The Lost Book: The Wesleyan Quadrilateral Conundrum

There was great joy in Israel during the days of King Josiah (2 Kings 22-23).  The lost book of truth had been found!

Truth is of utmost importance.  But, it’s not enough to simply claim truth.  It’s important to critically reflect on how we come to know that our “truth” is really true.  Through a recent conversation, a theological principle known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral or the Methodist Quadrilateral was brought to my attention.  I had briefly heard of it before in passing, but this time it sort of grabbed me.  It in a sense became the centerpiece of the conversation I was having and has continued tumbling over in my mind.

Wesleyan-QuadrilateralThe “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” is a phrase coined in the 1960s by Albert C. Outler in a collection of Wesley’s works he edited simply entitled John WesleyIt was Oulter’s way of synthesizing and summarizing the founder of the Methodist movement’s way of doing theology.  He recognized that Wesley appealed to four sources of knowledge:  Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  Scripture points to the sixty-six books of the Bible.  Tradition is the general understanding and practice the church has employed over the years.  Reason is the conclusions gained through our intrinsic critical thinking faculties.  Experience is the real life encounter with the world around us.

I certainly use these sources of knowledge to come to know truth and assume that you do as well.  So, this description is very good sociology, as it expresses how people usually arrive at theological truth.  However, what seems to have gotten lost over the years, particularly among Wesley’s theological lineage, is the authority structure contained within.  In a sense, the Book has been lost.

As I understand John Wesley, Scripture to Wesley, and rightly so, had the complete pride of place.  It was to be the authority by which all our other sources of knowledge—tradition, reason, experience—were measured.  I believe that Wesley was happily in line with the Reformation cry of sola scriptura, which was shorthand for the belief that Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian.  Scripture is to build our tradition, train our reason, and help us make sense of our experience.  It would be best illustrated as this way:

Wesleyan Quadrilateral-Flow-1

So, if our tradition doesn’t square with the Scripture, we must adjust our tradition so that it does.  If our reason doesn’t jive with the Scripture, we must learn to think how God thinks.  If our experience points to something contrary to Scripture, we must recast our experience to fit with biblical revelation and faith.

However, we as sinful humanity are so tempted to subvert and supplant Scripture.  We often want to put Scripture on the same level as tradition, reason, and experience so that it is just one of the ways we come to truth.  In doing so, as many have proffered, the Wesley Quadrilateral actually becomes the Wesleyan Equilateral like this:

Wesleyan Quadrilateral-Flow-2

Interestingly, Outler, who coined the Wesleyan Quadrilateral phrase, later greatly regretted it for this very reason, saying, “”There is one phrase I wish I had never used: the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It has created the wrong image in the minds of so many people and, I am sure, will lead to all kinds of controversy,” (Good News Magazine, Jan-Feb 2005).  As one author states, “The problems he anticipated come when the Quadrilateral is seen as ‘equilateral,’ and all four ‘sources’ for authority and decision-making are seen as equally weighted.  This was not Outler’s intent nor Wesley’s method.  Rather, Scripture is to be viewed as the centerpiece from which the other sources are suspended,” (citation).

But, seldom do we stop there.  Again, in our depravity, we are so tempted to subvert and supplant Scripture such that tradition, reason, and experience become our authorities over Scripture as illustrated below:

Wesleyan Quadrilateral-Flow-3

People who do this will still usually claim to believe the Bible and love the Bible, but their understanding of the Bible has been severely contorted by their other authorities.  And, depending upon the situation, they’ll turn to their authority of choice.  If tradition gives credence to their fancy and the spirit of the age, then they’ll turn to tradition.  If reason, then they’ll turn to reason.  If experience, then they’ll turn to experience.   Whatever authority will do their bidding, they’ll claim it.  In the end, they have unanchored themselves from the stability God meant for them to have connected to the authority of the Word of God and will be adrift at sea, carried about by whatever their fallen hearts desire.  They will sadly become like Israel in the days of the judges when each person to their great shame simply did what was right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6).  Those who do so today will declare that they are acting thus in hopes following Jesus more closely but all the time will be getting increasingly further from Him.

Let’s get one thing clear:  although the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is emphasized greatly in Methodist and Wesleyan churches, this isn’t just a problem of the Methodist and Wesleyan churches.  Fallen people have been striving to subvert and supplant God’s Word since the Garden of Eden.  We must be ever vigilant against this catastrophic disease!  There is only one cure:  like King Josiah and Israel, we must rediscover the Scripture and do according to all that is written concerning us (2 Kings 22:8-23:25).  Love the Word, study the Word, live the Word, stand on the Word, and then never lose the Book again!

~Ben Simpson  :  @JBenSimpson  :  :  West Main Baptist Church


  1. Bill Mac says

    Ben: I agree that scripture should trump reason, experience, and tradition in theory, but it’s not that easy. If someone tells me they are able to accomplish that I frankly would have a hard time believing them. I don’t know how it is possible to not interpret scripture in light of reason, experience, and tradition.

    What the end result ends up being is that our interpretation is touted as the objective one, and everyone else is guilty of bringing their presuppositions to scripture. The age of the earth is a prime example.

  2. Dave Miller says

    Bill, I always chuckle a little when someone says, “I just get my beliefs straight from the Bible” – as if everyone else is intending to do differently.

    • says

      Or: “I’m not ____________________. I’m just a biblicist.”

      Whatever other ists or isms we can attach to provide definitions, I think that’s what most of us are trying to be.

      • volfan007 says

        I believe that a person can just believe the Bible without trying to make it fit into a system…an “ism.”


        • Bill Mac says

          David: A person can start with a system, and try to make the bible fit it. Or you can start with the bible, and develop a system from it.

          Either way, you end up with a system, whether it is a famous, well-defined system such as Calvinism or simply Worleyism.

          People who “just believe the bible” end up being credobaptists, paedobaptists, Lutherans, Wesleyans, Baptists, charismatics, cessationists, creationists, old-earthers, etc.

          • Debbie Kaufman says

            Saying “Just believe the Bible” is using it as an insult. It is saying if you don’t agree with me you don’t believe the Bible. I believe the Bible, I don’t agree with all interpretations. But I believe scripture to be inerrant and true.

          • volfan007 says

            it’s not an insult. It’s a way of approaching the Bible, and just accepting it the way it’s written, instead of trying to make it fit into some preconceived, philosophical framework.


          • Tarheel says


            you said; “I believe that a person can just believe the Bible without trying to make it fit into a system…an “ism.” ”

            This statement presupposes that people arrive at soteriological positions because they affirm an “ism” first and the then wrap the bible into that “is,. That was not the case for me and I am confident it is not the case for most others of all stripes either.

            I developed my theological understandings and positions from scripture and it was LATER that I discovered that the positions I held were in the reformed tradition. It was more like finding an “ism’ to match my biblical study than the other way around.

          • Tarheel says

            In other words…the Bible is, and was my standard for the development of “my theology”…and it just so happened that as my positions developed, they fit more in the line of the reformed tradition than other frameworks.

            I know this is anecdotal and personal, but like I said…I am confident that I am not alone.

  3. David Rogers says

    Excellent, Ben. I was just talking about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral the other day in a discussion with a Roman Catholic regarding how we each come to the conclusions we come to with regard to what we accept as truth. I think the way you have laid it out here is helpful.

  4. Roger Simpson says

    One of the best books I’ve read recently on Epistemology is “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview” by J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig. I picked this book up a year or so ago at the bookstore at Southwestern Seminary. It was being used as a textbook in an MDiv / DMin elective course on Epistemology.

    Moreland and Craig address most of the subject matter related to the Quadrilateral without using that term. They show that scripture trumps all other sources of knowledge.

    BTW, William Lane Craig is something else. He can take on any atheist in a debate and win the debate.

  5. Jim Chabot says

    I agree with Outler’s regret that he had created a wrong image, and I agree with your thoughts as to how the Quad has been misused over the years and to the current day as well.

    What I didn’t see in your piece is an accurate depiction of the Quad. To which I offer this which I’ve been taught and found to be quite satisfactory.

    It is similar to your “Equilateral” with the exception whereby the left facing arrowheads are eliminated.

    We begin with Scripture, it has full authority and primacy, after all, it is Scripture that we are trying to interpret. We than apply Tradition, we want to see how those before us have interpreted Scripture, just like anything else, those who came before us were closer to the writing and quite possibly possessed an understanding which may be lost to us. We then apply Reason to Tradition. Is Tradition reasonable? Or is Tradition colored somehow by incomplete knowledge or by corruption of the participants. We can also say that since Scripture is given by plenary inspiration, that we can Reasonably expect that Tradition would render an interpretation in harmony with the rest of Scripture, otherwise we could come to the conclusion that Tradition is unReasonable. Finally we live according to our interpretation and our Experience will either validate or invalidate our interpretation. In the case where Experience seems to invalidate our interpretation, we are then able to return to Scripture and revisit our interpretation, We work out our salvation with fear and trembling, the Quad provides a good framework for this process.