The “Wesleyan quadrilateral” represents a shorthand reference to John Wesley’s understanding of religious authority, affirming the interdependent relationship between the primacy of scriptural authority along with the secondary—albeit genuine—religious authority of tradition, reason and experience. The Wesleyan quadrilateral is a paradigm, or model, of how Wesley conceived of the task of theology. Wesley neither cointed the term nor used it; it represents a contemporary attempt to summarize the fourfold set of guidelines Wesley used in reflecting on theology. Albert Outler first referred to the Wesleyan quadrilateral in the 1960s. Outler did not intend for the quadrilateral to be used as a geometric figure. Such figures appear static and may be conceived in ways that distort the dynamic, interactive emphases found in Wesley’s theology. Rather, Outler chose to use the quadrilateral metaphorically.
Although Christians make decisions in a variety of ways, the Wesleyan quadrilateral represents a helpful model for conceptualizing the way they make decisions in relationship to scripture along with other factors that affect their decision-making process, including church tradition, critical thinking, and relevant experience. The Wesleyan quadrilateral is considered a realistic description of how Christians make theological decisions, since they are not always aware of or admit to the contextual nature of their understanding of religious authority and theological method.
For more information, see Don Thorsen, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience as a Model of Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press for Zondervan, 1990; Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2005).