“Quadrilateral” comes from the Latin quadri, meaning four and latus, meaning side. In geometry, the simplest form of a quadrilateral is a square or rectangle. Historically, it serves as a metaphor to describe a defensive military fortification.
The “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” — a term first coined by Methodist theologian Albert Outler — is a way to understand our four-sided approach to answering questions about Christian belief and practice. It provides a sound defense or foundation for what we believe. More specifically, it recognizes the primacy and authority of Scripture as understood through the light of tradition, reason and experience.
The Bible as found in the Old and New Testaments is the foundation and standard for what we believe and practice as Wesleyans. It is the written Word of God and “superior to all human authority.” Wesleyans join with all evangelical Protestants in affirming that we “believe neither more nor less than what is manifestly contained in, and provable by, the Holy Scriptures.” Our theology is grounded in sound biblical teaching. We embrace the best interpretive practices of exegesis to arrive at sound understanding.
Questions arise, however, over interpretation. Scripture alone rarely settles controverted points of doctrine or practice. When detailed exegesis among the best of biblical scholars fails to stem the tide of debate, we turn to tradition, reason and experience to clarify our understanding. They function as cooperative partners in our interpretation of the Bible, not as judges. They are ancillary sources, not usurpers of Scripture’s primacy, helping us grasp God’s word with greater clarity.
As Wesleyans, we do not read the Scriptures in isolation from the larger Christian community but in alignment with it. The Bible is given to the church by God and is meant to be interpreted in the church. Tradition, which is how the church has historically interpreted Scripture, is crucial to our reading of it. We turn to Christian tradition to clarify and illuminate our work in biblical exegesis.
Tradition here is threefold. First, our Wesleyan beliefs are informed by historic Christian orthodoxy, most notably, the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian creeds, classical statements of Christian faith. We embrace, therefore, consensual doctrines of Christianity like the Trinity and the incarnate Son of God’s divine and human natures. Second, with evangelical Protestantism, our interpretation of Scripture is shaped by certain priorities: salvation by grace through faith and the necessity of genuine personal conversion. Third, with the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, we reflect a particular bias in doctrinal differences among Christian denominations and theological traditions. For example, we believe that every human being potentially can be saved; Christians can lose saving faith; and people can be freed in present life from the power and nature of sin.
Next, Wesleyans believe Scripture and tradition must be assisted by reason. While reason does not contribute any substance to our beliefs, it brings logical coherence. It empowers us to make sense of the Scriptural text and historical tradition. It arbitrates between contrary arguments and competing interpretations of Scripture. It helps in the identification of Christianity’s essential truths. It protects from careless and harmful teaching. Like John Wesley, we think reason “is a fundamental principle” and “that to renounce reason is to renounce” Christianity, because they “go hand in hand.”
Finally, as Wesleyans we also look to an experiential faith. If Scriptural teaching is true, affirmed by tradition and aligned with reason, then it should vivify our personal experience. John Wesley believed that we cannot have reasonable assurance of truth unless we have experienced it personally. William J. Abraham states, “Without a deep encounter with the living God wherein we become aware of the things of the Spirit through the witness of the divine Spirit, we are in darkness and death.” Wesleyans believe there is an experiential dimension in human knowing. What Scripture teaches, tradition affirms and reason supports, must be experienced in Christian community and lives. Without authentic experience, we never move beyond the faith of the devils. Christian truth leads to a living orthodoxy.
Unfortunately, at times, the term “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” can give the false impression that its four sides are equal in determining what we believe as Wesleyans or that they can be aligned against each other. However, when rightly used, it is the “unilateral rule of Scripture within a trilateral hermeneutic of reason, tradition, and experience,” providing a sure foundation for our Wesleyan beliefs and practice.
Rev. Dr. Christopher T. Bounds is professor of theology and dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University.
 John Wesley, “The Character of a Methodist,” in The Works of John Wesley, ed. Thomas Jackson (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872; Reprint by Baker Book House, 1978), VIII: 340.
 John Wesley, “Letter to Dr. Rutherford,” 28 March 1768, The Letters of John Wesley, 8 vols., ed. John Telford (London: Epworth, 1931): 5:364.
 William J. Abraham, “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral in the American Methodist-Episcopal Tradition,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 20.1 (1985): 38.
 Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994) 46.