The Quadrilateral or the Word of God?

Portrait of John Wesley with his most favorite of books.
Portrait of John Wesley with his most favorite of books.

“My ground is the Bible. Yea, I am a Bible-bigot. I follow it in all things, both great and small.”

-John Wesley

In too many UMC conversations, from worship to trustee meetings to bake sales, the Bible is little more than window dressing.  Rather than living under the authority of God’s Word, we use it for our own ends.  We piously reference Scripture, tacking it on to the end of this or that, when in truth neither this nor that have been informed by God or God’s story preserved in Scripture.  At our best, Christians live in, through, and by the narrative of God’s self-gift in Christ.  At our worst, we twist the story to make it serve our own purposes.  The Bible is used to justify war, poverty, wealth, homophobia, abortion, quietism, and every other sin or vice imaginable.  But, as Raneiro Cantalamessa suggests, our efforts to tame the text ultimately stand under the judgment of their Author:

“The Word of God revolts against being reduced to ideology. Ideology is what is left once the current from the Word of God has been cut off, once the word has been unplugged from the transcendent and personal reality of God, so that it is no longer the Word disposing of me and leading me where it chooses but I who am disposing of it and leading it where I choose. God will not tolerate his almighty Word being used to garnish a speech for this occasion or that, nor to cloak with divine authority speeches already composed and entirely human. In recent times we have seen where such tendency can lead. The gospel has been exploited in support of every kind of human project, from class war to the death of God. But this is all old hat…the gospel has been bent this way and that to say whatever happened to be socially fashionable at any given period.”

In United Methodist circles, it can be argued that the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral has contributed to this ‘bending’ of the gospel over the last several decades.  Opinions vary as to whether Outler’s construct was defunct from the beginning or misunderstood and misapplied, but the results are the same: Scripture, despite efforts to re-narrate the Quadrilateral to the contrary, has become just one of four implicitly equal sources from which we can draw on for theological truth.

The result is rather like what we’ve seen in the The Episcopal Church: though our official liturgies and doctrinal standards speak in accord with the Church across time and space about the Triunity of God and the centrality of Christ, it is quite possible that the presiding clergy and any number of congregants may actually be worshiping the Giant Spaghetti Monster.  God becomes whatever and wherever one finds meaning, and the only dogma recognized is that all dogma is stifling and harmful.  This is not how Wesley, the “man of one book,” did it.  His approach was much closer to what Cantalamessa, the official preacher to the Papal household, suggests:

“When dealing with the Church’s doctrinal and disciplinary problems, therefore, we need bravely to start out more often from the Word of God, especially as revealed in the New Testament, and stay bound to it, chained to it, certain that in this way we shall much more surely achieve our purpose, which is, in any question, to discover where the will of God lies.”

For too many, the Quadrilateral has meant (maybe) starting with Scripture and then going to to something a bit more flexible or likable.  Cantalamessa, though, invites us to consider the radical alternative: treating God’s Word as God’s Word.  We have traded true freedom for a bondage to our own fancies.  Only in binding ourselves to Scripture are we truly free to hear, discern, and live out God’s will.

Source: Cantalamessa, Raneiro. The Mystery of God’s Word (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press 1994), 49-50.


    1. Jennifer, the Barthian in me agrees with you totally. But we believe that the Word speaks to us in the written word; besides, as you point out inadvertently, we cannot buy Jesus as the Word without a robust view of the word of Scripture.

      1. Quietism was what Wesley encountered among some German evangelicals and eventually rejected; the idea was that to wait on God rather than engage in active discipleship. One might also take it to mean a general disposition of non-engagement vis-a-vis situations of injustice.

  1. While I’m aware of misgivings about the quadrilateral over several decades, I wonder what explains the recent spate of criticism? I feel like the quadrilateral is a rich part of our Wesleyan (or even Outlerian however much Outler regretted it) and UMC heritage. Let’s not throw out the baby (this rich tool for theological reflection) with the bath water (examples of its misuse). Granted I’ve seen it used or at least taught incorrectly, but it seems recent criticisms (this one included) allege or assume the misuse, but don’t give examples with compelling proof needed to condemn the quadrilateral. (Did I miss any concrete example above? Spaghetti monsters don’t count).

    With all due respect to your Via Media Methodist project, this is an especially disappointing place to find this piece. VMM typically takes a rigorous, informed and generous approach to orthodoxy and to our denomination’s rich heritage. And that approach at its best raises up common ground and attracts a wider audience to unity in our shared essential beliefs without unnecessarily forcing uniformity in non-essentials. We so much need that in the UMC blogosphere today and there is too little competition to provide it.

    A better use of this space would be to elucidate the proper use of the quadrilateral. And, sure, explain the pitfalls, but also how to avoid them. For example, the first misconception is thinking “quadrilateral” means “square” as the WesQuad is too often- indeed typically – misrepresented visually. There’s an easy teachable moment on primacy of scripture. Next, take on the misunderstanding and weak use of experience. But instead of just the easy critique of personal experience, why not push the reader to a greater appreciation of experiencing the Holy Spirit? Young confirmands eat up the lesson on the quad, so it’s a perfect opening to lead them to a deeper appreciation of this aspect of our Trinity.

    The social media context that makes me weary is reading recent critiques of the quad which focus on experience myopically. They make it a strawman argument which they gleefully knock down to invalidate scriptural views they don’t like. This simplistic argument asserts “personal experience” is to blame for some new interpretation, so case closed, and the critic never has to deal with the new interpretation’s exegesis, logical reasoning or scientific fact base. (Hint: the reconsideration of scripture so as to support same sex marriage and full inclusion/participation of LGBTQ persons turns much less on experience and very much more on reason and medical science).

    I was rather hoping VMM would – and perhaps you still may – take a more balanced approach to how all four legs of the quad can add to our scriptural understanding, discipleship, witness and theology.

    1. Dave, the deep irony here is that I seem to have set off alarm bells among progressive Christians about an overly strong view of Scripture by citing a Roman Catholic source. Kevin Watson’s posts on the proper understanding of the Quad are so good I see no need to compete with them. I have seen enough misuse in a variety of conversations to convince me that it is likely beyond rehabilitation; however, a good place to look if that is desired is the book edited by Gunter. I am sorry this piece did not live up to your expectations; surely, however, a strong but holistic view of the authority of Scripture is a much deeper, richer tradition from which we can draw than a 40 year old construct regretted by its author and regularly abused by those who invoke it. Something like the Patristic 4-fold sense of Scripture is probably a better tool for theological reflection. All that said, perhaps this is a good opportunity for you to write a guest piece for us? You seem pretty well aware of the pitfalls and we’d be happy to have an alternative perspective. Also, remember there are several of us and my word on the Quad is not necessarily the only view that VMM contributors would hold.

  2. I can tell you with certainty from first-hand experience that concern over the glib misuse and misunderstanding of the Quadrilateral as a too-easy way of dismissing scripture, orthodoxy and the most essential Christian doctrine is *not* exaggerated.

  3. I’ll note here that criticism of the Quadrilateral is not a recent phenomenon. That is in part why it had to be revised in ’88. Schubert Ogden–a process theologian–criticized it early on. Billy Abraham, who agrees with Ogden on very little, has criticized the Quadrilateral in all of its iterations. My own post criticizing the Quadrilateral had to do with the damage done by its original iteration in ’72. It would be possible to revise the Quadrilateral to make it more useful, but that revision would have to be quite drastic, and it would be unlikely to make it through GC.

  4. I appreciate your thoughts here, but I see this as a false dicotomy. The Bible OR the Quadrilateral? Really? One cannot have the Quadrilateral withouth Scripture. Is the choice you are proposing sola scriptura vs. prima scriptura? I find it hard to believe anyone who says, “Just the Bible.” We don’t come to the Bible in a vacuum. We all have a tradition. We all have experience. We all (hopefully) reason.

  5. Not sure if it makes any sense to comment on a 2-year old string. I teach the Quadrilateral with a key visual (not original to me). Large circle titled Scripture-inside are the three circles of experience, reason, and tradition. Pitfalls are explained. Validating against Scripture is key.

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