Yong’s Theology and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral
One sign of Pentecostalism’s coming of age is its growing contributions to the global theological conversation. What was once limited to self-published booklets about the Holy Spirit and Speaking in Tongues has been transformed in recent years into studied and systematic reflection on the pneumatological root of Pentecostal practice and its theological ramifications for the broader Christian community. Notable Pentecostal theologians such as Amos Yong and Wolfgang Vondey see current theology in crisis. They go so far as to propose Pentecostal theology as a means of counteracting some of the current trends contributing to this crisis.
Yong in particular proposes a reorientation of the relationship between the Holy Spirit, the written Word of God and the community which is inspired to interpret that Word. Unfortunately, this pneumatological methodology, which intends to relieve the theological crisis, is inherently threatening to historic Christian theology and may instead produce the opposite result, intensifying rather than ameliorating theological divisions. However, this threat may be minimized by considering the contemporary Pentecostal methodology as a modification of the Wesleyan quadrilateral.
This essay will outline the emphases Yong’s theological proposal, explain the threat this proposal poses for traditional Christian theology, and show how the Wesleyan quadrilateral allows for an examination of Pentecostal methodology which obviates much of the threat and allows for a clearer consideration of the Pentecostal theological agenda.
It may be helpful at the outset to define Pentecostalism. For the purposes of this paper, Pentecostal will be used in its broader sense, beginning in the religious movement beginning in early twentieth-century America, and including current offshoots such as Charismatics and Neo-Charismatics. Some of the scholars quoted here may use the term Renewal Theology, which in our context can be considered synonymous with Pentecostal theology.
Pentecostalism as a religious movement was and is primarily interested in the restored role of the Holy Spirit in the practices of the church and lives of believers. Typical of Pentecostal theology is a pneumatological emphasis on doctrine, ritual and praxis. Also common to Pentecostalism is the importance given to the affections and imagination of believers, along with an interest in eschatology. As we will see, these factors combine to produce a unique theological perspective in which Yong, Vondey and others see an inherent potential for theological renewal.
Pentecostal theology has grown over recent decades. Yong observes, “The recent appearance of a variety of pneumatologies from biblical, theological, and other perspectives is a testimony to the fact that the once ‘silent’ and ‘shy’ member of the Trinity is silent and shy no longer.” From the early hodgepodge of Pentecostal books on experiencing the Holy Spirit came more learned and systematic theological texts such as Williams’ Renewal Theology. Now Yong and others attempt to distill from these systematic pneumatological hermeneutics a cohesive Spirit-centered methodology.
Yong offers to explain the particulars which define Pentecostal theology. “I suggest that a distinctive Pentecostal perspective would highlight a Lukan hermeneutical approach, a pneumatological framework and orientation, and an experiential base.” We see in Yong’s description an emphasis on Luke/Acts as central, in that the scriptures are to be interpreted through the lens of Spirit operating among men. Pentecostals typically seek a restoration of New Testament church practices and spiritual experiences. Therefore it is no surprise to find this emphasis on the restoration of spiritual experience permeating Pentecostal theology. In fact, it becomes the central unifying concept in Yong’s methodology: “The motivation for what follows is to correlate the movement from pneumatology through theology to ontology and metaphysics, always with an eye toward epistemological, hermeneutical and methodological issues.” For Yong and other Pentecostals, the Holy Spirit is the starting point for theology – the study of God.
It is this assertion that the Spirit, rather than the Father or the Son or even the Bible, is the proper and most fruitful starting point for theology, and this idea challenges traditional Christian theological perspectives. Pentecostal theologian Allan Anderson explains the context of this challenge, saying, “The difficulty with some western approaches to theology is a dualistic rationalizing that does not adequately understand a holistic worldview uniting physical and spiritual, and personal and social.” In historical terms, the Pentecostal perspective sees traditional theology as overly indebted to the rationalism of western Enlightenment philosophies. This intellectual basis develops into a prejudicial view of written texts (in particular the Bible and Church Creeds) and rational arguments over spiritual experiences and Spirit revelation.
Contemporary Pentecostal scholars have taken different approaches to incorporating a fuller consideration of the Spirit in regards to Biblical interpretation. For example, Pinnock assuages traditional concerns over the primacy of scripture, yet injecting a pneumatological element to hermeneutics when he writes, “Scripture as the Spirit’s text enjoys a privileged position…Every other claim to revelation and development of doctrine is tested by it and must be shown to be included in it…The Spirit intends not only what was understood by the inspired authors but also the truth toward which their witness is pointing. Therefore we attend not only to original meanings but also to understandings that arise from subsequent reflection. God is at work in the history of salvation, illuminating as well as inspiring.” Pinnock walks a fine line here between the rationalistic, scripture centered theology of traditional Christianity and the pneumatological emphasis of Pentecostal thought.
James Smith, in his criticism of modern theology, aptly encapsulates the weaknesses of western rationalism in his comments on Descartes. “Such construals of worldview belie an understanding of Christian faith that is dualistic and thus reductionistic: It reduces Christian faith primarily to a set of ideas, principles, claims, and propositions that are known and believed…this makes it sound as if we are essentially the sorts of things Descartes described us to be: thinking things that are containers for ideas…containers for our minds.” Thus we see the modern fruit borne by Descartes cogito ergo sum. If “I think therefore I am” is taken ontologically, we are left with two conclusions. Man is thought, and thought is an individual, rather than communal, endeavor. These are exactly the philosophical biases Yong and others are attempting to challenge and renew through Pentecostal insights and experiences.
Pentecostals should not expect to label current theology in crisis and offer solutions radically diverging from tradition without experiencing significant resistance. Pentecostal theology already suffers marginalization due to historic biases against experientialism and emotionalism in ecclesial praxis. The new pneumatological emphasis in theological method and hermeneutics being professed in Pentecostal academic circles is already making waves and drawing critical evaluation. For example, Merrick rightly sees in Yong’s work on inter-religious dialog the following: “Clearly Yong believes that in order to understand the religions seriously on their own terms, a pneumatological approach to theology of religions must equally understand the Spirit on his own terms, that is, terms that are not shaped by Christology….Thus his project hinges on freeing pneumatology from the influence of Christology.” He goes on, “I wonder whether this current in Yong’s proposal, despite his best intentions, is like a dangerous undertow, threatening to suck Christian theology of religions out into a sea of pluralism and to dilute pneumatology from its soteriological potency.” These strong words are matched by Hunt when he says of Vondey’s synopsis of Yong, “By separating or ‘bracketing’ Christology from pneumatology, Yong’s pneumatology appears sub-Christian.” Even Peterson’s positive review of Vondey’s contribution to theological method frames Pentecostal theology in confrontational terms: “If engaged, these resources function as a catalyst that will empower Pentecostals to move beyond their own boundaries to unify and energize the theological enterprise of Christianity as a whole.” Moving beyond their own boundaries implies invading the territory of others. In this case, resistance from traditional Christian theology will likely increase before Pentecostal thinkers can hope to merge with the academic mainstream and renew the theological enterprise of Christianity as a whole.
Keeping in mind this critical evaluation of modern theological methods and the strife this is causing and will continue to cause in traditional Christian theological circles, this essay will examine some of the specific assertions of Pentecostal theology, note its specific challenges to traditional theology, and consider the usefulness of Wesleyan methodology for calming these challenges. However, before proceeding, we must first explain Wesley’s theological method, the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral.
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral
Though John Wesley wrote no systematic theology or theological method, his pastoral writings, particularly sermons and letters, are so numerous that one can reasonably deduce his systematic approach to Christian thought. The term ‘quadrilateral’ was coined by Albert Outler, and is not found in Wesley’s own writings. Bevins describes the Quadrilateral as, “…a theological method that John Wesley used in order to understand the work and Word of God.” He continues, “In the Quadrilateral, the Scriptures stand first while ‘Christian Antiquity’, reason, and Christian experience are used as interpretive means for understanding scripture.” Thus Wesley allowed for the four-sided shape of theological method, particularly in regards to biblical interpretation: Scripture as the base, reason at the head, all bounded on both sides by tradition and human experience.
One immediately notices Wesley’s theological position in relation to the wider Christian theological landscape. The primacy of scripture will set well with Protestant theologians. The necessity of reason in scriptural reflection and interpretation harmonizes with post-Enlightenment trends. The use of traditional creeds, confessions and theological works as normalizing controls fits with traditional methods. Finally, Wesley’s unusual inclusion of experience in the theological and hermeneutical process may be surprising to some of his contemporaries, but it was consistent with his overarching doctrine of the ‘witness of the Spirit’ in individual and corporate Christian life.
Wesley’s emphasis on the Spirit in Christian experience attracted moderate theological, as well as ecclesial criticism. However, insofar as, “John Wesley primarily appealed to the Holy Scriptures for all doctrinal authority”, he was able to circumvent many of his critics. The contemporary theological scene would pose as much or more of a challenge for Wesley, were he preaching today. Consider Kister’s comments as editor for Christian leaders such as John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul: “The battle for the Bible has been raging since the beginning of time…Romanists add tradition to what is written in Scripture, and place it on an equal plane with Scripture…Many [Pentecostals] and evangelicals place their personal experience on a par with Scripture, thereby adding to God’s written revelation…Scripture is complete. God has said everything necessary for us to live the holy life to which He calls us. Nothing further needs to be added to what God has already revealed in His written Word.” These words would have challenged Wesley’s method were he teaching it today. Further, these are clearly not the words of theologians who see themselves mired in the theological crisis described by Yong and his compatriots.
So we see Wesley as challenging his own theological culture, emphasizing reason, tradition and spiritual experience as aids in biblical interpretation. Yet this challenge to theological method, by recognizing the primacy of scripture, was able to stand up to its critics and to some extent renew Christian theology. Similarly, Pentecostals are challenging the rationalism and Biblicism of Christian theology, suggesting as a solution a pneumatological perspective on method. Perhaps a Wesleyan approach to posing the Pentecostal challenge may alleviate some of the criticism and allow a similar theological renewal. In pursuit of this goal, we turn to Yong’s pneumatological theological method as seen as a reorientation of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.
Comparison of Yong’s Spirit-Word-Community Method with Wesley’s Theology
Yong poses the trialectic of Holy Spirit, Written Word and Christian Community, wherein the Spirit encapsulates the act of interpretation, the Word the object of interpretation, and the Community as the context of interpretation. At its simplest, Yong states, “My thesis is that theological interpretation is the continuous interplay of Spirit, Word and community.” One might say that Yong considers Spirit the subjective element of theology, Word the objective, and community the purpose behind theology.
Spirit: Yong’s central methodological assertion is that theology and biblical interpretation begin with the subjective, or with the Spirit. “Only a pneumatological rationality is sufficiently dynamic, historical and eschatological to drive the dialectical movement of thought.” Thus we see that Spirit for Yong denotes more that the third person of the Trinity. His argument from Spirit-Word-Community encompasses a pneumatology which spans metaphysics and epistemology as well as theology. For example, “…the Holy Spirit is the divine mind that illuminates the rationality of the world to human minds.” Further, “The Spirit is the transcendental condition of the human experience of God.” With these broad assertions about the centrality of the Spirit, not only in spiritual revelation or biblical hermeneutics, but in the hermeneutic of rationality itself, Yong presents an epistemology with a truly unique Spirit orientation.
When considering of Yong’s definition of Spirit from the Quadrilateral perspective, we are forced to make connections between Wesley’s fairly orthodox methodology and the categories of Divine Spirit, the rational principle, and the subjective imagination of man. While this is not a straightforward task, there are some immediate points of similarity between Wesley and Yong. Wesley’s well known Aldersgate experience, his heart being ‘strangely warmed’, provided a subjective existential metaphysic grounded in what he later termed the ‘witness of the Spirit’. Wesley also appears to hold a proto-pneumatological epistemology, at least in part. Carter expounds on Wesley’s epistemology, stating, “Someday we will see how foolish it was to limit knowledge to what can be empirically verified or falsified…when the method of scientific investigation, wholly appropriate to the empirical sciences, is improperly used in the dimensions of the human spirit.” Oden supports this statement, adding, “And till you have these internal senses, till the eyes of your understanding have been opened, you can have no apprehension of divine things.” Yong and Wesley agree in part on the basic Spirit grounding of reason itself – at least as reason interprets theological knowledge.
Unlike Yong, we see that Wesley limits the role of the Spirit in theology through soteriology: “If the eternal God is to be known, He must set the conditions. And God has clearly done this as is recorded in the history of His self-disclosure; the history of His self-revelation is the history of salvation.” So, though Yong and Wesley both elevate the role of the Spirit in metaphysics and epistemology, Wesley’s method is tied to Christ as incarnate Savior, whereas Yong is criticized for divorcing pneumatology from a grounding Christology. Wesley ties his subjective epistemology directly to the objective Word, whereas Yong follows in the steps of Barth and von Balthasar as they denote Spirit in more existential terms, “…the Spirit is the transcendental condition of the human experience of God.” In this sense, Yong may been seen as expanding the breadth of Wesley’s Spirit emphasis to the broader human experience rather than tying Spirit to Christology and thus strictly theology.
Word: Yong’s term ‘Word’ includes three objective sources of theological information, namely the Word of God and theological tradition. Here Yong departs from orthodox Protestantism by veering away from a tangible sola scriptura, instead expanding the Word of God, again in Barthian manner, asserting the voice of God is received through the scriptures, not as the scriptures. However, Yong’s contribution is that he suggests a mutuality of spoken and written Word not found in Barth: “It is therefore better said that there is a mutual subordination of the living Word of God (Jesus as the incarnate Logos) to the spoken Word of God (the Spirit) and vice versa, with both, in the end, being eschatologically subordinate to God the Father. Word defines Spirit, and Spirit defines Word.) This fascinating reciprocity between Jesus and Holy Spirit, or Word and Spirit, clearly transcends Wesley and the Reformation theologians in their conception of Word as Bible. Yet Yong’s seemingly inextricable cooperation between Word and Spirit goes far to silence those who would oppose him for His seeming de-emphasis on Christology in his method. On the surface, Yong seems to be submerging the primacy of scripture into subjective experience and tradition. For Wesley says, “I allow no other rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scriptures”, while Yong speaks of hearing the Word of Jesus through the words of scripture. Thus Yong ties Jesus to scripture, with the caveat that scripture is interpreted through Spirit.
Of tradition, Wesley show his approval by saying, “The Church Fathers are the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain and eminently endued with the Spirit by whom all Scripture was given.” Yong also asserts the importance of tradition in theological methodology. First, Yong locates tradition as a source of theology. While the scriptures form the ground of source material, Yong sees Christian tradition as a valuable pluralizing force. Vondey explains: “The conceptual separation of church and creed has contributed to an isolation of the faith from the praxis of the Christian community…the creeds are no longer proclaimed by the ‘we’ of the church but are preserved as an ‘it’ of faith.” Thus theological tradition as communicated through creeds must straddle the categories of object of theology and context of community to achieve goal of promoting orthodoxy and unity.
Liturgy too contributes to the role of tradition in Yong’s theological model. While Pentecostals are not typically associated with liturgical forms of worship, the Pentecostal theme of integrating spirituality with intellect can be seen in many traditional liturgical rituals. Caldecott explains the roots of our need for liturgy as a vehicle for tradition as he explains the roots of the modern crisis of theological imagination, stating, “The modern person feels himself to be disengaged from the world around him, rather than intrinsically related to it (by family, tribe, birthplace, vocation, and so forth)…this prepared the ground for the Reformation, which emphasized individual conscience and pared away the fabric of traditions and sacrament by which the self had been embedded in a social cosmos.” Yong agrees that liturgy serves to shape tradition, saying, “Christian liturgical rites can be understood as premeditated structures designed to cultivate and nurture the Christian life.” For Wesley, liturgies operate as means of grace: “By means of grace I understand outward signs, words or actions ordained by God, appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby He might convey to men, preventing, justifying or sanctifying grace.” Therefore, while Yong emphasizes the communal and catholic aspect of liturgy, both he and Wesley that liturgy effects the transmission of divine grace and life to humanity.
Community: Finally, Yong locates the context of theological reflection staunchly within the context of Christian community. “My argument here is that theological interpretation proceeds by the church and for the church, and as such is directed toward discerning ecclesial praxis.” Yong goes on to describe theology as the practice of Christian communities in response to cultural and eschatological pressures. Engaging with Pentecostal and Liberation theologies, Yong explores the formulation of historical theologies and ecclesial dogmas as they serve to direct the Christian church in its interaction with itself and with the non-Christian world. In particular, the posture of Pentecostalism has long been one of marginalization, and so Yong’s emphasis in theological community is the upholding of the socially subaltern.
Yong’s community concepts align strongly with Wesley’s practical theology. Methodism was known as a strong force for social justice and charity. Wesley preached, “A peace maker is one that, as he hath opportunity, ‘doeth good unto all men;’ one that, being filled with the love of God and of all mankind, cannot confine the expressions of it to his own family, or friends, or acquaintance, or party, or to those of his own opinions – no, nor those who are partakers of like precious faith; but steps over all these narrow bounds, that he may do good to every man…and manifest his love to neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies.” The pragmatic nature of Wesley’s religious movement and its posture of marginalization, coupled with its charity toward others, even non-Christians, mark its strong similarity to Yong’s concept of community in theology.
Yong’s Spirit-Word-Community as a Modified Quadrilateral
Wesley’s Quadrilateral begins with the primacy of scripture, interpreted through reason bounded by tradition and experience. Wesley moved from the highly cognitive and Biblicist trends of Reformation theology toward a more holistic approach to Christian life by including experience in theological methodology.
Yong’s Spirit-Word-Community methodology may be seen as a reorganization of the Quadrilateral, based upon Pentecostal emphases.
Yong’s reorganizes Wesley’s Quadrilateral as follows: Wesley begins with scripture (Word) and relates reason, tradition and experience as interpretive voices through which scripture may speak. Yong begins with Spirit as an ontological ground, and then establishes a dialectic between Spirit (the subjective) and Word (the objective) which operates in the context of Community (the church in society). As one can see from this diagram and explanation, Yong is not elevating the Holy Spirit above the Son of God, Pneumatology above Christology, or subjective spiritual experience above scripture, as some of his critics may fear. Just as Spirit and Son enjoy a Trinitarian relationship of individuality, yet interpenetrating unity, so Yong’s categories of Spirit and Word are equal, distinct, and yet unified. While Wesley does not include the concept of community in the Quadrilateral, his preaching and practice strongly mirrors Yong’s emphases on theology as focused on the church’s role in sharing God’s love with society at large, and so Yong can be considered true to Wesley’s social gospel.
We conclude from this analysis that Yong’s Pneumatological theological methodology is consistent with orthodox Wesleyan theology. As Wesley reasonably evolved from Reformation theology, Yong’s Pentecostal theology is a reasonable evolution of Wesleyanism, and should be considered another phase of Christian theology.
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———. The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh: Pentecostalism and the Possibility of Global Theology. Edition Unstated edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2005.
 Yong, Spirit, Word, Community, 28.
 Yong, The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh, 29.
 Yong, Spirit, Word, Community, 50.
 Anderson, An Introduction to Pentecostalism, 198.
 Pinnock, Flame of Love, 229.
 Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 32.
 Merrick, “The Spirit of Truth as Agent in False Religions?,” 111.
 Ibid., 115.
 Hunt, “Beyond Pentecostalism,” 429.
 Petersen, “Beyond Pentecostalism,” 231.
 Outler, “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral in John Wesley,” 7–18.
 Bevins, “A Pentecostal Appropriation of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” 232.
 Ibid., 234.
 Ibid., 233.
 Horton et al., Sola Scriptura!, 277–278.
 Yong, Spirit, Word, Community, 245.
 Ibid., 104.
 Ibid., 123.
 Ibid., 228.
 Carter, A Contemporary Wesleyan Theology, 110.
 John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity [Paperback]  (Author) Thomas C. Oden, 85.
 Carter, A Contemporary Wesleyan Theology, 110.
 Yong, Spirit, Word, Community, 228.
 Ibid., 258.
 John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity [Paperback]  (Author) Thomas C. Oden, 56.
 Ibid., 66.
 Vondey, Beyond Pentecostalism, 83.
 Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake, 124.
 Yong, Spirit, Word, Community, 249.
 Wesley and Burwash, Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons, 152.
 Yong, Spirit, Word, Community, 276.
 Wesley and Burwash, Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons, 232.