Another Problem with the Quadrilateral

Jason Micheli —  April 14, 2016 — 6 Comments

karl_barthDuring Lent, as many of my professional Christian colleagues were forsaking sugar, shots, and selfies, I was instead taking on an additional discipleship discipline:

Reading Karl Barth’s Dogmatics.

After a year of stage-serious cancer, I shouldn’t have to give up shit for Lent, for I’d already suffered longer than Jesus did in the wilderness. I theologized. Plus,  reading Barth is not penitential at all.

Last week, on a whim, I brandished my reacquaintence with Barth against that most cherished of United Methodist idols, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the doctrine which professes that Scripture, the Word of God, is illuminated to us by Tradition, Reason, and Human Experience. Through a Barthian lens, I suggested that the Quadrilateral inevitably conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense and that, according to Barth, Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ. Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us today.

But, from Barth’s perspective, that’s hardly the only problem with the Quadrilateral that we attribute to Wesley. Saying, as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral does, that the Word of God can be illumined by our Tradition, Reason, and Experience suggests that Scripture’s address to us is lying there in the text, waiting, for us.

Not only does this construe Scripture as the texts in which God once spoke rather than the medium by which God speaks today, it falsely promises that God’s Word will be heard in Scripture so long as we approach it with faithfully our Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

Or, to put it differently, Experience, Reason, and Tradition are the means by which we get God to speak to us through Scripture.

For Barth, though, Revelation by its very nature- no matter how many prayers for illumination we utter- cannot be guaranteed precisely because Christ is Risen.

God is not dead, and Jesus is a Living Lord; therefor, the Word of God is no less free today than in the pages of scripture. Just as with Hannah and Sarai, just as in Mary’s womb or Christ’s empty tomb, God is always free to surprise and reveal in ways we’re not expecting and, in this case, God is free NOT to reveal in ways we’re expecting.

God is free to show up, as to Moses at the Burning Bush, and God is free not to show up, as in the 400 years preceding the Burning Bush.

It’s no accident that when God condescends to us in the logos, Jesus Christ, we push him out of the world on a cross. The Word of God intrudes upon our world, as almost a kind of violence, and so is not tied to it. It cannot be calendared or calibrated for it never ceases to be grace, a gift we can neither earn nor expect.

Too often the Wesley Quadrilateral implies that revelation is latent within the text of scripture and that our use of Reason, Experience, and Tradition are the keys by which we unlock it. Barth however insists that the God we find pursuing us in scripture is self-objectifying. God seeks after us; we cannot seek after God- any god we discover in our seeking is not God but a god. There’s no such Christian thing, in a Barthian sense, as a Seeker Service. All of us are only and always the sought.

To say God is self-objectifying is to assert, against so much of our liturgical assumptions, that God wills at specific times to be the object of our speech, eating, and prayer, but other times God wills not to be our object, which means a more proper response to scripture in worship is to say: ‘This is the Word of God for the People of God. We pray. Thanks be to God.’

Likewise, the great thanksgiving is not a magic incantation recited by a shaman that guarantees God’s presence in the eucharist. The Holy Spirit is invited to pour out upon the table; the Holy Spirit is not compelled to condescend. The Great Thanksgiving and the Prayer for Illumination are just that, prayers, pleadings, petitions for God to reveal God’s self. They are not methods but practices of faith. Hope and trust.

For Barth, we cannot approach, apprehend, know, or even believe in this God through any means other than God’s own present and ongoing revelation. God must elect to come to us in our speech and bread, as in Mary’s womb it is no less in the pulpit or at the table. God doesn’t always elect to reveal himself to us for when God does reveal it is always necessarily a miracle.

I suppose some might see in this bad news, that revelation isn’t 100% fool-proof predictable, but I think Barth would point out that good news of this free, electing, self-objectifying God is so much better; namely, that God does not consider it beneath God to rest on the lips and in the hands of creatures, like us, of such low estate. 

Jason Micheli


6 responses to Another Problem with the Quadrilateral

  1. Interesting concept using Barth to critique the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The only problem is that forcing dialogue between Barth and Wesley, who are two theologians from entirely different traditions and times and responding to different concerns, is very difficult. Barth is reacting (and in my personal opinion perhaps overreacting a bit) to naïve 19th Century liberal theology that turned reason rather than scripture or revelation into the primary lens for knowing God. Reason by itself, however, generally gets us no nearer to Christianity than any other religion. Wesley on the other hand lived during the early days of the Enlightenment as was more drawn to the Pietist and Puritan movements of his day.

    One of the things I noticed in your both your blog entries is that you don’t quote Outler anywhere nor give proper context to the sides of the quadrilateral as he defines them. This is key because the actual definition of experience he uses is probably close to capturing the Barthian view of revelation you’re driving at. Experience for Outler meant only narrowly experience of the Holy Spirit whom Barth would agree is the agent of personal revelation. It doesn’t just mean the sum of your own life experiences or personal opinions, but rather the sum of encounters you have with the living God. Wesley and Outler agreed these experiences had to be meditated or connected in some manner to scripture simply because there are as my old professor said, “many spirits in the world other than the Holy Spirit.” In other words experience in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is the Holy Spirit seeking after us and pointing to revelation of God.
    Two other things to remember. Barth is a Calvinist, not an Arminian be it a very open-minded and moderate Calvinist. But he still shares that Calvinist suspicion of any idea of salvation or knowledge of God that requires an active human agent. Wesleyan theology speaks more to a partnership, or if you will active submission to God on the part of the believer, especially where sanctification is concerned.

    The other thing to remember is that even though we talk about the sides of quadrilateral as if they’re separate things they really aren’t when you get right down to it. All are in some way connected to the initial act of God. We’re given our reason and ability to think rationally not to lead us away from revelation, but toward it. The Holy Spirit is not there to invalidate the truth contained in scripture, but points us back to it. Tradition means the witness of the church both past and present, which is the witness of fellow believers past and present filled with the Holy Spirit. In this sense revelation is present and revealed in miracle of God’s agency in all four areas, but the most clear understanding we should presume is reached through bringing the sides together. Men who only read scripture only sometimes draw insane conclusions from it. People who likewise try to simply hear God only in meditation or private devotion come to strange conclusions. As you as student of Barth know men who look to science or logic alone to know God come to a dead end. While those who clean to tradition and church dogma without understanding or purpose that can only come from knowing God are lost.

  2. Sometimes you remind me of my grandmother. With only a fifth grade education, she seemed to have a direct line to God and a total understanding of his Word. Thank you, Jason.

  3. George Plasterer April 14, 2016 at 10:20 PM

    I read Church Dogmatics, the whole thing, when I was in Crawfordsville, IN, and had the pleasure of discussing it with Bill Placher, an author you can look up on Amazon. Now, I am going through Church Dogmatics with a young clergy colleague. It is always a treat. The problem Barth would have with the quadrilateral is that there is no other source of knowledge of God except in Christ, the Word. The Bible is the only access to what God was like in Christ. I think he would be horrified at the idea that experience has anything to do with true knowledge of God. To turn it around, of course we use our reason, we use tradition, and we value experience, but they are not sources of knowledge about God. They add nothing to our knowledge of God. The quadrilateral, as I have heard some clergy suggest, opens the door for new revelation in culture or in personal experience. Barth would recoil in horror.

    • It would depend on Barth’s pneumatology. When Wesley and Outler speak of experience they don’t mean any experience, but rather experience of the Holy Spirit within us, which they also hold is always in tune with the truth contained in scripture. I think Barth would have serious problems with the Quadrilateral as it has become misunderstood for sure. As to whether he has problems with using the lens of tradition (past and present witness of the church), reason (cognitive faculties), and experience (connection with the living God through the Holy Spirit) in reading scripture I can not say. In many respects this entire exercise is using answers Barth gave to address questions he never asked.

  4. One of the things that bother me is the span of time when God did not reveal 3.5 m years old and counting, universe untold billions. Lots of people wandering around for a long time.inventing their own gods over powers they could not control.where was God. But during the wink of tome we got the 10 commandments telling us to not worship false gods..why did he wait so long.Lots of human sacrifice durtng the interim lots of state,regional , local and personal Gods .why didn’t he revel himself early to get people on thr right track? Just sayin.

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