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Hermeneutics: The Wesleyan Quadrilateral

When we talk about theology, we tend to avoid talking about HOW we come to our theology. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is an honest description of how every Christian uses scripture, tradition, experience, and reason to understand God.
Lesson Topics

Albert Outler, a Methodist minister and academic, delved deeply into understanding the intersection of theology and ministry. He was driven by the desire to unify different Christian streams and to help them understand God better. To achieve this, he studied John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, examining his sermons, letters, and speeches, which revealed a sophisticated but disentanglable approach to seeking God. This approach is now known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and consists of four elements: scripture, tradition, experience, and reason.


The Bible, seen as the primary account of God’s interaction with the world, is the starting point. Immersing in scripture gives us insights into God’s love for people and creation, shedding light on salvation, justice, and mercy. Without scripture, we risk losing sight of how our personal journey aligns with those of many faithful people before us.


In addition to scripture, Methodists also rely on tradition. They believe God has continued to guide the church over the centuries, from the early church to councils to great Christian authors. The Church has developed its faith through prayer and discussion, often illuminating theological principles not explicitly detailed in the Bible. However, it’s important to scrutinize tradition, as some aspects stem from sinful impulses such as anti-Semitism, slavery, and the abuse of power.


Experience also plays a crucial role in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. As John Wesley said, “What the scriptures promise, I enjoy.” This means the claims of the Bible need to hold up in reality. If our experience with God contradicts scripture or the teachings of the Church, it might be time for some introspection. Our experiences are colored by our history and biases, and we need to be careful in how we interpret them.


Reason, or the use of our intellect, is the last element of the Quadrilateral. Reason allows us to bring scripture into our current context. For example, the parables Jesus used require us to think abstractly about the nature of God. Reason is also required to understand the spiritual principles underlying biblical laws, test the claims of scripture, tradition, and experience, and see how scripture manifests in life. However, while valuable, reason has its limits, as it is constrained by our human capacity for understanding.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral does not provide a set of rules for thinking about God, but instead offers an honest description of how we already approach theological understanding. It encourages us to be conscious of how we think about God and alleviates any guilt we might feel about participating in theology. The Quadrilateral is a valuable tool for exploring and discussing our understanding of God and enhances our daily walk with the divine.


Paleo-Orthodoxy – Wikipedia – No, not religious dinosaurs. It’s the study of early Christian belief and how it differs from our ideas today.

Albert Outler – Wikipedia – Minister, educator, and theologian, Albert Outlet came up with the idea of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Wesleyan Quadrilateral – Wikipedia – An outline of what the Quadrilateral is and how different Wesleyan groups apply it in their theology.

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