(This is the third of a series of articles retired Pastor Mike Shockley is writing to his friends, fellow clergy and members of the congregations he served in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church for over 30 years as an Elder in Full Connection.)

NOTE: I’m (as you’ve probably guessed) not a scholar. I don’t claim any special expertise. I’m just a pastor who loves God and loves people the best I can. I’m attempting to help friends and former parishioners navigate with clarity and honesty the confusing and confounding landscape of schism in which our church is embroiled.

If a United Methodist pastor were to ask a typical member of their congregation what “the Wesleyan Quadrilateral” is, they would most likely be met with a blank stare, a stare not unlike their own when they first heard the term back in Seminary or Pastors School.

Yet, that strange phrase describes a method by which multiple thousands of UM pastors have been schooled in thinking about God. And how a pastor thinks about God has no small impact on a congregation.

For some 50 years, the way United Methodists have been encouraged to do theological work has been the way of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”.

I say 50 years because the “Statement of Our Theological Task” written and approved by the 1972 General Conference set this direction for God-pondering by doing two things. The first action effectually suspended our UM standards of doctrine, saying that they are “not to be construed literally and juridically”.

The second action was necessitated by the first. Again, UM Professor and Pastor Kevin M Watson explains: “The (1972) statement then raised the challenge, “By what methods can our doctrinal reflection and construction be most fruitful and fulfilling?” (I.e., in the absence of literal and juridical standards of doctrine, how do we search for meaningful unity?) The answer is the quadrilateral! “The answer comes in terms of our free inquiry within the boundaries defined by four main sources and guidelines for Christian theology: Scripture, tradition, experience, reason.”

“The virtue of the quadrilateral is described as follows in the 1972 statement: “They [the four sources] allow for, indeed they positively encourage, variety in United Methodist theologizing.””

So, what exactly is the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”? Well, first it’s a term John Wesley never used. It was coined in the 1950s by theologian Albert C. Outler (an outstanding thinker and expert on Wesley’s theology) to describe how Wesley engaged his own theological labors.

Since Outler invented the term “Quadrilateral”, it’s probably best to read what Outler said about the method it describes:

“When challenged for his authority, on any question, his (Wesley’s)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 (reason) 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.”

I hope you can see in these excerpts from Dr. Outler the origin of the “four sources” of the Quadrilateral as well as their priorities.

First – the Holy Bible

Second – Christian Tradition

Third – Critical Reason

Fourth – Vital Christian Experience

If you’ve dozed off, I apologize. This is pretty boring but please wake up because I think this stuff is very important in understanding why our church is splitting up into “Traditional” and “Progressive” camps.

For many decades, countless UM clergy have moved into pulpits preaching sermons and publishing books developed from widely divergent and misleading applications of the “Quadrilateral” method.

I saw this at work in Seminary, (Candler at Emory, 1982-85) and have seen it spread across my continuing education. One of the perversions of Wesley’s method claims that the four sources of the Quadrilateral are equal in authority. Another is the false idea that “Christian experience” (not such as spiritual regeneration or the “witness of the Spirit”, but rather that of trending western cultural/political moods) outweighs the witness of Scripture. Apparently now the church may transcend Scripture and move “beyond Christ”.

Late in life, Dr. Outler lamented; “…more than once, I have regretted having coined (the term) for contemporary use, since it has been so widely misconstrued.”

Of course, Dr. Outler is certainly not at fault for inventing the term and explaining the method. It has proven very helpful for me personally in biblical study and reflection. However, far from developing the kind of healthy theological variety that nourishes truth, love and unity in the church, the Quadrilateral has instead, by severely misguided and distorted usage, sown seeds of contradiction and conflict which now have grown into a harvest of opposition and division.

In 1972, we the church, in the name of pluralism and “variety”, sowed to the winds of controversy. Now a half century later, we are reaping the whirlwind.

4 thoughts on ““Quadri-what!?”

  1. An easy way to remember the quadrilateral is (at least for me), B E R T. Bible. Experience. Reason. Tradition. y engineering degree was greatly helped learning equations using pneumonics. I don’t have any ties to Ernie for that though 😝


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