How do Methodists do theology and approach issues? When Methodists try to answer questions about God and the world, we use a tool called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. A quadrilateral is any closed four-sided shape like a square or rectangle, but our Quadrilateral is a more complicated structure, though easy to grasp and easier to misunderstand. It may surprise you that John Wesley himself did not use the term, ‘Quadrilateral’.
In Steven Spielberg’s 2018 movie Ready Player One (but not in the original novel by Ernest Cline), the second clue in the contest to win control of the immersive, virtual universe “Oasis” begins with the line, “A Creator who hates his own creation.” This refers to Stephen King, who hated the movie version of his book, The Shining.
To a smaller extent, the line might also refer to the late Albert Outler, a giant of a theologian who coined the term ‘Quadrilateral’. Outler, who served for decades as Professor of Theology at Southern Methodist University, later admitted, “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 (he appears in the first video of the Disciple 1 Bible Study series) drew inspiration from the Anglican Church’s Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886. Richard Heitzenrater, Professor Emeritus of Church History and Wesley Studies at Duke Divinity School, called it the “Outler Quadrilateral” instead. The British Methodists prefer the name, “The Methodist Quadrilateral”.
Whatever you call it, the Quadrilateral reflects Wesley’s belief that “the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.”2 Scripture, tradition, experience and reason make up four sides of the Quadrilateral. These are not unique to Methodists—other Christians use them as well. It is just that we Methodists have a smoking hot term.
The misunderstanding lies in thinking that these four sides are equal. For Wesley (and all evangelical Christians), Scripture is primary and paramount. The Anglican Bishop N T Wright wrote, “[S]cripture, tradition and reason are not like three different bookshelves, each of which can be ransacked for answers to key questions. Rather, [S]cripture is the bookshelf; tradition is the memory of what people in the house have read and understood (or perhaps misunderstood) from that shelf; and reason is the set of spectacles that people wear in order to make sense of what they read…”3
In the words of Chris Bounds, a Methodist professor and theologian at Indiana Wesleyan University, tradition is how the Church has historically interpreted Scripture. Reason brings logical coherence and empowers us to make sense of Scripture and tradition. When our reading of Scripture is true and affirmed by tradition, aligned with reason, then we are led to an experiential faith through the witness of the Holy Spirit. What is taught by Scripture, affirmed by tradition, and supported by reason, must be experienced in the Christian life. After all, faith must be experienced personally and there is an experiential heart dimension to head knowledge in the Christian faith.
How does this work in practice? Think about a theological question like, “Is it all right to lie?” To answer this, we would first look at what the Bible says. We would look at what the Church and what other Christians throughout history have said. We would use reason to interpret the Bible and reflect on tradition. Finally, we would think about what the Holy Spirit is saying to us in our collective and personal experiences today.
It is important to stress that in the Quadrilateral, Scripture is the sole authority. Tradition, reason and experience are but aids to interpret Scripture. Our Quadrilateral does not have four equal sides.
There are, however, people who think that one or more of the other sides are equal or even superior to Scripture. For example, imagine that you have children who are married and they now commit adultery. You know the biblical commandment against adultery. But because it is your children whom you love and you want to avoid blaming them, you reinterpret the Bible and argue that the commandment is time-bound to earlier societies and that the Church’s teaching against adultery is outdated and incompatible to 21st century life. You find reasons to justify adultery in modern society. What you have done is to elevate your experience above Scripture for personal ends. And people do this all the time with contemporary issues. A proper grasp and application of the Quadrilateral would have provided a clearer, more honest and truthful approach.
Scripture determines what we believe and churches develop doctrines based on Scripture. Individuals and churches may have theologies that differ, which is fine because we are not identical. We certainly need tools to interpret and apply Scripture in different situations and times, and Methodists have a fine methodology in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.
1 Oden, Thomas and Longden, Leicester. The Wesleyan Theological Heritage: Essays of Albert C. Outler, 1st edition. Zondervan, 1991. p.35-36
2 The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2016, p. 82 Section 4 – Our Theological Task.
3 Wright, N T. The Last Word; Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. Harper Collins, 2005. p. 101-102
ABOUT THE COVER:
The mathematically astute may realize that the Venn diagram depicted is hardly a quadrilateral. However, in the age of iPhones and squircles, the editorial team has accepted this as “creative licence” as it explains the Wesleyan Quadrilateral concept well.
ABOUT THE ARTWORK
An illustration of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the four qualities of Reason, Tradition, Experience and Scripture, and how these may be challenged in our modern age. The artist used the parable of the faithful maidens awaiting the bridegroom, with sufficient oil in their lamps. They are holding lamps signifying Reason, Tradition and Experience, casting light on the surrounding Scriptures before them, to signify the all-encompassing importance of the fourth quality.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Yen Tun I is an artist and with the Arts Release ministry with Worldwide Evangelisation for Christ (WEC) missions agency. He seeks to create artworks based on Scripture, with fresh angles on arts and culture.