The Shaping of Theology Through Experience

No doubt experience shapes life. For the one who denies such, they are simply out of touch with reality. We have all gone through experiences based upon our culture, family upbringing, education, economic status and even church background. Such is unavoidable in life.

Paul even had these interesting words to say:

And he [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us. (Acts 17:26-27)

God sovereignly places us into the era, culture, nation and background we live in, all that we might ultimately ‘feel [our] way toward Him’.

Specifically, when it comes to things like gifts of the Spirit and the use of such in the corporate worship setting, charismatics and Pentecostals (and now other ‘newer church’ groups) are usually labelled as too experiential. Such criticism is usually coupled with the fact that, historically, these groups have not had a solid Biblical foundation for some of their practises.

Of course, there is no doubt it would be unhealthy to found everything on experience and little, or nothing, on the truth of Scripture. Such can lead us down a path, or will lead us down a path that causes much confusion and damage.

Yet, what one might also observe is that experience may not only be a fault for Pentecostals and charismatics, but even for cessationists.

How?

For those who argue that miracles, healings, prophecy, tongues and other such things have ceased (or have mostly ceased), some of them will state something to the effect of, ‘Well, I’ve never seen such things, nor do I know any other people who have seen such.’

Do we see the possible problem with such a statement?

We should not look to be cruel and label this as hypocrisy, but there at least needs to be a reassessment here. If someone is quick to label Pentecostals and charismatics as those who base too much of their theology on experience and not enough on the Bible, and then the person goes on to state that one of the reasons they do not believe miracles and healings still take place is because they have never experienced or seen it happen, this gives rise to concern.

What seems to have been created is a double standard. Pentecostals and charismatics are chided for basing their theology on experience, but it might be that a cessationist does not consider certain gifts of the Spirit to still exist because they have neither experienced or know any one who has experienced such (at least experienced such to their personal satisfaction).

Of course, not all cessationists would make such a claim, and I only bring up such a point for consideration for both sides. But with cessationists, from the theologically trained to those who have no such training, there are quite a few who boast of founding their theology solely upon the Bible rather than experience, all the while heaping criticism upon the more charismatic groups for even considering experience as something on which they can build theology.

Yet, when the cessationist understanding of certain Scripture passages is challenged and found wanting, and of course this is where I lean, many cessationists can regularly remind us that they know of no one who has truly seen such miracles or healings, nor of anyone who has ever been truly used in prophecy or tongues.

So, what are we to do?

Well, let us first recognise that our experience does shape our theology. Whether we are full cessationist or full continuationist or anywhere in between, our personal life experiences will shape our theology. We cannot deny it. And that’s ok. Such is not inherently wrong. But this is not our sole, nor major, foundation for our understanding of God and His work.

God has given us a plethora of tools to guard against such: Scripture, the current local body of Christ that we are a part of, the whole cloud of witnesses that have fought the good fight for 2,000 years, and specific leadership within the local church. And that is just for starters, but good starters they are.

Of course, humanity can still go wrong. It does happen for fallible, fallen, broken human beings who are still ‘feeling their way towards God’, to again quote Paul from Acts 17. But, as a whole, if we keep our experiences in life humbly submitted to God, His revelation in the Scripture, leadership and the body with whom we relate, I think we can pretty much bank on being guarded against heresy, wrong practises, or just odd-ball stuff (though God might just call us to do something a little out of the ordinary).

In all, neither cessationists nor continuationists are free from the charge that our experience shapes our theology. And, please remember that this is ok. If our faith were solely based upon our doctrinal understanding (which is not ever 100% correct), then we would simply dry up and die, never having truly drunk from the living waters.

So, let’s be ok with our experience, to even be desirous of experiencing God. Such is not an anathema. It never has been from the Garden to today. And as we humbly seek God, let us continue to grow in being faithful to Him and His revelation in Scripture.

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