The Role of Experience in Theology

More on the topic of how we read the Bible:

I have long contended that we don’t simply “read the Bible and do what it says”; it’s always more complicated than that, and honesty requires us to admit this.  There are always other voices, in addition to the words of scripture, that guide us.

Richard Rohr talks about a hermeneutical “tricycle” (I’ve mentioned this before).  There are three wheels: church tradition, personal experience (interpreted through the Holy Spirit), and scripture.

Rohr suggests that personal experience is the front wheel, guiding our progress through issues.  So (for example), if your church is discussing issues related to accepting practicing homosexuals for membership, your friendships and experiences with practicing homosexuals will guide your decision.

(In a more academic way, this is where Luke Timothy Johnson lands on the same issue.  Johnson’s argument: Ever since God sent Peter to Cornelius and the Holy Spirit came on Gentiles [Acts 10-11], the church has been open to revelation through the Spirit’s action that changes its application of scripture.  So if he sees evidence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of gay Christians, he thinks the church should adjust its stance on the issue.)

An alternative to Rohr is the Wesleyan quadrilateral:

  • Scripture: the Bible is the standard (the canon) by which everything is measured.
  • Tradition: doctrine derived from the Bible must be aware of (and perhaps deal with in a respectful, adversarial way) Christian tradition.
  • Experience: the experience of the community (not just the individual) guides the development of doctrine.
  • Reason: doctrine must be able to withstand rational discussion.

For Wesley, tradition & experience & reason must not contradict the Bible.  They guide our understanding of scripture, but do not trump it.

Summary so far:

For Rohr, Johnson, and Wesley, our “subjective” experiences have a role in guiding our theology, alongside the (supposedly) more objective voices of the biblical text.  Church tradition also always has a role; none of us is tabula rasa.

Acts 10-11 is an example of the early church’s hermeneutics.  When the Holy Spirit spoke, they adjusted their application of scripture to submit to match their experience of him.

These things are proven and foundational.  They help us understand what we do (and what we SHOULD do) when we read and apply scripture.  As I wrote earlier, none of us “simply reads the Bible and does what it says.”  Whether we know it (or admit it) or not, we are always standing in a river of tradition and experience, and the current influences us strongly.


Which brings me to a new piece by Michael F. Bird.  He suggests that Galatians 3.1-5 (Paul’s rant) is another example of a New Testament hermeneutic of personal experience.

Here is Paul’s rant.  Note how he appeals NOT to scripture but to the Galatians own experience of the Holy Spirit.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? 4 Have you experienced [or suffered] so much in vain—if it really was in vain? 5 So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?

Bird writes:

Experience is the oft-neglected aspect of Paul’s theological appeals and argumentation. In some of his most polemical contexts (i.e., Galatians and Corinthians), Paul can appeal to a common experience as the basis for shared beliefs and behaviors. Jimmy Dunn in BFJ, writes this about Gal. 3.1-5:

“This repeated emphasis on experience has important theological corollaries. Paul’s understanding of the gospel was rooted in experience, his own and that of others. Here are clear instances of the creative and transforming power of a lively spiritual experience. It did not conform to or allow itself readily to be pigeonholed into the language and categories of their already existing traditions. Rather, as the molten lava of a volcanic eruption breaks open old surfaces and carves out new channels, so the power of molten experience forced language and life patterns into new forms and expressions. Paul’s gospel was not primarily and not only a sequence of theological affirmations deduced from Israel’s history or Scriptures, or even from his knowledge of Jesus; rather, primarily for him, the gospel was rooted in an experience of the living God revealing himself through Jesus the Christ and his will to humankind in a personal and transforming way.”

A study of 2nd person passages in Paul–“this is not how you received Christ”, “that is what some of you were”, etc.–is needed.  That would flesh out this idea.

2 thoughts on “The Role of Experience in Theology

  1. I like Rohr’s hermeneutical “tricycle” and the Wesleyan quadrilateral even more. I wrote about this some in my final paper for my class on the theology of Martin Luther. I basically spent the entire paper arguing with Martin Luther over “sola scriptura”. And using the Wesleyan quadrilateral was part of my proposed solution.

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    • Yeah. I keep trying to tell people that there are no pure readings of scripture, but most don’t believe me.

      “People like us do/believe things like this” is a powerful drug.

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