Should Experience be a Source for Theology?

May 15, 2014
Essay Theology

(An old essay, rediscovered. I post it particularly for the bit about Elihu–whom I consider something of a defining influence.)

Christian Consistency & Intellectual Integrity

The task of the theologian is to aid the Christian Church in its quest for intellectual integrity: that is to ensure that the Church’s sacra doctrina is consistent. This consistency must be firstly with the message of the Church, as revealed in the “the prophets and the apostles” – as Barth rightly reminds us, “we must keep to Holy Scripture as the witness of revelation” .

Secondly, the teaching of the Church must be consistent with itself. Paul’s words to the Corinthians regarding the need for intelligibility apply equally to rational coherence as they do to the more obviously charismatic gifts : “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?”.

Thirdly, the teaching of the Church must be consistent with her practice, for “faith alone, without works, is dead”, and “God will bring every deed into judgement”. The task of the theologian is thus to pursue integrity of thought, speech, feeling and action.

This being established, we can now ask in what ways experience should act as a source for Christian theology. There are a number of points to be considered on this subject – this essay is by no means an attempt to offer a comprehensive discussion of all the nuances involved, but simply to provide some account of the challenges that a theologian must face in dealing with the subject of experience, and then to make a few suggestions about the role of experience within theology.

Problems with ‘Experience’

Firstly, the most important thing to say regarding ‘experience’ is that there is no part of a person’s life that is not ‘experience’. Further, to somehow delineate ‘religious’ experience from ‘secular’ or ‘normal’ experience – as contemporary Western culture so consistently does – is both unhelpful and deluded.

If God exists, and sustains the cosmos by His sovereign grace, then the very fact that we are able to experience anything is because of His grace – and is thus in some sense at least should be ‘a religious experience’. And apart from the necessary theological critique of the idea that any thing is truly independent of God, the fact must also be acknowledged that the way we experience the world is conditioned by our cultural-linguistic background (as Lindbeck so rightly points out). The way we interpret the facts of our existence is utterly dependent on the meta-narratives with which we understand our lives, be they implicit or explicit.

However, it must equally be acknowledged that our understanding is dependent on our experience. That there is a mutual conditioning of understanding and experience is vital for the theologian to take into account, for two reasons. Firstly, the theologian must have the humility to recognise that he will have, at best, a limited understanding of sacred things until he has himself experienced them. This is why the best theology begins with prayer and rises towards doxology: as we so clearly in the apostle Paul, and in Augustine’s Confessions. Second, the theologian must appreciate that the need for experience in order to truly understand is equally true of his audience: be they his fellow theologians, philosophers in a secular university, or the congregation of his church.

This is why Barth is wrong when he says that the Church is “not to allow itself to take its problems from anything else but Scripture” . If the infallible Word of God declared in Scripture is to become incarnate in the world in which the Church finds herself, then all the problems – philosophical, ethical, and otherwise – of the world must be answered “with grace, seasoned with salt”.

The Poverty of our Experience

The supreme problem that the theologian faces with regards to experience is the chasm that often looms between the glorious subject of the Church’s holy teaching and between experience – both that of our audience and of ourselves. And this is precisely not something that can be overcome by human effort – it is solely dependent on the gracious activity of God. This is why any discussion about theological experience must acknowledge that the most important aspect of any man’s experience is the testimony of the Holy Spirit with his spirit that he is a child of God.

Whether one has experienced this testimony is something that no man can know of another – and even of himself, no man can understand what is meant by this until he has experienced it, and then only by faith. When faced with an audience who has not been ‘born again’ (a phrase which we will use, in spite of the way it has been misunderstood and abused), the theologian must therefore expect to be misunderstood. And even when a man has been spiritually regenerated, there will remain truths that he has not yet grasped.

Indeed, this will be true of each of us, for “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my thoughts higher than your thoughts, says the LORD”. But this is a reason for hope rather than despair, for (in this passage, Isaiah 55) it is precisely because of this that God chooses to have mercy on the repentant man. For this is the experience of every Christian: that once we were dead in our sins, but now we are alive in Christ. And this is the role of the theologian: to declare the word of God in faith that His “word will not return empty”, but that in the proclamation of His Word, God will act to bring people into a fuller experience of His glorious grace; to bring the unbelieving from spiritual death into life, and to bring the faithful closer towards spiritual maturity.

Or at least, this is the role of the Church. The theologian’s role is to grapple continually with the tension between the need for contextualisation and faithfulness. On the one hand the theologian’s task is to help make the Word spoken by the Church become incarnate in the situation in which she finds herself, on the other hand the theologian must be continually testing the teaching of the Church against the witness of the Scriptures and the testimony of the Spirit.

The Necessity & Vitality of Testimony

This is why Christian testimony is so important and so powerful: because in our stories of how God has intervened in our lives we demonstrate that experience and theology are related. Augustine’s Confessions is the classic example of this. It demonstrates not only that our experience can be interpreted theologically – and not only can, but inevitably is – but also that our theology – that which we consider most important, our ‘god’ – will propel our experience. He also demonstrates – in his almost unconscious speaking of the Psalter – that Scripture and ‘experience’ are not opposed theological sources, but rather that Scripture is a lens through which we can understand our experiences.

Of course, the Bible is itself testimony: the written narrative of the experience of the people of God. And within the Bible we are confronted by a vast spectrum of experiences which we continue to encounter today: the sense that once God spoke powerfully to His people, but now He is faraway (eg. Ps. 89); the misunderstanding of the word of God because of the incompatibility of the cultural-linguistic framework of the audience with its delivery (as in Acts when Paul and Barnabas do miracles expecting the people to glorify God and listen to their preaching of Jesus as Lord, but instead are heralded themselves as gods); the overemphasised desire to experience the Holy Spirit that leads to a false sense of what is truly wisdom (1 Corinthians).

This latter tendency – to put too great an emphasis on experience, at the expense of the integrity of theology – is a particular problem; and one that is by no means uniquely Corinthian. In their commendable emphasis on the unique authority of the Word of God, the Reformers tended to be very pessimistic about the role of experience in theology, and this has unfortunately at times left a legacy that has effectively quenched the Spirit. To refuse to engage with experience as a theological source may seem to be the easier option, but a theology which is unrelated to experience will ultimately help no one.

Elihu: Theologian Amongst Philosophers

Most importantly though, the theologian must remember that the experience of the people whom he is addressing pales in comparison to the importance of the experience to which he is calling them.

We see this in the book of Job, a story which reflects profoundly on the relation between experience and theology. The hero of the story is, at least by my reading, the little-known Elihu. Younger in years than the rest of Job’s friends, he sits silently while they proffer various theological analyses of Job’s apparently incongruous situation (surely God does not let the righteous suffer!) Eventually, after they have failed to offer Job any comfort, Elihu’s frustration with the dead theology of his elders explodes in a passionate defence of the glory of God.

In content, his analysis of Job’s situation is fairly similar to that of Eliphaz, Zophar and Bildad – and this has left many commentators baffled as to why Elihu is not also rebuked by the LORD at the end of the story, as the other three are. However, such commentators fail to appreciate that although Elihu has said much that is the same as that of his companions, he has not – for all his imperfections – failed to speak rightly of God (cf. Job 42.8) because he has acknowledged the glory of God, and indeed his “heart trembles, and leaps out of its place”(37.1) as he contemplates this glory. It is this heart-felt proclamation of the all-surpassing majesty of God which paves the way for the LORD himself to appear to Job, addressing Job in the midst of his experience of suffering and finally calling him into an experience much better than his initial circumstances.

The role of the theologian – the man who dares to speak of God – must be the same. Firstly, to sit silently with the people of this world and try to understand something of their experience – to become incarnate. Secondly, we must ourselves experience and tremble at the glory of the LORD. Thirdly, to wait upon the prompting of the Spirit, until finally we can say with Elihu “my heart is indeed like wine that has no vent; like new wineskins, ready to burst. I must speak, so that I may find relief”. And finally we must declare with boldness the word of God, in faith that He will then act, and call people into a new and more glorious experience of His grace.