Marrying Experience & Theology: A Response to Strange Fire

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Gospel is a Marriage of Theology and Experience


 In light of the #strangefire conference led by my friend and mentor @johnmacarthur, I wanted to repost what I believe is a strong and healthy balance between the experience shunned by the cessationist camp and the theology sometimes shunned by the charismaniac camp. There is a balance. It's a marriage between the two, and it leads to a spiritual health referred to as word and spirit. It is evident that if there were church councils today, this subject of the Holy Spirit would be the subject of such a global meeting. 

There is just too much narrative and mandate in the Bible on things charismatic to summarily dismiss it in the name of solid exegesis. When there are present imperatives to do charismatic things but no similar or related imperatives to discontinue it, it's not faithful exegesis to dismiss it. It's actually bad hermeneutics.

However, when there are present imperatives dealing with error and false teachers but no honest confrontation of it within one's own circles, that too is dishonest bible study. If you know it's wrong but make no effort to help those you directly influence escape the error, that's bad friendship.

In the Spring of 2007, a dear friend and I were talking together about the fears commonly and inherently associated with the continuationist position among those who are cessationists.   The fear is basic. It is subjectivism.

Subjectivism is largely just 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 has become a common practice, and certainly this would be true of mostChristians if we're honest.  

When subjectivism takes root, the original, intended meaning of a text no longer really matters.  The Bible seems to have come under the spell of a neo-orthodox approach, which teaches that the Scriptures mean whatever 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 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.

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." Yet that's where cessationism as a whole seems to have swung. It seems to have fallen under the spell of modernism where an intellectual-based philosophy drives an approach to Bible study. 

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!

I was a Tarzan in my own jungle once, swinging on that same vine, going back and forth in a theological and experiential pendulum swing. Now, I've seen the value in just hanging on the vine until it finds a theological equilibrium...

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.

Theology and experience get along fine with each long as we let them. But when we pit one against the other we create family fights that really shouldn't exist. Far too long I have presumptuously intruded into this home of the gospel, taken a side, and began picking fights with the other side.

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!?

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 once had onlyone view of the Bible.


It's boring.


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.

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!!” Pink Floyd rang in my head quite often on this point.

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.

Yet again, 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! 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.

It was really a missionary marriage from the start, wasn’t it? Theology dated, converted, and married my experience. Or wait!  Was it the other way around?  Was it my experience that actually dated, converted, and married my theology?

Does it really matter?

Here again is another crucial question:  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.  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 brideExperience, 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!

In the Charismaniac household, Mrs.Experience is coming of age and finding her own way in a theological-chauvinistic society where Mr.Theology has ruled the world far too long With his Experience-demeaning teaching and writing, who does he think he is!

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.


Again, borrowing from 1 Peter 3:1-6, 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 awe-striking manifestation.

And Mr. Theology loves her deeply. 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! Notjust to be his theological administrative assistant, nor his ever-affirmative “yes man”, but a lover and counselor.

I imagine Mr. Theology and Mrs. Experience working, loving, ministering, and living 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 if it doesn’t shape your view of this issue.

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 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 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.

Jesus brings experience to bear on their theology. Their theology, good as it was, and stemming from the Torah, made little allowances for the truth that God would actually become a man.  They simply could not, and would not, allow their theology to be shaped by the experience of the incarnation, when God would come into this world as a human being, 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. 

The Pharisees may have been successful in killing Jesus for this supposed blasphemy.  Thankfully however, 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).

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 evidentExperiencing 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 a good theology of Jesus Christ (v. 28).

And what about those two fellows in Luke 23 who were walking back home to Emmaus, so depressed that their friend had just been murdered? They entertained their dear friend in conversation for the rest of the day on into the night.  Then suddenly, they came to the full realization of what He was teaching them all along by way ofan 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).


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.

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.

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 experienceSo 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.

For me personally, perhaps the most prominent passage is found in Romans 8.  It is there that we see the internal work and witness of the Holy Spirit.  It is an almost completely subjective experience, one that validates and guides and shapes the very theology of the Holy Spirit that solid Christians believe and teach.  Yet how so many seem to divorce experience from that theology!

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


The bottom line is summed up by the great Charles Spurgeon, known in the 1800's as the "Prince of Preachers."  He once said, "There is a point in grace as much above the ordinary Christian as the ordinary Christian is above the worldling."  And another prince of preachers in the 1900's, named Martyn Lloyd-Jones, interpreted Spurgeon's statement to mean that there is "a point in the experience of the ordinary Christian which is as much above the experience of the ordinary Christian as the experience of the ordinary Christian is above the experience of the man who is not a Christian at all."  

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.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that I could pay my house off quite early!  

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!

Leave Mr. Theology and Mrs.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!

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.

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