by Tom Stuckey.
The American scholar Albert Outler has given us the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’. We are encouraged to do our theology within the dynamic framework of four components; scripture, reason, tradition and experience. I contend that our context has changed so dramatically that the quadrilateral is no longer fit for purpose.
Reason: The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, provided the Wesley’s with a new framework for settlement, growth and progress. Today with the rise of popularism and post-truth, reason has lost its cutting edge.
Experience: ‘Personal experience’, is highly valued today but understood very differently from the Wesleys. Now it has little to do with the Holy Spirit and everything to do with existential ‘self-fulfilment’.
Bible: Any consensus about the authority of the Scripture has long since disappeared. Methodists today have seven different ways of looking at the Bible.
Tradition: The 1932 Deed of Union highlights the ‘fundamental principles’ of the historic creeds, the Protestant Reformation and the remembrance of Methodism’s providential purpose. Today we live in an age of amnesia. Pragmatic Methodist practice no longer ‘remembers’.
Gill Dascombe has suggested that ‘wisdom’ should replace Bible, ‘science’ for reason, ‘culture’ for tradition and ‘community’ for experience.[i] I propose an evangelical alternative which bears more directly on the Deed of Union: a sort of quintilateral in which faith, information, memory and mystery revolve about the central pillar of Scripture.
Donald English argued that the Bible was the ‘centre piece for our knowledge of God through Jesus by the Holy Spirit.’ He saw reason, tradition and experience revolving around the Bible like the dangling pieces of a baby’s mobile. The Faith and Order statement that ‘the Bible bears witness to God’s self-revelation, but the Word of God itself is far greater than the words of the Bible’ is broad but divests the Bible of authority. Furthermore the first part of the sentence tends to exclude the possibility that the Bible might indeed be the witness to God’s self revelation. Following Karl Barth, I contend that the Bible ‘becomes’ the Word of God analogous to the Word ‘becoming’ flesh. Putting a Methodist slant on this, it is the ‘preached word’ from Scripture which in the power of the Spirit becomes ‘the Word of God’.
For grass root Methodists, faith is a ‘doing’ faith. Timothy Keller in his book Making Sense of God says that ‘all varieties of secularism are sets of beliefs, not the simple absence of faith’. He is arguing that each person, whether religious or not, chooses (sometimes unconsciously) their own paradigm of belief. Some Methodists will place their faith in Conference, others in the Bible, others in ‘reason’ but most swallow the unarticulated norms of their local church. The point I am making is that the authority we give to the Bible is something we ‘choose’ in a ‘faith’ decision. Having embraced this particular paradigm we need information, memory and mystery as qualifiers.
All Christian theology is contextual. If we are to hear what God is saying in a particular place we must first ‘know’ the place. If the Word is to become flesh then the ‘flesh’ of that community must become part of my ‘flesh’ as I become identified in heart, mind and soul with the experience and the stories of the people who live there.
Information on its own does not produce wisdom. The American Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann highlights the importance of memory which like a magnet draws the people of God back in order to stimulate prophetic imagination in the present. It serves a subversive purpose and energizes new action. ‘Only memory allows possibility’. A church suffering from amnesia has no future.
A functional fast consumer context has no place for mystery. Mystery suggests surprise, wonder, the unexpected. It has no name, apart from Trinity, but comes from beyond to quicken the pulse, stimulate the imagination and fire the emotions. In Wesleyan language it is the action of prevenient grace. Charles Wesley turned Methodist theology into sing-able poetry which entered our veins. Unless this ‘numinous’ quality touches the interactions of any quadrilateral or quintilateral we simply produce dead utilitarian theology.
The central pillar of Scripture around which the components of faith, information, memory and mystery move is ‘the preached Word’. If we are to preach the Word in today’s context we must take lessons in ‘dialogue’ from poets, artists and story tellers to ensure that people ‘hear and experience the Word’
The full essay with footnotes can be found in www.tomstuckey.me.uk