Was Jesus a Wesleyan?

Was Jesus a Wesleyan? January 13, 2018

As a Baptist, you are probably surprised that I would even ask a question like this, or alternatively, you might assume that I’d ask it only to answer quickly in the negative. But I’d rather take a bit more time to get beyond the obvious surface-level response – “no, of course not – Wesley may have been a Jesusian, but the reverse makes no chronological sense whatsoever!”

Sure, but when Richard Beck posted about Jesus and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, he wasn’t asking whether Jesus knew John Wesley’s later idea supernaturally, nor was he getting his historical order badly mixed up. Here is what he wrote, which clarifies his point:

Jesus…used human experience as a hermeneutical and theological tool. In Matthew 12 Jesus enters a synagogue on the Sabbath and finds a man with a withered hand. The way the Pharisees interpreted the Sabbath laws prohibited Jesus from healing the man.

But Jesus disagrees, and he makes an appeal to human experience to argue for a different hermeneutical approach to Sabbath keeping. Jesus doesn’t appeal to Scripture or tradition, he asks a question about how something would feel.

“How many of you,” Jesus asks, “if a sheep of yours fell into a ditch on the Sabbath, wouldn’t pull it out?”

Jesus asks the Pharisees to imaginatively place themselves in this situation, asking them to consult their feelings, experiences and reactions. Jesus expects this appeal to experience to lead to an affirmative answer: They would grab the sheep out of the ditch, even on the Sabbath.

And that appeal to experience–what it would feel like if you were in a similar situation–opens up new biblical and theological horizons.

Paul does something similar – following in Jesus’ footsteps – when he uses experience (specifically the receipt of the Holy Spirit) to argue that God must be doing something that doesn’t fit nicely within the paradigm that a scripturally-focused approach would come up with, since Genesis simply doesn’t allow for anyone to join Abraham’s household without also embracing circumcision.

And so, while it might be more helpful to speak of Wesley being in tune with Jesus, it is nevertheless worth noting that the balance between a variety of sources of authority, with others sometimes allowed to take priority over scripture, is not something that originates with Wesley, but something that we see evidenced in the teaching of Jesus himself. And clearly, for Jesus, scripture is not allowed to be the one of the four that always gets the last word.

If you aren’t already familiar with the Wesleyan Quadrilateral – which views authority as a multi-legged stool that requires them all to stand steadily – why not take a look at Allan Bevere’s post on the topic from several years ago, which includes a brief definition.

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  • John MacDonald

    “But Jesus disagrees, and he makes an appeal to human experience to argue for a different hermeneutical approach to Sabbath keeping. Jesus doesn’t appeal to Scripture or tradition, he asks a question about how something would feel.”

    – There is also a dark side to appealing to how you feel. Someone who is against the death penalty for murder may switch sides if the victim becomes their own child. Emotions cloud judgement – hence, we used to have “Hanging Judges.”

    • summers-lad

      This is true, and it’s why the whole quadrilateral matters: as James put it, “a multi-legged stool that requires them all to stand steadily”. Jesus clearly used scripture, but not in a “sola scriptura” way.

      • John MacDonald

        My friends have often asked me why I remain secular in a highly religious world. I don’t find scripture that trustworthy (why else would critical scholars cling so tightly to their criteria of authenticity if not for the fact that scripture is generally untrustworthy), but more importantly I can’t appeal to any experience in my life that I would say was evidence of the presence of the divine. I’ve never experienced the numinous, and I don’t think scriptures are reliable evidence of the divine, so how could I believe?

  • Ronald Patrick Marriott

    The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. 3 So obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else.

  • JenellYB

    I didn’t encounter the idea of the Wesleyan Quad until later in life, with the most brief introduction. I found it useful and adapted it into my own bible study
    I find these comments surprising. First, I never thought of all the elements as having “equal” authority, placing scripture on the same level of authority as the other 3. Actually I never thought of “authority” in the matter at all. One either uses any tool for the purpose intended, or not. For me, this is a tool for interpreting, understanding, and applying principles of scripture, which doesn’t allow for scripture to be set equal to or below the others. However, what one might encounter using any tool, motive is everything. Tools can be misused. I can see how some might misuse this or any tool of bible study to justify and support self serving purposes. But likewise, so can it create conflict with some long accepted errors. If there is self-serving motive, it will be misused like any other.

  • Brian Small

    I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It is not a four-legged stool with each leg being equal. For Wesley, Scripture is always primary.

    • Gary

      A person named Poplid said in the comments section,
      “”The quadrilateral gives the false impression that Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are four equal components…”
      A quadrilateral indicates four sides, not four equal sides. Experience, across from Scripture (but not adjacent to) can be a much smaller component than Scripture, and still form a quadrilateral. Only the Square and some Parallelograms can have four equal sides.”

      That was followed by another comment that said, “but that is not how it has functioned as UMs have used it”.

      He should have said “how some UMs have used it, not all”.

      That’s the problem. People have arbitrarily substitute ”Equilateral” for “Quadrilateral”.

      If using the stool analogy, it’s more like a three-legged stool. The seat is scripture. The legs are tradition, reason, and experience. And even they are not equal. Without the seat, no stool. But with three legs, with each person having different reason, experience; and to some degree, tradition. The legs for each person are of different lengths. Thus, you currently have rather wobbly stools for each UMC’er. And all have different stability. But all trying to make their stool the “standard stool”.

      • It’s a good point that quadrilaterals needn’t be equilaterals. On the other hand, a stool with legs which are completely uneven is unstable, and if there is one “leg” or “side” which can never be counterbalanced even by the other three, then it isn’t really a quadrilateral in the end in any meaningful sense, is it?

        • Gary

          An analogy can be carried out too far. But the stool and quadrilateral/equalatoral are two separate analogies. I think the UMC’ers on the right, as some have already said, would simply say the quadrilateral was not meant to have equal sides. Four legged stools and stability are pushing the envelope of the analogy.