The so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” is often seen as the common thread that holds together Methodist theological discourse. The only problem is that it is rarely used as a tool that actually arbitrates theological disagreements amongst Methodists. That is to say, the people using the quadrilateral do not agree on what is meant by an appeal to the four sources of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
One of the sources that is least understood, at least when connected with the thought of John Wesley is experience. In preparing for my most recent field-level exam, I reread this summary of Wesley’s understanding of experience in Gerald R. Cragg’s Reason and Authority in the Eighteenth Century, (1964):
Wesley never allowed experience to stand alone. It was always checked by the evidence of Scripture and by the judgment of his reason. Experience confirms authority, it does not establish it. It verifies the truth we have discovered, but it is not the source of that truth. Consequently we cannot authenticate our faith by appealing to our feelings. [Quoting Wesley] ‘That some consciousness of our being in favour with God is joined with the Christian faith I cannot doubt; but it is not the essence of it. A consciousness of pardon cannot be the condition of pardon.’ Wesley had too shrewd an understanding of human nature not to realise that emotions can be unpredictable and unreliable. Consequently he laid down the principle ‘you are not to judge by your feelings, but by the Word of God.’ (161)
Cragg’s summary identifies one of the most common misuses of “experience” as a source of authority within the quadrilateral. Experience does not stand alone. Experience confirms authority, it does not establish it. In particular, Wesley appealed to experience in order to confirm the doctrine of assurance. The truth of Romans 8:16 – “The Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we are God’s children” – is confirmed by our experience. For example, Wesley wrote:
The fact we know: namely, that the Spirit of God does give a believer such a testimony of his adoption that while it is present in the soul he can no more doubt the reality of his sonship than he can doubt of the shining of the sun, while he stands in the full blaze of his beams. (“The Witness of the Spirit”, I.12)
For Wesley, Scripture promises that the Holy Spirit will witness within the spirits of those who have become children of God that they are in fact children of God. The promise from Scripture is confirmed by the experience of the Spirit actually witnessing within our spirits of our adoption as God’s children.
What do you think?
(If you are interested in learning more about the quadrilateral, I would recommend Wesley and the Quadrilateral: Renewing the Conversation. William J. Abraham also provides a dissenting voice in Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in The United Methodist Church.)