Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral in Theological Reflection

This is a personal blog. The views on this blog do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the Salvation Army, it's employees, or partners. The views on this blog are solely of those making them, based on the teachings of the Bible, in the Spirit.

What is theological reflection, as a modern concept? Theological reflection is the process by which we come to understand reality as it truly is. The goal ultimately is to see God, the universe, the inspired word, and ourselves, as God sees it. This will naturally entail a limited status, for humanity cannot see as God sees, but we can see as God intends us to see. Therefore, theological reflection is the practice of seeing what is true about all aspects of reality, to the dimensions possible by the human mind. Essentially this is to see reality from a purely Christian worldview, and to perceive in the dimension of time, how God is unfolding his sovereign plan in the world. On a more personal basis, the goal is to perceive God’s will for my life, and how to obey and serve in that will to the utmost. On an institutional level, as I serve as a pastor in the Salvation Army, it is to perceive God’s will for the Salvation Army corps I lead, as well as the larger will for the Salvation Army in the Central Territory. The most effective model of theological reflection I have found to do this is Wesley’s Quadrilateral. Models that I considered and rejected include Speaking in Parables, Telling God’s Story, and Theology-in-Action (Graham, Walton & Ward, 2005, p. 13-14). The Wesleyan quadrilateral is appealing because of its emphasis on scripture, simple straight-forward method, and many applications to practical ministry. In applying it to ministry in general, the goal will be to set aside time each day to meditate on the precepts of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience and then apply conclusions drawn to daily ministry life. In a corporate leadership sense, the goal will be to make use of four questions, presenting the quadrilateral, through which we can discern God’s will for the ministry and put it into practice.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral
The classic Wesleyan quadrilateral is my preferred method for theological reflection. Now there is a fair amount of controversy in some circles regarding if the Wesleyan quadrilateral can even be credited accurately to John Wesley. For our purposes here, the question is irrelevant. The fact as to whether John Wesley originated the Wesleyan quadrilateral is immaterial. The fact is, the quadrilateral came into common usage in various church movements, and has shown itself to be a useful method for theological reflection. Thus the question of its origin should be considered set aside for the purposes of this paper.

The Wesleyan quadrilateral asserts one primary and three secondary measures for truth in theological reflection. The one primary source is the sacred scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The three secondary sources are tradition, reason, and experience. The Wesleyan quadrilateral appeals to me greatly because it emphasizes the scriptures as the primary source of discerning truth. With increasing post-modern ideology attempting to invade and transform the church, and the threats of extreme theology, the importance of scripture in our day and age must be emphasized and re-emphasized.

According to theologian Shirley Macemon: “The image of quadrilateral fails if we expect some relative equality among the four sides. For Wesley, tradition, reason and experience simply were not meaningful in a theological context except in the context of scriptural truth. Wesley was clear that scripture carries deep truth: when the literal sense of scripture is bound in a cultural context, or is contradicted by other scripture, then its truth must be discovered beneath the literal surface” (Macemon, 2003).

First we examine the scriptures. According to the Asbury Bible Commentary (1992): “John Wesley considered himself to be in the Reformation tradition of sola scriptura (Scripture alone), and he liked to refer to himself as homo unius libri (Carpenter & McCown, 1992). The chief criticisms of theological reflection point to the fact that much of the time theological reflection can be based more on personal experience and less on the scriptures (Hey & Roux, 2012, p. 194). Reflecting on the sacred scriptures of the old and new testaments should be the chief aim of every Christian. The scriptures are exceedingly useful for teaching, rebuking, training in righteousness, and correcting, so the people of God can be rightly equipped for good works (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV). The word of God is like a two-edged sword, and it cuts to the depths of the heart, discerning the intentions and thoughts deep down within us (Hebrews 4:12-14 NIV). The word itself says in Psalm 119:15 (NIV): “I will meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.” There are so many ways to effectively reflect on the word of God. The important part is that we know the scriptures through and through, and reflect on them on a daily basis, until the scriptures become an active part of the mind. That way in given situations, the word will come into our minds to teach us how to respond to all manner of events and difficulties in life. Of course the word alone is not where the power comes from. As John Wesley said, “We know that there is no inherent power in the words that are spoken in prayer, in the letter of Scripture read, the sound thereof heard, or the bread and wine received in the Lord's Supper; but that it is God alone who is the giver of every good gift, the author of all grace; that the whole power is of him, whereby through any of these [means] there is any blessing conveyed to our soul” (Carpenter & McCown, 1992). God communicates through His word, and from the word we discern our doctrines. Our doctrines are the base truths derived from the scriptures, as given by the Holy Spirit. This leads us to consider tradition.

Tradition in the Wesleyan quadrilateral is the idea that we trust and look to the history, writings, ecumenical councils, and the tradition’s general heritage with a trusting eye, believing that the Holy Spirit did certainly inform and guide such decisions and teachings across history (Reasoner). In the Wesleyan tradition various factors impact this aspect of tradition. For example, key to Wesleyan theology is Arminian precepts regarding issues like free will and divine sovereignty. In Wesleyanism, holiness theology is a core factor of the tradition, and this helps us to interpret the scriptures. We then see the scriptures through the lenses of the faith tradition, and the doctrines developed and guided by the tradition over history help guide us in our faith journey. Tradition of course must always be subservient to scripture. If we detect something within our faith tradition that does not jive with a fair reading of scripture, that aspect of the faith tradition should be rejected as false. Tradition is subservient to scriptural authority.

Reason is the third side of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. In C.S. Lewis’ book The Pilgrim’s Regress he writes allegorically of a man being imprisoned and condemned by the ‘Spirit of the Age’ pictured as a monster (Kilby, 1995, p. 26-27). The man begins to doubt and question the monster, so the monster looks to condemn him. But then reason, the woman riding on the horse, rides in to rescue the man. Reason leads him to a sharp cliff though, which reason cannot help him cross. Only faith can do that. Reason is a powerful ally to have. And reason is the strength by which we discern the world around us, and how the scriptures fit into a practice of Christian living in the world. The danger in reason is the spirit of the age. The spirit of the age is able to convince people of this world of things that are false and bizarre (Kilby, 1995, p. 26). The spirit of the age is telling the world there are dozens of genders, the spirit of the world touts the benefits of lying, of adultery, and of abortion. The spirit of the age’s bizarre form of reason is countered by Holy Spirit-guided reason. John Wesley affirmed the usefulness of reason, but warned that it should always be guided by the Holy Spirit (Reasoner).

The fourth side is experience. John Wesley placed an important emphasis on pragmatic personal experiences one has with God (Hey & Roux, 2012, p. 199). Wesley affirmed that one can certainly be deeply impacted by feeling the presence of God (Hey & Roux, 2012, p. 199). Indeed, Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed during his Aldersgate experience (Hey & Roux, 2012, p. 199). Experience is a vital aspect of the Wesleyan quadrilateral, without which, one cannot testify to a true salvation. One must experience Christ personally, and assent to Him, and serve Him, and this is done through experience.

The Wesleyan quadrilateral in Theological reflection is useful in personal faith growth, and in connecting the realities of the Christian faith on a personal basis into the realities of life on Earth (Dickey, 2006, p. 1). This Wesleyan quadrilateral form of theological reflection is also useful for ministry formation, as well as spiritual discernment in the context of practically obeying God’s leading, in a personal, as well as corporate sense (Dickey, 2006, p. 2).

Putting the Quadrilateral into Practice in Leadership
Henri Nouwen the famed Christian leader said: "Few ministers and priests think theologically. Most of them have been educated in a climate in which the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology, so dominated the educational milieu that little true theology was being learned. Most Christian leaders today raise psychological and sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms. Real theological thinking… is hard to find in the practice of ministry. Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, pseudo-social workers. They will think of themselves as enablers, facilitators, role models, father or mother figures, big brothers or big sisters, and so on, and thus join the countless men and women who make a living by trying to help their fellow human beings to cope with the stresses and strains of everyday living. But that has little to do with Christian leadership because the Christian leader thinks, speaks and acts in the name of Jesus, who came to free humanity from the power of death and open the way to eternal life. To be such a leader it is essential to be able to discern from moment to moment how God acts in human history and how the personal, communal, national and international events that occur during our lives can make us more and more sensitive to the ways in which we are led to the cross and through the cross to the resurrection…" (Theological Reflection – What Others Say).

Theological reflection for me is a constant, ongoing practice of considering the scriptures, the revelation of the Holy Spirit, facts of reason from books and various studies, and experience of daily life. This ongoing practice of theological reflection develops over time, gathering information and experience and processing those things through the context of scripture throughout the days, weeks, months, and years of my life. I’m constantly turning around complex ideas in my mind, trying to understand how a Christian worldview applies to any given situation, and what the truth is in any given situation. I engage in theological reflection when I go for walks, when I post on social media, when I sit in Bible study, when I read the scriptures, when I pray, and when I allow my thoughts to wander in my office. The Wesleyan quadrilateral doesn’t appear like a diagram in my mind, but it certainly plays out in a more organic way.

In my leadership role, in the Salvation Army right now, I’m a second year cadet who will be graduating in nine months from the Salvation Army college for officer’s training. In all likelihood I will be assigned to a small corps (church) somewhere in the Salvation Army Central Territory, which makes up eleven states in the Midwest of the USA. My role will be as the leader of the corps, guided and supported by the corps council (church members) and the advisory board (business leaders from the community). Theological reflection from the Wesleyan quadrilateral will be a key part of my daily duties as a “corps officer.”

As a leader I have two central imperatives that should always be in my mind, one, to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and two, to meets needs in His name without discrimination. These are the two primary imperatives of the Salvation Army found in our mission statement. This is biblical, and in my view best summed up in the great commission and the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 28:16-20, 25:31-46 NIV). Now, not only do I have to reason from the Wesleyan quadrilateral how to engage with the world, and discern all truth and decisions I make, but I also must consider how these truths fit into my imperative, how I pragmatically engage in ministry. And more so, how the corps, the corps leaders, the employees, the volunteers, the programs, and the finances will be mobilized to achieve the mission. The mission is biblical, that’s a good start, so the imperatives are solid. Next I will have to consider how to point the corps in the direction God is taking it. This will require constant prayer, fasting, and a corporate seeking after God’s will for the corps as a whole. It shouldn’t be about my ideas, or what I have a passion for necessarily, it should be a raw discerning of the will of God and a complete yielding to God’s will in any given situation. This will be challenging for people in the corps who are not used to operating on that sort of level. But we’ll have to make it work.

Is God calling us to open a new evangelism outreach? Is God calling us to expand the building? Is God calling us to partner with another ministry? Is God possibly even calling us to shut down this corps entirely? We have to discern what God is wanting us to do, and then do it. Obviously whatever we perceive God is asking us to do must be run through the Wesleyan quadrilateral: Is it biblical? What does tradition say about it? Is it reasonable? And what does our experience tell us about it? Once those questions are adequately answered on a corporate level, then we can proceed with whatever God wants us to do next. In my own leadership, I’ll keep those questions with me on paper, and when praying and considering ideas, we’ll return to the quadrilateral and discern if our approaches to ministry can survive the rigors of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

The Wesleyan quadrilateral will have to be a daily part of my reflective practices, personally. The real area where theological reflection happens is between God and myself. And it won’t happen anywhere else, corporately, or in leadership, if I’m not doing it myself, one on one with God. So theological reflection will have to be part of my daily prayer and Bible time with God. Often I will pair my theological wrestling with exercise in various forms, usually going for a walk or working out in the gym. The ideas and concepts involving scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all flow together in my mind as I consider difficult topics and issues of the day. Let’s look at each of the four areas of the Wesleyan quadrilateral and consider how each section will play out in sculpting the discerning of ultimate reality.

Of course the first place I always look for discerning truth is the sacred scriptures. Scripture verses are always running through my mind as I discern key issues. Each day I try to read and study a chapter or two from the scriptures, to keep my knowledge fresh. When I consider tradition, reason, or experience I always check those thoughts with the scriptures to ensure I’m not getting lost, or in a preverbal isolation of theological apostasy. The scriptures always surprise me with their shocking relevance to the most cutting edge issues of our day. They cut right through the spirit of our age in refined, simple truth.

Secondly I consider tradition. Often I’m reflecting on holiness theology, and how it stands out from other faith traditions as a truly biblical calling to “be holy as He is holy” (1 Peter 1:14-16 NIV). Often I reflect on the current state of the Salvation Army, the Olivet Nazarene tradition, and the United Methodist Church. I consider our positions on issues like scriptural authority, the sacraments, sanctification, Christology, evangelism, women in ministry, marriage, and other issues. I reflect back and forth between the scriptures and the tradition, to recognize with at least some of the issues, that scripturally, one could easily be a Calvinist or Arminian or Wesleyan and get such doctrines from the scriptures. So there is a large tent of Christianity out there, and I love to learn from other faith traditions like Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox, Baptists, and Presbyterians. There is a large tent of theological discussion in the body of Christ. There is also an apostasy of various movements outside the tent, and cults like the Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons which should be refuted and resisted. In any case, as I consider the core traditions of the Salvation Army, I wrestle with those traditions, and examine my love for those traditions and allow them to inform and guide my practice of faith.

Next, I consider the area of reason. What can I learn from reason and evidence? I could go on for ages in this area, but let’s keep it brief. What can we discern from the great minds throughout history? What can we learn from Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, or John Locke, Carl Jung, or Milton Friedman? There is a great deal to be learned from the great minds throughout history. There is also a great deal to be resisted and avoided from history’s failures. History itself fits into the category of reason. Other disciplines also fall under this umbrella including: philosophy, sociology, psychology, science, medicine, math, and so on. There is so much to be learned and discerned from these disciplines I could go on and on, but suffice to say that anyone in full time ministry should be well-read. Of course there is always a danger of allowing the ideas and concepts of the great thinkers of history to supplant the scriptures and traditions of the movement. I can learn some fair truths about power structures and the plight of the oppressed from Karl Marx and Herbert Marcuse, but should I allow critical theory and Marxism to supplant scripture and tradition? Not at all. I can learn a great deal from John Locke and Edmund Burke on natural law and free markets, but should I allow them to supplant scripture and tradition? Absolutely not. There is a webbing along the edge of the Christian worldview, where cultural engagement, ideas, and practice mesh with the world, and that is where these ideas become helpful from the greats of history and their theories.

Finally, I then consider experience. Experience teaches us so much in our daily lives. Experience is where we truly encounter God and discern where God is leading us. Experience has taught me a great many things in my Christian faith walk with God. There are many areas of practice in the Christian faith that just aren’t clearly laid out in the scriptures. For that we have to project from the scriptures, tradition, and reason toward a daily practice of Christianity that is authentic, enriching, and a faithful experiencing of the one true God.

In ministry work and in my personal time I try to look upon the edges and the unnoticed default behaviors that I go to and re-examine these daily experiences in light of God almighty. What does a truly Christian life look like in the most practical sense? Does a true born again Christian spend this much time watching TV and browsing the internet? Does something need to change there? What about how I eat? What about what I do with my free time? Is retirement even biblical? What about saving for retirement? What about the amount of trash I create as an American? How should I live differently? Is theistic evolution biblical? What should I do to win people to Jesus? What is biblical and non-biblical in SA’s social justice work? Is it a sin for me to fail to administer sacraments given the SA’s position on sacraments? If I’m too nervous to witness to someone God is telling me to witness to, will their blood be poured over my head on judgment day? All these questions and many more, I must somehow filter through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to discern how I should respond, how I should speak, and how I should live out my faith.

My ministry duties also extend beyond the area of the Salvation Army corps officer position. I also do a great deal of writing on my own personal time. I love to write, and I write regularly on my blog It’s been an effective way to engage in theological reflection. When I’m turning an idea around in my head, or struggling with some theological concept or current issue, I’ll reason through it and allow my thoughts and ideas to be poured out in a post on my blog. This is very helpful for personal growth and for discerning truth. Among my various ministry concerns, I do a lot of writing and wrestling with the difficult issues of our day and age. I feel called to engage in the wrestling we do as church movements on the frontlines of the most difficult issues the church faces. People either completely ignore these issues because they’re out of touch (ignorant), avoid them like the plague because they’re afraid of offending (abdicating their duty in my view), attack them with an aggressive condemning edge (non-biblical and sometimes grounded in bigotry), or take them head on in a biblical manner, by speaking the truth in love, without apology (assertive approach). Of course my preferred method would be an assertive approach to difficult issues of the day.

Given any issue of the day, I start with the scriptures. What do the scriptures say about a particular issue? Then I look to my faith tradition’s viewpoint on the issue. Then I look to reason, and discern it from modern and historic thought, while carefully resisting the spirit of the age. Then I look to experience and how it ought to play out practically. This process repeats itself in professional ministry work, in my personal writing, in my home life, and in my relationship with God. I must be wise as a viper and innocent as a dove if I’m going to do ministry right, and somehow attain to the resurrection of the dead and eternal life (Matthew 10:16, Philippians 3:11 NIV).

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral has shown itself to be a highly useful biblical format for theological reflection. The Wesleyan quadrilateral is biblical in affirming sola scriptura, while also not being too narrow, because it includes tradition, reason, and experience as checked against the sacred scriptures. This was shown to be the best model of theological reflection for my preferred format. Various other formats of theological reflection were considered and rejected. My plan for theological reflection involves a daily practice of the Wesleyan quadrilateral both in a corporate sense in ministry work, and on a personal basis in devotions, bible reading, and blog writing. The Wesleyan quadrilateral has been shown in two examples to be useful in discerning personal biblical practices and in contending with ministry issues and issues of the corporate church body as a whole. The Wesleyan quadrilateral is a simple, yet profound way to reflect theologically on the practices of ministry and personal Christian living in the world today. 

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