The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a methodology for theological reflection that is credited to John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement in the late 18th Century. The term itself was coined by 20th century American Methodist Albert C. Outler in his introduction to the 1964 collection John Wesley. Upon examination of Wesley’s work, Outler theorized that Wesley used four different sources in coming to theological conclusions. The four sources are:
- Scripture – the Holy Bible (Old and New Testaments)
- Tradition – the two millennia history of the Christian Church
- Reason – rational thinking and sensible interpretation
- Experience – a Christian’s personal and communal journey in Christ
In practice, at least one of the Wesleyan denominations, The United Methodist Church, asserts that “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. Scripture [however] is primary, revealing the ‘Word of God’ so far as it is necessary for our salvation.’”
Wesley saw the Quadrilateral not merely as prescriptive of how one should form their theology, but also as descriptive of how almost anyone does form theology. As an astute observer of human behavior, and a pragmatist, Wesley’s approach to the Quadrilateral was most certainly phenomenological, describing in a practical way how things actually work in actual human experience. Thus, when Wesley speaks of “Tradition,” he does not merely refer to ancient Church Tradition and the writings of the great theologians and Church Fathers of days past, but also of the immediate and present theological influences which contribute to a person’s understanding of God and of Christian theology. “Tradition” may include such influences as the beliefs, values, and instruction of one’s family and upbringing. It may also include the various beliefs and values which one encounters and which have an effect on one’s understanding of Scripture.
It must be understood, however, that for Wesley, Tradition, Reason, and Experience do not form additional “sources” for theological truth, for he believed that the Bible was the sole source of truth about God, but rather these form a matrix for interpreting the Bible. Therefore, while the Bible is the sole source of truth, Tradition forms a “lens” through which we view and interpret the Bible. But unlike the Bible, Tradition is not an infallible instrument, and it must be balanced and tested by Reason and Experience. Reason is the means by which we may evaluate and even challenge the assumptions of Tradition. Reason is the first means by which we may “trim our sails” and adjust interpretations of Scripture.
But for Wesley, the chief test of the “truth and nothing but the whole truth” of a particular interpretation of scripture is how it is seen in practical application in one’s Experience. Always the pragmatist, Wesley believed that Experience formed the best evidence, after Scripture, for the truthfulness of a particular theological view. He believed Scriptural truths are to be primarily lived, rather than simply thought about or merely believed. Thus, how a particular interpretation of scripture is lived out is the best and most viable test of our theology.
Each of the “legs” of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral must be taken in balance, and none of the other three apart from scripture should be viewed as being of equal value or authority with scripture. None of these should be taken in isolation without the balancing effect of the others, and always Scripture should have the central place of authority.
In United Methodist understanding, both laypeople and clergy alike share in “our theological task.” The theological task is the ongoing effort to live as Christians in the midst of the complexities of a secular world. Wesley’s Quadrilateral is referred to in Methodism as “our theological guidelines” and is taught to its pastors in seminary as the primary approach to interpreting the scriptures and gaining guidance for moral questions and dilemmas faced in daily living. (See The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church—2008, pp. 76-83.)