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  • Rev. Morgan Byars

How Have Methodists Read Scripture?

Happy New Year everyone! I hope that y’all have had a wonderful holiday season. As we enter this new year together I thought it would be as good a time as any to write about an oddly named piece of Methodist theology called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Why write about that? Well for one thing, Christians talk and write about the Bible a lot, and obviously I am no exception to that. That being said, people read the Bible in a wide variety of ways, so I think it would be helpful to take a step back and examine the interpretive techniques that Methodists have typically used when approaching Scripture. And when we really get down to it, that’s all that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is: a collection of principles that people have found helpful when reading and interpreting the Bible. First I’ll briefly recap all of the elements of the Quadrilateral and then examine each element in detail over the next 4 weeks.

“Ok,” you might be saying, “it’s a collection of principles with a weird name, but what exactly is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral?” Despite the name, John Wesley never actually used the term. That honor goes to Albert Outler, a Methodist theologian who first introduced the concept in 1964. He was a voracious Wesleyan scholar and, through the course of his studies, found 4 particular qualities that stood out as especially important for Wesley’s interpretation and exegesis (hence the word quadrilateral).[1] The 4 parts that Outler identified are scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. These four categories are not only helpful for understanding Wesley’s own theology but can also be immensely helpful in our reading of scripture. In my own experience, the Quadrilateral is particularly useful for bringing attention to things that we already do when reading scripture, things that many other Christians do without even really thinking about it. Many Christians already look to scripture, think critically about it with the use of reason, reflect on their own experiences, and immerse themselves in religious traditions. The strength of the Quadrilateral is the way in which it reminds us to examine those parts of ourselves that are already at work in a deeper way whenever we approach scripture. As the name implies, it is also helpful to see all of these things as cooperative, as pieces of a whole. No one element is sufficient on its own. I look forward to exploring each component with y'all in more detail over the next 4 weeks, highlighting what each component brings to the table and how they interact with each other to provide us with a rich set of tools to understand scripture.

[1] I’ve always wondered why Outler decided to call it a quadrilateral. What kind of quadrilateral is it? A square? Rectangle? Rhombus? These are the questions that should keep us up at night.

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