Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Summary and Reflection

by Michael R. Burgos Jr. 

§ I. Summary 

Wesleyanism consists of "the theology based upon the views of John Wesley (1703 — 1791), founder of Methodism."[1] The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is an epistemological paradigm in which the derivation of theology is understood and the authority of its components ordered. The phrase itself was derived by Wesleyan theologian Albert Outler, who upon examining the corpus of Wesley, argued that the evangelist affirmed four valid sources of theology; Scripture, reason, tradition and experience.[2]

Upon its face, it would seem as though the utilization of the word "quadrilateral" would imply that the aforementioned components are on a par with one another. That is, the word seems to convey the idea that each of the components comprising the quadrilateral are equal in their ability and authority to provide theology. Outler later came to regret the phrase for that very reason. He stated, "The term 'quadrilateral' does not occur in Wesley—and more than once, I have regretted having coined it for contemporary use, since it has been so widely misconstrued."3 Outler's regret is well taken, as some contemporary critics seem to rely heavily upon the phrase, rather than the definition of the phrase.[3]

Wesleyanism affirms only the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon as theopneustos.[4] As such, Scripture is the first of the four sources of theology in the quadrilateral, and it is the most authoritative. The Scriptures are the "first" and "final" authority in the derivation of theology and thus all other sources are viewed as subservient to it.[5] The paradigm observes that it is the Scriptures that are sufficient to convey the totality of the gospel, but it simultaneously affirms that human reason, tradition, and experience are the "lenses through which we read Scripture."[6] Hence there is a tension between these elements such that they are interwoven, not unlike how human beings are thought to actually receive theology. It is the text of the Bible that is "God's self disclosure," such that through reading the text faithfully will merit the reader with a portrayal of the "overflow of God's heart."[7] According to the quadrilateral, the Scriptures require faith before one can affirm the contents therein, including the miraculous. 

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is distinct from the "three legged stool" of the Roman Catholic faith. Within Catholicism "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God."[8] Additionally, the Roman magisterium is viewed as the "successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching."[9] Thus, the magisterium, Scripture, and tradition are on equal footing within the Roman Catholic framework. Wesleyanism, like other Protestant traditions, are decisively contrary to the view expounded by the Roman tradition and its understanding of the derivation of theology. Moreover, while Protestantism is interested in the continuance of biblical orthodoxy over and against heresy, the Roman Catholic viewpoint is thought to be more concerned with unity.[10]

The second component of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is reason. Reason is defined as "the mental capacity or power to use the human mind in reaching and establishing truth."[11]Within the quadrilateral, reason functions as a source of theology but presupposes the ability of God to communicate sufficiently such that the faithful mind can apprehend revealed truth.[12] Thus, because God is eminently reasonable, and because the faculty of human reason is part of the imago Dei, it is thought that human reason "is not a foe to the theological task."[13] Outler, in his attempt to substantiate the quadrilateral from the corpus of Wesley has stated, 
"Scripture and tradition would not suffice without the good offices (positive and negative) of critical reason. Thus, he [Wesley] insisted on logical coherence and as an authorized referee in any contest between contrary propositions or arguments."
Within the context of the quadrilateral, reason is viewed as complementary to Scripture, tradition, and experience in the reception of theological truth. Although the eternality and excellency of God surpasses the human faculty to reason, it remains "faith seeking understanding" in acknowledgement of the existence of paradox and the otherness of the God.[14] Moreover, the modernist assertion of the supremacy of human reason over Scripture is rejected, in keeping with historic Christian orthodoxy.[15]

The third component of the quadrilateral is tradition. That is, "The transmission of received teaching or practice."[16] Tradition is viewed as both a "vital" and "essential" means of communicating the faith to subsequent generations.[17] Ritual practices such as the recognized ordinances of the Lord's Supper and water baptism, and in some denominations, the practice of foot-washing, are received as "living traditions" which are means of spiritual renewal and even a component of sanctification.[18] Interestingly, tradition is also viewed as the exact reason why churches are built and Sunday services are attended.[19] Outler has described the role of tradition within the quadrilateral as a valuable compliment to Scripture.[20] Therefore, the patristic literature is conceived as an effective source of theological truth in conjunction with the Scriptures. Outler has noted,
"For Wesley, the Christian tradition was more than a curiosity or a source for illustrative material. It was a living spring of Christian insight. Reading Wesley against his sources amounts to an eccentric excursion through the length and breadth of the history of Christ thought."[21]
While there is certainly theological value in the Christian tradition, the quadrilateral paradigm acknowledges the propensity for some traditions to mitigate theological truth, subsequently substituting human traditions for the command of God. Adherents to the quadrilateral are cognizant of those traditions which make null the Word of God,[22] and it is those traditions which are rejected.  

The final component of the quadrilateral is experience. Mercer has defined experience within the Wesleyan context as, "the ordinary understanding of something that happens to or within one, about which we can think and discuss- heart religion."[23] Christian experience is viewed as the acknowledgment and participation of the salvific power of God in accordance with the testimony of the Scriptures.[24]

Within the Wesleyan-Pentecostal context, the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is analogous to the events of Pentecost and even the advent of the Son of God as Christian experience is seen as personal encounter with God. Similar to other Pentecostal traditions, Wesleyan-Pentecostalism views the relevant experiential depictions present in the Acts as normative for Christians today.[25] Therefore, within the framework of the quadrilateral there is a historical consistency sought within the theological revelation that the people of God receive through experience.[26]

§ II. Reflection

In my estimation there is much to be appreciative of in the theological method depicted above. For example, there is a robust view of the text of Scripture and its applicability in apprehending true theology. So too, while I am not a Pentecostal, I am an Evangelical and therefore I appreciate the consideration of personal experience as an important and profound element in the Christian life. As someone who has extensively examined the origins of Pentecostalism and its development, I can see how the Wesleyan nod to both authentic Christian experience and personal piety led to the formation of the "heart religion" that is Pentecostalism and the broader charismatic movement.[27] Additionally, I appreciate the rejection of reason as the supreme arbiter of truth- theological and otherwise. Such a view presupposes the non-existence of the supernatural and is subsequently fallacious.

It would seem then that the Wesleyan paradigm finds value in human reason like our God[28] and hence rejects anti-intellectualism.[29] However, while I appreciate the above aspects, there are also various areas wherein I hold substantial disagreements with the quadrilateral. 

Within the Reformed tradition of which I affirm, Scripture is viewed as the sole infallible rule of Christian faith and practice. It is also viewed as completely sufficient to provide theology. Although it is worth noting that the Reformed acknowledge that the knowledge of God's

existence is apparent in the creation and is therefore an intrinsic feature of the human condition.[30] Scripture is sufficient and necessary for the knowledge of the gospel[31] and the revealed will of God.[32] Not only are human reason and experience wholly subservient to Scripture, they are not in and of themselves a valid source of theology since both human reason and experience can err. Human reason is particularly prone to error in so far as it must cope with the noetic effects of sin. 

Tradition finds its value only insofar as it finds itself in accord with Scripture. In this there is substantial agreement, with the caveat that from my tradition's perspective, tradition is a channel for biblical theology rather than a source of it. Subsequently, tradition (i.e., traditions not revealed in the biblical text itself) and even experience are not a means of theology but rather a response to the theology revealed in Scripture. That is not to suggest that there is not value to tradition. For example, we greatly value the historic creeds and our confession of faith. But these documents are only authoritative because they comprise a summarized articulation of biblical truth. Indeed, I can appreciate the Wesleyan appeal to tradition in an effort to support one's understanding of the biblical text. However, it would seem problematic at best to suppose that tradition is a source of theology since while it may safeguard the believer from new heresies, it does little to prevent the affirmation of heresies present in primitive Christianity. Furthermore, while tradition may be the reason for the building of churches and their attendance within the Wesleyan context,[33] Reformed Christians view the purpose of church as nothing less than the exaltation of the Triune God in song, sacrament, and in the proclamation of Scripture.

While I respect my Wesleyan-Pentecostal brothers and sisters, I personally feel it is unnecessary and indeed unhelpful to suppose that reason, tradition, and experience are a "sources of theology." Even though Outler lamented over his construct being misconstrued, I think there is some legitimacy in some of the criticism as the whole paradigm seems at times to undermine the supreme epistemic authority of Scripture. As Grudem has noted, 
"The Bible contains all the words of God we need for trusting and obeying him perfectly."[34]


[1] McKim, WDTT, 377.
[2] See Outler, “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral in Wesley,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, 20.1, Spring-1985, 7-18. 3 ibid, 16. 
[3] E.g., Anderson, The Myth of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral
[4] See 2 Timothy 3:16.
[5] See, Wesleyan Quadrilateral Lecture, 3. 
[6] ibid. 
[7] ibid, 4.
[8] Catechism of the RCC, 1.2.2.81.
[9] ibid, 1.2.2.97. 
[10] Wesleyan Quadrilateral Lecture, 4. 
[11] McKim, WDTT, 295.
[12] The Wesleyan framework assumes faith is the necessary antecedent to reason as a source of theology. See Wesleyan Quadrilateral Lecture, 6.
[13] Wesleyan Quadrilateral Lecture, 5. 15 Outler, 9. 
[14] Wesleyan Quadrilateral Lecture, 7. 
[15] See ibid.
[16] McKim, WDTT, 355.
[17] See Wesleyan Quadrilateral Lecture, 8. 
[18] See ibid, 9. The statement, "We must remember where we came from, that keeps us abiding in our "first love,' and keeps our walk fresh and alive," implies that tradition is a means unto perseverance (in the Arminian sense) and sanctification. 
[19] ibid.
[20] See Oulter, 9. 
[21] ibid, 14.
[22] See Mark 7:8-13. 
[23] Mercer, 85.
[24] See Wesleyan Quadrilateral Lecture, 10.
[25] See ibid, 12. 
[26] See ibid, 11.
[27] That is, Wesleyanism and its value of experience was a considerable contributor to Pentecostalism, but one cannot ground the formation of Pentecostalism purely in Wesleyanism. Movements like that of the Keswick revival, the Millerite fad, the Great Awakening, and a virulent reaction against theological liberalism were all within the vorlage of the formation of Pentecostalism.
[28] See Isaiah 1:18.
[29] In light of its Wesleyan roots, it is curious that there are some streams within Pentecostalism that downplay the value of reason and have what many both inside and outside of the movement consider a kind of anti-intellectualism. 
[30] See Romans1:18ff.
[31] See Romans 10:13-17.
[32] See Deuteronomy 29:29.
[33] See Wesleyan Quadrilateral Lecture, 9.
[34] Grudem, 132.



Works Cited


Anderson, Jonathan. "The Myth of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral." Jonathan Andersen: A Young Pastor in an Old Denomination. 3 May 2012. Web. 14 Jan. 2015 http://www.jonathanandersen.com/the-myth-of-the-wesleyan-quadrilateral

"Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church." Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1 Jan. 1993. Web. 14 Jan. 2015. http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p1s1c2a2.htm#II
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.
McKim, Donald. The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms [WDTT]. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.  
Mercer, Jerry, "Toward a Wesleyan Understanding of Christian Experience." Wesleyan Theological Journal 20.1. Web. 13 Jan 2015. http://wesley.nnu.edu/fileadmin/imported_site/wesleyjournal/1985-wtj-20-1.pdf
Outler, Albert. "The Wesleyan Quadrilateral in Wesley." Wesleyan Theological Journal 20.1, Spring-1985, 7-18.
Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Theological Method. Lecture courtesy of Prof. Burleson, Lee University. PDF.

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