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:
In our class, one time you corrected somebody when they used the phrase, “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Could you tell us a little about that?
Well, that’s one of those things where outside of class, you’re hesitant to correct people. But as I may have said then, back in the ‘80s when I was the writing chair for the doctrinal statement, I used to teach a lot of Sunday school classes where we would deal with doctrine—Wesleyan doctrine. And I would start the class by just asking what you think [members of the class] would be the main things that Methodists believe? And you would be surprised how many people would say, “We believe in the quadrilateral.” That makes us distinctive.
There are two things that are problematic there. One, obviously, we don’t believe in the quadrilateral. That’s a term that specifies a certain theological methodology. Secondly, that doesn’t make us distinctive because everybody uses scripture—well, all Christians use scripture, tradition, experience, and reason in different combinations in different understandings.
Wesley used those in a certain way and in different places does specify that he, like Luther, says, “Here I stand, I can do no other unless convinced by Scripture and reason.” Well there’s two of them. He also relied on tradition in a certain sense, the early church. And experience, I mean you can look at Baptists, you can look at Presbyterians, you can look at creationists, you can look at evolutionists. Everybody uses those things in some combination.
And poor old Albert who came up with the term—he came up with the Methodist’s usage of it sort of borrowing it from the Anglican Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral—later wished that he never used it because it’s been so misinterpreted.
“The term ‘quadrilateral’ does not occur in the Wesley corpus—and more than once I have regretted having coined it for contemporary use since it has been so widely misconstrued.” – Albert Outler
When I taught several times, the deacons back in the ‘80s, there was a diaconal course and their literature had the quadrilateral as a square. You can start on whatever base you want. It’s all the same.
Then there was Timothy Smith who had a three-legged stool with the three legs holding up the Scripture. And I have a friend in Rio de Janeiro—José Carlos DeSouza—who uses a five-fold structure, he adds creation in there, which is sort of part of what the deists were trying to say. You can see creation as one authority through which God speaks. And they said Wesley also agrees with that.
But, again, it’s one of those things where outside of the classroom, it’s not so useful to correct people but to ask them what they mean by that and how they would use that themselves. This is because part of being in the Wesleyan tradition is not about just doing stuff like Wesley did but how you would take the basic Wesleyan principles and understanding of Christian thought and Christian theology and how you go about understanding what is doctrine and what is Christian in the 21st century.
How would you illustrate the quadrilateral if you had to draw it?
I don’t try anymore because I think that all the schematics fail. It’s one of those things that it’s better just to talk about.
How do you try to understand what is—I was going to say true, but it might be better as Schubert Ogden says, “what’s understandable and appropriate” for Christians in the 21st century in terms of Scripture. Because you have to have an approach to Scripture— there’s so many different emphases, so many different details, some contradictions—you have to understand how to use it and how to apply it.
And Wesley himself wouldn’t use tradition as a term. He hated tradition. He thought that was a Roman Catholic idea and he didn’t like basic Roman Catholic approaches to things because he was English. He liked Roman Catholic spirituality, which he used and appropriated and applied. But how does the early church—Scott Jones uses five things because he doesn’t use tradition—he divides it into early church and Anglican tradition. So that’s tradition—it is how the early Christians did it and how the Church of England did it. This is talking about the Wesleyan approach.
And then experience—there’s a modern understanding of that, and there’s a Wesleyan understanding of that. For Wesley, it was God speaking to you through the Holy Spirit, letting you know what is true and what’s appropriate. So in that sense, it’s sort of revelation divine, divine communication rather than experience. “Oh, we’ve always done it this way,” or, “In my own experience of being a pastor, I know that having basketball teams with young girls is difficult, but if you can get it to work, it works. It brings folks to church”–that’s not experience in the Wesleyan sense. But those may be ways that you can broaden out what’s appropriate, what’s true even.
So all of this breaks up this sort of image of four straight lines. You have so many variations and different ways it can be applied that the image gets lost in the vines.
And in “Our Theological Task” in the Book of Discipline—as you wrote it and as the church has affirmed—scripture is always primary. Is that the phrase you used?
Well, that’s Outler. Outler uses supreme. We never use that. In his final 1972 draft, I don’t think they used supreme, I think they used primary. But there’s no problem there for Christians.
Scripture has always had a place of primacy or first order.
But the question I started raising, if you look at that statement carefully under the quadrilateral, it does have two sections under each, scripture and tradition.
First, is how Wesley understood it and second is how we use it today. And that really became important when the American Indian representative or the Asian American representative from the Philippines, or others said tradition, “Why don’t we put that out and not just talk about the Christian tradition, because in a way, the Buddhist tradition is important to us. There’s a lot of truth in Buddhism when you look at it.” This sounds like I’m talking with my son who always says that Buddhism is where it’s at because it talks about love, it talks about life, it talks about what’s important.
And some of them are sitting there and saying, okay, but we’re talking here about a Christian theological methodology. How does one ascertain what is a basic Christian truth or way of looking at things?
It is illogical to say that this Buddhist idea is a standard for Christian understanding. It may be found in Christianity, something may agree with Buddhism. But you don’t use Buddhism as the criterion. It’s a source—you’ll notice throughout that statement also, there’s a distinction in between source and criteria. And the quadrilateral is usually thought of in terms of, “These are the criteria for understanding Christian truth.” But then when you start talking about it, you begin raising all these—women’s experience, etc.—all these things are sources. But you can’t take an individual woman’s experience of the Christian life and say that that is a criterion for what is Christian.
You would say, instead, that things like one women’s experience is a source?
That’s a source for her understanding of how these things apply. I look at it in the context of other people’s experiences and you see them all together, and that helps. But you try to understand from the long history of Christianity, from the basic scriptural texts—the sacred texts of Christianity—put it all together and rationally deduce or induce from all this what you think is appropriate and true and understandable.
And this is a theological methodology. This is the way we approach our individual interpretation. The church does not have a theology. This is for individuals. The church has doctrine. Now doctrine is stated in the twenty-five Articles and the Confession of Faith. If the church wants to change that they can, but it has to be an official action of the church. Theology is individual. Your theology is different from mine. We’re both sort of Wesleyan and we both sort of agree on a lot of stuff because of that and we’re more or less in agreement with the Articles of Faith and the Confession of Faith. But we can challenge some things individually, we can decide to become Baptists if we want.
Have you ever used the “quadrilateral,” even if you didn’t know it by that name? Do you find it helpful or harmful? Have you seen it used well, or poorly?
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