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.
The “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 Wesley. It 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:
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:
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:
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!