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Scholarship and spirituality in the Wesleyan spirit

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Those who are familiar with developments in Wesleyan studies might have heard of Albert Outler, an outstanding theologian who first taught at Yale before being recruited to teach at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. Among other things, he was the one who argued persuasively for John Wesley to be taken seriously as an important theologian.

Outler called Wesley a folk theologian1. By that he meant someone who is well-versed with the works of important theologians especially the Church Fathers, yet with the gift of presenting the Christian message in ways which even simple folks like unschooled miners could understand. Being able to communicate with common folks is an uncommon gift for an Oxford-educated pastor/theologian. Not many theologians or pastors can do that.

Interestingly, Outler’s book on Wesley (1964), published by Oxford University as part of the “Library of Protestant Thought” series on great theologians of the Church, is still in print and used as a textbook, while books on other theologians in the same series have gone out of print.

Many of us know Outler is the scholar who coined the term “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” to describe Wesley’s approach to theological reflection and studies. The point he makes is that sound theology should primarily be informed by 1) Scripture, enriched by 2) tradition, clarified by 3) reason and affirmed by corporate 4) experience. Through his research, Outler identified these four frames which undergirded Wesley’s theological works.

Scripture is of primary importance. But we cannot neglect input from history and the rich tradition of the Church, nor should we downplay the use of our mind, and the shared experience of the Church.

In the Singapore context, among Christians in general and Methodists in particular, we tend to give little attention to the invaluable contribution of Church tradition and the constructive critical use of reason. When Scripture is used or preached, it is usually done selectively. When experience is emphasised, those who are into experiential expression of faith seem to depend more on personal experience than on the use of reason in asserting truth claims.

My teacher, William Abraham, the current holder of the Albert Outler Chair at Perkins, has been critical of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral. But Abraham’s criticism is made in the context of a post-Enlightenment West which has replaced “God” with “Reason”. In other words, “Reason” (with a capital R) has become the god of the post-Enlightenment Euro-North American world, sadly with imitators from other continents who worship the Euro-North American dominant cultures.

That concern of William Abraham is valid in the Euro-North American post-Enlightenment world, but it is not a major problem here, and my prayer is that it will not be so. If anything, most Christians in our part of the world are more inclined to fight shy of using our mind in doing theology and loving God. This is not to say that Christians are not intelligent people – they are. That is why Christians in Singapore have an unusual share of the number of people who have attended universities and who are successful professionals.

But when it comes to applying our mind in the service of God, my observation is that Christians are at a loss in handling both mind and faith. Sometimes it seems pastors are not responding to this predicament; perhaps it is easier to manage their congregations if they leave the predicament alone? On the other hand, some pastors find it more “relevant” to follow the kind of “pop faith” (that does not require responsible thinking) which their members may be attracted to.

Spirituality, I say, need not be suspicious of scholarship. We do not have to fear reason when reason is used as an expression of our love for God. Didn’t Jesus say we ought to love God with all our mind, along with our heart, our soul and our strength?


1 See “John Wesley, the ‘folk theologian’ ”, Methodist Message May 2017 issue, P24.

The Rev Dr Daniel Koh Kah Soon

is a pastor at Christalite Methodist Chapel, a part-time lecturer at Trinity Theological College and Chairperson of the Methodist Welfare Services.

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