Basing Theology on Experience

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

What is the source of theology? Some would say it is sola scriptura--Scripture alone. Others cast the net a bit further and say that it is the quadrilateral of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. That last one, experience, always comes in last. Lots of people are really wary of experience. It makes them think of uncontrolled emotion, subjective feelings, and stuff out of control. But I'd like to make the somewhat radical proposal that experience should be the central category for how we do theology, and that this is a deeply biblical position to take.

By experience I simply mean actually knowing God in a relationship, so that faith is lived and not merely theoretical. That has very little to too with emotions (although there is nothing wrong with emotion!), and everything to do with living our faith, with actually loving God, ourselves, and others. I imagine everyone is with me so far, but what about the Bible? Isn't that a matter of objective detached study?

That is certainly how you learn to study it in seminary. But nevertheless I insist: No! this is not what understanding the Bible should be based on. I've discussed this in some detail in my article on relational theology so I don't want to rehash that here. In a nutshell I would say (following Stanley Grenz here) that Scripture is primary because it informs experience, shapes reason, and is the source from which tradition develops, as well its constant spur to reformation. At the same time however, Scripture ultimately serves a servant function of leading us into relationship with Christ so we can live out Christ-like relationships. So the goal is experience, namely the experience of meeting God and having that transform all our other experiences.

The unforgivable sin, Jesus says, is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says this in the context of the Pharisees rejecting the work of the Spirit happening among them through the healing ministry of Jesus because it conflicted with their understanding of the law. Here experience of what God was doing in Jesus trumps their tradition, and their reading of Scripture, and their reasoning. There is nothing worse, no greater crime, Jesus says, than missing out one what the Spirit is doing right in front of you. It is, Jesus says, the biggest sin possible. Those are some pretty strong words.

With that in mind think about Paul's conversion: His experience on the Damascus road causes him to re-read Scripture anew in light of that encounter with Christ. Paul's experience of Christ caused him to completely re-think (reason) his whole tradition as a Pharisee, and how he had read Scripture.
Experience precedes exegesis.

Likewise, the council of Jerusalem in the book of Acts bases their decision to include gentiles in the gospel (which was a huge decision!) based primarily on the experience of what the Spirit was doing among them as testified to by Paul and Peter. Acknowledging this, James then connects their experience to what was foretold in the Scriptures. Experience again precedes and shapes biblical interpretation.

From that I want to argue that in order to really get the Bible, you need to get grace, and the only way to really get it is to experience it. The woman who washed Jesus feet with her tears understood much more deeply than any of the religious scholars sitting at that table and looking down their noses at her did. We need to know grace like that, so its unconditional love brings us to our knees in gratitude, and makes us want to love that way too. Paul before he knew grace read the Bible and got it all wrong. After he met God in Christ on the Damascus road and was struck blind, it was a disciple who was willing to love his enemy who healed him. Think about how it would effect you to be healed by the people who you had tried to kill. That's grace. After that he suddenly got the Bible. We need to get some of that. So my prayer for you is that you would find grace in your life, that you would know what it means to be unconditionally loved, no matter how broken or messed up you are, and that being loved like that would change how you see everything.

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At 5:25 AM, Blogger Zack Allen said...

Such great stuff here, brother. At the same time, however, I can't help but feel like the mystics of old have been saying things like this all along and the academic community is just now starting to catch up (not to just lump you in with the latter, I consider myself to be a part of both too).

At 10:49 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Zack,

I agree that the mystics (and I want to stress here that this can just mean someone who really knows Jesus by spending time with him, and should not be seen as some special elite group) have known all this for a long time. What I think it significant is that people who are focused on prayer and being like Jesus for the most part don't write systematic theology. So what happens is that we have a whole lot of people who know all this stuff from their relationship with God, but when those folks look to the formulations of faith from us theologians, we give them these detached answers. They adopt these and have this Dr Jekyll and MR Hyde faith that does not fit.

Grenz once called himself a "pietist with a PhD." I think this captures well this balance of trying to articulate what relationship with God is about in a careful and complex way. This is an important task because too often relationship with God and experience-based faith is reduced to sentimental slogans... bumper stickers. As a result, a lot of people reject it as naieve, touchy-feely, and inner-focused. I want to try to show that it can instead be really deep, and deeply biblical.

At the same time this is intended as kick in the butt to my beloved academic community, who I often think needs to (theologically speaking) plunge their heads in a big bucket of ice water and wake up :)

At 10:43 AM, Anonymous Justin said...

"From that I want to argue that in order to really get the Bible"...

Then there's your dealing with this:

where you reject portions of the Bible.

While rejecting many parts of the OT is preferable to worshiping such an evil god, if one part is untrue, where do we find truth? Jesus accepted the OT as the word of god.

If I can discount the slaughter of people (except, in one case, virgins), can I not discount "turn the other cheek", or "take up your cross", or the whole living sacrifice thing? If I can reject 1st Sam 15:2-3, can I not likewise reject Galatians 2:20?

My traditional upbringing taught me that if part of the Bible is wrong, it all is, because of canon, cross referencing itself, blah blah blah.

The only thing I "get" about the Bible is that either 2/3rds of it is an attempt to use god to justify Israel's actions, or it presents to us a god worthy of only contempt and scorn, even at the risk of hellfire.

It is silly to think that the OT and NT are separated in their treatment of god and violence. Per Revelation, the god-commanded slaughter is supposed to begin again. Next time though, god will use angels and the elements to kill people instead of the jews. This will not be "correction", but pure and eternal punishment. Not grace at all.

I don't know how or why I ran across your site, but maybe you can answer this-

I've spent over thirty years trying to make the bible and gospel make sense. Why should I continue trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole? Why should or how can I continue to do the mental and moral gymnastics required to raise my hands in praise to the god of the bible? Why should I accept any of a bible that you yourself have claimed (your post on violence from 2007) is rife with outright lies?

Maybe I was sent here to get an answer. Or maybe I'm ranting in vain, wasting space on your website.

At 4:04 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Those are really good questions. I'll try to address them briefly here, but I also have been working on a large academic article where I tackle these issues in detail. If you send me an email (there's a link on the right sidebar above), I can share the article with you.

First, it is good that you are asking these questions. It shows integrity, and that is (I would argue) the right way to be faithful to the Bible and God. Jesus also challenged the way the Bible was read by the religious leaders of his time and as a result was called a "blasphemer" and a "friend of sinners" (not a compliment) and accused of being of the devil. So that means that the way Jesus read his Bible involved focusing more about caring for people, even when that meant breaking the Law (healing on the Sabbath, touching the unclean, etc), and even when that was perceived as blasphemous.

As a result I think it is inaccurate to simply say that Jesus "accepted the OT as the word of god". Yes he did, but he also had no problem with reversing laws "you have heard it said... but I say unto you" and rejecting certain things in the OT while embracing others. So I think your statement needs to be a bit more nuanced. Jesus did not simply accept everything the OT said hook line and sinker, he interpreted it through the eyes of grace. In fact the NT represents a certain interpretation of the OT that is quite different from how many others read it at that time. Consider for example how Paul read the OT before his conversion and how he thought God wanted him to persecute and kill Christians. After his conversion Paul described that whole way as "rubbish". That is quite a radical turnaround, and it involved him reading the OT in a radically different way than he had before once he met Jesus.

So I disagree that "if part of the Bible is wrong, it all is" and would say instead that because Jesus is the ultimate and direct revelation of God, that we need to read all of the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. Jesus is the hermeneutical key. It is therefore wrong to begin in the OT and project those values into the NT (which I see you doing with your interpretation of Revelations) and instead we need to begin with Jesus. Jesus interprets Revelations, so if what we read in Revelations contradicts the character of Jesus, then we need to seriously question our reading. That is in fact why many Christians over the years have questioned (and this goes all the way back to the early church and includes folks like Luther too) whether Revelations should even be in the canon. That should at least give us pause.

I definitely do think that the "the OT and NT are separated in their treatment of god and violence" and would suggest that the way to read Revelations (and other parts of the NT that speak of eschatological judgment) need to be read with the larger NT plot line of grace in mind, or else they will be misunderstood.

Hope that helps. Don't stop asking hard questions. Jesus and prophets did that too. So you are in good company :)

At 1:18 AM, Anonymous Justin said...


You said several things that stuck out to me.

"Jesus is the hermeneutical key."


"instead we need to begin with Jesus."

I have never heard anyone with these perspectives. I have never heard anyone willing to be a "heretic", in Jesus' name, as you say elsewhere on your blog. I have been called a heretic and a blasphemer (literally) for questions I have asked and positions I have taken on issues. I guess the problem is that up until now, I shrank from that title.

I have never heard of any perspective other than "all or none" concerning one's acceptance of the bible. Yet I have problem with the "mainstream" god, some of which I shared above. The result has been that I have resigned myself to a "backslidden" state, generally Christian, as it were, but unsure how to proceed. Unsure how to guide my children, as I know the terrifying responsibility of guiding them to God, and the consequences if I fail.

What you speak of here on your blog is freedom to me. Freedom to love Jesus and be loved, to love him AS JESUS, not as the slayer of the gentiles, the killer of the "not-chosen". Freedom to draw near, but not in the nervous way one would hug a convicted murderer with a knife in his hand. Freedom to, well, allow oneself to be completely embraced by Jesus and not to hold him back with a stiff arm.

My apologies for drawing this discussion off topic. I like your discussion of "getting" the bible. I know what you mean. One can memorize it, study it, preach it, read it over and again, yet still not "get" it. Not until the real life experience of CHRIST, real and in living color, wallops you over the head. Like Paul, as you said.

Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. That's truth, you know.


At 12:01 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Praise Jesus! That's wonderful to hear Justin!


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