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An Exercise in Wesleyan Thought

by David F. Watson

It’s a time of great flux in the United Methodist world. Two, three, or possibly even more denominations may emerge from the UMC in the next few years. As this takes place, various groups will ask, “How can we represent our Wesleyan heritage most faithfully?” This is a complex question. In part, our answers will have to do with how we think theologically.

The Controversial Quadrilateral

Some people have suggested that we entirely ditch the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. I’ve written before of the unfortunate consequences of the decision to include a very ill-conceived version of the Quadrilateral in the ’72 Discipline. The present irreconcilable differences in the UMC result in large part from the fact that we were not clear about our theological commitments from the outset. Yet there is truth in the claim that Wesley drew upon Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

Conservatives in particular are suspicious of the Quadrilateral, and with good reason. Some have insisted that instead we need a statement of biblical inerrancy. We should affirm, they argue, that the Bible cannot err in any single proposition–theological, scientific, historical, geographical, etc. They believe such would assure more fully that we remain a faithful church. Here I must respectfully disagree.

We stand within a rich theological heritage that has given us resources for thinking through theological questions, including the nature and function of Scripture. The statements on Scripture in our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith provide helpful boundaries for our conception and use of Scripture.  If we as United Methodists have not taught or applied these, that is no fault of the doctrinal statements themselves.

Wesley was at times drawn to biblical inerrancy, but he did not always use Scripture in this way. (On this topic, see John Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture, by Scott J. Jones.). His reading of Scripture was subtle, deeply theological, and grounded in a notion of the inspiration of the entire canon. He read Scripture closely and understood that at times it could present contradictions or absurdities. He dealt with these problems with more and less success, but always with theological seriousness born of a deep desire to save souls.

Wesley was an Anglican, but in some ways an unusual one. Both sets of his grandparents were Dissenters. His mother, who trained him in the faith during the early part of his life, seems to have retained much more of her Puritan upbringing than did his father. Wesley was deeply formed by the Book of Common Prayer. Yet he was also shaped in some ways by more radical forms of continental Protestantism. His theological legacy is mostly Anglican, partly radical Protestant (see Howard Snyder’s The Radical Wesley), and partly Pietist. As his theological heirs, we have yet to sort out all of these strands in the life of the church. Doing so will require hard and ongoing work within our churches, far beyond the capacities of a blog post or even a book. In what follows, however, I’ll offer a few suggestions about how we might appropriate our theological heritage moving forward.

Our Anglican Roots

The primary context of early Methodism was the Anglican Church of the eighteenth century.  Like the Protestants of continental Europe, the Anglicans had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. The English Reformation, however, was rather a different animal than the movements led by Luther, Calvin, and more radical reformers.

The English church broke with Rome for reasons that were as much political as theological. Anglican theologians understood, however, that separation from Rome created significant theological problems. Among the most important of the Anglican thinkers was Richard Hooker, who helped to carve out a path between Roman Catholicism and English Puritanism. Hooker didn’t believe that sola Scriptura was sufficient for maintaining and conveying the orthodox faith of the Great Tradition. He believed that divine revelation came to us in two ways: (1) Scripture and (2) tradition (through the first five centuries), though Scripture was primary. Moreover, for Hooker it was imperative that we bear in mind the purpose of Scripture: to instruct us in the life of faith and lead us into salvation. In this sense he held Scripture to be utterly reliable.

Hooker saw that divine revelation always requires appropriation. Hence he argued for the place of reason in the Anglican theological method. Reason is the means by which we understand and appropriate divine revelation.

Wesley’s Adaptation

This Anglican approach to theology and doctrine affected Wesley profoundly. Nevertheless he seems to have thought about these resources somewhat differently than Hooker. Like Hooker, he held Scripture to be divine revelation, the purpose of which is to instruct us in the life of faith and lead us into salvation. Wesley seems to have departed, however, from Hooker’s understanding of tradition as divine revelation. Rather, tradition would be more accurately described for him as “sanctified reason.” (H/T to Billy Abraham on this point.) Tradition reflects the church’s Spirit-guided process of discernment. Wesley was suspicious of church tradition after Constantine, though he did draw upon later writers and conciliar decisions.

What about reason and experience? Like Hooker, Wesley believed that reason was necessary in order to appropriate Scripture and tradition. Yet he saw reason as a two-edged sword. Reason could both serve the faith and undercut it. Put differently, not all reason is sanctified. Experience was important for Wesley as well. His interactions with Pietists led him strongly to emphasize the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. That inner witness confirmed the message of salvation that was conveyed through Scripture and interpreted by tradition. It was to be tested against divine revelation. Experience was not in and of itself a source of religious knowledge apart from divine revelation.

Thinking Like Wesleyans

It may sound like I’m arguing for the preservation of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral moving forward. I am not, though I do think we need to understand what it means to think theologically as the heirs of Wesley. The Quadrilateral involves a commitment to Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. I suggest that it would be more authentically Wesleyan, however, to think in three categories, rather than four:


Scripture is divine revelation given to us to lead us into salvation. As United Methodists, we affirm the statements on Scripture in Articles V and VI of the Articles of Religion and Article IV of the Confession of Faith. Scripture is primary for us. It makes us wise unto salvation and is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.

Sanctified reason

God has guided the church into ecumenical consensus on crucial matters of faith and practice. The resulting traditions of the church can provide organizing principles for understanding Scripture. As individuals, we use our own powers of reason to think through matters of faith, but we also recognize our finitude and fallenness as reasoning creatures. Hence we reason in dialogue with divine revelation and the communion of saints.


God will confirm the message of salvation in the lives of believers by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. To the extent that we have experiences of God, these confirm that our own life has been taken into God’s life. It is imperative, moreover, to test all such experiences against Scripture as interpreted through the lens of tradition.

To be clear, I don’t recommend placing anything like this in a book of doctrines and disciplines. What I’ve suggested is neither a doctrine nor a discipline. I don’t suggest it as a way of constituting Wesleyan/Methodist or denominational identity. It’s simply a way of thinking theologically that is consistent with our tradition. Just as many evangelicals teach their congregants to think along the lines of sola Scriptura, and just as Roman Catholics teach theirs to reason in keeping with the church’s teaching office, so we Wesleyan/Methodist folks could teach those in our communities to engage theological questions along a pathway carved out by our forebears.

In Essentials Unity

Having suggested this way of thinking theologically, I want to be clear in affirming that there are certain theological claims to which we commit ourselves simply by virtue of being Wesleyan/Methodist Christians. We have the Articles of Religion. We have the Confession of Faith (in the UMC). There’s no point in having such statements–much less setting them up as doctrinal standards–if they do not describe our constitutive theological commitments. For example:

  • The Christian God is the Holy Trinity.

  • We are saved by grace through faith.

  • Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins.

  • The Bible is the true rule and guide for faith and practice.

By identifying such claims as doctrinal standards, we hold that they are foundational for our theological conversations. They may be assumed in our internal dialogues. One may assert, for example, that the Christian God is not the holy Trinity, but such a claim places one outside of the conversation among Wesleyan/Methodist Christians. It is a point to be debated elsewhere.

These claims, however, require deep engagement if we are even partially to understand and internalize them. For example, one might ask, What does it mean to say that the Christian God is the Holy Trinity? To address this question, we draw upon divine revelation and sanctified reason, and we internalize our learnings by the experience of salvation through this God. 

Then there are other questions that are less determined by our tradition: What doctrine of atonement should we affirm? What are human beings? In what ways does the Holy Spirit work in our life? Again, we may address these questions through divine revelation, sanctified reason, and experience. 

So there it is: a short thought experiment in Wesleyan thinking. No doubt it is imperfect, and I offer it as a prompt for dialogue among those who are concerned with such things. By the way, I ran this proposal by a number of UM professors and pastors as I was writing it. None of them entirely agreed with it–or each other. I was not surprised, as I live my life among academics. 🙂 Nevertheless, it’s clear that we have a lot of work to do in developing a distinctively Wesleyan approach to theological questions.

I’d love to hear what you think. In the meantime, if you’re interested in other pieces I’ve written on theological interpretation of Scripture, here are a few of them. Blessings!

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