I started out as a child. Perhaps you did as well.
It’s interesting to reflect on the memories you carry from childhood. Some are vivid and are as if they happened yesterday. Others exist in kind of a nostalgic haze colored by emotional associations of the joys of what, for me, was a happy and largely carefree childhood.
Among the vivid memories I have from childhood, there are a couple from my experience of church. In those days, of course, Sunday school took place before Sunday services not during, so we had no choice as kids but to squirm and fidget our way through services, the way our parents and their parents had before them.
Nevertheless, in the midst of that fidgeting, a few memories from church really stand out. Not always positive memories, unfortunately. This is particularly true of my then pastor’s sermons. I can only remember a handful of things he said, and all but one of those things was unhelpful.
In fact, on one occasion I remember him saying clearly: “Homosexuals will not get into heaven.” I have no idea what the sermon was about or what prompted him to make this observation in the course of it, but I remember that statement thundering down from the pulpit in our modest little Upstate New York congregation.
But equally vivid in my recollection is my memory of my reaction: “Well, that can’t be right,” I remember thinking.
At the time, perhaps, even as a kid that seemed like an overreach. But why should it seem so to me? Why should I, even as a kid, somehow intuit that there was something amiss with that statement? It’s not like I had studied the issue extensively. In fact, the topic was still pretty taboo in the secondary school circles in which I existed. Nor was it that I had had extensive experience with Reconciling Churches (which at that time had yet to exist, in any event). Nor was it because I had engaged in a lot of in-depth Biblical criticism to explore the deep meaning of the texts in question (assuming my pastor was even referring to those).
Years later, it occurred to me why I found such a blanket statement objectionable. It’s because I was a Methodist. Even as a kid I had learned something about God’s love and grace—if by osmosis and not by preaching. But I also intuited that we Methodists just didn’t make declarative, absolutist statements like that. It’s not how we think.
I wouldn’t know how to describe how we think until years later, but much of it has to do with something called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. And it outlines a pattern of reasoning that is one of Wesley’s great contributions to Christian thought. For Wesley articulated process of Christian theological reflection and interpretation that embraced a four-fold process of looking to Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Or as the Book of Discipline puts it: “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.”
The Quadrilateral forms our theological reflection and the way in which we do ethics. And, on occasion, the structure of undergraduate courses that I’ve taught.
II. BETWEEN ROME AND GENEVA
Now, Wesley never referred to his process as the Quadrilateral—that was a name fashioned by Albert Outler to describe the four-fold processs that Wesleyan theology embraced. Even more so, Wesley did not make up the Quadrilateral. At least not entirely. He had three-quarters of the work done for him.
It’s hard for us to imagine today because the specter of fundamentalism looms so large in Christian thinking, but for the overwhelming majority of Christian history, Christians did not take their scriptures literally. Now, they took them seriously—but literally? No.
In the writings of St. Paul we get a glimpse of this. There are times when Paul quotes the Old Testament and uses his quote to mean the exact opposite of what that quote means in context. (See his treatment of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians.) There are also occasions in the Gospel of Matthew where Matthew quotes Old Testament “prophecies” that clearly mean something else altogether in their literal meanings in context. For example, he quotes Hosea 11 in the midst of his story of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt by noting that this fulfilled the words of the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” However, when we actually go and look at Hosea 11, we realize that the “son” being referred to is the nation of Israel and that the “calling out of Egypt” is the Exodus.
So, either we have to conclude that the authors of scripture thought that we’d never go look this stuff up ourselves and are trying to pull one over on us or perhaps they are revealing that even the early church felt a freedom with its scriptures to interpret them beyond the strictly literal understanding of the written text.
Certainly that was an attitude embraced by some of the giants of church history. Many of the patristic authors noted as much. St. Clement argued that the scripture was written in parables and frequently had an allegorical meaning. Origen argued that the scriptures had meanings equivalent to flesh, soul, and spirit: a literal meaning (for the simple person), a moral meaning (for the person who’d made some progress), and a spiritual meaning (for the perfect person). St. Augustine would read the entire first 11 chapters of Genesis as a kind of allegory.
In fact, there were times when the church interpreted the meaning of the scriptures in contradiction to the plain meaning of the text. For example, in the synoptic gospels, we are told that Jesus’ mother, brothers and sisters are looking for him. But how can Jesus have brothers and sisters if Mary was perpetually virgin? Easy, said the Church: where it says brothers it means cousins. Or perhaps step-brothers by a prior marriage of Joseph that is nowhere recorded in scripture.
And here we see the second leg of the quadrilateral emerge: tradition. The Catholic Church has always maintained that there is an interpretive tradition that accompanies the scriptural witness without which the scriptures cannot be properly interpreted. That tradition is the result of the revelation that comes through the Church as a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Now, Christians are not unique in this kind of thinking. The Pharisees who were the progenitors of Rabbinical Judaism argued that when God revealed the Torah to Moses at Sinai, God also revealed an oral tradition that was necessary to interpret it. The Pharisees/Rabbis have relied on this oral tradition (now referred to as the Mishnah ever since). In the same way, Muslims scholars will frequently interpret passages of the Qur’an in light of the Hadith, the tradition of the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that are used to interpret the plain meaning of the text. In addition, Islamic scholars frequently pointed out that the Qur’an is full of metaphor and parable. Not everything is meant to be literally understood.
So, the Church had a long practice of looking to the two pillars of Scripture and Tradition as the sources of theological truth.
It was Martin Luther and the Reformers—Calvin included—who argued for Sola Scriptura, the idea that Scripture alone was the sole authority for theological reflection. In this way, the reformers elevated Scripture above the Church. If it couldn’t be found in Scripture—it was invalid. Seven sacraments? Nope, we only see two in the Bible. Celibate priests? Nope, Peter had a mother in law and was clearly married. And so on. And so, Tradition clearly took a back seat in Protestantism.
But not in all Protestantism.
There was a branch of Protestantism that formed on an island in the North Atlantic that was less the result of deep theological concerns with traditional Catholic Christianity than it was the result of political motivations and the desire of the monarch to receive a divorce.
In the Anglican branch of Protestantism, while major reformation ideas like “salvation by grace through faith” would take hold, the Elizabethan desire for a “middle way” between pure Catholic and radical Protestant would yield a brand of Christianity that accepted the new without throwing off the old entirely. And so it was that in the Church of England, Tradition continued to stand alongside Scripture as a source of theological insight.
And then with the advancement of the Enlightenment and its commitment to human reason, the Church of England embraced Reason as yet another source of theological insight. This was, after all, the same Church in which Isaac Newton was a devout member. And in the Age of Enlightenment, Reason found itself firmly established in the process of Anglican theological reflection. This became the “three-legged stool” that the Anglican communion continues to rely on to this day.
III. THE QUADRILATERAL
And so, when Wesley emerged with the Methodist movement and the developing body of theological reflection that movement would bring, he did so in a context that had already provided much of what would form the basis of his own theology.
Indeed, as the other Reformers had, Wesley started with Scripture. It is important to note that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral never has been a square or even a rectangle or even my favorite quadrilateral, the rhombus. The line of the Quadrilateral representing Scripture always outsizes the rest. More of a trapezoid than anything else.
For Wesley, scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. Whatever you need to know about God and God’s grace is there. It is not deficient in that respect and is the starting point for all of our theological reflection.
It is fair to say that even we as Methodists, when engaging in theological reflection have to ask, “What does the Bible say?” as our first line of inquiry.
But as sarcastic wags like me are fond of quipping, the Bible doesn’t say anything; you have to read it. And that’s where the rest of the Quadrilateral comes in.
Because the Catholics are right about one thing that Calvin and some of the other Reformers missed: the Bible didn’t produce the Church, the Church produced the Bible. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to look to see what the Church has had to say about its own scriptures when interpreting them.
Now, where we Methodists are different from our Catholic brothers and sisters is that like other Protestants, we do not view the Church as quite the same perfect vessel of the Holy Spirit. That is, the Church is far from infallible and its judgments, while important, are not definitive.
But Tradition goes beyond simply what the Church has had to say about Scripture, Tradition encompasses what the Church has had to say about, well, everything. And so, Clement, Origen, and Augustine are all part of the Tradition. As are Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich. As are the Council of Nicea, the Council of Augsburg, and the Christmas Conference of 1784. As are Francis Asbury, Sojourner Truth, and Charles Finney. Walter Rauschenbusch, Georgia Harkness, and Dietrich Bonhöffer. Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Thurman, and James Cone. As are General Conference Resolutions, the Social Creed, and the Social Principles.
All of it is part of our Church tradition and a source of theological insight. So, sometimes when we ask, “What does the Bible say?” we find no direct answers on piont, but it will turn out that people in the church have had a lot to say.
For the Wesleys, the application of reason was not the accident of our Anglican history. “Now, of what excellent use is reason, if we would either understand ourselves, or explain to others, those living oracles,” John wrote. And Charles would write hymn lyrics imploring, “unite the pair so long disjoin’d, knowledge and vital piety.”
The Wesleys understood that the use of reason was not only essential in understanding our faith, but in communicating that faith. This is not a new idea—the Scholastic philosophers had viewed reason as a tool to understand that which had come to us through revelation. The revealed truths of Scripture and Tradition must be understood through the application of reason.
After all, reason is a God-given gift to allow us to understand the world we inhabit. The scriptures themselves speak of the world being created through Divine Wisdom. Jesus repeatedly exhorts his followers to “understand.” And the tradition long encouraged study and learning.
This is of a mind with Galileo Galilei who said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” For the Wesleys, the “knowledge” that must accompany piety, was the fruit of that Divine Wisdom, that Logos, through which the world was made and which became Incarnate among us.
Besides, we should hardly expect a religious movement that began as a campus ministry on the Oxford University campus to eschew the tools of reason and study. From the very beginning, those tools were understood as essential to the Methodist task.
But it is the fourth leg of the Quadrilateral that I believe makes Methodism what it is: Experience.
For Wesley, the Experience of Christian faith was the strongest argument for it after the Scriptures themselves.
Indeed, Wesley placed great emphasis on the experience of faith. After all, he’d had the book learning and the theological understanding of Christian doctrine for years, but it was only when he experienced the assurance of salvation, it was only when his heart was “strangely warmed” that he truly understood. That was when he accounted himself a true Christian, was when he had the experience of faith.
In fact, Wesley would place great emphasis on this aspect of faith, even beyond that of tradition and reason. When it came to Orthodoxy, Wesley knew that mere knowledge of theological truth was insufficient: “[One] may be almost as orthodox as the devil . . . and may, all the while be as great a stranger as he to the religion of the heart.” Knowledge of doctrine—which surely the devil knew as well as anyone—was nothing of not accompanied by a familiarity with the love that dwelled within and transformed one’s experience.
And as regarded pure reason he wrote, “But beware you be not swallowed up in books! An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.”
Welsey’s attitude toward experience could be summed up in a statement in a letter to one Rev. Dr. Middleton in 1749: “What the Scripture promises, I enjoy. Come and see what Christianity has done here; and acknowledge it is of God.”
“Come and see what Christianity has done here; and acknowledge it is of God.”
In this statement is the heart of what Experience means. One can read something in the scriptures, illumine one’s understanding through the Tradition, even Reason it out intellectually, but without the Experience, it is hard to claim that it is of God.
Wesley affirmed the love and grace of God not because he’d read about them or reasoned them or because Paul and Augustine and written about them, but because he’d experienced the Grace of God.
And that brings me back to my younger self, sitting in that pew in an Upstate New York church. When my pastor made a declarative statement about “homosexuals” not going to heaven, that statement did not jibe with my experience of the loving and gracious God I had come to know. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my pastor’s statement failed to meet the test of the Quadrilateral. He might have been able to point to a verse here and there (and even then we’d quibble with that), he may have been able to point to a long tradition of such teaching, but even assuming he could have found some basis in reason, his argument fell apart in Experience.
For we know that in our LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters we have experienced the love and grace of God. The God we have experienced in our communities of faith pushes us beyond narrow categories and into ever more expansive views of the beloved of God. Because that is the God of our experience.
Let us not underestimate the power of that experience. When the Pharisees confronted the man born blind with the fact that Jesus must be a sinner because he had broken a prohibition on the sabbath and because people dared claim he was the Messiah, the man responded, “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. Here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I see.”
All the argumentation, all the appeal to tradition, all the reasoning in the world pales in comparison to that simple statement: “I was blind and now I see.”
Or in other words, “Come and see what Christianity has done here; and acknowledge it is of God.”
IV. THE WHOLE SELF
Now, sometimes we Methodists are accused of making too big a deal about John Wesley. A friend of mine at Foundry, who’d joined that congregation from a Lutheran background, used to note that Methodists were always talking about Wesley with the same kind of affection and reverance that Lutherans did for Luther. Perhaps even more so.
And here’s where I’m going to be a little parochial in my response: it’s because Wesley is worth it.
It’s not just because he’s a man out of time—that he actually is in a league with the giants of the Reformation and holds his own with Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin—but because his theology and the system he left us Methodists with is so… whole.
In the passage from Deuteronomy that we heard earlier, there is an important reminder of that wholeness. The people are called to love God with all their heart, their being, and their strength. In the Semitic tradition, the heart was the seat of reason, not emotion. And so, the person of faith is called to live their faith with their mind, their might, and their whole self. Everything they are.
The Quadrilateral, if nothing else, engages our whole selves. We are not able to segregate out from our faith any aspect of our being. Not our minds. Not our emotions. Not our living. Not our experience of one another. The Quadrilateral is meant to be all encompassing.
We stand on the receiving end of two thousand years of Christian tradition in general and nearly three hundred years of Methodist tradition.
That tradition has given us some remarkable gifts: a dynamic understanding of God’s grace, a commitment to personal and social holiness, including a strong commitment to social justice, and an understanding of theological truth that engages the whole person.
For it is in that wholeness that our faith is not only understood, but that it retains its relevance and power. For we are not constrained as the fundamentalists are to argue for our faith with ever more arcane interpretations of scripture. We are not dogmatists who communicate our faith as that which must be understood by accepting a long line of church teaching. We are not rationalists who distill faith down into that which can be argued through reason alone, and make ever more spurious appeals to science or pseudo-science to back up the claims of our faith.
We are more than all that. Because in the end, we proclaim a faith not merely received and understood, but experienced and lived. We proclaim a faith that can be known in community, that can be known in one another, and that can be known in our hearts. We stand before a broken and a hurting world, and instead of picking up the megaphone or distributing the tracts, we say simply, “Come and see what Christianity has done here; and acknowledge it is of God.”
Israel, listen! Our God is the LORD! Only the LORD! Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength. These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol. Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.
Then they led the man who had been born blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus made the mud and smeared it on the man’s eyes on a Sabbath day. So Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.
The man told them, “He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see.”
Some Pharisees said, “This man isn’t from God, because he breaks the Sabbath law.” Others said, “How can a sinner do miraculous signs like these?” So they were divided. Some of the Pharisees questioned the man who had been born blind again: “What do you have to say about him, since he healed your eyes?”
He replied, “He’s a prophet.”
The Jewish leaders didn’t believe the man had been blind and received his sight until they called for his parents. The Jewish leaders asked them, “Is this your son? Are you saying he was born blind? How can he now see?”
His parents answered, “We know he is our son. We know he was born blind. But we don’t know how he now sees, and we don’t know who healed his eyes. Ask him. He’s old enough to speak for himself.” His parents said this because they feared the Jewish authorities. This is because the Jewish authorities had already decided that whoever confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be expelled from the synagogue. That’s why his parents said, “He’s old enough. Ask him.”
Therefore, they called a second time for the man who had been born blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.”
The man answered, “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. Here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I see.”