The Church today is troubled by the insistence of so many of its members on following experience rather than the Scriptures. Books without number pour off the presses telling us how it was for Bill and Tom and Jane and Mary, and urging us to do as they did. Norms are set by experience and then palmed off as principles of living that come from God. Does God use experience to teach us? Is experience a safe and reliable guide? What place does experience have in the Christian life?
Too often, Christians judge the Bible by their experience rather than judging their experience by the Bible. I once sat for over an hour listening to a preacher tell about his experiences as the basis for his belief in a doctrine that is actually heretical. Then, I took a half hour exegeting (critically interpreting) and explaining Scripture that pertained to the matter. When I was through, he said, “Sure, that’s what those verses seem to say; but if you had had my experiences, you would know what the passage means.” Interpretation – or I should say, misinterpretation – by experience! That is what it comes down to in so many cases.
“But surely experience must have a place in the Christian life?” Of course it does. But it is not a guiding or an interpreting role. That is where the modern, experience-oriented Christian has gone wrong. In this subjective age, where feelings and the irrational side of life are in almost complete control, he has opted for experience as his mentor. Clearly, that is wrong.
In Deuteronomy 13:1-5 (a passage rarely discussed in our day) we are told that if a prophet arises among God’s people (this danger is largely from within) who says that a miracle will take place, and the miracle actually comes to pass, we must not follow that teacher if his teaching is out of accord with the biblical truth about God because truth has supremacy over experience. We are not called upon to explain how the miracle, or supposed miracle, was brought about; that is not the issue. The operative factor is not whether a miracle was performed; it is whether the “miracle-worker” teaches the truth or not.
“OK, I can see that, but what is the place of experience then?” Perhaps 2 Corinthians 1:3-6 offers as clear a discussion of the point as we can find. In this section, Paul explains that he and his fellow workers have suffered affliction in order that they might be able to comfort (the Greek work, parakaleo, includes the idea of comfort, but is more general, and ought to be thought of as assistance of whatever sort the situation requires) those who are in any affliction with the same assistance they experienced when they were afflicted. Certainly, Paul is saying that, in some way, his ability to assist afflicted Christians was enhanced by his own experience of assistance in times of affliction. That is the whole point of the passage.
Experience is important, then. I do not want to discount any proper use of experience that the Bible commends; it is only the idea that experience guides us in decision-making or teaches us doctrine that must be avoided. What does experience teach us? How can we become more effective Christians because of our experience? Just what did Paul have in mind in 2 Corinthians 1? How did his experience of assistance in affliction help him to become a more helpful assistant to others in affliction?
A closer look at the passage, plus an understanding of Paul’s use of terms, will help us. The verb parakaleo, “assist” (mentioned above), and its cognate noun, paraklesis, “assistance” (often translated “comfort”), provide the key to our understanding of Paul’s words. Paul was helped in his affliction by some assistance he experienced. And just as he found that assistance helpful, he, too, may use that same sort of assistance to help others who are in affliction (note, of every sort). What was this assistance (paraklesis) that he experienced, and where did it come from? In Romans 15:5, he tells us, “And may the God from Whom endurance and paraklesis come give you…” Clearly, if Paul conceived of assistance (paraklesis) as God given, it was assistance, “paraklesis” that comes from God that he had in mind in 2 Corinthians 1.
How does that experience of assistance take place? How does God assist? Romans 15:4 is explicit on the point: “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the paraklesis of the Scriptures we might have hope.” That assistance comes through the Bible. God does not give assistance in some extrabiblical fashion, but rather, by means of the Scriptures. The ability to endure and to find help in times of affliction are given, not in some mysterious or mystical way, but through finding instruction and promises – in the written Word of God. God gives assistance through the Bible. The Holy Spirit did not spend hundreds of years producing the Bible only to ignore it in favor of some other sort of help.
What, then, is the place of experience? It has no guiding or teaching function at all; the old saying, “Experience is the best teacher,” is false. We all know people who have destroyed their health through smoking, who may even have developed lung cancer, who go on smoking anyway. They did not learn from their experience. Moreover, experience, per se, as we have seen from the warnings of Deuteronomy 13, can be a false teacher, a dangerous and misleading guide. But experience of the help the Scriptures give is different from all others.
Because the Bible is the God-breathed revelation of God’s promises and directions, when we rightly interpret and implement Biblical principles, we can experience guidance and other help that differs from all other experiences. It is the experience of hearing directly from God Himself. Contrary to what many believe, the Bible does not provide secondary or indirect help from God; it is the most direct revelation He gives us. When Paul says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16), he is telling us that the words of the Bible are as much God’s Word as if we could audibly hear Him speak them with breath.
So, when we turn to the Bible in affliction and experience God’s help, we are better able to know how to assist others in finding that same help from the Bible in their time of affliction. Well, then, does experience have a place? You’d better believe it does! But that experience which God has for us does not come in any other way than through the proper use of the written Word of the living God.
Deuteronomy 13:1-5: After the general prohibition against involvement in pagan worship (Deut. 12:29-31), Moses discussed three ways in which the temptation to idolatry was likely to come:
1. through a false prophet (Deut. 13:1-5).
2. a loved one (Deut. 13:6-11).
3. revolutionaries who had been successful in leading an entire town into apostasy (Deut. 13:12-18).
Miraculous signs alone were never meant to be a test of truth. Miracles happen in many religions because Satan uses false religions and false prophets to deceive the world (see 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Eph. 6:11; Rev. 12:9). So Moses warned the people that the standard for truth must never be a miraculous sign or wonder (or other areas of human experience). The standard of truth is the Word of God. A prophet’s or a dreamer’s prediction may come true. But if his message contradicted God’s commands, the people were to trust God and His Word rather than their experience of a miracle. If human experience seemed to contradict God’s clear teachings, the Israelites were to bow in submission to God’s commands, for His Word is truth (John 17:17) – The Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 286.
Grist From Adam’s Mill, pp. 1-4.
Dr. Jay Adams majored in Greek at John Hopkins University and got his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. He’s been a pastor, professional counselor, and a professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary.