The Wesleyan Quadrilateral and Sola Scriptura

As I have moved along the ordination process within the United Methodist Church, there have been two questions that I dread to be asked: 1) What is the role of Scripture within the life of the church; and 2) what is the most significant problem the UMC faces in the next 10 years? Through this process, I have been taught to answer these questions in a specific way to appease everyone in such a vast theological landscape. In regards to scripture, I was prepared to never say that the Bible is inerrant or infallible. In regards to the most significant problem the UMC faces, you should never bring up the homosexuality issue. The reason I despised being asked these questions by a committee — who decides if I will be ordained or not — is that I can’t answer them truthfully, or at least entirely. However, while everyone would agree that homosexuality is an issue splitting the United Methodist Church in more ways than one, I believe the root of the problem goes much deeper. I believe the answer to the second question stems from the answer of the first. The most significant problem the UMC is facing is our view of scripture, which has led us down the road to where we are now.

I had many of seminary professors who I love and trust who disagreed with me and my position on this issue. However, any time that I brought up the issue of Sola Scriptura they never gave an accurate understanding or definition of the term. Whether directly or indirectly, Sola Scriptura was defined as, “The only rule of faith and practice.” However, this is not the definition of the Reformers or how they understood sola scriptura. The original meaning of sola scriptura is that “scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith.” The keyword being “infallible.” Or to put it another way: Scripture is the only rule of faith and practice that is infallible. Sola Scriptura is not an exclusive claim that says there are no other rules of faith, but that none outside of scripture are infallible.

To put this in a Wesleyan context, Albert Outler coined a term known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to describe John Wesley’s methodology for theological reflection. Now, I personally disagree with calling it by such name; however, I don’t disagree with Outler’s assertions on Wesley’s methodology. Likewise, I despise how the Wesleyan Quadrilateral has been abused since its coinage by Outler. Outler defines four rules of faith within the Quad: 1) Scripture, 2) Tradition, 3) Reason, and 4) Experience. The UMC asserts in its Book of Discipline that “The United Methodist Church holds that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.”[1] Because of its name and other prevailing agendas, people have used the Quad to justify beliefs that run contrary to scripture. In their methodology of theological reflection, it is no longer scripture that is infallible, but whatever rule supports their theology whether it be tradition, reason, or experience. The problem with that approach is that we, as fallible creatures, decide what is right and wrong. However, the perfect and unchanging God has already laid out His good and perfect will in His Word. If our traditions, or reason, or experiences run contrary to God’s Word, then they are wrong and need to be changed.

It is a commonly held belief that John Wesley didn’t hold to sola scriptura; however, Wesley did, in fact, consider himself to be within this tradition. Here is where this misunderstanding of sola scriptura comes into play when using Wesley’s methodology for theological reflection. In John Wesley, Albert Outler asserts that Wesley never intended solus to mean exclusive religious authority, instead “he interpreted solus to mean ‘primarily’ rather than ‘solely’ or ‘exclusively.'”[2] So the common assertion that is made is that Wesley didn’t hold to sola scriptura but Prima Scriptura, the doctrine that scripture is first and above all other sources of divine revelation.

The difference between the two doctrines is slight but drastically significant. While sola scriptura allows for secondary sources of authority, these sources are not infallible and must be subjected to the authority of scripture. Furthermore, when secondary sources run contrary to the testimony of scripture, they must be subject to reform and correction. Therefore, scripture guides the way we live out our faith and informs our traditions, reason, and experiences. On the other hand, prima scriptura diminishes the authority of scripture by asserting that the meaning of scripture can be mediated through traditions, reason, and experiences.

To use an example: Sola Scriptura is essentially the biblical practice of exegesis (to draw out of the text). Exegesis is the practice of interpreting a text to find out what the Spirit was originally saying through the author of a particular passage or book. In contrast, prima scriptura is similar to the practice of eisegesis (reading into the text). Eisegesis is the process where a person interprets a passage based on a preconceived idea or belief. To put it another way, we should read our lives through the lens of the scripture, and we should not read scripture through the lens of our traditions, reason, or experiences. Why? Because we are fallen human being with a corrupted human nature. Rather, we should sit under the authority of God’s Word written down in his Holy Scriptures.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral doesn’t work with prima scriptura. It brings us to where we are today as a church. It allows us to interpret scripture however we want according to our feelings, experiences, and emotions. However, if the Wesleyan Quadrilateral were used in light of sola scriptura, it would actually become beneficial to the United Methodist Church and people who call themselves Wesleyans. Yes, I believe that traditions, reason, and experiences are important to the Christian life but only when they are held captive to the authority of scripture. Scripture alone can determine whether our traditions, reason, or experiences are in line with God’s will since it alone speaks infallibly for God.

Now, since Wesley was an Anglican, it has been asserted that Wesleyans and Methodists should take the Via Media approach. This approach, also known as the middle way, tries to reconcile the Roman Catholic and the Reformers approach to Christian faith and practice. We have already covered that the Reformers’ approach was sola scriptura, but let me quickly cover the Roman Catholic approach to Christian faith and practice. Essentially, the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) holds to three governing rules of faith: Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and papal infallibility. The problem with the RCC’s approach is that it has multiple authorities that compete against one another. There really is no authority that supersedes the others. Scripture is authoritative as a rule of faith but only in so much as the Magisterium (authority vested in the pope and bishops to establish the official teachings of the church) defines and interprets scripture. So scripture is a rule of faith, but its interpretation is subjected to the magisterium; therefore, in and of itself it’s not final, but its interpretation by the magisterium is.

Likewise, “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers, so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort.”[3] While the magisterium is the one who defines the correct interpretation of the text of scripture and the official teaching of the RCC, the magisterium receives its authority from the text of scripture and the tradition passed down through the centuries of the church. So the magisterium receives its authority from the text of scripture in which is subjected to their authority and interpretation. It is circular reasoning. There is no final authority. There are further problems, far too many to cover in this blog.

However, I do want to point something out: Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are two separate rules of faith that forms one practice of faith. Sacred Traditions are traditions that are supposedly passed down through the disciples of the Apostles that are not contained in scripture. However, the problem is that we have no way of knowing the who started the tradition, or when, or where, or why? Sure, you can say that we know, but in all actuality, we don’t.

There is actually an example of this in the New Testament between Jesus and the Pharisees. In Mark 7: 8-13, Jesus addresses what is known as the Corban Rule. Jesus begins his dissertation with: “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of me. You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition” (v. 8-9, ESV).  Then he quotes the commandment of honoring one’s father and mother, but they have bypassed this commandment with the Corban Rule. Before our modern system of government entitlements, part of honoring your father and mother was taking care of them in their old age both personally and financially. However, the Corban Rule allowed people to declare that their finances corban, meaning dedicated to God. Since their finances were dedicated to God, they no longer were required to take care of their parents because those funds could be, but often were not, given to the Temple. This human tradition allowed for the depravity of human hearts to find a loophole in the Law of God. The Pharisees claim that the Corban Rule dates back to the time of Moses, and was given by Moses to the Jewish people. They even use Leviticus 27:16-24 to justify it, but Jesus corrects their tradition with scripture and proper interpretation. At some point in time, someone took Leviticus 27 out of context and created a tradition to get out of taking care of their parents.

Tradition cannot be authoritative alongside scripture because it is not God-given. Is there anything outside of scripture that is God-breathed? Is there divine revelation outside of scripture? Answer: no! But what about in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 where Paul says: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” To which I must ask, name the traditions that Paul taught not recorded in scripture. Would those traditions be infallible? How do we know they date back to Paul and not some 3rd or 4th-century heretic? I believe all the traditions that Paul teaches and instructs the elders to pass down are found within scripture: the Gospel message, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, gathering together as the Church, etc.; all of it is found within scripture. The only traditions that can be trusted and considered authoritative are the ones found in scripture.

I am keenly aware that what I have put forth is controversial both with people who call themselves Wesleyans and others who don’t hold to sola scriptura. However, I believe if we want to truly use Wesley’s methodology for theological reflection then we must do it in light of sola scriptura. Viewing scripture as the sole infallible rule of faith is the only way that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral works without being distorted into four sources of authority for Christian faith and practice. There is a lot more that I want to say and flesh out in this argument, but that’s not for this blog post. For now, maybe we should just rediscover the correct definition of sola scriptura. For me, without sola scriptura, there is no rule of faith in which I could hang my hat on. For now, I’ll finish with this, in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 Paul said: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you!

[1] The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016, 324.9.a.

[2] Outler, Albert C., editor,  John Wesley (Library of Protestant Thought), p. 28. Oxford University Press.

[3] Dei Verbum, 10.


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