The Place of Experience in the Theological Process

Discussion and Discernment

by Dr. Darryl G. Klassen

When we read the Bible, we come to the Scriptures with predetermined lenses. What we discern to be foundational truths are based on how we read Scripture. In other words, how we come to know Jesus Christ and how we live out the truths of his life in our own lives is a process of receiving truth and thinking about what it means.

You and I have a predominant lens or set of lenses. We are Anabaptist. We are Evangelical. We are North American. We are Canadian. Even the times we live in have shaded our lenses. The 21st century has already seen major shifts in how the Church approaches social issues. Culture tints our glasses through our constant exposure to technology and media. Our varied occupations stimulate different experiences so that we see life from different angles.

 Experience

Experience is the key word. Our experiences are different from our forebears. They did not have to face some of the controversies we do today. And our experiences differ from each other so that how we interpret Scripture becomes a messy task. Congregations can discuss hypothetical situations with ease, but when someone has a personal experience with an issue, everything changes. Experience has become the standard for interpretation, and with experience, emotion. Emotion is difficult to debate.

How can we come to a common theology about God that informs how we live? How can we affirm experience while still doing justice to our biblical interpretation? How should experience relate to our understanding of Scripture, as well as to tradition and reason?

Wesleyan Quadrilateral

For our purposes, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral will be especially helpful. John Wesley used four different elements when he came to his theological conclusions. He himself did not specifically outline them this way and he did not coin the term. Rather, Albert C. Outler in 1964 extracted this method from Wesley’s writings and came up with the term.

The four elements were Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Scripture refers to the written Word of God, the 66 books of the Bible. With these readings, the Church has formed traditions that have been passed on and refined (or reformed) over the past two millennia. These traditions were formed by the early Church Fathers like Augustine, Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian. Some of these traditions were challenged by Peter Waldo, John Hus, Martin Luther and Menno Simons. What we believe today about Christ and the Church has been undeniably influenced by those that have gone before us.

Reason is a gift from God whereby we are able to ask questions and use logic to interpret Scripture. By reason we seek to understand Scripture. By reason we see how our lives line up or stray from the Christian witness. By reason we test our consistency with what we believe the Bible teaches.

And by experience we mean especially the new life in Christ by which we have new eyes to see the living truth in Scripture. It can also include the broader experiences of life with our joys, hurts, and desires. We understand the Bible with our combined experiences; and we understand life through the light of the biblical message.

Not Equal

One regret Outler shared years after naming this process was that he wished he never entitled it the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. He soon anticipated that people would understand “quadrilateral” as “equilateral,” seeing all four elements as equal in authority for interpreting and establishing doctrine. That was not his intent, but it has become our problem.

Not Just Any Experience

Outler was insightful in recognizing the danger of overemphasizing a particular kind of experience. He would qualify this by saying that it is not just any experience that we have, even those of good or decent people. The experience he was speaking of was “Christian” experience, and not just any “Christian experience,” but that of one who is conscious of their sins being forgiven.

Contrast Outler’s definition of experience with a general experiential context. If something makes us feel good or if it seems right, a person may be led by that feeling to conclude that it is an affirmation of what they are doing. This may be called “experientialism,” where experience alone is the source of knowledge or truth. Wesley would strongly reject the role of experience in doing theology.

We cannot deny that our experiences have a profound effect on how we view God and life. However, we must confess that Christian experience adds nothing to the truth of Christ. The role of experience is to energize the heart and empower the believer to speak and live the truth in love. In this respect, we will be wise to remember that Wesley viewed Scripture as the centrepiece on which the other elements depended.

In Perspective

  1. T. Wright used a word picture that puts the elements of the quadrilateral in proper perspective:

…Scripture, tradition and reason are not like three different bookshelves, each of which can be ransacked for answers to key questions. Rather, Scripture is the bookshelf; tradition is the memory of what people in the house have read and understood (or perhaps misunderstood) from that shelf; and reason is the set of spectacles that people wear in order to make sense of what they read—though, worryingly, the spectacles have varied over time, and there are signs that some readers, using the “reason” available to them, have severely distorted the texts they were reading. “Experience” is something different again, referring to the effect on readers of what they have read, and/or the worldview, the life experience, the political circumstances, and so on, within which that reading takes place (The Last Word).

He goes on to say, “‘Experience’ is far too slippery for the concept to stand any chance of providing a stable basis sufficient to serve as an ‘authority,’ unless what is meant is that, as the book of Judges wryly puts it, everyone should simply do what is right in their own eyes” (21:25).

Experience has value, as do tradition and reason. However, like the Radical Reformers, we need to return again and again to the Scriptures as the bedrock of our faith and doctrine. Tradition informs our current theology, whether we know it or not, shaping our understanding of historic faith. Reason provides the questions we need to ask continually of how we understand tradition. Experience helps us to “feel” what we believe to be true. But Scripture is the immovable anchor by which we test the other elements and remain steadfast in turbulent waters.

Questions

What are the questions, then, that we need to ask when we come together to form a common theology about God? Here are a few suggestions:

Scripture: What does the Bible say about this issue? Does it say anything at all?

Tradition: What does your community of faith say about the testimony of Scripture on this matter?

Reason: If Scripture is silent on the matter (or vague), what does our overall understanding of the character of God teach us about what we are facing?

darryl-klassen
Darryl Klassen

Experience: What have I witnessed the living God do in these areas? What is my testimony? How does this matter shape the Church or even my own thoughts about God?

Darryl G. Klassen, DMin, has served as an EMC pastor at Kleefeld EMC and at Crestview Fellowship Church (Winnipeg). He continues to preach, teach, and write. He lives in Blumenort, Man.

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