Rethinking the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Saturday, July 14, 2012

In seminary we learned to interpret the doctrine using something called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral which looks to four sources: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. The primary source of knowledge here is the Bible, followed by church tradition.

It all sounds quite reasonable, but as I really studied the New Testament what I found was that Jesus and the apostles used a very different criteria: The New Testament perspective is not based on a rigid adherence to Scripture or tradition. It is primarily based on their experience. The disciples had experienced God come among them in Jesus. They had experienced that the messiah had not come as a warrior as they expected from their reading of the Bible, but had instead given his life. They had experienced Jesus rising from the dead. And finally, the early church was now experiencing that salvation had been made available to all people, to gentiles!

All of this, it must be stressed, completely contradicted how they had all read their Bibles up til then, and completely contradicted the religious tradition that had inherited. They did not come to these conclusions because of a new discovery in exegesis, they came to these radically new views through experiencing what the Spirit was doing among them! This caused them to consequently go back and re-read their Bibles again, trying to make sense of what was happening.

Fact: If the apostles had taken the dogmatic approach to reading their Bibles that so many of us have, then they never would have accepted Jesus as messiah, and they never would have preached salvation to gentiles.

Both the idea of a suffering nonviolent messiah and God's mercy towards gentiles simply did not line up with what they had expected from their reading of Scripture. This is not conjecture on my part, it is something they explicitly state (see for example Peter's two exclamations of "Never, Lord!" first in Matthew 16 where he forbids Jesus to go to the cross, and again in Acts 10 where he resists offering salvation to gentiles). However, the apostles stayed open to what God was doing in their midst, even when it expanded their understanding of truth.

If we want to follow in the apostle's footsteps, then we need to move in that same trajectory, rather than tethering ourselves to a supposed "biblical" view that loses step with what the Spirit is doing.

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At 2:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, - John 5:39

It is Christ in us that's the hope of glory, not Christ in some book.

At 7:47 AM, Blogger John Hawthorne said...

Thanks for this reflection. I'm currently working on a book on Christian Higher Education from a Wesleyan standpoint and am currently trying to finish the Wesley theology chapter. I'd still argue that the experience causes on to reinterpret the scripture and tradition in fresh ways through the leading of the Holy Spirit (think Road to Emmaus). Scripture remains central but fluid (heretical to some, I know). Also, Howard Snyder argues that we need a Wesleyan Pentalateral with scripture in the center interpreted through experience, tradition, reason, and creation. It's persuasive and fits well with Wesley's focus on natural philosophy.

At 8:44 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi John,

"I'd still argue that the experience causes on[e] to reinterpret the scripture and tradition in fresh ways through the leading of the Holy Spirit (think Road to Emmaus)."

Yes, I agree. That's my main point actually.

"Scripture remains central but fluid"

The question is: what is that fluidity based on? I would say the fluidity in the NT is based on what they *experienced* God doing in Jesus.

"Howard Snyder argues that we need a Wesleyan Pentalateral with scripture in the center interpreted through experience, tradition, reason, and creation."

I think I would say that the center needs to be grace/compassion/agape love (all different ways of getting at the same thing). So we do not practice "reason", but specifically the logic of grace/compassion. We don't just follow the tradition of the very human and sinful history of Christiandom, but rather a tradition of practicing grace/compassion. Not just any authority, but the authority of grace/agape/compassion. Not just any "spiritual" experience (meaning what we live and observe in our lives and relationships), but specifically the life-changing experience of amazing grace/agape...

In sum: experience comes first before text (that is, I would argue, despite what others might claim, the primary category for Jesus and how he interpreted what faithfulness to Torah meant), but it is crucial to also define what experience that was for Jesus. It was the experience of God as loving and compassionate. That experience of God loving and healing and restoring broken people in his own ministry defined how Jesus encountered the world. The experience of grace/compassion/agape love.

At 9:05 AM, Anonymous Jim said...

Maybe that is what the New Covenant is all about, not a reliance on books but on the Spirit of Christ living in you. Sort of puts the "new" into the NC. NT canonization came about three centuries later when orthodoxy was the big thing (back to the OC style). This subsequently evolved into sola scriptura during the debate over tradition versus books. But on the other hand, a book can have some advantages because you can push it down a heretics throat. Seems like fun.

At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes, I agree. Wesley developed the Quadrilateral at the height of modernism, meaning there was at the time an enthusiasm towards the "rational" and "experience" (by which Wesley meant an early understanding of empirical evidence, so we might use "logic and observation" as synonyms for what he meant) as there was a cultural shift away from authority and tradition as sources towards an Enlightenment view.

Always trying to be a mediator, Wesley thus tried to incorporate the new popular Enlightenment/Modernistic thought of the day (reason and experience), along with the old stuff "Scripture and tradition" which were already a mix of Catholic and Protestant approaches.

It has in it's favor that it tries to be really broad. But what it lacks is self-awareness of the flaws inherent in all of these approaches, and there are really big flaws in all of them that have historically lead to horrific violence and abuse. Post-modernism (where we are now) is about being aware of the limitations of the modernist experiment, knowing that science has done great things, but it also has caused lots and lots of death and violence, just as blind trust in kings and power has also caused lots of death and violence before that.

So since we are aware of the flaws of both modernism and it's violence AND the abusive religion that was so rampant before it, we need to take a critical look at all these parts of the Quadrilateral today.

At 3:42 PM, Anonymous Jim said...

Thanks for your insight and I'm glad you didn't use any math to prove the quadrilateral - that could be ungodly lol.

At 2:06 PM, Anonymous michael hardin said...

e = experience, t tradition, s scripture, r reason. JC Jesus, HS Holy Spirit, bh biblical hermeneutic:

(e plus reason over s divided by HS)times JC squared = bh

At 10:01 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Now add it all together.
The answer will be your age.


At 1:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doris Bergen in TWISTED CROSS writes of the German Christian movement. They emphasized experience, of course Aryan experience, and held notions of doctrine and biblically-based authority as divisive, outdated, and counterproductive. Obviously one must have an experience prior to writing about it, but if one believes the authors of scripture were 'inspired' in a genuine and distinctive sense, then using experience as the referential norm for spiritual truth becomes problematic in the extreme.


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