Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Change the Name if You Must, But Keep the Method

RipplesRecently there has been a great deal of Methodist blog activity around the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and a number of prominent voices calling for its demise. As pleased as I was to see everyone taking a break from debating the pros and cons of schism, I can’t say scrapping one of the most note-worthy ideas to come out of Wesleyan theology since the 1968 merger is much of an improvement.

I’ll quote from one of the more recent of these blogs by a well-known figure in the area of Methodist social media, Drew McIntyre who I hold in very high regard and whose blogs I often enjoy reading. Drew eloquently states in his blog “The Quadrilateral or the Word of God?” what I think is the crux of this recent debate.

In too many UMC conversations, from worship to trustee meetings to bake sales, the Bible is little more than window dressing.  Rather than living under the authority of God’s Word, we use it for our own ends.  We piously reference Scripture, tacking it on to the end of this or that, when in truth neither this nor that have been informed by God or God’s story preserved in Scripture. .. In United Methodist circles, it can be argued that the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral has contributed to this ‘bending’ of the gospel over the last several decades.  Opinions vary as to whether Outler’s construct was defunct from the beginning or misunderstood and misapplied, but the results are the same: Scripture, despite efforts to re-narrate the Quadrilateral to the contrary, has become just one of four implicitly equal sources from which we can draw on for theological truth. McIntyre, “The Quadrilateral or the Word of God?”

One thing I’ve come to appreciate about Drew’s blogs is his even-handedness in critiquing the church. In citing some of the examples of ways Christians use scripture to their own ends Drew lists “war, poverty, wealth, homophobia, abortion”, a list that in theory at least says “a pox on both your houses” to the extreme conservative and extreme radical forces in the church, both of whom can be guilty of twisting scripture (McIntyre). So the overall concern is the abuse of scripture to fit one’s own views or opinions. Let me first say I agree with Drew and others that this is happening and agree that we must combat it. But I have to question whether this is really because we have the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

For one thing, as Drew’s statement points out he and others are not concerned over whether the Quadrilateral is being used properly or is abused by those twisting scripture to their own ends. His and the other blogs I’ve read on the subject do not seem at all concerned with how Outler and The United Methodist Church itself actually teach the Quadrilateral. I think we have to answer the question of whether the offenders are using the Quadrilateral properly before we advocate for its demise.

To answer this I’m going to turn to Albert Outler himself who originally coined the phrase. I want show how Outler understood the Quadrilateral. This should settle once and for all whether the Quadrilateral itself stands guilty or not. Outler tries to fully articulate what is meant by the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in a 1985 edition of The Wesleyan Theological Journal.

In 1763, in what came to be known as “The Model Deed” Wesley proceeded to stipulate the negative limits of Methodist doctrine—viz. that preachers in Methodist chapels were to preach, no other doctrine than is contained in “Mr. Wesley’s Notes Upon the New Testament and four volumes of Sermons.” This provided his people with a doctrinal canon that was stable enough and yet also flexible. In it, the Holy Scriptures stand first and foremost, and yet subject to interpretations that are informed by, Christian Antiquity, critical reason and an existential appeal to the “Christian experience” of grace, so firmly stressed in the Explanatory Notes. Outler, Wesleyan Theological Journal.

Here we see the four objects identified: Holy Scripture, interpretations of Christian antiquity (tradition), critical reason, and “Christian” experience of grace. Notice Outler begins by stating scripture is primary and most immediately considered among the four by Wesley.

His [Wesley’s] working concepts of doctrinal authority were carefully worked out; they were complex and dynamically balanced. When challenged for his authority, on any question, his first appeal was to the Holy Bible, always in the sense of Article VI in the XXXIX Articles—to which he had subscribed but which he was prepared to quote inexactly. Even so, he was well aware that Scripture alone had rarely settled any controverted point of doctrine. He and his critics had repeatedly come to impasses in their games of proof texting—often with the same texts! Thus, though never as a substitute or corrective, he would also appeal to “the primitive church” and to the Christian tradition at large as competent, complementary witnesses to “the meaning” of this Scripture or that. Even in such appeals, he was carefully selective. But Scripture and tradition would not suffice without the good offices (positive and negative) of critical reason. Thus, he insisted on logical coherence and as an authorized referee in any contest between contrary propositions or arguments. And yet, this was never enough. It was, as he knew for himself, the vital Christian experience of the assurance of one’s sins forgiven, that clinched the matter. Outler, Wesleyan Theological Journal.

Tradition is the past witness and teachings of the church. Whether we like to admit or not, we’re don’t come to scripture as empty vessels. Most of us are already part of a long-standing tradition or fellowship and that fellowship will influence how we interpret scripture, whether we like it or not. We are indebted to the past.

We’re also fundamentally beings of reason. We can only conceive and understand a world or a faith that makes sense rationally. When I say reason I don’t mean science or the most sophisticated thought of our day. I’m talking about the very basic inclination of our minds toward coherence and rationality. Wesley emphasized the importance of this when he told his preachers to avoid “ivory towers” and preach a Christianity that was simple and coherent to the common individual, something they could readily understand and follow. It’s sad that we have switched to thinking of reason in the context of the Quadrilateral as making Christianity most attractive to the smartest guy in the room, when Wesley had a much broader appeal in mind.

I would say that experience of grace and the Holy Spirit was the hallmark of Wesleyan theology, but that wouldn’t be true. It’s the hallmark of Christianity itself. There’s nothing uniquely Wesleyan about appealing to Christian experience. I wish there were, but this notion is inherent to Christianity itself and it has been the trigger to all theology that is worth its mustard. Take away Paul’s walk to Damascus. Take away Augustine’s little voice saying “take up and read”. Take away Luther’s lightning bolt. Take away Wesley’s Aldersgate, Boehoeffer’s listening to the Abyssinian Baptist choir in Harlem, or Jurgen Moltmann’s time as a POW in WWII and what are you left with? It was not merely these men reading of scripture, but their direct experience of its truth reigning over their own lives that made saints and theologians out of them. As Christians we believe fundamentally that we encounter God in our lives and that grace touches and moves our lives in amazing ways. This is what Wesley and Outler meant by experience, encountering God and feeling the power of grace in our lives. It’s what makes being a Christian worth it all. It doesn’t mean all experiences we find in life, but those times where in our faith we’ve felt God present and directing us. These encounters still need to be grounded in scripture to be considered authentic. Everything in tradition, reason, and experience comes back to scripture.

In case there’s still any doubts as to the pre-eminence of scripture in Outler’s model:

Even that cheerful thought may be thwarted, however, so long as the phrase “the Wesleyan quadrilateral” is taken too literally. It was intended as a metaphor for a four element syndrome, including the four-fold guidelines of authority in Wesley‟s theological method. In such a quaternity, Holy Scripture is clearly unique. But this in turn is illuminated by the collective Christian wisdom of other ages and cultures between the Apostolic Age and our own. It also allows for the rescue of the Gospel from obscurantism by means of the disciplines of critical reason. But always, Biblical revelation must be received in the heart by faith: this is the requirement of “experience.” Outler, Wesleyan Theological Journal.

So to review here are some of the key points on the role of scripture we can take from Outler:

  1. Scripture is the primary source of theology and contains all things necessary to salvation
  2. The remaining three standards of tradition, reason, and experience are always to be built upon scripture and must be able to submit themselves to scripture
  3. Tradition, reason, and experience can never (even together) be brought forth as a substitute for scripture.
  4. Most of all, Outler makes it crystal clear that the four sources are not equal. Scripture is first, foremost, and final.

I have to conclude that when we “rather than living under the authority of God’s Word, use it for our own ends” or “tacking it on to the end of this or that, when in truth neither this nor that have been informed by God or God’s story preserved in Scripture” we are going against the methodology Outler actually defines as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. We’re building scripture onto a case rather than building a case upon scripture and forcing scripture to submit to us rather than submitting to it. This is not the Wesleyan Quadrilateral at all.

Perhaps it’s the image rather than the actual methodology of the Quadrilateral that needs tweaking. Admittedly even though Outler makes it clear that this particular quadrilateral is not a square with equal sides, Methodists can’t seem to get the image out of their heads. I’ve seen it drawn as trapezoid or rhombus. Some think of it more as stool with three legs, scripture being the base in this image. I myself prefer the image of throwing a rock into a still pool of water. The rock is scripture, the source and foundation for what is about to happen. Tradition, reason, and experience are the ripples that form in the water and eventually overtake the whole pool. They owe their power ultimately to the rock, but the rock depends upon them to express itself upon the pool. I have no reservations about us changing the image of the Quadrilateral to something that better emphasizes the unique status of scripture, but I believe the methodology itself should stay.


If we are to follow the logic of the argument that the Quadrilateral is to blame, then we’re left to assume that the removal of it from Methodist teachings would in turn end or at least severely hinder the misconceptions and abuse of scripture among Methodists. I’m rather skeptical because I have to wonder what excuse we can attribute to the other traditions and Christians who also abuse scripture with no quadrilateral in sight.  This is a sin where Christians across denominations seem equally at fault. Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Catholics, Non-dens, etc.

Every tradition has its scripture twisters who manage to find ways to make scripture defend the most ridiculous or vile things and some do so while claiming to hold scripture in the highest possible regard. Last year I heard people try to use Paul’s teachings on worldly authorities in Romans 13 to sanction torture. Recently a man in California called for the mass execution of homosexuals claiming that the Bible justified his petition. And years ago the former President of the Southern Baptist Convention Adrian Rogers claimed slavery wasn’t that bad when asked if he believed scripture supported the institution. And not a single one of these people as far as I can tell had ever even heard of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. One advantage of the Quadrilateral is its honesty. When you believe you can read scripture “purely” and literally without outside influence you’re more likely to adopt strange and extreme interpretations more the product of your own ego than God’s word. If on the other hand you approach scripture already aware that other forces are influencing how you interpret and invite the Holy Spirit as Wesley did to inform that reading, then it becomes harder to be a fundamentalist. This is why I want to keep the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, because it keeps me humble.

So here are my suggestions. Instead of scraping Outler idea let’s work on teaching it better. If the name causes us to stumble then do as Jesus advises and remove it. When people abuse it by saying they don’t need scripture because they got reason and experience on their side, point back to Wesley and Outler and tell them “The hell you don’t!” Teach it properly.

Works Cited:

McIntyre, Drew. “The Quadrilateral or the Word of God?” Via Media Methodists. 10 March 2015.

Outler, Albert C. (1985). Jason Gingerich, ed. “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral in John Wesley”. Wesley Center for Applied Theology.


This entry was posted in Grace, Scripture, United Methodist, Wesleyan, Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Change the Name if You Must, But Keep the Method

  1. Phillip, I’m sorry to say that I just found this excellent post. May I reprint it on United Methodist Insight? Since it’s annual conference season, and probably legislation regarding the WQ will come up, this seems like a good time for a reprint. Email me at one.scribe56@gmail.com. Thanks!

  2. Robert Johnson says:

    Hey, Phillip! Hope you and the folks at Path 1 are well. Tell everyone I said “hello!” … Please remove me as a user on the Path 1 page.

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