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For many Methodists, the most cherished piece of their heritage is the so-called “Wesleyan quadrilateral.” Yet, as has often been noted, the quadrilateral was largely Albert C. Outler’s invention in the mid-twentieth century. Towards the end of his life Outler wrote:

“The term ‘quadrilateral’ does not occur in the Wesley corpus – and more than once, I have regretted having coined it for contemporary use, since it has been so widely misconstrued” (36)

Nearly thirty years later, I wonder how Outler would feel today about his creation. It certainly continues to be widely misconstrued. The quadrilateral is not doctrine, it is a proposed method for theological reflection. But it is almost never used the way that it was intended. A tool that does not actually do what it is supposed to do is of limited usefulness. A bicycle pump that lets more air out of a tire than it puts in should be set aside. A screen cleaner that scratches the screen should be thrown away, not repeatedly reused.

So why is there such persistent loyalty to a tool for theological reflection that almost never works the way that it is supposed to?

For the sake of space, I will limit my comments here to the part of the quadrilateral that is most “widely misconstrued” – experience.

In his essay, “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral – in John Wesley” Outler described the rationale for Wesley’s theological method:

When challenged for his authority, on any question, his first appeal was to the Holy Bible… Even so, he was well aware that Scripture alone had rarely settled any controverted point of doctrine… Thus, though never as a substitute or corrective, he would also appeal to ‘the primitive church’ and to the Christian tradition at large as competent, complementary witnesses to ‘the meaning’ of this Scripture or that…

But Scripture and tradition would not suffice without the good offices (positive and negative) of critical reason. Thus, he insisted on logical coherence and as an authorized referee in any contest between contrary positions or arguments. And yet, this was never enough. It was, as he knew for himself, the vital Christian experience of the assurance of one’s sins forgiven that clinched the matter. (24)

Did you notice how specific Outler’s understanding of the role of experience is for John Wesley? It is not just any experience that a person has. It is not experience with a person and whether you find them to be a good or decent person. In fact, Outler almost always modifies the word experience with “Christian.” And it is not just any “Christian experience,” it is the particular Christian experience “of the assurance of one’s sins forgiven.”

In case the limited role of experience is missed, he adds that “Christian experience adds nothing to the substance of Christian truth; its distinctive role is to energize the heart so as to enable the believer to speak and do the truth in love” (25)

Outler goes on to argue that it was Wesley’s “special genius” to add experience to the Anglican “triad” of Scripture, tradition, and reason. Wesley did this, on Outler’s account, in order to “incorporate the notion of conversion into the Anglican tradition” (27).

Outler’s understanding of the role of experience in Wesley’s theology, then, is quite particular. It is not any experience that a person has, it is the distinctively Christian experience of assurance of the forgiveness of one’s sins. It is the experience of the witness of the Spirit. Wesley was quite fond of citing Romans 8:16 to illustrate this: “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

When the quadrilateral is deployed as a means of theological reflection; however, experience is almost always defined far more broadly than this. In popular use of the quadrilateral, experience is usually understood as a kind of common sense. Experience is an authority for theological reflection (so the argument goes) because, if we are willing to pay attention, we can see the obvious things that are going on around us. Experience is also usually used to describe one’s encounters with the world around them, which often results in confirming the prevalent perspective of the current popular culture. Rarely, in popular discussions of the quadrilateral, is experience defined in the specific and more technical way that Wesley and Outler did.

We have come a long way from Outler’s qualification that “Christian experience adds nothing to the substance of Christian truth; its distinctive role is to energize the heart so as to enable the believer to speak and do the truth in love” (25)

And yet, it seems to me that one of the reasons that many contemporary Methodists are so loyal to the quadrilateral is precisely because the appeal to experience provides an authority for adding new things to Christian truth.

If Methodists are going to continuing citing the quadrilateral as their distinctive theological method, then we have a choice to make. We can return to an understanding of experience as it was defined by Outler in his creation of the quadrilateral. Or, we can knowingly reject the way that he defined experience as a legitimate source for Christian theology and use it in a way that he explicitly rejected. If we choose the latter, we ought to at least be honest that we are now using a method of theological reflection that neither John Wesley nor Albert Outler would have endorsed.

Kevin M. Watson teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Connect with Kevin. Get future posts emailed to you.