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Iowa United Methodist Church Amid Chaos Part III

Hi, Aunt Harriet…. I was watching a video of a toddler playing with one of those “tool bench” toys with a hammer and pegs. I remember when you had one of those at your house when we would come and visit. They were fun for a while but we outgrew them. Anyway, the video showed a toddler trying to hammer a square peg into a triangle hole. He was overly frustrated but continued to try and try; so much so that he threw the hammer and broke a vase.

As tragic as the vase being broken was, I am reminded of the tragic misuse of an important theological concept: The Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

First, the “Wesleyan” refers to the founder of our denomination, John Wesley (1703 - 1791). Wesley organized what were deemed holiness societies within the Church of England. A visionary, he knew the need for Jesus in the Americas. He ordained bishops for the Americas when the Church of England would not. Wesley’s sermons continue to be studied today for the role they play in theological studies.

Secondly, a “quadrilateral” is basically a shape with four sides. All four sides may have the same size (like a square) or different sizes (like a rectangle or other shapes).

The term, “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” was coined by Albert Outler, a Methodist Scholar in the twentieth century. Outler’s basic idea was there are four sources which create the guidelines which all theological, moral, and cultural issues should be considered and measured against.

Confusing? I know. Let me try to simplify…

The four sides of the quadrilateral (or “quad” from now on) were scripture, tradition, reason, and experience; with the authority of Scripture being primary. Many thought the “quad” should look like:

The following descriptions are quoted from the 2016 United Methodist Book of Discipline:

Scripture: “The Bible is sacred canon for Christian people, formally acknowledged as such by historic ecumenical councils of the church. Our doctrinal standards identify as canonical thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament… (It) is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.”

Tradition: “The theological task does not start anew in each age or each person. Christianity does not leap from New Testament times to the present as though nothing were to be learned from that great cloud of witnesses in between. For centuries Christians have sought to interpret the truth of the gospel for their time.”

Reason: “Although we recognize that God’s revelation and our experiences of God’s grace continually surpass the scope of human language and reason, we also believe that any disciplined theological work calls for the careful use of reason.”

Experience: “On the personal level, experience is to the individual as tradition is to the church: It is the personal appropriation of God’s forgiving and empowering grace.”

The misuse of the “quad” was the notion that scripture, tradition, reason, and experience should all have the same amount of consideration, much like a square.This would eliminate Wesley’s thinking that the authority of scripture was primary and should inform the other three areas.

Later in life, Outler stated he regretted referring to a quadrilateral as it lessened the authority of scripture. I personally have heard it said the “quad” should be likened to the percussion instrument the “Triangle”. The vision of the “Wesleyan Triangle” is the design in which reason, tradition and experience are viewed through the eyes of scripture. Scripture is the metal stick which is used to hit the three equal sides which informs all Wesleyan guidelines.

That is all quite a lot to take in. Maybe I should tell you a joke I heard by Jeff Foxworthy: “If you ever sang a hymn and thought, ‘Surely this tune goes to another hymn I know’, then you must be a Methodist.” I hope this lightens up you day after all the heavy thoughts. Blessings!


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