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The light of reason

The three-legged stool of “Scripture, tradition, and reason” as sources of theological authority is a well-worn Anglican trope, usually associated with Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity and the early days of Anglican theologizing.

There are various claims and counterclaims. One is that the appeal to these three sources constitutes a distinctive Anglican theological method apart from the need for particular content, a claim disputed by Stephen Sykes in his influential The Integrity of Anglicanism. Other claims are made about the relationship of the three sources, with some unthinking commentators writing as if two of the sources could trump the third. Others give greater weight to Holy Scripture as the controlling authoritative source, in light of the classical Anglican formularies, especially the Articles of Religion. Everyone seems to agree, however, that Hooker’s connection with the pat formula of “Scripture, tradition, and reason” is tenuous at best.

That’s not to say that an appeal to Scripture, reason, and tradition finds no place in Hooker’s work. The locus classicus from Hooker is in Book Five, the closest he came to spelling out the three sources of authority:

Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other [matters of doctrine or matters of order], what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the 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 overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever (V.8.2).

Hooker here establishes a hierarchy of sorts between Scripture first, followed by reason, and then by the authority of the church.

Earlier, Hooker had explored the specific relationship between Scripture and reason.

Unto the word of God, being in respect of that end for which God ordained it perfect, exact, and absolute in itself, we do not add reason as a supplement of any maim or defect therein, but as a necessary instrument, without which we could not reap by the Scripture’s perfection that fruit and benefit which it yieldeth. “The word of God is a twoedged sword” (Heb. 4:12), but in the hands of reasonable men; and reason as the weapon that slew Goliath, if they be as David was that use it (III.7.10).

Here, reason seems to function as a hermeneutical tool for the interpretation of Scripture, and stands in a necessarily close relationship with it.

Later in the same book, he further qualified the relationship between tradition, Scripture, and reason.

For when we know the whole Church of God hath that opinion of the Scripture, we judge it even at the first an impudent thing for any man bred and brought up in the Church to be of a contrary mind without cause. … Wherefore if I believe the Gospel, yet is reason of singular use, for that it confirmeth me in this my belief the more: if I do not yet believe, nevertheless to bring me to the number of believers except reason did somewhat help, and were an instrument that God did use unto such purposes, what should it boot to dispute with infidels or godless persons for their conversion and persuasion in that point? (III.7.14).

There is no doubt that Hooker believed his opponents — who had a more thoroughgoing commitment to “the platform of Geneva” (Pref.2.10), and a conviction that “nothing ought to be established in the Church which is not commanded by the Word of God” (III.5) — were vulnerable to the charge of discounting the role of reason in the interpretation of Holy Scripture.

The idea of reason also played a key part in Hooker’s formulation of the multiplicity of Laws. Reason is that faculty by which human beings attain to the goodness they were made for. It has a role to play in the different kinds of law even in places where Hooker’s opponents sought to banish it, and not just in the law of reason.

The light therefore, which the star of natural reason and wisdom casteth, is too bright to be obscured by the mist of a word or two uttered to diminish that opinion which justly hath been received concerning the force and virtue thereof, even in matters that touch most nearly the principal duties of men and the glory of the eternal God (II.8.17).

Hooker’s commitment to the light of reason placed him firmly athwart the development of more revolutionary theological agendas current in his day and afterward.

In exploring the relationship of Scripture, reason, and tradition in Hooker, it is easy to miss a very significant turn: the difference between the role that reason plays in Hooker and the way it functions for moderns (and post-moderns). In some ways this is the most remarkable and revealing aspect of the formulation of Scripture, reason, and tradition as sources of authority, because it reveals so much about modern sensibilities and the challenges facing the Church.

French historian Paul Hazzard commented some years ago on this transition, in his book The European Mind 1680-1715 (World Publishing, 1971, first published in France in 1935). Hazzard chronicles this era as a time when two influential streams emerged from the prior age of Christian stability and order: the first stream was rationalism, the other sentiment or feeling. In Hazzard’s reconstruction of things, Romanticism is not so much a reaction to the Enlightenment as its late-developing twin.

During this period of transition from one age to another, Hazzard wrote,

Reason meant something different now from what it did in those days. Reason was no longer a mediating power, imposing an order based on accommodations, compromises, give-and-take. It was a critical force whose main duty was to inquire, to examine, to question. (p. 320)

Peter Gay, from a slightly different and later perspective, characterizes the Enlightenment as an age of criticism, not of rationalism per se. “The claim for the omnicompetence of criticism was in no way a claim for the omnipotence of reason. It was a political demand for the right to question everything” (The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism [Norton, 1966], p. 141).

Hazzard also comments that the new concept of reason was never satisfied with things as they were. “Reason was no longer synonymous with sober good sense, with serene and benevolent wisdom. It became critical, aggressive” (p. xvii). An apt quotation from Diderot used by Gay captures something of the same spirit: “Everything must be examined, everything must be shaken up, without exception and without circumspection” (p. 142).

In the relationship of Scripture, reason, and tradition, Hooker’s assumption is that reason is an ordering principal that brings coherence, not a critical tool that discerns difference. It helps bind up the multiplicity of laws; it helps in interpreting the Scriptures while paying due attention to the Church’s tradition of interpretation. It’s comprehensive, and never allowed to run amok.

At one point Hooker quotes Theophrastus with approval: “They that seek a reason of all things do utterly overthrow reason” (I.8.5). Hooker’s idea of reason is caught by our own injunction, “Be reasonable,” used in the attempt to bring together varied perspectives into some coherence; while in modern times reason has been identified with a critical usage, itself handmaiden to a more aggressive reforming agenda.

Finally, it’s interesting to note how this change in reason’s emphasis is reflected in modern disputes in the church. Oliver O’Donovan writes with appreciation in Church in Crisis: the Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion (Cascade, 2008) about the role of the “central, undogmatic stream of opinion” within Anglicanism (4). Call it latitudinarian or liberal or broad church, this “reasonable” school of thought colored Anglicanism as a whole and helped to mediate between the opposing poles of catholic and evangelical opinion, the great “church parties” of historic Anglicanism. O’Donovan notes that Anglicanism tended to turn to the liberals in times of crisis when the critical tension between the two parties threatened to tear things apart.

What happens when liberalism itself becomes a party of influence, “a new centrifugal pole” (4)? In O’Donovan’s estimation, the church is deprived of the help of this school of thought in the present crises because liberalism is now a party and a player with its own reforming agenda. What O’Donovan calls the “hegemonic character of liberalism” (6) carries within it the danger of simply making this party the only pole in the church, within which (ironically) any critical tension has been swept away.

In this aspect, the entrance of a dominant new party mirrors the morphing of reason from a mediating and cohesive force into a critical and reforming faculty with its own agenda. Reason is no longer a force for coherence but is marked by the “hermeneutic of suspicion” that questions everything critically. But the critical spirit perversely enough shows all the signs of itself effecting the dissolution of any critical tension between perspectives within the old North American mainline denominations, or much tolerance of critical dissent. The comprehensive role of reason, the role it played for Hooker and for many Anglicans after him, is in danger of being forgotten in the rush to a more revolutionary theological agenda.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. John Bauerschmidt is the 11th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee. His other posts are here

The featured image is a statue of Richard Hooker at Exeter Cathedral. It comes via muffinn, and is licensed under Creative Commons. 


  1. Wow. What an awesome and thought-provoking post. I am just finishing up my first year in Education for Ministry and have been struggling with the relationship between reason and Scripture (and between reason and faith in general) for the better part of the last nine months. Much of what I see and read is quite critical in tone and argument, yet Hooker’s approach that you analyze here is much more, well, reasonable. Reason is simply a tool to apply toward understanding of our faith and its traditions. It is not to be applied in a one-sided attack on Scripture and tradition. I prefer to continue my studies thinking that there is plenty of need for all three legs of the proverbial stool.

    • Thanks for this comment. You are exactly right that Hooker never intended reason to be a critical tool for questioning Holy Scripture or church tradition, but rather a tool for understanding, and ordering the Christian life. Perhaps he’s too optimistic about the possibilities here for understanding and ordering, but that’s another question!


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