Marrying Experience & Theology: A Response to Strange FireSaturday, October 19, 2013
The Gospel is a Marriage of Theology and Experience
Thankfully that is changing. Among movements like Newfrontiers, Acts 29, Sovereign Grace Ministries, and lesser-known groups such as the Association of Charismatic Reformed Churches and the Global Fellowship of the Reformed Charismatics. In these and similar groups there is a return to the healthy and imperative respect Scripture deserves. I prefer to recognize it by more biblical terms like “Word” and “Spirit”.
Consider the “Word” first, referring to the Word of God. No text is a wax nose to be fashioned according to ourpersonal experiences. "Authorial Intent"in any and every text is important. What God said through His writers 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. This is why Bible study is so crucial.
But the fact that it doesn't come so easy seems to account for why so few Christians engage in it. For many there are just too many gaps (cultural, historical, social, language, etc.) to bridge to get to the meaning of a text. As a result, the Bible is not fully appreciated by those who live by experience.
Cessationism’s quest for complete objectivity in Bible study is really a myth, because unfortunatelythis leaves absolutely no room whatsoever for the role experiences play. It is unavoidable that a Christian will always bring his or her experiences to their Bible study…every single time. Cessationists have an inward revolt on this point. And it’s ironic since both cessationists and continuationists agree that all experiences are used by God's sovereign providence for our good and His glory. It is very remarkable then – and humorously so - that so few cessationists give so little credence or attention to experiences that are just as much under God's design and control as the Scriptures!
…largely through experience, however.
I have found that experience is the place where God works out my theology in real life. 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. On a personal level, I’ve experienced great sadness as once-close friends and associations have distanced themselves from me due to my shift. And here’s my plea.
Almost always, in light of my theological, mostly reformed, and intellectual-based upbringing and training, I've picked a fight with experience. Yet, 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!
So here’s the “million dollar” question: Why do we tolerate it then, in this house where theology and experience long to be happily married to each other? What would life be like if the nosy neighbors would just keep to their own business!?
As lost people we had once had onlyone view of the Bible.
Like me, if you grew up “in church,” we may have carried our Bibles with us when our parents made us go. Or we have may have carried it with us so we wouldn't stand out like a sore thumb as everybody else was 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. It’s just irrelevant to them. It's boring! It carries no interest for them whatsoever.
So experience rushed headlong into my "theology" and tackled it! And then married it. Now look at it from the other perspective.
And though he wasn’t on my musical radar, Joe Cocker’s words were always at the center of it, when he sang, “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.
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! And no Christian who’s been genuinely converted will say that this moment in their life is not an experience!
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.
Does it really matter?
Cessationists say experience cannot be the judge of anything. Rather, Scripture alone should guide us and direct our experience. Yet even though cessationists 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. And this brings a helpful shaping of the illustration here.
The relationship between theology and experience seems to me to basically be 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…both created by God in His image.
God Himself is a theological and experiential being. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all are clearly displayed in the Bible as theological (with God-centered and Godward thoughts) and experiential (each experiencing a wide of array of encounters and emotions). Like all illustrations this one breaks down eventually. But I think you get the point.
Cessationists would have Theology be the “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 possibly more important than he is. And he’d do well not to forget it! Mrs. Experience is willing to let Mr. Theology believe he wears the pants in the family. But do not be mistaken…she tells him what pair to put on!
But across the street in the Cessationist household, Mr. Theology knows he’s in charge. All bold about his dogma, large and in charge of Mrs. Experience with a pristine arrogance, self-deceived that their marriage is clouded with the glory of God. He wears the pants in the family, and he picks them out, and any fashion tips from Mrs. Experience are merely reflections of her insubordination.
I’d rather live in a tent in the middle of the street. Here’s what that looks like to me.
To borrow a phrase from 1 Peter 3:7, Mrs. Experience is a joint-heir in the grace of life for Mr. Theology. She woos her husband and captivates him with her beauty, majesty, splendor, and mystery of the living God in moment-by-moment activity throughout daily life.
I’m shaking my head right now, even as I read this passage again. There is no greater illustration than this passage of the domineering husband, Mr. Theology. Jesus, the marriage counselor, patiently counsels the husband, who in this story is a 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,or blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Regardless of your theological view on this as, to whether or not it can take place today, 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.
This passage is so crucial for Christians. Since “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us,” this passage in Acts teaches us that it is possible to be a Christian and yet not have experienced the power of God.
The Ephesians were believers. They had been taught good theology from Apollos. But a missing component…an experiential component…was clearly evident. Experiencing the Holy Spirit better informed, morphed, and shaped their theology.
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 a good theology of Jesus Christ (v. 28).
“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).
Here’s my definition of experience then, based on passages like these:
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 on the way to Emmaus? The burning in the heart they were experiencing was consummated by the revelation of their Savior sitting there in front of them all along! And that type of thing seems to be the norm throughout Scripture.
I’ve read the Bible through several times, and though I may have missed it, I don’t recall anyone ever following God because they were intellectually or theologically convinced of something that was presented. Instead, what I see over and over again is someone’s intellect and theology being overcome and persuaded with an experience with God.
To be sure, Joel’s prophecy had an application to the people of God in his 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.
But even this theological conclusion was guided and shaped by Peter’s experience, wasn’t it? That conclusion came after a vision which helped guide and shape his theology about Gentiles and their place in salvation history.
I find it ironic that I once embraced a theology that readily admitted an experience for people living in “the Bible days” and yet denied it for believers living in the church age. I also find it hypocritical that I once embraced a theology that acknowledged the Holy Spirit as the source of Christian experience, while rejecting the fact that the Spirit is sovereign and can – and does – create any experience He jolly well pleases for His glory!
It was the Holy Spirit’s work that brought about the gift tongues in Acts 2, the signs and wonders and miracles among the Samaritans in Acts 8, the salvation of Gentiles in Acts 10, the gift of tongues in Cornelius family 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. I could go on and on.
And it’s worse to conclude that the type of things God supposedly does in the world today since “the Bible days,” 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. Yes, I’ve heard that accusation as well, and it’s as extremely disturbing as it is polarizing.
I like to flip that argument on its head, even if based on nothing else other than what Jesus tried to show the Pharisees. 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!
The gospel is their home. It is a message that cannot exist without both theology and experience. 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, as well as the shaping and molding of what I believe at the hands of my experience. And this, in my opinion, is the foundation of biblical-charismatic theology, a theology of the Word and Spirit.