There is an idea among Wesleyan theologians that is widely attributed to John Wesley but is not actually something that he taught. It is called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” and has been inappropriately used since its inception as an attempt to homogenize Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience into a collective authoritative source for the purpose of determining Christian doctrine. However, Wesley never used the term “quadrilateral” nor made any attempt to conceptualize the combination of these four criteria into a specific theological proposition. This was something that happened nearly two centuries later, by Methodist theologian Albert Outler. Shortly thereafter, Outler expressed how he regretted uttering even the words “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” because of its widespread mischaracterization and misappropriation by Methodist pastors, teachers, scholars, and theologians from what he intended. In 1985, Outler confessed to an associate, “There is one phrase I wish I had never used: the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It has created the wrong image in the minds of so many people and, I am sure, will lead to all kinds of controversy.”
The “Outler Quadrilateral” is described by him as “a distinctive theological method, with Scripture as its preeminent norm but interfaced with tradition, reason and Christian experience as dynamic and interactive aids in the interpretation of the Word of God in Scripture.” In chapter three of Ray Dunning’s book, Grace Faith & Holiness, he correctly explains how tradition, reason, and experience support the authority of Scripture but incorrectly implies that they have some level of authority themselves. The truth is they have no authority whatsoever as a source of divine revelation and cannot be compared even to a lesser degree with the authority of Scripture. Tradition is nothing more than a mode of transmission. It has no more authority than a radio used by a commander to transmit orders to a soldier. It is the commander who has authority and his orders that carry the weight of his authority. The radio (tradition) is only useful to the degree that it is capable of transmitting those orders clearly. A faulty radio which fails in that task is useless to both the commander and the soldier.
Human reason in this context is nothing more than our ability or willingness to comprehend the message of God. Experience is simply how we respond. To carry the analogy of the commander and soldier further, reason is the soldier’s ability to hear and understand the orders delivered by the commander and experience is what the soldier chooses to do with those orders. They are only authoritative in a self-appointed fashion but have no bearing on the natural consequence and/or disciplinary action that the soldier will experience if he chooses to ignore or disobey the orders of his commander. Likewise, if we choose our own reason and experience over the authority of God through Scripture, we will suffer a consequence that leaves us eternally separated from God and ultimately “thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15; John 15:6). We can choose reason and experience as authoritative for ourselves in our temporal existence, but we cannot escape or supersede the ultimate authority and declarations of God.
We see this played out in the story of original sin. The serpent came to Eve to attempt to deceive her into actually doubting, and ultimately violating God’s word. She explained to the serpent (oral tradition) that God had commanded them to not eat from the tree of knowledge, but the serpent cleverly “reasoned” with her by first getting her to question what it was that God actually commanded. “did God really say..?” The serpent then outright lied to her by claiming that What God said would happen, wouldn’t actually happen. “You won’t die!” And then finally he got her to actually question God’s motive. “God knows that your eyes will be opened.” She observed that the fruit was beautiful and desirable, and having been convinced, she then reasoned within herself that it would be good to acquire the wisdom the serpent claimed she would gain. Having sinned in her heart, she followed through to act upon it by eating the fruit and sharing it with Adam (experience). The first humans, Adam and Eve, placed their own reasoning above God’s word which led to sin and death for the entire world and all their children who came after them.
Tradition, reason, and experience are useful for discovering Christian doctrine, but only insofar as they reflect God’s authority as revealed in Scripture. I believe Dunning does a fair job of explaining this when he identifies how the oral tradition of the Old Testament and the apostolic tradition of the New Testament were useful in carrying the message of God from “generation to generation” until they were written down. He then goes on to explain how reason, “while it cannot function as an independent source for theology,” is useful “as a logical faculty enabling us to order the evidence of revelation,” in order to “guard against the unbridled and illogical private interpretation of Scripture.” When human reason is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and confirmed by Scripture, it helps us to comprehend but does not determine God’s will for our lives.
Likewise, Experience as a means of understanding Christian theology is an unwieldy beast that requires godly restraint. The experience of being inspired by the Holy Spirit and choosing to respond appropriately to the self-revelation of God in Scripture expresses Christian doctrine but does not establish it. We humans, however, in our fallen state cannot resist declaring ourselves the rulers of our own lives. Dunning describes how liberal theology has “elevated experience to a primary role, all but making it the definitive source of theology.” This was not what Outler intended when he spoke of the quadrilateral. He did not intend for all experience to inform our theology and practice. He made a point of specifying that it was the Christian experience of the assurance of salvation and the witness and work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer that is considered useful, but not definitive in the development of the Christian life. Outler writes, “Christian experience adds nothing to the substance of Christian truth; its distinctive role is to energize the heart so as to enable the believer to speak and do the truth in love.”
Human experience apart from God leads us to choose what is contrary to His will and desire for us. When we elevate tradition, reason, and experience as sources of authority (even to a lesser degree), rather than simply useful tools, we will eventually find ourselves in opposition to God because of our deeply flawed self-focused sinful nature.
Scripture alone bears the mark of the authority of God whether it is delivered orally or written on the pages of a book. It is the message itself that is authoritative, and not the object or method of delivery. Neither are the means of interpretation, nor the choices we make authoritative in a divine sense. Jesus Christ is the living Word of God, and being God Himself possesses all divine authority, and it is the Holy Bible that bears His mark of authority. Scripture is akin to a letter written by a king and then wax-sealed with the king’s royal mark ready for delivery. This letter, the Bible is the sole source of God’s authority here in our temporal existence for determining Christian doctrine; it does not share authority with tradition, reason, and experience. They are helpful as tools to interpret and implement God’s divine revelation in our own lives, but not authoritative.
Please permit me one final analogy: God is the destination; scripture is the map that tells us how to get there; tradition is the navigator that helps us read the map; reason is the vehicle we use to follow the map’s instructions; and experience is The road we travel to reach our final destination—an eternity with Christ, our Sovereign King.