Waiting for the experience

From John Wesley’s journal April 2, 1764:

I explained at large the nature of Christian Perfection. Many who had doubted of it before were fully satisfied. It remains only to experience what we believe.

Here is the experience that we have wrestled against its will into a four-fold “method” that treats experience as a source of theological ideas. As this short entry demonstrates, experience is not the source of doctrine for Wesley, but the confirmation or expression of it.

And, indeed, experience did not settle the argument for Wesley. In the sermon linked to above — which may or may not have been what he spoke of to those people referenced in his journal entry — Wesley wrote briefly about the place of experience, reason, and Scripture in the development of his theological ideas about Christian perfection:

If any doubt of this privilege of the sons of God, the question is not to be decided by abstract reasonings, which may be drawn out into an endless length, and leave the point just as it was before. Neither is it to be determined by the experience of this or that particular person. Many may suppose they do not commit sin, when they do; but this proves nothing either way. To the law and to the testimony we appeal. “Let God be true, and every man a liar.” [Rom. 3:4] By his Word will we abide, and that alone. Hereby we ought to be judged. (emphasis added)

Experience is what we wait for and hope for after we have believed the Word of God. Neither it nor reason, however, tell us what we should await.

We may not have any desire to follow Wesley’s method and argument, but we do him a disservice if we claim by his name something he did not himself practice.


8 thoughts on “Waiting for the experience

  1. The real question with all of this is whether Methodism is permanently bound to an 18th century conception of hermeneutics as a sort of unmediated rationalist encounter with propositional texts. Our experience is always already shaped by our encounter with scripture and our encounter with scripture is always already shaped by the experience we bring to it. To me, it’s obtuse to try to separate them out. We simply try the best we can to live the poetry God has given us in the canon we’ve received. But what we have to recognize is that many of the insights we receive are going to be complex intuitions based on how Jesus treated people, what made Him mad, what He praised and championed, etc, and not necessarily clearly applicable “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt not’s.” The Bible is not an “owner’s manual,” even if you can show me a quote from John Wesley saying that it is. Most of what we have to learn is based on seeking to emulate the character of Jesus and meditating on the fruits of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit rather than expecting to find an exhaustive set of do’s and don’ts.

    1. I don’t actually agree that is the real question, but I know it is an important one to you.

      1. Do you recognize that what some might call “experience” might very well be intuitive realizations that are derived in scripture even though they aren’t based on clear, deductive proof-texts? I have a sense that people who haven’t really processed the scripture they read for their own discipleship are a lot more easily able to whip out proof-texts for the sake of their arguments. What does it mean to discern life decisions based on what Paul says about fruit of the flesh and fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5? Some of the most important passages to guide us are not easily mapped into the “issues” we like to argue about, which if we’re honest, have very little to do with actual holiness or discipleship in our personal lives.

        1. I believe intuition is one of the gifts God has given us — like reason and “common sense” and other aspects of our being. Intuitive people very well might make connections and leaps that other people do not.

          But not every leap is in keeping with the revelation of God, which is why we need to test our ideas against Scripture, which is not always as invulnerable to simple interpretation as many people seem to wish it to be.

          As for Galatians 5, is that a checklist for discerning life decisions? It looks to me more like a description of the outcomes of a choice a person makes between walking by the Spirit or gratifying the desires of the flesh. If you choose path A, you will end up here. If you choose path B, you will end up here. He is warning them what will happen to them if they put their faith in flesh (circumcision) rather than Spirit (faith in Christ).

          I can certainly read into Paul’s list of good and bad outcomes some guides for life decisions, but I think that is using the lists backwards from the way Paul does. Maybe I’m misreading him here.

        2. You illustrated my point. When you read scripture looking for checklists, you ignore the parts that aren’t casuistic checklists but give you a basis for an imitatio christi kind of virtue ethics.

  2. If you want to take what I wrote as illustrating your point, I will not argue it. I don’t think I really understand your point, so I can’t judge very well if I’m illustrating it. You asked me how I read Galatians. That is how I read it. At least at the moment.

    At the risk of being a proof-texter, though, I would not endorse witchcraft even if the person practicing it claimed to experience joy, peace, and self-control while doing so.

    1. Right, if the purpose of reading the Bible is to determine your position on other peoples’ behaviors, then the fruits of the spirit aren’t going to be much use to you. But in Wesley’s favorite book, Thomas A Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, he doesn’t meditate about whether or not to approve of witchcraft, homosexuality, etc, but rather on what it looks like to be peaceful, self-controlled, gentle, patient, etc. Our problem today is that we measure “holiness” according to our positions on other peoples’ behaviors, not our personal discipleship. If holiness is about imitating Christ, then the purpose of reading the Bible is to grow intimate with the person of Christ, not to adjudicate your issue positions.

      1. Sure, but when you start trying to live like Jesus, you are going to end up discovering that there are things you cannot do and still live like Jesus. And if your task in the church is to judge the fitness of clergy candidates or vote on doctrinal issues, then you are going to be forced to deal with these kinds of questions by the nature of your role.

        You seem to be so worried about falling into legalism that you want to deny the existence of boundaries and consequences to holiness.

        It has been a while since I read Kempis, but I recall him offering quite a bit of particular advice about behaviors to avoid and behaviors to engage in. If I remember rightly, he has a quite vivid description of the pains of purgatory and hell for those who go to judgment without ridding themselves of sin. To him, it seems, holiness as the imitation of Christ did not exclude dwelling upon particulars and “issues” of morality.

        I quite agree with you that my holiness has nothing to do with your sin (or vice versa), but I do not fault the Christian who thinks my sin is carrying me away to hell and wants to save me from it. If he tries to do this in the way of Westboro Baptist Church, he will not have any influence on me, but if the intention of the heart is good, I do not begrudge someone trying to save me from torment.

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