Unpacking the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

September 30, 2019

Before we judge a house, we should first understand the builder and what their goals were when they began the construction of the house. An impractical or even "ugly" house may have be designed to serve a unique purpose which has been long forgotten but was in fact very functional and fashionable at the time.

The same can be said for denominational traditions. Albert Outler coined the phrase "Wesley Quadrilateral" referring to John Wesley's addition of experience onto the Anglican method of scriptural interpretation which used tradition and reason. After his spiritual experience at Aldersgate, Wesley joined the thinking of John Calvin which held that the experience of the Holy Spirit was crucial for the interpretation of scripture.

This was an important balance to the emphasis on reason Wesley received as a Fellow at Oxford. The inclusion of reason, accredited to Richard Hooker (c. 1553-1600), was in response to the Puritan rejection of all institutions as unscriptural. This same rejection had influenced the earlier German Peasant Revolt of 1524. The inclusion of reason was intended to counter balance both the blind obedience to outdated traditions as well as radical and harmful misinterpretations of scriptures which began to emerge after the Reformation.

The foundation of the Reformation was a call for church traditions to return to their scriptural basis. This tension between tradition and scripture underlines much of the New Testament. Jesus often criticizes religious leaders for their rigid obedience to traditional interpretations of the Law rather than the spiritual intent of the Law. Using scriptural references as proof of Jesus' identity, the early church at its core was a reinterpretation of Jewish Scriptures in light of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. The church, however, soon found that this reinterpretation varied widely among the spreading church.

The old division within the Jewish faith of Greek philosophy and traditional Middle Eastern Hebraic morality began to surface within the church. This was combined with Roman practicality and soon interpretations of the same Gospels and letters of Paul were producing radically different results. The larger church, facing a splintering of the Body of Christ, held councils to determine the "truest" interpretations. New traditions were quickly established and certain "Patriarchs" were considered authoritative while others were considered heretical. Once again, scripture was to be understood through tradition.

While the Methodist tradition has placed greater emphasis on one aspect of the quadrilateral over another, history has proven that past tradition, human reason, and the divine experience of the Holy Spirit are all needed to provide an interpretation of scripture that survives the test of time.

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