The chief problem with the ‘three-legged stool’ analogy is not that it is untrue to Hooker or to classical Anglicanism. The chief problem is that while the legs of a stool are the same, the functions of Scripture, reason, and tradition in classical Anglican theology are all different. The three do different things and are only rightly employed when their differences and their interrelationship are noted.
For Anglicans Scripture is the unique source of access to the words and deeds of Christ and his first followers, and as such it is the sole legitimate source for dogma or essential doctrine. To say this is both to distinguish Anglicanism sufficiently from Roman Catholicism and also to demonstrate the superiority of Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. Hooker makes the distinction quite explicitly, particularly when arguing against Roman Catholic teachings whose sole support is a supposed oral tradition which cannot in fact be sustained with either Scripture or the Fathers. Throughout Hooker and the Caroline divines we find an appeal to the Fathers which is based in part on the general Renaissance impulse to go ad fontes, to the sources and to antiquity. More specifically, Hooker and the Carolines believed that the Fathers understood Christ and the New Testament better than we do because of propinquity. Tradition is usually only criticized by the Fathers when the ‘tradition’ in question is in fact Roman Catholic innovation claiming authorization by an oral tradition without real support in the actual deposit of Scripture and the Fathers. Modern Roman Catholics sometimes forget the extent to which their theological specific differences rest on older claims to an authoritative oral tradition. Such claims with a merely oral supposed foundation are seldom now explicitly advanced in Roman circles, but not much more lies behind some contemporary Roman doctrines. Roman ‘tradition’ often really means ‘Roman claims for which there is no written tradition’.
A similar point about erroneous Roman appeals to the wrong kind of tradition is made some decades later by the very Hookerian Henry Hammond, who observes
…how hard it is to dispossess a Romanist of any doctrine, or practice of that present Church, for which he hath no grounds either in Antiquity, or Scripture, or Rational deductions from either (but the contrary to all these) as long as he hath that one hold, or fortress, his perswasion of the Infallibility of that Church, which teacheth, or prescribeth it.
Examples of this fides implicita, which replaces Scripture and the Fathers with the Roman Catholic magisterium, are still with us.
Nonetheless, a large portion of Hooker’s Laws is devoted to a defence of the English Church and its teachings and practices against both irrational biblicism and anti-traditionalism. Hooker also notes explicitly that all doctrine, all the teaching of Scripture, can only be understood by the discourse of reason. While Scripture has priority as a unique source for doctrine, reason has priority as a tool for understanding Scripture. I have noted elsewhere that ‘reason’ in this sense is not a bare, rationalistic razor or the ‘reason’ of some Anglo-American philosophers. In this regard the stool analogy is useful: the legs are only supportive and stable when they are all attached to the stool together. Cut one leg off and the stool topples. Reason’s function is instrumental and interpretive. It is essential and has a kind of priority in theology, but it is not itself a substantial source for doctrine and it must not be separated from Scripture and tradition. Hooker’s reason is attentive to Scripture and tradition.
Likewise Hooker strongly defends tradition, not as a source of dogma divorced from the Bible or the Fathers, but as a summary of past, reasonable interpretation of Scripture. ‘Tradition’ in Hooker embraces a spectrum of ideas, from essential conclusions about very important, Biblically-based ideas (such as the Trinity and episcopacy), to obligatory but theoretically variable customs and practices (imposed authoritatively by the Church – meaning for Hooker the national Church), to truly indifferent matters which still may have authority due to venerable age. In this regard Hooker rejects both the Romanists’ theory of essential oral traditions AND the Puritans’ anti-traditional biblicism. For Hooker tradition has a kind of practical, heuristic priority, because usually we come to accept the dogmas of Scripture, indeed the authority of Scripture itself as a source of dogma, because of tradition. The discourse of reason and the tutorial authority of tradition are not opposed to Scripture but rather convey Scripture, interpret Scripture, and support Scripture.
In some contemporary Anglican circles this theological method has been revolutionized and perverted by the effective replacement of tradition – a stabilizing and conservative element – with ‘experience’ – a dynamic and vague element. One leg of the stool is sawn off, then used to topple the stool itself. Consider, for instance, the ordination of women as priests. Tradition is solidly against the practice, which has no significant precedents in Church history outside of a few heretical sects. Tradition interprets the Church’s universal understanding of Scripture on the subject and leads to condemnation of the innovation. But ‘experience’ will argue that the Spirit is teaching something new, that women’s ministries are more valuable than hitherto thought, that the gospel is about inclusion and equality, etc. Experience, in fact, in such hands becomes anti-tradition.
Hooker’s theological method is characterized by attention to Scripture, reason, and tradition, each with its proper place and authority in relation to the other too. The analogy of a three-legged stool is legitimate though limited. Hookerian theological method is conservative, and practically attends most to traditional interpretation of Scripture, and is even more conservative because it seeks to achieve consensus in matters of faith, which will necessarily give great weight to the past.