Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Intersection of Theology and Experience

I was recently chided for using my personal testimony to help make a theological point: "Here you go, using personal experience to define truth."

Now I'm the last person who wants to do that. One could have had a great experience with divorce or cohabitation or some dream that came true and use that to build a theological argument on. Very dangerous. Lots of trouble has been started that way!

But what if you have, say, this ongoing and amazingly transformational experience as a consequence of trusting in Jesus to save you? And what if you find out only later that that is what the Bible says happens to people who are born again and become new creations by faith in Jesus (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:17)?

Then experience corroborates good theology. In other words, if some Holy Book says we can fly, but we aren't able to, then that might indicate a problem with either the Holy Book or one's understanding of it, which is part and parcel to theology. But if the Holy Book says we can fly and I jump off the roof and fly, then my experience is confirming what the book says. That alone perhaps is not enough to certify the theology as sound, but it's a good start.

I read a piece by Al Mohler relating to pastors and the theology they should be preaching that helps with the understanding of this intersection:

"Of course, the experiential nature of the pastor's confession does not imply that the authority for theology is in personal experience. To the contrary, the authority must always remain the Word of God. The experiential character of the pastor's theological calling underlines the fact that the preacher is speaking from within the circle of faith as a believer, not from a position of detachment as a mere teacher."

In other words, this thing I say I believe has actually impacted me and is a reality in my life.

Truth spoken from the platform of a life lived with integrity to professed belief is much more likely to be heard.

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Blogger Tit for Tat said...

In other words, this thing I say I believe has actually impacted me and is a reality in my life.(Steve)

How it impacts you is dependant on what you believe it says, which is dependant on the personal experience of what it is you are believing. Round and round she goes. lol

December 19, 2008 at 3:03 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

How postmodern of you :0)

December 19, 2008 at 1:34 PM  
Anonymous steve martin said...

The trouble with experience is that we cannot trust it.

It might be from God and it might not.

It could actually be from the devil. St. Paul tells us that "the devil can come all dressed up as an angel of light."

He is quite capable of giving us experiences or making us believe in certain experiences or feelings.

That is why I believe the sacraments are so important. They are something tangible that we can actually see, feel, taste, touch...that is fully trustworthy. They are from God to us and have nothing to do with eminating from our feelings or experience.

Feelings are great. Experiences are great. They might be from God.
Trouble is that we cannot say so for sure, and therefore we cannot fully trust them.

December 19, 2008 at 9:12 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Hey, Steve

I would agree that experience is subjective.

I would agree that experience is open to abuse - particularly to try to build theologies upon.

My point is more this: If the Bible actually says 'you will experience this if this happens or when you do that', then we are right to expect such an experience. If the Bible is true and we are understanding it rightly, then the experience is not only valid, but reinforces both our faith and our theology.

Im believe we are meant to experience God (to steal Henry Blackaby's line).

I know that MArtin Luther said something along the lines that 'if it's not written in ink on paper in the Bible, God did not say it', and I understand his sentiment. But I am a little more mystical that Martin, and there is such a thing as healthy, biblical mysticism.

Jesus walks and talks with us. Jesus invites us to enter into relationship with Him. Jesus transforms us - both in our fundamental identity and in our behaviorr and thinking over time.

All of those are experiences, and all of those are articulated in Scripture and corroborated when they actually happen.

I am a 'Emerging Reformed Urban Baptist' (still working on a definition for that) and you are a Lutheran, so there are no doubt things we will disagree on, but I think there has to be room for experience in the Christian life without the pendulum swinging too far toward either empty doctrinalism or wild subjectivity.

December 20, 2008 at 10:18 AM  
Anonymous steve martin said...


I agree with what you have written.

God works in mysterious ways...granted.

But, the devil is at work also. And he can really mess with us to try and get us to rely on anything but Christ.

I believe that is why Christ instituted the sacraments. That we couyld have something from outside of ourselves that we could trust in - absolutely.

I have many experiences in my life where I believe that God was acting (outside of the sacraments).
But I hesitate to say with absolute surity that these things were of God. I can't know it for sure.

But when I taste the bread and the wine and when I return to my baptism and trust the promises that Christ Jesus has made to me in those tangible events...I am able to trust, without a doubt, that He is work...for me.

Thanks Steve!

December 20, 2008 at 7:40 PM  
Blogger Chris "Jesdisciple" said...

If you don't mind my asking, what was the experience? And what conclusions did you draw from it?

Did you add to your definition of what effects such an experience might have or of the experience itself? If not, I don't know that any theology is being built on top of the experience - only confidence.

December 23, 2008 at 10:55 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

I didn't have anything specific in mind in the post; I was speaking more of the idea.

However, such experiences I have had have been things like answered prayer, unexplainable peace in trying situations, wisdom out of nowhere in counseling situations that were over my head, and the transformation I have experienced since being born again, for starters.

December 28, 2008 at 11:51 AM  
Blogger Chris "Jesdisciple" said...

I'm surprised that anyone objected to the use of any of those elements as a testimony... I'm in a predominately conservative, evangelical area, and I don't think I've ever heard such sentiments (but I've heard several testimonies). Then again, maybe most locals aren't familiar enough with relativism to mistake anything for it.

I guess moderation is balanced fear of both extremes, so cultural/philosophical war (politics - hah) discourages moderation by tipping fear in one direction. Then where is the center of the scale which fear rests on? And now I've just summoned everyone's fears.

(Yes, I do have an analytical personality... How can you tell?)

December 28, 2008 at 1:58 PM  

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