Originating from early 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.
The term via media is frequently applied to the Anglican churches, though not without debate, as a term of apologetics frequently applied to the Church of England. The idea of a middle way, between the papalist Catholics and the radical 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.
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 Roman 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. Although the Oxford Movement eventually faded away (and many of its leaders became Roman Catholics) their idea of the via media and its application to early Anglicanism has remained current in Anglican discourse.
- Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer (1996), p. 179.
- 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