Throughout my life, I have thought of the Wesleyan quadrilateral (a methodology for theological reflection, including scripture, tradition, reason, and experience) as the legs of a chair. Each leg needs to be the same length in order for the chair to sit without that annoying “wobble.” In my seminary education, I learned that it would probably be more accurate to envision the scriptural source of our Christian faith as the hub of a wheel. The other three elements of tradition, experience, and reason are the spokes out to the wheel. Although all of the elements of the wheel are needed to keep the wheel spinning, each of the three “spokes” needs to connect in some way to the “hub.” The Holy Scriptures should be at the hub of the wheel because they are the stories of humanity. They speak about our core virtues: love, kindness, honor, and liberation. They also speak about our core struggles: vanity, idolatry, and greed.
The Bible points to everything necessary for our salvation. Scripture is our primary encounter with Jesus Christ, and in many cases it is a foundational aspect of our faith journey. Before I could read, I had memorized the Zacchaeus story in My First Bible word for word thanks to my parent’s ritual of reading to me before going to bed. As a child in Sunday school I learned about the stories of Jesus and his encounters with his people. This formation shapes my encounter with the living Christ, who meets us in our everyday lives, and with the Holy Spirit, whom we encounter with every breath we take.
Our engagement with scripture is shaped by our tradition. The Book of Discipline sees tradition as the “passing on and receiving of the gospel among persons, regions, and generations [that] constitutes a dynamic element of Christian history.” The Christian faith is illuminated by tradition in the way that a Biblical illumination gives color and expression to the verses that are written. As an undergraduate student, it was the study of Christian history and tradition that gave me deeper appreciation of my own faith. The accounts of Scripture are only the first chapters of the story of Christianity. Listening to the voices of the past and celebrating the customs that were shaped by them is an enriching element of practicing faith. Religious movements without the wellsprings of tradition oftentimes fall into the trap of over-indulging the sentiments of the present. Though our faith teaches us to be forward looking, filled with hope and expectations for the coming of God’s Reign, it is well served by understanding and celebrating our own roots. The critical study of our tradition also imparts humility in the expression of our Christian faith. If we are able to be reflective and penitent in the observation of tradition, we will be good witnesses to the grace of God.
Experience vivifies the core of the Christian faith and according to the Book of Discipline is much akin to tradition in that it is our own “personal tradition.” I think the Book of Discipline states well: “Our experience interacts with Scripture. We read Scripture in light of the conditions and events that help shape who we are, and we interpret our experience in terms of Scripture.” As the truth of the Scriptures interacts with our experience of life, the core of the Christian faith becomes a “living faith.” In the community of believers, this element of Christian faith is shared and strengthened. We give testimony to the truth of Christian faith when we share our experience with others. By giving this testimony, our experience literally feeds and forms the experiences of others. My understanding of the Christian faith is not only built on my own experiences, but on the experiences of those with whom I have shared my life.
Though Christian faith is confirmed by reason, it is not exhausted by it. God gives us all our faculties to use in our faith quest. It delights me that our denomination affirms the use of reason to approach truth. The Book of Discipline states, “We seek nothing less than a total view of reality that is decisively informed by the promises and imperatives of the Christian gospel.” Though our faculties of rational thought are sometimes not enough to comprehend the depth of God’s love, we endeavor to shine the light of our minds onto the expanses of God’s nature. As Job was instructed to consider the expansiveness of God’s wonderful creation in response to his questioning of his suffering, God intends for us to search out God’s ways in the world around us. God’s grace is confirmed by reason if we approach a scientific engagement with the world with humility.
God is a living God. Therefore, our methods of approach toward God are manifold. Everywhere we turn, we are given an opportunity to know our loving God in a new way. Our church is wise to uplift diverse paths to the realization of Christian faith.