transcendent but he is really immanent and as such is involved in the processes in space and time in an essential way. Deity is not Three Persons in one Godhead but may be described as One God revealing Godself in three modes or aspects or forms.
Experientalism in worship & fellowship
Where do we place the heavy experientialism so prominent now in what is often called “charismatic” worship and fellowship?
There is great emphasis upon the emotions and it is sometimes difficult to be able to discern whether people are simply elated and excited by ordinary human powers (in much the same way as they are moved by sport, music and theatre) or they are ecstatic by the presence of the Holy Spirit in or upon them. The test would seem to be the fruit of such experientalism. If it is the Holy Spirit then He is the Spirit of holiness and purity and glory and will not lead people to say and do things that are forbidden by the plain sense of Scripture.
In practice the mindset and behavior of “charismatics” often seems to be similar to that of those who see revelation in modern Experience. And this despite the fact that usually “charismatics” are evangelicals who claim to hold the Bible to be the supreme authority for faith and conduct.
Where the emotions are given a prominent place in religion, and treated as being more important than reason then those involved easily come to believe that what they FEEL is what is right and thus to act so as to follow their feelings. In so doing they make experience as authoritative. They are not moved by careful argument addressed to the mind, allowing the mind filled with truth to sink down into the heart and inflame it, but rather they allow their heated emotions to pressurize the mind and will.