We’re only yet into Eastertide, the season where for 50 days Christians remind ourselves that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead once for all, is, despite the Church’s best efforts to render him otherwise, a Living Lord.
There’s no better time than the season of resurrection to wonder if the Wesleyan Quadrilateral can bear the weight of our Easter God.
For those of you who have not had to pledge allegiance to it for Methodist ordination exams, the Quadrilateral describes how Wesleyans conceive of the doctrine of revelation. Calling it the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is an anachronism but we can attribute it to him honorifically for Wesley did practice the methods of the Quadrilateral in his preaching and teaching. It’s popular to analogize the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to a three-legged bar stool, an ironic analogy for a people who once foisted tee-totaling upon America.
Imagine Scripture as the seat of the stool, on which we/the church/the world (it’s never clear) rests. The three legs of the stool, which equally support and balance it, are Tradition, Reason, and Experience. In other words, we Wesleyans deploy the creedal tradition, our mental faculties, and our experience of the world to illumine the bible.
It’s common today to praise our particular Wesleyan approach to scripture as a perspective perfectly suited for the contemporary world; in that, it avoids the dangers of fundamentalism on the one hand and an unmoored mysticism about the bible on the other.
Having recently dipped back in to Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I cut my teeth, I’ve wondered what sort of theological Kung Fu Barth might wreak upon the Quadrilateral.
The tendency in United Methodism to remodel the stool so that Scripture becomes no longer the base but a fourth leg equivalent to Tradition, Reason, and Experience, underscores, I think, a latent deficiency in how the Wesleyan Quadrilateral treats scripture and, more importantly, the Living God who freely chooses to speak through it.
I expect Barth, whose massive Church Dogmatics are best understood as a theology of revelation, would object to our Wesleyan Quadrilateral on that specific ground. We Methodists, reared on Enlightenment liberalism, approach scripture not unlike archaeologists armed without excavation tools, Reason, Tradition and personal Experience, in order to extract some meaning or truth from the text. Such a posture, Barth would argue, unavoidably conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense. We ask with Experience, Tradition, and Reason what the biblical text meant in its original context, what God said, and it’s up to us, using those same tools, to infer an application for today.
Contrary to the Quadrilateral, Barth insists that scripture is not a sourcebook but is a living witness. It’s not an inanimate object but is the means through which Christ elects to speak. Scripture is not the word of God, bound in the past; scripture is the medium by which Jesus Christ, the Word of God, reveals himself. John Wesley was an Enlightenment era priest so it’s not surprising perhaps that the Quadrilateral attributed to him reflects the modernist tendency to begin with ourselves instead of God. If he was feeling punchy, I imagine Barth might imply that we Wesleyans with our Quadrilateral actually betray docetic tendencies with scripture. It only ‘seems’ like revelation but isn’t really to us for it requires us to yield any word.
Against us, Barth proclaims again and again that Jesus Christ, as the Risen Living Lord, is the agent of revelation NOT the object of revelation. The Risen Christ is the Revealer not what is revealed. And, I wouldn’t have admitted this when I applied for ordination, I think this is the view of revelation the contemporary world- or, at least the mainline church- needs today.
For Barth, Jesus is not only a Living Lord but he’s free. Our knowledge of God, our faith in God, is in God’s hands not ours.
Our Tradition, Reason, and Experience will deliver us nothing of God unless God so elects.
The word of God, for Barth, isn’t waiting in the pages of scripture, dead and dormant, waiting to be sought. You can only seek a god who is dead. The Living God seeks after us.
The Word of God, Jesus Christ, is alive and discovering us. Truth isn’t just sitting there in the pages of scripture waiting to mined by our lights; Truth is a resurrected person moving outside of scripture, encountering us, calling us, transforming us.