Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Reason, experience, and other methods of arriving at the truth are appropriate to theological reflection. Wesley proved by his theological method that God intends for the human race to use all of its abilities in coming to spiritual fulfillment and mature insight concerning the understanding of the Scripture. A term that theologians have coined to describe this concept of Wesley is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

This system was not altogether a product of Wesley, but a synthesis of and evolution of the theological intrigue of his time which became part and parcel of Wesley’s theological method. It was a paradigm that consisted of a fourfold set of guidelines used by Wesley in his theological thought and reflection, namely, his fundamental belief in the primacy of scripture and the investigation of complementary sources of authority—tradition, reason, and experience, all held in tension and revolving around the scripture as home plate. By this method, Wesley successfully demonstrates the viability of using other dimensions of human experience to competently grasp theology.

Let us look at these several aspects of investigation that were important to Wesley:

Scripture

To Wesley, sola scriptura was all important, even to the point that he referred to himself as homo unius libri, “a man of one book,” implying that scripture for him was the primary source of doing theology. Everything else revolved around it. Wesley is quoted as saying, “O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God.”9 Besides all the theological training that Wesley had received, beginning at Charterhouse in London and consummating his studies at Christ Church, Oxford, he is known to have possessed a library of over sixty titles, among which were probably Bishop Taylor’s Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying, Kempis’ Christian Pattern, and Law’s Christian Perfection and Serious Call. This indicates that Wesley had a broad education and was not stilted in his approach to theology.

Scripture undoubtedly held the position as the supreme authority for theological understanding. Notwithstanding, the other areas of investigation: tradition, reason, and experience were the bases consulted on the journey from “home plate” which led safely “home” again.

Tradition

Not only was scripture important in Wesleyan theological perspective, but also tradition. By tradition we mean the doctrines of the Church which have been upheld since its inception. Wesley was a fond student of the early Fathers’ writings so much so that he continued a methodological study of them throughout his life and made it a part of the study curriculum of the Methodist ministers. To him, reflecting upon and investigation into the doctrines that the Church had upheld in its creeds, councils, the writings of the Patristics, and even the Anglican Church in its Homilies, were important in resolving intricate pericopes of scripture. Wesley, according to Thorsen, considered tradition second only to scripture as a source of religious authority to the degree that it reflected both the intellectual content and the spiritual vitality of the Christian faith.  Tradition, supplemented church doctrine in matters where scripture was silent.  to the extent that the Holy Spirit continued to direct decisions in the early Church, Wesley believed tradition was an essential extension of the witness of scripture.

Wesley’s recognition of the importance of the writers and witness of the Christian Church is noteworthy. In our search for clarification on certain points we would do well to follow this early theologian’s paradigm and consider doctrines of the Church which have been upheld since its inception.

Reason

Earlier it was noted that Wesley was a product of his time partaking of and adopting whatsoever elements he felt relative to understanding theology. This is true especially of his appeals to reason. In Wesley’s time the prominence of reason is observable in the Anglican Church which “considered reason the synthesizing medium between scripture and tradition.” Thorsen, quotes Robert G. Tuttle, “The Church of England, although denying…that natural theology was the only route to faith, was. . . basically Aristotelian in its approach to God.” Aristotelian logic became a part of Wesley’s thought through his studies at Oxford and the work of Henry Aldrich’s Artis Logicae Compendium.

Methodism’s founder was also an avid reader of John Locke, assimilating his views of reason. He believed that through reasoning we know that God exists just as surely as we know that we ourselves exist, that humanity would reason from this that a future judgment, a future state of existence, or future world is also evident. Christian Perfection, Wesley reasoned, is possible. If such doctrine is correct then there must be somewhere those who have experienced this observable fact. His belief in the ultimate rationality of true religion was such that he is quoted as saying that it is a fundamental principle with Methodists that to renounce reason is to renounce religion. Furthermore, religion and reason go hand in hand.  All irrational religion is false religion.

Experience

Another great tenet of Wesley’s theological method was the importance he placed on Christian experience, which he saw as a fulfillment of the declarations of scripture. In other words, the scriptural assertion that those who belong to God have the witness of the Spirit within, is taken by Wesley, to mean that a specific experiential witness of the Spirit is within everyone who belongs to God. This particular element came home to him on Aldersgate Street when he felt his heart “strangely warmed.” When the scripture teaches about entire sanctification, there must be somewhere someone who has experienced this event, or at least the capability of its experience is a present reality. So, for Wesley, experience works as a confirmation of scripture, tradition, and reason.

Summary

Since natural revelation is weakened through the darkened, sinful mind and the fact that there are some things about God that we cannot know without His revealing them to us, God gave us the revelation of Himself through His Word, through His Son Jesus Christ. The Son, being the express image of His person and the brightness of His glory, came to reveal the Father to us. Even though we have this revelation, the darkened mind of humanity cannot understand the revelation until the experience of the “new birth,” since the carnal mind cannot know God. It is after one has experienced God that the elements of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral come into perspective. To have sincere Bible-based theology, we need not only study the Bible, but we need to learn, as Wesley, how to use tradition, reason, and experience to aid us in a correct understanding of God’s revelation to us.

Understanding the message of scripture and adhering tenaciously to its demands are what we are about. We do not need philosophical speculation, humanistic treatises, or so called “theological training” that leaves out the importance of the scripture or makes a mockery of what God has allotted. What we need is a better understanding of the Word of God, to “preach the Word,” to be “instant in season and out of season,” “to reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and doctrine.” Gospel preachers need to be filled full of the Word of God, so much so that it comes through in their vocabulary upon casual conversation and especially in the ministry from the pulpit. It is the “engrafted word” that is able to save our souls. We need preachers who will not preach “about the Word of God,” but who will “preach the Word.” There is an enormous difference.

This post may contain information from one of these references:  Robert W. Burtner and Robert E. Chiles, Editors, John Wesley’s Theology, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), p. 20.; Donald a. D. Thorsen, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), pp. 31-62; .  Thorsen, pp. 128-129.; Albert C. Outler, Editor, John Wesley, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 1-33.;  Thorsen, p. 168., 170

About Dr. Robinson

Dennis Robinson is an ordained bishop and has served as pastor, evangelist, teacher, missionary, administrator and chaplain. Academic accomplishments include Doctor of Ministry, Master of Divinity, and Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Education.
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