If You Can’t Base Doctrine On Experience…

It is a truism universally acknowledged — at least in my incestuously small circles — that you can’t make doctrine from experience.  We often say it exactly like that: “You can’t make doctrine from experience.”  Or in the disclaimer form: “I realize you can’t make doctrine from experience, but I’ll tell you, I’ve found that…”

Of course this position is perfectly understandable.

I think of a man and a woman, both married to other people, who were committing adultery together.  (By the way, this is a true story.)  They justified their adultery on the grounds that they always knelt by the bed first and prayed together that if them coming together was not God’s will, He would step in and prevent it.  He never did.  On the strength of God’s non-intervention, they concluded He must approve, that their ‘love’ for each other must have somehow sanctified their illicit relationship.

See?  You can’t make doctrine from experience.

Countless abuses, errors and rank sillinesses are being avoided, at this very moment, by people who are having strange experiences, but who, on the strength of this dictum, will not try to make doctrine out of it.  This is a Good Thing.


…is it true?  Is it really as simple as “You can’t make doctrine out of experience”?

I submit the following example for consideration:

Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness.  How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.

For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith….

For those of you who haven’t recognized it, that’s Romans 4:9-13.  Paul is arguing that an uncircumcised person — i.e., a Gentile — can be found righteous on the basis of his faith.  How does he prove his point?  Note the portion in bold. Paul argues on the basis of Abraham’s experience.  We use the word “history” instead, but that just means it’s really old experience.

The comeback, of course, is that Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write Romans as Scripture; not being similarly inspired, we can’t interpret experience in the same way that he could — and anyway, he’s interpreting Old Testament Scripture, not his own personal experience.  I think there are good responses to both objections, but let’s bypass them for the moment and look at another example:

If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him.

That’s Jesus speaking in John 10:37-38.  He challenges his hearers that if they don’t find His words convincing, then they ought to believe His works — i.e., His miracles.  But these are events which they have seen and heard themselves, that is, personal experiences.  From these personal experiences, Jesus’ readers should derive a christological conclusion.  That is once again getting doctrine from experience.

But perhaps someone will say, “That’s all well and good for the people who see supernatural events like the miracles Jesus is talking about there, but you can’t make doctrine out of the events of ordinary life.”  Really?  Let’s look at a third example:

You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year. And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when the LORD your God has blessed you, then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses.  And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household.

This is from Deuteronomy 14:22-26, but particularly note the clause in bold.  It’s an instruction on the conduct of the festival year, and the disposition of the ‘party tithe.’  At the appointed time, they are to gather up 10% of the previous year’s income, go up to the place God designates, and throw a party.  They are to do this every year.  No miracles, no supernatural events — just the ordinary rhythms of life, like a Thanksgiving dinner, the Super Bowl, and watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve.

They are to throw this party, Moses tells them, so that they will learn to fear God always.

This rings strangely to our ears for a number of reasons that I’ll pass over here.  We should notice, however, that the theological conclusion comes in the doing of it, that is, in experience.  Again, it is precisely in experience that they are to learn their doctrine.

Does this mean that we can have a strange experience and use it to justify any theological nonsense we want?  Of course not.  There are controls — interpreting experience by what God has said — but that’s a discussion for another post.  For the time being, note: our modern dictum that “you can’t get doctrine from experience” would ring very strangely in the ears of the men who wrote the Bible.  They plainly did not believe any such thing.

Neither should we.


2 Responses to If You Can’t Base Doctrine On Experience…

  1. Rose~ says:

    A very interesting and thought-provoking post, Tim. hmmmmmm….

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Thanks Rose! Happy to be of service. I’m hoping to touch on this more over the coming year — it’s been on my heart a lot of late.


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