Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Wesleyanism

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May 17, 2011 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Wesleyanism

Introduction

The second theological tradition we will look at is Wesleyanism. Of course, as with Calvinism or any other theological tradition, we must take care not to oversimplify the complexities present in a tradition that is now nearly three centuries old and practiced by diverse groups in diverse times and places. I will aim for aspects of Wesleyanism that, I trust, are commonly accepted even if disagreements exist over specifics or how theory should be put into practice.

Thus far I have been writing about Calvinism out of my own familiarity with that tradition, but I have also been an admiring observer of how Wesleyanism approaches the subject of how one gains theological knowledge, which is at the end of the day the topic before us throughout this series. Although the interpretation of Scripture is a central issue in the evolution/Christianity discussion, what is in view ultimately is what we feel we have the right to say about God himself and how he acts in the world. That question has obvious hermeneutical roots, for Scripture is always a core part of that conversation, but it does not remain on the level of biblical interpretation. It is a theological/synthetic question.

In this respect, I feel that the Wesleyan tradition broadens our discussion beyond Calvinism’s focus. In saying so I do not mean to pit one tradition against the other. I have been very clear throughout that I am interested in no such facile debate. I also hope I have made it clear that Calvinism has in its “system” an approach to Scripture (incarnational) that invites the kinds of dialogue we are seeking here.

Rather than competition, I am hoping to draw out from both Calvinism and Wesleyanism something of value for the general topic that occupies our readers and is the very reason for BioLogos’s existence.

With that in mind, whereas a core element of the Calvinist tradition is what I call an incarnational approach to Scripture, the broader Wesleyan dimension that I would like to draw upon is, not surprisingly, the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral (so-called because the term did not originate with John or Charles Wesley but only in the last century).

The quadrilateral is a means of describing (rather than prescribing) how one arrives at theological knowledge. I have always found this dimension of Wesleyanism to be bristling with commonsense in that it recognizes the unavoidable interplay between four factors: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. (The Anglican tradition speaks of the first three only, but it is clear that Experience is subsumed under discussions of Tradition and Reason.)

As these posts progress, I will be looking at each of these quadrants individually in more details and how they interact, all with a view toward informing a more subtle interaction in the faith/science dialogue. At this point, however, I would like to draw out briefly two things that Wesleyanism offers to the conversation that is distinct from Calvinism.

First, a common criticism of Calvinism’s theological models (I am speaking of the conservative iterations we looked at in previous posts) is that they do not always lend themselves to a dialogical approach. A Wesleyan approach, at least in principle, recognizes that Scriptural interpretation is informed by the tradition we are a part of—which includes the Christian tradition as a whole, one’s spiritual experiences as a follower of Christ, and one’s reasoning faculties.

Calvinism, especially what was produced in the influential Old Princeton school, worked from a different principle, namely the commonsensical nature of biblical interpretation as a sure—almost objective—guide to the will of God. Scripture’s meaning is essentially clear and plain for all to see.

Now, right here we need to be very careful. Calvinists are not oblivious to how the setting of the interpreters affects biblical interpretation, and Wesleyans are hardly suggesting that Scripture is an equal partner with the others three quadrants. Nevertheless, there is clearly a difference in emphasis between these two traditions, and built into Wesleyanism, if I may offer my opinion, is a more clear invitation to accept some diversity of opinions.

For example, for all of his generosity and sophistication in many areas, B. B. Warfield is noted for saying that the Calvinism is the “true religion of the world,” a “perfectly developed representative” of Christianity. Such a theological self-appraisal not only discourages dialogue among otherwise united believers, but it also loses sight of the very thing that the Wesleyan tradition seems to embrace: Scripture, although holding a place of primary importance, is never understood in a vacuum, insulated from the cultural context of the interpreter. Ironically, Calvinism’s deep appreciation for how the context of Scripture’s production affects how we understand it is not extended to include the context of the interpreter who is reading the text thousands of years later.

A second, and related, point is that the quadrilateral gives us theological language for explaining a rather obvious point that a hermeneutical “commonsensical” approach to Scripture has trouble accounting for: the fact of diachronic and synchronic diversity in the Christian church. Simply put, there have been—unquestionably—diverse interpretative and theological traditions throughout the history of the church (diachronic diversity) as well as at any one given time in the church globally considered (synchronic diversity).

The quadrilateral is prepared to accept—indeed, expect—such diversity not as an unfortunate accident to be corrected, but as a function of the Spirit’s work among diverse human experiences. Such diversity is more difficult to explain positively in Calvinism, or any tradition, that looks to Scripture as a plain guide to faith and practice, ideally unaffected by the circumstance of the interpreter. Instead, these traditions seek to minimize such diversity, even to the point of exposing alternate theological systems as in error and in need of correction (see footnote above).

The Wesleyan quadrilateral is well suited to engage in dialogical fashion the challenges that face any interpreter of Scripture living in particular times and places. Of course, this hardly solves interpretive problems, but it does provide a “culture of interpretation” that aims for much needed subtlety in the evolution/Christianity discussion.

In my next post, I will begin to look at each of these quadrants in turn, starting with Scripture.


Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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