Assembling Our
Theology – the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

In my
last post here
, I expressed my surprise that Al Mohler and others were
arguing that theism–the idea that God is active today in the world–is at stake
in the age of earth debates.  

his argument or not, the argument 
clearly assumes that one has little to no basis for believing that God
acts today apart from a YEC view of
Genesis 1-3.  The oddity of this
argument and the ease with which it was made and affirmed by many got me
thinking immediately about Wesley’s Quadrilateral.  In light of that discussion, I think a more in depth look at
how each of us assembles our whole theology, or knowledge of God, is worth a
look, using the Quadrilateral as an outline for discussion.

How exactly do
we come to think what we do about God? 
How do we think about each of Scripture,
Tradition, Reason, and Experience separately in relation to good
theology?  How do we think they
inter-relate in our actual practice and how should they inter-relate? 

Hopefully a post on each of the four
“quads” will be helpful for all of us to think about those questions
and refine our own approach. 
we look at each of the four individually, though, a little background is in
order. First, Wesley saw scripture as clearly primary among the four.  In fact, he saw the other three as the
unavoidable lens through which we viewed everything, including scripture and
even God himself.  We should note
that the Quadrilateral is offered as both prescriptive
(for how we ought to build our theology) and descriptive (of how we all inevitably assemble our knowledge of
God).  Of course, the emphasis we
put on each “quad” may make for a wide margin between the
prescriptive and the descriptive uses, as well as the ideas about God that we
end up with.  (And two quick points
for the record: 1. I’m not Methodist, so folks from that background may want to
give correction or depth to my summaries, and 2. although the quadrilateral is
faithful to Wesley’s theology, the term “quadrilateral” was coined by
a much later admirer of Wesley’s approach.)

I agree with Wesley that scripture should be primary among the four; I also agree that it should not be, perhaps more importantly, cannot be the only player in forming our knowledge of God.  Scripture often supports contrasting claims about God.  It presents opposite truths in tension.  It leaves a sea of questions unanswered.  Some explicit statements we don’t take explicitly.  And we place enormous weight on some Reasonable inferences (like the Trinity, for instance), especially those that have the support of Tradition.  Not only do Tradition, Experience and Reason form the lens for our view of Scripture, they address, with Scripture, they explore and fill in many gaps in our understanding of God, some of which Scripture itself creates.  Perhaps most importantly, they make the faith into our faith.

I grew up as a son of the reformation.  Sola Scriptura was mother’s milk to me, and continues, frankly, to be a huge blessing to me, forever reminding me to go back to scripture as the truest guide.  But I can also say now that the idea of sola scriptura that I was taught in my youth is a mirage, with all the dangers that mirages provide.  The stubborn pursuit of a theology shaped by scripture alone can kill a person from dehydration as they chase it, to the extent that it encourages them to forego drinking from other real, God-given (scripturally recommended) springs which some teach are too poisonous to willingly consume in any but the slightest quantities.  My concern for those who believe that Theism is at stake with the age of the earth debates, for instance, is that such folks have been taught too much disdain for the Spirit as He works in Tradition and Experience; leaving only Scripture and Reason (and an unacknowledged and smaller Tradition and Experience) as their tools to build their faith.  Such a faith may find more than just the age of the earth as a serious threat to its stability and credibility.

For my part, I’ve reluctantly made peace with the fact that the best I can shoot for as I build my own knowledge of God, in reality, is prima scriptura of one form or another.  I can’t build a theology without Tradition, Experience, and my own Reason, however flawed each of them are.  Scripture with Tradition, with Experience, and with Reason is my only option, all with my hope in the Spirit to guide me from top to bottom.  Actually, I prefer to think of the whole process of putting my theology together as relying on, interacting with and looking for the Spirit as I use my Reason (the least trustworthy of the four, IMO) and look for God in my Experience, and in the experience and wisdom of others in Tradition, and, above all, in the Scriptures.  So, I wish that my “sola” brothers would be more honest about the necessary and unavoidable (and even helpful) role of the other members of the Quadrilateral.  We don’t have to say that Experience or Tradition are perfect; we can be honest about their weaknesses and their strengths.  

But part of this, too, is recognizing the reality that the Spirit is active in all of them, and not in “scripture alone” and, more importantly, that God chooses to be active in each and not in scripture alone.  The danger of rejecting Tradition too swiftly or broadly is that we reject an enormous amount of life giving testimony of and experience with the Spirit along with the works of Satan, and the danger of being overly hostile to Experience and/or Reason does the same.  

The scriptures themselves point us to honoring our fathers and mothers (though not above Christ himself); they ask us to “reason” and “think” about and meditate on all sorts of things as we search out the mysteries of life and God, even if we still trust God’s wisdom over our own.  And the scriptures certainly describe our “knowledge” of God as much more experiential than just reading a book.  Our book testifies of a God whom we experience deeply, if surprisingly, in life, not just in the word, but in and through his omnipresent Spirit.  They also warn us of the dangers of holding any quad, even (our take on) the scriptures, so exclusively that we cannot see the Spirit right in front of us in the other ways he works.

Do you agree with the assertion that the Quadrilateral is descriptive of everyone’s theology process (other than giving scripture primacy)?  How do you rank the components prescriptively and why? Is the Quadrilateral how you were taught to assemble your own knowledge of God or how you do it today?  Do you see the Spirit working with each of these or only some?  Does the Quadrilateral help you to keep scripture primary, but also encourage you to seek God in Tradition (present and past) and personal Experience?  How do you think we should (and/or do) build our knowledge of God?  (Remember, we will do a post on each element.)

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