Tradition and Theology: Why I Love the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

I love the Wesleyan Quadrilateral because it is honest. Citing the four main sources of a Christian’s theology—Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—it describes reality and lays a foundation for Christian leaders to prescribe how Christians should do theology. The Quadrilateral is true to history, what people do with their heads, and what people actually live through while confirming the chief place of Scripture in the making of theology. Although teachers have to be careful when diagramming the Quadrilateral, it is far better than waving around a bald “sola scriptura!”

Sola scriptura is good doctrine when fully understood in its historical and doctrinal context. It was asserted against papal doctrinal tyranny on the one hand and the bloated prestige ascribed to extrabiblical Christian authorities on the other hand, like Church councils and papal decrees. However, sola scriptura is ineffective and obfuscating as a Protestant sound bite argument. It inaccurately represents the reality of evangelical Protestant belief because not all of our beliefs come from the Bible or from reasoning based upon the Bible. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral, while not a handy flaming dart for an apologetics conversation, accurately describes what goes into our understanding of God and of the Christian life as a whole.

A fuller definition of the meaning and usage of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is as follows:

The phrase which has relatively recently come into use to describe the principal factors that John Wesley believed illuminate the core of the Christian faith for the believer. Wesley did not formulate the succinct statement now commonly referred to as the Wesley Quadrilateral. Building on the Anglican theological tradition, Wesley added a fourth emphasis, experience. The resulting four components or “sides” of the quadrilateral are (1) Scripture, (2) tradition, (3) reason, and (4) experience. For United Methodists, Scripture is considered the primary source and standard for Christian doctrine. Tradition is experience and the witness of development and growth of the faith through the past centuries and in many nations and cultures. Experience is the individual’s understanding and appropriating of the faith in the light of his or her own life. Through reason the individual Christian brings to bear on the Christian faith discerning and cogent thought. These four elements taken together bring the individual Christian to a mature and fulfilling understanding of the Christian faith and the required response of worship and service.

As far as tradition is concerned, there are reasons why Protestants read the Bible in one way and not in another. Somebody older told somebody younger that passage X means X, passage Y means Y, and passage Z means Z, and so they passed it on down with further corrections and additions from scholars all down the line. While the history of Protestant theology may be studied in any decent seminary, what we hear today in modern churches is “biblical, biblical, biblical!” as though what is preached from the pulpit is the single obvious meaning of the biblical text. This is devoid of any sense of the intervening 2,000 years of active Christian theology! Tradition has a part to play in doing good theology.

Founding Protestant confessions and creeds have acknowledged the role of tradition in the formation of Christian theology, and they have made reservations to accepting tradition wholeheartedly. Article XXXI of the Westminster Confession addresses Church synods and councils, states that,

All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.

Though there has been error, historical theological conclusions must inform present theological work. An attractive element of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy is that they openly declare their connection to what came before, whereas Protestants have to dig a bit. If evangelical Protestants are serious about their distinctiveness, they need to be able to declare their historical roots and go all the way back to the beginning. Without being aware of when we started believing what we believe, theological leaps and jumps—even with appropriate biblical evidence—could untraceably unhinge our beliefs.

I love the Wesleyan Quadrilateral because it is honest. It says that tradition informs what Christians believe, and so it does. Sola scriptura torn from the setting of history—nay, tradition—is even halfway a lie. In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, a character says, “When we told lies you told half-lies. And a man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.” Tradition remembers the full truth and tells it, but sola scriptura waving forgets where it is kept.

  • Ron

    Wonderful insight into the tension between the roles of church authority and sola scriptura. One wonders how to properly reconcile the fact there are many who have gone before us, all of whom were both right and wrong.

    Discernment is hard. Thank God he’s bigger than secondary doctrine.

  • Nathan Bennett

    Thanks for your input! God is indeed bigger than secondary doctrine. I would say that there isn’t anything to really reconcile. You and I are partly right and wrong, and yet the Church of Jesus Christ keeps at it, as it has from the very beginning. I pray God will raise up somebody to set straight our crookedness after we are gone.