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
6 thoughts on “The Methodist Quadrilateral”
I expected a thought-provoking piece from that pen – what I did not expect was being made to laugh aloud. It was the ‘Some Methodists will place their faith in Conference’ bit, set alongside ‘The Bible’ and ‘Reason’.
I went to Conference twelve times, spoke my mind sometimes, did not agree with decisions sometimes, and need no convincing of the value of Conference and the officers thereof – but FAITH?
GillDascombe forgets Proverbs 9 v 10, “To be wise you must first have reverence for the Lord.If you know the Holy One, you have understanding.” All other wisdom is man made and flawed. It seems that world’s wisdom is based on selfishness and you can see the effects.
Hi Tom – maybe Gill does substitute “Wisdom” for “Scripture” in the article you reference in your longer essay. Unfortunately readers will not be able to read what Gill actually says there since the reference does not seem to be available online. In the address to Conference that is the actual reference you give here, Gill says: “So I’m going to stick my neck out here, and suggest four building blocks of faith for 21st century Britain. Instead of scripture, reason, tradition and experience, I suggest scripture, science, culture and community.”
Jesus made it crystal clear through the great love commandments that at the very heart of faith are our personal relationships with God and with others. Everything else must revolve around that. The first Christians, who relied primarily on verbal accounts and who were unaware of much later doctrinal declarations, had a strong and infectious faith based on their experiences and on reaching out to others. Later codifying of the faith largely lost sight of this. We now have the Nicene creed as the pillar of orthodoxy, but this doesn’t mention the word ‘love’ or even its concept. We have conflated beliefs and faith and many no longer see the important difference between the two. (Why did Paul call Abraham the greatest example of faith, when he lived centuries before Christ and so shared few of Paul’s Christian beliefs?)
If Relationships with God and others are the central ground of our faith, what are the trellises on which the fruits of faith will flourish? I suggest that they include:
Radical Renewal: For individuals a Spirit-filled life will have new values and a new sense of purpose and direction. It will include life-long development and progression. Jesus’ emphasis on the Kingdom of God means that the aim is also a radical renewal of our communities. At a time when 94% of people in the UK never darken the doors of a church and never hear the preached word (though a great many recognize a spiritual need), we also need a radical renewal of the church.
Relevance: Although basic human needs and concerns are basically the same as they were in the pre-scientific society of Jesus’ day, the context of faith has changed dramatically. Our faith has to incorporate new knowledge and discoveries and address current situations. A living faith is rooted in the past but its focus is the present and the future.
Recognizing Our Limitations and Vulnerability: We have to be honest with ourselves, with God and with others. Christianity, like most faiths, is full of paradoxes. Too often church leaders claim to understand the mind of God, when they are reducing God to a size they can comprehend and squeezing him into the mould of their own interpretations. You can’t contain God in a creed or catechism. Preachers and teachers often quote several texts from a gospel to ‘prove’ a point, and ignore an equal number of texts in the same gospel which imply a very different understanding of the issue. If we think we know all the answers, we haven’t yet found half the questions.
Reflective Reading: God didn’t stop communicating with us 1900 years ago. Important as the Bible is as a witness and guide to our faith, we are not tied to understanding God in 1st century phraseology and concepts. Jesus is the Word of God, who still speaks to us through a whole variety of means. We have to be careful that we don’t supplant him by giving that title to the Bible and revering it so much that we are not open to other revelations.
I am currently studying module 2 of the W:L&P course and one of the questions suggested for the ‘Explore’ section of unit 2.1 (Encountering God in the Bible) is this:
In our Methodist way of theological reflection, Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience all play a part in reaching decisions. Do you consider each of these to be of equal importance?
Your thoughts and those of the people who commented are very helpful. Thank you all.