Do We Need A Pentagon? Reconsidering the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

If one spends enough time in the United Methodist Church, they’ll eventually hear something about the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”—a four-fold hermeneutic of authority John Wesley utilized in his development of the movement that would later become known as “Methodism.” The four components of Wesley’s quadrilateral are 1) scripture, 2) tradition, 3) reason, and 4) experience. These, for Wesley, were the authoritative lenses through which the Christian faith is fostered in each person. And while he engaged extensively with each of these components in his writings and sermons, he never explicitly laid out the organized concept of the quadrilateral as we know it today. That language came much later from American theologian, Albert Outler.[1]  

However, while for many Methodists the quadrilateral feels relatively specific to our tradition, it’s actually not something unique to Wesley. Coming from an Anglican context, Wesley would have been more than familiar with the “Anglican Triad.” This is the same kind of hermeneutical framework that exists within Methodism with one notable exception: experience. This final component of the Wesleyan quadrilateral was incorporated by Wesley himself as a result of his famous Aldersgate experience where he found his heart to be “strangely warmed.” Experience became, and remains, an important part of the Christian life for Methodists, thus rounding out the hermeneutical architecture that Wesley had deemed incomplete.

What I’d like to recommend, though, is we do the same thing to Wesley’s quadrilateral that he did to the Anglican triad. In the same way that Wesley “updated” the triad, so I suggest it’s time to “update” the quadrilateral by adding an additional point: liberation. Methodism—like most Protestant traditions—falls into the prima scriptura camp, taking scripture as its primary point of departure when considering the Christian faith. The question we must contend with, then, is how we differentiate between two different prima scriptura churches or denominations who both are utilizing the same hermeneutic towards contradictory ends. The easiest illustration of this might be found in the days of American slavery when scripture was being used both as a tool of oppression by some and a tool of liberation by others. The same could be said of German Christianity during the perpetration of the holocaust.

One way we can further distinguish between these is to affix an additional hermeneutical layer to Wesley’s method and take that as our primary point of departure rather than scripture as such. Womanist biblical scholar and theologian, Renita Weems, suggests as much when she encourages people to “judge biblical texts, to not hesitate to read against the grain of a text if needed, and to be ready to take a stand against those texts whose worldview runs counter to one’s own vision of God’s liberation activity in the world.”[2] By allowing our responsibility to the liberation of the oppressed to dictate our use of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, we already approach the Christian faith from a preventative posture that doesn’t allow for any of those four components to be utilized for oppressive or unjust purposes.

If Wesley could update and rearrange the Anglican triad for the purposes of his context, then why can’t we do the same for our quadrilateral? Using Wesley’s own framework suggests that these tools aren’t above reproach; they’re not immutable or inerrant. It’s possible they can be improved upon, and I contend that incorporating another element under which everything else is subsumed will not only update Wesley in a necessary and important way, but aid Methodists in living into their vow of accepting “the freedom and power God gives them to resist evil, injustice and oppression.”

[1] See Albert C. Outler, “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral in John Wesley,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, 20.1 (1985), 7-18.

[2] Renita Weems, “Re-Reading for Liberation: African-American Women and the Bible,” Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader, eds. Katie Geneva Cannon, Angela D. Sims, and Emilie M. Townes, (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2011), 61.

*Note: image credit to Hillsdale United Methodist Church.



Anonymous said…
if we mean something like the emancipation of the poor by "Liberation" then we would have to note that this has never happened in the history of the planet, the poor as the poor have never been uplifted in any nation, so are we calling for some kind of messianic hope as John Caputo suggests in his work on a theology of the Event?

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