BEYOND THE WESLEYAN QUADRILATERAL? by David S. Wisener
By David S. Wisener
Rev. Wisener is a Free Methodist pastor planting a church in north central Florida
RESPONSE by Howard Snyder
Dr. Snyder is a retired Free Methodist professor from Asbury Theological Seminary
I come from a long line of mainline Methodists through my mother’s family, so from an early age, I was taught the unique emphases John Wesley put on the Christian faith. As many have noted before, Wesley’s evangelism was instrumental in contributing to the Great Awakening and reshaping Christianity over the last 300 years.
I began to develop a love for philosophy in my late teens and early 20s, particularly a field known as epistemology, which is the study of knowledge or, more specifically, what it means to know things. I was interested in exploring the ways in which Christians justify our beliefs as a genuine form of knowledge and, as a good Wesleyan, that led to my first introduction to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is, as described in the Pastors and Church Leaders Manual, “an effort to describe a Methodist methodology for theological formulation.” In other words, it’s meant to be a way for Methodists to determine spiritual truth.
Theologian Albert Outler coined the phrase in the 1960s as his way of explaining how Wesley came to his theological decisions. It lists four sources of truth: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. The four are not supposed to be equal: Scripture is intended to be first and foremost, with the other three supporting it.
I’ve always felt a little uneasy about the Quadrilateral. It seemed that it tried to make something that is very complicated and messy – how we determine truth – fit into neat little categories. My qualms intensified as I saw my fellow United Methodists torturing the logic of the categories to turn personal beliefs into spiritual truth – Scripture was no longer treated as primary, and experience came to mean general life experience instead of the spiritual experience Outler intended.
Thus, I encountered several Methodists justifying their theological opinions through the use of the Quadrilateral by claiming they’d witnessed particular things in life that made sense to them – never mind what Scripture and tradition had to say on the subject.
It was in the midst of my uneasiness that I came across the work of orthodox theologian and philosopher William J. Abraham, one of Outler’s successors at Southern Methodist University. As a theologian of epistemology and a Wesleyan scholar, Abraham piqued my interest with his critique of the Quadrilateral.
Abraham traced the roots of the Quadrilateral not to Wesley but rather to Outler himself. Abraham, a former colleague and an admirer of Outler, nonetheless bluntly said “Outler’s Wesley was an invented Wesley” in his 2005 article “The End of Wesleyan Theology.”
The Quadrilateral was born in the 1960s in the age of ecumenism that resulted in the formation of the UMC in 1968. According to Abraham within the same article, the Quadrilateral was intended by Outler as “a way to legitimize Methodism as a player on the world ecumenical stage” and as a way to help unify Methodists ahead of the merger of denominations that formed the UMC.
Abraham believed the Quadrilateral reflected both a bad historical understanding of Wesley and a bad epistemology of theology. According to Abraham, there was no other theological warrant for Wesley other than Scripture alone. “Wesley at his core was a staunch Protestant biblicist,” he wrote. “Drawing on a medieval vision of divine revelation, he was convinced that all proper theology had to be grounded in Scripture. Whatever bells and whistles we want to add either epistemologically or hermeneutically to this thesis, the ultimate test of truth in theology for Wesley was Scripture.”
Regarding the epistemology of the Quadrilateral, Abraham lists nine objections in his book Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia that he repeats in “The End of Wesleyan Theology.” Primary among those include the aforementioned misreading of the historical Wesley; the critical omission of special revelation as a means of knowledge; and, hinting at Abraham’s recommendation for a replacement for the Quadrilateral, “it provides for quick and easy proofs of critical Christian doctrine,” using the Trinity as an example, which is “easily proved…given its secure place in the tradition of the Church. If it is contained in tradition, then it is contained in a combination of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.”
It’s this last sentence that segues into Abraham’s own work regarding spiritual knowledge as described in his most robust book, Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology and the anthology Canonical Theism.
Canonical theism takes a broad view of the Church’s tradition. The Reformation emphasis on sola scriptura, or Scripture alone for Christian authority, was a needed correction for the Church in the 1500s, but one should step back and truly ponder the question, “What is Scripture and its history?”
Scripture is of course the collection of writings from the Old and New Testaments, but how were those writings selected? The answer is: they were selected by the Church. The Old Testament was essentially inherited from Judaism, but the New Testament books represent only a fraction of Christian writing from the era roughly extending from 40 – 100 AD, give or take a couple decades.
Who chose which of those writings should be included as Scripture, which writings were authentic, and where to set a kind of “cut-off” date for the documents? Again, it was the Church.
And another way to label “decisions the Church has made is,” well, “tradition.” So really, Scripture is best understood as a part of Church tradition. Making a distinction between “scripture” and “tradition” is a false dichotomy. Scripture is the written record the Church has decided is central to its tradition.
At this point, the additional question needs to be asked, “Why shouldn’t Scripture alone be sufficient for Christian authority as the Reformers claimed?” Simply put, we have the real-life evidence of thousands of Christian denominations to attest: because we can’t agree on how many parts of Scripture are best understood.
Yes, we can affirm Scripture is by itself sufficient to bring people to a saving knowledge of Christ, but there are of course a lot of issues left unaddressed by Scripture and likewise a lot of issues within Scripture that Christians widely disagree on. What one Christian considers a “plain” reading of a portion of Scripture may indeed not be as plain as that Christian thinks.
As one classic example that resonates with Free Methodists, parts of Paul’s letters appear to “plainly” state women can’t lead in churches. Yet Free Methodists and other denominations rightly maintain that other parts of Paul’s letter provide a wider context in which to interpret those “plain” parts about women.
Put plainly (irony intended), there is less Scripture that can be understood plainly than we often like to think, as one might expect from a collection of books spanning about 2,000 years across multiple authors and cultures. The proof is in the array of Christian denominations forged by interpretational disagreement across hundreds of years. We need something more than our often-flawed individual ability to reason and our limited personal experience to make sense of our different interpretations of Scripture and the gaps left with issues not addressed by Scripture.
Canonical theism uses this logic as a starting point to launch into describing what aspects of shared Christian tradition, including Scripture, ought to be taken as definitive for a more robust, broader canon of authority. “Canonical theists call for a reevaluation of the standard scripture/tradition taxonomy,” writes Paul Gavrilyuk in Canonical Theism. “The canonical heritage of the church is constituted by materials, practices, and persons that formally or informally have been adopted by the whole church as canonical.”
Canonical theism considers the largely united theological consensus of the first thousand years of the Church as the authoritative heritage for all Christians. There were of course many sharp disagreements and heresies during those first thousand years (Arianism first among them) and one notable schism within the first five-hundred years (Nestorianism), but through the first seven ecumenical councils, the vast majority of the Church was able to achieve consensus on matters of theology. It’s only with the Great Schism in 1054 AD when the Eastern Orthodox Church separated from the Roman Catholic Church that divergent theologies began to rapidly increase.
Canonical theists list “eight components of the canonical heritage of the church,” according to Gavrilyuk: “1) Canons of faith (Confessional statements and creeds), 2) Canons of scripture (Lists of sacred writings), 3) Canons of liturgy (Guidelines for conducting worship services), 4) Canons of bishops (Approved lists of episcopal authorities), 5) Canons of saints (Lists of the saints venerated locally or universally), 6) Canons of fathers and doctors (Lists of authoritative theologians), 7) Canons of councils (Disciplinary and doctrinal guidelines imposed by the councils, 8) Canons of iconography and architecture (General rules regulating the depiction of God and the saints; rules of church architecture).”
In short, these canons are inseparable from each other, because “scripture is a canon that developed alongside the canons of episcopacy, liturgy, and creed, interacting with them in a complex way,” wrote Gavrilyuk. “The canonical heritage, we argue, is a diamond with at least eight distinct facets, not a two-dimensional plane.”
The broader heritage outlined by canonical theism allows for a fuller and richer interpretation of scripture that assists in the understanding of its authority for Christians, and it helps in explaining how scripture is inseparable from tradition and what parts of tradition can be considered authoritative. While the Wesleyan Quadrilateral has elements of truth and was well-intentioned, perhaps it’s time we as Methodists accept that it has problematic historical and theological inaccuracies and look for a better way to explain how we determine knowledge and authority.
Pastor David Wisener has revisited the Wesleyan Quadrilateral issue, pointing out several of its weaknesses and critiques. I know from experience that many Free Methodists and other Wesleyans have heard about the so-called Quadrilateral, and that a good many find it helpful in showing how the Wesleyan tradition values reason, experience, and the church’s historic tradition, even as it affirms the higher unique authority of the Bible.
Wisener describes the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (as viewed by many) as “a way for Methodists to determine spiritual truth,” and that it “lists four sources of truth.” This is how many people view the Quadrilateral, but it is overstated. I would describe the
Quadrilateral simply as one potentially useful tool to help us discern truth. It is shorthand; one model among others. It should be seen as a model, not a formula.
Most Wesley scholars today view the Quadrilateral (as Outler described it) as inadequate and not very useful. Billy Abraham’s critique of the Quadrilateral is fairly well known. Yet it is true, as Wisener says, that some Methodists today use the Quadrilateral to justify their own views, even if those views clash with Scripture.
It remains true nonetheless that Wesley did learn from tradition and experience and used reason to help him discern the proper interpretation of Scripture.
As a possible alternative to the traditional Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Wisener proposes the late Billy Abraham’s “canonical theism.” Abraham’s “canonical theism” perspective is helpful as far as it goes, though I have some critiques. Abraham is right of course in terms of the canonical process of forming the Bible as we now know it.
Canonical theism is itself a model. It has some use, But it is not a definitive answer. The model may run the serious danger of downplaying or undermining the unique authority of Scripture. If we read Scripture through the lens of this model’s secondary (as I view them) “canons,” we may limit the power of Scripture.
Wisener interprets Abraham’s position as meaning that since “Scripture is best understood as a part of Church tradition,” therefore “Making a distinction between ‘Scripture’ and ‘tradition’ is a false dichotomy.” I can’t really accept this. There is a
fundamental difference between the Bible and other derivative forms of tradition. It is dangerous to seem to make the two equal or the same. Scripture is “God-breathed” in a unique way that all non-biblical tradition is not.
Wisener notes that “canonical theism considers the largely united theological consensus of the first thousand years of the Church at the authoritative heritage for allChristians.” Yes. But there is a problem here. Nothing in Scripture (or sound reason)
justifies prioritizing the first thousand years. In fact there are many problems with this period, as Wisener notes. The Ecumenical Creeds are indeed still valuable today, but in fact they fail to address a number of crucial issues. They addressed the issues that were contentious in their days but, understandably, not others. And in fact, God’s Spirit is just as much (and perhaps sometimes more) obviously at work in recent centuries as the church has spread into ever more diverse cultures and had more accumulated experience and learned new and important things about peoples, culture, and the earth.
In the whole discussion of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, however, the more serious problem is its complete neglect of the created order. Wesley highly valued the created order in all its forms. He emphasized and wrote about “the wisdom of God in creation.” I therefore use a revised form of the Quadrilateral in which the Bible is at the center with Creation, Tradition, Reason, and Experience as the four corners or quadrants.
This a way of interpreting applying Wesley’s insights to today in a manner consistent with Wesley himself and with Scripture. This is still only model or tool or aid, but it is based inductively in Wesley’s sermons and other writings.
John Wesley (1703-1791) lived at a time of new discoveries in natural science, including electricity (creation). He lived at the height of the “Age of Reason.” In his day many early sources on Christian history and theology were becoming available in print
(tradition). This was also a time of increased interest in human experience, interest that would lead to the birth of psychology.
Wesley was interested in all of these. Creation, Reason, Tradition, and Experience can assist our understanding, but never supplant the authority of Scripture.
Whatever the critiques of the Quadrilateral, it is true nonetheless that we all do use tradition, reason, and experience whenever we interpret Scripture (whatever we claim). No one ever actually interprets the Bible “alone” or “all by itself.” Every one of us is
influenced by creation, reason, tradition, and experience. Sometimes that influence may be harmful or distorted. That is why we need all these angles of vision as we study the Bible together and seek to “walk in God’s ways.”