This post is part of a series.
In Parts I, II, and III of this series, we were introduced to the Wesleyan Quadrangle (WQ), and discussed how theology must be developed with Scripture as pre-eminent but in concert with tradition and reason. The last diad to examine is the relationship between scripture and experience.
Why is experience necessary in developing theology?
For this one reason – scripture does not represent a subjective view of reality, but claims to be explaining objective spiritual and historical truths. If these truths don’t match up with experience, we may not be understanding them correctly (or they may not be true at all!).
In fact, this is why one of the mainstays of Protestant evangelism is the personal testimony – because we are claiming that Jesus is real and changes people who believe. If no one ever experienced this, what good would our theology be? Changed lives are an experiential evidence of our theology, of our views of God. If our faith can’t be borne out in experience, how would we be able to call it real at all?
Now, some will complain that the subjective nature of experience means that I could fool myself into believing things that aren’t so, yet claim a personal testimony that they are true – like when Mormons claim that they have experienced the “burning in the bosom” when determining truth. This is a good criticism, but in this case, this is a misunderstanding of how experience should work in confirming our understanding of scripture.
As we live out our lives, we all have incomplete or incorrect understandings of how the spiritual world, principles, and God work in reality. Reality has a nice way of slapping us in the face when such misconceptions are present. We may believe, for instance, that God will protect us from harm, but we may experience something entirely different – we may, for instance, have been ignoring Jesus’ promise that “all who desire to live Godly will suffer persecution.” It is easy to think we have the whole picture when we are immature in our faith, and reality helps us develop a faith that is based on reality.
One of the risks of living a purely intellectual faith, besides the fact that we may be internally consistent in our theology but totally out of whack with reality, is that the scriptures only approach to theology makes us vulnerable to intellectual and religious pride, turning us into egotistical, self-righteous religionists who become distanced from real truth and LOVE. As it is said, there is no teacher like experience. Experience can test our beliefs, hone them, cause us to reject beliefs that do not match reality, and finally, embrace reality.
But why put scripture above experience, or why use scripture at all?
It has been said about religious experience:
It is one thing to experience a spiritual or supernatural event
It is quite another thing to properly interpret what we experience
I may pray to Mary, Buddha, God, or my aloe plant, and get “miraculously” healed of something, and claim that these idols accomplished the feat. However, in reality, the fact is that my healing may have been the result of something entirely different. Or, I may swoon and think it is God’s presence, when really, I just forgot to eat breakfast and my blood sugar is low.
These examples illustrate how we can misinterpret the causative agents or processes behind what we experience. Part of the role of scripture is to put our experiences into a framework – that provided by experienced spiritual people, and by the revealed explanations of God.
One of the reasons this is important is that evil things can at first appear good, since “the Devil clothes himself as an angel of light.” So while people like Mohammed or Joseph Smith felt they were talking to angels, in reality, they may have been talking to fallen angels who led them astray. All one has to do today is look at the fruits of Islam and know to whom Mohammed was most likely speaking (John 8:44).
The real issue here is that people who live only by experience can and do end up in spiritually dangerous, hurtful, and often manipulative spiritual systems, something which we may call heresy. Having doctrine from scripture as an interpreter of our experiences helps us stay closer to the truth.
Or even better, my favorite, and original quote on the necessity of experience goes like this:
Experience without doctrine leads to heresy
Doctrine without experience leads to Pharisee
Experience gives us the necessary feedback on our ideological concepts to help us see where they don’t match reality, or where they are incomplete in describing reality. Experience keeps us honest in our theology. Theology, on theother hand, is meant to describe the reality of God and the principles of His Kingdom and the spiritual world, keeping us from wandering off into harmful interpretations of what we experience, and keeps us from “the wiles of the Devil.” (Ephesians 6:11)