Originating from the Delphic Maxim nothing to excess and subsequent Ancient Greek philosophy where Aristotle (384–322 BCE) taught moderation, urging his students to follow the middle road between extremes, the via media was the dominant philosophical precept by which Ancient Roman civilisation and society was organised.
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The term via media is frequently claimed by Anglican proponents, though not without debate, as a term of apologetics. The idea of a middle way, between the Protestant traditions of Lutheranism and Reformed Christianity, as well as between the Roman Catholics and the Magisterial Reformers, goes back to early in the Protestant Reformation, when theologians such as Martin Bucer, Thomas Cranmer and Heinrich Bullinger advocated a religious solution in which secular authority would hold the ring in the religious dispute, and ensure political stability.
Anglicanism, which emerged out of the English Reformation, was originally seen as a via media between two forms of Protestantism—Lutheranism and Reformed Christianity. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who played a chief role in shaping Anglicanism, sought a middle way between Lutheranism and Calvinism, though he was closer to Calvinism. Historic Anglicanism is a part of the wider Reformed tradition, as "the founding documents of the Anglican church—the Book of Homilies, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion—expresses a theology in keeping with the Reformed theology of the Swiss and South German Reformation." The Most Rev. Peter Robinson, presiding bishop of the United Episcopal Church of North America, writes:
Cranmer's personal journey of faith left its mark on the Church of England in the form of a Liturgy that remains to this day more closely allied to Lutheran practice, but that liturgy is couple to a doctrinal stance that is broadly, but decidedly Reformed. ... The 42 Articles of 1552 and the 39 Articles of 1563, both commit the Church of England to the fundamentals of the Reformed Faith. Both sets of Articles affirm the centrality of Scripture, and take a monergist position on Justification. Both sets of Articles affirm that the Church of England accepts the doctrine of predestination and election as a 'comfort to the faithful' but warn against over much speculation concerning that doctrine. Indeed a casual reading of the Wurttemburg Confession of 1551, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Scots Confession of 1560, and the XXXIX Articles of Religion reveal them to be cut from the same bolt of cloth.
A recent scholarly study points out that, while Richard Hooker's Law of Ecclesiastical Polity has a reputation as "the classic depiction of the English via media based upon the sound triumvirate of scripture, reason and tradition", the actual term via media nowhere appears in the work (written in English).
Three centuries later, the phrase was used by John Henry Newman in setting out his influential views on Anglicanism, as part of the argument he brought forward with the Tractarian movement. Via Media was the title of a series of the Tracts for Today, published by Newman around 1834. These tracts in particular used the title to pay homage to the inception of the Thirty-Nine Articles and in so doing claim that the Tractarian movement was of the same vein as early Church of England scholars and theologians. They examined the Elizabethan Settlement and reinterpreted it as a compromise between Rome and Reform.
The Tractarians promoted the idea of Anglicanism as a middle way between the extremes of Protestantism and Catholicism, which became later an idea of Anglicanism as a middle way between Rome and Protestantism itself.
In justification of its idea of a via media, the Oxford Movement attributed this position to the works of the Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker and in particular his book Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, which is accepted as a founding work on Anglican theology, a view of Hooker promoted by John Keble, who was one of the first to argue that English theology underwent such a "decisive change" in Hooker’s hands. However, Hooker does not use the phrase "via media" or "middle way" or the word "Anglican" in any of his works; the attribution of via media to him is much later. Hooker's work concerned the form of Protestant church government as an argument against the extreme advocates of Puritanism, arguing that elements of Church of England practice condemned by the Puritans, in particular the Book of Common Prayer and the institution of bishops, are proper and accord with Scripture. Later theologians analysed Hooker's approach to the particular doctrine of justification by faith as a middle way between the predestinationism of the extreme Calvinists and Lutheran and Arminian doctrines.
The Oxford Movement recast this via media as a middle way not within Protestantism but between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Its application to early Anglicanism has remained current in Anglican discourse.
Some of the Nordic lutheran Churches, chiefly the national churches of Sweden, Finland and Norway, likewise consider themselves as via media churches. The latter professes its faith as "truly catholic, truly reformed, truly evangelical", a statement likewise echoed in the Canons of the Church of Sweden which states that the faith, confession and teachings of the Church are understood as an expression of the catholic christian faith. It further states that this does not serve to create a new, confessionally peculiar interpretation, but concerns the apostolic faith as carried down through the traditions of the Church. These sentiment of these churches as a via media are expressed outright in the Common Statement of the Porvoo Communion, a communion of european Anglican and Nordic and Baltic lutheran churches:
What made the Church of Sweden an evangelical-catholic church was to Archbishop Söderblom the fact that the Reformation in Sweden was a 'church improvement' and a 'process of purification' which did not create a new church. As a national church, the Church of Sweden succeeded in bringing together medieval Swedish tradition with the rediscovery of the gospel which the Reformation brought with it. Archbishop Söderblom included the historic episcopate in the tradition-transmitting elements. The Church of Sweden was, according to Söderblom, in an even higher degree than the Anglican Church a via media. —Together in Mission and Ministry: The Porvoo Common Statement
- Argument to moderation, a logical fallacy
- Golden mean
- Middle Way (Buddhist concept)
- Wasat (Islamic term)
- Anglican and Episcopal History. Historical Society of the Episcopal Church. 2003. p. 15.
Others had made similar observations, Patrick McGrath commenting that the Church of England was not a middle way between Roman Catholic and Protestant, but "between different forms of Protestantism," and William Monter describing the Church of England as "a unique style of Protestantism, a via media between the Reformed and Lutheran traditions." MacCulloch has described Cranmer as seeking a middle way between Zurich and Wittenberg but elsewhere remarks that the Church of England was "nearer Zurich and Geneva than Wittenberg.
- Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer (1996), p. 179.
- Jensen, Michael P. (7 January 2015). "9 Things You Should Really Know About Anglicanism". The Gospel Coalition. Retrieved 3 February 2020.
- Robinson, Peter (2 August 2012). "The Reformed Face of Anglicanism". The Old High Churchman. Retrieved 3 February 2020.
- Michael Brydon, The Evolving Reputation of Richard Hooker: An Examination of Responses 1600-1714 (2006), p. 1.
- Newman: Tract 38 Via Media I: "The glory of the English Church is, that it has taken the VIA MEDIA, as it has been called. It lies between the (so called) Reformers and the Romanists."
- Newman: Tract 41 Via Media II: "A number of distinct doctrines are included in the notion of Protestantism: and as to all these, our Church has taken the VIA MEDIA between it and Popery"
- Nigel Atkinson: Richard Hooker – Reformed Theologian of the English Church - The Church Society, 1996
- Kyrkoordning för Svenska kyrkan: med kommentarer och angränsande lagstiftning. Verbum 2005. pp43-44
- Together in Mission and Ministry: The Porvoo Common Statement, With, Essays on Church and Ministry in Northern Europe: Conversations Between the British and Irish Anglican Churches and the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran Churches. Church House Publishing. 1993. ISBN 0715157507. Retrieved 10 November 2012.