Revisiting the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

September 28, 2008

The early reformers clung to a principal known as sola scriptura – or “only scripture.” The idea was that authority didn’t come from the Pope or the Church, it came from the Bible. Thus, it was appropriate to reject the authority of the Church where it was clearly inconsistent with the text of the Old and/or New Testaments.

In a sense, the American Restorationists took this concept and pumped it full of steroids. Restorationists assumed not only that scripture was the sole authority for our lives, but that it also contained “patterns” of behavior which – if logically discerned from the text – ought to be used by modern Christians. This is a fairly well established concept among the more traditional and conservative members of Restorationist churches, and even those who don’t agree with it still generally understand it correctly.

Wesley, on the other hand, may have been sorely misunderstood on this issue. In 1964 (my year of birth, incidentally) a theologian/scholar named Albert Outler coined the term Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Outler posited, in a collection of Wesley’s works, that Wesley looked to four sources that should be utilized in reaching theological conclusions: (1) scripture, (2) tradition, (3) reason, and (4) experience.

While Outler’s summary is generally considered to be correct – there is an implied assumption behind the concept of the “quadrilateral” which has caused it to be widely misconstrued. Specifically, it is easy to assume – when you summarize Wesley in these terms – that he believed all four “sides” of the so-called quadrilateral should be considered equally. Thus, for example, if reason, tradition, and experience all pointed in one direction, then scripture is “overruled.”

This implicit assumption about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is essentially wrong. Wesley, in fact, was a big fan of sola scriptura, just like the reformers and the early Restorationists.

To Wesley, the other three “sides” of the Quadrilateral were, in fact, guides to interpreting scripture. Thus, reason, tradition, and experience were not so much independent means to reach theological conclusions as they were important voices to hear in arriving at a responsible reading of scripture.

The Restorationist – I think – would eagerly agree that reason and experience are important tools in understanding scripture. However, considerably less weight would be given to tradition since – in the mind of the Restorationist – “tradition” is a kind-of poison that, over time, has diluted the purity of scripture.

In some respects, I continue to wrestle with broader issues about the nature of scripture – yet the questions I am asking, in some ways, transcend the issue of whether or how it is “authoritative.”

In The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle hits this issue right on the head. In the same way that the early Reformers wrestled with the nature of Papal authority, Christians are now beginning to wrestle with understanding how “authority” rests in scripture.

Is scripture authoritative? It never claims to be. To the contrary, scripture claims that authority rests in Jesus. Yet scripture has played an undeniably powerful role in understanding Jesus and the history of God’s people. How, then, does it fit into the picture as we struggle to come to know God?

Neither Wesley nor the early Restorationists have settled this question for me. However, I am grateful for the legacy of love for the Christian scripture that is infused throughout both traditions.


Post Script – some of you may have noticed that another factor has been left out of my summary of both traditions: the ongoing role that the Holy Spirit plays in the revelation of God to His people. This approach to “understanding” God was largely rejected within the Restoration traditions, which assumed that such revelation was unnecessary (and, thus, absent) after the text of the New Testament was complete. Furthermore,  while God’s ongoing revelation through His Spirit does seem to play a role in the Wesleyan tradition, it seems to be somewhat diminished in comparison to the stronger charismatic traditions.


Quote of the Day

September 25, 2008

The one trillion dollar bailout package that President Bush is promising could have wiped out the last traces of poverty, hunger, malnutrition and squalor from the face of the Earth – if only our global leadership prioritised the poor with the same level of urgency as the financial crisis.

– Devinder Sarma

You can read the entire piece here.

Microsoft Strikes Back

September 23, 2008

Has anyone else seen Microsoft’s new “I’m a PC” commercial?

If I had designed a commercial to “respond” to the Mac/PC campaign, I would probably have had some good natured fun with the Mac commercials, using a similar format. While the Mac guy was standing around trying to act like he was the “cool” guy, my PC guy would be doing productive stuff and then – once he was done – talk about all the games he could play. In the end, the Mac guy would just mutter, somewhat uncertainly: “well, yeah…but I’m still cooler than you. right?”

This commercial, however, proves why I would not be very good at marketing. How better to dispel the stereotypes in the Mac commercials that than to show REAL PC users in the real world? Better yet, the commercial subtly reminds PC users that they ought to consider the stereotype in the the Apple campaign as insulting and petty.

Hello (Again): Free Will in the Restoration and Methodist Traditions

September 22, 2008

In one respect, Methodism already feels quite comfortable to me. On paper, at least, United Methodists – like Restorationists – are believers in our free response to God’s grace.

How the two traditions arrived at this particular belief is – itself – fascinating history.

After the days of Martin Luther, the early reformers of Catholicism articulated a doctrine that is most commonly associated with John Calvin, though he can hardly be said to be its sole inventor. The doctrine of “Calvinism,” which soon became associated with the theology of the Reformation, held that human beings are inherently depraved, and that it is only those who God selects to “save” that are saved. We have – so to speak – no choice in the matter.

Some 300-odd years later, after the King of England decided to join the ranks of the reformed in the wake of the Pope’s refusal to give him a divorce, John Wesley – a minister in the King’s “new” church – showed up on the scene – rigorously opposed to Calvinistic thought. Characterizing Calvinism as blasphemous, he was once quoted as saying that it represented “God as worse than the Devil.” Needless to say, this was a less than popular position among many of his friends and colleagues in the Church of England.

Roughly a century later, Alexander Campbell – in a carefully crafted letter, filled with formal, rationalistic argument that was typical of the early Restoration – made the same argument in favor of free will.

Campbell’s letter was written during the Second Great Awakening – a period in U.S. history characterized by unprecedented interest in religious matters, accompanied by the growth of numerous protestant churches. Many of those churches were staunchly Calvinist in their thinking. However, the fledgling Restoration movement, as well as the Methodist churches – which were by then growing by leaps and bounds – stood against the trend.

Today, United Methodists and Restorationists are two of the chief examples of “free will” denominations. There are – of course – Calvinists in both traditions; a growing number within the Churches of Christ, insofar as I can tell. But, typically, the teachings within both traditions fall firmly outside of the “Reformed” tradition of predestination.

There are some major differences between Methodism and the Restoration tradition, of course. But on this point, at least, I feel right at home.

More to come.

My Life as a Methodist 1

September 19, 2008

About a week ago, Sheila and I sent an email to several of our friends from the Highland Church of Christ announcing something that – unofficially at least – a lot of them had seen coming for some time: on Sunday, September 7, we officially became members at St. Paul United Methodist Church.

The move is a homecoming of sorts for Sheila who, when we started dating back in….well, lets just say it was a long time ago… was herself a Methodist. For me, it is a totally new – but exciting – experience.

One thing that has struck me during this transition is how nice it has been to move from “strength to strength,” as one Psalmist put it. Not everyone walks away from – or into – faith communities that are as strong as these two.

Highland is a remarkable faith community – a place for those among the Churches of Christ who long for deep, reflective preaching and teaching that isn’t hesitant to wander away from the “orthodoxy” of her sister churches. St. Paul also occupies its own unique place among its sister churches. In an era where Methodist churches are opting for contemporary and/or mixed worship styles, St. Paul remains devoted to the implementation of a traditional liturgy that reaches back across the centuries. Worship at Highland and St. Paul is a profound contrast – both in style and substance. Yet both communities are filled with people who are loving, and who are devoted to lives of faithful service.

What surprised us in writing the email was just how complex a task it was to explain the change. The fact was that the reasons for the move were numerous and much more complex and nuanced than we could ever put into 5-6 paragraphs.

At the center of the move, though, are Levi, Rachel, and Lexi, our three older kids, all of whom – during the last year – have found a home in the St. Paul youth group, where our good friend Trey Gillette is youth minister.

Youth groups – at least, those that are in Abilene – are odd things. Things that seem to work for certain types of kids within certain populations don’t seem to work at all for others. At Highland, we had a fantastic pair of youth ministers in Sarah Campbell and Michael Mercer – and the program at Highland is very successful. On top of that, we continue to consider Sarah to be one of our family friends. Yet, for various reasons, it is Trey’s philosophy and approach to doing youth ministry that is resonating with our kids at this moment.

I remarked to a friend one time about how I never understood the way families would move to new churches just because their kids wanted to be in the youth program. Honestly – I wondered – does it matter that much? Now, I’m beginning to see the power of what it means for your kids to find a place – especially during their adolescent years – where their faith can flourish.

For those friends of mine who remain behind in Restoration tradition churches, and for those Methodists out there who are curious about how a newcomer views their faith community, I will have a lot more to say about differences in worship experiences and theology in coming posts. During those posts, you will read about the synergy between Wesleyan theology and my own spiritual journey. However, in the end, the tough decision to make this change had much less to do with my own theological preferences, and a lot more to do with the pragmatics of our family’s spiritual life.

More to come.

Torture? Sure, Why Not?

September 11, 2008

Think Islamic Fundamentalists are the only religious group who believe that inhumane violence is justified to achieve political or military end? Think again.

I know there are a lot of political issues on which Christians can and do legitimately disagree, but it seems to me that we should be able to get together on this one without much debate.

Groupthink and John 9

September 11, 2008

I had a chance a few weeks ago to hear a complete reading of John 9. In this story, Jesus heals a man who was born blind. The man is later thrown out of his faith community because he declares that his healing is a sign that Jesus is a prophet.

Its a story that I have read throughout my life, but there was a subtle angle to this story that I never quite picked up on until after my recent exposure.

At its heart of this story is an irony: the man who was blind can readily appreciate who Jesus is, yet the religious leaders, who should be the most likely to appreciate this reality, cannot. The concepts of sight and blindness are played off of the characters to expose “true” sight and “true” blindness.

I always thought that the religious leaders in this story were stuck on a theological problem. The problem goes something like this: “if he is blind, then it is as a result of someone’s sin, and his blindness was imposed by God; so it cannot possibly be that God has now healed him.” How, in other words, could Jesus be from God if it was God who imposed this “punishment” of blindness on him to begin with? The “problem” of the healing is that it requires a re-assessment of an accepted truth: that God punishes people by giving them physical maladies.

However, this view is too harsh and too simplistic. There were, in fact, people among the religious leaders who were prepared to accept that the healing signified Jesus’ status as a prophet. The text is very clear that the leaders were split (v. 16).

The “problem” of the blind man, then, is much more sophisticated and nuanced than I had previously assumed.  It is not simply that his healing has challenged an important (but erroneous) theological assumption ; it is that he has now become a political liability. His healing has sparked a potentially explosive debate. And as a living critique of an accepted theology , he finds himself in the unfortunate position of threatening the solidarity of the community’s leaders.

So what do the leaders do? The same thing every politicized body does when it encounters an issue that no one wants to tackle directly.

They start having meetings.

They meet with each other. They meet with the man who was blind. They meet with the man’s parents. They meet with the blind man yet again. On and on the process goes.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against people having meetings to stay organized or to discuss an important issue. But sometimes having meeting after meeting on an issue is a sign that no one wants to deal directly with a critique that threatens the group’s core values. It is an unfortunate, but common side effect of groupthink.

The result, in John 9, is an increasingly irrational process which spirals inevitably toward the moment where the man is simply dismissed as an ignorant “sinner” who couldn’t possibly know how to identify a true prophet. Like the woman caught in adultery at the end of Chapter 8, his sin is used against him as a way of dehumanizing him.

One of the shrewdest strategies in the modern political arena is that of seeking over-exposure on the point where your opponent is weakest. Take that issue, and just get people talking about it. You don’t have to take a strong stand against it yourself. Just get it into the media. The media is not good, the old saying goes, about telling us what to think…but it is really good at telling us what to think about. And if you get people to focus on the right thing for long enough, it will eventually ruin your opponent, even if you aren’t directly critical.

A similar strategy is employed by Jesus’ opponents. Call meeting after meeting. Pose the same question again and again. Eventually, if you keep exposing the issue, you will get the “right” result. The “problem” will be removed from the community, and Jesus’ healing will be discredited.

A familiar story made all the more intriguing to me because of its commentary on communal sin.

What do you think, are church leaders vulnerable to sin in this way? Can church leaders, small groups, bible classes, even entire churches sometimes act irrationally, even irresponsibly, because they aren’t willing to deal with “elephants in the room”?