Experience: Mediated, Unmediated or Both?

From Roger Olson, and I agree with the thrust of Roger’s statements here:

So what is the blik difference I’m talking about here?  Some evangelicals seem to see experience of God as always mediated through scripture which, from my perspective, seems to incline them toward bibliolatry. This is why they say they would believe God is a monster (or the author of evil or whatever) IF scripture said so. Other evangelicals (like I) seem to see experience of God as BOTH mediated by scripture AND as unmediated with the latter as primary in terms of knowing God’s character as good.

When I got saved I was not converted to the Bible; I was converted to the God of Jesus Christ.  THEN I found more about God through the Bible and believed in it BECAUSE it told me about the God of Jesus Christ I encountered in conversion and in my pesonal relationship with him. My experience of God is both unmediated and mediated and the two are inseparable. But when I open the Bible to read and study it I NEVER do so as a tabula rasa–prepared to believe whatever it might say EVEN IF it says (in some passage I had henceforth never noticed) that God is a monster who might hate me and want the worst for me or who loves his own glory more than he loves me (and all of us). If I am tempted to believe that, I go to God and rediscover him in unmediated experience of him through Jesus Christ or at least remember those times when my heart was strangely warmed and I KNEW without any ability to doubt that God loves me and wants the best for me and does not hate me or love his glory at the expense of my (or anyone else’s) well being in its most profound sense (wholeness).

This is my perspective on experiencing God. People experienced God before there was a Bible and have experiences of God apart from the Bible.  But the Bible fills experience of God with cognitive content. But it cannot contradict the God I know as good through my unmediated experience of Jesus Christ because the only reason I believe the Bible is because it is THAT GOD’s WORD. In and through it I hear my Master’s voice in a unique way–as communicating himself to me in a cognitive way, filling my unmediated experience of God with information.  But that information cannot contradict the very pre-cognitive experience of God as unqualifiedly good that I had in my conversion and have in my post-conversion relationship with Jesus Christ.

Luther’s “tower experience” is what I’m talking about. And that’s what led him to doubt the spiritual value of the Epistle of James and the Revelation of John. Later, unfortunately, in his dispute with die Schwarmer, Luther backed away from this epistemology. But I think some conservative evangelicals forget or conveniently ignore the fact that Luther always held to the Bible’s authority as rooted in the Holy Spirit and not in some self-authenticating quality.  His sola scriptura was not bibliolatry or even close to it. He was just afraid of certain fanatics who wanted to abandon scripture.

It seems to me that this is a fundamental watershed between evangelicals. Those of us in the Pietist tradition claim unmediated experience of God that authenticates scripture to us but makes it impossible to see scripture as proving that God is evil or the author of sin and evil or loves his own glory more than he loves people created in his own image and likeness. Those evangelicals in the Protestant scholastic tradition at least claim to experience God only through scripture and at least say they would believe the Bible even if it said God is a monster, the author of sin and evil, who loves his own glory to the extent that it causes him to hate some of the creatures created in his own image and likeness.

No amount of arguing or crying “exegesis!” is going to solve this blik dilemma, this continental divide among evangelicals. To be perfectly blunt, I shudder when I encounter people who seem to me to be worshiping scripture to that extent–that there is no unmediated experience of God outside of scripture. I shake my head and wonder about their spirituality even as I continue to embrace them as fellow evangelicals (even if they reject me as one to them).

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  • Matt

    The quote of the day: “that God is a monster who might hate me and want the worst for me or who loves his own glory more than he loves me.” This is precisely why so many people (myself included) find various articulations of Reformed/Calvinist theology so unbelievable. How is such a God really and truly the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ or worthy of worship? I’m with Wesley: it can’t mean “that.”

  • RJS

    Interesting article by Olson – I agree with his perspective on scripture.

  • Jeff

    I just noticed your controversial title lol. Scripture played an important part in my conversion, but experience was the final word. I wonder if people who do engage in “bibliolatry” are people whose faith rests entirely on some logical argument for the truth of the biblical testimony, or from some natural intuition that the bible is reliable. And it make sense that such people would be inclined to defend innerancy till someone pries it from their cold dead hands, because their faith is entirely in the reliability of the bible. If the bible is shown to be false at one instant, then their faith collapses like what happened to Bart Ehrman. One may ask if then their faith is still in Christ, but I am not so bold.

    However, I think there is another danger. That is, leaving everything in the bible open to our own subjective judgement of it. If that is what will happen, we can first say goodbye to the passages in the Old Testament about the destruction of the Cannanites and anything else that offends our modern sensibilities. After that, I don’t see how the gate isn’t open to any distortion or elimination of the biblical account.

  • Nate W.

    As a current Arminian, former Calvinist, articles like this make me despair. I’ve liked much of Olson you’ve featured on the site, Scot, but his overblown rhetoric around the question of God’s glory is damaging. Worse, he’s far from alone in saying these sorts of things.

  • Pat Pope

    That last paragraph says it all for me.

  • dopderbeck

    And even people who claim to eschew experience rely on it. How else would they claim to know how to read scripture?

  • Nate W.

    Clarification: I do like the direction he’s going hermeneutically/epistemologically. I don’t like his examples and application.

  • JohnM

    What if one’s “experience of God” is not affirmed by the bible?

  • Scot McKnight

    Jeff, I retitled the post … this post of Olson’s is more about experience so I highlighted that in the new title.

  • Kathy

    This was very helpful to me!

  • JohnM

    Maybe it would help if Olson (or anyone who thinks they know)defined what he means by “mediated” and “unmediated experience of God outside of scripture”. I might think I know, but I’ve found words are quite malleable in the hands of theologians ;). Yes, I believe my experience makes sense in light of the bible AND the bible makes sense in light of my experience, but Olson seems to be saying his own personal experience is the standard by which the veracity of scripture should be judged.

  • dopderbeck

    Another thought — I do think Olson perhaps over-emphasizes personal experience here. The theological category of “experience” as a source of authority — and it is, indeed, a long-standing category — primarily focuses on the Church’s experience of Christ in worship, liturgy, and especially in the Eucharistic celebration. So it isn’t merely an individualistic experience, though that is also important, as the deep tradition of Christian mysticism shows. It is about how the Church has understood the God revealed in scripture — how the Church has read scripture in light of its experience of God’s fellowship (and at times God’s discipline). Moving the primary focus away from the individual and towards the Church helps mitigate some of the “wax nose” / overly subjective problems some folks have raised. (Mitigate, not eliminate — the fact is that a positivistic science of theological knowledge isn’t possible.)

  • Rob Dunbar

    I agree that the Scriptures are subservient to the Spirit. That they agree is not because the Spirit confirms the Scriptures but that the Scriptures witness to the work of the Spirit. Perhaps we should look at it this way: The Scriptures explain to us what the Spirit is doing. But the most important part of that process is the Spirit, God’s agent in my life. That, I think, is what Olson means.

  • Mark Farmer

    So the word “blik” was coined around 1950 at Oxford by R.M. Hare. But it’s not in my (pretty decent) dictionary. How is a blik dilemma different from other dilemmas? Or did I miss something?

  • Scot McKnight

    Mark, Roger Olson is talking about perspectivalism: two people looking at the same thing and seeing two different things.

  • DRT

    I continue to learn new things by coming here. Over the past couple of weeks I have learned that Calvinists invest worth in spiritual experience. I would have never, ever guessed that since my spiritual experience is as opposite to Calvinism as one could get.

    Which brings me to my point, there is an enormous variety of religious experience. Numinous feelings and experience happen to nearly everyone of every religion. I would never put that as a reason to be a Christian.

    My religious experiences have occurred in both Christian and non-Christian settings and in all cases the experience has been one of benevolence. A deep connectedness and sameness transcending all. An experience of oneness and inter-relatedness of *all*.

    FWIW, I have never had what I would term a numinous experience in reading the bible. I have found profound appreciation, insights and even comfort. But not the rock in the middle of your stomach slammed to my soul gut wrenching ecstasy of profound religious experience.

  • Aaron

    Hey Nate W. – in what ways do you find Rogers rhetoric around God’s glory overblown and damaging?

  • This is the kind of thing that makes this site such a good read. One must be on one’s toes, with eyes and mind open.

    On the one hand, few actually encounter Jesus by the Spirit acting thru Scripture. On the other hand, ‘unmediated’ experience is rare, too.

    Generally, people encounter the living God (or encounter Him in a new way) not directly in their own thoughts or experiences, but through other living people who are led by the Spirit, in whatever way the Spirit leads them to act/not act. It is relational, like God. This interaction-encounter has already passed through a step of mediation: the other person/people, who in some way have an impact on what you think of it. Your experience is visceral (first) but it is also mental (except in some pentecostal-style ‘blitz’ conversion experiences, your mind interprets ‘on-the-fly’). It is the emotional connection that initially latches into you.

    But all the mental processing and owning of your emotions in the world won’t make them something to stand or build on; those are like sand, or are as easily diverted as water. It is the Spirit acting through your interaction with Scripture that tells you how God wants this new thing to take shape. This interactive experience teaches you what is worth going after, and what ways are God’s ways of doing so. It is this relational experience that sets parameters, lays out directions, creates themes, frames contexts, trains the conscience. Emotions, learning about yourself, and further encounters with God in the world around you move you ahead. Mental processes and devotional meditation guide its direction down the path. But it is the Spirit in Scripture that tells you what God’s ways are and what love is really about.

    I think we must talk about things not in term of experiences vs. external ‘knowledge’ sources or vs. ‘thought’, but in terms of interaction and relationship. You can emote, think, and obey, and not have love. Those are not functional relationships, but love is a relationship and an interaction, and thus entails a set of experiences and responses.

    (I know, I know…speak English…)

  • JohnM

    dopderbeck #12 – Even though liturgy and Eucharistic celebration haven’t been the concept in most worship I’ve experienced, such an emphasis on corporate experience of Christ makes more sense to me than what Olson seems to be saying, and sounds a lot safer. Just possibly what Olson means to say isn’t as bad as I sounds, but it does sound like that “wax nose” you righly would want to mitigate.

    Bob Longman #18 – You speak English well enough to make sense to me. Uh oh! 😉

  • I find his rhetoric daring but perhaps he is tenured at Baylor 😉 I think he is missing the third leg of the stool and that is the horizon of the church. On the one hand, I think he is right that we have to affirm that a true, unmediated word from God is, because it is from God, as authoritative as any word in Scripture. However, how do we know when we’ve had one?!

    “Scripture alone” is dangerous because it is strictly impossible and thus always involves elements from somewhere else–and if a person denies there is a “something else,” then they are incorporating those elements blindly.

    Two thousand years of Christians reading Scripture with the Spirit helping corporately is part of the mix whether we like it or not. It guides the way we organize and appropriate the text… and it keeps us from appropriating potentially monster texts.

  • Steve Sherwood

    This sounds a great deal like Christian Smith’s book on “biblicism.” I agree with both. We ALWAYS bring outside experience, our own and the collective experience of the church or our culture, to our reading of scripture. Yes, Roger is VERY forthright in his statements, and I feel confident he’s been tenured at Baylor for a good while.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Is it possible to have pure experience, even of God in relationship with one’s “self,” that isn’t in many senses “mediated” by one’s own prior experiences and the cultural context and interactions with it one has had in life prior to that experience with God?

  • Paul W

    I was thinking along similiar lines as Richard @22. I don’t think I’ve ever had an ‘unmediated’ experience of God or anything else for that matter. In fact, I have a hard time wrapping my head around what such an experience might look like. It does seems facinating though.

    Any readers here ever have an unmediated experience of God? Is it open to description?

    Also, I wondered if there really are any evangelicals who experience God only through the mediation scripture. I thought that Evangelicals for the most part embraced some type of ‘general revelation.’ Am I wrong about that or is that different from experiencing God?

  • DRT

    Paul W#23, I interpret religious experience in the way this article does http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_experience

    Is that not what Olson is talking about?

  • Paul W

    Wow, DRT. The wikipedia article covers a rather broad scope of religious experience. I have no issues with as such. What was catching my attention wasn’t religious experience per se but an ‘unmediated’ religious experience. I fear if that distinction doesn’t make sense then the conversation will move into a depth at which I’m not competent to maneuver in.

    I was assuming that Olson was intending to be narrow rather than broad. Perhaps that wasn’t such a good assumption on my part. I admittedly find ‘soterian Evangelical speak’ on religious experience at once curious and impenetrable to me.

    I am not so perplexed by religious experience in general but curious as to what a ‘Christian’ religious experience which is not mediated in some way. Should we assume that an unmediated religious experience is one that by-passes one’s intuitions and any other possible mediums? Or am I reading way too much into the terminology?

  • DRT

    Paul W, Perhaps I am reading Olson wrong, but I felt the comparison was specifically mediated by the bible or not.

    I have spent countless hours in meditation, which most people do not understand. Meditation is not a state of non-activity, rather it is a highly active state that is directed toward certain goals. I often meditate on various subjects, like the emotional state of Jesus, the feel of the kingdom of god, the understanding of agape, and in each of these I am not reading the bible. I am trying to access more and be *in* the Story.

    I have also tried drumming, dancing and many other things.

    Now, one could possibly argue that the nature of the experience come through my knowledge of god which comes from the bible, but that is not true. I feel I learn about god through others, myself, other religions, and creation.

    I have not had much success with glossolalia, but I would imagine that many who practice it have rather direct spiritual encounters.

  • T

    I too like some of his point more than his examples. Letting scripture be our primary source of theology is good. Trying to make it eclipse the Spirit and the Church and every other means of experiencing God is not.

    John M,

    Asking “is this experience affirmed by the Bible?” is good and necessary, but one can ask this and still be unjustifiably hostile to experience with God in the asking, which will play out in a variety of ways. For example, the Bible doesn’t claim for itself to speak on every conceivable experience with God. It does give us lots of examples and guides, and those examples and guides tell us about God’s character, which is very helpful. But when we ask the question, are we looking for identical prior examples? Or, instead, are we looking for something ‘along the lines’ of what people have experienced before? My reading of the scriptures gives me a picture of a God that has the ability and even the tendency to surprise, even people (sometimes especially) who know the scriptures backwards and forwards.

    Further, the NT is loaded with experiences with God outside of reading scripture that are even taught about in the epistles, that many, many churches still attempt to invalidate. Many of the most prominent evangelical leaders point to the experiences of God via the Spirit that are exampled and taught (in the NT churches!) and call them invalid today based on some of the weakest and most embarrassing exegesis on any topic. The misguided hostility toward (non-reading) experience with God is deep, cultural and multifaceted.

    All that said, Olson seems to be targeting Calvinists pretty strongly in this post, specifically regarding their ideas on election, judgment, etc. I understand the point there, but I don’t know if it gets him anywhere, as he seems to acknowledge. He’d be better off arguing the larger point that the scriptures point to a God that is experienced in a variety of ways (not just scripture), rather than talk about why his experience won’t allow him to accept particular Calvinist views.

  • Nate W.

    @ Aaron #17

    It’s the accusations of moral monstrosity that make me shift in my seat. I think that there are biblical texts that do say God’s glory matters most to him. I admire those who take those texts plainly. Most people in that camp are sophisticated enough to account for who God’s commitment to self-glorification and his love go together.

    In short, I don’t think we help the conversation when we make sweeping judgments, like:

    “Calvinists make God into a moral monster; no one should worship a God like that.”


    “Arminians make God weak, and are compromised idolaters.”

    I’ve heard both of these many times, and I hear Olson stepping into the former. And all of that makes me cautious about the specific way that Olson is so confident in his experience (though not the idea that experience is important).

  • Nate W.


    who = *how

  • Sherman Nobles

    I was raised from childhood having a bibliolatrist perspective only to find out through unmediated experience that some, well, much of what I had been taught since childhood was off. I’ve come to thus appreciate Wesley’s Quadralateral of scripture, experience, reason, and tradition, though I’d add another, ecclecia (the church today). Each of these effects what we believe, more or less depending on what value we place on them.

    What surprises me in the OP is Olson seems to make the same appeal that many Christian Universalists make, that being an appeal to the character of God as known, experienced, by the individual. Many people experience God as being loving, merciful, and just, and thus some cannot reconcile the concept of endless conscious torment with the character of God as they know Him; thus they do not, cannot, believe in ECT regardless of what scripture appears to indicate to most Christians.

    Personally, I value highly all 5 – scripture, experience, ecclesia, tradition, and reason – as foundations of faith and means of encountering God.

  • Gary Foster

    While I agree with Olson on the basic idea here, I think he needlessly muddied it up with comments like “God is a monster” which clearly refer to his Arminian position and in fact weaken his argument.
    I like his position on the direct experience of God AND the guidance of Scripture together. However, that experience must always be informed by Scripture.
    Overall, I mostly agree but am disappointed by the distraction of his injection of the Calvinist/Arminian debate where it need not be. I am a Calvinist and my God is not a monster.

  • Rick

    Sherman #30-

    Interesting thoughts. Please explain a little further “ecclecia” v. “tradition”. You don’t seem to see ecclecia as a subset of “tradition”, nor a subset of “experience”.

  • Sherman Nobles

    Rick @32,

    To me, Tradition speaks of long held doctrines and philosophies. Experience speaks of personal encounters with God. And Ecclesia speaks of people, believers today, their beliefs, understanding of scripture, reasonings, wrestling with traditions, and encounters with God. Some people follow other current day leaders so closely that if So-and-so said it, they believe it, which to me doesn’t fit experience, tradition, or scripture, and is certainly unreasonable to me.

    There is probably a different word that would be better than ecclesia to indicate current day believers, especially leaders, but I haven’t thought of it or heard it yet. It’s hearing God speak through people today, through their experiences, deductions, and graplings with scripture and tradition.

    Also, on a different note, “experience must always be informed by scripture” doesn’t jive with me. I’ve found that experiencing God will sometimes completely change my understanding of scripture. For example, someone who was filled with the Spirit and experienced tongues though they had always been taught such was not for today would then be predisposed to understand scripture differently than how they were raised.

    Our faith, for better or worse, is a result of the tension of these working in our conscious and especially our subconscious minds. We are all thus very limited by our lack of experience, isolation from the greater body of Christ (ecclesia), ignorance of scripture, lack of respect for and ignorance of tradition, and inability to reason correctly because of lack of training, bad attitudes, and errant subconscious beliefs.

    It’s no wonder Isaiah said, “God, what am I going to do! I’m a complete mess and everyone I know is a mess”! (my paraphrase)

  • rob

    Agreed. but “bibliolatry” is a cheap shot. Give the opposition its due. They don’t think they worship the Bible, so the idea ought to be presented in a less caustic manner IMHO.

  • Jeff

    This essay is problematic, it seems to me, for the following reasons:
    1) There are straw men here (the God is a Monster – because that needs to be demonstrated first; there are alternative and legitimate explanations to texts that might imply this). One need not revert to experience to contradict human claims of God as a Monster from a reading of Scripture. One can revert to alternative texts within Scripture – without ever employing experience as a “curb” against this.

    2) Furthermore, the “God one knows from personal experience” – may also be a Monster to some. How does one deal with that God? This sword cuts both ways. The God of one’s experience of Jesus Christ and one’s reading of Scripture can be a Monster! This solves nothing – except to say I subjectively reject that idea.

    3) If the bible is God’s revelation through human mediation – then, whatever one’s experience, one still has to deal with uncomfortable texts that DO come from God! If one wishes to dismiss some of those texts as contrary to personal experience – then which ones?

    4) This quote: “But it cannot contradict the God I know as good through my unmediated experience of Jesus Christ” – wait, what? Where does one know about Jesus Christ except originally through the Scripture and the story of the 1st century Christians? How does one know that the experience is “of Jesus Christ” and not of Satan, who “disguises himself as an angel of light?” It becomes an entirely subjective experience. And, countless others claim to have an experience of either Christ or God (from Mormon’s to Muslims; Hindus to Jews). Are we to discount their experience and only legitimize the individual who says he experiences Christ and likes the NT canon? What of those who equally claim experiences of Christ but their “experience” tells them the exact opposite of one another – is God divided? (This is different, btw, from two people who disagree about the meaning of a biblical text; we misunderstand texts because of our culture, or biases unknown, or lack of sufficient information, etc.).

    5) N.T. Wright’s “Critical Realism” – (p.20-100 of NTPG) gives confidence one can arrive at historical knowledge (with a constant re-evaluation). The evidence for the canon of Scripture – leads me to believe they are God’s revelation (even if they need to be read in a more nuanced way than many Christians perhaps do).

    We cannot fully escape subjectivism; but the Scriptures do provide a ground to help ameliorate our biases and prejudices (who hasn’t changed a view or practice from a fresh reading of Scripture?). And, I don’t discount experience – even my own – but I think it needs to be mediated by Scripture, not Scripture mediated by experience (always with the recognition that I do have subjectivity that impacts my thinking and reading). As a friend of mine puts it, “I always think I’m right, but I know I’m not always right.”