Dr. Vic Reasoner
In the late 1960s Albert Outler coined the phrase “Wesleyan quadrilateral” as a paradigm for the four-fold guidelines of authority in Wesleyan theology. This phrase has been so widely misconstrued that Outler later expressed regret that he coined the term.
The phrase was intended to refer to the primacy of scriptural authority, complimented and corroborated by tradition, reason, and experience. However, if this is conceived geometrically the tendency would be to view all four as equal bases of authority. Instead of protesting the dual authority of Roman Catholicism, Wesleyanism is perceived as having four authorities!
If there is any value in illustrating the source of spiritual truth from the discipline of geometry, then the Word of God is the only source of spiritual axioms. Tradition, experience, and reason cannot be the basis or starting point for an adequate theology. They do not carry any weight of authority, but have value in clarifying our interpretation of Scripture and illustrating the axioms of Scripture.
An axiom is a given; an established principle which is received without further proof. John Wesley explained in an introduction to logic, “The principles ofDivine faith are those, and those only, which are contained in the Scriptures…. An axiom is a proposition which needs not, and cannot, be proved…. Absolute faith is due to the testimony of God.”
Contemporary Wesleyan theology tends to construct doctrine from multiple sources. For example, a Wesleyan theologian wrote, “The quadrilateral communicates simply and clearly that more than one source of religious authority is at work in the task of theology.”
Yet the Bible is the only infallible source of doctrine. We need an appreciation for the full inspiration of scripture, the absolute authority of scripture, and the sufficiency of scripture. We must preach the Book, the whole Book, and nothing but the Book!
Our publications frequently cite the writings of John Wesley. We respect John Wesley as a godly scholar who was generally accurate in his interpretation of the Scriptures, but our faith is based upon the Word of God.
We also quote Wesley to demonstrate that the modern holiness movement, which claims to be Wesleyan, is not. Our greatest concern, however, is that at many points the holiness movement, both conservatives and liberals, have departed from Scripture.
We are Bible Christians first and Wesleyans second.
The Bible and Tradition
Along with Wesley we have a deep respect for our Christian heritage. With Wesley we believe the Holy Spirit guided the early ecumenical councils. Yet those early statements of the Christian church were not judged to be true because of a majority vote. They were true because they were accurate summaries of a higher authority. Some council decisions actually contradict the decisions rendered by other councils. They are only true so long as they do reflect biblical teaching. Wesley wrote, “If by catholicprinciples you mean any other than scriptural, they weigh nothing with me: I allow no other rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scriptures.”
When Marcion first raised the question in the second century concerning which books were canonical, church councils did not arbitrarily make that decision. Instead they made a statement recognizing which books had already been received and used as God given. The church did not determine which books to include as scripture. While Liberals teach that the church produced the Scriptures, conservatives teach that the people of God are those who responded in faith to the Word of God.
An over-emphasis upon tradition will lead to legalism. According to Mark 7:1-13 it is possible to zealously uphold human traditions while at the same time setting aside the commands of God’s Word. As much as we may respect certain traditions, liturgical forms, or styles of dress, nothing is binding for the Christian except the authority of Scripture. Wesley taught, “Enjoin nothing that the Bible does not clearly enjoin. Forbid nothing that it does not clearly forbid.”
A holiness publication declared, “We all believe in repentance and restitution, in confession and forgiveness, in adoption and regeneration, in entire sanctification as a second definite work of Divine grace, in holy living, in the second coming of Christ. Is not this enough of a common ground? Does not this provide sufficient basis for fellowship?” Apparently it was not sufficient because two paragraphs later the same writer announces what will and will not be allowed to appear on their platform and concludes his list of requirements by saying these rules have “distinguished the convention from the beginning – and we expect them to be distinguishing marks forever.” Either their basis of fellowship is based on scriptural authority or it is based on tradition. Perhaps the inherit contradiction has been a contributing factor to the group’s demise.
The latest multi-volume Wesleyan theology is the three volume theology by Thomas Oden. It is an attempt to state Christian doctrine on the basis of a historical consensus. Oden has tremendous faith that the Holy Spirit is the conservator of orthodoxy within the church, but has little faith that the Holy Spirit could inspire an infallible Bible. Francis Schaeffer pointed out this weakness:
Since, however, [Oden] does not accept the full authority and inerrancy of the Bible he is still left with a serious problem – namely, upon what will he finally base his faith? Without the objective truth of the Bible as his foundation, Oden is still left without any way to appropriate with confidence the truth of the Scriptures, nor really to sort through the mixture of truth and error in the life and theology of the church through the centuries. Thus we can commend Oden for rediscovering the stream of historic orthodoxy, but we must say that his theology is still seriously deficient with regard to his understanding of the authority of the Bible.
The most recent statements of Wesleyan theology are uncertain regarding the authority of Scripture. It is assumed the Bible is the primary source of doctrine because the Church has declared it so to be. While we applaud the re-discovery of the early Church fathers, we anticipate a time when our leading theologians go beyond the fathers to the apostolic foundation and rediscover the power and authority of the Scriptures undefiled by higher criticism.
The Bible and Experience
We believe in heart-felt salvation, but we are not interested in seeking any experience the Scriptures do not command us to seek. We contend for the direct witness of the Holy Spirit, but we do so on the basis that it is promised in the New Testament. I have no authority to preach my experience and you are under no obligation to seek my experience. Contrary to the modern charismatic emphasis, Wesley counseled that if a person sought after anything other than more love, he was seeking amiss.
The original Wesleyan position was, “I don’t care what your experience is, if you are not walking according to God’s law you are in deception.” Colin Williams observed that “in Wesley experience is not the test of truth, but truth the test of experience.”
Pentecostalism puts experience above God’s Word. Someone wrote these words on the flyleaf of their Bible, “I don’t care what the Bible says, I’ve had an experience.” This is humanism; man setting himself up as God. It leads theologians to say that the Bible has mistakes in the area of reason, but it can provide a nonrational existential experience anyway. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “And if Christ has not raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” If the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not an objective historical fact in time and space, then your experience is meaningless.
The holiness movement got off track by claiming God led them to do things contrary to His Word. It adopted Pentecostalism minus the tongues. Our faith is not an irrational leap that demands we claim something in order to receive it. We are not required to say we believe before we have been given faith. A holiness missionary wrote about a convert seeking to “get sanctified.” “He is really struggling with faith. He can’t see how to believe before he believes. I am at the end of advice. I just tell him to claim the promises and keep reading the Word.” This advice is neither scriptural, Wesleyan, nor rational. We believe faith is the gift of God given to those who meet biblical conditions.
There can be a danger in reading the biographies of great Christians. A young preacher who had read John Hatfield’s book, Thirty-three Years a Live Wire, told Hatfield, “I tried to do some of the things you wrote about in your book, but they didn’t work out like that.” Hatfield replied, “I only wrote about the things that worked.”
Biographies can give a false impression. We are not all intended to be “live wires.” Our danger is that we seek their experience rather than to know God. I have known people who described wonderful experiences of God and yet never did much for the cause of God.
There are books which try to prove entire sanctification as a second work of grace by demonstrating that famous Christians have commonly received such experiences. We are to believe in entire sanctification because it is taught in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 (and elsewhere) and not because of a celebrity’s experience. While Wesley said he would revise his understanding of Christian perfection if experience contradicted it, he assumed that the Holy Spirit would not lead sincere people contrary to the Scripture.
The Roman Catholics claim healing through the Virgin Mary, Mormons have spoken in tongues, the Hindus have powerful experiences of Krishna, women used to faint under the influence of Father Divine, some have claimed to experience as many as six works of grace. How do we know who to believe? John Wesley wrote:
Try all things by the written word, and let all bow down before it. You are in danger of [fanaticism] every hour, if you depart ever so little from Scripture; yea, of from the plain, literal meaning of any text, taken in connection with the context.
Our experience must be based on Scripture. If we will not receive the message of Moses and the prophets, we will not be converted by the sensation or even the supernatural (Luke 24:32). Wesley wrote in his Journal of a conversation with a Mr. Simpson. While Wesley believed him to be sincere, he said Simpson “is led into a thousand mistakes by one wrong principle, the making inward impressions his rule of action, and not the written Word.”
The Bible and Reason
You do not check your brain at the door when you go to church. Wesley appealed to reason and common sense in his preaching. Yet we are not rationalistic. We are not saved by logical deduction. When we could not find God through our rational powers, God revealed Himself through His Word. We believe in God, not because He is the product of our rational processes, but because He has spoken to us through His Word.
Wesley once wrote the editor of the London Magazine to say that he was not longer sure of everything except “what God has revealed to man.”
American theologians such as Gordon H. Clark and B. B. Warfield seemed to believe that the power of reason is sufficient to argue a nonbeliever into faith. While we would not discount the value of apologetics, neither would we inflate its worth. We are not gnostics who are saved by what we know. Salvation is not the impartation of information, but grace. Men do not reject Christ because of what they don’t understand, but what they do understand. With Anselm we echo, “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand: for this I also believe, that unless I believe I will not understand.”
We object to the rationalism of Phoebe Palmer and her influence upon the American holiness movement. Palmer reduced sanctification to a syllogism. Put you all on the altar. Christ is the altar. The altar sanctifies the gift. Therefore the seeker is sanctified.
Faith teachers within the modern charismatic movement have adapted the “name it and claim it” error of Phoebe Palmer. She applied the logic to sanctification; they applied it to material prosperity. It all amounts to mental gymnastics and word games which leave the seeker disillusioned.
Kept within their subordinate role, tradition, experience, and reason illuminate and apply scriptural truth. However, we cannot build a theology upon any of them. We must grasp the priority and primacy of Scripture. We cannot have a dual authority or theological pluralism.
Unless we contend for the sufficiency of scripture we will eventually be proving our positions on the basis of tradition, which can lead to legalism; experience, which tends toward charismaticism; or reason, which leads to a gnostic rationalism.
What we need is a revival of Bible preaching and holy living.
“I cannot find anything in the Bible of the remission of sins past, present and to come.” John Wesley in The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained.