I receive quite a bit of emails from a caucus group in the Oklahoma Conference named Mainstream United Methodists. I have recently received several emails from them about a handout that they were planning to distribute at General Conference. I have been away from my office for two weeks due to the birth of my first child, so I just got an email with final details about the handout and distribution of it. In the email there was an attachment that had the first page of the handout. Out of curiosity I opened the attachment. The front page prompted me to track down the entire handout, which you can find on the MUM website here.
As someone interested in Wesley Studies and preparing to enter SMU’s PhD program in the History of the Christian tradition in the Fall, and as someone who is a pastor in the Oklahoma Annual Conference, I wanted to comment on a few things that I think are inaccurate or unhelpful about this handout. My intent in doing this is not to start a fight or be disrespectful, but simply to clarify some misunderstandings about John Wesley and his relationship to the quadrilateral. I also want to clarify upfront that I am not involved in any other caucus group. My interest is not in defending the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which the handout is very critical of. Rather, my concern is that in reacting to things that MUM does not like about IRD, they seem to misrepresent Wesley in the interest of scoring points against IRD.
The main piece of the handout that I take issue with is the article found on the front page in the center column under a very well known picture of John Wesley, “Wesley’s Quadrilateral Under Attack.” It is not all that long, so for the sake of clarity and fairness, I will quote it in its entirety:
Wesley’s Quadrilateral is the center piece of United Methodism. Found in the introduction of Wesley’s forty-four sermons, it has provided a balanced doctrinal perspective for over 200 years.
Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason are valuable tools that guide inquiring minds and open the doors of spiritual mysteries. How can a pilgrim of the Way negotiate the treacherous waters of 21st century faith without them? These four guidelines help extract Biblical and theological truths for Jesus’ followers.
A growing number of scholars and theologians of various backgrounds tuck these “helps” in their tool belts. For Methodists, the Quadrilateral is a common denominator. It’s part of who United Methodists are. 2004 General Conference “editors” moved scripture to first and foremost on the quadrilateral. The next attempt will be to move to Sola-Scriptura, “Scripture Alone.” This is AWAY from John Wesley’s instructions.
As a layperson in Oklahoma recently exclaimed:
“Do away with Wesley’s Quadrilateral?
How could you do that?
The Quadrilateral is Methodism!”
There are a number of problems with the arguments made in this statement. The first is found in the title itself. The Quadrilateral cannot accurately be called “Wesley’s” because the quadrilateral was not created by John Wesley. In fact, Wesley himself never used the term. This is a not controversial, but is a plain fact that all respected Wesley scholars recognize. The term quadrilateral was coined, in relation to contemporary United Methodism, by Albert Outler (1908-1989). In an article published in the Wesleyan Theological Journal titled, “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral – In John Wesley,” Outler wrote: “The term ‘quadrilateral’ does not occur in the Wesley corpus—and more than once, I have regretted having coined it for contemporary use, since it has been so widely misconstrued.”
Second, I think the first sentence of this article is a reach: “Wesley’s Quadrilateral is the center piece of United Methodism.” I confess to not having the time to research this fully, but I am fairly confident that this statement is not one that is found in the Book of Discipline. If there is a center piece of United Methodism, I would think it would be something more along the lines of the UMC’s mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ.” Elevating the Quadrilateral to “center piece” status would seem to be on the verge of another form of fundamentalism that is not helpful to the current context of polarization and mistrust. This is not to say that Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are not important norms for theological reflection. As a United Methodist pastor I think that they are absolutely important norms. However, I do not think the Quadrilateral should be lifted up as the center piece of Methodism. I think the Discipline highlights a preferable aim for Methodism “to summon people to experiencing the justifying and sanctifying grace of God and encourage people to grow in the knowledge and love of God through the personal and corporate disciplines of the Christian life” (45).
In the second sentence, we are told that the Quadrilateral is found in the introduction of Wesley’s forty-four sermons” and that “it has provided a balanced doctrinal perspective for over 200 years.” I am not sure what introduction is being referred to, but I am guessing it is the introduction that Outler wrote for his 1964 collection of Wesley’s works. The Quadrilateral is certainly not mentioned in the Preface that Wesley wrote for Sermons on Several Occasions. On the other hand, in that Preface Wesley did write, “I want to know one thing, the way to heaven – how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: for this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price give me the Book of God! I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri [A man of one book]. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his Book; for this end, to find the way to heaven” (Bicentennial Edition, Vol. I, 105-106).
Skipping to the third paragraph, “2004 General Conference ‘editors’ moved scripture to first and foremost on the quadrilateral. The next attempt will be to move to Sola Scriptura, ‘Scripture Alone.’ This is AWAY from John Wesley’s instructions.” This statement makes it appear as if placing Scripture above tradition, reason, and experience is a recent innovation. The reality is that most Wesley scholars see this as accurately correcting a misperception that arose from Outler’s articulation of the Quadrilateral. In other words, what was being altered was not Wesley’s theology, but Outler’s articulation of Wesley’s theology — so that it would be more faithful to Wesley’s own writing.
In Wesley and the Quadrilateral: Renewing the Conversation Scott Jones (formerly a professor at Southern Methodist University, and currently Bishop of the Kansas Area) points out that Wesley called himself a man of one book and forty-one years later: “He uses the phrase again to talk about the beginning of Methodism and its continuing commitment to Scripture:
[Wesley's own words follow] From the very beginning, from the time that four young men united together, each of them was homo unius libri – a man of one book. God taught them all to make his word a lantern unto their feet, and a light in all their paths. They had one, and only one rule of judgment, with regard to all their tempers, words and actions, namely, the oracles of God. They were one and all determined to be Bible-Christians. They were continually reproached for this very thing; some terming them in derision Bible-bigots; others, Bible-moths – feeding, they said, upon the Bible as moths do upon cloth. And indeed unto this day it is their constant endeavor to think and speak as the oracles of God.[End of Wesley's words]
Any accurate understanding of Wesley’s view of the Bible must first start here, with a strong statement that Scripture alone is the authority for Christian faith and practice” (41).
I am proud to be a part of the Oklahoma Conference and I give thanks for the voices in our Conference, and throughout our denomination, who are calling for United Methodists to reclaim our Wesleyan heritage. Unfortunately, the information that MUM is propagating at General Conference relating to Wesley’s relationship to the Quadrilateral is misleading and inaccurate. I hope that future publications will be more carefully researched and nuanced.