| |

Squaring the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

One of the things that originally attracted me to the United Methodist Church was the quadrilateral, in the form in which it is presented in the discipline. Since becoming a member I have found out that most members of United Methodist congregations have no idea what this is, that some members use the quadrilateral to justify just about anything, and that others seem to want to eviscerate it or simply replace it with a more standard “sola scriptura” stance.

First let me clarify a couple of points. I’m not here trying to figure out what Wesley meant by his comments on the elements of the quadrilateral; I’m simply looking at how I see them functioning today. Second, I’m using “sola scriptura” in the more popular sense that tends to cut the scriptures off from tradition and experience, and to downplay the role of reason in interpretation. I realize that more sophisticated theologians do not make these errors, but in the pews, “Bible alone” tends in this direction. I do believe that both the label and the attached rhetoric have tended toward this imbalance in the pews, so I don’t hold the theological sophisticates guiltless on this point.

For those who don’t know, the quadrilateral supposes the use of scripture, tradition, experience, and reason in the formation of doctrine. Because many people have driven truckloads of manure through the supposed filter of this method and called it doctrine, others have tried to modify the quadrilateral. One particular explanation is that the quadrilateral is not an equilateral, but that scripture is the longer line. This is a well-intentioned effort to test more United Methodist doctrine by the standards of scripture, but I think it is neither precisely correct, nor is it adequate to the task. In effect, it pushes people toward a “sola scriptura” stance, but doesn’t clarify the position of the other three elements, other than to give them a smaller and subordinate role.

There are two metaphors that I like to use with the quadrilateral, and in my thinking the quadrilateral metaphor loses most of its applicability. I think that element is too subject to misinterpretation. My first metaphor is the highway. The error of the liberal element of the United Methodist Church has often been, in my view, the use of the quadrilateral as a four lane highway. You come up to the section of your Christian walk that says “doctrinal test ahead,” you see four lanes, reason, scripture, experience, and tradition, and you choose one of those lanes through which to push the particular doctrine. Given four options for supporting any particular doctrine, none will be filtered out. Too often, however, the response from the conservative side has been to place “Road Closed” signs, or at least “Hazard” signs on all lanes other than scripture.

My second metaphor is the four layer filter. In this case each doctrine passes through the test of all four elements of the quadrilateral. Rather than being in the form of a geometric filter, they form layers. It might even be better to think of them as strainers or sieves, through which only certain sizes of objects can pass. Only those objects that pass through all four are acceptable. It’s possible, of course, to see this as simply putting “Hazard” signs on all four lanes of the highway.

But let me suggest that there are two extremes in how we might handle a filter. I’m stretching my metaphor a bit here, and assuming something more like a software filter that tests data elements against certain patterns. In such a case, one can either pass only elements that fit a certain pattern, or one can pass all elements that do not fit a particular pattern. Applied to doctrine, the first would exclude all doctrines that do not find specific support in that element of the filter, while the second would include any doctrine that was not forbidden by that element of the filter.

Let me illustrate this with an issue that I have encountered amongst Charismatic Methodists. During the Brownsville Revival here in Pensacola, “manifestations of the Spirit” were a major issue. Now I think these “manifestations” were wrongly named. I think the Spirit manifests himself, or makes his presence known in the fruit and gifts. What are often called “manifestations” in “revival speak” I call side effects, because they do not unequivocally demonstrate the action of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s take being slain in the Spirit as an example. For those unacquainted with these phenomena, being slain in the Spirit involves a person, normally after someone has prayed for him or her, falling senseless on the ground for some period of time. Sometimes it will be difficult to distinguish this event from fainting. In arguments about whether this particular side effect is scriptural I generally saw the extremes of this “exclusion filter” working. One person would say that such things are scriptural, and cite every Biblical instance of someone falling to the ground as evidence. Including in the list of such incidents would be many cases in which a person fell to the ground intentionally in an attitude of prayer, and a couple of incidents in vision that were much closer to the mark, though they occurred in very different circumstances from those normally associated with being slain in the Spirit.

In addition, folks would look for instances in tradition, usually looking to John Wesley. Now I’m no Wesley scholar, but my reading suggests that some pretty odd things occurred in his meetings, but they also suggest that Wesley was not always overjoyed with them. He worked with them, but was often uncomfortable.

The final favorable argument was simply that scriptures did not exclude such phenomena, so God could do a new thing in displaying these manifestations.

The key issue between supporters would then be simply this: Can something for which there is no scriptural precedent (or only equivocal precedent, depending on interpretation) be acceptable? If you are using my four layered filter, this will then depend on whether you use the filter to exclude or to include. Do we accept only items with precise Biblical precedent or do we only reject those things that are specifically forbidden in scripture? Those would represent the extremes.

Let me conclude with my own approach to this filter. I tend to include those things not forbidden by each elment of the filter, but I like to broaden the area covered by the filter a bit. I do not look for specific exclusion, but for things that are broadly excluded by the attitude of scripture. I then also look for how something might find root in scripture even if there are no specific examples.

There are many examples of such things today, from the pulpit furniture of the church to many elements of our order of worship, for example. In the case of manifestations, I find two elements in both scripture and tradition, and they have been borne out by my own experience. First, one must not seek or depend on the physical show. I find this in a number of different scriptures, but probably the best example is 1 Kings 19:11-18 as Elijah views various physical manifestations, traditional ways in which God might have manifested himself, but he finds that God is not there. Second, based on the variety of responses various prophets and others have had to meeting God or even an angel, I am hesitant to exclude physical manifestations as options. A good example for this is Revelation 1:17 as John reacts to his vision of Jesus. In terms of tradition, I will just point again to John Wesley’s attitude which seems to me to be a wary tolerance.

Note: One thing that I think is often lacking from these discussions is the role of the Holy Spirit. I believe that the Holy Spirit must be present in all elements of the communication of the Word to the people, or it will fail. It is not sufficient that scripture be inspired. The reception of it must also receive the infilling of the Spirit. I discuss this in What is the Word of God?.

Similar Posts