Richard Hooker and the “Three Legged Stool”

Benjamin Guyer points out that the “three legged stool” of Scripture, tradition and reason often attributed to Richard Hooker is not accurate:

First, he notes that Hooker was a Thomist in his views on Scripture and reason.  The relationship between these is the same as that between grace and nature: the former perfects the latter.  Hence Hooker’s point that “the principal intent of Scripture is to deliver the laws of duties supernatural.”[[Hooker, Laws, I.12.2]]  Reason cannot attain to what Hooker calls “a more divine perfection” without the revelation mediated through Scripture.[[Hooker, Laws, I.11.4]]  Under the tutelage of divine truth, human reason does not stand alone but is instead corrected and enabled to pursue what is right and good for all.  Hooker writes, “the laws of well doing are the dictates of right reason.”[[Hooker, Laws, I.7.4]]  Hooker locates authority not in reason as such, but in right reason.  Second, and as Neelands puts it, Hooker looked upon tradition as a Roman Catholic idea that was “merely human” and inferior to Scripture and reason.[[Neelands, “Hooker on Scripture, Reason, and ‘Tradition’,” 89]]  Ergo, even if Hooker had argued for a “three-legged stool” – and Neelands is clear that Hooker did not – there would be no reason why any of us would be bound to accord independent authority to tradition, given Hooker’s own views on the primacy of Scripture and right reason.  Furthermore, if Neelands is correct that the image of the “three-legged stool” is first found in Francis Paget’s 1899 Introduction to the Fifth Book, we cannot claim that this metaphor represents the Anglican tradition.  Other historians agree with Neelands that the “three-legged stool” is a misrepresentation of Hooker’s theology.[[Nigel Voak, Richard Hooker and Reformed Theology: A Study of Reason, Will, and Grace (Oxford University Press, 2003), 251 – 265; W. J. Torrance Kirby,Richard Hooker: Reformer and Platonist (Ashgate, 2005), 1 – 28]]  Why then use it?

4 thoughts on “Richard Hooker and the “Three Legged Stool”

  1. When I read articles like this and Atkinson’ book, I am so infuriated by the arrogance of those who hold themselves out as authorities on Hooker, reading their own views into Hooker’s writings when it sounds to me like they have never even read Hooker, but are relying on some commentator’s polemic opinion of what Hooker said. They seek respectability either in proving Hooker’s thoughts imperfect, or in sharing his respectability by borrowing his clothes and shouting “Look, Look,. me too, we think alike!” when the commonness is only “skin deep” or based on an incomplete or incorrect understanding of Hooker’s purpose or is discovered or worse, is manufactured, through contortions of reasoning.
    It is possible that a superficial reading of Hooker’s arguments yield a misunderstanding of his actual position. It is easy for an anxious reader to get lost or misled by Hooker’s dry humor, irony and emphasis through great understatement, such as his most subtle negative criticism of both Calvin and the French Church, remarking that Calvin “was the wisest man that ever the French Church did enjoy since the hour it enjoyed him” (Preface ii,1); meaning, Calvin was the wisest man since Calvin, among the fickle French, for at least an hour; an extremely subtle put down of Calvin and Geneva, bereft of fleeing bishops, and seeming to be satisfied to be cast to and fro by “ruler of the month” elected lay councils.
    Hooker is no “easy read”, even for those familiar with Elizabethan prose. In an introduction to the Cambridge Plain Text publication of the Preface to The Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, fellow of King’s College Cambridge writes “Hooker is long complex. Hooker’s unit of prose is the paragraph rather than the word…he drives a whole flock of clauses to the end of a sentence”.
    Regarding the overly criticized and unnecessarily disparaged metaphor of the “Three Legged Stool, it is true, Hooker never used the term. But his writing virtually exudes the methodology of giving “prima” (vs Pruitan “sola”) place to Scripture, as interpreted by Tradition and the illumination of Reason. Examples of his multiple references to the method are found in Preface iii; 1-2; Lawes Book II, vii,1-6, Lawes, Book III, viii, 13-15; and Lawes, Book V, viii,2; this last reference from Book V being so obvious that arguments against the use of the term “Three Legged Stool” to describe Hooker’s method are without cause and support and seem absolutely the most ridiculous polemic.
    People like Atkinson sound even more ridiculous trying to demonstrate that Hooker is actually “Reformation minded” when the whole point of his writing is to hold to the “faith once delivered”, steering between the excesses of Roman Catholicism of the time and Reformation Calvinism of Geneva. The idea that he thus “invented” Anglican “via media” is nonsense also, in that the “via media” is nothing more than where you stand when you don’t veer to the excesses on the left or right. The C. of E. invented no new faith. Hooker makes this very clear. Atkinson is like one of those “smart men”, on fire for their own ideas, of whom Hooker writes, criticizing their method of “Proof Texting”, where they quote Scripture which seems to support a position they have, for their own reasons and purpose and through their own reasoning, already decided to believe as taught by God’s Word: “Nature worketh in us all a love to our own counsels, The contradiction of others is a fan to inflame that love. Our love set on fire to maintain that which once we have done, sharpeneth the wit to dispute, to argue, and by all means to reason for it. Wherefore a marvel it were if a man of so great a capacity, have such incitements to make him desirous of all kinds of furtherances unto his cause, could espy in the whole Scripture of God nothing which might breed at the least a probable opinion of likelihood, that Divine authority itself was the same way somewhat inclinable”. (Preface ii,7).
    In the same place in the Preface Hooker reminds us that “Truth us Truth and Wise men are men” (even a wise man can be in error but Truth is immutable). One might conclude, therefore that when two “wise” men disagree, one of them is wrong, or at least not as “wise” as he thinks, unless we are measuring “cleverness” or “wiliness” and not true “wisdom”! That is why we now have people like Atkinson, trying to force a square peg in a round hole and prove Hooker in agreement with himself and Reformers so that they might be seen as wise and correct by association.
    We should not find it surprising to find some agreement between Hooker and Reformation thinkers since Hooker held to the “faith once delivered” and it can be safely conceded in their defense that the Reformers did not overturn all essential doctrine of the Faith. Nor should we allow the slander of Hooker by calling him a Reformation-like thinker, as does the most inferior analysis of Atkinson and those jealous of Hooker’s positions, seeking nobility in Hooker’s shadow, owing to agreement on a point which the reformation did not throw out. On finding such an agreement, Atkinson seems crow that the Reformers invented it. Hooker’s words to the Calvinist Puritans apply here, spot on: “ A very strange thing sure it were, that such a discipline as ye speak of should be taught by Christ and his apostles in the word of God, and no Church ever found it out, nor received it till this present time; contra wise, the government against which ye bend yourselves be observed everywhere throughout all generations and ages of the Christian world, no Church ever perceiving the word of God to be against it.” (Preface, iv, 1).
    Reformation minded thinkers of today, including the worthy and articulate J.I. Packer need to give up trying to justify Calvin and turn to John Wesley who, while more in agreement with their own Reform thinking than Hooker, nevertheless declared “I shall die as I have lived, a faith communicant of the Church of England (Anglican). Anyone who has regard for what I have to say will never leave her” (Letters). (Interesting that the Methodist Church I grew up in during the fifties didn’t teach that writing of Wesley in Sunday School!) Leave Hooker to us conservative Anglican Catholics, to whom he belongs, through whom we discovered Anglicanism and by whom he is understood and appreciated. He neither created, nor supported a new Faith, with respect to those things “once delivered and necessary to salvation”. The rest, while open to debate, should also not be changed except to make the former clearer and more convincing to those of the present age.

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