Thoughts about the Role of Experience in Theology: Part Two (With Special Reference to Friedrich Schleiermacher and Stanley J. Grenz)

Thoughts about the Role of Experience in Theology: Part Two (With Special Reference to Friedrich Schleiermacher and Stanley J. Grenz) November 30, 2014

Thoughts about the Role of Experience in Theology: Part Two (With Special Reference to Friedrich Schleiermacher and Stanley J. Grenz)


Paraphrasing Kant, theology without experience is empty; experience without theology is blind. Empty of what? What would theology without experience (if that were even possible) be empty of? Transforming power and relevance. That spiritual experience without theology is blind is less controversial—especially among conservative theologians. I have defended that thesis here before.

The background to this two-part series is the claim, made by some conservative theologians, that Stanley Grenz’s theology is “Schleiermachian” or at least on that trajectory because Stan integrated experience into theology as a source and norm; he did not follow the generally accepted (by conservative evangelicals) methodology of objectivism—bracketing out experience as much as possible and simply “mining” Scripture for its doctrinal content (then organizing that content and expressing it in a contemporary way). Grenz readily acknowledged experience as playing a positive, constructive role in theology. However, he did not grant experience, whether universal human (“God-consciousness”), cultural, communal or personal-individual the status of norming norm for theology. Schleiermacher did.

In my opinion, no theology is truly “Schleiermachian” unless it is done “from below”—with human experience as the primary source and norm for theological critique and construction. Not every theology that permits experience a role in theology is Schleiermachian or deserves comparison with Schleiermacher.

Here is my explanation of the proper role of experience in theology; it was also Stan Grenz’s as I know that through reading his books and talking with him numerous times about theological method. I am confident he would distinguish his theological method from that of Schleiermacher (or any other theologian who conducted his or her theology “from below”) in a similar, if not identical, way.

In a nutshell: Experience can helpfully inform theological critique and construction even though it should not be theology’s controlling source or norm. I believe in the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” that regards theology as a conversation among Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. I once held a public debate with a United Methodist theologian about whether the Quadrilateral is an equilateral. He argued it is; I argued it is not. It was not for Wesley, and to make it so is to guarantee stalemates in theological controversies. Among the four sources and norms one must have priority over the others and that must be Scripture because it is God’s Word written.

However, even in that case, we must always acknowledge that our interpretations of Scripture are informed by experience; experience is inescapable and does not have to be viewed negatively. As I mentioned earlier, even Calvin argued that an unregenerate person, devoid of the inner illumination of the Holy Spirit, is not capable of interpreting Scripture rightly.

The point of saying that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is not an equilateral is simply to say that a Christian theologian ought never to pit tradition, reason or experience against Scripture so as to say Scripture is wrong. So why not just have Scripture and toss out tradition, reason and experience?

First of all, that’s impossible. Interpretation of Scripture always is informed by some tradition, reason and experience even where those are denied as having any positive role to play in theological critique and construction. Second, however, there is no good reason to exclude them even if that were possible. What we need, instead, is careful understanding of the positive roles they can play.

As mentioned above, I say that tradition, reason and experience can play positive roles in theology by informing it—especially in matters where Scripture is not as clear as we need it to be and where Scripture does not speak to a subject about which we need answers and where Scripture’s message needs to be made intelligible and relevant to a contemporary audience.

Tradition informs theology without controlling it. In every theological controversy, for example, tradition (understood as the consensus of the church fathers and reformers) gets a vote but not a veto. Scripture trumps tradition. Reason informs theology by helping it avoid sheer nonsense—logical contradiction—which is unintelligibility. Here “reason” does not mean any particular philosophy but “mere logic”—universal rules of thought and persuasion.

Now comes “experience.” What role should experience play in theology? Even many theologians who admit the subordinate regulative roles tradition and reason can play eschew experience in theology. They equate experience with subjectivism and therefore relativism. As Luther is supposed to have said “Experience is a wax nose any knave can twist to suit his own countenance.” There is truth in the concern; we ought to handle experience with care in theology and not permit private experiences to gain norming status in theology insofar as theology makes universal truth claims (which it should).

But not all experience is private. Experience ceases to be private when it is shared by a group of people and when it is subjected to critical examination and declared valid beyond the individual.

Those who wish to exclude experience entirely from theology seem to subordinate the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture and convinced even them that it is God’s Word written (through the inner testimony of the Spirit) to the Bible. In Christian theology the Bible is the book of the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Spirit chained to the book.

That by no means implies that the Spirit reveals “new truths” essential for salvation (reconciliation, regeneration, justification, sanctification); that is so unlikely as to be dismissed out of hand by Christians. All claims to “new truth” to be believed by all Christians ought always to be submitted to Scripture and rejected if it is not at least implicit in Scripture.

It does mean, however, that the Holy Spirit very well may (and I would say has and does) guide Christians to new meanings and applications of Scripture never before seen. Experience informs theology through guidance; the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture can (and has and does) guide God’s people to new interpretations and applications of truths hidden in Scripture. And by “hidden” I do not mean esoterically hidden—as in secretly encoded such that only certain spiritual “adepts” can discern it.

Good theology, in other words, takes into account “what the Spirit is saying to the churches now.” And it takes into account what the Spirit is doing in culture. These are not the same as “subjectivism;” they are simply principles for keeping theology from falling into ideology—rigid, closed, totalizing systems of doctrine that are inflexible and impervious to change.

Taking into account what the Spirit is saying to the churches now and what the Spirit is doing in culture does not have to mean cutting loose theology from Scriptural moorings or falling into a kind of endless “anything goes” mentality. But refusing to take into account what the Spirit is saying to the churches now and what the Spirit is doing in culture does make theology dead, empty of power, irrelevant, and ethically unfruitful.

John Stott once used the image of theology as a kite—tethered to the ground (Scripture) but lifted by the wind (Spirit). If it is released from its grounding tether, it flies off and becomes useless. But it is also useless if it is not allowed to fly.

N. T. Wright has used the analogy of an unfinished play and its performance anyway to describe Christians’ discipleship in every contemporary time and place. We (the church) have the first three acts of the play: the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Great Tradition of Christian belief. Our job as contemporary Christian disciples is to “faithfully improvise” the fourth act of the unfinished play. What I am arguing is that our task as contemporary theologians, even evangelical theologians, is not only be steeped in the, totally familiar with, committed to the first three acts but also to listen to the voice of the Spirit as we faithfully improvise theological truth for today.

Faithfully improvising the fourth act of the play requires not only knowledge of the first three acts but also experience of the same Spirit who inspired Scripture and was at work in guiding the post-apostolic churches. But faithfully improvising the fourth act also requires listening to that same Spirit as the Spirit directs the fourth act. Any claim that the Spirit is directing us, the actors, to go off in directions not already pointed to by the Spirit in Scripture and tradition must be ruled “unfaithful improvisation.” But merely repeating the first three acts and pretending they are the fourth act must be also be ruled “unfaithful non-improvisation.”

The devil, they say, is in the details. I will add that the devil is in the illustrations! People who tend to agree with me up to this point may very well disagree with my examples. However, here is how I see this account of the role of experience having played out in theology in the past and present.

I would argue that the Holocaust and our experiences of it (whether as victims or observers) have made post-Holocaust theologies extremely sensitive to revising traditional ideas of God as immutable and impassible. And I think that is all to the good. Much traditional Christian theism has found support in Scripture but been more influenced by philosophy (Plato and Aristotle) than by Scripture itself. Since the Holocaust even many conservative theologians, committed to the authority of Scripture, are rediscovering the “passionate God” of the biblical narrative and arguing that God is not invulnerable or immune to suffering. Bonhoeffer’s “Only the suffering God can help” has become a valuable motto in post-Holocaust theology. I believe the Spirit used the Holocaust to direct the churches and theologians to dimensions of truth about God traditionally lost or ignored due to the overwhelming influenced of Greek philosophy in Christian theology.

I would argue that the experiences of the horrors of slavery by people like William Wilberforce in England and Harriet Tubman in America was used by the Spirit of God to direct the churches to reconsider belief that the Bible supports slavery and to recognize that all people, regardless of ethnicity, bear the image of God.

These are just two examples; I could give many more examples of cases where the Holy Spirit guided and directed Christians to review and revise traditional interpretations of the Bible and traditional beliefs.

What I am arguing is not that experience is a norming norm of theology; anyone who thinks that clearly does not understand me. I am arguing however, the experiences of the Spirit play a guiding and directing role in faithfully improvising the fourth act of the play of God at work among his people. The Spirit is the same Spirit who inspired Scripture and who struggled with often unfaithful people of God throughout the Christian centuries to maintain the church in truth. The Spirit directing the fourth act of the unfinished play, our communal discipleship including theology, will not contradict himself/herself. Any actor in the fourth act who steps away from and acts against Scripture will have to be declared “out of bounds” and possibly ejected from the play. But actors who say, humbly and with good reasoning, “I believe the Spirit is guiding us to pay attention to such-and-such and adjust our improvisation to be even more faithful to the gospel” ought to be given a prayerful hearing.

Now, I can say with confidence that this account of the role of experience in theology is faithful to what my friend Stan Grenz meant. I can say that with confidence because I not only read his books but engaged in numerous, lengthy, personal conversations with him about theological methodology. When he heard that some critics were equating his theological method with that of Schleiermacher he was shocked and appalled. So was I (am still). Never did he elevate universal human religious experience or even common Christian experience to the status of norming norm for Christian theology; he always and consistently said that status belongs solely to Scripture. (Some will no doubt quibble because he sometimes said “the Spirit speaking through Scripture” and “the biblical message,” but contexts make clear he meant the Bible but not every individual passage in the Bible taken out of context or interpreted through the lens of some past theologian such as Charles Hodge.)


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