The so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” is often seen as the common thread that holds together Methodist theological discourse. The only problem is that it is rarely used as a tool that actually arbitrates theological disagreements amongst Methodists. That is to say, the people using the quadrilateral do not agree on what is meant by an appeal to the four sources of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
One of the sources that is least understood, at least when connected with the thought of John Wesley is experience. In preparing for my most recent field-level exam, I reread this summary of Wesley’s understanding of experience in Gerald R. Cragg’s Reason and Authority in the Eighteenth Century, (1964):
Wesley never allowed experience to stand alone. It was always checked by the evidence of Scripture and by the judgment of his reason. Experience confirms authority, it does not establish it. It verifies the truth we have discovered, but it is not the source of that truth. Consequently we cannot authenticate our faith by appealing to our feelings. [Quoting Wesley] ‘That some consciousness of our being in favour with God is joined with the Christian faith I cannot doubt; but it is not the essence of it. A consciousness of pardon cannot be the condition of pardon.’ Wesley had too shrewd an understanding of human nature not to realise that emotions can be unpredictable and unreliable. Consequently he laid down the principle ‘you are not to judge by your feelings, but by the Word of God.’ (161)
Cragg’s summary identifies one of the most common misuses of “experience” as a source of authority within the quadrilateral. Experience does not stand alone. Experience confirms authority, it does not establish it. In particular, Wesley appealed to experience in order to confirm the doctrine of assurance. The truth of Romans 8:16 – “The Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we are God’s children” – is confirmed by our experience. For example, Wesley wrote:
The fact we know: namely, that the Spirit of God does give a believer such a testimony of his adoption that while it is present in the soul he can no more doubt the reality of his sonship than he can doubt of the shining of the sun, while he stands in the full blaze of his beams. (“The Witness of the Spirit”, I.12)
For Wesley, Scripture promises that the Holy Spirit will witness within the spirits of those who have become children of God that they are in fact children of God. The promise from Scripture is confirmed by the experience of the Spirit actually witnessing within our spirits of our adoption as God’s children.
What do you think?
(If you are interested in learning more about the quadrilateral, I would recommend Wesley and the Quadrilateral: Renewing the Conversation. William J. Abraham also provides a dissenting voice in Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in The United Methodist Church.)
John Meunier said:
Very helpful illustration and explanation, Kevin.
I wonder if “experience as confirmation” would lead us to say there are some parts of Scripture that are not really open testing by experience.
For instance, the commandment not to kill is not really open to confirmation by experience. It simply is.
For experience to play a role, we need something like a testable hypothesis.
Steve Rankin said:
I think one of the hardest challenges of the category of experience is (as John’s comment also indirectly suggests, I think) actually defining the term. Randy Maddox’ chapter in the book you mentioned does a good job of exploring this problem. I would argue that thinking is part of experience. Thinking cannot/should not be done disconnected from other avenues of experience. But the word “experience” is incredibly hard to define, especially relative to the so-called Quadrilateral. Sadly, it gets used like a trump card in doctrinal and ethical debates.
Jeffrey Rickman said:
I think it would be helpful to write about how one authenticates experience. If experience is not self-authenticating, then there has to be a process whereby an individual is able to discern whether it is the individual’s spirit or the Holy Spirit speaking within her. This is where I have run into trouble in my own faith life. It would seem that Scripture is the only litmus test for weighing experience, but then there are all sorts of hermeneutical problems. Sometimes the Christian assembly has a role to play, maybe? I’m not saying there should be an easy answer. But I do think (and I suspect someone has already done this) that there should be a Wesleyan understanding of how to validate or discount experience…
John Leek said:
I believe I wrote something similar, though in brief, in my commissioning paperwork. Experience brings confirmation to truths we may have only known intellectually before. 🙂