There has been some renewed talk of late -- much of it connected to the Church’s ongoing struggle to biblically interact with the issue of homosexuality -- pertaining to the Anglican notion of the so-called “three-legged stool”. The ‘stool’ (we desperately need a better name) is said to consist of the three tools available to the Church’s ongoing moral discernment: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. The conversation, especially to the extent that it applies to divisive issues of Christian living, largely gravitates around the suggestion that Scripture alone is normative for the Christian faithful. Extreme conservatives, on cue, (mistakenly) cite the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura (found nowhere in Luther -- or anywhere else through the 16th century, at least); and extreme liberals, also on cue, react against the notion of Scripture as of primary importance by the inclusion of resources that consciously diminish the preeminence of Scripture. I do not want to revisit either of the extremes in this space, but only to offer another understanding of the stool as descriptive (not normative) with respect to the Church’s reading of Scripture. This understanding is intentionally simplistic; it is also an understanding that reflects what I want to suggest is the most pertinent question: with whom (or where) does one read Scripture?
As a child, and even now, I understood the three-legged stool as a descriptive -- not a normative -- approach. That is, Tradition and Reason were not, for me, two extra resources available for those occasions when Scripture proved difficult and did not have the strength for the job; rather, Tradition and Reason described what happened when I came upon Scripture. As simply as I understood it, Reason was hard at work the moment I read the text and presumed to get the gist; Tradition occurred in the instant that I read alongside another one (dead or alive) who had read it before.
That Reason was present in my reading could be proved by Tradition; that is, when I read a text next to another person who read the same text, and when we read that same text with different understandings, I became aware that some variable in each of us produced the discrepancy. I learned to call that variable 'Reason'.
That Tradition was a descriptive aspect of my reading is something I am still learning not to take for granted. To me, Tradition simply means, “reading with others,” and I am still at a loss for why anyone would want to engage Scripture alone. It is not (just) that Scripture is frequently daunting and difficult; it is also that I do not understand why someone who did not believe herself called into the whole Body of Christ would want to read Scripture. (Don’t get me wrong, I thank God that folks do, but that’s my blind-spot as a cradle Episcopalian. My first encounter with Scripture is in worship.) Still, I would not back off from my claim that Tradition is descriptive (not normative) of the Church’s approach to Scripture; to be sure, it is the claim that Scripture’s reading belongs to the whole of Christ's Church that is normative.
For the Christian faithful, called together by the Triune God for worship of the same, Scripture is the location of those faithful in the story of God; it is our shaping at the hand of God; our playing at the feet of God; our learning of the wounds of God; our sharing in the heart of God. It does not happen alone. And that is precisely the rub when it comes to our current controversies, which might be summed, “Can’t I read without them?” But when you and I meet, face to face, under the Word of God preached to God’s People, make no mistake, it’s a three-legged race. It is the race of a People given over to God.