Maybe I just don't get it.
It really could be that I don't get it.
But I just can't see how the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is particularly useful for resolving theological questions. I can't see, moreover, why we hold on to this concept as Wesleyans. Bear with me in a bit of foolishness.
It is fairly well known that Wesley never articulated the Quadrilateral. Rather, the Quadrilateral is a construct based upon Albert Outler’s historical exegesis of Wesley. John Wesley was an Anglican, and Anglicans of the eighteenth century, while distinct from Roman Catholics, were not entirely like Continental Protestants, either. Remember, unlike other forms of Protestantism, the Anglican Church did not separate itself from the Roman Catholic Church over theological matters, but over matters of authority within the Church. Richard Hooker, an Anglican “divine” (theologian) of the sixteenth century, was instrumental in marking out the specifically Anglican way of theological reflection. Hooker was dissatisfied with the Protestant notion of sola Scriptura, according to which Scripture alone was the source and norm of theological reflection. He claimed that there were two ways in which the Holy Spirit led human beings into truth: (1) through divine revelation, which comprised Scripture and tradition, and (2) through reason. This Anglican approach to theology using a triad of resources (Scripture, tradition, reason) represented a “middle way” between Roman Catholicism and Continental Protestantism.
In Outler’s formulation, Wesley added to this trilateral the element of experience, which in this context refers to the believer's assurance of salvation. (By the way, I highly recommend Kevin Watson's recent post on the meaning of "experience" in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.) With the addition of experience, we arrive at the Quadrilateral.
Did Wesley actually do this? Maybe. He doesn’t talk about doing this. But it's important to keep in mind that the Anglican reliance on Scripture, tradition, and reason was a way of maintaining continuity with the major historic doctrines of the faith because sola Scriptura was thought inadequate for doing so.
One formulation of the Quadrilateral made its way into the Discipline during the 1972 General Conference, four years after the formation of the United Methodist Church. However, until 1988 the formulation of the Quadrilateral in the Discipline bore little resemblance to the Anglican tradition that began with Hooker and was modified in Wesley’s corpus of writings. Consider this statement from the 1984 Discipline (which echoes the language from '72):
Since our “present existing and established standards of doctrine” cited in the first two Restrictive Rules of the Constitution of The United Methodist Church are not to be construed literally and juridically, then by what methods can our doctrinal reflection and construction be most fruitful and fulfilling? The answer comes in terms of our free inquiry within Christian theology: Scripture, tradition, experience, reason. These four are interdependent; none can be defined unambiguously. They allow for, indeed they positively encourage, variety in United Methodist theologizing. Jointly, they have provided a broad and stable context for reflection and formulation. Interpreted with appropriate flexibility, self-discipline, and prayer, they may instruct us as we carry forward our never-ending tasks of theologizing in the United Methodist Church.
Every time I read this, I'm still flabbergasted by it. (I've been wanting to use the term "flabbergasted" in a post for some time. Thank you, '72 Discipline.) The reasons are too numerous to go into here. One problem, however, is that, while we have these four sources, there is no sense of how they are to be used. Heck, there's no clear sense even of what they are ("none can be defined unambiguously"), and we end up with a theological free-for-all, with no common doctrinal identity. Yet the Anglican triad that Hooker formulated came about as a means of expressing how Anglicans could maintain their doctrinal identity, given their separation from the Roman Catholic Church and their dissent from the Protestant concept of sola Scriptura. Further, unlike the tradition that Wesley inherited, there is no understanding of divine revelation embedded in this formulation of the Quadrilateral.
The language of the 2012 Discipline, which reflects the changes made by the 1988 General Conference, expresses much more accurately a notion that we could rightly call “Wesleyan”: “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.”
Scripture and tradition, then, ostensibly establish the parameters for Wesleyan belief. The faith that is expressed within these parameters is made real for us in our experience of the Holy Spirit (through assurance), and confirmed by reason. We have, then, much room for debate and discussion, while maintaining a doctrinal identity that is rooted in Scripture and illumined by the Church’s historic doctrines.
This sounds better, but it's still not enough. After all, there are a variety of ways to interpret Scripture, and even if we say that we interpret Scripture in light of tradition, tradition itself is such a broad category as to be of very little help. Wesley generally meant to refer to the "primitive church" of the first five centuries, and he was strongly influenced by the Book of Common Prayer. In other words, Wesley, like the Anglicans before him, assumed the Trinitarian, credal faith of the Church as he made use of Scripture, tradition, and reason.
The Quadrilateral has ostensibly provided a way for people to think for themselves, not to be governed by dogma. But in making this move, other dogmas have simply filled the void. These are the dogmas of moralistic therapeutic deism. Faith can lead you to do what is right, can bring you a reasonable level of happiness, and involves a God who doesn’t bother too much in the day to day goings on of our lives.
I've never known an argument to be resolved by appeal to the Quadrilateral. In fact, the Quadrilateral, in its current iteration, cannot serve as a tool to resolve theological and ethical debates because there is too much latitude in the ways in which its four components are understood. The only way the Quadrilateral can be useful is if it is deployed in a context in which the credal faith of the church is already assumed. At that point, we share a common set of theological assumptions and we are speaking a common theological language. Without assuming the church's historic, orthodox faith claims, the Quadrilateral will create far more confusion than it resolves.