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How Do We Know? (aka: Scripture within a Trilateral Hermeneutic (and grace) (aka: GEEK OUT!)


This is a summary of one of the papers I enjoyed working on the most in Seminary and in which I did some of my best really original thinking. In an ethics class, Dr. Patricia Jung challenged us to draw how we know what we know. That quick sketch was then elaborated on in an assigned reflection paper. Below is what I developed - Pastor Christopher

A more nuanced way of understanding the “quadrilateral”

This has been a fascinating exercise for me. What I have attempted to show is a much more complex version of Outler’s “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” that picks up some of the interplay and overlap between the four commonly cited sources Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason.

I began with the same graphic I used in the first class presentation but the new drawing is my vision of that overly simplistic drawing viewed from above to further illustrate the relationship between the sources and emphasize a specifically Christian approach. One addition is that the outer circle, represented by a triple line is Grace. Within and layered on that foundation is represented the interplay of Tradition, Experience, and Reason. Not labeled but represented symbolically in the overlap of the 3 circles is a sign for the Trinity, a recognition that God and mystery are in the midst of our struggles to think, understand and act ethically. Each of the 3 areas touches the outer circle of Grace, indicating how all aspects of our life involve gifts from God. The interplay indicates that we are never entirely drawing from one source alone but that each influences how we perceive the others. Finally, Scripture is primary, but the slightly off center positioning and alignment indicates its complex status.

Scripture is, in some respects a special subset of Tradition, the product of the communities and individuals that wrote, compiled and canonized these texts in their inspired yet flawed human understanding (thus also touching on human reason and experience). Yet the lighter lines drawing the corners back to the outer circle (and creating a cruciform) indicate that Scripture is also held to be a form of God’s self-revelation and our primary source for learning about the incarnation, life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. My chart seeks to illustrate “the rule of Scripture within a trilateral hermeneutic of tradition, reason and experience”[1] and particularly the dynamic, Spirit-filled interplay between these sources in my Christian and Wesleyan understanding.

The strength is that I think this acknowledges the fluid interplay of different ethical sources, clearly identifying major areas while leaving room for further revelation. The graphic also makes explicit a Christian context and theological approach. A weakness is that this graphic is perhaps overly-complex and yet is still incomplete in that it fails to explicitly make some useful distinctions; for example between different aspects of tradition that was the subject of in our readings by Stout and Yoder or the complexity of reason/feeling/understanding and experience discussed by Copleston in his study of Aquinas. Nor does it indicate Wesley’s understanding of the importance of our free response to non-coercive Grace.


[1] Gunter, Stephen, et. al, Wesley and the Quadrilateral: Renewing the Conversation (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1997), 142.


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