The Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture’s Revelation Is No Joke

A post seen on Twitter:

People: Why should I be Catholic?
Catholics: We’re the one true church!
People: Nice 😎

People: Why should I be evangelical?
Evangelicals: We have a personal relationship with Jesus!
People: Nice 😎

People: Why should I be Mainline?
Mainline: You get to T H I N K!
People: 😕

The author of this little Twitter exchange thought he was being quite smart, I’m sure. My reaction to it was not particularly funny, however. What occurred to me was this:
“God says:
Scenario 1: “That’s tradition”.
Scenario 2: “That’s experience”.
Scenario 3: “That’s reason”.

Each has part of the truth. If all would get “Scripture” in its proper position relative to their own preferences and priority, we could begin to have a REAL conversation!”

Scripture, tradition, reason, AND experience- What has been called the “quadrilateral” of Wesleyan theology. See Jesus’ dialogue with the Samaritan woman at the well. She used all four to discover the True, Complete Christ and then told others of her encounter. (in John 4). Only when she included confidence in the authority of the holy texts did Jesus reveal Himself to her!

I had written about this theological discourse between Jesus and the Samaritan woman on 1/10/2011. The story of this encounter continues to draw me back again and again. I update it from time to time to reflect some additional appreciations of this Scripture!

I had been asked to read John 4:5-42 and prepare a prayer based on the text. So, I was reading with attentiveness. As a result, I saw something in this conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman I’d never seen before.

As Methodists, we believe that there are four commonly employed standards or criteria used for formulating and evaluating theology, four “tests” of truth- Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience, commonly referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

As I read this familiar story, I suddenly realized that the Samaritan woman was employing all four! In her first response to Christ’s request for water she seems quizzical, even perhaps a bit defensive and argumentative, employing reason to try to discover why a Jewish man would ask a Samaritan woman for anything, given the disdain and prejudice with which Jews generally regarded Samaritans. Jesus replies in a way that entices her. Again though, she is using reason, pointing out that he has nothing with which to draw water himself and then she shifts into tradition, pointing out the history of the well and its importance to her people. Jesus responds to her. Intrigued, she references personal experience – thirst and the labor of drawing water- and expresses desire for what he offers. When Jesus directs her to get her husband, she answers honestly and continues in the personal, experiential mode.

When Jesus has shown his knowledge of her circumstances, she deflects and shifts the conversation to tradition again- asking a question that has little to do with drawing water, but rather speaks of worship. Jesus responds. Then finally, she refers to the writings of the Jewish prophets (Scripture) and states what she knows and states her belief that answers will ultimately be had.

In this conversation with the Samaritan woman, we see one of the longest and most interactive exchanges in all of Scripture involving Jesus. I find it interesting that the woman employs every way she can to figure Jesus out, to understand Him and what He is offering. It is only when she engages Scripture that Jesus reveals the truth of who he is to her.

In the end, she goes to get others to come to hear Jesus. She wants to know if they see what she sees, if her conclusion is right. When they hear her testimony and hear Jesus themselves, they are convinced that her conclusion is correct. Jesus is the Messiah!

Are we as persistent, as dogged in our pursuit of the truth of Jesus? Are we willing to reveal our doubts? Are we as honest in acknowledging the reality of our circumstances and our dependence on comforting traditions? Are we as knowledgeable of the Word?

During another time of reflection on the conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus, I realized what a lengthy and insightful engagement John shows us between the two of them. It reveals Jesus’ patience and willingness to come to us, listen and respond to us right where we are. It also shows the extent to which the woman is prepared to go in attempting to understand this stranger and his unusual availability to one like herself. I am Wesleyan through and through and love the way that the churches that molded my faith employ, at least in theory, these four arbiters of truth known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral- Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. While Albert Outler systemized it out of his observation of John Wesley’s methods, we Methodists have been left to interpret it over the last few decades. At times the way it has been accomplished has, in my opinion, missed the mark. But here, in this conversation between Christ and the Samaritan woman, I see the four being used to bring out Truth in its fullness…..This was truly an affirmation for me, of the validity of the church’s stated way of addressing these four: “…the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” (Book of Discipline, 2008, page 77) the conclusion to which her exchange with Christ leads her results in excitement, an appeal to the community to come and see….and to affirm her understanding…which it does! It is in community that these four criteria are evaluated and affirmed. If we lose that the Gospel will still have its appeal one -on -one, just as it did when Jesus and the Samaritan woman spoke, but look what power was brought to bear and the personal faith that was born in many when it was conducted in community!

“Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” John 4: 39-42

I am one of those who earnestly desires that those beliefs that I hold or those that I am asked to embrace be reflected in Scripture (or at the very least, not be prohibited or denied by it.) This business of the Methodist “quadrilateral” and the ways in which it has been used in the UMC by first one person or group, then another, to explain or justify a position, had caused me a degree of distress from time to time, all the way back to my earliest days as a Methodist in 1972. When God showed me all four criteria being applied so beautifully in this Scripture, I was able to embrace it with enthusiasm and understand how to apply the four criteria myself. I am grateful to the Lord for his sweet revelation in this story, and especially the way in which it was brought to me by his Spirit, in his timing, and according to his plan for my life……I empathize with the poor Samaritan woman’s emotional roller coaster….her sense of being shunned and alone in her task, her confusion in her encounter with this stranger, her suspicion as one who had experienced elitist and racist prejudice, her defensiveness in support of her national/family history, her curiosity about and desire for something valuable that he offered, her shame over her past, her courage and vulnerability in honest disclosure, her confidence in the promises of God, her joy in discovering truth, her relief in not being judged and in being accepted in spite of her past, her desire to share this knowledge with others and have it affirmed by their examination, too, and her boldness in witnessing to the truth, and I expect…..her joy in being restored to a place of belonging in a new community of faith!           5/29/20

  1. Lynn
    | Reply

    Thank you! This biblical story came up over and over again for months before I firmly decided to leave the so-called Pentecostal Faith. A few scriptures from New Testament and Old were revealing a message also but just really didn’t know what happening.
    Pertaining to the well they were sitting at is symbolic and I kept concentrating on the water. The conversation was so casual but inviting I couldn’t really understand or grasped the story as to why the event happened. It was a natural encounter between two people, one with peace and kindness and the other just going along in life. Maybe a daily purpose this woman had but really no direction. The moment of belief came from the conversation and the woman being so excited couldn’t wait to Go Tell! I can relate to that!
    Jesus lights the path and gives understanding. The water from the well is Jesus…and it is given freely so no one has to thirst again. It is in the way of God, Jesus’ Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

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