Limitations of the Three Streams Model

Earlier this month, Dr. Gillis Harp (currently of Grove City College) wrote an article bringing up some concerns with the currently-popular Three Streams One River model of Christian tradition, which is particularly popular among Anglicans these days.  Feel free to read it in full, the link above will take you there, but here’s my attempt to summarize the concernes he voiced:

  1. There’s a lot of liberal relativism in our culture these days, and the Three Streams model runs very close to a form of Christian relativism by naming three distinct things and calling them one.
  2. The Three Streams model is far more pragmatic than it is theological in nature.  How much research has actually gone into it?
  3. The thought behind the Three Streams model more closely resembles pop-psychology than it does Christian theology and biblical teaching.  Additionally, the “convergence” that many advocates of this model claim to see happening has never included reconciliation of contradicting articles of faith.
  4. Anglicans who adhere to this model tend to ignore the Anglican divines and formularies.  The 39 Articles, for example, originally included in its long-form title, “for the avoiding of diversities of opinions and for the establishing of consent touching true religion.”  In short, they’re trying to use a method to unify Anglicans that denies the key formational material of the Anglican tradition.

If you’re not Anglican, but a fan of the Three Streams model, then consider point 4 with whatever denomination you’re a part of – how far back can you reach to find common ground with other Christians, and do you actually go there?

Dr. Harp’s concerns are important.  I agree with him all the way.  What’s funny is that I seem to have apprehended the Three Streams One River model differently than he has.  I’ve only learned about it through a limited number of sources; I’m sure Dr. Harp has come across a lot more advocates for it than I have.  So I expect that the way I’ve processed and reviewed the Three Streams concept is more representative of my own interpretation of it, rather than the mainstream presentation.

The heart of Dr. Harp’s objections to the model (from my perspective) is in how it celebrates a mutually-contradicting diversity.  In short, it’s relativistic.  If that were the case, then I’d reject the model outright along with him, although sadly, because I also agree that any attempt to reunite our diverse traditions is laudable.  However, there is a way to use this model that isn’t relativistic.  The key is in how you identify the three streams.  In its popular presentation, there’s the Charismatic Stream, the Evangelical Stream, and the Catholic Stream, and we’re trying to bring them all back together.  In my contention, there are those three streams, and they all belong together such that any contradictions that arise between them are a result of taking one of them to an extreme.  Additionally, the usual explanation of the model is that people and churches fit into just one of the three, or sometimes two; yet I would argue that all Christians are already in all three and have simply imbalanced them.

A classic example is in how each of the three streams understand the Bible.  The Charismatic way is to read it in an exemplaristic fashion, the Evangelical way is to read it as authoritative teaching, and the Catholic way is to read it in the context of the tradition of the Church.  (If you’re not sure what I mean, I’ve explained it here.)  If you take any of these three approaches to an extreme, then they contradict one another.  But, as I explained at the end of the above-linked blog post, they can all work together without fighting.  They’re not contradictary methods; they’re complementary methods, unless you take one of them too far.

To a large extent, that’s how I understand the three streams model overall – all three are legit and contribute important truths to the overall Church, but when we emphasize one of them against the others, bad stuff happens.  I do not celebrate contradiction.  I do appreciate different perspectives, especially when it turns out that the differences are in wordplay rather than in actual doctrine.  And with this three streams stuff both of those happen.

One final note that I want to add is this matter of “convergence.”  Dr. Harp was understandably concerned about how many advocates of this model are claiming to see (or participate in) a convergence of the three streams in their churches, but only on superficial levels that don’t include reconciling the doctrinal contradictions that exist.  Once again, I agree with him that such shallow attempts at unity aren’t going to cut it, but once again I’ve already begun to re-imagine the Three Streams model to yield a sensible One River goal.  I’ve written on this more extensively already, so suffice it to say here that I do not advocate a convergence in which our distinctions blur into a piecemeal spirituality with no reasonable theological convictions, but a reconciled body wherein the contradicting extremes are given up.  Unlike the Three Streams advocates that Dr. Harp is concerned about, I am prepared to say that people are wrong and have to change their minds on certain things.  But I’m not so partisan that I claim to have all the right answers myself!  Rather, I recognize that each of the Three Streams have necessary contributions that ought to be accepted by all, as well as unnecessary junk that needs to be shed by their respective fans.

And despite all this positive thought from me, I’ve recently begun to get a nagging sense that something is missing from the Three Streams model.  More on that later this week…

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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2 Responses to Limitations of the Three Streams Model

  1. Pingback: the Three Streams Reconsidered | Leorningcnihtes boc

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Worship Old & New – The Saint Aelfric Customary

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