Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Why the Quadrilateral Matters

Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
I Corinthians 13:5-6

Writing in “Juicy Ecumenism.com,” the blog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, John Scott Lomperis announced the recent decision by the United Methodist Judicial Council to reject the appeal by the active and retired bishops of the Western Jurisdiction for a reversal of the decision earlier this spring against the election and consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto. But a large part of the post is a series of half-truths and snarky comments about Bishop Oliveto.

I want to focus on my favorite. He writes:
“Oliveto has used her office to launch a totalitarian intimidation tour of seeking out and taking names of any remaining orthodox congregations in the Mountain Sky Area of UMC.”
As a factual matter, people who were there say that she encountered those who opposed her election with grace and openness.

But if we click on the link he uses to support his description of her get acquainted tour of the churches in her Episcopal area, we come to another Lomperis post. And within that report on her tour we come to this:

“While Oliveto repeatedly suggested that Wesleyan theology was somehow a resource for her cause, she relied on rather shallow and long-discredited ideas about Outler’s so-called “Wesleyan quadrilateral” to suggest that “experience” (as she broadly defined it) could somehow nullify the clear teachings of Scripture, without being able to cite any instance of Wesley actually doing that.”

The link to the “so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience) brings us to an article in Good News magazine by Paul Wesley Chilcote, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary. He begins is article this way:
“I will never forget a conversation I had one August afternoon in 1982 at Oxford University with Professor Albert Outler. We were talking about the many terms he had coined over the years. He said rather abruptly, ‘There is one phrase I wish I had never used: the 'Wesleyan Quadrilateral.' It has created the wrong image in the minds of so many people and, I am sure, will lead to all kinds of controversy.’”
Fortunately, Dr. Outler gave a much more complete and nuanced explanation of his “regret” in a 1985 essay in the Wesleyan Theological Journal:
The term “quadrilateral” does not occur in the Wesley corpus—and more than once, I have regretted having coined it for contemporary use, since it has been so widely misconstrued. But if we are to accept our responsibility for seeking intellecta for our faith, in any other fashion than a “theological system” or, alternatively, a juridical statement of “doctrinal standards,” then this method of a conjoint recourse to the fourfold guidelines of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, may hold more promise for an evangelical and ecumenical future than we have realized as yet—by comparison, for example, with biblicism, or traditionalism, or, rationalism, or empiricism. It is far more valid than the reduction of Christian authority to the dyad of “Scripture” and “experience” (so common in Methodist ranks today). The “quadrilateral” requires of a theologian no more than what he or she might reasonably be held accountable for: which is to say, a familiarity with Scripture that is both critical and faithful; plus, an acquaintance with the wisdom of the Christian past; plus, a taste for logical analysis as something more than a debater’s weapon; plus, a vital, inward faith that is upheld by the assurance of grace and its prospective triumphs, in this life.
At the time he gave us the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Dr. Outler was the foremost Wesleyan scholar and theologian. And the Quadrilateral came to us in a time when Methodists believed deeply in theological pluralism and embraced Reason and Experience as the necessary companions of Scripture and Tradition. We were proud to say that in the United Methodist Church, “you don’t have to park your mind at the door when you come to worship.”

But the Quadrilateral does not rest on Dr. Outler’s imprimatur alone. 

Although Wesley himself never used the phrase it is easy to see the quadrilateral in his writing. Scripture, Reason, and Tradition were (and are) the foundational interpretive elements of the Anglican theology in which Wesley was nurtured, and even a cursory glance at his writing shows the importance of experience as a key element in his thought.

There may be many reasons why the traditionalists despise the Quadrilateral, but two of them are critical.

First, if we apply the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to questions of LGBTQ inclusion in the full life of the church, we come down on the side of inclusion. Both scientific reason and personal experience weigh in heavily for openness.

Second, in this dispute and in wider context, the traditionalists want to assert a more literal interpretation of Scripture, believing that this has conservative theological and political implications.

On this second point we can easily go back to Wesley himself to observe how he approached Scripture.

In a sermon “On Charity,” based on the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, he begins this way:
We know, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God," and is therefore true and right concerning all things. But we know, likewise, that there are some Scriptures which more immediately commend themselves to every man's conscience. In this rank we may place the passage before us; there are scarce any that object to it. On the contrary, the generality of men very readily appeal to it. Nothing is more common than to find even those who deny the authority of the Holy Scriptures, yet affirming, "This is my religion; that which is described in the thirteenth chapter of the Corinthians." Nay, even a Jew, Dr. Nunes, a Spanish physician, then settled at Savannah, in Georgia, used to say with great earnestness, "That Paul of Tarsus was one of the finest writers I have ever read. I wish the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians were wrote in letters of gold. And I wish every Jew were to carry it with him wherever he went." He judged, (and herein he certainly judged right) that this single chapter contained the whole of true religion. It contains "whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely: If there be any virtue, if there be any praise," it is all contained in this. 
Wesley does not believe, as many literalists do, that all Scripture is of equal value. And for Wesley, the importance of a passage is judged in part by reason and experience, even the reason and experience of non-Christians.

An even more telling example is found in his sermon on “Free Grace.” 

With a theological position firmly rooted in Reason and Experience, he declares that the “blasphemous” lie of Predestination is false and it does not matter to him how many passages of Scripture the Calvinists can cite. 

“No scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works.”

Here is the full paragraph from “Free Grace:”
This is the blasphemy clearly contained in the horrible decree of predestination! And here I fix my foot. On this I join issue with every assertor of it. You represent God as worse than the devil; more false, more cruel, more unjust. But you say you will prove it by scripture. Hold! What will you prove by Scripture that God is worse than the devil I cannot be. Whatever that Scripture proves, it never an prove this; whatever its true meaning be. This cannot be its true meaning. Do you ask, "What is its true meaning then" If I say, " I know not," you have gained nothing; for there are many scriptures the true sense whereof neither you nor I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory. But this I know, better it were to say it had no sense, than to say it had such a sense as this. It cannot mean, whatever it mean besides, that the God of truth is a liar. Let it mean what it will it cannot mean that the Judge of all the world is unjust. No scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works; that is, whatever it prove beside, no scripture can prove predestination.
For Wesley, Reason and Experience are not the end he seeks. They are the means. They are tools to be used in the understanding of scripture and of the world. But the fundamental theological affirmation on which everything rests, is grace. Wesleyan theology is always about grace.

In 1984, the bicentennial year of American Methodism, Martin E. Marty interviewed Dr. Outler for an article in The Christian Century.

Marty asked him what he has learned about how one translates the insights of Christian history and theology into a sermon for everyday people. The answer says a lot about Albert Outler and about Methodist theology:
“Three things. Somehow you have to be gracious. Then you have to show graciousness, and talk about it. It can be talked about. Finally, you call forth from people some sort of response to grace as unmerited favor, to the fact that our lives are gifted.” (Pounce: the mind triggers, “This really is a Methodist!”) Life, Outler goes on, “is not merely fortune or luck, good or bad. When we preach, we tell people that God loves them -- and then we let them go.”
And then he concluded, “The preacher has to say, ‘I live by grace. You live by grace. We can therefore be thankful. We can love.”’ 

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 


  1. The Rev. F. Richard Garland, a retired UM pastor, just sent me a link to a hymn he wrote based on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Methodism has always had a "Lyric Theology," from Charles Wesley to the present.

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