Discerning God’s Heart and Mind — The United Methodist Quadrilateral

By May 9, 2019

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You may have heard the term Wesleyan Quadrilateral, and you may or may not know exactly what that means. Based on his studies of John Wesley, Albert Outler defined the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as the process of discerning God’s “heart and mind” and putting Christian beliefs into practice in changing circumstances.

Unlike many churches, the United Methodist Church encourages all its members to actively discern what they believe and why. We are encouraged to approach the tough questions of faith and Christian life through the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This “fourfold norm” is comprised of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Believe it or not, all of us often are engaged in “doing” theology when we think about the meaning of Bible texts or formulate our opinion about an issue based on our faith. The Quadrilateral is a tool that could help us better understand who God is, how we relate to God, how we relate to one another, and how we relate to the world around us.

We achieve this discernment utilizing the gifts of all four areas — beginning with scripture and allowing tradition, reason, and experience to help inform and shape our understandings.

Scripture: Asking “what does scripture say?” does not always produce a simple and straightforward answer. The Bible can be interpreted very narrowly, very broadly, and from different points of view. Regardless, at some point all of our understandings of God have to be rooted back into scripture. In the Wesleyan Quadrilateral the Scripture is the starting point of our beliefs.

Interpretation of scripture, however is also informed by Tradition. What has the church taught through its 2000 years? This has been a dynamic and changing reality from the very beginning. We look at Tradition because we understand that we are not inventing a new “Christianity” for our own day. We are also rooted not only in Christian history but in Jewish history — and the whole Jewish tradition. This leads us to many

Traditions that sometimes complement and sometimes contradict one another. So we consider, “What does scripture say and what has the church taught throughout the ages?”

Then we come to Reason. As Dr. Zan Homes used to say, “we do not check our brains at the door of the church.” We know things, we study, we have science, we have knowledge that we didn’t have 10 years ago, much less 2000 years ago, so we must bring all of that into the conversation. We let this knowledge inform Scripture and Tradition.

That brings us to Experience. John Wesley primarily describes this in terms of the Holy Spirit at work as we live out our lives. We experience the Holy Spirit in relationships with one another, through struggle and painful situations, and through love and compassion that moves our heart.

These four elements in conversation with each other help us to engage the complex world around us from the perspective of our faith. It is the combination of all four things and the balance between them that makes the Wesleyan tradition unique. It’s how we can disagree with one another or come to different conclusions and still embrace one another in our faith journey.

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