Tag Archives: experience

Replacing biblical authority with that of experience

Let me get back to a topic from last week. I was talking about Christians and churches accepting an additional authority in spiritual matters, that being the authority of experience.

Jay Guin is doing a series of articles on church trends. The first trend he discusses comes from an article by Philip Jenkins and focuses on “gender revolutions.” Let me quote a few things from what Jay says; listen to see if you can hear the voice of experience dominating the discussion in churches:

But there was an even bigger revolution that I’d date to around World War II. Pre-WWII, most conservative churches considered the biblical passages thought to prohibit women from having authority over men (primarily 1 Tim 2) to apply universally — in the secular workplace as well as church and family.
However, by the early 1960s at least, the commentators were limiting their arguments to the church and the family, largely conceding that women may have authority over men in the secular workplace — but more by omission. They just dropped the secular workplace side of the question. Why?
Well, first, women were busily proving their competence as principals of schools and administrators in other fields. And they were bringing home much larger pay checks because of it. And so the old argument of female gullibility was disproved by experience, and few men were willing to give up a 50% raise in their wife’s pay just to make a theological point.

The near future trend is that the complementarian (hierarchical) position will continue to erode as experience shows the competence of women as supervisors and as a generation that has never known the discrimination that I grew up with become church leaders and elders.
Now, for non-Christians, anything short of full equality for women is considered grossly immoral. Millennials consider the notion that women shouldn’t be full partners in a marriage or church laughable and deeply wrong. This is going to become less of an internal debate within the church and more a question of our ability to evangelize the lost, because few unchurched people will be willing to accept imposing a subordinate role on women.

To be fair, let me note that Jay makes powerful arguments for egalitarianism based on Scripture and theology. He is not one who has accepted the authority of experience over the voice of Scripture. But many in our churches have done so. For most, a desire to change the church’s stance on women does not arise out of Bible study or new insights into the text. It comes from experience, both personal experience and observed experience.

Interestingly enough, Jay included point #2 in the same post. (I don’t think the grouping was intentional) That point deals with “Revolutions in sexual identity.” I find that interesting because I can’t help but feel that we’re going to see the exact same thing happen in the church as regards sexual identity. Experience will cause us to return to the Bible and massage the text until it finally says what we want it to say.

Note what Jay says:

While some congregations are choosing to accept gay couples or else to take an agnostic position (same difference), most churches consider homosexual sexual activity to be sinful. And, indeed, I think this is what the Bible teaches (as we’ve covered here many times). But there will be a price to be paid as homosexuals push for legislation that punishes those who refuse to adopt their agenda. I’m sure that at some point the tax exempt status of churches will be challenged if they don’t submit to the gay agenda. And some churches and related institutions (universities, publishing houses) will capitulate rather than close their doors with the loss of tax-deductible contributions.

In both cases (gender and sexual identity), Jay notes that the church will have to pay a price to hold to traditional views. I’m less optimistic than he. I think few Christians and few churches are willing to pay that price. We’ve seen it in gender discussions. We’ll see it with conversations about sexual identity.

Give experience a voice equal to or greater than that given to Scripture, if you choose. Just be honest about it. I think you’re damaging the church by changing your source of authority. And I think generations in the future will return to Scripture and marvel at the choices we made.

Culture: The Uninvited Guest

Three_wise_monkeys_figureWe’ve been talking about Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience as they speak to us about religious matters. They form part of what is come to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. But as David noted last week, there’s another voice that speaks loudly as we discuss spiritual things: Culture.

If Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience are we voices that we accept and choose to listen to, Culture is all too often the uninvited guest. I’ve come to believe that when someone says, “Culture has nothing to do with this discussion,” that’s when Culture is playing its biggest role. Its influence is most effective when it goes unseen and unnoticed. Culture thrives on denial.

The hot topic at my home congregation is the role of women in worship. Everyone wants to claim that culture has nothing to do with their viewpoint. And that’s a big part of the problem. Let me explain:

  • Culture is a big part of the Bible. The Bible was revealed in cultural contexts, across many years. It was written in human language, not divine language. It addressed people living in a cultural context and expressed itself in ways they could understand. The New Testament letters, especially, were occasional documents, written to address a specific situation. That situation almost always had something to do with culture: misunderstandings of doctrine due to culture, churches following cultural practices, churches deciding how to resist cultural practices. Then add to the fact that we read the Bible in a translation in the language of our culture!
  • Some of the instructions about women were specifically tied to cultural things. The discussion of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 is an obvious example.
  • Those of us who read the Bible read in terms of our culture. When we read “church,” we think of a group of people that gather in a large auditorium, even though such things almost certainly didn’t exist when the Bible was written. We read “preach” and think of a man standing before an audience. We read “Scripture” and think of the bound Bibles that we hold in our hands.
  • The traditional view of the role of women is full of cultural influences. We’ve made standing in front of the assembled church, such as standing to pass communion trays, a sign of leadership. We’ve created, please note, we’ve created a Sunday assembly where there are song leaders, communion leaders, prayer leaders, and preachers. That’s not straight out of the pages of the Bible. That grew up out of culture.
  • The move toward an egalitarian stance has been heavily influenced by culture. Had there been no shift in the view of women in our culture, these discussions would not be taking place. It’s silly to deny that. I wouldn’t argue that the influence has been greater nor lesser than that on the traditional side; both sides have gotten where they’ve gotten with the aid of culture.

That’s just one example. The same happens with almost every Bible discussion. The question isn’t whether or not Culture will influence. The question is to what degree we will recognize and try to temper that influence. We don’t want to be led or controlled by Culture. But we do want to take a message from thousands of years ago and apply it to our current cultural situation.

Maybe Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience can lend us a hand.

The Ever-Present Voice of Experience

Dear DiaryContinuing 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.

The Voice of Tradition

tradition.001We started talking last week about theological reflection and the four elements of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience. We noted the predominance of Scripture in theological reflection, and we also discussed the limitations of depending on Scripture alone. Then we turned our attention to Reason, noting its popularity with Modernists, but also seeing its weaknesses.

Now I want to talk about Tradition. In Churches of Christ, we’ve had a love/hate relationship with Tradition. Going back to early Restorationists like Barton Stone and the Campbells, we find a real distrust of Tradition. The idea soon emerged in the Restoration Movement that most church history, from the 2nd century on, was a history of apostasy and digression; the goal was to restore the pure, simple faith of the first century. (which tends to idealize the first century church… but that’s another post)

Later generations would deal similarly with Stone and Alexander Campbell. The Movement would seek to uphold their ideals while rejecting many of their ideas and practices. Many today deny any dependence on Stone and Campbell, claiming a heritage that goes straight back to 33 A.D. Yet even these deniers of history protest loudly any divergence from the teachings and practices of Churches of Christ in the 1960s. That’s why I say it’s a love/hate relationship. In theory we reject Tradition; in practice, we tend to be very Tradition-bound.

So what role does Tradition play in theological reflection? I think it should play an important one, though I see it more as a safeguard than a definer of doctrine. What I mean is that we should seek theological answers from the pages of Scripture themselves, but the answers that we find should be compared with those that the Church has found throughout history. I don’t want to be innovative. I’m not seeking the new. I don’t consider my intellect to be superior to all those who came before me. I will disagree with many, but I hope to agree with many as well.

So, in my personal practice, I don’t place Tradition on the same plane with Reason and certainly not on the same plane with Scripture. However, it is a voice that needs to be heard more than it often is in our fellowship.

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
― Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities

The reign of Reason

syllogismAs I mentioned on Monday, when looking at the elements of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Reason, Tradition, Experience), our task is often to decide the order of influence of #s 2 through 4. Scripture is considered to be first, in most circles.

Modernism had no doubts: Reason was #2. Reason was how we understand the Bible. In fact, Scripture can be picked apart and put together again through Reason. Logic. Syllogisms. “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD” (Isaiah 1:18) was a popular verse. [Now, the student of culture in me drives me to point out that there are other forms of logic besides our own. As David observed yesterday, the role of culture in all of this is often overlooked. Generally, when we speak of Reason in terms of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, we are talking about the Western form of logic that we inherited from the Greeks.]

Reason proved to be a double-edged sword. Some traditions, like the one I grew up in, became too bound by logic. We had no use for poetic elements of the Bible. Narratives were taught mainly to children or used to glean 3-point lessons on life. There was little room for discussion of genres and their differences. We wanted BCV (book, chapter, verse) for everything. We cared little for context, little for literary elements. If we could pull out a verse or even just a phrase to support our views, we were happy.

It was felt that absolute spiritual truth could be reached by Reason and by Reason alone. Tradition was suspect. Experience was irrelevant. Reason was unchanging and faithful.

And so, in many circles, Reason came to trump Scripture! That is, reasoning from Scripture could overcome the teaching of Scripture itself, as illogical as that sounds. A proof text here and a proof text there, strung together by logical leaps and bounds… and an entire system of grace could be turned into legal code that the strictest Pharisee of Jesus’ day would have been envious of.

However, when used correctly, Reason can be a useful tool in theological reflection and Bible study. Nobody wants to arrive at conclusions that are irrational and completely illogical. That’s not the goal. But we must see that Reason alone is not sufficient and certainly must never be allowed to displace the Bible itself. In the end, Reason is a human thing, and as such, is open to all the weaknesses of the flesh. Let us reason together… with humility and subjection to the Word of God.