[In the Sunday school class I teach, we recently discussed the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a model for building one’s theology. In our post-modern world, individual Christians need a theology that is appropriate as we attempt to live in ways that are faithful to the good news of Jesus Christ as well as being relevant to our own time and place in history. I have always found the Quadrilateral to be a useful tool in developing a healthy and useful theology. This article is the first of four articles dealing with the different components of the Quadrilateral.]
“Quadrilateral” is a theological term associated with Wesleyanism. Wesleyanism is a theology based on the views of John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism. Wesley never used the term “Quadrilateral.” Albert Cook Outler (1908-1981), a 20th Century United Methodist theologian, first applied the word to the way Wesley did theology. Outler carefully examined the writings of Wesley and determined that the 18th Century minister used four sources for his theology: Scripture, reason, church tradition, and personal experience.
Outler later regretted his choice of “Quadrilateral” to help others understand Wesley’s approach to theology. The term could be and has been interpreted to mean that the four components are of equal value in forming a Christian theology. Outler feared that the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” could easily become a “Wesleyan Equilateral.” Wesley (and Outler) always understood Scripture to have a privileged place and to be the final authority in any attempt to construct a Christian theology.
I (RZ) would suggest that the Quadrilateral (Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience) could be seen as an insight which need not be limited by Wesley’s or Outler’s assumption that Scripture must always be the final authority in determining one’s theology. Scripture could be given a “privileged place” without it determining every theological outcome. I can affirm the priority of Scripture in ways which do not require me to reject what I believe God is saying and doing in my own time and place. Scripture may be the first word but need not be the final word in constructing a theology.
We will look at the four components of a theological Quadrilateral and discuss their place in our own theological development.
I) SCRIPTURE: Christianity is based on what I call “the Christ Event.” The Christ Event includes the life, teachings, deeds, death, and resurrection of one specific individual in history–Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible, and specifically the New Testament (with a priority given to the four Gospels), is the only source which allows us to have any knowledge and understanding of that historical event. (The Gospel of Thomas may include a few sayings of Jesus which are authentic, but those verses do not add much, if anything, to what we find in the New Testament.)
What we have in the Gospels is a “remembered” (and at times, an “interpreted”) Jesus. We are totally dependent on the witness of the early church for our knowledge about the historical Jesus. There is much Jesus probably said and did of which we have no record. And it is possible that some of what is claimed in the Gospels to be from the mouth of Jesus is more the product of church reflection and creation. For the most part, I believe we have an accurate and reliable picture of the historical Jesus in the Gospels. However, what we have is an “apostolic” witness.
This apostolic witness continues in other portions of the New Testament. Paul’s letters, for example, represent his attempt to understand, interpret, and communicate the Christ Event to his Jewish and Gentile audiences. From the “get-go” Jesus was not just remembered—he was also interpreted. What was his significance to individuals, the church, the specific time and place of the Jesus movement, the wider world, and the universe itself? What the four Gospel writers, Paul, and all the other writers of the New Testament began has continued throughout the history of the church as each generation interprets the meaning and relevance of the Christ Event for its own time and place.
If we believe that God acted decisively and uniquely in the Christ Event, then we will always give Scripture a privileged place in our theologies. We cannot claim to be Christian without being grounded in the “remembered” Jesus of the first century CE. If there was an Incarnation and Resurrection, we are tethered to those events. But if the Resurrected Christ is still speaking through the Spirit, we are not so tethered as to be enslaved to a wooden and rigid theology. Such a limiting theology would not enable us to see the other things Jesus wanted to communicate to those early disciples but could not because they were not able or ready to understand and appropriate those truths. (See John 16:12-15)
The Christian Bible also contains the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). In fact, the Bible is a collection of religious thought and memory stretching over a thousand years. Jesus assumed and embraced much of the tradition from the Hebrew Scriptures (and from the Judaism of his day). The Hebrew prophets, especially those beginning in the 8th century BCE, contain incredible and unique wisdom which we would be foolish to ignore. The great cultural gift of the Jews has always been their religious insight and witness. Such a gift is without parallel in history. The Hebrew Scriptures have much to say about God, creation, and humanity on their own without reference to Jesus. However, Jesus and the earliest church were Jewish and were knowledgeable of and guided by the Hebrew Scriptures. Consequently, we cannot understand or appreciate Jesus, the writers of the New Testament, or the early church without the background of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Judaism of Jesus’ day. Judaism was and is the Mother of Christianity.
We should also notice that the Scriptures are self-correcting. As time passed and as people were open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, religious perspectives, assumptions, and conclusions changed, grew, and deepened. I personally see this transformation occurring in an exponential way with the Classical Prophets (8th Century—6th Centuries BCE). Also, writers do not always agree with each other. [How could they when we remember that most of them were not even aware of what the others had been and were saying (not to mention what future spokespersons would say).] Any appreciation of Scripture must include an awareness of the “dialogue” which existed throughout the creation of the Bible. To this day, Judaism is a process of interpretation and transformation. So is Christianity, even if we don’t see or understand the process. We are invited to dialogue with the Bible, and in that interaction, we bring ourselves, our contemporary perspectives, and our unique place in history. We are all Abrahams and Sarahs as we live by faith and not by sight. We may have more revelation than these spiritual ancestors had, but with each theological progression comes new challenges, questions, and opportunities which call out for God’s presence and guidance as well as for our faithful witness. We are always on “the way” and will never fully arrive in this dimension of existence. We are called to be pilgrims, not homesteaders. So, we must learn to love the journey and trust there will be a final destination. And in that journey, we will experience the same Presence, demands, and gifts which blessed previous women and men of faith. None of us lives by sight and certainty. What we must understand is that the same was true of those religious figures whose writings and insights we today call the Bible. We are all on “the Way.”
Finally (to expand on an earlier point), the Bible must be interpreted. The foolishness inherent in the slogan “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” is the omission of “I interpret it.” All Scripture must be interpreted, and all interpretations are made by fallible human beings. However, there is a profound difference between eisegesis and exegesis. Eisegesis is when we read into the Bible what we want or assume it to say. Exegesis is when we read out of the Bible (as best we can) what it does say. There is no perfect and infallible exegesis. We all practice eisegesis to some degree. But there is a quantitative and a qualitative difference in our interpretation of the Bible when we try our best to let the Bible speak for itself. Such an attempt requires as much objectivity as we can muster as well as a knowledge and appreciation of contexts (religious, literary, social, economic, political, cultural contexts). This process may seem overwhelming. Perhaps we should remember what Mark Twain said about interpreting Scripture: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts I do understand.” I seriously doubt if any contemporary theologian could teach St. Francis, St. Clare, or John Woolman anything about God and the Christian faith that really matters that they did not already know and flesh out in their lives. The “simplest” soul can see what the “wisest” soul cannot. True vision depends more on the state of the heart than on the intelligence of the mind. Our willingness to be touched by God and to be open to truth will not lead us astray. Jesus did not choose scholars or philosophers as his disciples. He chose common men and women who could boast of no great achievement or wisdom. Paul in I Corinthians 1 tells us why God continually makes such astounding and radical choices. [This chapter in the New Testament represents one of the most profound insights into the nature of God revealed in the Christ Event (provided it is not read with preconceived notions of what Paul is saying).]