Through further study and reflection, this post has been replaced. An updated post can be found here
This is the essay I am turning in for my Theology of Wesley final exam. It is my account of what is called a “Neo-Wesleyan” view of the primacy of Scripture interpreted through the hermeneutical lenses of tradition, reason, and experience.
(Note: I think it’s a bit silly to call this “Neo-Wesleyan” considering it was discussed only 20 years after the creation of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral-again people, John Wesley DID NOT invent the concept of the Quadrilateral)
I do believe, “the rule of Scripture within the tri-lateral hermeneutic of tradition, reason, and experience,” is a viable way of theologizing for United Methodism. Further, I believe this is both an accurate portrayal of John Wesley’s theology and is the most viable way for the modern church to retain its theological integrity in the contemporary world. For the purposes of this essay I would like to articulate this stance by expounding what I believe about each of the four elements of interpretation in question, what the modern United Methodist Discipline says about them, and how I see them functioning as a working unit in the modern age.
Reason can be defined as the means by which efforts can be made to discern the revelation of God’s activity in the world. I believe reason is important in making the needed connections between revelation and experience, faith and science, grace and nature in an effort to construct a credible and communicable assessment. Often experience will happen that does not fully coordinate with past tradition. Reason is then a tool one can use to discern the discontinuity between the two. When used along with Scripture one hopes that a new reality is formed in light of such discernment. Wesley believed revelation could be above reason but never contrary to it. This is why reason is part of the via media of the Church of England. Reason, for Wesley, is not only a tool of interpretation but a piece of his context that enables him to understand faith. For this reason, reason is a very important interpretive tool for Wesley. In regards to Christian authority, however, reason cannot be used exclusively from Scripture.
Experience is a powerful tool in understanding life. Experience in continually in need of assessment both on a corporate and individual level. For the purposes of understanding the nature of Christian authority, experience can be defined as the tool that vivifies the truth of Scripture in a contemporary manner. The argument against experience as the primary norm of making Christian assessment is that experience is undoubtedly subjective from person to person. Wesley acknowledged that human experience could not truly capture the entire reality of God’s presence. If all truth were measured primarily by personal experience then relativism would rue the day because truth would become subjective depending on a person’s context and perspective. On the other hand, experience cannot be ruled out when understanding Christian truth. One of John Wesley’s greatest contributions is the idea that often, human experience can be just as reliable and vivid as any empirical senses. Experience is one of the major ways in which God continues to work in the present age. To rule experience out as a norm of interpretation would run the risk of relegating God’s activity to a past subject. Experience is a method by which God continues to move among us in the present age. Therefore, I believe experience is a powerful tool one can utilize in the endeavor of understanding Christian truth, just as long as it is used as a means of attempting to vivify the truth of Scripture along with the discernment of reason.
Christian tradition is a time-honored concept used in the making of Christian assessment. Past tradition is the reminder that the theological task of Christians does not happen in a vacuum. Christian assessment does not make the leap from the New Testament Church to the modern church as though nothing is to be learned from the saints of past. Therefore, tradition is an important tool one can use in the quest for making Christian assessments. The argument against using tradition as the primary means of making Christian assessment is that just as experience alone relegates God’s activity to that which is new, tradition alone relegates God’s activity to that which has already happened. This emphasis makes tradition similar to Christian confessions in that it is a means of understanding doctrine that discounts the fact of God’s continuing activity in the world. Further, there is no tradition that can claim the primacy of Scripture in regard to Christian authority. As Karl Barth asserts, “Holy Scripture and the Confessions (or tradition) do not stand on the same level.” Therefore, Christian authority incorporates tradition insofar as it helps to illumine the truth of Scripture interpreted in one’s experience and discerned by one’s reason.
Finally, I believe that Scripture is of primary importance in regard to Christian authority. One must remember that Scripture is never used alone. Interpretation always accompanies Scripture. It is in interpreting Scripture that one must use one of the secondary norms outlined previously. But, in the end, it is the truth of Scripture that is primary when attempting to make Christian assessment. If a question of Christian authority is what are we to think and say, one can turn to the words of Karl Barth when he says, “we have learned from Scripture where to draw this ‘what’ from.” Scripture is the source of all truth for Christians. I understand how bold the previous statement is. But I believe this is the unique offering of Christians to the world. Christians follow the truth of the Word of God found in Scripture. It is the secondary witness to God only behind the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ. All of Scripture then points to this revelation of God in Jesus and it stands as the primary source of Christian authority. This does not change the fact of the need for the aforementioned tools of interpretation. Scripture is interpreted through reason, tradition, and experience. But Scripture can also, and often does, serve as an interpretive tool for reason, tradition, and experience as well. Scripture then is both passive and active in its being. It is passive as a source of norms for Christian assessment and living. It is active as a means for measuring the validity of one’s reason, tradition, and personal experience. One must remember, however, these two characteristics are not easily separated.
I come from a context where the majority of Methodists uphold my view of Scripture as primary. It has been my experience, however, that this notion carries no weight if it is held simply because “it’s just how it is.” Inevitably human experience will run counter to scriptural evidence and present reason cannot adjudicate the difference and tradition will offer no precedence. But this is not a reason to diminish the primary role of Scripture as a source of Christian authority. Scripture must be a conversation between the text and the reader and not simply a reference book. It must be read with a sense of vocation and curiosity. But it cannot be read in an attempt to arm one’s self with “Bible bullets” for future use against those with whom we disagree. Scripture is an account of the character of the living God and of the incarnation of that God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It will not have an index of issues we can turn to for advice for all things. But it can direct us to the One who has acted toward us and on behalf of us. This is also the One who sustains and inspires us in times of confusion and doubt. Therefore, to assert that Scripture is the primary source of Christian authority within the hermeneutical lenses of tradition, experience, and reason, is not a limiting statement or a period denoting the finality of all Christian understanding. It is, rather, the small opening we are granted into the exciting and life-changing world of life with the Living God, revealed in Jesus, and accounted in but not limited to Scripture. This method is not the end of Christian understanding at all-it might just be its beginning.
 United Methodist Book of Discipline, 2008, ¶104
 Heitzenrater, Dick Wesley and the People Called Methodists p. 10
 United Methodist Book of Discipline, 2008 ¶104
 Heitzenrater, Dick Wesley and the People Called Methodists p. 318
 Barth, Karl Dogmatics in Outline (Harper Torchbooks: New York 1959) p. 13
 Ibid p. 12