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Reading Quadrilaterally

What you should read in the coming year

George P Wood on January 6, 2023

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Pastors are public intellectuals. We don’t think of ourselves that way, but we should. After all, we stand before congregations and use words to apply Scripture to the various situations our audience members face.

That is why Paul exhorted Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

To do that, we need to be students of both Word and world. Graduating from Bible school is a start, but we must be lifelong learners. That means becoming lifelong readers.

So, what books should we read? The Wesleyan Quadrilateral offers a good rubric for a balanced reading plan.

 

The Quadrilateral

Coined by Albert C. Outler, the term “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” refers to the “distinctive theological method” of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism — a movement that significantly influenced Pentecostalism. The quadrilateral consists of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

Those four things are not equal in authority, however. According to Outler, Wesley’s theology received “Scripture as its preeminent norm but interfaced with tradition, reason and Christian experience as dynamic and interactive aids in the interpretation of the Word of God in Scripture.”

The benefit of the quadrilateral is that it “preserves the primacy of Scripture, it profits from the wisdom of tradition, it accepts the disciplines of critical reason, and its stress on the Christian experience of grace gives it existential force,” Outler wrote.

That last point is significant. Applying Scripture to various situations requires exegetical competence, historical understanding, and logical thinking. But it also requires personal experience. Pastors cannot apply Scripture to our audience members’ situations unless we have first applied it to ourselves.

The genius of the quadrilateral is that it joins together what we often put asunder: revelation (Scripture) and response (tradition, reason, experience); community (tradition) and individuality (experience); intellect (reason) and feeling (experience). 

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral thus presents a holistic theological method. 

 

The Reading Plan

If we use the quadrilateral as a rubric, we will read books in four broad categories:

1. Scripture. This category includes the Bible and books that help us understand it, such as commentaries, biblical theologies, and reference works.

Scripture is infallible, so it takes pride of place in a pastor’s reading plan. We read it to prepare sermons, obviously. Just as importantly, however, we read it for spiritual and theological formation.

My devotional practice is to read Psalms and Proverbs monthly, the New Testament quarterly, and the Old Testament semiannually. Whatever your devotional practice, make sure to read all Scripture at least once a year.

For theological formation, I recommend reading two biblical books in depth — one from each testament. I’m reading Psalms and Romans this year in several translations, along with reputable commentaries on each. 

Finally, consider tackling a single-volume introduction to or theology of the Old or New Testament, such as An Introduction to the New Testament by David A. deSilva or The New Testament in Its World by N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird.

2. Tradition. This category includes historic books and historical books. The former are primary sources, important books by long-dead Christians. The latter are secondary sources, more recent books about Christian faith and practice through the ages.

This year, my primary source reading is Philip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom, which includes the texts of denominational creeds, confessions, and catechisms from the second to the 19th centuries.

My secondary source reading is Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition, which traces the development of Christian doctrine from the apostolic era to the 20th century. I also plan to revisit Assemblies of God histories by Edith L. Blumhofer and Gary B. McGee.

Scripture is ambivalent about tradition. It establishes certain traditions, such as Communion. “I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you,” Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:23. But it also warns against tradition. “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions,” Jesus told the Pharisees (Mark 7:8).

Pastors are public intellectuals who apply God’s Word to the world. Our goal is that through the Spirit, Christ can live in us and our audience. Reading quadrilaterally is a means to that end.

This ambivalence explains why tradition does not hold ultimate authority.

By the same token, though, we would be fools to ignore tradition. Doing so is what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” — “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.”

The best corrective to such snobbery is reading old books and books about the past.

3. Reason. This category focuses on critical thinking and includes systematic theology, philosophy, ethics, apologetics, and serious nonfiction about current events and controversies. It asks, “What is the Christian worldview, and how does it affect how we live in the world?”

Pentecostals sometimes pooh-pooh reason, citing prooftexts such as 1 Corinthians 1:25: “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.” Or Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy.”

Interpreted correctly, neither text indicts reason per se, however. God is rational, and He created us in His image. That’s why Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with “all your mind” (Mark 12:30).

Indeed, Jesus used logic and evidence to demonstrate the truth of His gospel. Logic: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand” (Mark 3:23–24). Evidence: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27).

Christianity is a reasonable faith. Logic and evidence are its friends. Thinking clearly, well, and truthfully are aids to spiritual devotion and ethical living.

If you don’t know where to start reading in this category, I recommend four titles by C.S. Lewis: Mere Christianity; The Problem of Pain; Miracles; and The Abolition of Man. Lewis deconverted from atheism to Christianity, and these books make the case for faith.

4. Experience. This category is where the rubber of the gospel meets the road of life. It’s where, to use Paul’s words, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). This is the space where the Holy Spirit works.

The reading of Scripture and classic Christian literature plays a huge role in Christian experience. It certainly did in John Wesley’s life. 

At a Bible study, listening to someone read Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans, Wesley wrote: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ … and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins.”

That kind of experience is what we seek for ourselves and our church members. There are scores of devotionals, books on spiritual discipline, and works of practical theology to help us develop it. Well-known contemporary authors in this category include Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard, and Richard J. Foster. 

Among Pentecostals, I have benefited especially from the writings of Gary Tyra. In Getting Real, Tyra coined the term “pneumatological realism” to describe “the tremendous difference it makes when the Holy Spirit is experienced in ways that are real and existentially-impactful rather than merely theoretical, conceptual, or ritualistic.” 

I’ve found that biographies also help me see how Christians have experienced grace in the various circumstances of their lives. Eerdmans’ Library of Religious Biography and Oxford’s Spiritual Lives series have several good books about well-known Christians.

 

What Matters Most

I conclude where I began. Pastors are public intellectuals who apply God’s Word to the world. Our goal is that through the Spirit, Christ can live in us and our audience. Reading quadrilaterally is a means to that end.

I’ve outlined why you should read books in the broad categories of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. I’ve shared my own goals, and I’ve suggested a few titles.

What matters most is not my reasons or suggestions, however, but your desire for growth. Whatever you read, do your best to present yourself to God as one approved!

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