July 20, 2003   Shirley Macemon
  Wesley and Theological Method
Acts 17: 16-25

16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, "What does this babbler want to say?" Others said, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities." (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means." 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.

In Athens, addressing the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, Paul revealed his "theological grounding." Steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, and proclaiming the good news of Jesus, Paul used his own experiences to better understand and make his message clear and relevant to the Athenian crowd, for whom the Hebrew Messiah would have no cultural or religious significance, and the symbols and devices of the pantheon of Athens to carefully ground his message of God's love for humanity and desire for reconciliation with God's children.

About 30 years ago, as the churches once known as Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist moved to created a unified statement of our "theological task," for the new United Methodist Church, four sources or guidelines emerged as significant and of historical importance for the theological process. For many reasons, these guidelines of theological reflection have been misunderstood as "doctrinal standards", and their usefulness and application simply misunderstood: theological reflection is, after all, a frequently misunderstood activity.

During the study process, these "guidelines of theological reflection", Scripture, tradition, experience and reason were informally called the "Wesleyan quadrilateral," a name which - to the regret of its "coiner" - has stuck like flypaper. As the process of uniting the United Methodist Church continued, the 1972 Discipline included these guidelines; Scripture, tradition, experience and reason became our denominational standard for contemporary theological reflection. But, confusion has continued to follow this quadrilateral: How was it connected to the work of John Wesley, how were these guidelines to be used in a practical sense? Are these guidelines distinctively Wesleyan?

John Wesley does use these specific terms as guidelines in his own theological work. A century or so before Wesley, Richard Hooker described the tenets of Anglican authority as a three-legged stool, consisting of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Hooker's work responses to challenges from both Roman Catholic and Reformation points of view. Protestants such as John Calvin in the Reformation churches attempted to return to a "scripture only" view of authority, moving almost violently from the Roman position that placed the traditions and dictates of the church as authoritative. Hooker, like the later Wesley moved toward a middle way - sometimes a radically middle way, emphasizing grounding in scripture, illuminated by tradition and seen through the lenses of reason and experience.

Not to make the confusion any simpler, in Post-modern English language, these words carry different meanings than they did 250 years ago in their theological context. And finally, what do we do with these "theological guidelines" even after we know what they mean? When we hear the four "sides" of a "Quadrilateral", we may think "mathematical equation", and think we've got the "Wesleyan approach" by treating these four as an algebraic formula - frequently to justify our own firmly held conclusions. Any number of times I have heard a fellow a layperson or even a clergyperson, say something like: "I ran this particular issue through the quadrilateral, judged it by scripture, tradition, reason and experience and the scriptural view lost 3 to 1. I used church tradition, my reason and experience in making this decision, so the decision must be Wesleyan." This is not a reasonable approach to theological reflection.

Wesley would not only turn over, he would spin in his grave.

You see, despite what some would have you believe - Methodism isn't really a "believe anything you want" denomination.

For John Wesley, like Paul in Athens, though the context has changed, Scripture is primary in everything he does. Scripture gives us the basis for who we are and whose we are. Biblical stories not only tell us about our God, but tell us about who we are as God's people.

These are the stories that tell us that:

-Our God is the one who deliberately chose to make humanity - male and female in God's image and declared all God's creation good.

-Our God is the one who staid the hand of child sacrifice,

-Our God declared that fidelity to love of God was not lived out in burnt sacrifice, but in how we care for each other.

Scripture informs us how as God's people - from the time of the ancient Hebrews through comparatively recent 1st century times humanity has matured and changed, and our story with God has matured as well.

Perhaps the bottom line on scripture for Wesley is that scripture is authoritative because something indispensable is happening there: God is speaking.

The image of quadrilateral fails if we expect some relative equality among the four sides. For Wesley, tradition, reason and experience simply were not meaningful in a theological context except in the context of scriptural truth. Wesley was clear that scripture carries deep truth: when the literal sense of scripture is bound in a cultural context, or is contradicted by other scripture, then its truth must be discovered beneath the literal surface.

Tradition: We live in a time of re-discovered tradition - my own children want to know about the countries - or tribes - of their fore fathers and mothers. Those of us with many generations on American soil look for European - or African, or Asian, or middle eastern roots.

As a church, return to tradition in the church has expressed itself in subtle and not so subtle ways. Several Lutheran Synods look to return to what Luther stood for, not what Lutheranism now stand for; Presbyterians look for a return to Calvin, not what Calvinists turned into the Presbyterian denomination. Many protestant churches - our own included, have returned to lectionary-based scripture cycles. And, our current discussion of John Wesley - trying to separate what is Wesleyan from what is United Methodist is only one of these strands of looking to tradition.

Wesley's time had similar juxtaposition of recent vs. older traditions. Some were enlightened, some were "contaminated" , sometimes the same "tradition" was viewed with a combination of contempt and veneration. The traditions of the Roman Catholic church, for instance, were viewed by Protestants with suspicion and contempt (a view which may not have changed much in 300 years!). More radical Protestants of the time- Puritans, Anabaptists rejected all but the most ancient and primitive Christianity.

Wesley looked to two distinct strands of tradition: the primitive church of Christian antiquity, and the early Church of England. Among Wesley's most distinctive appeals to ancient and Anglican traditions were his insistence that the Methodist Movement was a revival of apostolic faith that he found in Scriptural witness, continued in the ancient church, and evident in the constitutional documents of the Church of England. His appeal to personal attitude - one of holiness - and corporate institution justice - can be traced to Christian antiquity. He claimed ancient precedents for his religious societies, agape, or love feasts and watch night vigils. It was here, too, that he found his justification for the ordination of Coke, who was sent to America as "superintendent", to ordain pastors for the Methodist movement in the new United States.

The contrast between these two strands is perhaps no better seen than in our United Methodist Church inheritance of "high church" view of sacraments which lives comfortably alongside our primitive church evangelistic zeal for mission and outreach.

In the Wesleyan context, "reason" is the application of flawless logical thought to the conundrums of theology. Unlike our contemporary scientific method, Reason is never the source of knowledge - only a way to process information that originates in experience, tradition or scripture.

Wesley held his intellect and its use - reason - in high esteem. "I would as soon put out my eyes to secure my faith, as lay aside my reason." Even when provoked by others in debate, he recommended that Christians use no other weapons than those of truth and love, of scripture and reason. This was no new practice - Wesley found this practice in the Gospels as Jesus and his disciples "never failed to prove every doctrine they taught by clear Scripture and cogent reason." Reason, in this context, deals with the processing of information received through scripture and tradition.


Wesley's use of experience was not directly concerned with either formulating or testing doctrinal claims. We of the 21st century frequently use experience as a sort of safety valve: "My experience of God does not lead me to believe such and so..." or "The God I have met in scripture would not condemn...(or approve, or create or...) using our own personal, un-demonstratable or un-observable feelings and thoughts as a way to win, opt-out, or add fuel to a discussion or debate.

But for Wesley, Experience was close akin to assurance. His experience at on Aldersgate Street, when his heart was strangely warmed, was an assurance of his faith, that Christ lived, and that his faith had substance. It is in this use of experience that Wesley grounds his theological thought. Wesley's experience emphasized the contribution of experience for providing the assurance that empowered us for Christ-like living. That we humans are incapable of loving until we first experience God's love for us. As God's love works in us and we are impelled to reach out to others, that experience of God's love supports Wesley's theological work.

These four "theological guidelines" appear throughout Wesley's work - though nowhere does Wesley actually identify the four as his basis for authority or decision making. Through his vast writings, Wesley maintained a healthy and creative tension between doctrine as normative thinking and as lived reality. As an avid thinker, interpreter and defender of historic faith Wesley's true goal for religion was holiness of heart and life, - not simply formulation of doctrine, church policy or polity. Wesley defined true religion as love for God, self and neighbor.

His deepest concerns were for the actual transformation of life - acceptance of God's grace working in one's heart and soul such that one's life and actions are transformed toward God. Beside this, doctrine, orthodoxy and so-called "right opinion" took a second place. It's not that everything else isn't important - just that beside the living reality of God's love, and the transformation of hearts and lives through the Grace of God everything nothing else is quite as important.

Sounds like a New Testament character and his disciples, doesn't it?

This message heavily on:

Wesley and the Quadrilateral, Stephen Gunther, Scott Jones, Ted Campbell, Rebekah Miles and Randy Maddox, Abington Press, 1997.
Rethinking Wesley's Theology, Randy Maddox, Editor, Kingswood Books, 1998.