Thursday, December 17, 1998

Experience and Scripture

Experience and Scripture

How should we value experience in relation to Scripture, tradition, and reason?

By Stephen Noll

IN MATTERS of salvation, there are only two necessary elements: the Biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ and the experience of faith in Him. When St. Paul says that "faith comes from hearing the Word of God" (Romans 10:17), he makes clear that the reality of faith is reflexive. It depends on the truth of God’s promise in Scripture. Tradition and reason may be seen as Spirit-guided servants, clarifying that promise of eternal life and confirming faith.

When experience is put on the throne, it becomes a false and tyrannical idol. Liberal theology understands the Christian experience to be the window-dressing of universal religious experience. According to this view, we can sing the Creed without believing its literal meaning so long as it evokes in us a sense of "the holy," an experience expressed in other words and rites by all religions.

Such a view of religion has an obvious appeal in a pluralistic culture: it seems to bless every sincerely held opinion and practice. But in reality, experience without Biblical authority quickly becomes judgmental, demanding "political correctness," whether it be in the form of Rousseau’s civil religion, or the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s endorsement of Nazism as the "emerging revelation of being," or Marxist liberationism, or the Wicca rites of radical feminism.

The "consciousness" raised by these ideologies, whatever merit it may have for politics, is included in what St. Paul calls "works of the law." Paul passionately denounces any substitute for the Gospel as being incompatible with true faith: "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? . . . Did you experience so many things in vain — if it really is in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?" (Galatians 3:1-2).

The great Anglican John Wesley is a wonderful example of one who kept experience and Scripture in the proper balance. Before his conversion, Wesley was a man of great piety and energy, reading the Bible and visiting prisons, even going on mission to the penal colony in Georgia. But his secret resistance to God, he admitted, was the conviction "that experience would never agree with the literal interpretation of those scriptures."

On May 24, 1738, Wesley awoke early and opened his Bible to 2 Peter 1:4, where he read of Christ’s "great and precious promises." Later that day he attended a prayer meeting where the Biblical promise was expounded from Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans (Scripture interpreted through tradition and reason). And then, Wesley recalled, "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation . . .".

This genuine experience of faith has been repeated time and again in the lives of Christian people. It is the work of Spirit of Truth, who convicts as illusory the salvific claims of all other experience and seals God’s promise in our heart.


"Experience and Scripture" was published in Episcopal Life as part of a forum on the question "How should we value experience in relation to Scripture, Tradition, and reason?" and was posted 17 December 1998.


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