Can a sound theological methodology be constructed on Scripture, tradition, experience and reason; that is, on the components of what is often called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”? If so, how should each of the components be weighted, and how should they relate to one another? This essay will consider those questions, and will argue that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral does provide a sound basis for a practical theology, although it will suggest that the relative weights assigned to tradition and experience should be reconsidered, and that reason is particularly suspect as a source of theology, unless carefully defined.
That Scripture should be a core part of any practical Christian theology seems obvious enough. While a more theoretical theology may find it necessary to analyze the philosophical propriety of accepting Scripture as authentic revelation, practical theology (and by that I mean a theology that is immediately relevant to worship) has no such problem. We can begin with the assumed truth of the existence of God, and the Bible as his revelation. Given those assumptions, obviously Scripture must be accepted as the predominant source of religious authority. In fact, some might argue (as indeed many have) that Scripture is the only true source of religious authority. Given that the other components of the Quadrilateral are either subjective (as with experience) or are, by definition, less authoritative than Scripture (as with tradition and reason), I conclude that Wesley is right to say that Scripture is all that is necessary for salvation. But I also conclude, with Wesley, that a more excellent path will consider and apply other sources of authority to assist in interpretation and application of Scripture. So while Scripture is the most important source of religious authority, it need not be the exclusive source.
After Scripture, scholars rank tradition next in importance. Here I would argue that experience deserves a higher place than tradition. Sadly, we know that tradition has sometimes proven to be wrong, and inconsistent with the truths of Scripture as confirmed by human experience. Even the best of humans is imperfect, and errors occur. Errors of those in religious authority can become “tradition” thus unintentionally infecting truth. But more importantly than these concerns, it seems to me, is the need to acknowledge the continuing importance and vitality of the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit is active in the lives of believers, that which he activates in a believer should be given great weight as religious authority; subordinate to Scripture of course, but somewhat more significant than ancient tradition. Naturally any reliance on “experience” must be tested by Scripture, and by tradition and reason. But if the experience is carefully examined and found to be confirmed by Scripture, and is reasonable, I submit that it may trump contrary tradition.
Reason may be part of a practical theology, provided it is carefully defined. Reason as a philosophical notion, such as is applied in foundationalist thinking, is probably now extinct in the postmodern world. The “reason” which was celebrated in the Enlightenment need not be given any weight. But if we define “reasonable” more in lay terms, as for example to mean “sensible,” then it seems to me it does have a place. Interpretation of Scripture and experience may be evaluated in terms of its reasonableness, as a way of testing its merit. So, for example, overly literalistic interpretations of Scriptural references to plucking out one’s eyes, or handling snakes, can be disregarded by application of reasonableness. Likewise, unreasonable experience may also be disregarded. Thus reason, in this sense, can have a proper role in a practical theology.
Within these parameters, the components of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral may be the sources of a practical theology that is useful and profitable to believers.