The Myth of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”

This is the first post in a new series: “John Wesley – The man, the myth, the legend “

If you’re a Methodist, you may have heard the phrase “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” thrown around.  It probably wasn’t dropped in the middle of a dinner conversation.  But perhaps your pastor has used it in the pulpit or a teacher mentioned to you that the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” was a method you could use “to do theology”—aka reflection on things pertaining to God.

If you’re not a Methodist, you probably have not heard the phrase “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”  But you probably have used this method to handle theological questions.

The “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” is best described by a line from the United Methodist Church’s (UMC) Book of Discipline where it states, “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.”

Think about how you may have used this method.  Take the theological question, “As a Christian, is it okay to hurt someone I don’t like?”

To answer this, many Christians would first look to what the Bible says on the issue, for it is primary in any reflection relating to God.

They would then seek to understand what Christians throughout history have said.  Here, they would be looking at tradition.

Next, they would use reason to interpret the Bible, understand tradition, and infer implications where these things may be silent.

Finally, they would think of the question in terms of theirs and others experiences involving violence against people in their community.

This method has its flaws (see the sources section below the interview), but I believe it can be helpful as a basic framework.

However, this four-fold method is not John Wesley’s.  He never used the term “quadrilateral” or made a clear argument for the use of these four criteria.  Rather, the quadrilateral is a modern attempt to understand how Wesley went about doing his theology that many believe is a good model for the church.

These reasons lead me to think that perhaps we should stop attaching Wesley’s name to it.  Labeling it the UMC quadrilateral or the Albert Outler quadrilateral (after the scholar who formulated it) would be more accurate.

Another problem with attaching Wesley’s name to the quadrilateral is that it lends authority to a theological method that is often misused and misconstrued.  These misrepresentations ultimately  lead to a misrepresentation of Wesley and his beliefs.  Since its formulation, the quadrilateral has taken on a life of its own.  Its most egregious misuse occurs when people treat all four sources as being of equal authority, thus belittling scripture.

One day in my Methodism class a student mentioned the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” to Wesley scholar Dr. Richard Heitzenrater.  He promptly responded, “Do you mean the Outler quadrilateral?  The quadrilateral is not John Wesley’s.”

Many people in the class sat stunned as a myth about Wesley that they believed all their life was busted by the man who first cracked the code of Wesley’s diaries.

Recently, I sat down with Dr. Heitzenrater for an interview about Wesleyan myths.  Below is the part of the interview regarding this moment in class:

[Read more…]

New Series: John Wesley – The man, the myth, the legend

When the General Conference of the United Methodist Church comes around every four years, myths about John Wesley show up in full force.

Sometimes these myths show up on the swag handed out. Tote bags and t-shirts that include Wesley mis-quotes like “Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn” have been around for decades.

Other times these myths show up in theological dialogue. Many United Methodist Churches defend the practice of inviting anyone, including people of other religions and those who are un-baptized, to the communion table by arguing that Wesley taught and practiced this same exact thing.

And still at other times Wesleyan myths are the basis for the whole conference, such as in 1996 when the theme was the quote by Wesley that has never been found in his works, “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials, Liberty, In All Things Charity.”

As I’ve studied Methodism throughout seminary, I’ve found myself drawn to Wesley’s biography and writings. Reading primary and secondary sources surrounding this great man of the faith has proven edifying for my ministry and me.

Yet, in my studies of Wesley, I’ve noticed an unpleasant truth. It’s one that commonly surrounds historical figures—including the likes of Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesus.

People love to re-create historical figures for their own purposes.

Re-creating figures in this way is very tempting. After all, what better way to justify or promote one’s own theological, political, or social agenda than to appeal to a historical figure that is beloved by all?

If the beloved historical figure is actually in agreement with what you’re advocating, then appealing to them is a strong strategy.

But if you’re stretching historical evidence, projecting modern questions and ideas into historical contexts, or simply parroting what others have told you about a great figure, then I think there are better ways to make your case.

I like to appeal to Wesley when working out my theology, so I’m often in danger of re-creating him in my theological likeness.

Re-creation can occur willfully or unknowingly. It may be done willfully by proof-texting random quotes from his writings that agree with me or by emphasizing aspects of his early theology I like even though I know he changed his beliefs on the issue later in life. It may be done unknowingly by simply perpetuating claims or quotes that other people have said about him.

Sometimes the perpetuation of Wesleyan myths is inconsequential. If it is in basic agreement with his theology and doctrine, does it really matter if Wesley didn’t actually say, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can”?

Other times the perpetuation of Wesleyan myths has great consequences. If the UMC is using Wesley as a main source of argument for certain theological beliefs and practices that he would be in disagreement with, the record should be set straight. Employing false church tradition in our thinking process is not helpful. Clearing the air of misinformation such as this enables the church to decide more faithfully what to think and do in today’s context.

In an upcoming blog series, I will explore some of the common myths surrounding Wesley. You may read some of the debunked myths and find them inconsequential. You may read some of the others and find them of great consequence. My goal in this series is not to crush sacred stories with a sledge hammer for academic fun. My goal is that as you learn more about Wesley you would cultivate a desire to study more about him for yourself.

This series will largely be based on a recent interview I did with Dr. Richard Heitzenrater. Dr. Heitzenrater is known for “breaking the code” of Wesley’s diaries that were written in shorthand. He is also regarded for giving these transcoded diaries as a gift to the church, serving as the General Editor of the Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, authoring 16+ books, and chairing the Committee on Our Theological Task that wrote the present doctrinal statement in Part II of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.

I had the opportunity to study “The Life and Times of the Wesleys” under Dr. Heitzenrater last fall at Duke Divinity School. Throughout the class, I loved recording his anecdotes. Two of my favorites are “Anything since the 18th century is just current events” and “Almost every internet source is suspect.” The second quote should lead you to take even my words with a grain of salt.

Up first in this series is the myth held tightly and taught widely…. the myth of the “Wesleyan” quadrilateral.

Post 1: The Myth of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”

Post 2: Things John Wesley never said

What things about Wesley have you heard that you later found to be untrue? What things about Wesley are you still wondering about?


My entries for the “Food and Faith” art contest

Recently the “New Creation Student Arts” group at Duke Divinity School held a photo contest with the theme “Food and Faith,” and one of my entries won second place!

The theme for the contest came from the book “Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating” by Norman Wirzba.

The exhibit was created to help relay two major ideas from Wirzba’s book.  First, we must acknowledge the fact that our culture often manufactures food in such a way that much of it is wasted, the environment is degraded, and inhumane processes abound.  Second, we must also acknowledge that our faith is sustained by food, particularly the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and that we are called to be stewards of God’s creation.

My three entries were from my trip to Central America this summer.  I featured the bottom two photographs previously in the post Cooking in Guatemala.  The first entry is one that I hadn’t shared until the contest and it ended up winning second place.

The photo features Ángel, the pastor of La Iglesia Evangelica Metodista La Providencia.  It was taken at his house late in July when he had the interns from Duke over for a last supper of sorts.  We were all sharing homemade lasagna and Coca-Cola when a torrential rain storm moved in.  Suddenly, the power went out.  At this point in the trip this wasn’t too rare, so we all kept talking, eating, and enjoying Ángel’s huge smile in the candlelight.  I pulled my camera out because I love to photograph in low-light settings.  I took numerous frames, but when I took this one I knew it was special.  Ángel doesn’t regularly smile for posed photos.


Pastor Ángel
“Pastor Ángel” – Ahuachapán, El Salvador


Macadamia Nuts
“Macadamia” – Communiad Nueva Alianza, Coffee Finca


Tortilleria: Los Comalitos
“Tortilleria: Los Comalitos” – Xela, Guatemala

March 25th: How Jesus & my birthday relate

The way I conceive of my birthday changed forever when I read the paragraphs quoted below.

For the first time in my life, I realized that on the day I was born — March 25th, nine months before December 25th — Jesus entered this world as prophet, priest, and king.  Some churches celebrate this day as the Feast of the Annunciation.

These excerpts are from an article that transcribes a talk that was given by Frederica Mathewes-Green at an Orthodox Christian Pro-Life Event.  On the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, she narrated with great clarity and sensitivity the universal church’s position throughout history regarding abortion and why we should be hopeful for the future of the pro-life movement.

Our faith’s affirmation of life from the moment of conception is evident in the passage in the Gospel of Luke, in which Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, and Elizabeth says that her unborn son leaped for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice. She says, “Why do I deserve such honor, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:39-45) The unborn John the Forerunner recognized the presence of Christ and his mother, and Elizabeth, with prophetic insight, realized what was happening.

Our Lord Jesus Christ did not become a human being on Christmas Day, but 9 months earlier, on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, when the angel appeared to the Virgin Mary and told her that she would conceive a child. The Forerunner did not become a human being on the day he was born; he was already a prophet and a servant of the Most High, even in his mother’s womb.  Click here to read the rest of The Pro-Life Cause, Orthodoxy, and Hope.



Where is God in the Hunger Games?

The Hunger Games trilogy is set in the nation of Panem, home to a dystopian society that exists in a post-America and “post-God” world.

Panem largely occupies what was formally North America.  Its residents live in “The Capitol” and thirteen other geographically distinct districts.  The elite and wealthy of the nation live in the Capitol alongside the leaders of Panem’s dictatorial government.  The districts are governed by this regime and face constant oppression as they fulfill what the Capitol sees as their sole purpose for the nation — the production of goods and services for the people of the Capitol.  In most of the districts the people are poor, dependent on welfare from the government, and live in fear of what may happen if they step out of line.

The Hunger Games are an annual event that the Capitol established for the purposes of keeping the districts in line and providing the citizens of the Capitol entertainment.  The Hunger Games Wiki (yes, the trilogy has its own dedicated wiki community) sums up the games well when it states that the games are an event “in which twenty-four children between the ages of twelve and eighteen, one boy and one girl from each district, are chosen from a lottery and entered into a gladitorial competition where they must fight each other to the death until only one remains standing.”

The games are brutal and savage.  They put on display the gross manifestations of the sin and desire for survival that lies deep within the contestants.  The games also display ways the oppressive government sins against the contestants and the districts.  And if all of this weren’t bad enough, the people in the Capitol love watching every minute of the games, capitalizing on the contestants who become celebrities, and talking about them wherever they go.

This background material helps one understand why the author, Suzanne Collins, named the nation Panem.  According to The Hunger Games Wiki, the name “derives from the Latin phrase panem et circenses, which literally translates into ‘bread and circuses’.  The phrase itself is ‘used to describe entertainment used to distract public attention from more important matters.'”

The idea of distraction and the nation of Panem fit well together.  The Hunger Games distract the people of the Capitol from realizing the ways that they oppress the people of the districts.  The Hunger Games distract the people of the districts from realizing that they have great power even in the midst of the oppressive system that they are under.  And everyone in the nation is distracted from asking big questions about the government or why their world is organized the way it is.

The questions that the series raises about oppressive governments, love beyond boundaries, the effects of war, self-sacrifice, the brutality that people can inflict upon others, dedication, and hopelessness are all relevant for us today.

Yet, readers may notice that in the midst of these “ultimate questions” there is no form of religion or concept of God among the people of Panem.

This fact is what led the professor of one of my preaching classes, Dr. Joy Moore, to assign our class the first book of the trilogy.  Dr. Moore pointed out to us that a “post-God” and “post-Christian” world is one that we as preachers may soon inhabit.  As religious concepts and the story of God’s redemption of the world in Jesus Christ fade in importance throughout society, the preacher will have to be ready to tell the story in new ways.

In order to help us begin practicing living and preaching in such a world, Dr. Moore assigned us the task of preaching a sermon to the people who reside in the Capitol city of Panem based on the first book in the trilogy, The Hunger Games.  Dr. Moore asked us to look for echoes of the Christian story and glimpses of ways God might be working in the post-America and post-God world of Panem that is narrated in the book.  We were then asked to faithfully preach the Christian story, the Gospel, to this “congregation” who has no conception of God.

Below are three sermons from my class.  We each took a different creative approach.

I envisioned preaching my sermon, which is audio only, to a group of Capitol citizens I encountered on the Capitol’s busy streets. Here is the audio:

Audio MP3


Pete Brazier, a visiting student from the Methodist Church in Britain, produced a short sermon that he envisioned would be given to small groups of Capitol citizens and perhaps also be broadcasted over the airwaves.

Andrew Ruth’s sermon assumed that any challenge to the Capitol’s reign would warrant immediate death.  He produced a 5 minute video to quickly convey his message.

Andrew aptly introduced his video by stating:

I don’t think that my single sermon can include neither all the nuances of Christian faith nor the particularities of every Bible story. These will require conversations and community to gain intelligibility (cf. Kallenberg).

Thus, I am pretending that there exists an underground Christian community. I assume that I am a product of this community, and their faithful, though clandestine witness to the Triune God. This underground movement retains copies of the Bible in languages they comprehend. As I imagine myself in this community, I assume that at one point I was a full participant in the culture and life of the Capital City. I altered my appearance and filled my existence with entertainment. The physical alterations I made to my body via cosmetic tattoos still remain, while I have slowly relinquished other practices I once held.

We as a community have decided after much prayer and fasting that the Lord is calling us to announce our existence, even if it means inviting persecution. To do so, I will hack into the national television feed during the middle of the Hunger Games, and as quickly as possible share the content of the Christian faith. We pray that the Holy Spirit falls, like at Pentecost, and that through this sermon and the subsequent conversations instigated by the Underground. Pray with us.

This assignment stretched our thinking about how we are to proclaim Christ in a modern world that is quickly changing.  And it led most of us to delay our other assigned readings so that we could finish the trilogy.

Best of all, it pushed us to see anew that God’s redeeming activity pops up in our everyday lives.  We asked: Can we recognize it?  Can we communicate it?

Can you?

Have you read The Hunger Games? If so, what were your thoughts on the book and how it could connect to Christianity?