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  • Writer's pictureKim Carroll

Our Theological Task: The Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Updated: Jun 23, 2023

Did you know that it was John Wesley who first penned the phrase “Agree to Disagree”? In a eulogy for his friend, and sometimes adversary, George Whitefield, Wesley wrote:

“There are many doctrines of a less essential nature, with regard to which even the sincere children of God... are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’” While admonishing his followers to hold fast the essentials of faith, Wesley also taught humility - that no matter how strong our opinions, we must also acknowledge that we could be wrong. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

And indeed, under the United Methodist umbrella, you will find a broad diversity of thought and a wide range of theological ideas and beliefs. Conservatives, liberals, progressives and moderates have all found a home here. These very different politicians all claim to belong to the United Methodist Church: former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, President George W. Bush, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Elizabeth Warren. All have used their faith to justify policy proposals and decisions they’ve made in their political careers.

So, how can we interpret Scripture, discern truth, and make faithful decisions? Wesley believed that Christian faith is “revealed in Scripture, illuminated by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” Albert Outler called this method of theological reflection, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

The foundation of the Quadrilateral is Scripture. United Methodists believe that the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is the primary way we know God, and that it contains all things necessary for salvation. The Word of God, written by human beings and inspired by the Spirit, has the power to birth and nourish faith, and transform hearts, minds and lives through its teachings. Scripture is best read within a believing community, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as we interpret these ancient texts in light of their place in the Bible as a whole and in their original context.

The second side of the quadrilateral is Tradition, which includes the knowledge and insights we receive from more than 2000 years of rich Christian history. Christians from different times, places and cultures wrestled with Scriptures and in their relationship with God, seeking to interpret the truth of the gospel for their time and place. This great cloud of witnesses have provided commentaries, creed, hymns, prayers, and art that inspire and inform our understanding of faith today.

The third side of the quadrilateral is Experience. Wesley believed that we cannot have a reasonable assurance of something unless we personally experience it. It’s one thing to read about God’s grace, but something else to experience it at work in your life and the lives of others. His own experience of having his heart strangely warmed is an example of how experience can confirm and bear witness to our faith and transform our lives. We all practice theology, read scripture, and make decisions in light of the situations and events that shape who we are.

Reason is the fourth side of the quadrilateral. As United Methodist we are not required to check our brains at the door. Wesley invited us to wrestle with Scripture using our common sense and God-given ability to learn. While we acknowledge that much of our faith will always encompass mystery, we are invited to ask questions and seek answers, as we work to understand Scripture and apply it to our lives.

Wesley's Quadrilateral - Scripture Tradition, Experience and Reason - provides our theological guidelines as laypeople and clergy alike seek to interpret Scripture and make faithful decisions in daily living. Depending on where we are in life and in our faith journey, we may each hear God speaking to us differently, and we may not always reach the same theological conclusions. John Wesley emphasized, “though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.”

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