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.