The “Via Media”? Or the “Middle Ground Fallacy”?

At this point, this is just a sketch. But I’m wondering how we Anglican Christians ought to be careful to keep our precious “via media” (“middle way”) mentality and methodology separate from what’s known as the “middle ground” fallacy.

The “Via Media”

According to Donald McKim in the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, the “via media” is

(Lat. “the middle way”) Term used to describe the identity of Anglicanism as a middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. It was coined by John Henry Newman (1801–90) during the Oxford movement (337).

The glossary in the back of The Study of Anglicanism gives a bit longer definition:

Via Media: ‘the middle way’, a designation for the stance of Anglicanism between Roman Catholicism and one form or another of Protestantism. The significance of the term is ambiguous, since on occasions extreme or radical Protestantism (Anabaptism) is taken as one pole, in which case Anglicanism shares the ‘middle way’ with e.g. Lutheranism; on other occasions the designation is intended to contrast Anglicanism with more central forms of Protestantism, e.g. Puritanism (qv), Presbyterianism, and what J. H. Newman called ‘popular Protestantism’ (506).

Now, as Paul Avis notes in his In Search of Authority: Anglican Theological Method from the Reformation to the Enlightenment,

There was no settled ‘Anglican’ platform in this period, let alone a generally recognized concept of a via media between Rome and the Reformation: the Church of England saw itself as within the family of Protestant Churches, but also as the exemplar among them of apostolic, primitive Christianity, liturgical and episcopal (133).

Nevertheless, despite the historical debates about the “via media,” it has emerged, I think, as a hallmark of the Anglican way of doing theology. Indeed, it’s one of my favorite things about being an Anglican!

And yet, how do we keep this “via media” separate from what’s known as the “Middle Ground” fallacy?

The “Middle Ground” Fallacy

According to the fantastic website, YourLogicalFallacyIs.com, the “Middle Ground” fallacy is:

You claimed that a compromise, or middle point, between two extremes must be the truth.

They elaborate:

Much of the time the truth does indeed lie between two extreme points, but this can bias our thinking: sometimes a thing is simply untrue and a compromise of it is also untrue. Half way between truth and a lie, is still a lie.

And here’s an example:

Holly said that vaccinations caused autism in children, but her scientifically well-read friend Caleb said that this claim had been debunked and proven false. Their friend Alice offered a compromise that vaccinations must cause some autism, just not all autism.

If you’d like to learn more about this fallacy, check out the Wikipedia page for the “Argument to moderation” (argumentum ad temperantiam), which is also known as:

  • false equivalence,
  • false compromise,
  • (argument from) middle ground,
  • fallacy of gray,
  • equidistance fallacy, and
  • the golden mean fallacy.

As I said, this is just a sketch, an open question.

So, I welcome your feedback in the comments below.

Can we carve out a middle way between the via media and the middle ground fallacy?

What if there aren’t always “very fine people on both sides”?

What if the truth isn’t always somewhere in the murky middle ground between two opposing positions?

By Joshua Steele

Software engineer using "dead" languages to help the living. Learn more at joshuapsteele.com.

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