Thursday, March 01, 2012

What I Learned From the Wesleyans/Methodists

This post is one in a series of posts about what I have learned from the different denominations and religions that have come into my life.  There may be more than one post per denomination.

The first post was  "I'm a Christian Mutt".  

This post explores one thing that I learned from the Wesleyans/Methodists.

At first I was just going to go through the denominations chronologically, but as I thought about it, I realized that one of the big things I learned from the Wesleyans/Methodists, and specifically learned from my time at Asbury Theological Seminary, has actually contributed to my understanding of what I've learned from all of the others.

One of the few classes (Read "Why I Quit Seminary" here) that I took was called "Method and Praxis in Theology".  In this class, I was introduced to John Wesley's theological method which has come to be called "The Wesleyan Quadrilateral" (for a detailed understanding, I will recommend the book I read in class:  The Wesleyan Quadrilateral by Don Thorsen).  For Wesley, there were four areas in which God is revealed to us:  Scripture, Tradition (Church), Reason, and Experience (it's a good thing there are only four; otherwise it might be like trying to remember the names of the seven dwarfs and always forgetting one).

Wesley on Scripture:  where theology begins
  • Wesley’s reading of the Bible centered around the idea of salvation. To him, this was the focal point, the purpose. To him it was the way in which God had recorded His plan of salvation, especially as it was revealed in Jesus.
  • In Wesley's sermon “Scriptural Christianity”, it is obvious to see that the “scripture” part of Wesley’s method is most definitely his base. Not only does he begin with two scripture references, but many, many more are scattered throughout his sermon. It was as if he wanted to read the entire Bible to his listeners but had to suffice with using only enough to fit into a sermon. In this sermon, there is a tone that evokes the feeling that Wesley is almost pleading with his listeners to truly understand what it means to live as a Christian. He discussed what it meant as a group and then as an individual–both were important scriptural pieces.
Wesley on Tradition/Church
  • Believed the Anglican Church to be the most Biblical, but also was ecumenical.  
  • If salvation was what he deemed the central importance in Christianity, then other issues were extraneous and able to be discussed.
  • If his fellow Christians were of another denomination, but had the same doctrines about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, then they were partners in the work of spreading the gospel.
Wesley on Reason
  • Scripture and Tradition were to be used in conjunction with Reason.  
  • Had a great confidence in the power of people to think logically as that is part of being created in the image of God
  • Believed that creation itself was logical evidence that there was a God
  • Reason works alongside faith in order to not have blind faith
Wesley on Experience
  • For Wesley, “the confirmatory power of experience...was essential to the true believer’s life” (Thorson 129).
  • He did not believe that experience would ever contradict scripture.

As I think about this Wesleyan Quadrilateral, I see how it encompasses things I have learned (reason), experiences I have had (experience) and scripture I have studied (scripture) through all of the denominations that I have been influenced by (Tradition/Church).  

To me, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral works quite well within the broader, worldwide body of Christ.  There are Christians who will probably more strongly identify with one of these than another, but that doesn't make any of them less important.  It reminds me of when Paul writes the following to the Romans:
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (Romans 12:4-5 )
Each of us individually is part of something so much bigger than ourselves, yet we too often get caught up in little things that, at the end of the day, may not really matter that much after all.  

As you consider how the Wesleyan Quadrilateral may already be present in your life, or how it may now be incorporated into your life, I will leave you with two other quotations to ponder that go along with looking at things from multiple angles:
“In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.”--This has been attributed to multiple people from Augustine to John Wesley so I have no idea who actually said it.  
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” --Philippians 2:3-4


K. Hernes said...

Thanks Kelly! I just had a conversation last weekend with my ELCA turned Methodist friends about these 4 "pillars". They were saying that the Holy Spirit's influence is considered in there which I think is so important. After all, Jesus left us with the Spirit, right? Did Wesley realize that everyone's experience with the Spirit is different, but wouldn't disagree with Scripture, that's why he was more ecumenical? As my friend Alan would say, The Methodist Church IS the church of Hillary Clinton AND George Bush!

Kelly said...

I am sure Wesley took the HS into account! According to Thorson's book: "Wesley believed that the truths of Scripture are (or will be eschatologically) confirmed in experience. Consequently we must respond to that which God has revealed historically through Scripture and at present through the work of the Holy Spirit." (page 130)

And, we see different types of experiences with God all throughout Scripture. Not everyone experiences the same things.

Only Moses experienced the burning bush (Exodus 3).

Hagar experienced God in the form of "the angel of the Lord" (Genesis 16),

Elijah experienced God in the silence (1 Kings 19).

Saul/Paul experienced Jesus in a bright light and a voice (Acts 8:3-5)

And on and on and on about individuals (and groups) experiences with God.