Experience As A Source And Norm Of Theological Reflection

Outler’s understanding of the role of experience in Wesley’s theology, then, is quite particular. It is not any experience that a person has, it is the distinctively Christian experience of assurance of the forgiveness of one’s sins. It is the experience of the witness of the Spirit. Wesley was quite fond of citing Romans 8:16 to illustrate this: “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

When the quadrilateral is deployed as a means of theological reflection; however, experience is almost always defined far more broadly than this. In popular use of the quadrilateral, experience is usually understood as a kind of common sense. Experience is an authority for theological reflection (so the argument goes) because, if we are willing to pay attention, we can see the obvious things that are going on around us. Experience is also usually used to describe one’s encounters with the world around them, which often results in confirming the prevalent perspective of the current popular culture. Rarely, in popular discussions of the quadrilateral, is experience defined in the specific and more technical way that Wesley and Outler did. – Kevin Watson, “Experience In The So-Called ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral'”, Vital Piety, May 13, 2013

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To me, the quadrilateral is one of the jewels of Wesleyan theology regardless of its derivative status. I don’t see it as a method of Biblical interpretation per se, but rather open honesty aboutwhat everyone really does when they interpret the Bible using the plain meaning of the text itself, the church’s interpretive tradition, our deductive reason, and the meta-rational intuitions of our experience. The conservatives don’t like “experience” because it’s not something they can pin down and adjudicate decisively. But to drop-kick “experience” from Biblical interpretation is really to say that the Holy Spirit is not allowed to speak to us outside of the Biblical text. It’s very apropos for us to be having this conversation on the eve of Pentecost. – Morgan Guyton, “In defense Of The ‘So-Called’ Wesleyan Quadrilateral And The Experiential Breadth Of God”, Mercy Not Sacrifice, May 15, 2013

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Can the church find a profound-enough view of sin to see its own faults, and can it find a profound-enough view of creation and grace to see God’s presence working in the world? – Christian Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters To Those Seeking God, p. 22

Our younger daughter and I were having a conversation the other day, and she said, “You know, Dad, you sit around reading theology while listening to death metal and you think it’s normal.” I smiled and said, “It’s normal to me.” She laughed and had the last word: “That’s what makes you so great.”

I don’t know about “great”, but it is just who I am. I feel neither the need to defend nor apologize to anyone for it. At the same time, for those curious, I explain that even at its most violent – perhaps precisely at its most violent – death metal presents the most important questions that we in the church really don’t want to hear: When are we going to admit our flaws? Are we going to own up to the pain we’ve caused? Since the church very often is as evil in its day-to-day reality as the world it claims to seek to save, isn’t being honest and choosing evil an honest alternative to the hypocrisy of the church?

These are questions rooted in real lived human experience. These are challenges to the church’s self-anointed role as moral arbiter and overseer of a society and culture it simultaneously condemns and offers salvation. We in the church ignore these deep questions at our peril. Those asking these questions are getting at the heart of so much of our malaise and anxiety; people are rejecting the church not because of the message of the Gospel. They are rejecting the church because we are – let’s admit it – lousy messengers.

A couple years back there was a small brouhaha over the relatively abstruse matter of the place of experience as a proper category for theological reflection. Critics pointed to the actual text of Albert Outler, who named Wesley’s theological method as rooted in four sources: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. As Kevin Watson rightly notes, Outler’s reference to “experience” was the specific experience of assurance of pardon. That the category of experience and the Quadrilateral itself has taken on a life of its own seems to bother critics who dislike the idea that the hermeneutical back-and-forth moving from Biblical text informing our life, then our life informing our understanding of the Biblical text places the individual’s life on the same plane as the Scriptural witness to revelation.

My initial response both to Watson and other critics as well as Guyton and other defenders is simple: Outler’s original formulation of experience as our experience of assurance of salvation still open up the world of the lived human condition as a source and norm for theological reflection. After all, if the experience of assurance isn’t everything; if it doesn’t alter our perspective on each moment of our life, our relationships, our understanding of the world around us; if by claiming Outler’s original construal of “experience” is limited and later uses are somehow therefore illegitimate ignores the reality that our experience of assurance of pardon and acceptance by God either encompasses all our life, and therefore how we experience our life and our world, or perhaps we don’t have that blessed assurance that is a foretaste of glory divine.

Part of that experience had better include a willingness to hear voices outside the church who condemn us by our very own Scriptural witness. Part of our experience had better be a willingness to accept a judgement that might well be coming from God in the voice of one outside the oh-so-holy walls of the church establishment. Part of our experience had better be a willingness to hear and see the Spirit at work in all sorts of ways, even those our gatekeepers insist are blasphemous or heretical. If the Bible really is informing our life; if our life really is informing how we hear the testimony of the Bible; if this spiral of reflection is truly of God through the Spirit’s witness in our hearts as well as our communion with others in the Body of Christ, then we had better be paying attention to our experience precisely as it is rooted in our experience of assurance. The authority the church has to speak words both of judgement and pardon upon the world has always ever been the authority of the servant of all. We cannot divorce our mission and ministry to the world from our servanthood; we cannot separate our servanthood from the experience of the Godhead living out the reality of the Incarnation.

This brings me to the theological heart of the moment. The Incarnation was the Triune God seeking the experience of human brokenness from God, the experience of temptation, the experience of Godforsakeness, the experience of death in order that these experiences could be brought in to the Life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and transformed and redeemed. To reject experience is to reject an Incarnational understanding both of the immanent Trinity as well as remove that very assurance from any connection to the human life the Son of God lived and died. Without experience as that experience rooted in the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus which is that from which we experience the assurance of pardon, then what, exactly are we on about? Are we serious about Jesus as the Living Word, the enfleshed Second Person of the Trinity? Does the history of Jesus Christ mean not just something but everything, not only for us as individuals, or us as part of the Body of Christ, but for all Creation? If so, then experience is the heart of the Incarnation. It is also how we move from a kind of Docetism to the fully human/fully divine Jesus Christ.

Of course, I could ignore the theological arguments all together and point out that the reality that human beings find fruitful what critics insist is a misunderstanding and misapplication of “experience” kind of renders their argument silly. Rather than telling people they’re spiritual and theological understandings are wrong it would be far more interesting – and fruitful – to ask how and why this is so. Instead of insisting that only some original intent and understanding is the way we should proceed, we should marvel at how the Spirit has opened this particular source and norm for living the Christian life and reflecting upon it.

Still, it’s important to note that at the heart of the disagreement is a rejection of the Incarnational reality that is the heart of our Gospel message: “For God so loved the world . . .” We can’t have it both ways. In embracing experience, we also open the way to true servant ministry in a world that doesn’t need another group of folks telling it just how screwed up it all is. Instead, we can get busy loving and helping to heal this world, which is what we should have been doing all along.

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Comments are welcome, as long as they apply to issues rather than individuals. Don't make me break out the Benevolent Banhammer Of Love

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