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.
David Watson said:
Thanks for this fine post, Kevin. It’s good to get clarity on these matters that have confused our church for so long.
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connie washburn White Plains UMC Cary, NC said:
will have to use this as a Sunday School Lesson…we are a very discussion oriented group..agree to disagree, and enjoy looking at the other side of the coin where religious ideas are concerned..
God’s gracious actions in our lives are vivified through experience. Since theology is reflecting on God’s gracious actions in our lives, it would be impossible to do so without experiencing God in our lives. Experience helps us to see how scripture applies to our lives and in addition helps us to feel tradition. Wesley would use experience as a test for a particular interpretation of scripture. Likewise, all experiences had to be tested by scripture. Scripture and experience then go hand in hand. In his sermon ‘The Witness of the Spirit,’ Wesley says, “It is by his particular blessing upon them in searching the scriptures, confirmed by the experience of his children, that this great evangelical truth has been recovered.” Most of Wesley’s use of experience happened in correlation to his tests of scripture. Wesley would use experience without scripture in times when he believed that scripture was inconclusive or silent on a particular issue. For instance, Wesley used his experience of the slave trade to speak against it, even though it may have been contrary to that found in scripture. This is still true today when the church is trying to face such issues such as stem cell research or abortion. In lieu of explicit scripture in regards to these issues, experience becomes vital.
Teddy Ray said:
Kevin – this is a great post. Thank you! I’m going to share it in a few places right now, and it might be my standard place to point people after I tell them about my discomfort with our reliance on the “quadrilateral” in so many Methodist circles.
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Your diligence and devotion to Christ delights and amazes me. Thank you for casting penetrating light on important areas of faith and practice. You challenge and inspire me.
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Morgan Guyton said:
What it comes down to is whether you believe that the Holy Spirit is allowed to have a revelatory presence in the world outside of the Biblical text? If you’re a cessationist when it comes to spiritual gifts, then you can say there is only scripture, tradition, and reason. If not, then there is a category of revelation that is Biblically attested in gifts like prophecy and interpretations of tongues which is not merely reason and not merely reiteration of the plain sense of the Biblical text or the traditional interpretation of it. Pentecostals operate with a full-blown Wesleyan quadrilateral. Perhaps the reason their church is exploding and ours is shrinking is due to the fact that we are cessationists who cling to 18th century conceptions of human nature.
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Kevin Watson said:
Morgan, I do not see how your comment relates to my post. I argue that, for Albert Outler, experience is limited to “Christian experience”, understood particularly as the witness of the Spirit, or assurance. If that isn’t allowing the Holy Spirit “to have a revelatory presence in the world outside of the Biblical text”, I don’t know what is.
I am not sure how cessationism relates to this post. My understanding of cessationism is that it is the belief that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit that occured in the very early church “ceased” not long after the beginnings of the church and no longer occur today. The opposite of cessationism is believing that the Holy Spirit is still working through signs and wonders like physical and emotional healing, speaking in tongues, and prophetic utterances. How would Outler’s understanding of experience as a direct encounter with the Holy Spirit, where someone hears of their adoption as a child of God be cessationist? It seems to be precisely the opposite.
Morgan Guyton said:
I hear you saying two different things and equating them. First, I’m more concerned w understanding the real hermeneutical process than with my fidelity to Outler’s meaning. Assurance of our adoption is a very limited range of experience. I do agree that the experience that contributes to legitimate Biblical hermeneutics is always pneumatological. However, if experience has to be “Christian,” doesn’t that mean that we’re precluding prevenient grace? What happens when God prepares the way for someone to receive the gospel through their experience which is then echoed in scripture? For a faithful Christian, experience is always already informed by scripture; it’s cyclical. We should be living the canon every day. What I’m most against is the conflation of scripturally derived intuition with “personal feelings,” which is a conflation that often happens in arguments over scripture.
Brandon Blacksten said:
Kevin, I’m late to this party, but I’m having trouble seeing how experience construed in the way Outler puts forth is useful or relevant to theological reflection. In the blockquote above from Outler, I understand his descriptions of Wesley’s use of the Bible, tradition, and reason, but it is not at all clear to me how assurance of pardon might “clinch the matter” in a theological discussion. Maybe Outler clarifies this elsewhere in the essay. Could you perhaps provide an example of how experience construed in this way would play out in theological reflection?
Kevin Watson said:
Great to hear from you, Brandon! This question was so helpful (and my response so long!) that I used it to start a new post. I’m posting my response here as well, because this is where your question first appeared.
From where I’m sitting, this post has been one of the most misunderstood posts I have written (which may say more about the author of the post than the audience). My intention was to flesh out Albert Outler’s understanding of Wesley’s understanding of experience. The reason for doing so was to shine a light on how different contemporary uses of experience in the quadrilateral are from the intended use of the person who created the quadrilateral (Outler). Many over-read my initial post, assuming that what I was really saying was that experience is bad, or illegitimate, etc.
I appreciate your perceptive question. On Outler’s understanding of experience, it is difficult to see what the role of Christian experience is in theological reflection. My sense is that part of what Outler is saying is that, for Wesley, the experience of new birth gives people a new set of sense experience (spiritual senses, by which we perceive our adoption as God’s children) and that this experience helps us to better know God, and choose between “contrary positions.”
So, when choosing between two contrary positions, Christian experience would be an essential aid in your discernment – it could be thought of as being like glasses that help you see more clearly the two positions and what their implications are. My sense is that what most contemporary Methodists do when they deploy experience as a general category is that they use their life experience to ask which of the two contrary positions makes the most sense in light of what they know about life and the people around them. In this sense, it doesn’t seem to function as spiritual discernment but more as common sense (which is even more odd, because if it were truly common sense, why the contrary positions in the first place?). Experience as it is most often used today also appears to function as a category that does not need to be informed or infused by Christian content.
I could be wrong, but my reading of Outler’s understanding of Wesley’s understanding of experience is that experience would not actually add much in theological reflection, at least as far as bringing new content to the table. He does not think that your general life experience provides new content that you can legitimately set alongside the Scriptures, for example. In fact, Outler clearly ruled out pitting experience against Scripture.
When I read Outler himself, I was surprised at how clear he was on this point, because it seems to me that this is precisely the main reason the quadrilateral is deployed. Instead, Outler is saying that Wesley added Christian experience to the Anglican triad of Scripture, tradition, and reason because he felt that people were missing the basic reality that theological reflection is not agnostic or secular. It is done by Christians, those who have experienced awakening, justification by faith, the new birth, and in whom the Spirit witnesses with their spirits that they are children of God.
It is entirely possible that Outler’s reading of Wesley is wrong. But, at least from this essay written well after his initial statement of the quadrilateral, this is the way that Outler himself defined and limited the use of experience in the method for theological reflection that he created (because of what he thought Wesley meant by experience).
My main motivation in this post was to try increase awareness within the UMC (and other parts of the Church that lift up the quadrilateral as a helpful tool for theological reflection) that the way that we are currently using the quadrilateral is in many ways profoundly different from and perhaps even contrary to the intended use of its creator.
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Excellent article….we must communicate this to United Methodists as many as we can….I firmly believe the gigantic and malignant problems in our denomination are rooted from very spiritual in nature and mal-applied Wesleyan Quadrilateral which brought chronic amnesia to our people….but there is a BIG HOPE 🙂 by GOD’S GRACE!
Billy Watson said:
Thank you, Kevin, for this excellent, clear, concise expression of what Outler meant when he coined this very misunderstood (even in his own lifetime) term. Most of the comments I see above criticizing your post seem to miss the point entirely. If one is going to continue to utilize the quadrilateral as it is so often employed today, then he or she should have the intellectual integrity not to attribute what they are doing either to Dr. Outler or John Wesley. Perhaps the most honest thing one could do is refer to such a hermeneutic simply as the “Modernist United Methodist Quadrilateral.” If that is the tool one seeks to utilize in the discernment of truth, so be it, but don’t pretend for a moment there is anything Wesleyan about it. I suppose most who utilize said quadrilateral have little concern for keeping faith with Wesley anyway, except where doing so serves their purposes.
Keith Jenkins said:
Kevin, I’d like to offer a couple of thoughts, if I might. First, you say the Wesleyan Quadrilateral “is almost never used the way that it was intended,” but then you go on to say, “A tool that does not actually do what it is supposed to do is of limited usefulness.” These two statements seem somewhat at odds. The first attributes the responsibility for misuse of the quadrilateral to the users, who use it in a way other than how it was intended to be used. But the second statements attributes the responsibility to the tool itself (i.e. the quadrilateral). Which is the case?
Is the quadrilateral a tool that is misused by many or most who try to use it, or is it a tool that “does not do what it is supposed to do,” presumably because of some flaw in its design (as in your analogies)? If it is the former, then what we need, it seems, is to teach the people called Methodists to use it correctly. But if it is the latter, then it seems we need–with apologies to the memory of Dr. Outler–to admit to this being the case and “retire it” it in some official manner. Which of these two responses are you advocating? Or are you advocating something else altogether?
My second thought is one that originates deep inside my personal aversion to what, for lack of a better term, I will call hero worship–a personality trait that predates my being a Christian or a United Methodist. And it is a thought that will cause many to doubt the validity of my UM credentials (so it’s probably a good thing I am now retired) by labeling me as “not very Wesleyan.” I am grateful for the life and service of John Wesley to our mutual Lord and his Kingdom, and I am indebted to the branch of the Church that arose out of his labors, but I am not now, never have been, and never will be a disciple of John Wesley. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, trying to live my life of discipleship within the context of the modern day manifestation of a movement started by John (and Charles) Wesley, but of which he had no concept and which would undoubtedly “blow his 18th century mind” if he could see what it has become. And while I deeply respect the brilliant and faithful work and the years of service given to the Church by Albert Outler, I am not his disciple either (and not just because I went to Duke instead of Perkins–though that can explain certain parts of the anomaly I have become). I cherish the past, but I am called to be a disciple in the present. I cherish our heritage and hope always to be able to learn from it, but I refuse to be bound by it.
So, yes, I freely admit to using Outler’s so-called quadrilateral as a tool for theological reflection and discernment in a way other than either Outler or Wesley intended. I admit to expanding the category of “experience” to become the personal, individual counterpart of what “tradition” is to the Church, because I believe that, as a child of God living in God’s Creation and in a relationship with God made possible through Christ, the lens of my personal experience provides me (and the personal experience of others provides them) with an invaluable perspective on the meaning of a life lived by faith that must be used alongside the lenses of scripture, tradition, and reason. But I don’t see that as a deviation or a corruption or a straying from the path. I see it as a necessary and beneficial improvement made possible by the passage of time and the presence of a living God.
Sorry this ran so long. I’ve always been a windbag, and in retirement, I seem to have become even more so.
Robert McCullough said:
While I find your article and subsequent comments above a helpful clarification of Outler’s original understanding of experience in the so-called quadrilateral, it appears that Wesley understood/utilized/appealed to “experience” in the larger sense as well. See UMChaplain’s point regarding how Wesley seemed to do so when the biblical witness was “inconvlusive” or “silent” or even “contradictory” to a particular issue. And, as Morgan mentioned, there is Wesley’s own emphasis on the experience of God’s prevenient and sanctifying grace, not just the pardoning grace emphasized by Outler. I hope we continue to find necessary and beneficial improvements to the quadrilateral which do not limit “experience” to Outler’s reference. I too echo Keith’s affimation: “So, yes, I freely admit to using Outler’s so-called quadrilateral as a tool for theological reflection and discernment in a way other than either Outler or Wesley intended. I admit to expanding the category of “experience” to become the personal, individual counterpart of what “tradition” is to the Church, because I believe that, as a child of God living in God’s Creation and in a relationship with God made possible through Christ, the lens of my personal experience provides me (and the personal experience of others provides them) with an invaluable perspective on the meaning of a life lived by faith that must be used alongside the lenses of scripture, tradition, and reason. But I don’t see that as a deviation or a corruption or a straying from the path. I see it as a necessary and beneficial improvement made possible by the passage of time and the presence of a living God.”
Kevin Watson said:
To your first comment: Either solution you pose would be preferable to the status quo. In the nearly two years since I wrote this post, I’ve been surprised to see the number of people who were so committed to the authority of their own experience that they were willing to use almost any rhetorical strategy that they could find to dismiss the facts in this post.
I think the quadrilateral is both a tool that does a poor job of accomplishing what it was intended to do and one that is very rarely used as it was intended. I think both are real problems. The design flaws in the tool is that Outler deployed a precise understanding of experience in a way that was highly unlikely to stick in popular usage (experience has been redefined in a much broader way that encourages putting in argument with Scripture). Another problem with the tool is that the quadrilateral also combines quite different ways of knowing that make it highly likely that Scripture and tradition will be put into argument with reason and experience. A final problem with the tool is that it is far more cumbersome and difficult to use than people recognize. People often act as if using the quadrilateral is a kind of experience in common sense. But, the quadrilateral requires a level of expertise that would require a major research paper to fully explore, and that no one would be able to use to come up with each one of their beliefs one at a time. No one person could actually use this tool to construct a comprehensive faith. And suggesting that we can and must do so is the pinnacle of western Christian arrogant individualism. The tool is misused because people misunderstand experience. The primacy of Scripture is very often overlooked, forgotten, or ignored. And the evaluations that are arrived at almost never demonstrate any kind of substantive engagement with the Christian tradition. People mostly use the quadrilateral to justify what they already believe, rather than using it as a way to come to carefully considered conclusions on the basis of the evidence.
To your second comment: I worry that your concern with hero worship is a way to disguise a kind of self-worship. Why is it that so many of us are so uncomfortable with the wisdom of those who have gone before us and yet we are so comfortable with our own wisdom? Put differently, why are you so confident that you know better than people like John Wesley and Albert Outler about the most reliable path to becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ? I certainly do not worship Wesley or Outler, or anyone besides God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But I am confident that two hundred years after my death no one will be talking about me or reading what I have written. I am equally confident that Wesley will still be seen as a reliable guide for growing in Christian faith. A great deal of the confusion in contemporary United Methodist theologizing is caused by people addressing deep issues of human life and the search for meaning with profound ignorance of the ways in which these questions have been answered by those who have gone before us. In my view, we are highly unlikely to make significant progress in our thinking or living by dismissing those who have gone before us and acting as if we are the generation with the most developed moral consciousness and can simply cast aside the tradition we ourselves are continuing.
Keith Jenkins said:
Kevin, thanks for your quick reply. Let me try to respond.
I have no disagreement with you over the rampant misuse of the quadrilateral, and would echo your assessment that it is frequently used to rationalize what one already believes. But I do take issue with your assessment of the difficulty of using it (I won’t say “correctly” because that is too prescriptive for my taste) profitably. And though I agree that, in the name of the WQ (or some other paradigm), reason and experience are often pitted against scripture and tradition (or often just scripture alone by so many), I don’t believe that need be the case. But neither do I subordinate the other three “sides” of the quadrilateral to scripture. In that sense I am not, strictly speaking, of either the sola scriptura or the prima scriptura school (probably a good thing I went before the BOM way back in 1979). For me, any of the 4 can be the place where theological reflection and discernment begin or end, and any of the 4 can sometimes shed light and clarity where the other 3 are dark or muddled.
But, on to the more pressing issue of my “self worship.” You don’t know me (our having met only once), or you would realize how far from the mark that assessment is. I admit to having a gargantuan ego, but my skepticism is even bigger and keeps that ego in check. And I am especially fond of myself, but I also question myself and my own assumptions more rigorously than I do those of anyone else. What I meant by my comments about “hero worship,” but probably didn’t say very well, was that I have little use for fame or celebrities, regardless of their field of endeavor. Of course there are great individuals who make notable contributions and will be remembered by many when they’re gone. And I have no problem with including John Wesley and Albert Outler in their number. What I am saying is that I can acknowledge their contributions, and I can make use of some of their insights, without making my own understanding subservient to theirs. Not because I think my understanding is so great or that it is better than theirs, but rather simply because it is mine. I am “working out my own salvation” by living out my own daily experience of what it means to be a child of God, a Christian, a UM, a pastor, a husband, a father, a teacher, a writer, etc. For me it’s not an issue of who is right theologically or doctrinally and who is wrong, because those labels don’t matter. It’s not a matter of being right or wrong because life, faith, and salvation aren’t about theological propositions. They’re about relationships.
I have always been glad The United Methodist Church didn’t have “Wesley” as part of its name, because in some small way, that gave us permission to evolve beyond John Wesley without forsaking our past or putting our future in jeopardy. But I was born a little too late, or the golden age of Theological Pluralism was too short. Either way, I spent most of my career as a UM pastor watching first an emphasis on propositional orthodoxy, then an insistence on it worthy of the most rigid Reformed thinking around creep in and rob us of our freedom and our joy. Am I saying that all who self-identify as “Wesleyan” inhabit this place and exude this spirit? By no means. But I have found it to be more prevalent among “Wesleyans” than among those who do not attach this label to themselves. It is this lack of instinct toward hero worship in me, Kevin, that lets me declare myself a not-particularly-Wesleyan United Methodist without a single qualm.
Drew McIntyre said:
“What I am saying is that I can acknowledge their contributions, and I can make use of some of their insights, without making my own understanding subservient to theirs. Not because I think my understanding is so great or that it is better than theirs, but rather simply because it is mine.”
Keith, I am in the habit of making my own thoughts subservient to others’ when their insights are superior. Are you really suggesting that the reason you make use of others’ insights without making your own understanding subservient is out of a loyalty to your own thoughts and not out of a concern for truth? That seems to be a terrible strategy. A dedication to the truth, from whatever source it comes (and aren’t the saints, like Wesley, a pretty reliable source?) makes a lot of sense. A dedication to my own thoughts, regardless of the quality of other’s insights, is insanity.
Kevin Watson said:
Thanks for your response, Keith. I appreciate your pushback. There is a lot in your response with which I disagree. And, I hear your disagreement with what I’ve said. I’m going to leave it at that for now. God bless you.
Keith Jenkins said:
I can live with that, Kevin. Thanks for the exchange.
I enjoyed this thought provoking post because it echoes some of my own journey with the Quadrilateral as a tool for theological reflection. The way I originally learned of it and – especially – learned to visualize it no longer strikes me as valid. Quadrilateral =/= Square! And yet I still do value the Quadrilateral as a valid and useful part of our heritage.
Please clarify if your view of valid “legs” would best be realized by (1) dispose of quadrilateral (dropping three parts and keeping only Scripture), (2) make it a triangle (dropping experience only), (3) keep all four parts but with an improved truly Wesleyan understanding of experience of the Spirit, or (4) something else.
And please cite some examples to back up your contention 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.”
In particular, do you think personal experience is what’s driving the move by many to revise church teaching concerning homosexuality and same sex marriage? I’ve heard others make that claim, but their critique has never convinced me. You don’t mention that (or any other example) here, so it’s got me wondering further what example(s) you have in mind.
Nathan Bledsoe said:
My question is simple, and I’ll put it first and then flesh out what I mean: What about reason?
While many people attribute things they have experienced to be true in the world to the idea of experience, and while you have demonstrated this sense of experience to be incorrect as either Outler or Wesley spoke of them, how are we defining reason? If reason is the God-given human ability to think through the ethics and parameters of difficult and nuanced situations; to address multiple options (usually which all can be supported with scriptural, traditional, and experiential evidence), and make a well reasoned decision, isn’t much of what we’re trying to write off as the misuse of experience simply mislabeled reason?
Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’d love to hear from some of the voices in here about where I’m missing the point!
Keith Jenkins said:
Drew, I hesitate even to respond briefly to you, because you obviously either didn’t read all of my comment or read it with so many presuppositions in place you were unable to hear what I was actually saying.
At least you ended by implying that I am insane, so that was nice of you.
I said nothing about “loyalty” to my own thoughts. You pulled that right out of . . . I’m not sure where, but not from my words. I cling to my understanding and my experience not out of loyalty, but out of existential necessity. They can change, of course, and they do change in the course of encountering other people (some who are far smarter than I am, and others who are not), but at any given point, my understanding and experience are all I have. They are uniquely mine because they belong to that thing I refer to when I say or think “me.”
And finally, no, I don’t consider Wesley a particularly reliable source for helping me arrive at the “truth” (I’m pretty sure you and I don’t mean the same thing by this term) of what my life of faith should look like.
Nathan Bledsoe has fingered the real “culprit” (if anyone wants to call it that). Kevin made a fine point about experience being misunderstood for its proper place in the quadrilateral. But Kevin asserted that personal experience is what some folks misuse in trying to change our understanding of scripture — without giving any examples of actual impact of such misunderstanding.
I’d suggest that reason is the more commonly successful leg in that regard and typically it may overturn tradition when some new or more widely accepted scientific understanding prompts a reevaluation of scripture. Astrophysics and evolution are examples driving significant changes in widely accepted understandings of scripture. They overturned prior understandings that many clung to as quote/unquote orthodoxy, but now few Methodists feel that such scientific understanding is any threat at all to orthodoxy. I believe that a similar change is underway with respect to homosexuality and same sex marriage. Even though etiology of sexual orientation remains hard to pin down, medical science is clear that for many orientation is immutable and for most of these change therapy is ineffective and for too many dangerous. This science-based reason alone calls the traditional understanding of scripture into question, and once subjected to fresh scrutiny, the logic of traditional interpretation falls apart and seems to weigh down what scripture literally says (re: idolatry and pederasty) with extraneous scenarios (rewriting orientation into scripture) and discrimination based on human-given prejudice (assuming same sex rape invalidates same sex marriage but heterosexual rape should be a cause for it).
And – getting back to what Wesley and Outler intended for experience of the Holy Spirit – when one takes the opportunity to worship with gay Christians, one feels very powerfully the Holy Spirit among the faithful people. This experience of the Holy Spirit provides the assurance that revisionist interpretation in favor of same sex marriage is superior to the traditional anti-homosexual-in-all-cases view.
Lanny Lancaster said:
Kevin, I may be grossly oversimplifying your intent, but it seems that one angle of what you are saying is the question of whether our experience is responsive (cooperating) with the Holy Spirit or resisting the influence of the Holy Spirit, almost a Pauline distinction in his Spirit vs. flesh (sars) discussion in Romans 8.
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In our denomination in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, we have seen a remarkable increase since 2013 in emphasis on “experience” by a growing group of lay and clergy through books, conferences and revival events. They lecture those who have not aligned with them that we have misunderstood and limited and re-wrote history pertaining to Wesley’s teaching of “experience.” Their “experience” is defined by extreme signs and wonders (like Morgan above is trying to express), and comes packaged with “new truths”. As you say, “the appeal to experience provides an authority for adding new things to Christian truth.” Much of these teachings and practices are rooted in the New Apostolic Reformation Movement which are communicated through popular books, churches and outreach ministries. For example, Apostle Bill Johnson of Bethel Church Redding CA, and their ministry, Jesus Culture.
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Rev. Carl R. Peterson said:
Kevin, I am currently writing on Outler’s construct of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral and this essay popped up while I was looking for the source of his quotation expressing regret at creating the Quadrilateral. At the risk of stating what I think is obvious, we have to keep in mind that Wesley was himself very concerned about the assurance of salvation. His Aldersgate Street experience is the pivotal point in his ministry where he makes faith a dominant topic in subsequent sermons and moves faith from being a possession of the church to a personal expression. I posit that Outler rightly understood Wesley to mean that experience with God that assures one of their personal salvation. I also read, though, from others in our Wesleyan tradition who are not United Methodists, that they have embraced the experience to be experiences with the Holy Spirit. Though it may not be what Outler or Wesley intended, these are not necessarily out of line with the Quadrilateral. Outler was notably concerned that the other sides of the quadrilateral would come to be viewed as of equal importance with Scripture, when instead the whole idea of a theological method is a means to look at and interpret God’s word. Any time we as human beings have an experience with the Divine, it will necessarily and inevitably influence how we read God’s word. the error comes when one puts higher precedence on that experience than what the Bible says. Neither Wesley nor Outler would condone such a misuse of the method. For myself, I can talk about the Quadrilateral, but I much prefer Paul Chilcote’s metaphor of a wind chime with tradition, reason, and experience suspended from Scripture and they only resonate when the Holy Spirit blows through them. that metaphor, however, probably wouldn’t have worked well for the paper Outler was commissioned to produce for the General Conference. I’m not sure where the boundary is between right use of experience and misuse. The Pentecostal movement shares our Wesleyan heritage, but I doubt that Outler would have endorsed how the quadrilateral is used in that context. The Quadrilateral is, however, merely doctrine (that is, a teaching tool), and not dogma. That the Quadrilateral is being used to teach people a systematic approach to theology still speaks well to Wesley’s contribution. A carpenter and a automotive body worker both use hammers, but the hammers are reshaped for their intended purposes and wielded differently by those who use them. So it is also with the Quadrilateral. I want to thank you for your insightful article, which continues to be read and spur responses some four years after you wrote it.
Stan G said:
Would you agree that Outler’s definition of experience is itself a reflection of modern thinking that downplays the supernatural and mystical? I have a broader view of experience to include any work of the Holy Spirit (not just assurance) in a believer’s life. Obviously, and because Scripture is primary, these experiences would be measured by the witness we see of the Spirit’s work in the Bible, especially Acts. I mean, it is in Acts that we see the defining moment for the church – witnessing the work of the Spirit, through glossolalia, that opens the doors for Gentiles to participate fully in the ekklesia without having to convert to Judaism. Does the Church get there without this overwhelming and irrefutable sign from God? Miracles, signs and wonders point us in the direction God wants to take us AND provide a living present context, not relegating our theology to a locked-in past. I’m hesitant to go here, but case in point is our current argument over the inclusion of LGBT+ persons. Our current quadrilateral mushiness has brought us to this point, but wouldn’t an overwhelming and irrefutable sign of God – a great big neon sign (glossolalia in the LGBT+ community (that practices same-sex intimacy)) – save the day? And wouldn’t the lack of that sign teach us to stay the course? We decide our ethics by Robert’s Rules – hardly a work of the Spirit. I would posit that it’s not experience that we should be cautious of, but how experience, bounded by Scripture, can guide us forward in our theology and ethics. Again, we are products of our culture. Modern culture values reason. Post-modern culture values experience. We need both, bounded by Scripture and tradition. I’ll hang up and listen.
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