Friday, October 14, 2005

33. Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Have you ever heard of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral? I hadn’t until recently, but it’s been mentioned to me a few times in the past few weeks. The Wikipedia defines the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as “a methodology for theological reflection” that John Wesley came up with in which four different sources are used to come to theological conclusions. The four sources are:

  1. Scripture (The Holy Bible)

  2. Tradition (the two millennia history of the church)

  3. Reason (rational thinking)

  4. Experience (one’s personal journey in Christ)

I kind of like this idea, especially given that I grew up going to churches where so much of what was preached was based on experience. I used to hear formulas preached based on what happened to one person. i.e.: “I prayed and asked God for an SUV, and I got an SUV… so if you pray and ask God for an SUV, you will get one too.” And if you prayed and asked God for an SUV and you didn’t get one, then you must have prayed wrong or something.

This, incidentally, is one of my main problems with a lot of what is preached in the ex-gay crowds. “I prayed, and sought God, and went to this particular ex-gay group, and now I’m straight, so if you do what I did then God will make you straight.” And if He doesn’t, then it’s somehow our fault.

But that is an aside; I actually wanted to talk about the Quadrilateral idea, specifically Tradition. How much weight can we give to Tradition? Tony Campolo, in a talk he and his wife gave on homosexuality, basically puts all his eggs in the tradition basket, because he knows that the Scriptures people use to say homosexual behavior is bad (or rather the interpretations of these Scriptures) can be challenged using reason, and that the experience of many people also challenges the interpretation of these Scriptures… but he still comes down on Side B (the conservative side) because of the tradition of the church.

I am not saying that we should throw away tradition… I think that would be a huge mistake. Traditions become tradition for a reason (and, by tradition I don’t just mean ritual or liturgy… there are traditions of belief as well), and the wisdom that has been passed down to us should not be tossed aside just because we see it as old fashioned, or out of touch. But, on the other hand, I don’t think we should just believe something because we’ve always believed it. That is just as much of a mistake. There are times when Reason and Experience will trump Tradition… and, dare I say it? There are times when they will even trump Scripture.

Now, let me be clear. By “trumping” Scripture, I mean trumping our interpretation of certain Scriptures. Before you start screaming ‘heretic!” at me, let me give an example. For centuries, tradition and Scripture told us that the sun revolved around the earth. (The main scriptural basis for this was the story where Joshua prayed and the sun stood still, there were others, in the Psalms and Ecclesiastes, but I don’t know the exact references off hand.) This may not seem like such a big deal to us now, but it was a huge deal back when Galileo was around. Just as many people now say that you can’t possibly be gay and Christian, people believed that you couldn’t possibly be a Christian and believe that the earth was not the center of the universe. They saw any attempt to say otherwise as threatening. One priest, Father Lazare said, "...his pretended discovery vitiates the whole Christian plan of salvation. It casts suspicion on the doctrine of the incarnation."

And he wasn’t the only one; other priests insisted that, "It upsets the whole basis of theology. If the Earth is a planet, and only one among several planets, it can not be that any such great things have been done specially for it as the Christian doctrine teaches. If there are other planets, since God makes nothing in vain, they must be inhabited; but how can their inhabitants be descended from Adam? How can they trace back their origin to Noah's ark? How can they have been redeemed by the Savior?"

Galileo was first asked merely to not teach, or defend his theories, but then he was forced to recant his scientific insight and to ‘out’ others who believed in his theories. He did everything the church told him to do, but he was put on house arrest for the rest of his life anyway– they even denied him medical care despite his age and ailing health. And, despite the fact that he had recanted, all of his books (even those that had nothing to do with his heliocentric theory) were banned.

And before us Protestants puff our chests out, it wasn’t only the Catholics. Protestant theologians like Melanchthon and Martin Luther had argued (using a lot of the same arguments) against the same theory when Copernicus came up with it, and proposed some rather harsh punishments as well.

Does any of this sound familiar? “If we allow the belief that the earth revolves around the sun, then suddenly we have to believe in aliens and we can’t believe in Jesus” sounds kind of like “If we allow gay marriage, then we undermine God’s design and people will start marrying goats.” (If you think I’m making that up, think again… I’ve actually heard stuff like this from otherwise reasonable people.)

Or, “Okay, Galileo, you can believe what you want, just don’t teach it,” sounds like “Okay, you can be gay, just don’t do anything gay.”

Or how about the fact that even though he followed all of the church’s instructions, he was condemned anyway? Doesn’t that sound like how we are told, “Go to ex-gay therapy, or just pray and believe, and God will eventually heal you. But if He doesn’t, just be celibate for your entire life. Don’t talk about your attractions, except to ‘confess’ them as ‘sin’. You must follow all of these instructions to the letter. But don’t expect us to let you work with our children, or be involved in any capacity in ministry because you are ‘intrinsically disordered’.” (Yes, I’m mad about that whole ‘ban on gay priests thing’… but it happens in Protestant churches too.)

Or how about the banning of all of his books because of his one ‘heretical belief’? Sounds like all of those boycotts that people participate in against any company that does anything even remotely pro-gay, whether they are otherwise good companies or not. (i.e.: “Don’t go to Disney movies, because they have ‘Gay Day’ at their park!")

This may not seem like a big deal to us, it actually seems silly, but it was huge back then… It was at the very least as divisive an issue, and seen to be as central an issue back then as homosexuality is now. Galileo was threatened with torture, and others had been burned at the stake for believing in other ‘heretical’ scientific beliefs. So, in actuality, it was probably a bigger deal than the gay issue is, because the worst we usually face is rejection… Most of us aren’t killed or tortured, even by the most fundamentalist Christians.

We now know that the earth does in fact move around the sun, and so we’ve taken a look at the verses that we thought said otherwise and have concluded that they must not mean what we thought they meant. Reason and experience (and by ‘experience’ I mean the reality of the situation) won out over tradition and even Scripture (again, though, it was merely our interpretation of these Scriptures).

I’m not necessarily saying that the same will happen now, with homosexuality… but I’m merely saying that it has happened before… we’ve been in this place before, and we’ve had to admit that we were wrong before. The church (as a whole) has basically said that the Experience (the reality of our lives) of the few of us who are gay is not relevant in our interpretation of Scripture. The church has said that Reason (the rising tide of proof that it is not a choice; whether it is biological or psychological, or a combination of both; it is not a choice – and in general it is not reversible; as well as the fact that there are other ways to look at those particular verses) is not relevant to our interpretation of Scripture.

I am still on the fence, and as I have said before, I tend to lean on the side of celibacy – not from any desire for it… in fact, it makes me downright miserable to think about it. I do believe in the authority of the Bible, but our interpretation of the Bible has always been influenced by our reason, experience and tradition – the whole earth and sun thing being a case in point. The Bible says one thing, we believe another, but we can accept that the two don’t conflict by saying that it is merely a ‘figure of speech’, or a ‘matter of perspective’ – basically, that it is up for interpretation. So, knowing that my experience is different from most Christians, but is also the experience of many others; and in keeping with my belief in the authority of Scripture, I am wondering if we are putting too much weight on the Tradition aspect of the Quadrilateral (i.e.: “The church has always said gay marriage is wrong, so it must be true”… which, by the way, isn’t necessarily true, I’m still reading Boswell’s book on gay marriage in medieval Europe), and pretty much ignoring Reason and Experience.

It’s a thought, anyway.


Leo said...

This is an absolutely excellent post! It's well thought out, well researched and makes some very good points. Good job!

CK said...

JJ, your posts are quite perceptive. The central issues in your struggle (and the church's) really have to do with when experience/reason are allowed to "trump" an interpretation.

There are certain elements of theology which people will hold less tightly--the Virgin birth, the resurrection, substitutionary atonement, etc. Others, like forms of church government, the timeline of the 'end times' and so on, people will be more willing to give on--because they are less central to the theological complex which is Christianity.

The sin of homosexuality, in some people's eyes, is central, because of the analogies Paul uses to describe what the church/Christ relationship is like. Being gay doesn't allow that analogy to be in play (although being single or widowed somehow manages to?).

So, because of that central location, they are very unwilling to allow reason/experience to touch those interpretations. I think of it as (and this is not my image, but borrowed from a philosopher named Quine) a holistic, cloud-like sructure where the statements/facts on the outside interact with reality. Those statements are easily adjusted as they rub up against new discoveries. They'll influence the center, but minimally (it's like a series of links, each statement linked to each other, in multiple ways). The stuff in the center is, for religious systems, "direct revelation"--and while they'll want to say that all of the system is based on revelation, and therefore true, there is room for give (as you rightly note with Galileo).

My problem with this structure is that there is a decision made about what gets to be central...the revelation, since it is in the form of story, analogy, prophesy, proposition, etc., cannot entirely shape that... the church does.

The history of heresies in the early church shows that well--the conflict was more over the place of certain statements in the system, rather than whether the system ought to be based on revelation.

That's part of why I'm not a Christian. But, if you're going to be a Christian, I think that recognizing the extent to which power struggles have informed theology is important.

Check out "Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family" by Rosemary Raeford Ruether for some instructive examples...

Ash said...

Great post, JJ. Lots of great points you make. I tend to lean toward celibacy as well, but I cannot ignore the way Christians look at homosexuality and the hypocrisy they exhibit. I cannot ignore my own desires and the bitterness I feel because I'm in a situation where I agree with some of the negative things my Christian friends say about gays, and yet am one myself.

I often wish I could just come out with everything, just to see what would happen. To see the extent of my friends' professed faith and how far they are willing to love someone different.

Anonymous said...

Ash, the hypocrisy of Christians is irrelevant.

Christ said "follow me".

CK said...

The hypocrisy of Christians goes to empirical evidence of the reality of the Holy Spirit's work, who is supposed to apply the Word of God to the heart.

If hypocrisy aligns itself with the cultural biases, then there's evidence that the HS may be less influencing the church than the culture around. Which goes to whether interpretation (also, in many traditions, part of the HS' work) is not also influenced by tradition.

You can't follow someone without first understanding their words, unless they're standing in front of you... which Jesus Christ most certainly is not.

marauder said...

See, posts like this are one of the reasons I keep coming back to your blog. Utterly fascinating and thought-provoking.

I suppose the chief weakness of your comparison (geocentric universe, vs. homosexuality-as-immorality) is that it's easy to look at stuff like the sun standing still as a poetic device, much as we refer to the sun rising even though we know the earth is actually falling. The biblical proscriptions of homosexual relationships are pretty baldly stated, though.

The thing that has always puzzled me about those proscriptions, though, is that I can't really find a clear reason for them. With the rest of the Torah, there's either clear moral or symbolic basis for the commandments as they're given, or one that becomes apparent with some thought and study. I've yet to hear anyone explain exactly *why* homosexuality is supposed to be so horrid, without resorting to comments like "disgusting" or "makes me sick," which can easily apply to many accepted practices, behaviors and institutions in society.

And of course that reaction is one I find mortally offensive in itself. It's as though Christ's love is a commodity that we can choose invest in people we like and approve of, and withhold from those we don't. There's what, five verses in the entire Bible that mention homosexuality? There are thousands of others that indict me, and they all relate directly to the fundamental nature of the gospel and the character of Christ. I don't see how homosexuality even comes close to the core. It's about as important an issue as the dunk-or-sprinkle debate.

JJ said...


This may make me sound incredibly stupid but at first when you mentioned the 'dunk or sprinkle' debate I was thinking "donuts?"

Of course, it is 6:47 in the morning, so I have an excuse!

As far as the statement that "The biblical proscriptions of homosexual relationships are pretty baldly stated, though.", the more I read about it, the less inclined I am to think that the statements are so 'bald'. "Homosexual" is a 100 year old word, and there is no equivilant in Greek or Hebrew. And as far as things that are plainly stated, we happily and without guilt, ignore so many of them -- most of Leviticus, for example (except, apparantly, for 18:22), and Paul's outline for how women should behave in church...

I have a book on my list that addresses this issue, but as you may have noticed, I've slowed down in my reading somewhat. I got a bit overwhelmed by it all.

The one other thing I wanted to mention for ages, but I just haven't gotten around to it is that the verses that are about homosexuality are actually not about homosexuality at all. With the exception of the Leviticus verses, every mention of homosexuality (or rather, mention of something that has been taken to mean homosexuality but may not actually mean that after all) is actually made in passing. It is not the actual focus or point of any of those passages.

Anyway, I have to go get ready for work. Thanks for stopping by. :-)

risen_soul said...

First let me say that though I believe that the Bible is very clear about homosexuality being a sin, I do not personally hate or even dislike people who are homosexual. A friend of mine who is also a conservative Christian has a dad who is gay and has a partner. I like those guys a lot, great people!

However I have a genuine concern for them and anyone who is a homosexual, because I do believe it's a sin. I certainly believe that a person can be a Christian and struggle with the sin of homosexuality, in the same way a person can be a Christian and struggle with alcoholism. But I also believe that every Christian has the Holy Spirit (Ephesian 1:13-14) and the Holy Spirit convicts people of their sin (John 16:7-11) both believers who are being sanctified and unbelievers who God is calling to faith in Him. Therefore as with any sin, if you are a believer the Holy Spirit will convict you of it and you will be very miserable until you repent and submit to God's word. It doesn't mean you cannot struggle with it, but you are resolved that it is sin and you are going to strive to get it out of your life. No one said it's easy, but Christ will bring you through it.

It has to be a conviction of your own that homosexuality is sin before you can really repent and begin to ask Christ to help you defeat it.

I don't personally know the greek and hebrew, however the senior pastor I work under does. There are a lot of words that we have had to fit into our weak english vocabulary from the more complex languages of greek and hebrew. But one passage that I would look to that doesn't use the word "Homosexual" but clearly speaks to the issue and calls it sin is found in Romans. Romans 1:18-32 is where Paul talks about the effects of sin, or tha fall if you will. He goes on to list numerous things that the entering of sin into the world caused. Anything from murder to gossip, and yes the principle of "homosexuality" though the word itself isn't used.

Romans 1:26-27 (English Standard Version)

26"For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error."

My honest heart is for those in the homosexual lifestyle to find Christ and leave it as with anyother kind of sin that billions of people around the world are in. And for those who may have trusted in Christ but struggle with this or any other sin to be convicted and strive towards Christ.

This is certainly not a hate message, but a message of love and hope.

God bless!

In Christ -Jacob

JJ said...

Welcome, Jacob,

I sense, from the tone of this message, the kindness of your heart, and your desire not to be seen as condemning... so know that I didn't read this message that way. Honestly, you didn't say anything I haven't heard before, and you said it in a much nicer way than some people have.

And this is not an attempt to 'prove you wrong', but just to let you know that this is still not as black and white as people seem to think it is. The Romans passage, in the way I've read it (and I've read it many times) is still not about homosexuality, it's about idolatry. And there is a school of thought that thinks that because of the context, what Paul is talking about is not homosexuality (people who are innately gay), but about the practie of temple prostitution (which involved some homosexual acts). There are also some who think that Paul is specifically talking about people who 'experiment' outside of their orientation... going against their own 'natural relations'.

Just some more food for thought.

sw said...

hi jj =)
this is sw from kairosfellowship blog
i thought i drop a hi and say a thank you for your 33rd post!
and the link to essays that are easier to read
i haven't read it yet >.< but i definitely will =)
take care~

sowing_and_reaping said...

This is an excellent post, and as a committed gay Christian and a convinced Wesleyan, I appreciate your well thought out expression of the quadrilateral and how it can be responsibly used by LGBT Christians. Blessings in your walk with the Lord.