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About a month and a half ago I wrote a post on the quadrilateral that focused on Albert Outler’s (the one who coined the phrase) understanding of John Wesley’s understanding of experience. There were many lively reactions to the post here and in various other places online. It provided a helpful, if disheartening, reminder that many contemporary Methodists see the quadrilateral as what is most distinctive about Methodism. Today I received the most perceptive question about Outler’s understanding of experience I have received thus far. I responded to the question at the original post, but because of the length of my response and the importance of the question, I wanted to publish it as its own post for broader engagement. Here is the question, which was from Brandon Blacksten:

Kevin, I’m late to this party, but I’m having trouble seeing how experience construed in the way Outler puts forth is useful or relevant to theological reflection. In the blockquote above from Outler, I understand his descriptions of Wesley’s use of the Bible, tradition, and reason, but it is not at all clear to me how assurance of pardon might “clinch the matter” in a theological discussion. Maybe Outler clarifies this elsewhere in the essay. Could you perhaps provide an example of how experience construed in this way would play out in theological reflection?

My response:

From where I’m sitting, my post “Experience in the so-called ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’” has been one of the most misunderstood posts I have written (which may say more about the author of the post than the audience). My intention was to flesh out Albert Outler’s understanding of Wesley’s understanding of experience. The reason for doing so was to shine a light on how different contemporary uses of experience in the quadrilateral are from the intended use of the person who created the quadrilateral (Outler). Many over-read my initial post, assuming that what I was really saying was that experience is bad, or illegitimate, etc.

I appreciate your perceptive question. On Outler’s understanding of experience, it is difficult to see what the role of Christian experience is in theological reflection. My sense is that part of what Outler is saying is that, for Wesley, the experience of new birth gives people a new set of sense experience (spiritual senses, by which we perceive our adoption as God’s children) and that this experience helps us to better know God, and choose between “contrary positions.”

So, when choosing between two contrary positions, Christian experience would be an essential aid in your discernment – it could be thought of as being like glasses that help you see more clearly the two positions and what their implications are. My sense is that what most contemporary Methodists do when they deploy experience as a general category is that they use their life experience to ask which of the two contrary positions makes the most sense in light of what they know about life and the people around them. In this sense, it doesn’t seem to function as spiritual discernment but more as common sense (which is even more odd, because if it were truly common sense, why the contrary positions in the first place?). Experience as it is most often used today also appears to function as a category that does not need to be informed or infused by Christian content.

I could be wrong, but my reading of Outler’s understanding of Wesley’s understanding of experience is that experience would not actually add much in theological reflection, at least as far as bringing new content to the table. He does not think that your general life experience provides new content that you can legitimately set alongside the Scriptures, for example. In fact, Outler clearly ruled out pitting experience against Scripture.

When I read Outler himself, I was surprised at how clear he was on this point, because it seems to me that this is precisely the main reason the quadrilateral is deployed. Instead, Outler is saying that Wesley added Christian experience to the Anglican triad of Scripture, tradition, and reason because he felt that people were missing the basic reality that theological reflection is not agnostic or secular. It is done by Christians, those who have experienced awakening, justification by faith, the new birth, and in whom the Spirit witnesses with their spirits that they are children of God.

It is entirely possible that Outler’s reading of Wesley is wrong. But, at least from this essay written well after his initial statement of the quadrilateral, this is the way that Outler himself defined and limited the use of experience in the method for theological reflection that he created (because of what he thought Wesley meant by experience).

My main motivation in the original post was to try increase awareness within the UMC (and other parts of the Church that lift up the quadrilateral as a helpful tool for theological reflection) that the way that we are currently using the quadrilateral is in many ways profoundly different from and perhaps even contrary to the intended use of its creator.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology & Wesleyan Studies at Seattle Pacific University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

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