Essay / Misc.

Sola Scriptura and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

In the latest issue of in The Wesleyan Theological Journal, Wesleyan theologian Don Thorsen carries out a nice little exploration of biblical authority and theological method. The article, “Sola Scriptura and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (WTJ 41:2 (Fall 2006), pp. 7-27), clears up a lot of confusion. Both Sola Scriptura and the Quadrilateral are widely misconstrued, and need to be rescued from that darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night. Here’s a good question: have these two principles suffered more abuse at the hands of their thoughtless detractors or their clueless defenders?

In case you are not among those who labor under misconceptions of either of these principles, let me sketch the state of play that Thorsen presupposes. In one corner is a version of Sola Scriptura which is so totalitarian that it cannot even admit any relative authorities or interpretive norms to function near it. In the other corner is a version of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral so flimsy and merely procedural that it sounds like nothing more than limp recommendation to take everything into account and let every voice be heard. Described this way, the two principles are set up in advance to clash with each other at the first ding of the bell. No surprise that they seem contradictory, since described this way the two principles are transparently nothing more than projections of conservative and liberal theological postures at their cartooniest.

Thorsen rejects that account altogether, and argues instead that “the Protestant Reformation principle of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) and the Wesleyan quadrilateral are complimentary rather than contradictory principles of religious authority.” (p. 7) They can only seem contradictory because “many people overlook the multifaceted dimensions of sola scriptura. Likewise, many people overlook the primacy of scriptural authority in the quadrilateral.” (p. 8 )

In other words, to get to the truth Thorsen has to begin with a little exercise in myth-busting, first going after “the myth of Sola Scriptura” and then “the myth of the Quadrilateral.” This is accomplished fairly easily using the simple trick of turning from commentaries to primary text. “Any principle used secondhand runs the risk of being used either honorifically or naively,” warns Thorsen (p. 12), and then he checks into each principle at firsthand.

With Sola Scriptura, dipping into almost any Reformation treatise on scriptural authority reveals that it was applied in a nuanced and broad-minded way. Luther’s appeal to Scripture was sometimes simple (its clarity was a major point), but never simplistic. The Apology for the Augsburg Confession‘s article on justification is another instance of an appeal to Scripture (Ephesians 2!) which also brings in patristic precedent (Augustine) and seeks confirmation in the Christian life (“it is a matter of experience that weak and terrified consciences find it most comforting and salutary.” ) (p.10). Multiplying examples, Thorsen also notes how Calvin and even Westminster handle Sola Scriptura “with sophistication, breadth, and relevance.” (p. 10)

What is the real Wesleyan Quadrilateral? It is “the dynamic interplay between Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience” with which Wesley always operated, though he was not the one to formulate it or coin the term. Albert Outler devised this way of describing Wesley’s implicit theological method. It’s a pretty apt description of how Wesley worked, and it’s hard to find a Wesley sermon where he doesn’t make the rounds of tradition, reason, and experience as he preaches from the Bible. But beyond its value as a description of Wesley’s thought, the Quadrilateral caught on because it’s such a balanced and comprehensive way of working with doctrine.

So much for the real Quadrilateral, but what is the mythological Wesleyan Quadrilateral? Methodists who care about doctrine have long lamented the way the Q word has been used to suggest that Scripture is on the same level with reason, experience, and tradition. William Abraham famously complained (in his book Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: that “efforts have been made to treat these four elements dialectically, granting each of the elements relative autonomy.”

It’s not hard to imagine the kind of theological disarray that results from the un-Wesleyan move of demoting Scripture to one among four equal coordinates of doctrine. It’s also not hard to imagine that the Quadrilateral construed this way is completely at odds with Sola Scriptura in any form. No wonder Sola Scriptura and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral are so widely viewed as mutually exclusive principles of docrinal authority.

But Thorsen picks apart the mythological versions of the two principles, leaving the real Sola Scriptura and the real Wesleyan Quadrilateral within easy hailing distance of each other. If Thorsen makes it look easy, it’s probably because he’s personally committed to the truth of both principles, and in this article he is only articulating a workable theological method which he tries to follow in his own work.

The last few pages of the article switch strategies somewhat, arguing that the Quadrilateral is a “far better principle of religious authority” than the Sola because it has more resources for responding to a postmodern, contextualized, globalized situation. This argument is in a bit of tension with the first part of the argument, not to say contradiction. But the first two-thirds of the article contain a clear and compelling case for the compatibility of Sola Scriptura and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

So let me praise the argument in fourfold fashion: It strikes me as biblical, reasonable, informed by tradition, and something I can live with in my own theological life as a Christian.

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