P. T. Forsyth on the role of experience in the making of theology

On our Confessing Christ open forum the role of experience in the making of theology continually pops ups. Nobody wants to eliminate experience from the mix (indeed how could you?), but serious issues arise. Whose experience is privileged? What is the relationship of human experience to scripture, tradition, and reason, the other three legs of the Methodist quadrilateral. I find this passage from Forsyth from a hundred years ago insightful. His qualifying of experience with faith reminds me of Jonathan Edwards. This passage shows, too, that this issue is not new to our time:


“What we need is a theology that creates an obedient experience rather than experience that creates an interpretive theology. What is created from Christian experience is theologoumena rather than theology. Of course I understand by any experience which is used as the basis of theology the positively Christian experience of the regenerate man, and not mere experience of the world, or of life, or of the humanist pieties and ideals. But even the positively Christian experience of a quite new life cannot be the basis either of a gospel or of a theology. What can be such a basis is Christ’s experience and that of those in first and direct contact with His person and work. The value of our experience as a base, or even as a test, is small; it is too narrow, it is too variable, it is too impure. The fundamental thing is not experience, but the a priori element in experience; the thing of which we have experience; the datum revealed in it and to it; the thing which produces our experience, the object of our faith. Faith is the great thing; and faith is not an experience in the sense of a mood, but as response to a revelation. It is there in great measure to save us from our experiences as subjective states, and to enable us to do without them on occasion, as our Lord did in the world-saving moment of the dereliction on the cross. Besides, some of the greatest convictions of our faith are beyond the range of our possible experience. What can experience tell us of the pre-existence of Christ? What can it tell us of the final victory of Christianity in history, and the consummation of all things in the coming kingdom of God? Can any experience assure us that all things work together for good to love except an experimental faith in the love that has reconciled all things to Himself, and constantly sees in Christ a reconciliation hidden to us The reconciliation of faith and experience exists but in the object of our faith—the Reconciler. What we need is, not to see a reconciliation by Christ, but to experience heartily Christ as the reconciliation. Again, is Christianity the highest we have come to? Experience says Yes; comparative religion says Yes; the historic-religious method says Yes. But is it the highest we can come to? Is it a final revelation ? Is it absolute? To that question what can experience say ? But is there any doubt that New Testament Christianity claims to be final and absolute? It does not contemplate the possibility of another and more adequate gospel. Such was the experience of Christ, and, through Him, of the apostles. But was Christ’s experience here a mere part (though the highest part) of human experience Godward? The Christian contention has been that Christ’s experience was not man’s so much as God’s in man. He is a revelation in terms of human experience, but not a revelation of the resources of human experience. We go back to history not only to correct the Christian experience, but to found it, and to give it something to crystallize on. And we have this in the historic Christ, who is now neither debris left by the pyrrhonist critics on the one hand nor a mere part of history on the other, but an eternal reality in history. Christ corresponds in history to the a priori element given in individual experience. He is above the relativity of comparative methods. These and such things belong to our faith and not our experience, to the grand venture and not to the verification. Faith, indeed, is experimental or nothing. But we have surely got beyond the error which confuses faith with experience. A faith merely experimental becomes merely empirical, and at last dies of secularity.

(a paper read to the National Council of the Evangelical Free Churches at Birmingham, as reported in The Christian World Pulpit, 21st March, 1906. From Revelation Old and New: Sermons and Addresses by P.T. Forsyth, edited by John Huxtable (London: Independent Press, 1962)

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