Why the Quadrilateral should be a Triangle

Jason Micheli —  April 26, 2016 — 9 Comments

Portrait Karl BarthReading Karl Barth is like chewing sunflower seeds. It’s salty and hard and it cuts you in little ways that hurt and linger for days. The past couple of weeks I’ve posted some critical reflections on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the doctrine which professes that Scripture, the Word of God, is illuminated to us by Tradition, Reason, and Human Experience. The church that first made me a Christian was Wesleyan, United Methodist. The theologian who made me a nominally interesting Christian, however, was not John Wesley but Karl Barth.

I’ve taken some shit for those previous posts from other Methodists wondering why I’m exalting Barth at Wesley’s expense. It’s true they make queer (don’t worry, I don’t mean gay!) theological bedfellows; in fact, Barth had Methodism particularly in mind when he brutally attacked the pietism of his day. Nonetheless, I think Barth is a helpful voice for Methodists in the 21st century as Barth’s eyewitness stand, in both World Wars, against the dangers of cultural Christianity makes him a prescient guide in post Christendom. What’s more, Wesley himself looked well outside of his own Enlightenment Anglican tradition. Those of us who just parrot Wesleyan theology and stay within our particular denominational stream are doing something very un-Wesleyan.

Still, if there’s a discontinuity between Barth and Wesley on anything it’s the fourth vantage point of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Experience. I hardly need to link to any stories about the issues presently dividing the larger church and point out how Experience is given a priority in negotiating those debates. Experience is often the primary perspective at odds with Scripture and Tradition. Beyond these debates, for many in our post-everything world our personal experience is the only authority to which we’ll submit. The primacy of Experience is undisputed in our world today and in Wesleyan theology it’s validity is unquestioned. Barth however would challenge us to consider whether our Quadrilateral should not instead be a Triangle, doubting that our personal experience is even an appropriate vantage point from which to receive revelation, the Word of God.

Barth takes a dim view of Experience in general, believing that the subjective turn to the individual’s experience of God obscures the objective, once-for-all, reality of Christ. We believe in Jesus Christ, Barth says over and again, not in our experience of Christ. Our experience is not salvation; salvation has been achieved through cross and resurrection quite apart from any experience we may have of it. It’s true- you’re saved, in other words, whether you ever believe it and experience it personally or not. This, I digress, is what allowed Barth to have such a hospitable and non-anxious presence towards unbelievers.

Barth does not share the sunny Wesleyan assessment of Experience, for it implies, more generally, that an encounter of God is somehow given in human nature, that we are, as creatures, wired to apprehend our Creator. For Barth, it’s true we’re predisposed to long for and apprehend the divine and, to him, nothing could be more idolatrous. Barth nods along to Fuerbach’s critique that most of our theology is only anthropology. Our ‘experience’ of God, Barth judges, is most often only an experience of ourselves projected onto god; therefore, the only true experience we can have of God is the experience God gives to us. Experience of God is received it is not self-derived.

And this is where it gets tricky for the Quadrilateral because, as scripture attests abundantly, the experience God gives us of God frequently contradicts our personal experience of the world.

Think Saul on the way to Damascus or Peter receiving a mystical Spirit-given dream that upends his religious categories.

Our experience in and of the world is not a reliable means of discerning and illumining revelation because revelation is most often received as an intrusion upon our world. Grace does not confirm our experience of the world; it disrupts our experience of the world, and because we’ve made a world that pretends Jesus is not King that grace is most often felt as a kind of violence to our world and our experience of it.

The Spirt seldom confirms our personal experience of the world; it instead convicts it and sometimes condemns it.

For Barth, any appeals to ‘the Spirit led me to…’ should be met with skepticism if they do not lead the led to tears.

Jason Micheli


9 responses to Why the Quadrilateral should be a Triangle

  1. I think you should say more about this. When we reference experience,
    are we talking about the church or are we talking about individuals? I was taught that the quadrilateral was beneficial corporately and individually in a UM colege and sponsored school of theology. Examining experience is, I believe, critical for all “local theologians in residence” in today’s experience immersed society. I don’t think either you or Barth are tossing experience out as it is not possible. I am happy with skepticism. I read your log after all.

  2. Did Karl Barth pray or did he just philosophize?

  3. Jason, here’s a United Methodist who agrees with you. Experience is just that, experience. I don’t believe it should ever stand alone or every trump Scripture and Tradition or the reason (“logic” that flows from them which is what I take Wesley to mean when he speaks of “reason.” Reason outside of Revelation can be as much a whore as Experience). Were Wesley alive today, I think he would concur with you. Anyone who was so anxious to see the affections (experience of the heart) shaped by the Means of Grace would be careful in encouraging any kind of absolute, detached authority to Experience. The famous quadrilateral is only really inferred from Wesley, not his own construct. I find him quite “confessional” and devoted to the BOCP including the Articles of Religion.

  4. It is evident I did’t proof my comment. The most agregious was, “I read your log.” It should have been “…read your blog.” The mistake was not intended. -Chip

  5. You certainly are an eclectic pastor-theologian sir!

    ”Grace does not confirm our experience of the world, it disrupts our experience of the world.”

    Taking that statement purely as written, it is still “experience” is it not?

    What would actually remain of scripture and tradition if every hint of the odious “experience” were eliminated? Would we really be any less fallible or “objective”? How would we know? Would we really be more human? Would Paul be permitted to speak of his “experience” on Damascus?

  6. ”It’s true – you’re saved, in other words, whether you believe it personally or not.”

    Man I love that. But what do even mean by “salvation” if it is completely and by definitionseparate from any experience of it as such? The experience of it as such would seem to complete it. I don’t mean moment to moment warm fuzzy’s or divine guidance about sock color etc. I mean, I’m miles from a “victorious Christian life” but I really hope that salvation doesn’t go right up to the line of “experience” but no further.

    From Thomas Merton:

    “The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity, and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.”

    I don’t see “experience” as something outside the scope of “salvation” in the end. It has nothing to do with “earning”, but to some degree it is a participation in the reality of things. At least I really hope it is.

  7. Experienced has to be measured by the Scriptures, not the other way around. The 3 legs all have to be meadured by Scripture. Tradition, Reason, and Experience are validated through Scripture, as Scripture itself is measured against Scripture. What is more this is s process all guided by the Holy Spirit. This is not a human paradigm, like a chemical formula. But a divinely guided working to lead one to divine truth.

  8. A thought: what is tradition except the enshrined experience of a dominant individual or group? I greatly appreciate this post, since all that’s needed to see the danger of individual experience as the lens through which we view God and his workings is a short session with “Christian TV.” At the same time, how many doctrinal positions are based on the same individual “revelation” or the effects of group think?

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