The Wesleyan Quadrilateral
G Howard Mellor
All who have taken the local preachers training course, Faith and Worship, know that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is made up of four elements, namely Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. Moreover these are to be understood as building blocks like a kind of lego which can be placed in any order of priority, so that depending on the issue we can place one or the other at the top of the pile. This theological lego can be seen in the reports to the Methodist Conference. For instance it is typical that when we look at issues of justice the scriptures are quoted, when we look at issues of sexuality then we turn to experience and for liturgy we consider the tradition, or more precisely the high Wesleyan tradition, of the late nineteenth century.
The quadrilateral has been used to place at the heart of Methodist understanding a particular form of epistemology (the theory of how we know things to be true), which is deeply flawed, unconnected with Wesley and can lead Christians and the church to make unwise decisions. The issues of the quadrilateral are, I shall contend, in many ways a sideshow and may deflect us from the central issue of how we discern and deal with divine revelation. I will come back to that central issue.
It was the American Professor of Wesleyan Studies, Dr Albert Outler, who first coined the phrase, ‘the Wesleyan Quadrilateral’. Reflecting on the phrase he later wrote, ‘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’.1
Outler arrived at the Quadrilateral by reflection on the works of Wesley and imposing on them this view of Wesley’s epistemology.
‘His working concepts of doctrinal authority were carefully worked out: they were complex and dynamically balanced. When challenged for his authority, on any question, his first appeal was to the Holy Bible, always in the sense of Article VI of the thirty-nine articles. Even so he was well aware that Scripture alone had rarely settled any controverted point of doctrine….Thus, though never as a substitute or corrective, he would appeal to the “primitive church” and to Christian tradition at large as competent, complimentary witnesses to 'the meaning' of this Scripture or that….But Scripture and tradition would not suffice without the good offices (positive and negative) of critical reason. Thus he insisted on logical coherence as an authorized referee in any contest between contrary propositions or arguments. And yet this was not enough. It was, as he himself knew, the vital experience of assurance of one’s sins forgiven that clinched the matter.
Thus we can see in Wesley a distinctive theological method, with Scripture as the pre-eminent norm but interfaced with tradition, reason, and Christian experience as the dynamic and interactive aids in the interpretation of the Word of God in Scripture.’2
What is clear from this reading of Outler’s view of the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’ is that we certainly do not have here a handful of lego to be placed in any order of priority that the user prefers or finds convenient. The image is closer to the one Donald English used to use in sermons when speaking about discerning truth. He used the image of a child’s mobile in which scripture is the central element with below it the three elements of tradition, reason and experience, which help people interpret the meaning of scripture.
Wesley was following the 16th century Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, who contended with the Puritans that scripture alone was not enough, the process of knowing God’s will also required reference, to tradition and reason. What in fact Wesley does is to build on this and include experience as a key element and by it he meant experience of God.
The danger of the contemporary spin which we find in British Methodism such as in Faith and Worship is that it devalues the contribution of scripture from its central place to have the same coinage as the other three. Furthermore it moves experience away from the experience of God to focus on the way we interface with culture, and contemporary changes in ethics. This is not Wesley’s epistemology reheated for today. It is a contemporary spin predicated on a quite different epistemology, which reckons that no part of this equation has priority or value over the others. Of course liberal theologians find it attractive because it places human thought, theological reflection and experience of life at the very centre of the theory of how we know things to be true.
So I must return to the central issue of divine revelation. I have been won over by William J Abraham’s argument in his mammoth book Canon and Criterion3 which is a gobstopper of a book – it fills the head, hurts the intellectual teeth and takes a long time to devour. His overall contention is that discerning divine revelation requires more than the scriptures. He urges us to include the Creeds and the Fathers as well as scripture as part of the ‘whole canonical heritage’ of the church. At first I would retort that surely Wesley was a ‘man of one book,’ that is the Bible. But I have come to see that though Wesley uttered the words on paper it is too simplistic a reading of his works and preaching. Get hold of a copy of the Forty Four Sermons4 and you will find endless allusions to the early Fathers. He was obviously conversant with Aquinas, Irenaeus, Augustine (with whom he disagreed violently), the Desert Fathers and so on. Or similarly consider the thirty volumes of The Christian Library5 which he wished all his preaches to purchase and read. Not only the early Fathers but the Puritans and Orthodox writers right up to those who were almost his contemporaries such as William Law. Or consider his theory of double inspiration. That is that not only were the writers of the scriptures inspired by God, but that as Christians read those same scriptures they are inspired by God’s Holy Spirit to discern their meaning and application.
Evangelicals, and especially Wesleyan evangelicals, should therefore take careful note of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. As it is used by some, it may be fatally flawed but it does place the process of interpreting scripture firmly within a complete context. Evangelicals should also be cautious about the claim of sola scriptura because our primary aim is not to defend a book but to discern the meaning of divine revelation. What is required is to bring all our best qualities, intellectual (reason) and spiritual (experience) and to ask what earlier generations of Christians concluded (tradition). All three of these however should be, as Luther remarked, ‘under the Word’. The so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral is not a handful of lego, but a mobile of three intertwining elements which taken together illuminate the meaning of scripture and enable Christians to discern divine revelation.
William J Abraham, Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminists, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.
John Wesley’s Forty Four Sermons, Peterborough: Epworth Press, 1944 or the version in contemporary English; James D Holway, Sermons on Several Occasions, Ilkeston: Moorleys Publishing, 1987 (new clear type edition) 1996.
The full sets are rare and normally kept in libraries. Cliff College and the Rylands library have a full set and Perkins Seminary has two! All are reference copies only.
The Revd Howard Mellor is the Principal of Cliff College
Headline Autumn 2003 pp 19-20