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Wesley’s Triangle?

Written by: on October 30, 2014

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister E. McGrath. This is a great book for both the novice as well as the scholar. McGrath “assumes that its readers know nothing about Christian theology.”[1] He thus creates a tool that can be placed in the hand of a student, but at the same times goes into enough depth for someone with a greater theological background.

This was a fairly lengthy book. On the one hand, it is laid out in a way that makes it easy to skim and use as a reference tool. On the other hand, I found that it took me a long time to get though it because it was so interesting and well written. This is another one of those books that I would recommend owning a hardcopy rather than just an electronic version.

McGrath’s background in biochemistry, history, and theology gives him a unique perspective. He understands that theology did not just happen, but developed within certain contexts, addressed specific issues, and was formed within an historical and cultural framework. He is able to walk his readers through a path divided into three major sections; Landmarks, Sources and Methods, and Christian Theology.

I appreciate that he explains the development and significance of the history and theological methods in Christendom before jumping into specific doctrinal issues. He identifies the key issues ,the major contributors, and the key councils that wrestled with the issues and articulated sound doctrine.

Without understanding this background, theology can easily go askew. Theology without history is dangerous. At best, theology without history leads to folk theology; At worst, it can lead to cults.

Of the many practical tools McGrath gives the reader, there is one model in particular that I really like. Referring to the sources of theology, he says “Broadly speaking, four main sources have been acknowledged within the Christian tradition: 1 Scripture 2 Tradition 3 Reason 4 Religious experience”.[2] Often referred to as Wesley’s Quadrilateral, I have found this four-part method to be a great way to help people bring a more balanced approach to their theological thinking. I have worked with people who adhere to one of these pillars exclusively and end up with some pretty sketchy theology. This applies to individuals as well as denominations. Some will hold tradition over scripture even when there is obvious conflict. Others will apply a modern interpretation to scripture that negates the way the church has understood a particular passage throughout the centuries. Some hold experience as the crowning jewel in our christian lives while others will not accept anything unless they can prove it in a lab or fully explain it. The four-part approach recognizes the value of a person’s particular background or preference while moving them toward a more holistic approach.Wesley triangle.001

While this approach is often represented as a quadrilateral, I have also seen it as a triangle with scripture in the center as a constant reminder of its centrality.

I would like to mention one final thing. While this is a great reference book for anyone’s library, I think one of its greatest strengths is as a teaching tool. The questions at the end of each chapter make this an easy book to teach out of, whether it is used in a formal class or an informal group. The online resources found at www.wiley.com/mcgrath are an excellent free companion to the book, providing quizzes, PowerPoint presentations, additional resources, and links.

 

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: an Introduction, 5th ed. (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, Kindle ed. 2011), location 376.

[2] Ibid., location 4149.

About the Author

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Brian Yost

Brian is a husband and father of three. He works with Free Methodist World Missions and is currently serving in Latin America.

7 responses to “Wesley’s Triangle?”

  1. mm Travis Biglow says:

    Praise the Lord Brain,

    We are on the same page but I love your triange much more. That is the way we should deal with the quadrilateral. Scripture is the core and the foundation of our reason, experience and tradition. It is also the object of all that we believe in Christian Theology. Praise the Lord for that triangle. Its a quadrilateral because of the four areas of Chrisitan theology but without scripture it would not even be a begining to the quadrilateral! Nice!!!!!!!

  2. mm Nick Martineau says:

    Brain…way to bring in the triangle. I really like that thanks. I’ll also be saving that link for for tests, quizzes, etc. Mcgraths book was laid out in such a way that you really could use each chapter as a stand alone which will be really helpful when I teach different lessons.

  3. Jon Spellman says:

    Brian, I agree that this book’s primary value is as a textbook. When you wrote “I appreciate that he explains the development and significance of the history and theological methods in Christendom before jumping into specific doctrinal issues. He identifies the key issues ,the major contributors, and the key councils that wrestled with the issues and articulated sound doctrine.” that sums up my thoughts as well.

    Breaking down the silos that have separated church history and church theology is a big win in my view! One is best understood in light of the other…

    J

  4. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Great post Brian, While I noted in my post the frustration of being pressurized this week in trying to drink this book in, I totally agree with your recommendation to own a hard copy of this one. It is laid out well and I was surprised by the questions at the end of each chapter as well, by their usefulness and helpfulness of summarizing and capturing the content. Props also for throwing in a little Wesley Quad/Tri framework as well. That is such a good visual and tool!

  5. mm Dave Young says:

    Brian,

    Thanks for the great post, and for the link with the complementary resources. I’m not sure I’d be bold enough to take on a book like this in a study group, but then again why not. For covering almost 2000 years of theology its still remarkably approachable.

    I also appreciate the Wesleyan framework for thinking through theology. My non-denominational bible college did an good job and training me in hermeneutics but since it wasn’t advocating any specific tradition in depth ‘tradition’ wasn’t a strength. I can see the value of weighing a tradition, let’s say Quaker and yet still weighing your hermeneutics your handling of scripture more heavily. Maybe that’s why you put scripture in the center of the triangle? And if that’s the case we do need to study hermeneutics because different schools of thought regarding hermeneutics treat the scripture very differently. Anyway, I appreciate your writing and ministry.

  6. Mary Pandiani says:

    Wow – before I’m done, I may actually become a Wesleyan 🙂 with all these fun shapes.
    Actually, it’s striking to me how the quad/triangle is more similar to the Catholic tradition than what I was brought up under with the Reformed tradition (“sola scripture”). With experience alongside of scripture (or at the center), probably where the difference for Methodist and Catholics comes in authority of the church.
    I appreciate the use of experience/hearing God’s voice with the tradition and use of reason with scripture as the foundation.

  7. Dawnel Volzke says:

    Brian,
    Great post! You state, “Without understanding this background, theology can easily go askew. Theology without history is dangerous. At best, theology without history leads to folk theology; At worst, it can lead to cults.” Without understanding the context behind the beliefs, one wouldn’t be able to articulate “why” or “how” the beliefs came into existence. Too many times, people blindly accept “doctrine” as their own theology. Many never question how the doctrine came into being or whether they support every viewpoint. It’s been my experience that people want a “summary” of what to believe, as really diving into the history and theology requires much effort. You are correct that this lack of knowledge opens doors to and draws a person towards cults or dangerous teachings.

    Here is an example…
    The LDS / Mormon doctrine, has changed at least six times since the church was founded in 1830. “In successive editions of the Doctrine and Covenants, additional revelations or other matters of record have been added.” (lds.org) The Book of Mormon has had thousands of changes over time. (IRR.org). Understanding the history of how this religion and theology has developed is critical to the authenticity or integrity of their doctrines.

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