by Donald Schell
Some of the reading that most challenges and expands my theological thinking isn’t theological at all. In the piece that follows this, I’ll offer how some recent reading has me thinking again about Reason, Logic, and the Logos, listening for a non-religious critique of some cultural predispositions that show up when faith is vilified as inherently irrational.
I suspect my reading experience – finding inspiration in texts by unbelievers and practitioners of other religions - is true for many Episcopalians. Believing that any search for truth brings us closer to the Truth, we value honest inquiry. Episcopalians value scripture and tradition, but we also, most of us, think voices outside church tradition may help us know God. Part of what steers us away from Christian exclusivism and toward a more universal understanding of the Spirit’s work is that we ourselves, sometimes at least find God in our conversations with reflective unbelievers and people practicing other religions
When we want to make it absolutely clear that this openness to inquiry and discovery is legitimately Anglican (and Christian), we’re likely to invoke Richard Hooker’s “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. We might add that reason shapes our knowing of God, and that the truth -wherever we’re learning it – must point to the Truth we know in Christ because ultimately all Truth is one.
These are good moves. I trust them, as far as they go, and I want to reflect on some recent reading, because I think we need to go further. Specifically, with large segments of our culture and society interpreting faith and religious practice as inevitably dogmatic, intolerant and unreasonable, we, as Anglicans, will do well to reflect on what we mean by “reason” and how we’re open to it (and how it opens us).
Hooker won’t get us all the way we need to go. To begin with Richard Hooker didn’t actually give us the image of a three-legged stool and likely would protest a simple, balanced treatment that suggested Scripture, tradition, and reason were of equal importance. The oft-cited “three-legged stool” is a bit of Episcopal folklore based on a distillation (and reinterpretation) of Hooker. A three-legged stool suggests equal reliance on scripture, tradition and reason. Several (often conservative) sources will tell us that Hooker was a lot closer to Sola Scriptura than today’s liberal Episcopalians. Sola Scriptura was a Reformation battle cry teaching that Christians can/should acknowledge only the authority of the Bible. Sola Scriptura teaches that we only know God through God’s revelation of God’s self in the Bible. Hooker knew there was something more that allowed us to read Scripture critically and reflectively, but apparently this quotation is as close as he came to our “three-legged stool,”
“Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other, 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 this 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. “ (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, 8:2)
If someone who knows Hooker well wants to supply other quotations, I’d welcome them. But at least here Hooker isn’t talking about three equal and inter-dependent sources of authority.
Instead Hooker gives first priority to the plain meaning of scripture, next to what one can bring to it by force of reason, and last to what the church (by ecclesiastical authority) thinks and defines to be true and good. Hooker certainly does mean to offer us a trustworthy means of interpreting Scripture. And he’s insisting on the essential importance of interpretation. While a fundamentalist might proclaim, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” responsible Christian theology has always acknowledged that even purported revelation requires interpretation and that, at some level, the test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense. Whether we’re talking interpretation or inquiry (more on those two to come), we’re looking for what seems and feels reasonable and coherent.
Hooker offers reason as part of a transparent interpretative process that couldn’t be reduced to the simplistic proof-texting of the fundamentalist “I believe it, that settles.”
Like many Episcopalians, thinking about Hooker’s helpful invitation to a deliberate and open interpretative process, I’d hope that what he meant by “reason” might, in some way include experience. As a pre-Enlightenment thinker shaped by medieval scholastic theology, I think we can make the case that Hooker’s “Reason” is something more layered and complex than simple “rationality.” But truthfully if he didn’t mean to include it, I’d push to include it myself. Others have said the same thing.
In fact in 1964, Wesley scholar Charles Outler offered that in the 18th century John Wesley had turned Hooker’s three-legged stool into a quadrilateral - Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.
For those attendant to metaphor, I’ll note that Outler wasn’t suggesting adding a leg to make a three-legged stool into a four-legged stool. The utilitarian advantage of a three-legged stool is that it stands firm even on rough, uneven ground, because three points, the end of the three legs, always defines a plane. A three-legged stool can sit us securely anywhere. A well-made four-legged chair feels solid in a house if the floors are really flat and level. Staying with the three-legged stool image, I’m inclined to join with those who want to make one leg “Reason-and-Experience.”
But Outler suggests a “quadrilateral,” which isn’t just a four-sided geometric shape – it’s also what the Chicago-Lambeth gatherings of bishop (beginning with an 1886 meeting of our American house of bishops) proposed as grounds of unity and authority in the church:
1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God.
2. The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith.
3. The two Sacraments — Baptism and the Supper of the Lord — ministered with unfailing use of Christ's words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.
4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.
I’m guessing Outler offers a different Quadrilateral because he wants to offer as Wesleyan (and Hooker-based) response to what American and Lambeth bishops were asking, “What’s essential and how does it work?” It’s too bad to lose the stool, but Outler’s new metaphor reminds us that our real question is how we meet and know God. How does God speak to us?
As a somewhat contrarian Anglican, hearing Outler explain how Wesley addressed those questions, I’d say that Outler betters the Lambeth Quadrilateral by offering not just a small library of received texts and a couple of forms for sacramental practice – yes, what I see in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, but an implicit process of engaging scripture by means of tradition, reason and experience (so, to that extent, doing something like Hooker himself did). In other words, like Hooker, Outler says Wesley was sticking with the question of interpretation.
Does Wesley add something essential that Hooker had missed? I think the answer is both yes and no. It’s worth noting that between Hooker and Wesley, the Enlightenment took center stage and made some exaggerated claims for Reason. Descartes suggested thinking was what made us human (and could prove to ourselves that we existed).
As theologian of the first Anglican generation after the Reformation, Richard Hooker was a Renaissance thinker. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and wrote in the reign of Elizabeth I.
John Wesley, also an Anglican theologian, lived and worked in the last generation of the Enlightenment and saw its best fruit in the American and French revolutions, and had also seen its inconsistencies up close in a visit to Georgia’s slave economy. Wesley died shortly before the French revolution’s rationalist embrace of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity devolved into the reign of terror.
Hooker’s Renaissance understanding of reason carries forward and renews the complex scholastic inquiry into how we know, how understanding works, and how mystery and fact are inescapably intertwined. As an Anglican formed in the medieval scholastics, Hooker would understand that Reason includes more than logic or pure rationality.
In the wake of the Enlightenment, Wesley was breaking ranks with established cultural and intellectual norms when he put experience alongside reason, giving weight to both. Whatever Hooker or other Renaissance thinks may have meant by “reason,” with the Enlightenment, Reason had become the precise, logical reasoning that era exalted as our highest human function.
Would Hooker or Wesley claim we know God through natural theology, that the world we know around us can teach us valuable lessons about God and how God works? Well, they’d be likelier to than their own era’s fundamentalists. But would they go as far as we (I) might hope they’d go? Probably not.
So, full disclosure, whatever Hooker (or his later interpreters) might say, the Episcopal church’s acknowledging that way of knowing, even informally or by broad lay consensus was part of what drew me to our Church. I’d grown up in a Christian context where we were taught that we could learn nothing of God from our reasoning or experience. Hoping it was wisdom rather than hubris, I knew I didn’t trust that narrowing of the doorway or window to truth. I felt the presence of God or the Spirit in the human bravery and inspiration that creates works of art and in human acts of kindness, mercy, or compassion.
And the Logos of human kindness, creativity, mercy, and compassion is what I find compelling in the non-Christian books I’ve been reading. More on that in the piece that follows this.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.