The Wesleyan Quadrilateral vs The Presbyterian Pentagon
There’s a helpful and well-known method for indulging in theological reflection called ‘The Wesleyan Quadrilateral’. Consistent with its geometric shape, each of its four sides represent four different aspects of ‘authority’, namely; Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. The point is that when it comes to deciding an issue, one of these things will be determinative.
But I’ve recently come to see—especially through COVID—that the model is insufficient and that there is a fifth side which should be added. This is the aspect of ‘Conscience’ and as such, I’d like to suggest renaming the paradigm to The Presbyterian Pentagon. The reason I’ve made it denominationally specific is because the doctrinal standard of the Presbyterian Church—Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF)—is somewhat unique in its emphasis upon the place of conscience in the Christian life.
This is seen in Chapter 20: Christian Liberty, section 2 which states:
God alone is lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the teachings and commandments of men that are in any way contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters connected with faith or worship. As a result, to believe such teachings, or to obey such commandments, as a matter of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience. And the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason as well.
And in the Australian edition of the WCF there is an additional section found in the addendum of The Declaratory Statement regarding the Civil Magistrate (vi) which adds the further clarification:
That with regard to the doctrine of the civil magistrate and his authority and duty in the sphere of religion as taught in the Subordinate Standard, the Church holds that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only King and Head of the Church, “and Head over all things to the Church, which is his body.” It disclaims, accordingly, intolerant or persecuting principles, and does not consider its office-bearers, in subscribing the Confession, as committed to any principle inconsistent with the liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment, declaring, in the words of the Confession, that “God alone is Lord of the conscience”.
So, clearly, the individual’s conscience plays a significant role in the “subordinate standard” of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, as well as every other Presbyterian denomination throughout the world. And rightly so. Because the Supreme Standard of Scripture also places great importance on the role of conscience: see Rom. 2:15; 9:1; 13:5; Cor. 4:4; 2 Cor. 1:12; 4:2; 5:11; 1 Tim. 1:5, 19; 3:9; 2 Tim. 1:3; Heb. 13:18; 1 Pet. 3:16, 21.
Some of the most important passages in this regard are Romans 14 as well as 1 Corinthians 8:4-12 and 10:25-29. Clearly, conscience plays a very important role. But with that said, a person’s conscience is not an inerrant or infallible guide, for it is possible for one’s conscience to be mistaken. That is, ‘seared’ and ‘corrupted’ (e.g. 1 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:15).
This is why it’s so dangerous then for believers to place their own conscience above the Word of God. As the book of Proverbs says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end, it leads to death” (14:12; 16:25). Just as with logic, experience and tradition, one’s conscience has also been corrupted by sin.
The challenge then is to not replace the teaching of Scripture with our own personal convictions, but the Wesleyan Quadrilateral should be amended so as to include another extra-Biblical authority.
It is very easy for an individual to justify his subjective conviction as a matter of conscience, when in reality it is a matter of personal convenience. But as the Westminster Confession of Faith rightly says, the Bible alone is to be our ‘Final Umpire’:
The Final Umpire, by which all religious disputes are to be decided, and all decisions of councils, opinions of ancient writers, human teachings, and those of private spirits, must be examined, and in whose judgement, we must rest, can be no other than the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures (WCF Chapter 1, Section 10).
– Mark Powell
The Minister at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Hobart