Personal experience as “an entirely different authority”?

Dan Wallace has an intriguing post on “Charismata and the Authority of Personal Experience.” Apparently, there is an increasing number of scholars who are embracing the charismatic movement. My thoughts, heretofore, have been that the opposite is taking place, but let’s grant that there is some sort of increase, at ETS and other venues, of a charismatic intelligentsia. Wallace believes that these scholars have swung the pendulum from one extreme (rationalism) to the other (emotivism). The sum of his argument is that the Enlightenment injected a new emphasis on rational criteria into Evangelical Protestantism which caused a cognitive overload unable to bear the weight of personal (existential) crisis. Wallace has in mind those that come from a rigid fundamentalism, which is cast aside after some deep suffering and exchanged for a Vineyard fellowship (he explicitly names Vineyard). The result is that the (objective) authority of the Bible is exchanged for the (subjective) authority of personal experience, i.e., “an entirely different authority.”

[It should be noted that “charismatic” does not necessarily indicate speaking in tongues or extempore “prophesies,” but, rather, is used more broadly for churches that have a praise & worship service, “practical” preaching, community groups, Bible studies, etc. and an overall emphasis on personal transformation.]

Now, Wallace does, in the last paragraph, make the concession that personal experience is vital and a necessary correlate to the reasons of faith. But, the entire thrust of the article is that the sort of personal experience emphasized by Vineyard et al. are detached from the God of the Bible, thus self-generated and self-serving.  Of course, there is abundant evidence that this does indeed take place. To use everyone’s favorite example, Joel Osteen does not preach the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (nor of Jesus Christ). That much is obvious. But can we really black label the entire Vineyard movement (and, presumably, the larger nondenominational phenomenon) and those scholars that associate with charismatic churches? Such a charge needs to deal with the actual churches in their particular (and typical) form of proclamation and worship. Have these churches abandoned the authority of Scripture — do they no longer proclaim Christ and his work of atonement — in favor of an increase of spiritual euphoria? Or is the euphoria and enthusiasm amidst a context of proclamation of the Word? Can it be said that the worship and preaching are a response to the God who makes all things new? I think, perhaps too optimistically, that we can still say yes, in most cases, to those last two questions. This will require some forgiveness, on our part as critics, for spiritual immaturity among clergy and pew-sitters alike, bearing in mind our own weakness and imbalance — a good reminder for those in the Calvinist camp. (After all, the case can be easily made, as I indicate below, that the “Calvinist resurgence” is working the pendulum back the other direction.)

My Counter-Proposal

One more point I’d like to make — a brief counter-proposal.

It has often been the case in the history of the church that suffering or spiritual crises have been a medium through which God draws us to his Son. In such cases, cognitive assurance can be supported and confirmed by emotional assurance, and, given the proper context of proclamation of the Word, will actually draw the person to a greater dependence on the God of her salvation. Prior to this, the person may have put her trust in reason (proofs) or the Bible (inerrancy abstracted from the God of salvation). The cognitive assurance, as such, was not “wrong” in its belief in the God of Israel and Jesus Christ, but it was wrongly grounded. In this sense, a charismatic church can actually claim a greater objectivity insofar as it relies on God to actualize his truth, and not human constructs (proofs or inerrancy). The church is thus used of God to effect the work of the Holy Spirit in drawing his beloved ones to the Son. This is not to say that proofs or inerrancy are inadmissible — they may be, but that’s not my point — rather, I am saying that they will always fail as epistemic foundations, which is to say, as foundations for faith. “Subjectivity” is not the problem. The problem is either a subjectivity or an objectivity disconnected (a dualism, as T. F. Torrance argues) from each other and made independent authorities. The former is the potential epistemic fallacy of the charismatics; the latter is the potential epistemic fallacy of the Calvinists.

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15 comments

  1. Kevin,
    Do you think cognitive (objective) or emotive (subjective) are helpful categories at all for attempting to understand faith? I guess I am not convinced that if you asked anyone why they believe what they believe it wouldn’t really come to down to either of these if you pushed them hard enough. Would calling be a more helpful for term for this? I could say I feel called to Osteen’s church (or the vineyard) or I am called by God to be a Mennonite but I am not convinced whether it is felt (emotive) or thought (cognitive) really proves all that much.

  2. My worry is that all of this is personality-based. Some people have a personality that is more analytic while others are more emotive. Some people are more emotive at an early stage in their coming to faith, which is then rejected as they “mature” and replaced with a more scholastic approach — this is pretty much the biography of R. Scott Clark and many other converts from the free church to the Reformed church. Of course, movement in the opposite direction takes place as well (especially in former times when the cognitive approach reigned, e.g., the turn from 18th century rationalism to 19th century romanticism). My ideal is something more of a balance — not balance for balance’s sake but, rather, a balance that takes account of the whole range of the human personality: intellect and heart. We too often partition the personality when we argue for the priority of either intellect or heart. Invariably, this partitioning results in either logic, on the one hand, made the criteria for faith; or, on the other hand, beauty and goodness are made the criteria for faith.

    As you know, Barth has a very good section in CD I.1 on experience (paragraph 6) where he criticizes any fixed anthropology as providing the criteria for dogmatics. This is what I mean when I question the value of personality-driven absolutes, whether charismatic or Calvinist.

    So, I think I agree with you, in part, about the limits of these categories. We cannot help but express our faith in one or both of these aspects of our personality. However, I think we should strive to be able to express it with both — that is the goal because our calling requires the work of the Holy Spirit on both our reason and our will. In this regard, I think the categories can be helpful. As for “calling,” I’ll have to give it more thought. Today, it is usually used as an emotive expression (“I feel called to…”) whereas it can also be used as a synonym for “proclamation” of the Word. If we used the term, “calling,” as both outer proclamation and inner reception, then we’d be on the right track. So, if that’s what you’re thinking, then I agree.

  3. Since being raised Presbyterian I associate calling with a sense of God’s providence in all things. I think it actual goes against emotive expressions of the faith in my experience but is rooted in an understanding of the nature of God (which I guess in this context is cognitive) meeting our being taken up into proclamation (which I guess in this sense is more emotive).
    Although now that I framed it that way I don’t see how it could help if that concept was let lose in a charismatic church.

    • Being raised a Baptist, we did associate calling with Providence to some degree, but mostly it related to an inward feeling about some direction to take in life. You could say that it was presupposed that this direction is providential. I don’t really have a problem with all of this as long as the inward feeling is not reduced to happiness but, rather, includes the path of suffering (which can include a sort of happiness — a deeper sort). When calling is made easy, we got a problem.

      • When I think of calling I think of this passage: Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

        But than again I am a mennonite. We can’t not see discipleship as suffering (almost to a fault).
        If you do listen podcasts The Other Journal has a decent interview up with Kelly S. Johnson in which she argues we need more joy in our churches. Granted she is a white catholic speaking to mainline protestants which makes this an entirely different conversation than with Vineyard churches.

      • Unfortunately, I have very minimal experience with Mennonites. I grew-up in North Carolina among Baptists and Presbyterians. Interestingly, there is a small movement among some conservative Southern Baptist scholars to appropriate the radical reformation — this is mostly as a way to bolster “Baptist identity” polemics but maybe it will result in a more cruciform theology.

  4. On the personality note I recently went to a debate that featured William Lane Craig (don’t ask me why) and some atheist scientist. The only people apparently engaged at all in the audience where primarily white males (on both sides of the discussion). Not sure what that says but it does say something.

    • Oh yeah, I’m totally not surprised. It’s much worse when a pastor models his preaching on these “male”-oriented cognitive concerns. We are the bride of Christ, after all!

    • Of course, a lot of people are complaining today about female-oriented worship services, in the sense of overly emotional, which is, once again, the opposite problem.

      • This is not to say that I agree with correlating “emotional” with “female.” 🙂 But there is some truth to the fact that cognitive behaviors differ, in varying degrees, between the sexes.

      • I still find it odd that some peoples churches are in order enough they have time to complain about other ones.

        Unlike most people I still think The Nature of Doctrine gives us one of the best views of religions not as Cognitive-propositional system or experiential-expressive mode but as cultural-linguistic framework.

      • In regard to the sexes:
        There were in fact several churches whose visions of sin and salvation were so ecstatic and so nearly identical that the superiority of one church over another could be argued only in terms of good works. And the obligation to perform these works rested squarely with the women since salvation was universally considered to be much more becoming in women than in men.
        Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

      • Nice quote. I finally got around to reading Gilead recently.

        I haven’t spent enough time with Lindbeck. I need to.

  5. Speaking, umm, subjectively, I agree that there are certainly at least two dimensions of our experience of knowledge, subjective/emotive and objective/rational. And, although we may separate these out as two different aspects or dimensions, I think they’re awfully mixed together. Growing up in what I experienced as an extremely legalistic environment, there came a point at which my life experience was totally not jiving with my theology (i.e. dealing with depression, cynicism, etc.) One reason I went to Fuller Seminary was to stand outside of my own tradition (Churches of Christ)and try to rework through my theology. For me this was a very positive experience. But there was for a while a dissonance between my life experience and theology, a lot of pain actually. But this was the good kind of pain, the kind of pain that motivated me to do something different. Sometimes our emotions are trying to tell us something. Sometimes they are wiser than our brain.

    As to Vineyard, I know John Wimber (the guy behind the beginning of this movement) tried to emphasize that there should be no dichotomy between emotions/spirituality and rationality/theology. He pointed out in his lectures that one problem with many of the early Pentecostal leaders was that they had these experiences and gifts, but having no theological training, their stated theology was often poorly or very badly expressed. I think Wimber would state that although many are afraid of their emotions getting out of control, he would contend that for many folk, their intellect has gotten out of control. John Wimber never opposed objectivity, or rationality, or doing theology. But yes, he also upheld the charismatic gifts of the Spirit.

    As an aside, I did take John Wimber’s somewhat notorious class on “Signs and Wonders” at Fuller. Yes, it was controversial but for myself it was a very positive experience. I did not become charismatic or pentecostal, but I did gain immensely in understanding better these fellow Christians. And, I must admit, things happened when John Wimber came around. A lot of Calvinists in his classes had profound spiritual experiences outside of their cubby holes. My own impression of the man behind this movement was fairly positive, actually.

    As for Wallace’s criticism of Vineyard, I haven’t really kept up with the denomination, but in the “early days” of the movement in the 1980’s I would say it was never the intention of their leadership to elevate personal experience over or against Biblical authority.

    • Thanks for the info on John Wimber. Very interesting. I didn’t know anything about him.

      As for the contemporary Vineyard, I really appreciate the worship music of Jeremy Riddle (he’s part of Vineyard and records on their music label). He has a very solid balance between doctrine and experience.

      As for the dissonance you experienced, I think a lot of us who engage theology can say the same thing. A big part of my “breakthrough,” so to speak, was recognizing these issues of personality and then making Christ the center.

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