Over the past few months I’ve observed that Cessationists and Continuationists have essentially dug their heals in. As I’ve already pointed out, the Strange Fire Conference was a model of what not to do and how not to do polemics. Yet I’ve also found some of the approaches by Continuationists unhelpful, for a variety of reasons. I’ll blog about that soon, so please don’t jump to the conclusion that I am only critical of Cessationists because I’m not. I want to be constructively critical of anything I find questionable.
At any rate, the same tired criticism by certain Cessationists continues to find expression. If you’ve been in this conversation for awhile, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about: experience. Experience continues to be a significant concern because it is assumed that experience shouldn’t play a role in our theological construction.
This, of course, is crazy.
There is still a strong influence of western rationalism that controls the brains of some people. This means that there are people out there who are epistemologically naive enough to believe that there is an objective way to approach the Bible and that they alone have discovered how to interpret it apart from, you guessed it, experience.
But let’s be honest: this type of Christianity is completely foreign to the type of faith found in Scripture. To be clear, I’m not accusing all Cessationists of this foolishness because I will gladly acknowledge that most of them squarely understand that Christianity is experiential. Regeneration, Justification, and Sanctification are understood by my friendly Cessationists as being experiential in scope. They reach this conclusion, of course, because the Bible makes that clear.
But as I seek to be honest, I can’t help but point out that there are some who tend to make it sound like experience is the root of all that is evil, especially those dang Pentecostals and Charismatics (and, now, Third Wavers).
Might I challenge that notion with a powerful quote from Mark Cartledge, who writes of the Pentecostal approach to Scripture:
“This sacred encounter with the living God is by means of the Holy Spirit and in the context of the church as the community of the Spirit, thus illustrating the ‘text-community-Spirit’ understanding. The Bible does not merely describe our experiences of God; it enables us to have experiences of God.” (Spirit and Scripture, 135)
Let’s face it. Experience can be a negative influence and can’t be always trusted. I find myself telling people all of the time that they need to be careful at trusting their feelings all of the time because, quite frankly, our feelings aren’t always adequate or trustworthy. Anyone who has been married will know what I’m talking about (parents are a good follow up). But it’s absolutely foolish to confine all experience to the fires of hell. And based on what I sometimes have heard and read angry Cessationists write, I wonder if they believe that… even though they are inconsistent and haven’t actually applied their silly statements. Furthermore, they often allow their lack of experience to determine whether or not they should reject other people’s experiences, which for anyone with a brain will stand out as still allowing experience (in this case the lack of an experience) to determine their acceptance or rejection of other’s experience. Yes, that was a long sentence. Read it twice.
I want to share a few thoughts from Michael F. Bird’s wonderful Evangelical Theology that I find helpful toward thinking about the role of experience. Bird does a good job of noting the different types of influences (sources) in how we theologize. Before I look at his positive conclusions about experience, let’s passify our hyper-Cessationist friends by acknowledging that “experience” is something we need to be cautious about. Bird writes,
“We must also recognize the real dangers in making experience a source of theology. The statement “I feel that God is telling me X” is open to all sorts of abuses. How do you actually know that? How do you distinguish between valid and invalid experiences? How do you test that a God-given experience has taken place as opposed to an interior psychological event in someone’s life? What is the difference between a heartwarming experience of God’s love during worship and a bit of heartburn from eating too much chili at the church potluck dinner? As such, religious experiences must be interpreted and authenticated in order to be a legitimate source for theology. Scripture and the wisdom of other Christians are two obvious criteria for evaluating experiences.” (Evangelical Theology, Kindle Locations 1425-1430)
I once had a lady tell me that God told her that she was supposed to marry me. The only catch was that God hadn’t told the lady I am currently married to. Yes, that was an awkward conversation. I’ve also had numerous people come to me and tell me that God told them they were supposed to do things in our church that were unhelpful. So I know all about the negative side of experience. But again I want to stress that the Christian faith is grounded in a very important experience. Bird writes,
“Experience” is a slippery term. It can mean the activation of our sensory receptors or a kind of inward illumination. When I refer to experience as a source of theology, I mean the acquisition of knowledge and relational intimacy through an encounter with the living God. I want to advocate that our encounter with God in prayer, worship, sacraments, Scripture, mission, and Christian fellowship provides a genuine source for theology.” (Kindle Locations 1410-1413)
Yes, we encounter God, as Cartledge as already hinted at, through certain G0d-ordained means.
So, if you are an angry Cessationist who is going to over-exaggerate your point by making it sound like Christianity is built on a worldview that is void of experience, you might want to ask yourself whether you have any understanding of the Christian faith! Be more careful in how you make your theological points. Argue against the validity of certain spiritual gifts via historically orthodox means and in regards to exegesis and hermeneutics. Leave the “experience equals evil” arguments out of it!
Oh, and if you were wondering, Bird also says this about “experience”:
“… certain experiences are even revelatory, such as visions, dreams, and gifts of knowledge when God sovereignly bestows them. All theological statements are undergirded by some kind of religious experience.” (Kindle Locations 1423-1424)
Yep, you read that correctly. Bird isn’t a Cessationist, which is another significant reason why I enjoy him. If you haven’t picked up a copy of Evangelical Theology, what are you waiting for?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.