In his book God in Search of Man, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel tells us, “Religious thinking, believing, feeling are among the most deceptive activities of the human spirit.” Rabbi Heschel goes on to explain that, too often, humans mistake their personal interests, desire for power, or personal concerns for our zeal and care for the Divine. It seems an odd thing to say, but Heschel is correct. History is filled with stories of individuals and movements who became lost in the maze of their own thinking and used religion to justify their prejudices, beliefs, and actions. None of us are immune to such temptation.
We, United Methodists, have used the religious framework of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience to counter this challenge. This framework is not unique to United Methodists, but is best known in our midst as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Though this term was never used by John Wesley, the framework is found throughout his writings. The “Quadrilateral” can help us avoid the temptation of making ourselves the arbiters of truth by grounding ourselves in Scripture, through the light of tradition, reason, and experience. As our Book of Discipline tells us, “the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.”
We must be cautious not to misunderstand the “Quadrilateral.” This is not a means to arrive at our preferred answer to the deep questions of life. Rather, this is a tool that can move us towards growth by challenging our understanding of God, ourselves, and one another.. Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason do not hold the same weight or function in this framework. Scripture is always primary. United Methodists understand the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation. Like a house, Scripture provides the foundation for our reflection. The rest of the house is composed of tradition, experience, and reason. Tradition moves us to encounter the wisdom the Church has produced throughout the ages. Reason, calls us to engage the fullness of our minds. Experience brings the work of the Holy Spirit to bear in our lives. This is a way we cooperate with God as we seek to grow in holiness.
The gift of this framework of interpretation is that it invites us to constantly examine how the Scriptures speak to the reality of our lives and the world in which we live. Though Wesley held a fairly confined understanding of tradition, experience, and reason, these three offer ample space for faithful individuals to arrive at different interpretations of Scripture.
Over the years, many have come to misunderstand the purpose and task of theology. We fight over theological understandings that are grounded in differing experiences and mirror the chaos we see in the world while forsaking the mandates to love one another, make disciples, baptize, and teach. Our United Methodist Book of Discipline tells us, “Theology is our effort to reflect upon God’s gracious action in our lives… Our theological explorations seek to give expression to the mysterious reality of God’s presence, peace, and power in the world. By so doing, we attempt to articulate more clearly our understanding of the divine-human encounter and are thereby more fully prepared to participate in God’s work in the world.”
Theological inquiry and exploration are parts of the journey of faith. Each of us is invited to engage deeply with the Holy Scripture, naming God’s action in our lives, and journeying with others as we allow the Holy Spirit to reconcile and make all things new.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man (p. 9). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
United Methodist Church. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016 (p. 142). The United Methodist Publishing House. Kindle Edition.
The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016 (p. 139).