The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is one of the most important contributions of Methodism to theological thinking. Although John Wesley did not systemise it, it was attributed to his genius.
For centuries, Scripture was mainly interpreted through the eyes of tradition in the early Church. This kept the Church from making progress theologically, and affected thinkers and scientists like Galileo Galilei, who had to recant his view of the earth being a sphere lest severe punishment befell him.
During the Age of Enlightenment, there was the need to bring reason (including scientific discoveries) into theological thinking and this was a common practice during the time of the Reformation. The exaltation of reason became prevalent and it was fashionable for theologians to call themselves “men of reason and religion”. Some of Wesley’s writings were addressed to them.
The French Revolution began in the lifetime of John Wesley and a year after his death, the Cult of Reason was established to replace Christian faith. The Goddess of Reason was enthroned in the church and the worship of Reason was introduced during the Revolution. Some claim that this goddess still continues to wield her influence in many Christian circles.
Wesley held Scripture as foundation, and he also realised that reason and tradition alone were not sufficient for theological thinking. He saw the need to include experience, which was revolutionary. Instead of rejecting experiences when they could not be interpreted by accepted theology, Wesley acknowledged the need to wrestle with experience and perhaps come to a new understanding.
We read in Wesley’s journals of the many supernatural experiences and encounters, including laughter and trances, that took place when the Holy Spirit moved in his ministry. He knew the dangers of relying on experiences alone, but he recognised experiences as being important channels of God’s purposes and work in a person.
A Wesleyan scholar, Barrie W. Tabraham, writes that Wesley understood experience to be “an awareness of the will and purpose of God which addressed an individual’s whole personality”. In taking experience into consideration, Wesley was careful to link it with the other three authorities of Scripture, tradition, and reason.
As Methodists, we have the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to guide us when we are faced with new movements. Someone else having experiences that we do not understand does not mean that these experiences are not from God. Speaking in tongues, Philip being supernaturally transported to another location, angels appearing and opening prison doors were new experiences to the disciples. The New Testament was not yet put together at that point and so these experiences were “not scriptural” when they happened, but all these experiences were truly from God.
If a new experience cannot be found in Scripture, instead of rejecting it immediately we need to ask first if the experience is against the principles found in Scripture. If it is against Scripture, then reject it. Today we accept theological degrees although they are not found in Scripture because they are not against scriptural principles.
We must be careful not to reject a movement based on second-hand information and snippets of sermons or writings. True scholarship demands that we go to the primary sources to fully understand a person or a movement. We also need to recognise that there are extremes in any movement. For example, if one Methodist leader has committed a crime or has said something misleading, it does not mean that we reject the Methodist movement.
It is legitimate to be careful but there is a danger that we may miss out on a legitimate move of God when we “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. A preacher once said that “We trust more in the devil’s ability to deceive us than God’s ability to protect us!” If we are not yet ready to experience a movement, we need to at least keep an open mind and speak with those in the movement, to understand it better.
Bishop Dr Wee Boon Hup pointed out in his Message in the June 2016 issue of Methodist Message (P3) that “We [Methodists] were once outliers. Now we are mainstream.” Yes, there were many movements which were once frowned upon but are accepted as mainstream today. Hence, let us not be too quick to reject new movements like the New Apostolic Reformation as described by Dr Peter Wagner.
May the many supernatural experiences of Wesley and the early Methodists inspire us to know that God still moves today, and may the Wesleyan Quadrilateral guide us in our theological thinking!
The Rev Dr Jonathan Seet –
is Pastor-in-Charge of Paya Lebar Methodist Church.