The Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Lisa Nichols Hickman shares another way to interact with text, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  The approach to reading the Bible is rooted in the teaching of John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement in the 18th century.  I picture his understanding of scripture like a three-legged stool, where Scripture is the seat and is primary.  Scripture is supported by three legs:  tradition, reason, and experience.

On tradition:  Like Wesley, I believe that tradition should be rooted in and subject to the Bible, but at the same time, I see a certain inevitability of tradition shaping how we read and understand the Bible.  We all learn from those who have gone before us and it is wondrous to reflect on the unbroken chain that somehow connects us as Christians to Jesus and the Apostles across 2000 years of human history.  The church is blessed with beautiful creeds that were hammered out through long discussions among believers, and with countless inspired sermons, books and hymns that witness to the living presence of God’s love in our lives.  The church’s holidays and rituals keep the stories of the Bible alive in meaningful ways in our busy lives.

On reason:   Now this leg is a little more curious to me.  Personally, I’ve never viewed the Bible as a book to be attacked with critical thinking and reason.  It’s a book that I have always read lovingly and contemplatively as if it’s God story.  I do my best to simply write the words in my heart and listen to what they have to say to me.  I decided I needed a better understanding of what John Wesley meant by reason.  Google lead me to the most beautiful sermon on the subject:   “The Case Of Reason Impartially Considered”.  Upon beginning reading, I laughed thinking I must be among the following:

Even then there were not wanting well-meaning men who, not having much reason themselves, imagined that reason was of no use in religion; yea, rather, that it was a hinderance to it.

But as I read on, I realized I am very much in sympathy with what John Wesley has to say about reason.  I think at first I resisted the word “reason” because I was taking the word “reason” to mean “able to hold up in a good argument.”  John Wesley acknowledges this meaning, but points to another:  “Understanding.”  He shares that reason is the process by which we first grasp something with simple apprehension then filter this through our judgment which helps us know whether or not this new understanding is in agreement with what we already know, and finally, allows us to enter into discourse with others.  In his sermon he shares the many ways that reason helps us in practical matters of life and encourages us to apply the same way of thinking to our Bible study:

The foundation of true religion, stands upon the oracles of God.  It is built upon the Prophets and Apostles.  Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone.  Now, of what excellent use is reason, if we would either understand ourselves, or explain to others, those living oracles.

In the same sermon, John Wesley goes onto say what reason cannot do:  Reason cannot produce faith, for faith is the conviction of things not seen.  Reason cannot produce hope, which springs from Christian faith.  Reason cannot produce the love of God, which flows from faith and hope.  It can’t produce the love of our neighbor, “calm, generous, disinterested benevolence to every child of man,”  which springs forth from the gratitude we have for our creator.  He goes onto say that since reason cannot produce this kind of love, it cannot produce virtue.  And finally, “And as it cannot give faith, hope, love, or virtue, so it cannot give happiness; since, separate from these, there can be no happiness for any intelligent creature.”  John Wesley must have had an appreciation for Socrates (this last assertion takes me back to my Intro to Philosophy course at Swarthmore.)

I’m on board with reason now, let me turn to experience.  Presbyterian ministers tend to be really good about taking scripture and making it relatable through anecdotes and personal stories, so this is probably for me the most natural way to approach scripture.  I’ve listened to a lot of sermons through the years!  As Lisa Nichols Hickman describes, this is common sense Christianity or what your grandmother or the person sitting next to you at church might take from the text.

Before this post ends, I just have to share:  At the moment, I am feeling in love with this statement about Christian experience that I discovered while trying to understand John Wesley’s views on reason:

What scriptures promise, I enjoy. –John Wesley

This is such a beautiful statement and at the core of what it means to be Christian.  I’ve always felt that the Christian faith is best understood through experience.  Christianity is not, as many mistakenly think, about believing the right things.  Christianity is the grace to live in the fullness of knowing God’s love.

Wow!  This was a lot to take in and I haven’t even opened the Bible yet.  As soon as possible, I plan to apply this approach to scripture to looking at a passage that one of my readers suggested to me:  Isaiah Chapter 55.

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