Toward a Methodology of Discernment

L.D. Turner

I strongly believe that one of God’s central purposes for this age in which we live is to bring humankind into a deeper and more widespread knowledge of metaphysical principles in general and the subtle laws which govern the mind in particular. I predict that we will see greater and greater awareness of the practical application of these sublime principles and, in point of fact, we are already witnessing this process to some extent.

Of course any time there is a move of God in a new direction, there is always the potential for mistaken understandings and bizarre extremes as believers on the spiritual frontier engage these themes. Yet we must be careful so as to not toss out the pearl of great value along with the refuse, or as they often say, throw out the baby with the bath water. This would be a huge mistake.

As the Holy Spirit gradually makes available increasing knowledge of these laws, we must use our God-given gifts of discernment to separate the wheat from the chaff and put into immediate practice the principles that are beneficial and biblically sound. This is especially true in these days in which we have witnessed a dramatic rise in those who claim the gift of “prophecy” and are seemingly able to pour forth prophetic utterances at the drop of a hat. The question is, as stated, one of accurate discernment, which raises another logical question: What criteria will I use in order to discern whether a teaching is accurate and acceptable or way off the mark?

Traditionally, there have been several approaches to evaluating a particular teaching or prophetic utterance. This trio of tools consists of Scripture, tradition, and Spirit. Interestingly, depending upon what denominational background you happen to be from, you might see one of these three emphasized at the expense of the other two. For example, Catholics by and large have turned to tradition as ultimate authority and this “tradition” is in the form of the Church. Most Protestants adhere to the principles of biblical authority and therefore turn to scripture as the objective measure of the value of a teaching. If a teacher comes forth with an idea, teaching, or spiritual practice that doesn’t agree with scripture, then it is considered unsound at best, heretical at worst. Within the Protestant fold, Pentecostal and Charismatic bodies tend to stress the validation of the Spirit. If the person feels the teaching is validated through the presence of and experience of the Holy Spirit, then it can be trusted. In all fairness, however, I must point out that many Charismatic and Pentecostal groups also point to the value of scriptural authority.

Two other groups deserve mention, as their methods of evaluating teachings and practices, although similar to those described in the preceding paragraph, differ somewhat. I am speaking of the Quakers, founded by George Fox in the 17th Century and the Methodists, founded by John Wesley a century later.

The Quaker position is, at the same time, simple and complex. For the Society of Friends, the ultimate authority is the ‘Inner Light’ residing within each believer. According to Quaker founder George Fox, it is the source of all certainty for the Quaker and it is this Light Within that Friends seek when they sit in silence. Some Quakers equate the Inner Light with the presence of the Holy Spirit, which caused many Quakers to shake uncontrollably at times. Hence came the derisive name “Quakers,” because they “quaked.”

From a historical and also a contemporary perspective, I find the most balanced system of discernment within the tradition of my own denomination, Methodism. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, stressed using the matrix of what has come to be

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Photo credit: Only Wonder)

called the “Quadrilateral” in order to determine the appropriateness of any theme or idea. The four guidelines of Wesley’s Quadrilateral are: scripture; tradition; reason; and experience. For Wesley, the first, scripture, always took precedence over the other three.

The Quadrilateral is not an historical artifact. This four-part tool of discernment remains in use today in the United Methodist Church, as well as other Wesleyan denominations. Although Wesley himself never used the term “Quadrilateral,” it is clear from his writings that he used this four-fold methodology as a means of not only guiding behavior, but as a tool for theological speculation as well.

The term Quadrilateral was coined by Methodist Albert C. Outler in his 1964 compilation of Wesley’s works. It has become traditional in the United Methodist Church, by far the largest and most influential Methodist denomination, to formulate the Quadrilateral as follows:

Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.

 In actual practice, contemporary Methodists vary greatly in terms of application of the Quadrilateral. Many members of this denomination use this methodology of evaluation in a very consistent and precise way. On the other extreme, there are probably a significant number of Methodists who are totally unaware of the existence of the Quadrilateral.

In my own experience, I must admit that I sometimes utilize a unique blend of approaches when evaluating new ideas and techniques. As I mentioned a bit earlier, I am a United Methodist and have been for the past 30-plus years, so the Quadrilateral is almost second nature to me. However, my upbringing was strongly affiliated with Quakerism, in both its liberal and evangelical flavors. These factors, along with my own study of comparative religion, has resulted in a theological methodology which, although strange for some, works quite well for me.

When evaluating any new teaching I first go before the Master in prayer, asking for guidance, discernment, wisdom and clarity. I then rest in what Friends often call “Sacred Silence.” It is in the context of this silence that the Spirit often speaks to me regarding a particular issue. Once I have an insight or revelation regarding the issue at hand, I then filter it through the matrix of the Quadrilateral. Finally, I also will often discuss the matter with a few of my most trusted spiritual friends. This way of doing things may not be universally applicable, but for the most part, it works for me.

As our culture progresses deeper into the ever-shifting shoals of postmodernism I find it increasingly essential to have some way of ascertaining truth. Postmodern thinking stresses the lack of universal standards of factual reality and espouses the sanctity of “relativity.” More than ever, ethics are situational. As many of my friends within the Emergent Movement are so fond of saying, “There is no such thing as absolute truth.”

Ironically, for them, that is the absolute truth.

© L.D. Turner 2009/ All Rights Reserved


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