Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Experience, Experience and more Experience – a major & dangerous source of modern doctrine

A discussion starter from Peter Toon

True religion is in the affections! Genuine Christianity is expressed at the personal level in the desire to know God, to adore, love and service Him, to have fellowship with Him and with His covenant people, to look for the Second Advent of His Son, to rejoice in suffering, and to show love, compassion and mercy to the neighbor.

Truth enters the mind, is received and processed, drops into the heart and has an effect upon the affections and the will. The proof that divine truth has really entered is seen in the movement of the affections and will towards God, to be with Him and to do His will in freedom and joy.

Where believers are united in this pursuit of God in an ordered way there is the Body of Christ in reality.

Today in much of western Anglicanism to speak of experience is not usually to speak of the traditional, consecrated search for God, to see the Father in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord. Rather, it is to speak of the general experience of life in its relation to God and also to speak of the “results” of those sciences which study human life – the behavioral and the psychological sciences. This form of assured “religious experience” is a major constituent in the modern approach to the Bible, in the creating of new liturgies, of the setting of agendas for synods, of the creation of new doctrines and new ethics, and the authorizations of new practices, rituals and ceremonies. Further, it has a major effect upon the publication of new versions of the Bible and of a whole assortment of religious books, cassettes, tapes and so on.

The telling of their stories of pain and joy by people involved in divorce and in remarriage, by women seeking justice in terms of job opportunities & equal treatment with men, and by homosexual persons of their finding love in a committed same-sex relationship -- to cite three examples, has been highly influential in the changing mindset of the liberal Churches of the West (even as they have followed slightly behind the changing cultural norms and expectations of western countries). Together with these personal stories of pain and joy have come a multitude of studies from sociologists and psychologists, which claim to prove that received morality and forms of human relations inherited from the Christian past are not written in stone, Rather, they are changeable and adjustable, and must be so in order to ensure the true fulfillment and good of human beings. Here again the Churches have followed a little behind the secular world in adopting this “enlightened” approach.

In this new atmosphere (roughly post 1960s) Christian leaders have come to the reading of the Bible with a new mindset. No longer do they expect to find therein doctrines which are set forth in their Confessions of Faith, their Hymnody and their Liturgies. Rather, they want to believe that the Bible is truly a book of freedom, justice, human dignity and fulfillment, peace and toleration, and that it upholds the best insights that God has been revealing to his people (they believe) through their personal experiences and through the scientific study of human experience in modern times.

So they claim to see through the heavy cultural skins and conditioning of the biblical characters and message to the true message of God to his people through all space and time. And to make things easier they authorize new translations to incorporate some of these insights – inclusive Bibles, and they create new types of biblical exegesis and hermeneutics. So the Bible which clearly forbad this or that in 1960 is now the Bible which not only allows but commends this or that now!

Put another way, the use of modern experience as providing a light or even a mindset to look at the received Christian tradition in Bible and in church worship, doctrine and practices opens up (it is held) the received tradition, inherited from the past, to new interpretations, which are themselves more in line with the assured results of modern science with respect to the nature, dignity, freedom and self-worth of modern human beings. So the new system is more credible to modern people!

It is not unreasonable to suppose that, having been thus enlightened, a duty is felt by these leaders to propagate their insights, and to move on to change the worship, the doctrines, the morality, the canon law, the ceremonies and the ethos of the Church, and to do this legally through the appropriate channels (in synods) – which they have increasingly done in the Churches of the West [e.g. the ECUSA and the Anglican Church of Canada acted canonically in the introductions of innovations in sexual doctrine and practice.]

Without the importing of “Experience” into the Church agenda since the 1960s, we may claim that the changes in the doctrine and life of the Churches of the West would have been minimal (even as they were between 1800 & 1850 or between 1900 and 1930, or most other earlier periods).

It would be foolish to think that the importing of “Experience” has been done only by the liberals and “revisionists”!

Consider the changes in evangelicalism in America since the 1960s, which have been vast. The divorce and remarriage rate in their ranks is as high as that of society in general and most remarriages are in church. Women have been ordained as pastors and feminist language has made its way into hymnody, liturgies, Bible translations and the exposition of doctrine. Psychotherapeutical forms of the message of salvation and sanctification are common, even dominant, in much “worship” and presentations of Christian behavior. And, even if same-sex blessings have been resisted, much of the language created by the homosexual liberation movement has been adopted – e.g., from “gay” to “orientation”!

Evangelicals in general, like Liberals and Revisionists, cannot truly claim that they hold to the full authority of Scripture for they hold to the authority of the Bible as interpreted by minds saturated with the powerful reality of modern Experience. It is not the Bible on its own terms, or on the terms of those who made official the Canon of Scripture (the Church of the Fathers of the early centuries), or even on the terms of the Reformation of the 16th century. It is the Bible which is translated, read and interpreted through the powerful lens and spectacles of modern Experience – be this in large or small measure.

Therefore, the big effort to erect barriers to prevent the arrival of the LesBiGay agenda into the evangelical churches – and into evangelical Anglicanism – will probably not succeed because the very weapons being used to keep this enemy out are the very weapons that have allowed it to make such headway already in the old-line and main-line Churches. The LesBiGay virus cannot be cured without curing first a variety of other viruses and bugs!

The Revd Dr Peter Toon March 9 2005

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