Continuing a discussion that began last Monday, I want to talk about Experience and its role in thinking about theological issues. We’ve talked about what is known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which sees four voices in discussions of religious matters: Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience. John Wesley, for whom the system is named, placed Scripture above all else, but recognized the influence of the other three. We’ve been trying to consider the role that each has and should have in theological reflection.
We saw the importance of Reason to Modernists, so important that it was/is allowed to trump Scripture itself in some discussions. For Post-Modernists, this rarely happens. Their trump card, so to speak, is Experience. They’ll listen to discussions of theology and scholarship, but will only give them merit insofar as such discussions align with their Experience. The Bible is read as being a record of another people’s Experience; its teaching may or may not be applicable to my situation, my Experience.
There are a few points that need to be considered. One is the fact that a Christian’s Experience should be led and shaped by the Holy Spirit. That gives a status of credibility to Experience; it’s not just anecdotal evidence if the Spirit is involved. At the same time, the great problem is being able to recognize when the Spirit is leading, when our cultural context is leading, and when our human nature is leading.
The second point comes down to the limited nature of Experience. I recently wrote a Heartlight article about the fable of the wise men and the elephant. We need to recognize that our Experience is nothing more than that… it is ours. The Internet has enabled us to find thousands of peoples with stories similar to ours, so that convinces us that our Experience is virtually universal. It’s not. Experience alone will never lead us to truth. It must be shaped by Reason and tempered by Tradition. And, above all, it must be controlled by Scripture.
The last point I would make concerns the extreme danger of following the human heart. The Bible gives numerous warnings about this peril. In fact, that is surely the shortcoming of Reason, Tradition, and Experience; they are far too human. Over-reliance on Experience gives veto power to feelings and executive authority to emotions. And we run the risk of falling into that famous description from Judges: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Just read the book of Judges to see how that turned out.
So we turn a distrustful eye to Experience, or, should I say, a discerning eye, looking to hear the voice of the Spirit within the cacophony of sound that is Experience. And we let Scripture interpret Experience, never the other way around.