The Wesleyan Quadrilateral and Music Making/Teaching/Learning


The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is the term applied by some modern scholars to the confluence of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience in the Christian life, as presented in the writings of John Wesley. While affirming the primacy of Scripture, Wesley added experience to the Anglican triad of Scripture, tradition and reason. To Wesley, correct interpretation of Scripture required the application of reason to traditions of interpretation, and the confirmation of experience and practice in personal life.

Though Scripture is the primary starting point, there is an implied role for tradition, reason and experience in the formation of the canon. While not discounting the role of divine inspiration, there is virtually universal recognition of the roles of oral/priestly tradition, personal experience and reason in the creation of the Scripture itself, and selections made for the canon. Much of Biblical scholarship consists of the identification and illumination of these threads.

In music, there are metaphors for scripture, tradition, reason and experience/practice. The musical notation that has come to us through history is the “scripture.” The “tradition” includes the performance practice (one aspect of “interpretation”) that allows an audience to hear the music performed. This includes a good deal of information from the tradition to clarify aspects of performance practice which are not notated in a specific way in the printed music itself. The tradition also includes writings about music, perhaps in a role similar to commentaries on Scripture. “Experience” includes the internalization of music on many levels, requiring adequate exposure to the “canon” (notation of traditional classics), traditions about how to interpret the notation, techniques of personal practice and study that aid in that internalization and its expression, etc. “Reason” would include disciplines like music theory and musicology, which develop theories about the structure of music, its relation to the culture that produced it, its grammar and syntax, etc., and the application of these understandings to interpretation and the creation of new music (the “canon” is still “open”).

The notation that has come down to us (musical “scripture”) is sometimes the result of the experiences in music making of many people (a sort of oral tradition existing before any notation). Other times, existing musical manuscripts represent the labor and “inspiration” of one creative individual. Some of the music seems to have been improvised first, and then recorded in notation by a very skilled person with excellent memory (who perhaps did some editing of the original performance). The comparison to the development of Scripture is obvious.

Just as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral represents an attempt to grasp the nature of special revelation in our lives, music making/teaching/learning exhibits a similar set of concepts about the general revelation of the arts. It is possible that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral represents not so much the nature of special revelation itself as it represents the nature of human beings who receive it, attempt to understand it, and apply it to living.

For more on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, see Donald Thorsen’s book, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

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