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: