The Importance of Experience

The Importance of Experience

I was thinking of titling this “In Which I Annoy My Evangelical United Methodist Friends,” since so many of them are talking about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and trying to privilege scripture within it in some way. I am not entirely in sympathy with many of these approaches.

You see, the moment I decided to take a closer look at the United Methodist Church was when I read in the United Methodist Discipline (1992, I think), about the sources of our faith. It’s not that I thought this statement was unique. Neither was it because I thought that Methodists had discovered the way to understand scripture correctly. Rather, I thought it honestly described what we actually do. And by “we” I do not mean just Methodists, but all Christians who use the Bible. We do not understand the Bible without our experience and our tradition, which is just experience collected across space/people and time. Reason ties these things together. Without our reason, we don’t come up with any interpretation of scripture at all.

What privileges scripture, to the extent that it is privileged, is that it is the most universal, most tested, and most accepted source. My personal experience may be very important to me. In fact, it is. My personal encounters with God have an enormous impact on how I understand my faith. But the fact that I believe that God has told me a certain thing doesn’t make that determinative for someone else.

Each congregation has a tradition, built on the collected experiences of that group. There will be similarities within a denomination, but there are local traditions. There are family traditions as well, collections of the experiences of members of that family over time. Denominations have traditions of their own and stand within broader tradition streams. For Methodists we have the Church of England as a source of tradition. Yes, we do carry things from that background. Then we have many who have broken off based on various elements of our own tradition.

All of these experiences have an impact, conscious or otherwise, on how we understand and apply scripture. It cannot be any other way.

This is one reason why I dislike the inerrancy debates, even though I’ve participated. I do not affirm the doctrine of inerrancy. The usual response to that is for someone who does affirm it to ask me for my list of errors with the intention of providing his or her list of resolutions for those errors. I don’t have a list of errors in scripture. I believe the Bible is what God wanted it to be. But that’s a belief that derives from my doctrine of God and not from any observations about the Bible and history or the Bible and science.

Each item on such a list of biblical errors can be translated as “My errant understanding of subject X says that my errant understanding of scripture passage Y is in error.” Where’s the inerrant standard, inerrantly understood, that lets me determine whether the Bible is actually inerrant?

So I make a different affirmation: When you’ve heard the message God has for you in scripture, that message is true. I follow it with an additional note: To the extent you need to, you can discover God’s message for you in scripture. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

I have absolute confidence that God is speaking. I have similar confidence that my hearing is defective. That goes whether I’m feeling God’s presence as I listen to Mahalia Jackson singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” hearing God’s voice in my head as I pray and spend silent time listening for it, or interpreting a passage of scripture.

So what advantage does scripture have over my general impressions? To paraphrase Paul, much in every way. I’m tremendously thankful to folks like Abraham who had to listen to God’s voice without having that huge body, the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) whose testimony has been tested over and over again. It’s the church’s testimony and it’s of paramount importance as I work my way through my own experiences.

Here’s a discussion of this very issue. Thomas Hudgins and I don’t agree on all the details, but we do agree that these things work together to give us confidence in God.

But it’s also a training ground. Read about maturity in Hebrews 5:11-14. The Bible fails if we treat it as systematic theology, as a science text, or even as a history text. That failure is not because of some list of theological, scientific, or historical errors. Rather, it’s because God has chose to speak through the testimony (witness to experience?) of many different people at different times and places. He requires us to use discernment and to see what is right and wrong as the decisions are placed before us.

quad1So back to the quadrilateral. I treat it both as quadrilateral and as equilateral. We can enter by any door. Any one of these elements may provide the right question and might contain the right answer. It will not always end at scripture.

But … and it’s an important but … there is a problem with the way United Methodists use the quadrilateral all too often. We tend to use it as a four lane highway. Which of the lanes can I get my idea through? If I get my idea through one, that’s enough. Instead, we need to use this as a four layer filter. Every answer we get to a question needs to interact with all elements. How does it relate to scripture? How does it fit with experience? What can we learn about this sort of thing through tradition? All of those questions will, of course, be processed by our reason. But that’s what the Spirit of Truth is for, after all, to guide us into all truth (John 16:13)! I illustrated this process with the diagram to the left in my book When People Speak for God.

I believe that the nature of scripture is absolutely intentional on God’s part. Rather than giving us easy answers to easy questions he has given us a combination of testimony to God’s action in the world and principles (embedded in the testimony) by which we can make such decisions. When Jesus says, “On these two hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40), he provides us with such a principle of interpretation. This is not a principle that helps you discover what the historical intent of a writer was. We have quite useful techniques of exegesis for that. But it provides us a principle for how we, as Christians living in the 21st century should apply it. Sometimes it says that the people who were doing their best to follow God didn’t live up to it. We should take those stories and try to hang the lessons we think we learn from them from the two commands as Jesus said.

It’s interesting to compare the stories of Patriarchs in Hebrews 11 to their sources in Hebrew scripture. Moses left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king (Hebrews 11:27), but he was afraid (Exodus 2:14). A biblical error? A contradiction? No! A testimony to what is seen by the eyes of faith.

We need to struggle with these stories if we’re to see where we are and where we need to be brought to greater maturity. How many of us need to learn not to fear the wrath of the king? But if we look earlier in that same passage, how many of us need to learn not to take God’s work into our own hands through violence?

Testimony, the telling of our own stories and experience, doesn’t give us the sort of systematic set of answers we might prefer. But it does train us to think, to discern, and to decide.

My guess is that’s what God was after in allowing scripture to come into being as it did.

Oh, and one more thing …

Tonight I’ll be talking with author Doris Horton Murdoch about testimonies in a Google Hangout on Air titled Lent: Season of Testimonies.

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Experience

  1. I like your target graphic, which seems to me to illustrate the fact that *three* of the categories are actually experience: my experience; the experience of the church generally; the experience of very respected early writers thought to have been original apostles or writing on their behalf. Though actually, both tradition and scripture also include some use of reason by others…

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