The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a spatial metaphor for describing how to gain true theological knowledge. Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience—each has its own quadrant and the four are mutually dependent. As we begin here, it will be helpful to keep in mind that the Quadrilateral does not say how theological knowledge ought to be gained, but how in fact it is gained.
The first quadrant we will look at is Scripture. This is fitting, of course, because in Wesleyanism, Scripture has a primary place. The Protestant dictum sola Scriptura (“scripture alone”) is often misunderstood as suggesting that no other factor is involved in how we do theology. This misunderstanding proliferates particularly in American Fundamentalism, with its tendency toward literalism and rejection of insight gained through archaeology as well as a rejection of that gained through science.
On a more balanced front, however, it is widely recognized by the Protestant tradition in general, and very clearly in Wesleyanism in particular, that Scripture is never truly “alone.” In that respect, the Quadrilateral tries to articulate explicitly what is implicit in other traditions, i.e., Scripture’s primary function for the church rather than its “aloneness.”
The Quadrilateral is an Incarnational Hermeneutic
A way of clarifying the Quadrilateral is by comparing it to a different metaphor, one that is common among Evangelicals for describing Scripture’s function: a “Foundation.”
In one respect, the Foundation metaphor is somewhat compatible with the Quadrilateral. Foundations are primary but never alone. The foundation counts for little of that which will eventually come to comprise the building: the framing, dry walling, plumbing, wiring, furnishing, and the interior and exterior finish among many other things. The foundation is necessary to build the house, but without all these other components, all you ever have is a foundation.
In this respect, the Foundation metaphor acknowledges what the Quadrilateral aims for: Scripture has a primary role but it is of no value for gaining theological knowledge apart from the work of real, live, time and space human beings, living in particular contexts, asking particular questions.
Although many appeal to the Foundation metaphor, frequently it is used in a manner that fails to appreciate the interpretive dimension so well expressed in the Quadrilateral. We often hear statements such as, “Make sure your interpretations line up with what Scripture actually says.” I think all Christians will see the value of such a sentiment, but what is missing is a commonsensical acknowledgment that “what Scripture actually says” cannot be lifted high above the human drama, free of the perceptions of its readers. Scripture is always being interpreted.
The value of the Quadrilateral over the Foundational metaphor is the clearer acknowledgment that Scripture is always and forever being interpreted by its readers. It is not just “out there” ready to be accessed independent of our human limitations. Rather it is through those very limitations that the primary word of God is accessed.
We find here an interesting intersection between a Calvinist Incarnational model of Scripture and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The Incarnational model of Calvinism finds expression in a Wesleyan hermeneutic (interpretation). In Wesleyanism, “incarnational” does not only describe the nature of Scripture itself (as it does in Calvinism)--reflecting, by God’s will, the limitations of its time and place. In a Wesleyan approach, the act of interpretation participates in those very same limits. Hermeneutics itself is incarnational, which the Quadrilateral draws out beautifully.
As with the Incarnational model of Scripture in Calvinism, I feel it is imperative that we not come to the Incarnational model of hermeneutics begrudgingly. Rather, the incarnation, the central mystery of the Christian faith, is pervasive in Christian theology. Both Scripture itself (Calvinism) and its interpretation (the Quadrilateral) are incarnational, and so should be accepted with as much joy as one accepts Christ as the incarnate Son of God.
The paradox of the primacy of Scripture and its necessary participation in human limitation in the act of interpretation reflects the incarnational structure of the Christian faith. This paradox is nicely captured in Wesleyanism in ways that are not always done in Calvinism.
The Pyramid and the Net
Another spatial metaphor to describe the Scripture quadrant of the Quadrilateral is illustrated by comparing a pyramid and a net. I came across this metaphor years ago while reading an essay by British postmodern biblical scholar David J. A. Clines, “The Pyramid and the Net: The Postmodern Adventure in Biblical Studies.”1 Don’t let the title turn you off (as the term “postmodern” might for some). There are many points Clines makes in this essay, but I am only interested in his use of the special metaphor of a pyramid and a net, which may help draw out some of the potential of the Quadrilateral.
A net suggests interdependence between parts. The nodes of a net are mutually dependent, with no one node seen as “primary.” A net is flexible, relational, and decentered. To illustrate, Clines encourages his readers to think of how the internet works. There is no starting point and no foundation. Every point of the net is of equal importance and is one series of keystrokes away from multiple other nodes.
A pyramid is roughly equivalent to the Foundational metaphor mentioned above. (The five-sided nature of the pyramid is not relevant to the metaphor.) A pyramid is a structure that connotes hierarchy and inflexibility. Just as a pyramid is built from the ground up and each level rests upon the previous one, theological knowledge is gained by “building” upon the solid ground of Scripture.
When it comes to Scripture’s role in gaining theological knowledge, for many evangelicals the pyramid (or foundation) is the operative metaphor. Now, of course, all metaphors have limitations, but I think it is worthwhile to consider the value of thinking more in terms of a net—which I am suggesting is more what the Quadrilateral is after. Scripture mutually interacts with tradition, reason, and experience.
I readily acknowledge that the net/quadrilateral metaphor does not spatially address well the paradox of the primacy of Scripture, but for discussion purposes, that can be set aside. The shortcomings of the foundational/pyramid metaphor are more damaging, in my view, for that metaphor does not take into account effectively how, in fact, all Christians actually do procure theological knowledge—via the interrelationship of multiple factors, not the isolation of one “foundational” factor. The notion, as some insist, that one can interpret Scripture “plainly,” i.e., free of interpretive lenses, is not credible, and the Quadrilateral helps us see that.
Truth be told, both the Quadrilateral and Net models have to do some hard work in accounting for the paradox of Scripture’s primacy and its mutual interdependence with other factors. In my view, the Quadrilateral has a great advantage in allowing Scripture to constrain theological thought without limiting it prematurely. Such an approach is crucial for the profitable engagement of science and faith, particularly as it relates to evolution.
For some, a shift in theological thinking will be needed, for the Pyramid metaphor is commonly accepted implicitly. But that way of thinking is a barrier to the kind of deep and creative engagement that the evolution question requires, as will become clearer in our continued discussion of the remainder of the Quadrilateral in subsequent posts.
1. On the Way to the Postmodern Old Testament essays, 1967-1998, Vol. 1 (JSOTSup 292; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 138-57.