Base on the above, Scripture is considered as the primary source of our theology, while tradition, experience and reason are resources that illuminate and enhance it. While I understand this four-fold model of theological inquiry when it comes to matters of theology, when it comes to matters of social concerns there are quite frankly some issues the scriptures don’t speak to as specifically as some would have us believe. One of the things I appreciate about Wesley and have found especially interesting was his strong dislike to having the doctrines of the church too narrowly defined when he commented that it was important “to think and let think.” Such comment does not mean that Wesley was indecisive about his position on theological or social issues, he simply wanted to honor the right of people who undertake the serious task of theological reflection to come to different understandings.2
We live in a pluralistic world and we need to remember that despite the conflicting voices that compete for our attention, “God is present in and with every person and in all of life. God is not present with some and absent from others. All persons experience the reality of God in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28), 3 however, not all persons know that it is God whom they experience.”4
I believe that Wesley saw the Quadrilateral not as a prescription of how one should form their theology, but also as a mean of how almost anyone does form theology. His approach was to describe in a practical way how theology actually works in actual human experience. It must be understood, however, that for Wesley, Tradition, Reason, and Experience do not form additional “sources” for theological truth, for he believed that the Bible was the sole source of truth about God. Instead, these form a matrix for interpreting the Bible. Therefore, while the Bible is the sole source of truth, Tradition forms a lens through which we view and interpret the Bible. But unlike the Bible, Tradition is not an infallible instrument, and it must be balanced and tested by Reason and Experience. Reason is the means by which we may evaluate and even challenge the assumptions of Tradition. Reason is the first means by which we may adjust our interpretations of Scripture.
But for Wesley, the test of the truth of a particular interpretation of scripture is how it is seen in practical application in one’s Experience. Always the pragmatist, Wesley believed that Experience formed the best evidence, after Scripture, for the truthfulness of a particular theological view. He believed Scriptural truths are to be primarily lived, rather than simply thought about or merely believed which is the best and most viable test of our theology. Each of the “pillars” of Wesleyan Quadrilateral must be taken in balance, and none of the other three apart from scripture should be viewed as being of equal value or authority with scripture. Scripture should always have the central place of authority.
What I prize as a United Methodist is that, both laypeople and clergy alike share in “our theological task” which is the ongoing effort to live as Christians in the midst of the complexities of a secular world. Wesley’s Quadrilateral is referred to in Methodism as “our theological guidelines” and is the teaching foundamental given to every pastors as the primary approach to interpreting the scriptures and gaining guidance for moral questions and dilemmas faced in daily living. This brings us to the first pillar of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Scripture.
Almost every religion has some form of sacred writings, and Christianity is no different. There are very few Christians who would not list Scripture as their top theological source. This has been true from the beginning, even from the writing of the New Testament. If we go back even farther to a time when believers could not actually be called Christians, we still see an emphasis on Scripture, especially in the form of Torah. Of course, this raises a big question: When we say “Scripture”, to what are we referring? When most Protestants say “Scripture”, they are referring to the Bible usually consists of both the Old Testament and New Testament.
However, it seems fairly clear that the word “Scripture” in the Old and New Testaments did not refer to these same books. We may infer that the word “Scripture” in the writings themselves can refer to our entire Bible, but we will not find that designation within the pages of the Bible. Some Christians, whether intentional or not, remove certain books when they refer to Scripture. In many ways, a person’s Tradition helps shape their view of Scripture. So, as you can see, before we even begin to ask ourselves how should we learn about God from the Scriptures, we must first ask ourselves what we mean by the term “Scripture” for this meaning cannot be determined from Scripture itself. Moreover, we can’t use Scripture itself to define the term “Scripture”.
This definition must come from another source, and that source is very important in our understanding of God, since it helps us define Scripture. Once we are confident that we understand what we mean by Scripture, we should ask another question: How does Scripture help us understand God? The simple answer is that Scripture speaks of God, narrates God, describes God, and even speaks for God. But, history repeatedly demonstrates that different Christians read Scripture in different ways and come to different understandings of God. Why is this? Because Tradition, Reason, and Experience all play a role in understanding and interpreting Scripture for there is no such thing as a completely neutral hermeneutic, and in fact, it can be argued that Scripture was not meant to be understood with a completely neutral hermeneutic.
There is something that the early Christians refer to as the regula fidei or rule of faith which according to the apostolic fathers, this rule of faith is the faith that was handed down from Jesus to the apostles and from the apostles to their followers, etc. So, for them, Scripture should be understood through the hermeneutical lens of the rule of faith. But, what is the rule of faith? Unfortunately, the rule of faith changed from writer to writer as time progressed with more and more “doctrines” being added to the rule of faith. However, we must recognize that even if we knew exactly what the rule of faith encompassed, this is also part of Tradition, not Scripture.
So, we are left with Scripture being a very important theological source, but not a source that can or should stand on its own. In fact, two believers can both believe that Scripture is the most important theological source, and the two may interpret Scripture in different ways because of the influence of Tradition, Reason, Experience, and possibly other sources. Without understanding these additional sources, we will not understand how the others are interpreting Scripture. Even for those of us who pride ourselves in being un-Traditional must recognize that we bring our own methods of interpretation. Which often affect the way in which we apply and interpret Scripture. While we may not be able to remove all influences outside of Scripture and we probably should not attempt to remove all influences we can recognize our Tradition, Reason, and Experience, and how these three interact with Scripture to inform our theological understanding.
As for “Tradition” it invokes different thoughts to different people. Some think about the confessions and creeds that they hold to. Other thinks about the details of their practices but, when “Tradition” is used in the realm of theological sources, it means that group of teachings which is handed down from person to person. When Wesley speaks of Tradition, he does not merely refer to ancient Church Tradition and the writings of the great theologians and Church Fathers of days past, but also of the immediate and present theological influences which contribute to a person’s understanding of God and of Christian theology. Tradition may include such influences as the beliefs, values and instruction of one’s family and upbringing. It may also include the various beliefs and values which one encounters and which have an effect on one’s understanding of Scripture.
However, Tradition is much more than a series of “We believe” statements. The regula fidei was also seen as a protection against misinterpreting the Scriptures. Thus, Tradition formed a fence around the Scriptures, helping readers understand the meaning of the writings. Today, we still have Tradition. Each denomination and sometimes groups within denominations and groups that cross denominational lines have their own hermeneutic Tradition. These Traditions guide believers as they read Scripture. Even for those believers who like myself, grew up with a un- Traditional backgroud, Tradition plays a huge role in our understanding of God. Yes, Tradition still plays an important role in developing a person’s understanding of God by keeping a person from straying into unconventional beliefs based upon a few select texts from Scripture. On the other hand, Tradition can cause people to over-emphasize certain texts that agree with their Tradition while ignoring or de-emphasizing other texts which disagree with their Tradition.
However, Tradition does not merely affect our understanding and application of Scripture. In similar ways, Tradition forms how we view and use Reason and logic, and to what extent we allow Experience to inform our theology. Some Traditions rely heavily on Reason, while others view Reason with skepticism. Similarly, some Traditions emphasize Experience, while other Traditions de-emphasize Experience. Yet there is certainly interaction between Scripture and Tradition and the interaction works in both directions. There are times when Tradition works with and against Scripture and vice versa.
In Genesis, God told Noah to build an ark. In Genesis, God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. In Matthew, Jesus told the rich, young ruler to sell everything and follow him. In John, Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again. In John, Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep. In Timothy, Paul told Timothy to proclaim the word of God. Each of these commands is given to one person in Scripture. Do the commands apply to only that one person, to a group represented by that one person, or to all people? Scripture will not answer this in all cases. However, Tradition will tell us how to interpret these various passages, and by the way, different Traditions give us different interpretations of some of these very passages. However, neither Scripture nor Tradition alone can completely answer the question of why we understand God the way that we do. This brings us to Reason.
In 1768, John Wesley wrote in a sharply worded reply to a theologian at Cambridge University, ‘To renounce reason is to renounce religionaˆ¦ (for) all irrational religion is false religion.’”5
When we think of Reason, we usually think of various methods that help form ideas, concepts, and arguments. Equally so, Reason is the ability to connect various ideas, concepts, and arguments through various forms of analysis. Thus Reason is use to develop our theology in two different ways: connecting ideas that we find in Scripture, and completing ideas that are not found in Scripture. Moreover, Reason doesn’t only work in the realm of Scripture is also use to define and defend our Tradition and our Experience. For it (Reason) explains why we accept certain conclusions and why we dismiss other conclusions. Some separate Reason from faith, seeing Reason as an exercise in discovery and explanation while faith is acceptance without discovery and explanation. Eventhough Reason can be exercised through faith, and faith can be confirmed by Reason the two are compartable. However, it should be noted that if a person views Reason as the opposite of faith, then this will also inform a person’s theology.
So with Scripture and Tradition, it is difficult to know when Reason is informing our theology and when theology is controlling our Reason. The interaction between Scripture, Tradition, and Reason is often hard to delineate. Perhaps, it is not necessary to determine which particular source leads to a certain understanding of God. However, it is interesting that we often allow some of these theological sources to override others. We may even accept a certain view from Scripture and Tradition even if that view of God goes against our Reason. What is important at this point is to recognize that all the sources work together to inform our theology. When we recognize that Scripture, Tradition, and Reason (and Experience) all inform our understanding of God, we can begin to understand why we hold to our theology.
The final model in the quadralateral to be discussed is Experience which is probably more difficult to discuss of all the other sources put together. However, just as Scripture, Tradition, and Reason affect our theology/our understanding of God whether for better or for worse, Experience also does the same. Experience includes events that affect our senses as well as events which affect only our ability to acquire knowledge and our feelings: emotions, dreams and visions. The interpretations of these Experiences inform our theology. It is difficult, if not impossible to break this cycle. In fact, it may be that Experience is so powerful that it becomes the primary source for our understanding of God, whether we realize it or not. Thus, we hear of many who understand God as being cruel and uncaring due to painful experiences in the past. Experience is real, and our theology must account for Experience.
Of course, there are extremes to Experience just as there are for the other theological sources. For some, Experience becomes emotionalism which controls their entire life. For others, Experience is never to be trusted and never to be considered. Either extreme can lead people to misunderstand how Experience is truly affecting their understanding of God. Often, Experience is dismissed because it is considered as “personal interpretation”.
The argument is made that since Experience is based on our personal interpretation then it must not be allowed to inform our theology, but perhaps reinforce it. However, this argument fails to recognize that only the interpretation of Experience is based on personal interpretation. Furthermore, the interpretation of any of the theological sources; Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience is based on personal interpretation and not just the interpretation of Experience. Instead of dismissing Experience as personal interpretation, it is much more profitable to recognize it as a mean of giving substance to a person’s theology in some way.
As with Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, it is dangerous and unhelpful to dismiss the affect that Experience has on a person’s theology. Instead, by examining our own theology and the way that Experience structures our own theology, we can better understand what we think about God. Also, at this point it is beneficial to examine the interaction of all four theological sources. We also need to continue asking ourselves as United Methodists if there are other theological sources apart from these four that impact our understanding of God.
In conclusion, my theological understanding of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience have all worked together to shape what I preceive about God as a United Methodist. While the quaderlitarials may be seen as objects which are, yet our interpretation of them is personal. This does not mean that there is no reality. I do believe that there is and God is part of that reality. However, our interpretation of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience all play a part in that attempt to understand this reality. Now, if God is part of that reality – and I believe that He is then I must add him to my theological sources, especially his indwelling presence through the person of the Holy Spirit.
For it is true that God communicates to us through Scripture. And, it is also true that God communicates to us through Tradition, Reason, and Experience as well. However, these four foundamentals of Methodism are not the completness of God; for God is a person that exists apart from Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. My theology of God is not perfect. However, it can grow closer to the reality of God himself as I allow him through these foundemantals to inform, grow, and mature my theology. This assumes, of course, that I allow God to use these various influences to modify my theology being cognizant that God is the primary theological source. The reality of God is not different from God as He is described in Scripture, but may be different from our understanding of Scripture. Therefore, when our understandings about God are wrong, we must trust God to reveal those to us in whatever means he chooses. If our understandings about God are right, then we also must trust God to confirm that to us, again in whatever means he so chooses.
MidTerm Grade: U.
Rampant Plagiarism. Very disappointing