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.

Enlightenment Thinking

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.

Passionate commitment

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.