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The Wesleyan Quadrilateral Step by Step (by T) 3

posted by Scot McKnight


We’re discussing how we build our knowledge of God, our theology, and using Wesley’s Quadrilateral (Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience) as an outline for our discussion.  Last time we looked at Tradition with some wonderful discussion; today’s topic is the role of Reason in how we build our theology.  Each of these topics overwhelms me in their significance and breadth; I look forward to the perspectives of others as we approach each of these rather large topics.  As we look today at the role of Reason in our faith, think about these questions, again, both descriptively and prescriptively:

On Reason’s strengths:  How have you most memorably and helpfully employed reason as you sought to understand or explain our Triune God and his work, or even his particular stance or hopes toward you or a loved one?  How has reason most helped you relationally with God?  With others?  How has Reason worked to integrate your Experience with the Scriptures and Tradition for you?

On Reason’s limits: Of what practical importance are the parts of our knowledge of/relationship with God which go beyond language, let alone our capacity to reason?  How do you nurture these aspects of your theology where reason is at best second or third fiddle without being dismissive of Reason?  The biblical concept of “knowledge” is akin to the holistic “knowledge” of one spouse in relation to another.  Has your “knowledge” of God been too intellectual or not intellectual enough?  Does your camp under or over-value reason?  How so?  Has too great an emphasis on Reason ever hurt your faith?  How so?  Do you draw more strength or frustration from apocalyptic or poetic imagery?  Or from Jesus’ parables and more cryptic sayings?  Or from trans-rational practices such as praying in tongues? In what ways, if any, have you seen your own reason mislead you? 

This intro from United Methodist
deserves slow, careful attention:

“[O]ur own careful use of reason,
though not exactly a direct source of Christian belief, is a necessary tool. .
. . Although we recognize that God’s revelation and our experiences of God’s
grace continually surpass the scope of human language and reason, we also
believe that any disciplined theological work calls for the careful use of
reason. By reason we read and interpret Scripture. By reason we determine
whether our Christian witness is clear. By reason we ask questions of faith and
seek to understand God’s action and will. By reason we organize the understandings
that compose our witness and render them internally coherent. By reason we test
the congruence of our witness to the biblical testimony and to the traditions
that mediate that testimony to us. By reason we relate our witness to the full
range of human knowledge, experience, and service.

all truth is from God, efforts to discern the connections between revelation
and reason, faith and science, grace and nature, are useful endeavors in
developing credible and communicable doctrine. We seek nothing less than a
total view of reality that is decisively informed by the promises and
imperatives of the Christian gospel, though we know well that such an attempt
will always be marred by the limits and distortions characteristic of human

Descriptively, it is easy enough to admit,
with the summary above, that Reason is a necessary tool for building our
theology.  It’s the prescriptive
role that is far more difficult to nail down. As we consider its prescriptive
role, we must acknowledge that we live squarely in an Age of Reason (often
employed or heralded over and against faith or revelation).  It is more than mother’s milk for us
westerners, it’s more like oxygen. We all enjoy Reason’s many blessings and
curses.  Even if the gospel of Reason
has begun to lose a bit of its shine for a few, it’s still making thousands of
converts every day around the world, with every medical advance, every new
weapon we invent, and even every new gadget from Apple.  Modernism might have a couple of grey
hairs, that so called post-moderns have pointed out, but it’s far from dead or
even weak.  Western rationalism
(which turns Reason from a tool into
the only tool for knowledge), along
with naturalism and its many siblings that often walk close behind, continues
to push for greater paradigmatic supremacy around the world in all facets of
thought and evaluation, whether governmental, philosophical, ethical, and even religious.  In terms of philosophies of thought, it
is the juggernaut of our time.  
And as for me personally, I am a lawyer by training and practice.  Reasoning is the core activity of my
profession, and arguably my chief hobby as well.  But I frequently tell folks, intelligence is far from the
greatest gift or virtue in God’s kingdom.   Like many Christians
today and in generations past (even writers of scripture), I have mixed
feelings about Reason’s proper role in my faith, as wonderful and necessary as
it is. 

And the scriptures, too, invite us to think
critically in the one hand, but also tell us to limit our confidence in our
reasoning.  Like Tradition/community,
it is impossible and unwise to leave Reason out of our theological task.  We are thinking creatures by God’s
grace and intent.  Even the
Scriptures do us no good apart from our ability to think and understand.  But consider some of these scriptures,
some of which have been more embedded in my mind than others:

Proverbs, a
book arguably more dedicated to reason than any in the Scriptures, tells us to
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own
understanding.”  Paul,
considered by even modern atheists to be an obviously brilliant man says to the
Corinthians, “My speech and my proclamation were not with persuasive words
of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and power, so that your faith
might not be based on men’s wisdom but on God’s power.”  How many of our preachers or
missionaries would ever say such a thing today?  And even Jesus has this surprising bit of thanks: “I
praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these
things from the wise and learned and revealed them to infants. Yes, Father,
because this was Your good pleasure.”  Why was this chosen and enjoyed by the same God who gave
intelligence?  And even Tradition
gives mixed reviews of Reason. Luther, who once called Reason “the devil’s
whore,” modeled brilliance of reasoning.  Where would the reformation be without Reason?  And at the same time, from the Fall to
Satan’s temptations of Christ, to the present day, clearly the Holy Spirit is
not the only spirit who appeals to our reason as a way to tempt us.  How
do we faithfully integrate these scriptures, examples and warnings and many
others like them into our use and evaluation of our own reason, yet sill love
God with all of our mind in a truly holistic way?


Comments read comments(15)
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Travis Greene

posted July 30, 2010 at 8:12 am

Great post, T. Lots to think about here.
I always think of Isaiah 1:18. Come, let us reason together…
Reason is essential, but the fodder for any Christian reasoning has to start with the self-revelation of God, and its goal or telos is primarily relational. God invites us to reason together, to reconcile. Not alone, but together with there and with God.

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posted July 30, 2010 at 9:28 am

I agree Travis.
I was sort of thinking about how, within the Quadrilateral, the point of Reason is for it to be used on its own but within community and relationship. I’m thinking something along the lines of, we use Reason to engage with Tradition in order to elucidate Scripture so that we may enter a deeper relationship with the Trinity and make sense of our Experience.

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J.L. Schafer

posted July 30, 2010 at 9:29 am

This is a tough one to discuss because I’m not sure what folks mean when they talk about Reason. Here is my take on it.
We all have the innate need to take the information we receive from various channels and assemble this information into worldviews. Reason is the process by which we make sense of everything coming to us from Scripture, tradition and experience. We create mental maps of who God is, how he works, who people are, what the gospel is, etc. and then refer to those mental maps as more information arrives. When we encounter new information that seems to contradict our worldview, what do we do? Do we (a) reject the information as unreliable, (b) adjust the worldview, or (c) do we say “I don’t know” and defer the decision to a later time? I would say that a healthy, growing faith will require us to do any of these things at various times. Why do I say this? Because faith is much more than holding an opinion about how the universe works; it is to be in relationship with the Triune God. Moving from non-faith in Christ to faith in Christ is not simply changing one’s worldview; it is crossing over from death to life. To be a Christian is not simply to hold an opinion about Jesus, but to be united with Jesus in much the same way that I am united with my spouse.
I think the greatest limitation of rationalist/modernist Christianity is not that it puts too much stock in Reason per se, but that it emphasizes certain components of Reason (notably, logic and deduction) and downplays the personal, relational aspect of faith.

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posted July 30, 2010 at 9:31 am

of course that should be “the point of Reason is *not* for it to be used on its own”, thus proving my own errancy and fallibility ;-)

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posted July 30, 2010 at 10:36 am

I haven’t been part of this prior dialogue, but the picture of a building that you are using in all these posts strikes me as somewhat modernist — i.e., we’re building a building starting with scripture as foundation, and building our way upward based on tradition, experience, and reason.
I think the developing paradigm in many circles is that, instead of a building, that knowledge is a better understood as an interconnected “web” — in this case, a web of scripture, reason, experience, tradition. A community or person’s understanding or knowledge is based on the intersection of these, although our understanding based on any of these links is fallible (that fallibility includes reason). As we come across new understanding based on any of these — scripture, experience, tradition, reason — and it contradicts our perceived understanding or worldview, we enter into the decision-making process J.K. Schafer describes above. But picturing this process as a “web” rather than a building with a foundation may be a way to avoid some of the philopsophical traps folks fell into during modernism, while still maintaining a way to do our best to arrive at truth.

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posted July 30, 2010 at 11:25 am

According to the Methodist/Wesleyan/Nazarene theological position (btw, i am a pastor in one of the above denominations) the Wesleyan Quad (as described) can only be applied to “Scripture.” Sadly these denominations have taken a neo-orthodox approach to the definition of Scripture to be that which pertains to salvation. Therefore any portion of the Bible that does not relate to salvation (i.e. origins, flood, miracles, story of Jonah, the exodus, etc) would not be interpreted by using the Wesleyan Quad, but rather with reason, experience, and tradition. This type of theology fits well with the Methodist/Wesleyan/Nazarene position of Limited Inerrancy. The Bible says that 600,000 people left Egypt, but our reason indicates that this number is too high. Therefore we adjust the number to be about 60,000 and just say “well the Bible is not inerrant in things of history, science, math, and geography). This same reasoning is how some methodist churches justify their acceptance of homosexuality. When we wonder why people reject what is true, it is because many churches have already done it by rejecting the full inerrancy of the Scripture.
Grace and Peace

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Kenny Johnson

posted July 30, 2010 at 11:58 am

So if you believe that God accommodated himself to the scientific knowledge of the people at that time — then it naturally follows that you will also believe homosexual acts aren’t a sin?

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posted July 30, 2010 at 12:43 pm

That’s interesting. I guess it’s fair to say that Wesley put more stock in scripture in assembling his theology than some of today’s Methodists/Wesleyans/Nazarines.
FWIW, I’ve also wondered whether the graphic is an especially helpful construct, though I’m glad Scot has added it. (I wrote the posts, but he supplied the graphic.) I think the relationship b/n the quads is more complex than any graphic could adequately convey.
One of the most helpful things that the Quadrilateral has done for me is show me how each of these 4 not only should not but cannot work in isolation from the others. Thinking about the Quadrilateral has given me peace and energy to actively engage the Spirit in/with each.

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posted July 30, 2010 at 1:27 pm

When you allow yourself to pick and choose what is true and what is not true from the Bible, you will find yourself accepting many sins. This truth can be seen in the percentage of Christians that no longer believe in absolute truth.
Grace and Peace

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Kenny Johnson

posted July 30, 2010 at 1:53 pm

I believe the WHOLE Bible is TRUE.
Do you still accept the practice of slavery? Do you require your women to wear head coverings and not speak at church? Did God accommodate himself to the culture when he allowed multiple wives and divorce?
Just because I believe that God can accommodate his revelation to a limited human understanding does not mean I reject the reality of sin.
I’m not going to turn off my brain. It makes more sense to me that the human authors of the Bible thought the sun actually stood still or that the Earth was flat or that it was covered by a hard firmament because of their limited knowledge of science than trying to force some logical acrobatics in order to maintain a absolutist view of inerrancy when I don’t believe it’s necessary. And I think it’s far more dangerous to try to maintain a strict view of inerrnacy than it is to allow for certain accommodations. My faith suffered much more damage trying to prove every discrepancy wrong (often with unsatisfactory results) than it ever will from allowing for the Bible to speak for itself.

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Kenny Johnson

posted July 30, 2010 at 2:11 pm

One more thing. I am certain there are some KJV only churches out their where their women wear ankle-length dresses and head coverings. . . where they’re aren’t allowed to speak in church, etc that would believe you have diluted the message of the Bible and are on your own slippery slope to rejecting sin and the rest of God’s revelation.
So if I’m on a slippery slope for using my reason when interpreting scripture, then I think you are in just as much danger — because there is someone out there who holds an even more literalist position than you do.
With that said. I think we should just agree to disagree.

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posted July 30, 2010 at 3:35 pm

Scripture & reason are why I am not a Calvinist – However it is hard to deny the tradition of Calvinist thought in protestant traditions.

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posted July 30, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Dr. McKnight,
If anything, I would have thought a Prof in RS would have made Reason – or possibly even Knowledge – the foundation of your quadrilateral…
Please define what you mean by “scripture”. Am I to assume that you are including other sources of religious texts outside of the Bible, as it might relate to Wesleyan-branded Christianity?

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posted July 30, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Scot didn’t write this post; I did. And no, we’re referring to the Christian scriptures. We’re using Wesley’s quadrilateral as an outline to discuss how we build our knowledge of God. Please feel free to give your reasons why “Reason” should be foundational and in what sense.

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John W Frye

posted August 2, 2010 at 6:32 am

I am fascinated and encouraged by your noting the feature of the “trans-rational” (though I don’t want to make this about ‘tongues’). In my limited understanding of quantum physics, really smart people are realizing that to say “That is not reasonable” is actually an acknowledged aspect of the universe. So, there is a trans-rational aspect to life. Why should we be surprised that reason will reach its limit and we are transported, let’s say, not into the irrational or anti-rational, but the trans-rational? I do think that is what Paul is trying to express in 1 Cor. 14. Those who tout Reason too strongly often cut themselves off from wonder. There is an ineffable world.

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