The Quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason and experience

The springboard of the Reformation and the turning point of Luther’s life and of the Christian church was the jubilant discovery that “the Just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:16b quoted from Habakkuk 2:4). This doctrine is one of the five solas (“alones”) of the Reformation. Al Mohler, in his lecture “Sola Scriptura” (Sola13 Conference) discusses the relationship between scripture, tradition, experience and reason. “Luther said that we go to hell by tentative understanding of a tentative God about a tentative hell. The only way to heaven is to go to a real God that gives real salvation for a real heaven. It’s the therefores of Scripture that get us to the gospel. No therefore, no gospel. How do we get to the point of therefore? It is the Scripture. The Scripture does not give us a tentative understanding. It was the Church that discussed the tentative understanding of truth then. Today we have something similar. It’s called the Wesleyan quadrilateral. It’s a four sided figure that includes Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.”

Joey Cochrane’s abridged transcript of Mohler’s “Sola Scriptura” omits any mention of Mohler’s description, which Mohler gave in his lecture, of the Wesleyan “quadrilateral as a“perfectly square shape…equally-sided square” whose four side are experience, reason, tradition and scripture. Whether Cochrane omitted the “perfect square” bit because he thought it peripheral or because he understood that Mohler was misrepresenting Wesley, and didn’t want to, as I am doing here, show Mohler up, I don’t know. (I am awaiting a reply to my comment on Cochrane’s blog). This “squaring” of Wesley’s view – pivotal to Mohler’s critique of Wesley – does not square with the real meaning of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. I explain:

Mohler argues that the relationship between scripture, tradition, experience and reason is not symmetrical, where the four sides of the square are of equal length, which would make scripture of equal value to the other three sides. The implication is that each of these have “authority in your life” (Mohler). Tradition, for example, says Mohler, does play a role in the discussion; in our fallenness, “we are traditioned… We are the product of a cultural and intellectual tradition that brought us here… There’s a lot in tradition that we want to retrieve…Does reason – induction and deduction – belong in this discussion? Of course they do. God made us as rational creatures and the only way we can know anything… true or through reason.” And experience – “We are, says Mohler, experiential creatures… it is the dominant mode to many evangelicals… Experience is a pretty lousy test for truth.” For William James “truth happens to an idea,” so if the idea does not work, is not useful, it can’t be true. The nub of Mohler’s argument is that as a result of the Fall, reason, experience and tradition are finite, and therefore cannot be a reliable arbiter of truth. Only scripture is reliable in this regard: “only scripture rules” (Mohler). Scripture, God’s word in written form, is described by Luther as norma normans (“the rule that rules”), while reason, experience, tradition (e.g. creeds) are norma normata (“a rule that is ruled”).

In Hebrews 4:12 – 13 we read: 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” If scripture does not rule, we shall never “enter that rest,” as written in the preceding verse, which explains what “fore” (beginning of verse 12) is there for: 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For…

Mohler’s describes the Wesleyan quadrilateral as a “perfect square.” A quadrilateral ( four sides), however, is not restricted to a square (four equal sides). The quadrilateral can generate six different shapes.


Mohler’s depiction does not apply to Wesley. Here is the Ashbury Bible Commentary, which contradicts Al Mohler’s “symmetrical” (Mohler’s description of Wesley’s quadrilateral) understanding of Wesley. We read in the Ashbury Commentary, “In affirming sola scriptura… Wesley considered Scripture primary, but he recognized that other factors played complementary roles in matters of faith and practice. In particular, Wesley referred to tradition, reason, and experience as inextricably bound up with Scripture in our understanding of true Christianity.”So far, Mohler is on track. He veers off, though, with his “perfect square” description of Wesley. Perhaps the misunderstanding was inspired by his narrow defintion of “quadrilateral” as an “equally-sided” square. In truth, Mohler’s view, which is the Calvinist view, turns out similar to Wesley’s.

“In summary, continues the Ashbury commentary, Wesley affirmed the primary authority of Scripture while at the same time affirming the genuine—albeit secondary—religious authority of tradition, reason, and experience. He saw the four sources of religious authority as complementary and interdependent. As a shorthand reference to Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, some Wesley scholars refer to the ‘Wesleyan quadrilateral.’ Albert C. Outler coined the term “Wesleyan quadrilateral.” See “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral in John Wesley,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 20.1 (1985): 7-18. The term was not used by Wesley, and it should not be conceived as a geometric figure with equilateral sides and relations. Instead the quadrilateral should be conceived as a heuristic metaphor for studying the dynamic way in which Wesley understood the primacy of scriptural authority in concert with tradition, reason, and experience.” (Ashbury Bible Commentary).

Wesley’s quadrilateral would possibly look like this where the longest side represents scripture.

wesley's quadrilateral

I wonder how much Mohler’s superimposition of “square” on “quadrilateral” and how little his study of Wesley’s view of sola scriptura had to do with soiling a tad what in other respects was, as it usually is, an inspiring, original and informative presentation.
Finally, here is an alternate depiction of the relationship between scripture, tradition, reason and experience, which encapsulates what I suggest is a truer description of both Mohler’s and Wesley’s views of the relationship between scripture, tradition, reason and experience, which, as I have argued are one and the same. The upward arrows represent the Holy Spirit.

sola scriptura

I wonder what would happen if, on the way down, someone, say Pope Francis, detached one of the strings, tradition, and wrapped it round the chute, scripture. Luther, in his altercations with Rome, might have had much to say. What we know for sure is: splat.


Related: Reason, Experience, and God’s Truth: Where do I start?


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