Revisiting the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

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.


2 Responses to Revisiting the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

  1. Mike says:

    Good post, very insightful. How do you read Heb 4:12 and 2 tim 3:16? Many use such verses to claim the authoratative nature of scripture.

    Look forward to your response.

  2. Matt says:


    Thanks for stopping by. Here are my quick thoughts on the two passages you cited:

    Heb 4:12 (“…for the word of God is sharper than any double-edged sword…”) – (1) its not at all clear to me that this is intended to be a reference to the biblical text – I think “word of God” is a much broader concept to the writer, (2) nor does it propose to treat the text as “authoritative” – its quite clear, to the contrary, that Jesus holds the position of the “Great High Priest” within the context of this statement, (3) the Hebrews writer also doesn’t conceptualize what he is writing as authoritative.

    2 Tim. 3:16 (“All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching…” etc.) – (1) this tells us the OT canon is in some sense “inspired” by God – but there is considerable difference between this statement and a statement that scripture is the way God governs us, (2) the emphasis, rather – and as was the case in Hebrews – is on how scripture is USED – it is a tool for spiritual development, to be sure, but is that the same as an “authority” over our lives? (3) Paul (or whoever wrote this), too, makes no claim that his letter to Timothy is “authoritative” for all Christians at all times. (4) Instead, in the very next verse he points us again to the authority – Jesus is coming to judge the living and the dead. Paul’s urgent charge to advance the gospel comes not “in view of scriptural mandate,” but in view of Jesus’ coming “and his kingdom.”

    I don’t think the distinction is subtle, but its tough nonetheless to appreciate in a faith culture that is immersed in sola scriptura.

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