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Recent Posts on the United Methodist Quadrilateral

Since I just linked to some posts from a United Methodist blogger already this morning, I also want to draw attention to the recent controversy in the Methoblogosphere over the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This is a topic that comes up from time to time — and it has arisen again.

What ignited the current iteration of the controversy is this post from Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree: Reason and Experience: United Methodist Resources for Correcting Our Course. This essay has to do with the LBGT issues and the advocacy of same-sex marriage in the United Methodist Church. Ogletree appeals to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in his attempt to demonstrate that:

…marriage equality for LGBT persons within United Methodist practices... is fully congruent with the inclusive vision of the “Mission and Ministry” of The United Methodist Church (cf. Part III, Sec. VI of the Book of Discipline), though same-sex civil unions and marriages are currently prohibited by Disciplinary rules.


Ogletree recently presided at a same-sex marriage (his own’s son’s marriage). He writes:

...when my son, Thomas Rimbey Ogletree, asked me to preside over his wedding to Nicholas William Haddad, I was deeply honored.  There was no way that I could with integrity have declined his request, even though my action was designated as a “chargeable offense” by The United Methodist Discipline (cf. par. 2702).

He goes on to appeal to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a theological method that has allowed his to arrive at conclusions that support same-sex marriage.

I fully embrace the basic theological commitments that undergird the mission of The United Methodist Church.  Indeed, I had the honor to play a role in drafting the section on “Our Theological Task” (par. 104, Part II of the Discipline, “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task”).  Drawing upon John Wesley’s teachings, this section emphasizes the priority of biblical authority, and it underscores as well the indispensable roles of tradition, reason, and experience in informing our efforts to comprehend and appropriate the biblical witness.  These principles are clearly incompatible with attempts to settle complex theological and ethical issues by “proof texting,” i.e., the citation of carefully selected biblical texts that allegedly provide definitive resolutions of particular issues.  The self-conscious inclusion of tradition, reason, and experience in our critical engagements with biblical resources actually deepens our discernment of the profound, life-transforming promises of the gospel message.

He concludes:

Thus, I contend that same sex unions and marriages are fully compatible with Christian teachings, and that we have an obligation to incorporate these understandings into United Methodist practices, even though such efforts are presently in conflict with the church’s existing judicial standards.   For the sake of justice, therefore, I was obliged to commit an act of ecclesial disobedience, even though I now face judicial charges for acting in faithful devotion to our church’s inclusive vision.

United Methodist blogger John Meunier writes about the strange way that Ogletree seems to deploy the Wesleyan Quadrilateral here: Four corners offense. Is Ogletree using the category of Experience to simply trump the voice of Scripture?

Here we see all four parts of the Quad: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Sadly, though, despite his mention of the priority of the biblical witness, he provides no further biblical references in developing his argument. He warns of the hazards of proof-texting and then moves on to tradition. This is a curious way to make something a priority.

John goes on to say:

In the end, I was disappointed to discover that I did not get a lot of guidance on the proper use of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral from Ogletree’s argument. What I come away with is the impression that it is little more than a tool to help you dig up arguments that support positions you already hold, rather than a tool for serious theological inquiry.

I think John is giving voice to what a lot of us on the more traditionalist side feel about arguments like the one Ogletree uses: they are unsatisfying and unconvincing. They don’t provide us with a satisfying account of Scripture’s priority in the theological engagement with this issue. They don’t provide us with any new hermeneutic key that can become the basis of a new theological synthesis on sexuality issues. Yes, we can agree that proof-texting is not sufficient. But, what is the way forward? Using certain sources and norms of the Quadrilateral to trump the voice of Scripture seems to be an invalid way of using it.

Kevin Watson has responded with a post entitled: Experience in the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”. He points out that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is really (in its current form) an invention of Wesley scholar Albert Outler — a theological method that Outler believed John Wesley used without himself ever explicitly mentioning it. And, Kevin points out, as the Quadrilateral is defined in the United Methodist Discipline, Experience refers specifically to the experience of redemption in Christ — not human experience, more broadly understood.

When the quadrilateral is deployed as a means of theological reflection; however, experience is almost always defined far more broadly than this. In popular use of the quadrilateral, experience is usually understood as a kind of common sense. Experience is an authority for theological reflection (so the argument goes) because, if we are willing to pay attention, we can see the obvious things that are going on around us. Experience is also usually used to describe one’s encounters with the world around them, which often results in confirming the prevalent perspective of the current popular culture. Rarely, in popular discussions of the quadrilateral, is experience defined in the specific and more technical way that Wesley and Outler did.

Kevin goes on to say:

If Methodists are going to continuing citing the quadrilateral as their distinctive theological method, then we have a choice to make. We can return to an understanding of experience as it was defined by Outler in his creation of the quadrilateral. Or, we can knowingly reject the way that he defined experience as a legitimate source for Christian theology and use it in a way that he explicitly rejected. If we choose the latter, we ought to at least be honest that we are now using a method of theological reflection that neither John Wesley nor Albert Outler would have endorsed.

Morgan Guyton has replied to John and Kevin with a post that defends Expereince (in the broader sense) as a theological source and norm — regardless of what the UM Discipline says or what Albert Outler intended: In defense of the “so-called” Wesleyan quadrilateral and the experiential breath of God. He says:

...when we read the Bible, we bring our “experience” to it whether we acknowledge this officially or not. There is no way to evade our own unique socialization that causes us to privilege certain aspects of whatever scriptures we read over others.


It’s only the proclivities of modernity that make personal experience a bad thing to be transcended in an interpretive process because the illusive goal of modernity is “objectivity,” granting ourselves the magical omniscience of not having a particular vantage point. To deny the place of personal experience in interpretation does not concern the sovereignty of the text, but the sovereignty of the interpreter. We want to own God’s truth exhaustively in our mystery-free Bibles so that we can be the gatekeepers of His knowledge.


Now the primary aspect of this whole “experience” question for me has to do with my belief in the Holy Spirit, the pneuma in the theopneustos from 2 Timothy 3:16. I don’t believe that God only breathed into the writers of the Bible; I believe that the Spirit continues to breathe into us through our daily encounters, whether it is full-on charismatic prophetic revelation or peripheral glimpses and tastes of the kingdom. If you say that no meta-rational revelation in our life experience can be allowed to influence our reading of scripture, then what you’re really saying is that the Holy Spirit is trapped in the Bible like a genie inside a lamp. Furthermore, you’re saying that we don’t really have a personal relationship with a Christ who lives and speaks today, but only a relationship with a Holy Book through which we learn about a historical figure named Jesus.

I think that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (and, yes, historically speaking, it deserves the adjective “so-called” since it was never explicitly advocated or endorsed by John Wesley) has a kind of intuitive appeal to people. We instinctively know that more is going on in theological reflection than just taking Scripture and applying it directly to life. The sources and norms do seem to us like sources we use in theological reflection.

It was a compromise statement. In a Church deeply divided between theological liberal and theological conservatives — who are not, in fact, agreed about the content and message of the Christian faith — it represented, at the time it was proposed, a statement of theological method that both sides
could agree upon.

It is a theological method sufficiently elastic to cover a lot of people who would otherwise disagree about the content of the Christian faith or its moral implications.

As a result of this, the extensive theological guidelines and statements in the United Methodist
Discipline have been ignored in favor of a common theological method — upon which United Methodists allegedly do agree.

But, when someone appeals to the Quadrilateral in a way that is incompatible with the way someone else uses it, controversy over the Quadrilateral arises again.

But, it is just the old liberal vs. conservative divide raising its ugly head again. Gay and lesbian issues have the effect of splitting the UM Church pretty neatly along liberal / conservative lines.

I think Ogletree just meant to say:
Scripture is all well and good except where its wrong. That is sufficient for him. It’s not helpful (or even especially informative) for those of us who are seeking to pattern our lives after the message of Scripture in a more thorough-going way. We want to see the sources and norms work together in a way that mutually support and illuminate each other. Playing the sources and norms off against each other is not helpful.

But, anyway, the controversy is really the old liberal / conservative divide that has plagued the UMC from years and years — the Wesleyan Quadrilateral was only a concept that allowed us to ignore and difference and prevent we all worked from a common framework.

People can argue its interpretation endlessly — and they will — because, quite frankly, they are using it in different ways.

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