“My Experience” – The subtle undertaker of sola scriptura (Matthew Barrett)
Two recent pieces in Christianity Today this past spring have caught my attention. The first is an article Mark Galli wrote called, “Rob Bell’s ‘Ginormous’ Mirror,” and the second is an interview by Mark Galli with William Paul Young, author of The Schack, called “The Love Shack.” While there is much we could discuss concerning the theology of these two men—Rob Bell and William Paul Young—what especially stood out to me is how both of them primarily draw their theological conclusions not from the Bible but from their own experience. Let’s consider each in turn.
Take Rob Bell for example. Galli aims to bring to the surface Bell’s epistemology, and that he does. Consider the following statement from Bell’s book, What we talk about when we talk about God:
When I talk about God, I’m talking about a reality known, felt, and experienced . . . . (62)
When God is described as father or mother or judge or potter or rock or fortress . . . those writers are talking about something they’ve seen, something they’ve experienced and they are essentially saying, “God is like that.” (89) So, when we talk about God, we’re talking about our brushes with spirit, our awareness of the reverence humming within us, our sense of the nearness and the farness, that which we know and that which is unknown. (91)
Galli insightfully translates Bell for us: “In other words, Bell believes our knowledge of God is grounded not in doctrine, the Bible, the preached Word, the sacraments, our institutions, or even what Jesus revealed (all ways theologians ground our knowledge of God), but in our experiences and our intuitions—especially that sense many have that there is a deeper reality in, with, and under this life.”
Galli makes the historical observation that such an experienced-based approach to theology not only aligns with the Romantic tradition (in contrast to the rationalism of the Enlightenment), but especially with 19th-century liberalism (think Friedrick Schleiermacher), which championed a “religion of feeling.” What is so piercing, however, is Galli’s conclusion that this “religion of feeling” of yesterday’s liberalism has resurrected itself and is today “shared by American evangelicals. By us.” Therefore, Galli’s thesis is set in motion: Bell is not only an evangelical, but an “evangelical’s evangelical.” For Bell—and American evangelicals as well—the “Bible is authoritative at some level—that is, he [Bell] always tries to understand his life in light of his reading of the Bible.” Those evangelicals who find their heritage in the Reformation will feel the blow of this sentence. For Bell and fellow evangelicals, the Bible is authoritative at some level. While we want the Bible on our side, nevertheless, it is not certain whether it should always be the first and final authority in our life. Rather, it shares the platform with human intuitions and feelings, albeit religious ones. Here we see the subtle undertaker of sola scriptura: my experience.
Now consider our second man: William Paul Young. When asked a number of questions concerning how he came to his theological beliefs, the resounding note in many of his answers is that he developed his theology in reaction to the Christianity he was taught in his fundamentalist home. In a very transparent moment, Young reveals:
I grew up fundamentalist, evangelical, Protestant. Those are my roots, and they are good roots. But it means the Pharisees are my people. I grew up with an image of God that was not helpful—largely the face of my father expanded. . . . I viewed the nature and character of God, a theology that fundamentally taught that Jesus came to save us from the Father.
Young goes on to express his deep dislike for penal substitutionary atonement—though I would argue what he is reacting to is more of a caricature than the real thing. Preferring to picture God as a black woman, Young seeks to get away from the image of God he grew up with: “Plato’s white grandfatherly god—because that god is not a very good father. When it comes down to it, you can’t trust him with your kids. Plato’s god is the indivisible one, who is fundamentally self-centered, rather than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God who is self-giving and other-centered.” For Young, his distasteful experience drove him not first and foremost to the Scriptures, but to his own personal quest, in which he developed a new experience of God, one that did not reflect any of the characteristics that his fundamentalist upbringing attributed to God.
With both of these popular authors what is apparent is that they share the same epistemological assumption, either explicitly or implicitly. While they both would say Scripture is important, it is questionable whether Scripture is always the most authoritative voice in their theological development. Whether it is the attributes of God, the nature of the atonement, the doctrine of sin, or the final judgment, their religious experience and feelings govern their theological conclusions. We draw our conclusions as to who God is based on what we see, experience, and feel within us, as well as what we encounter (or wish we had encountered) in our relationships with others.
It is striking, however, how contrary this approach is to the doctrine of sola scriptura. To be clear, experience, particularly religious experience, does play an important role. We do not develop our theological views in a vacuum. The community we live in has an impact on our theology—for better or worse. But if Scripture is to be the norming norm, the voice of divine authority, and the ultimate and final guide in faith and practice, then experience must always be subservient to what God has said. In other words, we interpret our experience through the biblical and theological framework of God’s Word, not vice versa (e.g., Ps. 119:105; 2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 4:12). It is precisely because Bell and Young have elevated human experience above Scripture that biblical and orthodox doctrines have undergone massive theological revision.
At the end of Galli’s article, he makes the most interesting critique about contemporary evangelicalism:
It is not hard to see why the religion of experience—the experience that Rob Bell is now writing about—tempts one to make feeling an idol, or how a religion of feeling leads to the watering down of great gospel themes. Historians of theology have shown such connections time and again. What’s hard to understand is why so many Christians who claim they stand for the faith once delivered to the saints don’t see that the road of experience leads nowhere except to the barren desert of the self.
Have Bell and Young watered down great gospel themes? Absolutely. But what is key to this entire discussion is that they have done so by substituting a Religion of Divine Authority for a Religion of Experience. Galli is surprised that evangelicals cannot see that they have traded the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” for the “barren desert of the self.” But as biblical history demonstrates again and again, whenever the God who has made himself known in Scripture is either abandoned or redefined, the one who takes his throne is always a god made in our own image.
Matthew Barrett (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University (OPS), as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of The Grace of Godliness: An Introduction to Doctrine and Piety in the Canons of Dort, Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration, as well as the coeditor of Four Views on the Historical Adam (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology), and Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy. He is the author of several other forthcoming books, which you can read about at matthewmbarrett.com.