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I have heard some within the Wesleyan tradition say they follow the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a theological methodology. The say Wesley taught there were four sources for theology: 1) Scripture, 2) Tradition, 3) Reason, 4) Experience. These are four equal authorities that must be balanced against one another. Thus whatever we believe can come from and can be evaluated equally by these four sources. They say this is what distinguishes Wesleyans from other theological traditions in how they do theology.

There only one problem with this: Wesley never used the word quadrilateral in referring to his theological method, and he never described his use of theological sources in way set out above. In fact, I believe he would have said the above method is all wrong.

The word quadrilateral was first used of Wesley’s theological method by a 20th Wesleyan theologian Albert Outler. He did say Wesley used the four sources outlined above in doing theology and Outler gave them the name, the quadrilateral. Since then mainline Wesleyans, such as the United Methodist Church, have run with this concept making it part of their core identity.

Outler has since said he greatly regrets ever using the word quadrilateral to describe Wesley’s theological method. He says it gave the impression that all 4 sources were equal in authority om Wesley’s mind. Outler himself was very careful to say that Wesley taught Scripture was the supreme authority and that Scripture can overrule the other three. Tradition, Experience and Reason are useful tools, but never can override Scripture. This is  an accurate picture of Wesley.

Despite Outler’s accurate understanding of Wesley, it is his word picture misapplied that has won the day. What Outler feared would happen has come to pass. Some Wesleyans have begun to treat Tradition, Experience and Reason as equal to Scripture in authority and therefore Scripture can be overruled by them.The end result is that biblical positions in theology and ethics that Wesleyans have historically held with all other Christians are now being cast aside by some using Wesley’s Quadrilateral as an excuse.

The irony is that Wesley never used the term or taught the concept. The theologian who came up with the term says the way it is being used now is wrong in and of itself, and it is not in line with his own understanding of Wesley. In other words, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as it is currently being used is completely and totally a myth, and it is contrary to Wesley and the tradition that bears his name.

Clarification. I am not in any way saying that the denomination known as Wesleyan makes this mistake or that all in the Wesleyan tradition are making this mistake. It is some in the more “liberal” wing of the church theologically who are participating in this error. Wesley’s teaching on the doctrine of Scripture is actually an area that evangelical methodists and presbyterians all agree on.

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2 thoughts on “The Myth and the Abuse of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

  1. I think it may be important to note that when you are using the term “Wesleyan,” it appears you mean anyone who adheres to a system of theology that derives from that of John Wesley. However, since “Wesleyan” is also a denomination that differs from the United Methodist denomination in its understanding of Wesleyan theology (at least in practice), I would hesitate to label this a “Wesleyan” understanding of the quadrilateral. Furthermore, the Weslyan tradition with which I’m familiar talked about the Wesleyan quadrilateral but did not view each member of the quadrilateral as equal to Scripture. While I don’t think you are necessarily saying that all “Wesleyans” believe this, it’s sounds a bit like a strawman argument to me.

  2. Thanks for your input Enoch. I in no way intended to say that the Wesleyan denomination or that all Wesleyans are guilty of using the quadrilateral in this way. It is only those who would identify themselves as “liberal” or “progressive” theologically that do this. I will correct this misunderstanding.

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