According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Role of Experience in Theology, Parts 1 & 2


Thoughts about the Role of Experience
in Theology: Part One


by Roger Olson
[with some observations by re slater]
November 28, 2014

"Theology without experience is empty;
Experience without theology is blind."

                                       - A paraphrase to Kant's insight


I have long thought that experience does and should play a role in Christian theology, but I have also long known that’s controversial, especially among conservative Christian theologians, and that it’s difficult to define. That is, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what role experience plays and how much of a role it should play in theological reflection and especially doctrinal formulation.

I think pure objectivity is a myth; no such thing exists in human experience or thought. Inter-subjectivity is the most we can hope for. That is, there is no “view from nowhere”; perspective always intrudes in interpretation and reflection. However, I do not believe we are locked into our perspectives such that they cannot be informed by dialogue with people of other perspectives.

One reason pure objectivity is a myth is the inevitable role played by experience in interpretation and reflection. It’s always easier to see that role in other people’s interpretations and reflections than in one’s own. But I simply scoff at anyone who claims pure objectivity outside the analytical realm (i.e., matters of definition where there is an authoritative source). Even there, however, I suspect some perspective intrudes (i.e., in the defining of words and concepts by writers of dictionaries and encyclopedias).

As a historical theologian I have very little difficulty pointing out how experience has always and everywhere played some role in theological reflection—both critique and construction. For example, I would have great trouble taking seriously anyone who claimed that Martin Luther formulated his soteriology of justification by grace through faith alone in a purely objective, “ivory tower,” manner. Almost all Luther scholars point to his “tower experience” and other experiences (such as his trip to Rome) as playing a contributing role in his later formulations such as “simul justus et peccator.” In other words, Luther did not suddenly discover one day through pure, objective reflection on Scripture…. That does nothing to detract from the truth of what he discovered (as many fear such an admission will inevitably do). It still must be tested by Scripture (according to classical Protestant theology). But that it originated partly out of his experiences is incontrovertible. What role did his experiences play in it? Well, if nothing else, they focused his attention on the meaning of Scripture in a new way and set him on a journey to discover the true meaning of Scripture. [sic, as opposed to the idea of the Roman Catholic Church as sole mediator of God's Word. That is, Luther's catholic experience influenced his theological orientation. - re slater]

I believe (as a historical theologian) this can be shown about all theological “breakthroughs.” This is no new idea. Baptist theologian James McClendon wrote Theology as Biography in 1974 and there demonstrated it through case studies.

This idea, however, creates great fear in many conservative, confessional theologians—especially conservative evangelicals (using “evangelical” in a broad way). To them it suggests subjectivism in theology. They have come to depend on the myth of objectivity—after conversion if not before—such that they imagine there are purely objective tools for carrying out theology’s critical and constructive tasks. There must be, they assume, or else we are left with theological anarchy and no way of sorting out and through the competing truth claims made by self-identified Christians. Lacking a physical magisterium such as the Catholic hierarchy and pope at its head evangelicalism needs, so they claim, objective principles and methods of determining theological truth and separating it from error.

The historical-theological guru, as it were, of this approach to theology, at least for many American conservative evangelicals, is Charles Hodge, the nineteenth century exemplar of Reformed Protestant Orthodoxy. The question is whether his allegedly purely objective approach to theology worked even for him or whether his own experience played a role in his theological reflections. I think that has been demonstrated by his biographers. Even Hodge did not have a “view from nowhere” or think God’s thoughts after him. And I would even go so far as to claim that his attempt to exclude all experience from theological reflection (after regeneration) led to his Systematic Theology (if not his other writings) being exceptionally dry and spiritually infertile.

Let me define (again, from my own perspective but hopefully not a private one) “experience” as I mean it here—in reflecting on its role in theology. There are several types of experience that I believe must be taken into consideration.


  • First, there is common, universal human experience.
  • Second, there is cultural experience.
  • Third, there is community experience.
  • Fourth, there is personal, individual experience.

Common, universal human experience includes, at least from a religious perspective (!), the “sensus divinitatis” or what Friedrich Schleiermacher called “God-consciousness.” (I do not think it necessarily includes all that Schleiermacher thought it includes such as “the feeling of utter dependence.” Here I am not accepting any particular interpretation of this common, universal human “religious experience” as necessarily valid.) Rudolf Otto called it “numinous experience.” Paul Tillich called it “ultimate concern.” C. S. Lewis described it as “the law of nature” and a sense of obligation. Whatever exactly it contains, many scholars have identified it as a universal human experience if only a sense of something as sacred.

Cultural experience is the mythos of a particular culture, the guiding implicit beliefs about reality that govern (not necessarily determine) how people of a particular culture view and interpret reality (nature, history, social relations, ethics, etc.). I’m American so I’ll use the American mythos to illustrate this. Most Americans, admitting many exceptions, operate in life with the myth of American exceptionalism (however precisely interpreted). This is how they interpret world news, for example: “If only the rest of the world were American the world would be so much better.” This is also how they interpret wealth and poverty: “If only everyone pulled themselves up by their bootstraps everyone would be prosperous.” I could go on. These ideas, rooted in a distinctly (not necessarily uniquely) American mythos, rooted in American experience, permeate much American culture and influence how Americans view things.

Community experience, in the way I mean it here, is “smaller scale” than cultural experience (as I described it above). By “communal experience” I mean the traditions, “habits of the heart,” “ways of living” that tend to govern a particular group within a culture. Usually one has to be part of a group for some length of time or grow up in it to “get it”—with “it” meaning communal experience. I would call this communal experience a group’s ethos. Again, since I grew up Pentecostal, I’ll “pick on” Pentecostalism as a movement to illustrate this “community experience.” Most Pentecostals (at least when I was born into the movement and growing up in it in the 1950s through the 1970s) view their movement and themselves as “the” “Spirit-filled” branch of Christianity and revel in testimonies of supernatural experiences of the Spirit. Criticism, even disdain, from outsiders was interpreted as confirmation of our being special because “true Christianity” was and always will be a “remnant” called out from the “world” (with “world” standing in for “fallen humanity” with all its evil allures and sinful experiences). Pentecostals believed that God still talks to people even though Scripture is uniquely inspired and authoritative for discernment. “God told me…” was extremely common among Pentecostals and less so among other Christians. It was rarely followed by some new doctrine, but was usually the introduction to a testimony about personal guidance from God or occasionally a “word of wisdom” or “word of knowledge” about how the community (in this case church) or other individual should decide and act. Occasionally, however, it introduced a new perspective on truth. In any case, classical Pentecostals normally (even normatively at their best) submitted such public claims to discernment by the elders, the men and women especially recognized as spiritually mature and attuned. Their discernment involved biblical examination, consideration of tradition, and prayer. The worldview and theology of any person who grew up in classical Pentecostalism or converted into it and remained for a period of time is influenced by this communal experience of “full gospel Christianity.”

The meaning of personal, individual experience is self-evident. Or at least more so than the first three types of experience. Here is inward experience not determined by social experience and not as general as common, universal human experience. It is most evident when an individual breaks out of the molds of common, universal human experience, cultural experience, and communal experience and has a flash of insight, an “Aha!” moment, that cannot be explained (at least to his or her satisfaction) by cultural conditioning or common humanity. Some psychologists and sociologists will simply deny the reality of such experiences and attempt to explain all of them as simply the breaking through to consciousness of unconscious impulses contributed by social conditioning of some kind. I do not believe, however, that such explanations can exhaustively explain the great personal, individual experiences, expressed in unique insights and actions that go against the stream. The source of such personal, individual experiences will always be debated and I believe that debate will always be influenced by cultural, community and other personal, individual experiences.

My argument here, and in the post (or posts) to follow is that theology has always been influenced by human experiences of all four types and should not attempt to exclude them from all theological criticism and construction. The operative and key term here, for me, is “all.”

What is the main alternative to my argument? Going back to what I said earlier, it is the myth of pure objectivity—that there exists some method of determining theological truth, doctrine, that is free from all experience. In its most extreme form this alternative believes it is possible, even if no one has yet achieved it, to “do Christian theology” without being a Christian at all. In other words, assuming the (i) Bible, (iia) Christian tradition (“the Great Tradition”) and  (iii) reason (logic) to be the guiding norms of Christian theology, a person needs no commitment to any religious faith, no personal spirituality, to engage in sound Christian theological critique and construction. In this view, for example, the Bible may be viewed simply as a “not yet systematized system of doctrines” and doctrinal truth simply “mined” from it and put in good, logical order. No faith or spirituality needed; only a working mind needed. (iib) Some other (mostly conservative) theologians will want to add that Christian tradition (e.g., the consensus of the church fathers) is required for sound Christian theological critique and construction. But in both [all] cases, the working assumption is that experience—especially cultural, communal and personal, individual, can be set aside, overcome, such that the result is a purely objective account of “Christian truth.”

Admittedly, few Christian theologians put it quite that way—in such stark terms. However, that reluctance is, I believe, evidence of the truth of what I am going to claim—that experience is inevitable and even helpful in Christian theology.

Now, immediately, I recognize that some who disagree with me will point out that if what I say is true there exists an element of subjectivity, and therefore relativity, in my own claims (because they, like all, are influenced by experience). I admit that. But I think the difference between us is that they are more worried about that than I am. I have no interest in imposing my belief about this (or most things) on others. My only interest is in explaining and perhaps persuading others to see things my way. I worry that their (some conservative evangelicals’ committed to pure objectivity in truth discovery) interest is in enforcing their interpretations, including their methodology, on others by excluding those who disagree from “the club.”

That is, they want to make their dream of pure objectivity in theology, “doctrine settled once and for all and not at all open to revisioning because objectively grounded and proven,” totalizing on all within their sphere of influence (which usually means the “evangelical movement” or “evangelical academy”). An example are those conservative theologians who equate “good theology” with foundationalist epistemology and eschew, even condemn, non-foundationalist or postfoundationalist approaches to theology as “subevangelical” (at best).


* * * * * * * * * * *

Addendum

As an aside, what Roger discusses here in these articles is what we here at Relevancy22 have been describing as the existential experience of the observer upon his/her interpretation of God's will. Because this has been a major theme within this website I have generally laid it out under the rubric of postmodernism, but also philosophically under existentialism, along with general observations made between the evangelic v. emergent church sections of this blog.

Statedly, no church theology or doctrine has been done in a vacuum. Not Jewish theology and not the early church's theology. Not Paul nor the prophets (we'll exclude questions to Jesus' theology whom I will simply state contained His message within the contemporary views of His day and culture).

As such, we would be foolish to think that today's Reformed or Catholic or Lutheran doctrines do not also experience their own dogmatic mythos within the philosophical imports pervading regional philosophies and doctrines.

Nor should we think that re-writing theology into mathematically precise statements is in anyways avoiding some sense of subjectivity. Why? Because this practice is based upon Western logicism and modernistic Enlightenment along with that dogmatic statement's regional preferences pertaining to God and Bible, Gospel and Son, Church and Sinner. Just as nothing is static in God's universe so nothing is fully contained within the human word, thought, or idea, as even humanity itself must change with its times and eras.

The fiction then is to pretend that our form of Christianity and Church is the right form when, in essence, it is the popularly accepted form to our pretended view of Christianity and the Church. To say this is not so is to be self-deluded.

What is the answer then?

(1) To know thyself, as Shakespeare would say, and understand the times and eras of the culture which you wish to speak the Gospel into (and not what you presume it to be);

(2) Be willing to unlearn what you think you know and re-learn again across all spectras of Christianity;

(3) To teach your congregations to be less adamant of their doctrinal pronunciations and more humble in the Spirit's reception into the tabernacles of the heart; and finally,

(4) To emphasize God's love over God's austerity, sovereignty, holiness, and judgment.

In summary, without God's love these "systematic theologic" descriptors to "God's attributes" have no meaning to us except to accuse and condemn us both as a sinner and as a converted Christian.

Such that without grace - truth becomes a harsh task master which at all times must drive one towards self-righteousness, legalism, or antinomian living.

But with grace - all those precious systematic doctrines we deem so high and forthright fall acceptably, if not forthrightly, into place.

As the apostle Paul would say, lead out in love, charity, grace, mercy and forgiveness. This is the way of God and the path of righteousness.


R.E. Slater
December 4, 20141


* * * * * * * * * * *


Thoughts about the Role of Experience
in Theology: Part Two

With Special Reference to Friedrich Schleiermacher
and Stanley J. Grenz


by Roger Olson
November 30, 2014

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 emptied 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 (i) Scripture, (ii) tradition, (iii) reason, and (iv) 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 from 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. [I would rather say here, 'salvifically,' rather than "rightly." It avoids a lot of confusion in this way. Why? Because non-Christian scholarship has too often given to the church important insights into its faith even though it may not understand the redemptive meaning of those insights in a salvation sense.  - re slater]

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). [the word "universal" I think can be misleading and damaging to the church. It then plays the role of God in people's lives rather than as servant. I would rather cross it out and simply say "truth claims" without suffusing the phrase with my own private interpretation of what "universal" may mean. - re slater]

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 [our interpretations of] the book. [my add - res]

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. - Roger Olson

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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