The Quadrilateral and the Formation of Disciples

Leicester R. Longden

Given the mission statement of The United Methodist Church, which calls for us to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” the question of how such disciples are formed should be of radical import for our ministry. That has been the burden of my writing this past year for Catalyst.

One of the resources frequently appealed to as uniquely formative in the Methodist tradition is the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral. A recent reading of various accounts of the development and reception of the Quadrilateral has led me to believe that we need to raise the question: What does the Quadrilateral have to do with formation?

We would be much helped by a thorough history of the scholarly debates occasioned by Albert Outler’s introduction of the Quadrilateral (let’s call it “Q”) to Methodism, as well as a practical account of its uses and misuses in the formation of disciples and clergy. (Andrew Thompson makes a good beginning on this in his “Outler’s Quadrilateral, Moral Psychology, and Theological Reflection in the Wesleyan Tradition,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 46, no 1. [2011]: 49-72).

Most of the arguments I have read about Q focus on its legitimacy — or inadequacy — as Methodism’s “preferred paradigm for the work of theology” (Thompson, “Outler’s Quadrilateral,” p. 49). What my question proposes is that we move from a narrow focus on Q as an academic and methodological concern for Wesleyan theologians to the larger issue of how congregations form disciples in community and seminaries form clergy for the tasks of formation. Q seems to lead to endless discussions of methodology (as if 20th century theology hasn’t had a surfeit of such efforts) with little attention to the formation of disciples that precedes formal theological reflection.

It may be argued that Q is more properly seen as a guide for theological reflection than a way to form disciples, yet the very popularity and influence of Q has led to its use as a complacent appeal and platitude (as Jason Vickers puts it) “about what it means to be Wesleyan.” Alongside the advertising slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” the Quadrilateral has become for many congregations and pastors a more basic description of our identity as a denomination than any particular summary of the content of our Christian faith.

This is not a new problem. As long ago as 1975, Robert Cushman of Duke Divinity School wrote a critique of part 2 of our Book of Discipline in which he identified a key problem for our church (“Church Doctrinal Standards Today,” in Doctrine and Theology in The United Methodist Church, ed. Thomas A. Langford [Kingswood, 1991], 64-74). He warned that it would be radically destabilizing for us to relativize all our doctrine as mere “landmarks” and to substitute for it a process of “theologizing” with “fourfold guidelines.”

One might argue that the Discipline does acknowledge our “common faith” with all other Christians and then highlights Wesleyan “distinctives” before it lays out the Quadrilateral. Yet the pervasive appeals to “diversity” and “inclusiveness” in United Methodism demonstrate that our people are often more deeply formed by ideas about “theologizing” in relation to overarching cultural trends than the specific contents of ecumenical and Wesleyan doctrine.

To return to my original question: What does Q have to do with the formation of disciples? My argument is that Q has a potentially misshaping role to play in the formation of disciples if certain prior steps of initiation are ignored, namely, reception into the Christian faith by baptism and new birth, and training in the beliefs and practices of living as a disciple of Christ.

Admittedly, the introduction of the Quadrilateral and the focus on new and emerging “theologies” had positive goals in mind. The question is whether the primary goal of “making disciples for Jesus Christ” was taken for granted or minimized. The fact that our General Conference adopted a new mission statement focused on the formation of disciples suggests an institutional realization that this goal needed reiteration.

In future essays I want to explore some of the remaining obstacles in our church to prioritizing discipleship and to look at creative attempts to renew our disciple-making practices.

Posted Jan 26, 2015

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