The idea of the Wesleyan quadrilateral is pervasive that it is almost no longer fittingly spoken of as ‘Wesleyan’.[ii] Theological statements rest on the coalescence of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, and what is most particular in this for the theology of Wesley’s own time is the final of those four categories—the role of experience in theological statements. [iii] In distinction from Hooker who saw the sources of theology as Scripture, reason and tradition (alongside natural law),[iv] Wesley, adds the experiential in faith as a datum for the claims of the faith: the faith by which we believe is for Wesley, with his emphasis on sanctification, a contributory component of the faith that is believed, and thereby a source of theology.
In using experience as a datum of theology, however, there is a need to be aware of its limits. Experience is not some kind of uncritical, unadulterated subjectivist interiority. Experience is rather, for Wesley, an account of the experience of the church: ‘the experience not of two or three, not of a few, but of a great multitude which no man can number. It has been confirmed, both in this and in all ages, by “a cloud of” living and dying “witnesses”’.[v] Furthermore, Wesley is overtly aware of the limitations of this source of theological knowledge, and the capacity for self-deception:
“How many have mistaken the voice of their own imagination for this ‘witness of the Spirit’ of God, and thence idly presumed they were the children of God while they were doing the works of the devil! These are truly and properly enthusiasts; and, indeed, in the worst sense of the word.”[vi]
It is only in conjunction with Scripture, the teaching of the church (tradition), and reason that experience can recognize that which is sanctified, and thereby as that which is part of the material of theology. Doing theology is not a case of reflecting uncritically on any and every experience the human has, but rather a case of locating experience in relation to the other sources and norms of theology to judge experience’s capacity to offer theological truth: only when adjudged as part of the sanctified life can the experience of the creature be understood as s source for theology. Part of this judgment is a critical appraisal of experience because the sanctified believer realizes that the fundamental form of sanctification rests on the recognition of the believer’s own propensity to sin and self-deception, and the need to fall back on the grace and mercy of God.[vii] The one who does not, in being conscious of God’s presence in her spirit, repent,[viii] but becomes confident of her assurance, grows ‘haughty’ in her behaviour and thereby in the sense of confidence she may have in her own experience. There is always the need in relation to the category of experience to be reminded: ‘Discover thyself, thou poor self-deceiver! Thou who art confident of being a child of God … O cry unto him, that the scales may fall from thine eyes …’[ix] Enthusiasm in the unlovely sense of the word is what it means to mistake our own voice with the voice of God; Methodism is more about the experience of the believer methodically and reasonably related to the life and experience of the church as a whole in its traditions as the church lives under the sovereign authority of Scripture as witness to Jesus Christ.[x]
This description of experience points out something very fundamental: in describing the quadrilateral of sources for theology, these four locations of theological data do not exist as independent and un-related or competitive sources of theological information; they exist rather only in relation to each other. Anna Williams points helpfully in this direction when she states about the point of the quadrilateral:
“do not stand on a par with each other: the claims of tradition, reason, and experience to the states of free-standing warrants are exceedingly weak. They serve as interpreters of scripture, rarely as autonomous alternatives to it. The claim of scripture to be the sole warrant is equally implausible…”[xi]
Key is the relationality of the different components of the quadrilateral to each other: they are ‘radically interpretable’.[xii] They do not function to provide end points to theological discussion, but starting points (as sources), and the interpretation of each of them rests in each’s relation to the others by and through which their interpretation will be made possible.
Theological method is not, for Methodism, about locating what Scripture, then tradition, then reason, then experience may say about a given topic, and then coming to some judgement on it. Theological method is about what each area of theological data says in relation and in conversation with the other. It is not that we have four squares, so to speak, but rather four sides to the one quadrilateral. Indeed, I would want to argue that we need to move from thinking about the single one-dimensional quadrilateral to thinking more fully about theology as a multi-dimensional hexadecahedron: an expression of the sources and norms of theology variously inter-related to one another in complex and multi-dimensional ways.
[i] The ideas in this piece (and some of its content) are taken from a longer treatment of these themes. See Tom Greggs, ‘On the Nature, Task and Method of Theology: A Very Methodist Account’, International Journal of Systematic Theology (2018), vol. 20, no. 3, 309-334.
[ii] Indeed, Anna Williams, discusses these in an extremely helpful summary as ‘warrants’, discussing Wesley largely in relation to her consideration of experience; see Anna Williams, The Architecture of Theology: System, Structure, and Ratio (Oxford: OUP, 2011), 89-91.
[iii] The origins of this approach to theology are, however, remarkably recent. The term ‘quadrilateral’ is not one original to Wesley, but is a coda or hermeneutical key for unlocking Wesley’s approach to theology, as described by the great Wesley scholar Albert C. Outler. However, it is certainly true (with an acknowledgment of the complexity of this and of these terms) that for Wesley the data of theology (the authority on which theological statements might rest) is fourfold. For a survey of Outler’s approach, see ‘The Wesleyan Quadrilateral – in John Wesley’, Wesleyan Theological Journal vol. 20:1 (1985), 7-18; cf. Gunter W. Stephen, Ted A. Campbell, Scott J. Jones, Rebekah L. Miles, Randy L. Maddox, Wesley and the quadrilateral: renewing the conversation (Nashville: Abingdon: 1997). The term is foreshadowed in the work of Colin W. Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today (London: Epworth, 1960) in his account of authority and experience (ch. 2).
[iv] Cf. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, edited by Arthur McGrade(Oxford: OUP, 2013), 1.16 & 3.9.
[v] Wesley, Sermons I, 290.
[vi] Wesley, Sermons I, 269.
[vii] As Wesley puts it in his sermon on the witness of the Spirit: ‘The Scriptures describe that joy in the Lord which accompanies the witness of his Spirit as an humble joy, a joy that abases to the dust; that makes a pardoned sinner cry out, “I am vile! …” And wherever lowliness is, there is patience, gentleness, long-suffering. There is a soft, yielding spirit, a mildness and sweetness, a tenderness of soul which words cannot express. But do these fruits attend that supposed testimony of the Spirit in a presumptuous man? Just the reverse.’ Wesley, Sermons I, 280. Cf. Luther: ‘God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind, and life to one but the dead. He does not give saintliness to any but sinners, nor wisdom to any but fools. In short: He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace. Therefore no arrogant saint, or just or wise man can be material for God, neither can he do the work of God, but he remains confined within his own work and makes of himself a fictitious, ostensible, false, and deceitful saint, that is, a hypocrite.’ Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Jaroslav Pelikan and Daniel E. Poellot (ed.), Arnold Guebert (trans.), vol. 14 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 163.
[viii] This is a point that is made repeatedly by the Blumhardts. For a helpful account of the dangers of experience as a warrant or norm, see Williams, Architecture, 89-94.
[ix] Wesley, Sermons I, 281-2.
[x] See Clive Marsh ‘Appealing to Experience: What does it mean’ in Methodist Theology Today, ed. Marsh et al., 118-30 for an account of some of the complexities and issues at stake in the role of experience in Methodist theology.
[xi] Williams, Architecture, 94.
[xii] Williams, Architecture, 111.