As part of a class last semester, I had to describe what has become known the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to a current issue facing the church. John Wesley – founder of Methodism – would view the things going on in his time through the lens of this quadrilateral: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Be warned. This is a long read, but (in my opinion) worth it… Here is the question and my response:
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. What is your understanding of this theological position of the Church? Demonstrate its application in at least one current issue of the Church.
As one who grew up in the UMC, I don’t have a memory of a specific time that I chose this practice of Wesley’s theology over another tradition. Even having gone through confirmation and the variety of congregations and faith traditions visited as part of that class, I felt aware of other possibilities; but none seemed as perfect a fit for me as the UMC. In hindsight, I think the reason has a great deal to do with the way United Methodists approach scripture and the application of scripture to the world. In short, my comfort at the earliest stages of faith with the UMC has a great deal to do with the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral stresses scripture as the primary source for all we know about God, the life of Jesus Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit and about faith. The way I understand this is that the scriptures contain everything that I need – and that we as a community of faith need – in order to lead a life according to God’s call, and so the difficulty lies not in where to find God’s message but how to understand God’s message. The texts we read today come from a long line of storytellers and scribes who have painstakingly and prayerfully worked to share this message, even across social, cultural, temporal, and linguistic boundaries. The difficulties in bringing such a message lies not in the scriptures themselves, but in our own human limitations. In light of these limitations, what a wonder it is that God – who has given us all that we need to know through the scriptures – speaks to us even beyond those scriptures.
Through the tradition of generations of Christians, we can be in dialogue with a community across time. As an individual, I think it is foolish and even narcissistic to think that I alone – even with the guidance of scripture – am able to discern all there is to know about God and God’s wishes for humanity. Instead, reading from ancient and contemporary theologians and following the example of traditional practices offers a broader perspective for the Christian faith and experience. It is important to note that part of being in dialogue is the understanding that we may not always agree with every member of our community. Rather than seeing this as troubling, I find this to be a sign of God’s grace and God’s infinite ability to relate to humanity and to creation. I don’t mean to say that God is different depending on individual human perception, but instead that God responds to us according to our needs and relates to us each independently and completely.
It is the nature of God’s intimate relationship with each person that makes it possible for us to experience God, and there is no shortage of written accounts of these kinds of personal experiences from the scriptures to Augustine to Wesley’s strange warming of the heart. My own experience began – in a sense – with the understanding that I was called to ordained ministry. This experience did more than open my mind to Christian service, and an equally important affect was that I began to become more aware of God’s movement in my own life. As I continued forward from that time, I was able to experience more fully God’s specific presence and call on my life. I was also able to look back to memories from before my call experience and – with newly opened eyes – could see that God had been actively present far longer than I had been paying attention. Collectively, these experiences draw me forward to God and to what God calls me to do.
The way I find most effective to tie together these aspects of scripture, tradition, and experience is through the gift of reason. As children of God, we have not been created to blindly love God, but to choose to love God, and I think the only way for us to come to this choice is to use reason to put together scripture with tradition and reason in a way that makes sense for us individually. Using this gift of reason, we can assess whether our experiences fall in line with what we read in scripture; we can discern whether the traditional practices of our faith make sense in our current context and our own experience; we can examine our reading of scriptures in light of our tradition and experiences. In this way, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral helps us to more fully experience God’s divine lure in our lives.
One way to apply the Quadrilateral to a current issue of the Church is in relation to the immigration bill recently signed into law in Arizona. This law will require all immigrants to carry documentation and will give local law enforcement officials wide-ranging power to interrogate or even arrest anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. While I am sensitive to the ongoing national debate about immigration in the United States, this application will focus on the specific law itself rather than the broader issue of immigration reform.
When Jesus was asked about the most important commandment – written in the canonical Gospels – he cites Leviticus 19:18, saying that we should not only love God but that we should love our neighbors in the same way that we love ourselves. In Luke, Jesus follows with the parable of the Good Samaritan – who reason and tradition tell us would have been considered in that context to have been an immigrant and an outcast – who acts out of love and compassion. In the Gospel of John, Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment: to love each other just as Jesus has loved them. As I reason through these scriptures, I think the core of the Christian faith is love! Is it possible to love our brothers and sisters in Christ if we are more concerned with their immigration status than their wellbeing? I don’t think so. To add to the scriptural support, the same chapter of Leviticus that Jesus quotes when he says we are to love our neighbors says, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34, NRSV).
This passage reminds readers of the Israelites in Egypt and I also think of the Babylonian exile. The people of God have been aliens in strange lands, and tradition reminds us of inhumane treatment, murder, and the unyielding injustice of those who have been under such oppression. I think of Peter’s vision in Acts, and his experience that followed preaching to the Gentiles. Though the early Christian leaders questioned his motives, his vision and the presence of the Holy Spirit silenced the critics.
I also think of the North American slave trade of the eighteenth century, and addressed directly by John Wesley who wrote, “If, therefore, you have any regard to justice, (to say nothing of mercy, nor the revealed law of God,) render unto all their due. Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is, to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature… Be gentle toward all men; and see that you invariably do unto every one as you would he should do unto you.” [John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Slavery,” http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/wesley/thoughtsuponslavery.stm, 1774.]
And finally, experience tells me that I have been invited into a community of God. In my experience, community is not only a place for dialogue and friendship, but is a place for safety; it is a place of sanctuary. I do not see community as a place where everyone looks or thinks or acts the same, but I do see community as a place for unity and our common connection to our creator and redeemer. Reasoning all of these together, I see no way that this law in Arizona is a showing of love, a recognition of the immigrant as citizen, or an invitation to community. In that light, this is a law that I cannot – as a person of faith and good conscience – support or follow.