The Gospel: A Marriage of Theology and Experience

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


There just ain't no doubt about it and no gettin' around it. This is a stinkin' long post, as my redneck brothers would say. But I double-dog dare you to work through it and see what you think.
A dear friend and I were talking today about the fears commonly and inherently associated with the continuationist position among cessationists. The fear is basic. It is subjectivism.

Subjectivism is opinion guided by one's own experience. To be fair, this has guided much of the charismatic movement when it began. Weighing Scripture by one's experience became a common practice. The meaning of a text no longer matters as it seemed to come under the spell of a neo-neo-orthodox approach, which teaches that the Scriptures mean what they mean to each individual person. As a result crucial issues like hermeneutics, exegesis, and exposition melted like wax under the heat of personal experience and subjectivism.

Thankfully that is changing. Among movements like Acts 29, Sovereign Grace Ministries, and Association of Charismatic Reformed Churches there is a return to the healthy and imperative respect Scripture deserves. No text is a wax nose to be fashioned according to our experiences. Authorial Intent in any and every text is important. What God said through His agents needs to be interpreted correctly in light of when He said it, why He said it, where He said it, how He said it, and to whom He said it.

However, the danger too easily becomes another pendulum swing. We go from one extreme to another when we swing away from "Experience Interprets Theology" to "Theology Interprets Experience." But that's where cessationism as a whole seems to have swung. And I was a Tarzan in my own jungle once swinging on that same vine. Now, I've seen the value in just hanging on the vine until it finds a theological equilibrium.

At present I believe the gospel is that equilibrium. It is the place where experience and theology marry and get along with each other. It is the home where both of these "spouses" help mature and encourage one another and live in harmony. Sure there will be family fights, quarrels, disagreements, and "issues" each will have with the other. But until we face the fact that they are married and should be married, we will be treating each like they are divorced tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners who have apostasized from the family of God.

Theology and experience get along fine with each other...as long as we let them. But when we pit one against the other we create family fights that really shouldn't exist. We intrude into this home of the gospel, take a side, and begin picking fights with the other side. If any man arbitrarily intruded into my home, took a side with me on an issue where there were no "sides" and starting picking a fight with my wife, I'd be liable to do something unchristian to him! But we tolerate it in this house where theology and experience long to be happily married to each other if the nosy neighbors would just keep to their own business.

When I say the gospel is the home where theology and experience are happily married, I merely mean that the gospel is the foremost place in which they meet and fall in love with each other. Think about it for a second. As lost people we had one view of the Bible: it's boring. Oh sure, we may have carried it with us to church when our parents made us go. Or we have may have carried it with us so we wouldn't look like a dolt at church as everybody else is carrying theirs in the building. But the long and short of it is that lost people don't like God's Word. It's not that they don't want to read it. They hate it! It's boring! It carries no interest for them whatsoever. And that's their theology, plain and simple. God is a God who is "out there" if He's there at all. And the Bible is a book filled with stories about people who followed God. That's nice for them. But it was boring for me. And it always is for lost people.

Yet what happened when the Holy Spirit showed up? He brought a new "experience" with him. It was called regeneration! It blasted its way through my "theology" and saved me from my own delusions and from the wrath of God headed my way because of those delusions. So experience rushed headlong into my "theology" and tackled it! And then married it. Now look at it from the other perspective.

My experience ruled my heart. I knew what I knew and that’s all I needed to know. I didn’t need anybody telling me what to do. “We don’t need no education! Teachers leave us kids alone!!” “All I know is the way I feel, and if it’s real I’m gonna keep it alive!” Songs like these still have a residue left on my brain because they appeal to my life before Christ. It’s experience and subjectivism plain and simple.

Yet what happened when the Holy Spirit showed up? He brought a new belief with Him. He brought a theology of the gospel to my experience. It was called faith and repentance. He convinced me intellectually that I was a sinner and accompanied that conviction with sincere guilt and sorrow emotionally over my sins. When He brought these to bear on my mind I was converted! Glory be to God! So it was theology who rushed headlong into my experience and crushed it like a Yugo at a monster truck rally. And then theology married experience.

It was a missionary marriage from the start, wasn’t it. Theology dated, converted, and married my experience. Or was it that my experience dated, converted, and married my theology? Does it really matter?

Is it okay for experience to confirm the reality of something I’m exegeting, interpreting, or theologizing? Cessationists say experience cannot be the judge of anything, but rather Scripture alone should guide us and direct our experience. Even though they are historically inaccurate when they wave the banner of Sola Scriptura over this reasoning, I see some good in it because the other way around is really, really bad. I definitely don’t want experience bossing my theology around.

To be sure, this is a complimentarian approach to this marriage. Theology is the head of the household, and experience is the joyously submissive wife. But they are equals nonetheless. Cessationists would have Theology be the federal head of the house, the king of the roost, dictating for his bride Experience what is and is not of God. Charismaniacs, on the other hand, would have Experience be the egalitarian spouse of the house, constantly preaching to her husband Theology that she is just as, if not more important than he is and he’d do well not to forget it.

In the Charismaniac household, Experience is coming of age and finding her own way in a theological-cheauvanistic society where Theology has ruled the world far too long with his Experience-demeaning teaching and writing. But across the street in the Cessationist household, Theology knows he’s in charge, all bold about his dogma, large and in charge of his wife with a pristine arrogance clouded with the glory of God. I’d rather live in a tent in the middle of the street.

Experience is a joint-heir in the grace of life for theology. She woos her husband, theology, and captivates him with her beauty, majesty, splendor, and mystery of the living God in moment-by-moment activity throughout daily life. She quietly demonstrates for him, without preaching and teaching, the matchless and indescribable beauty and glory in the power of God through His marvelous acts of providence and miracle. The supernatural work of a God who sovereignly intervenes at will in His creation is her silent yet awestriking manifestation.

Her husband loves her. He also gently and faithfully guides her. He washes her with the water of the Word of God, sanctifying her. He lives with her in humble understanding, seeing her as a God-created equal….a divinely ordained help-meet! He needs her! Not to be his theological amanuensis, nor his ever-affirmative “yes man” but a lover and counselor.

I imagine Theology and Experience working and loving together like man and wife in the Song of Solomon. The imagery is rich with application to the subject here at hand. Give it a fresh read only as an illustration of the point I’m making here and see what changes.

The Pharisees had a hard time with this very concept. Their theology conflicted with the experience God introduced into the world in His Son. In Matthew 12 they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (v. 24). I’m shaking my head right now, even as I read this again. There is no greater illustration than this passage of the domineering husband Theology.

Jesus, the marriage counselor, patiently counsels the husband who in this story is Pharisee. “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste…And if Satan casts out Satan he is divided against himself. And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out?...But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (vv. 25-28). This is the story of the unforgivable sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Regardless of your theological view on this as to whether or not it can take place or not, the meaning is plain. Those who place the source of power for God’s miraculous works at the hands of the devil are speaking blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Jesus brings experience to bear on their theology. Their theology, good as it was, stemming from the Torah, made little allowances for the actual man God would come into this world as in order to set up His kingdom. His supernatural activity created new experiences they simply could not cope with. So they killed Him. This is a classic case where they should have allowed experience to influence their theology.

Thankfully the Ephesians did not respond this way by killing Paul. Paul, good charismatic that he was, asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” (Acts 19:2a). They said they hadn’t, explaining, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (v. 2b). They were believers. They had been taught good theology. But a missing component…an experiential component…was missing. Experiencing the Holy Spirit better informed, morphed, and shaped their theology.

Experience is the Aquila and Priscilla who, upon hearing Apollos “speak boldly in the synagogue” (Acts 18:26), “took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” He had great theology! “He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only of the baptism of John” (v. 25, emphasis added). Had he not been humble enough to receive the encouragement of Aquila and Priscilla, he would not have been welcomed by the other brothers (v. 27), nor would he have been able to be of such great and gracious help for the believers (v. 27), nor would he have been able to refute the Jews so powerfully with such good Christology (v. 28).

And what about those two fellows walking back home to Emmaus, so depressed that their friend had just been murdered? Not knowing it, they entertained their dear friend in conversation until nightfall, only to come the full realization of what He was teaching them along that way by an experience! “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him!” (Luke 23:30). Experience is that instantaneous and supernatural moment when God breaks into our intellects with something so mysterious, forcible and powerful that our theology is forced to bow in worship. Is this not what happened with these men? The burning in the heart they were experiencing was consummated by the revelation of their Savior sitting there in front of them all along!

Other passages come to mind. Acts 2 and Acts 15 in particular. They are monumental texts in the history of the church. Yet buried right there along with everything else in the text is the truth that the experience of tongues is what guided Peter to reshape his theology of Joel. It meant what it meant for the people of God in Joel’s day. But it’s fulfillment was realized through an experience. So also with the council of Jerusalem whose sole job there was reconciling the experience of Gentiles coming to salvation with a theology of Amos prophecies. Here again, experience guided and helped shape this theology. This was predicated, of course, on Peter’s experience in a vision which helped guide and shape his theology about Gentiles and their place in salvation history.

A great place to end this post is Romans 8 where we see the internal work and witness of the Holy Spirit – an almost completely subjective experience – validating and guiding and shaping our theology of the Holy Spirit as described in the Bible. And is this not the source of our experience? It was His work which brought about the tongues in Acts 2, the salvation of Gentiles in Acts 10, the tongues and prophesying of the Ephesians in Acts 19, the enlightening of the two men on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, the conversion of Paul in Acts 9. And it goes on and on.

The danger today is to think nonsense. It is nonsense to conclude, “That’s what the Holy Spirit did in the Bible. He doesn’t do that anymore today.” And it’s worse to conclude that those similar works of God which the Holy Spirit has in fact done in the world since then are actually ploys of the devil to trick us and make us a dumb group of people who rely more on our experiences than on the Scriptures. I think rather that we are encountering the same devil who wants to come up with the same irrational, illogical excuses like the ones he motivated the Pharisees to use with regard to the same miracles Jesus did in the NT. The ploy of the devil I’m speaking of here comes not in trying to trick us into living by experience more than Scripture. That is a real threat and charismaniacs prove it constantly. I’m speaking rather of the ploy he uses in trying to convince us that dismissing, neglecting, rejecting, ignoring, bashing, reasoning, and suspiciously judging against experience is smarter, more godly, more consistent, and definitely more biblical. The Bible preaches loudly and clearly against this!

Leave Theology and Experience alone, I say! They are happily married and will remain so in our lives and churches and bible studies if we quit trying to intrude into their harmony and pit one against the other. They like each other. No! They love each other! And the gospel is their home. For it is a message that cannot exist without both. A gospel without experience makes our heads blow up. A gospel without theology makes our hearts dry up. A gospel with experience and theology makes us grow up. Sanctification is the beautiful and mysterious outworking of what I am learning with what I am experiencing. And this, in my opinion, is the foundation of biblical-charismatic theology.

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