Bishop Cannon on Scripture and Interpretation

In The United Methodist Church we use Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and holy Experience to help us interpret the Bible and discern God's will. This is sometimes called "The Wesleyan Quadrilateral" though our official theological documents do not use that term (I prefer "the 4-fold hermeneutic" myself).

Sometimes people understand the heading of "experience" to mean "whatever beliefs or opinions I have come be believe based upon my own life experience" (which in turn almost always is used for advocating a practice that the Bible forbids for God's people). The theological section of The Book of Discipline, our book of doctrine and canon law, actually reminds us that we are primarily talking about the experience of salvation - of justification and sanctification - and that the authority of the Bible is primary. Our Book of Discipline is also clear that Reasoning and Experience has an individual AND corporate aspect - the corporate wisdom and experience of the Church being what is passed along in canon law and tradition. And over all of these stands the authority of the Bible.  Learn more about Methodist theology here.

What follows is a quote on the authority of Scripture from Bishop William Ragsdale Cannon, one of the greatest United Methodist theologians of the 20th Century, addressing this possible misuse of the 4-fold Hermeneutic (which I found here). 

God’s revelation of himself and the deeds he performed are narrated in the Bible, which is the single source of our Christian faith. The so-called Wesleyan quadrilateral is not Wesleyan at all. It ought to be named the Albert Outler quadrilateral, naming as it does the source of our religion as the Bible, reason, tradition, and experience. The latter three are really interpretive tools to help us understand the contents of the Bible. They supply no revelatory material themselves. John Wesley, in the preface to his sermons, said that God gave us a book which provides us with his plan for our salvation. The Bible tells us all we need to know, indeed, can possibly know about how to be saved and win a place in heaven. He, therefore, called himself 'a man of one book.'

The Bible then is God’s gift to us, not a book humans have composed for themselves and given to themselves for their own edification. It is his chart for their happiness and satisfaction here, and their blessedness in heaven. Therefore, to change one jot or one tittle of it, to try to make it conform to some human interest, concern, or cause is to risk damnation. We are to receive it as it is written, with open hearts and eager minds, and through it to be instructed in the ways of God. To attempt to rewrite it or in any way modify it from a racist, feminist, liberationist, liberal, conservative, or any other perspective not its own is the most dangerous of all heresies and an abomination of desolation too awful to conceive.

It is time we heed Saint Augustine’s warning against the juggling and misuse of Scripture to suit our own predisposition. “If you believe what you like in the Gospel and reject what you dislike, it is not the Gospel you believe but yourselves.”

–Bishop William R. Cannon (served several Episcopal Areas of The United Methodist Church in his career)

I have often been challenged by that deeply true saying of St. Augustine.  The good bishop is quite right in that a careful reading of our doctrinal sources indicates that, for the Christian in the Wesleyan tradition, the Scripture is our primary and supreme theological authority, and that it is to be interpreted using Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.  Our own preferences cannot veto the clear teachings of Holy Scripture though for preachers, for church councils, and for the average Christian the temptation to trust in self instead of God's revealed word is very real, and often quite subtle.
Even moving beyond the "hot-button" debates about sexuality, we must be on our guard against this subtle idolatry that can show up in so many areas of our lives: does God really expect me to forgive my spouse...or my enemy?  Does God really want me to give a tithe - or even give beyond 10% of my income for the relief of the poor and the work of the Kingdom?  Submission is hard - and it can only come from trusting God, that is, from faith.

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