Discernment, Wesley-style

Sometimes you just need a simple, practical way to explore your choices.  For that, we turn to our Methodist friends.  18th century preacher and theologian John Wesley—founder of Methodism—believed we needed to take four factors into consideration when navigating choices in the Christian life:  scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

I like the visual nature of this process. It looks and feels stable.

While Wesley himself probably never referred to this as a process or even as a “quadrilateral” (which is what we call it today), his teachings lead us to use all of our faculties in discernment.  We are supposed to approach discernment with our head (reason) and heart (experience) as well as listening to scripture and tradition.

Here’s one way to use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in discernment:

  • Begin with a clear understanding of what it is you want clarity on.
  •  Spend time in prayer. Talk to God about this question. Ask God to be especially present to you as you consider the “points” of the quad.


  • Scripture – Consider your discernment question. What, if anything, does scripture have to say about it? Consider the theme of the question. Look the theme up in a concordance. Or consider biblical stories that may shed light on your question. What guidance does God’s word have for you in this matter?


  • Tradition ­­– What does the history of your strand of Christianity have to say about your question? What do your statements of faith have to say? How have Christians in the past made similar decision? What do your trusted spiritual friends have to say about the question? If you have a spiritual director, what is his or her response to your question?


  • Reason ­– Think your question through.  What is the rational course of action? What in this matter do you know to be true and not true? List the pros and cons of all the options you have in this question.


  • Experience – Based on your past experience of God and what God desires for you, how are you feeling led to act in this matter? Where is God’s presence most deeply felt when you consider this question?


After putting your discernment question through all four “points” of the quad, reflect on which “point” was most helpful for you. Which point seemed the most difficult? How are you feeling about the question? Does a direction emerge?


You can always go back to the quad for more discernment after you make your choice. Once you visually memorize the four sides of the quad, you can use this method without any reference material at all.


In our next session,  a series of simple questions you can ask yourself while in discernment.

For more about spiritual direction as I practice it, check out my website. If you have questions or comments about the content of Spiritual Direction 101, please let me hear from you in the reply section below.

About Teresa Blythe

Teresa Blythe is a full-time spiritual director and ordained UCC minister living and working in Phoenix, AZ. She serves as the Director of the Hesychia School of Spiritual Direction in Tucson. Contact her at teresa@teresablythe.net.

  • Cynthia Astle

    Hi, Teresa!
    As a soon-to-be-certified spiritual director, I’ve been enjoying reading your blog and have made several notes from it for my own future ministry. However, I feel I must take issue, as gently as possible, with your description and the illustration of the Wesleyan Quadrilaterial.

    Dr. Albert C. Outler, who extracted John Wesley’s theological method from his writings, once said he was sorry he ever coined the phrase “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” because it gave the mistaken impression that all four aspects of Wesley’s method were equally important. In reality, the Wesleyan method uses tradition, experience and reason to interpret Scripture, which is always primary. Once interpreted in this manner, the truth of Scripture is then applied to whatever life situation is being discerned.

    Thus in Outler’s original definition, the process as you describe it and the illustration that accompanies this post are incorrect. Scripture isn’t simply one leg on a square. Instead, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is more like a three-legged stool, with Scripture as the seat, and tradition, experience and reason as the legs of the stool.
    This is not to say that the process you describe couldn’t be used for discernment. However, it’s still inaccurate to term the equilateral process used in this post as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” because that’s a different method.

    I hope you find this distinction helpful and may use it to correct your definitions in future.

    Best wishes,
    Cynthia Astle

    • http://www.teresablythe.net Teresa Blythe

      Thanks, Cynthia. Dr. Outler is certainly the one to trust on the subject of the Wesleyan Quadrilaterial.