In defense of the “so-called” Wesleyan quadrilateral and the experiential breath of God

The latest theater in the Methodist proxy war over homosexuality has involved attacks here and here on the “so-called” Wesleyan quadrilateral. It’s really painful to me to see the “so-called” adjective being added to it.To me, the quadrilateral is one of the jewels of Wesleyan theology regardless of its derivative status. I don’t see it as a method of Biblical interpretation per se, but rather open honesty about what everyone really does when they interpret the Bible using the plain meaning of the text itself, the church’s interpretive tradition, our deductive reason, and the meta-rational intuitions of our experience. The conservatives don’t like “experience” because it’s not something they can pin down and adjudicate decisively. But to drop-kick “experience” from Biblical interpretation is really to say that the Holy Spirit is not allowed to speak to us outside of the Biblical text. It’s very apropos for us to be having this conversation on the eve of Pentecost.

First of all, when we read the Bible, we bring our “experience” to it whether we acknowledge this officially or not. There is no way to evade our own unique socialization that causes us to privilege certain aspects of whatever scriptures we read over others. For example, when a group of Latin American campesinos were given the parable of the talents to look at, they thought the third servant who defied the master was the hero of the story. For those of us who have never worked for cruel masters, we presume without a second thought that the master is the protagonist and the wicked servant really is wicked. I have a traditional reading of this story, but one that would make many evangelical Christians uncomfortable, because the placement of the story before Jesus’ famous sheep and goats passage makes me think the third servant who buried the talent exemplifies the kind of Christianity that is focused on eternal self-preservation under the terror of a “harsh master” God and thus seeks the safest solution to all theological questions (like a self-interpreting Biblical text in which our personal experience doesn’t factor), which is represented in the parable by the servant returning to the master exactly what he thought was required of him.

It’s only the proclivities of modernity that make personal experience a bad thing to be transcended in an interpretive process because the illusive goal of modernity is “objectivity,” granting ourselves the magical omniscience of not having a particular vantage point. To deny the place of personal experience in interpretation does not concern the sovereignty of the text, but the sovereignty of the interpreter. We want to own God’s truth exhaustively in our mystery-free Bibles so that we can be the gatekeepers of His knowledge. We’re like the students that poet Billy Collins writes about in his “Introduction to Poetry”:

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Now the primary aspect of this whole “experience” question for me has to do with my belief in the Holy Spirit, the pneuma in the theopneustos from 2 Timothy 3:16. I don’t believe that God only breathed into the writers of the Bible; I believe that the Spirit continues to breathe into us through our daily encounters, whether it is full-on charismatic prophetic revelation or peripheral glimpses and tastes of the kingdom. If you say that no meta-rational revelation in our life experience can be allowed to influence our reading of scripture, then what you’re really saying is that the Holy Spirit is trapped in the Bible like a genie inside a lamp. Furthermore, you’re saying that we don’t really have a personal relationship with a Christ who lives and speaks today, but only a relationship with a Holy Book through which we learn about a historical figure named Jesus.

Every Christian is a mixture of spirit and flesh. There is a side of our meta-rational experience that comes from our flesh (worldly influences, idols, etc) and does indeed corrupt our ability to perceive Biblical truth rightly. But there is also a side of our meta-rational experience that is genuinely God-breathed. When we are led to Bible verses that speak directly to pressing incidents in our lives, I don’t think that’s just a coincidence (which is what I would be forced to say if I were trying to pretend that life experience does not factor in my interpretation of the Bible). Rather, the Holy Spirit deliberately breathes revelation into our life experience to make a connection between the text of our lives and the text of God’s canon.

It’s not really possible to stand outside of ourselves enough to distinguish between interpreting our lives according to the Biblical canon and interpreting the canon according to our lives. We will always be doing a little bit of the latter even if we’re genuinely trying to do only the former. Since I believe in the unique authority of scripture, I am committed to viewing my life through its lens to the degree that I can. But I also think that God’s placement of the people and circumstances of my life (i.e. my experience) has all been according to His purpose. The reason I have come to this belief is precisely through being given scriptures by God with which to understand each chapter of my life. So it’s all mixed together; my experience is always already “corrupted” by scripture.

This brings me to another dimension of the “experience” question. Christians who read the Bible regularly develop intuitions about the character of Christ from having an intimate familiarity with the stories of His life. I can have a “sense” about a social issue based on my intuitions about the character of Christ in His encounters with the woman at the well, His disciples, the centurion with the sick servant, the prostitute who washed his feet, etc, but I might not have a specific, easily demarcated “proof-text” to back up my view, which makes others presume that my scripturally-derived intuitions are no more than “personal feelings.”

Not every text in the Bible is explicitly prescriptive; we privilege the ones that are if we’ve made the choice to read the Bible as an “owner’s manual,” which is why the stories about Jesus are usually given much less weight than the explicit pastoral instructions of Paul, particularly the household codes for husband/wife, master/slave relations (Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Colossians 3:18-25) and the vice lists (if they have to do with sexuality like 1 Cor 6:9-10 but not if they have to do with the schismatic contentiousness that is the hallmark of Protestantism like Galatians 5:19-21). Yet, if we’re going by 2 Timothy 3:16, then it’s not just explicitly prescriptive texts but “all scripture [that] is God-breathed and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

To access the teaching and training in righteousness of scriptures that are not immediately self-evidently prescriptive requires a longer-term meditative, experiential processing of the text that cultivates the heart of Christ in a Christian disciple even if all that disciple can articulate sounds like nothing more than “personal feelings.” So a fully faithful encounter with scripture involves processing both explicit, obvious “Thou shalt not’s” and as well as more holistic models of Christlike behavior that must be experienced in life in order to be understood. Those who denigrate the intuitive and only trust the fully perspicuous and deductive are like servants who refuse to take the risk of investing their master’s talents in ways that are not completely under their control.

Ultimately, I trust in a God who wants us to take risks in our quest to understand Him and delight in His beauty. He didn’t just leave us a book; He’s much more proactive than that. He is reaching out to us through His Holy Spirit in our everyday experiences (which we absolutely understand more clearly the more our minds are shaped by His canonical poetry). Christians who think God “is a harsh man who reaps where he doesn’t sow” (Matthew 25:24) and want to bury their talents in the safe dirt of the obviously prescriptive presume that God’s will is not something we’re supposed to contemplate and wrestle with; we’re just supposed to comb His scripture for the plain and obvious direct commands and stick to those.

Two of the best sentences in United Methodism’s 2008 Book of Discipline are on page 77: “The Christian witness, even when grounded in Scripture and mediated by tradition, is ineffectual unless understood and appropriated by the individual. To become our witness, it must make sense in terms of our own reason and experience.” Maybe by 2016, United Methodism will continue on its path of Calvinization to the degree that they’ll take those two sentences out and replace them with something like, “God doesn’t want you to understand; He just wants you to do what He says.” Or maybe the Holy Spirit will shatter the self-assurance of those who prefer the safe dirt of a static, historical “God-breath” to a living, dynamic, currently active one.

33 thoughts on “In defense of the “so-called” Wesleyan quadrilateral and the experiential breath of God

  1. I sincerely apologize if my questions have been exasperating. I’ve actually found this conversation quite helpful in getting a better handle on why there is disagreement about the role of experience in the Quad, and, as I said, I think your comments about the nature of experience in general are helpful in pointing out something not everyone sees. The questions were genuine, not intended to badger. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • That’s cool brother. I’m sorry for getting exasperated too easily. I think it’s fair to say that I ended up with something different than I thought I would have when I started out. It’s not really a “defense” of something in the sense of there being two sides to an argument. It’s helpful to hear Kevin’s historical piece on Outler and what he said in the framework in which he was operating is legit. I guess in my own thought, I’m probably appropriating the basic paradigm laid out in the Book of Discipline differently than Outler intended, but I don’t know that I’m willing to let Outler own a copyright on the phrase “Wesleyan quadrilateral.” Generally, my view of language and signifiers is less historical and more literary. If a term evolves into something other than its original intended meaning, that doesn’t bother me. I appreciate your sharing your perspective.

  2. RIght. So, everything you say about experience in and of itself is accurate, and I don’t think any of that is being contested. The thing that is confusing is that you seem to be arguing for a broader understanding of experience not merely with regard to hermeneutics but with regard to the technical meaning of the Wesleyan Quad. The Quad is not about experience as a lens for interpretation in general; it’s about what sort of experience is authoritative. For Outler, the question was the role of experience as authority. So, non-Christian experience would not be authoritative in matters of interpretation, though it would still affect the process of interpretation. The Quad is about the role of the four legs as they relate to theological authority, not mere interpretation. So, the burden is on you to show why we should enlarge Outler’s understanding of authoritative experience in the Quad to include a more general concept of experience, and one that might not even be Christian.

    In arguing that experience is not just the particular experience of Christian assurance, you have ceased to argue for anything resembling the technical definition of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. In shifting the discussion, the burden is on you to account for why your view should be called “Wesleyan” at all. And if you cannot, you should call it something other than “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”

    • Oh mercy. I surrender. You’re right; I’m wrong. Or whatever it is you want me to say. God be with you.

  3. I read the post by Kevin to which you linked. It doesn’t seem to me that he is arguing that experience plays no role in biblical interpretation. He is simply saying that the experience leg of the technical term “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” does not refer to experience in general but to the particular experience of Christian assurance. I kept coming back to the question of the Quad in an effort to understand your dissatisfaction. But you seem to be arguing against a proposition that no one has actually made, namely that experience in general plays no role in interpretation.

  4. Agreed. Would not the “so-called” modifier be appropriate in your view given your affirmation that the language of “Wesleyan Quad” is unhelpfully misrepresenting a much more widely used and dynamic interpretive process?

    • The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a term that’s been used since Albert Outler coined it however many decades ago. I think it’s really an exaggeration to say that it’s “unhelpfully misrepresentative.” If somebody else needs to call it something different, by all means, go for it. I’m not sure why this is something you keep coming back to. What I was responding to were people who were down on the concept of meta-rational intuitive experience having a bearing on Biblical interpretation. They were not using the adjective “so-called” for the reasons you indicated but because they object to the concept of a hermeneutical process as such since the Bible is supposedly self-interpreting, perspicuous, etc.

    • That these four components of Biblical hermeneutics are all a legitimate part of the process. It’s not purely a rationalistic exercise. Intuition should not be dismissed as “personal feeling.”

  5. Sounds like we are agreed then that the relationship between scripture, tradition, reason, and experience is neither exclusively “Wesleyan” nor properly a “quadrilateral”. Do you think?

  6. Thanks for this post. You make some great points about the role of experience in the dynamic of interpretation. It’s difficult for people to realize that we cannot fully remove ourselves and experiences from the interpretive task, but you point to the importance of recognizing and accounting for the role of experience in hermeneutics. One question: if the quadrilateral is ” about what everyone really does when they interpret the Bible”, then why should we think of it as the particularly and explicit “Wesleyan” quadrilateral rather than something more inclusive of the variety of traditions and groups that interpret scripture in light of tradition, reason, and experience?

      • I’ve not yet read all the recent critiques, but this gets at why I’m not necessarily a fan of calling it the Wesleyan quadrilateral. I’m not so much worried about the quadrilateral part as I am calling it Wesleyan if that implies that we are claiming it as our own. It seems that other theological traditions might want to say: “Hey, we do that, too. What makes you think it’s yours?”

        Also, your post is prompting me to consider whether we need to think more carefully about the dynamic of the four aspects of the quad. Quadrilateral is rather a static image. But interpretation is more dynamic, like a dance or another form of art. I interpret scripture through the lens of my experience, but sometimes scripture confronts my experience in its damaged or erroneous aspects. I tend to think the image of a quadrilateral is limited in accounting for the fluidity of that process. The question you seem to be wrestling with, and one with which I wrestle, is: how do I faithfully engage both in interpreting scripture through experience and yet bring the authority of scripture to bear on my experience?

  7. Pingback: What is a Christian Liberal Arts Institution Anyway? « Christian Higher Education

  8. I read “so-called” as modifying the word “Wesleyan”, not disparaging the use of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience in spiritual formation.

  9. Gosh, too much to say. (A lot of it good!) A few push-backs:

    1. While I appreciate the idea that the Quadrilateral merely expresses what we already do, and that, yes, God can be experienced outside of Scripture, at issue is which source ought to be normatively authoritative. My experiences shape my reading of Scripture, but should they? As a buddy of mine asked Rachel on twitter the other day, “What has God taught you about Jesus in experience that isn’t in, or is contradicted by the Bible?” It’s not to deny the Spirit a current role in our lives, but rather to force the point that whatever the Spirit says now, will be, and has to be, consistent with what he has said once and for all in Scriptures that he has given to the community.

    2. Also, while modernity might privilege objectivity (I would argue that this goes back even further), romantic over-reactions privilege individualistic-subjective “experience.” Remember that Romanticism was a modern movement as well.

    3. Another point is that this is where the classic distinction between inspiration and illumination is helpful. The Spirit inspires the scriptures in the past and illuminates them in the present. He is active at both points, but in different ways. Barth problematically collapses the distinction as do many modern theories of scripture that lead to inevitably individualistically-subjective or communally-subjective accounts.

    Alright, this is just quick off-the-top stuff. Thanks for the thought-provocation.


    • I see the canon as being the language we have to learn to know what in the world the Spirit is saying. But I don’t think the Spirit is limited to a hermeneutical tool explicating the text in the exact order that it’s printed. Rather if I imagine my world through the story of Israel and Jesus, I start to see what the Spirit is telling me. Even so, it’s like a google translate level of comprehension.

    • Fair enough. And as I’ve thought about this over the last day, I mostly agree with your critique of turning it into a technique where you “use” each component independently to make an argument instead of seeing it as a process of tuning ourselves into harmony so that our experience becomes the poetry of God that has been imprinted on our hearts. God’s teaching me as I’m wrestling with these things.

  10. Great concluding paragraph on God being proactive in giving us not only Scripture, but also the Holy Spirit in our midst in every day experiences. I agree that God’s will is something to be wrestled with, not something to be done by simply following of commands by rote

  11. Absolutely wonderful, Morgan. I first read Rachel’s blog this morning, and then your blog (both Spirit inspired, obviously) …and my heart is crying out for joy! The Bible is the Living Word that comes to life with discernment from the Holy Spirit. I am especially appreciative today of how you, as a pastor, must be equally skilled in proof-texting as well as divine interpretation—not as antagonists against one another, but further validation that scripture is organic.

  12. Morgan, you have said with great eloquence what I tried to say briefly yesterday in my Facebook comment to Kevin Watson’s blog on this topic. I’m picking up this offering for UM Insight. Well done!

  13. Morgan, I really appreciate this blog post. Your connection between the servant who buried the talent and Christians who insist on focussing only on the “do nots” of the Bible, as opposed to endeavouring to know the heart of Christ, seems brilliant to me! However, maybe I could be accused of allowing my experiences to affect my interpretation of the Bible. 😉

  14. As usual, this may be my favorite of your posts yet. I agree that it is possible to have an unhealthy focus on the Bible to the exclusion of other ways that God speaks and acts. Often in theological discussions I feel pressured to cite proof-texts, as if my position, intuitively informed with scripture as it may be, is worthless without them. It’s worth remembering that Christ is described as the eternal “Word” of God (John 1:1), and even more than the written word we’re supposed to resemble Him. Evangelicals talk about “going beyond the plain word of scripture” as virtually synonymous with heresy, when we were never supposed to be defined by the finite words of the Bible but by the infinite God who wrote them.

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