Experience Over the Word
Geoffrey J. Paxton
We are living in an age of unprecedented ecumenical acceleration. Such is due to the three great "neo's" of the current religious scene neo-Pentecostalism, neo-Romanism and neo-evangelicalism.
Optimism is at an all-time high with regard to the religious ferment of today. Not so long ago, for instance, Christianity Today quoted John A. McKay as saying that the future of Christendom may well lie with a reformed Catholicism and a mature Pentecostalism. Not a few see the "awakening" of today as the greatest religious awakening since Pentecost!
The three great "neo's" are
diverse, and this makes generalizations even more hazardous than usual. However,
the responsibility of assessing the
current religious scene, amid its diversity, must not be evaded. It is not
our intention to magnify excesses or successes but to arrive at the fundamental
of the religious ferment.
Surely one of the basic aspects
of any movement or conglomerate of movements is the place of the Bible. In
the three "neo's" there are passionate
assertions abounding with reference to the Bible. "The baptism in
the Spirit" is
said to give a greater love for the Bible; the "charismatic experience" is
said to have unlocked the Bible for many. Few have not heard about Rome's "new
approach" to the Scriptures, her new "open attitude" even
to the fundamental tenets of Reformation theology. It behooves us to inquire
What does the evidence reveal? What
is the fundamental drift with regard to the Bible? Can it be stated with
relative safety in a short compass?
Notwithstanding exceptions here and there, we believe that the general
drift with reference
the Scriptures is cause for alarm. For the most part the Bible is subordinated
to experience. The general drift is toward experience over the Word.
We suggest that this is anything but a sound platform for the future
The following statements
may be made about new-face Catholicism and the Bible:
1. Neo-Romanism views the
Bible in itself differently from the traditional Roman Catholic view
of the Scriptures. Although the
Bible was subordinated
to the Church in traditional Romanism, nevertheless she held a high view
of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures. Neo-Romanism
holds only to
a qualified inerrancy and authority. This (as is to be expected) is stated
variously by the different scholars in the progressive movement of the
Church of Rome.
2. If the Bible has only a qualified inerrancy and authority, what has absolute authority? In order to come to grips with this question, we recommend that interested readers study the influence of the nineteenth century John Henry Newman in Vatican Il's approach to the Bible and revelation. We can only state the crux of his view here: Newman believed that Scripture has reduced only a part of special revelation to written form. There is also revelation which is not found in Scripture – a nonpropositional revelation. The mind enables the Christian to come to grips with the written revelation, whereas "intuition" (also called "insight") allows access to unscripturated revelation. The revelation grasped by intuition "fills the gaps and puts flesh on the ribs of that which has been committed to writing."1
The famous and popular Hans Kung reflects the same qualification of Biblical authority. Not all the Bible is the Word of God for Kung. In fact he would rather speak of "the infallibility of religious encounter" than the infallibility of the Bible. For Kung the Bible is the nearest that the theologian can come to describing the reality of God and of Christ. This being the case, both the words of the Bible and the theologian are defective.
3. To sum up, if the Bible
does not have absolute authority, then absolute authority must be
placed in man. Despite the obvious
differences between new-face
and old-time Catholicism, this tragic positing of final authority outside
the Bible itself is common to both. The religious experience
of man still stands
over the written Word.
As mentioned earlier, claims
of greater love for the Bible are not infrequently heard among charismatics
(and sometimes outside
the charismatic movement). "The
baptism in the Spirit" is said to "unlock the Bible" for charismatics.
To what does the evidence point when we look into charismatic literature? It
points to the subordination of the Bible to the human spirit – experience
over the Word. We make the following observations regarding the charismatic
use of the Bible:
the Bible is quoted out of its context. When this takes place, a meaning from
without is imposed on a text or passage. The
word of man
is placed over the Scripture and is then called the Word of God.
We can do this
with great fervor and enthusiasm, eulogizing the text. But falsification
of the Word has taken place. "Text out of context is pretext."
2. In so much charismatic writing there is an alarming superficiality evident in the use of Scripture. A lack of careful consideration of a
text or passage
is not the sign of preoccupation with its meaning. A meaning which comes
from a framework other than the Bible is imported into the Scripture
fact that a closer examination of the text will show another meaning.
For instance, consider the frequent use of Acts 5:32 to show that obedience
is a condition
for the gift of the Spirit. In actual fact the meaning is exactly the
of what the charismatics seek to show. The text says God has given (past)
the Holy Spirit to those who are now obeying Him (present). Obedience
is the sign
of the Spirit, not its precondition! Many other passages could be quoted
along with references from charismatic literature, but such would be
space-consuming. Superficiality with regard to the Bible is hardly a
sign of increased devotion
to the meaning, the real meaning of Christ's Word!
3. A third and tragic aspect
of the charismatic approach to the Bible is that it is just ignored in too many instances. This
ignoring of the
with a show of spirituality, but it is none the less serious
and tragic. Frequently, ignoring the Bible takes place under
an appeal to the Spirit.
however, is an appeal to the Spirit apart from and even over the Word.
For example, Dorothy and
Kevin Ranaghan in their book, Catholic Pentecostals (Parmus, N.Y.:
Paulist Press, 1969); extol ideas
solely upon the
basis of experience. Also, in an appendix it is seriously argued
that "the values of Pentecostalism
as a meaningful and valid part of Christianity can be appreciated
from both the theological left and right." — p. 261. By
the left is meant the radical stream of Robinson and Bultmann,
who have plainly
of the Bible; and by the right is meant those who still hold
to the historic orthodox view. Apparently the Spirit is quite
to the Word. It
makes no difference whether the Bible is believed or denied;
the Spirit still comes
in His glory!
Should Protestants take
refuge because the preceding citation comes from Roman Catholics,
here are a couple no less disturbing
charismatic, J. Rodman Williams, president of Melodyland
School of Theology:
we often in the past argued the nice points of the "Real Presence" among
ourselves. Such now is completely done away, and in the fellowship
of the Spirit we sit down together at the Lord's Table not to discuss
the Real Presence,
but to enjoy it.
I can . . . recall occasions
of full participation at the Lord's Supper in traditions as widely
and Assembly of
and Church of Christ." — J. Rodman Williams,
The Era of the Spirit (1971), p.45.
The import of what Williams
says is that the baptism in the Spirit has rendered meaningless the
of the Spirit which is apart from the Word – yes,
even above the Word. Yet nowhere in the Scriptures can
we find love for the
Bible expressing itself
by deliberately ignoring the Word. The tragedy is that
such quotations as those
just given could be multiplied ad nauseam.
4. The final point concerning
charismatics and the Bible is that, essentially, the charismatic
method of handling
The charismatic uses an evangelical approach to the
Bible and comes up with a different account of the Christian
in our estimation,
All the things we have said
about the charismatic's use of the Bible are applicable to evangelicalism
to raise serious
way the charismatic uses the Scriptures without at
the same time
questioning well-entrenched evangelical methods.
This final point, it must
be remembered, is not expressed by one who is not an evangelical,
but by one who
is evangelical and the principal
Bible college in Australia. Behind this last point
lies the observation of evangelical young people
When we come to speak of
neo-evangelicalism, we do not wish to deny the great benefits that
have come from neo-evangelical scholarship in Biblical studies.
The fact remains, however, that the great bulk of evangelical folk have
their Biblical theology molded by popular convention speakers and
authors and not
by solid, sober theologians and exegetes from evangelical ranks. The
big names in popular evangelicalism are not the names of our better
and exegetes. Often when the work of such scholars is consulted, it is
consulted in the already fixed framework of the one doing the consulting.
1. We repeat for emphasis
that what has been previously said about the neo-Pentecostal and
the Bible is true of the neo-evangelical
Christian. Frequently the Bible
is treated as a contextless repository of information supportive of a
(very unsatisfactory) preconceived view of Christian existence.
so much of influential speaking and writing in evangelical circles today.
Also, not infrequently, the Bible is just simply ignored. Only
recently I was reading
an earnest statement concerning Christian existence which was quite wide
of the Biblical perspective. One of the chief characteristics
of the presentation
was the well-nigh complete absence of Scriptural support.
There are two chief characteristics
of so many of the young folk who apply to our college in Australia.
First, a self-confessed
of the Bible.
(Most of them give the reason for coming to college as "To get
to know the Bible.") Second, an unshakable dogmatism in what they
believe! Wherever they get their theology, it is not from the Word
2. When we say that the
Bible is so much ignored in neo-Pentecostalism and neo-evangelicalism,
this raises the question, Where does
come from? In many instances it comes directly from the Lord Himself – or
His Spirit! More than once I have heard popular and influential leaders
say things which could only be attributed to a "private session
with the Lord Himself only the night before"! This, we might
add, apart from the Word!
Sometimes evangelical leaders
will even lay claim to special visions and revelations as the source
of their (sometimes quite bizarre)
call this "evangelical
guruism." But alas, how dominant is this type of thing! This
is appeal to the Spirit apart from the Word. It is not unfair to
say that if such
a position is challenged, there is even appeal to the Spirit over
3. This leads us to a third
characteristic of so much popular evangelicalism – the
determinative role of experience. If the neo-Pentecostal or the
neo-evangelical has experienced it, then the Bible must teach it!
This appeal to experience
over the Word takes different forms.
For example, one of the
most frequently encountered forms is "the changed
life criterion." How difficult it is to suggest something
may not be Biblical if it has changed the person's life! Have
you ever tried to get a charismatic
to rethink his view when he keeps telling you how great a change
it has brought into his life? How much more he loves Jesus
because of the experience! This
is the pragmatic approach: "It works!" It works;
therefore it is Biblical.
Another form is "the
great numbers criterion." If a particular Bible
teacher has great crowds flocking to hear him, then surely
this is a sign that the Lord is endorsing his message. Would the
charismatic movement be endorsed
so heartily were it not so huge and widespread? Would Bill
Gothard's Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts seem so true if it were
attended by only 200 people
in an obscure part of Los Angeles rather than 18,000 in the
Los Angeles coliseum? "Might
means right" is more a part of our mentality than we
realize! It amounts to the fact that great crowds are seen,
as the blessing and
endorsement of the Lord. The basis of this is a legalistic
premise—the Lord only blesses
us when we are right.
How difficult it is to get
people to consider what a person says if that person is in the minority!
Minority is inferiority
so much evangelical thinking.
In conclusion we suggest
that the three great "neo's" are fundamentally
agreed in this subordination of the Bible to the human
spirit. Though there are outward differences and even some exchange
of hostility, herein lies the
fundamental affinity of the three "neo's."
When we speak of experience over the gospel, we are asserting
that the message of the Bible is subordinated to the
message of man.
we speak of experience
over the Word, we are saying that the meaning of the
Bible is subordinated to the meaning which man imposes
This focuses, we believe,
the fundamental drift of the current religious scene. We do not suggest
are no long-lost
coming through the three "neo's" (e.g.,
the denial of papal infallibility and other emphases
Dr. Kung, the
stress of the wide distribution of
the gifts of God by the charismatic movement, etc.).
But such Biblical elements
are within a fundamentally wrong frame-work. We are
all, because of our sinfulness, saddled with error.
However, it is better
to have elements
of error in a correct
Biblical framework than to have elements of truth
in a fundamentally incorrect framework. In this last
even the elements
of truth serve the deeper-lying
Notwithstanding the imperfections
of the sixteenth century Reformation, it was a Reformation in the
true sense of
the word. The Word
of God dictated the
thinking of the Reformers. Today in the supposed
reformation to end all reformations, we suspect
that the reformers
are dictating to
what it should say
and when it should say it. But there is no genuine
movement of the Spirit without a genuine movement
of God's gospel
1 For comments
on Newman, see the Roman Catholic Bruce Vawter's "Biblical Inspiration"
in Theological Resources (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), pp.23,
136, 137, 141,~166. See also Vatican II's Constitution on the Church,
pp.12,35, and The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,
p. 52, for a
ratification of Newman's approach.
Read Part II
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