The Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Today in our Bible Study we had an interesting discussion about sources of authority for theological reflection. Traditional Catholic dogma emphasized two main sources of authority: Scripture and Tradition. Since Vatican II (1962-65), the Catholic Church has amended their view to mean there is “one source with two streams,” namely, revelation that comes to us in Scripture and Church Tradition as handed down through history by Apostolic teaching.

Protestants emphasized one source in the 16th century Reformation with the sola scriptura principle. Both Lutherans and Reformed Protestants argued that Scripture is not only the highest but the “only” source and authority over the Christian in theology and faith.

Although John Wesley never used the term “Quadrilateral” or explicitly stated that there are four sources of authority, examination of his writings led to the methodological formulation of a “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” whose four sources are:

  1. Scripture – both Old and New Testaments
  2. Tradition – accumulated over the history of the Christian Church
  3. Reason – rationality as applied to interpretation
  4. Experience – the Christians personal experience of God

Nowadays, Protestants have become aware that the Sola Scriptura principle must be closely tied to the fact that Scripture is always “interpreted” and that the various interpretations of Scripture adhere closely to a particular tradition so that it is problematic to posit an antithesis between Scripture and Tradition. All interpretations are contextual!

We still need reason to interpret Scripture, and our interpretations are greatly influenced by our experience of God. Moreover, tradition in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. We do rely on the struggles and formulations of Christian dogma throughout the centuries from the early church fathers onwards.

Yet, I believe, that the Scriptures are paramount over everything else as a source of divine revelation. Accumulated traditions must be examined in light of the Scriptures. Reason and experience too must be subject to the Scriptures. In other words, Scripture is the “norming” norm for the life of faith. In this way, I still affirm the Sola Scriptura principle.

For liberal Christianity, reason has become the “norming” norm. For example, I have talked to many liberal Christians—some really good friends too—who downplay the role of Scripture as authority for the Christian life in the 21st Century. It’s an ancient book! It reflects socio-cultural mores that are no longer relevant to us, slavery and patriarchy being the most often quoted examples.

For Pentecostal/Charismatics, experience of God in a personal power encounter often trumps everything else. Have you experienced God? Because without a God-encounter, Scripture is dead. One can read it as an interesting book, an ancient narrative, or as literature. But on the other hand, with a God-encounter, Scripture comes alive. One can read it as divine revelation. In this way at least, Pentecostal/Charismatics hold a higher view of Scripture than liberal Christians, but “experience” has become the “norming” norm for them—even over the Scriptures. When a Charismatic reads the Bible, more often than not, the immediate and individual context—the sensation and personal experience of reading—trumps exegetical principles or original context. The Bible becomes a “personal” book!

In this way, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral becomes skewed in different directions depending on one’s inclinations. How about you? What is the source (or sources) of authority in your Christian life? What role does the Scripture play in your faith journey? Does tradition have authority over you? You’d be surprised how many Protestants actually rely on their tradition(s)! What role does reason or experience play in your spiritual walk?


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