Wesley’s Quadrilateral

John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of the Methodist movement, may have been surprised to have a quadrilateral named after him, but the idea (articulated by Albert Outler) is helpful. Outler held that Wesley relied on four main sources when trying to understand God (i.e., doing theology):

  1. Scripture – the Bible, which Wesley held as the sole foundational source of knowledge about God;
  2. Tradition – inherited wisdom against which doctrine can be weighed;
  3. Reason – necessary for us to understand ourselves, and explain to others;
  4. Experience – where theology is lived and in some way validated as truth.

I think a version of this is helpful for thinking about how we learn in general:

  1. Experience – we learn by doing, we find out what works and what doesn’t. We learn from what we experience of the people around us. In a sense everything else is a subset of experience.
  2. Tradition – we inherit our environment, culture, technology, and ways of doing and thinking from the past. This deep accumulation and transfer of culture between generations is what makes humans unique, and we’re often unaware of how it shapes us. My feeling is that Western culture has a weakness here at the moment, but we need to see that understanding tradition (to the extent that it can be understood) is vital to understanding ourselves. There are two dangers here: our desire to cast tradition aside, which fails to recognise the the accretion of wisdom often contained within traditions (that is, traditions survive because they in some sense work – and we often don’t understand why); and danger in excessive deference to tradition, which stifles innovation. The goal is to modify and build on tradition, rather than to erase it.*
  3. Reason – we learn ways of thinking that allow us to make predictions and correct errors;
  4. Scripture – in this case, the written (and recorded) knowledge contained in our texts (books, video, etc).

Note that these are all mutually reinforcing: our experience is shaped by tradition, reason, and scripture, which are mutually influencing and illuminating.

A good approach to learning is to find ways to maximise all four of these – to push the boundaries of the quadrilateral in all four directions. Do more, understand the past more, read more, think more. The missing ingredient is something like drive, or will, or energy: a motivational force for all of the others, and something we should also seek to maximise. I think Wesley might have called this the Holy Spirit.

*I’m reminded of a line from a radio show (was it I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue?): “This is the round in which we’re renowned for casting tradition aside. Tonight, we cast tradition aside by not casting tradition aside.”

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...