Wesley's Quadrilateral

On Saturday morning I will lead a workshop on the United Church of Canada’s identity. My piece of the work is to clarify the theology and worship style of the church. To do this I will introduce something called Wesley’s Quadrilateral. John Wesley (1701-1791) was an Anglican who felt the passion to preach the Holy Spirit to the church. He went on horseback to the people, wherever the people were. He spoke in the language of the people but he carried a message of Good News and change and what the Spirit could and would do for those who were hungry for change.

While Wesley placed the Bible at the centre of his preaching he was not a literalist, that is he did not think the Bible could be read as an instruction manual, there needed to be interpretation, context was important, language was important, you could not just uproot a text from a place and time that had little in common with the audience in front of you. The work of the preacher, of the person who unpacks the text, is to explain what the Bible verses have to say to our community today.

The United Church of Canada is the product of a merger of several denominations in 1925, the two largest were the Presbyterian Church (2/3 of them joined this new church) and the Methodist Church (all of them joined). There were also smaller denominations, including the Congregationalists. Some have argued that the United Church adopted the Presbyterian structure and the Methodist theology, though that would be pushing the generalization too far. But it would be fair to say that the Methodist theology and Biblical interpretation still holds a lot of sway in how the United Church does its theological work.

At the core of that Methodist identity is John Wesley’s Quadrilateral. I lifted this definition from the United Methodist Church (USA) website.

The phrase which has relatively recently come into use to describe the principal factors that John Wesley believed illuminate the core of the Christian faith for the believer. Wesley did not formulate the succinct statement now commonly referred to as the Wesley Quadrilateral. Building on the Anglican theological tradition, Wesley added a fourth emphasis, experience. The resulting four components or "sides" of the quadrilateral are (1) Scripture, (2) tradition, (3) reason, and (4) experience. For United Methodists, Scripture is considered the primary source and standard for Christian doctrine. Tradition is experience and the witness of development and growth of the faith through the past centuries and in many nations and cultures. Experience is the individual's understanding and appropriating of the faith in the light of his or her own life. Through reason the individual Christian brings to bear on the Christian faith discerning and cogent thought. These four elements taken together bring the individual Christian to a mature and fulfilling understanding of the Christian faith and the required response of worship and service.

What I like about this definition is interplay between the words of the Biblical text, tradition, human reason, and experience. In practical terms this means that we hold the sacred story in one hand and our God-given reason, our human history and our personal experiences in the other. This mindset allows us to honour the narrative of the Canon, long accepted as “our story” by believers for generations, while at the same time honour the way God made us; a people endowed with reason, a memory and personal experience.

This theological tool I find very helpful in my spiritual discernment and for explaining the United Church identity.