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Our four theological guidelines

Is there a formula of belief?
Is there a formula of belief?

“Your life experience matters. Your thoughts matter…”

Isn’t it nice to hear those sentiments?

I remember hearing those words as a 13-year old. The impact of those thoughts set a course for my life that I’m still on today.

Why do you believe what you believe?

The seminal experience of faith formation for many United Methodist tweens comes through the process of confirmation. Confirmation looks different from one church to the next. But it often involves a series of classes exploring the basics of faith and church membership.

I remember relatively little of my own Confirmation experience as a 13-year-old, but I remember our class talking about an odd quadrangle. Geometry was not a key ingredient in our faith formation. But there, in the church basement, we were shown a four-cornered shape—crudely drawn on a mobile chalkboard—and told that this shape played a key role in how we grow in our faith. We were told that each side of the shape represented something very important. And we were told those magic words that end up meaning a lot to a 13-year old: “Your experience matters. Your thinking matters…”

I became a Christian because of the influence of my parents and church. But I became a United Methodist under the influence of that shape—which my counselors called “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”

Four theological guidelines

What I learned from the quad-pointed diagram drawn on the chalkboard in that church basement was that our faith was formed through four key components:

Faith in its infancy leans towards dogmatism. At least, up until that point in my life, faith felt dogmatic—I was told what to believe and I believed it. There was a sense that “this is how faith has always been, and therefore this is how faith will be for you.” But the Quadrilateral introduced a sense of individuality to the faith experience. The Quadrilateral, and its suggestion that reason and experience played a role in understanding faith, meant that I had agency in defining what faith was and is. That was tremendously exciting news to a 13-year old who generally felt that he had a lot of life experience and exceptional reason—but no one else was willing to recognize it. And, honestly, the agency provided by these guidelines excites me to this day—30 years later.

Agency was exciting, but it presented a challenge, too. I now had to think about faith myself. If I were a person of reason, then I had to be prepared to answer for why I believed what I believed. Then I had to look for evidence in my life supporting my understanding. Talk about hard work.

It was and is hard work reconciling faith with our lived experience. But it is well worth it when we’re able to see evidence of God’s movement in our own lives.

Where did the Wesleyan Quadrilateral come from?

Presented to me as “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” it seemed like the device came from one of the founders of Methodism, John Wesley. It was handed down to us as a Methodist must—along with directives to say “trespasses” instead of “sins," drink only Welch’s grape juice, and to do confirmation when you’re 13, apparently.

But that isn’t actually the case (nor are any of those directives true). Actually, the idea of the Quadrilateral was first presented by United Methodist theologian and scholar Albert Outler.

Hal Knight, a United Methodist scholar of St. Paul School of Theology, offers some perspective. He offered, “Outler argued that Wesley added experience (from the pietist tradition) to the three-fold authority of scripture, tradition and reason held by Anglicans... It has become popular even in non-Wesleyan circles as a handy list of theological authorities, although by itself it is still only a list.”

Scripture is primary

Knight also noted the importance of the Quadrilateral being a semi-odd shape—it is not a square or rectangle. The sides are not equal.

“It came under attack because some were using it to relativize the authority of scripture (which Wesley would never do), utilizing tradition and experience in ways foreign to Wesley,” he says. “It still proves helpful to many as an outline of authority, as long as scripture is recognized as the primary authority and the other three as sources to aid in interpreting or complementing scripture.”

This suggests that the foundation of the Quadrilateral is scripture, with the other three elements standing on scripture’s larger foundation. It is helpful to note that the Quadrilateral is both a tool of formation and a tool of revelation. The guidelines identify the ways in which God is revealed to us: primarily through scripture, but not without our faith tradition, our experience, and our personal reason.

John Wesley’s theology was profoundly affected through experience. Wesley spent much of his early ministerial career wrestling with doubts. It was not until he experienced a profound sense of God’s forgiveness that Wesley came to an understanding of the grace of God—though he had read numerous pieces of scripture and heard numerous sermons attesting to it. It was through his personal experience that Wesley understood the whelming love of God. His experience made God’s love real.

John Wesley’s experience mattered—it was key to his understanding.

What experiences formed your understanding of God? I can’t help but think back to the church basement 30 years ago when I heard the words suggesting I mattered. Those words provided me a sense of value. I felt seen and heard. I felt an invitation to be a participant in faith. I experienced an invitation to a relationship with God—and that is what has shaped my life in all the subsequent years.

Ryan Dunn is the Minister of Online Engagement, Rethink Church, for United Methodist Communications. He is an ordained deacon through the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. Contact him by email.

The story was published February 19, 2020.


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