Whether consciously or unconsciously received, experience affects the way evangelicals interpret texts that deal with . . .
- God the Father
- God the Son
- God the Holy Spirit
- sign gifts
- divorce and remarriage
- assurance of salvation
- social injustice
- apocalyptic and prophetic texts
. . . to name just a few.
The experience of personal physical suffering and the physical suffering of loved ones can also reshape our perceptions of God. One’s theological views may change in the heat of crisis, or in the accumulation of experiences in the mundane procession of life. Both for good and for ill, experience colors our perspective and adds definition to our understanding of God and His written word.
Robert McAfee Brown has maintained that experience grounds and places an interpreter within a particular viewing location in life. Regarding one’s perspective of reality, he concludes that:
- What we see is not necessarily what is there.
- What we see depends on where we are standing.
- When others tell us what they see, we need to know where they are standing as well as where we are standing.
- No matter how much anybody sees, nobody sees it all.
- What we see is always subject to correction (Brown, Theology in A New Key, 60).
While Brown’s statements invite critique at several points, it can be agreed that perspective, the interpreter’s “viewing location,” is affected by prior life experiences. Acknowledging this does not mean buying into a whimsical interpretive relativism. However, it does lead us to the irrefutable fact that evangelicals “stand” at different places of surveillance in their reading of Scripture.
One author puts this way, “Theological work properly reflects a life-long involvement on the part of the theologian in the experience and language of the Christian community. A continuity of experience links the horizon of past Christian communities and the texts they produced to the interpreter in the present. As the theologian is molded by the Christian community and its uses of language, he or she is introduced into a chain of experience which extends back to the scriptural beginnings of the [Jesus] tradition” (Omnen, “Preunderstanding,” 248-49).
Experience, then, is not necessarily an adversary to sound doctrine. Rather, sound doctrine provides a framework that corrects, supports, gives meaning to the experiences of individual Christians. As McGrath keenly notes, “It is the sheer elusiveness of human experience, its obstinate refusal to be imprisoned within a verbal matrix, which underlies the need for … doctrine” (McGrath, Genesis of Doctrine, 66-72).
In this same connection, Frame’s reminder is helpful:
“… there is … experience by which we grow in Christian maturity—the experience of living the Christian life, meeting challenges, succeeding, failing, praying, finding answers to prayers, persevering when answers aren’t given, struggling against sin, and enduring hardship for Christ’s sake. In many situations we live out those experiences described in Scripture; we experience what the Lord Jesus and His great saints experienced. Experience in this sense is important in showing us the meaning of Scripture” (Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 334-35).
While acknowledging that experience serves a role in informing our theological theology, there is an ongoing need for prudent accountability in this matter. Experience must always play a subordinate role to Scripture. Scripture must inform one’s personal experiences. Experiences must be subject to the scrutiny of other mature believers (Gal. 2:2, 6, 10; 1 Thess. 5:19-22; Luke 10:16; John 13:20; 1 John 4:1, 6). Not to heed this will run the risk of all sorts of self-deception. As a general rule problems arise: (1) when those in leadership stifle believers’ experiences; and (2) when believers with experiences cast aside the spiritual discretion of those in leadership
Individual subjectivity will always require the discretion of collective objectivity, a mature, humble objectivity that is biblically-informed and animated by the Holy Spirit. Collective objectivity of the Christian community tests, in all ways possible, one’s subjective impressions, so that the community as a whole may arrive at a true and reliable interpretation of reality.
Let’s hear your comments on this proposal . . .
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