Experimental Christianity

Posted: 6 February, 2010 in Literature, Theology

The degree to which experience plays a role in Christianity has been a dividing point between churches for centuries. And sadly, when parties are divided, “Satan leads both far out of the right way, driving each to great extremes, one on the right hand, and the other on the left, till the right path in the middle is almost wholly neglected.” Jonathan Edwards

Edwards had observed something that many of us often miss when we are trying to avoid a particular error. He observed that when Satan cannot hold us back, he often gets behind us and pushes the proverbial pendulum far beyond the biblical median until we have swung out to an extreme, which may be just as erroneous as the error we were trying to avoid!

For example, Roman Catholics have deified Mary, so protestants, in their quest to avoid idolatry, have denigrated her to the ranks of any ordinary girl, focussing on her sin and humanity, forgetting that she was indeed chosen to bear the Messiah and was one favoured by the Lord!

The tongue-in-cheek jokes about Baptists never showing any emotion in worship are often sadly an acurate description of many churches today. I fear I have been guilty of ‘over correcting’ when it comes to things like the gifts of the Spirit and so the chapter in Iain Murray’s biography of Jonathan Edwards, A Defence of Experimental Religion came as a timely wake-up call to my own soul.

Jonathan Edwards lived through America’s Great Awakening amongst other revivals and was faced with the major challenge of how to deal with over-enthusiasm.

In an excerpt from the chapter Murray writes:

“When Christians have a ‘strong and lively sense of divine things’, all their faculties are invigorated – the mind is more intense, the ‘affections’ are heightened, and the imagination, also, may be more active. It is easy, in this condition, argued Edwards, to regard a strong impression made upon the imagination, and explainable by natural causes, as a direct leading of the Spirit.”

Edwards also pointed out that Scriptural texts which accompany these ‘impulses’ are no safe guide if they have been wrenched from their orginal and only true meaning.

This was illustrated clearly in the life of George Whitefield, who, prior to the birth of his only child in 1743 said that he believed that his child would be a son and that he was to be ‘great in the sight of the Lord.’ His child died four months later and only then did he realise his mistake of misapplying several verses of Scripture to his own life, leading him to believe that “I should have a son, and that his name was to be John.”

Jonathan Edwards pointed out that these messages from heaven required the gifts of the Spirit which were ‘unique to the infancy of the apostolic church.’

“Why cannot we be contented with the divine oracles, that holy, pure word of God, which we have in such abundance and clearness, now since the canon of Scripture is completed? Why should we desire to have any thing added to them by impulses from above? Why should we not rest in that standing rule that God has given to his church, which the apostle teaches us, is surer than a voice from heaven?

And yet, Edwards seems to have been able to attain a healthy, biblical balance.

“What shall we find to answer those expressions in Scripture – ‘The peace of God that passeth all understanding; rejoicing with joy unspeakable and full of glory, in believing in and loving an unseen Saviour; – All joy and peace in believing; God’s shining into our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; With open face, beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, and being changed int o the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord; – Having the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost given to us; – Having the Spirit of God and of glory rest upon us; – A being called out of darkness into marvellous light; and having the day-star arise in our hearts:’ – I say, if those things which have been mentioned do not answer these expressions, what else can we find out that does answer them? Those that do not think such things as these to be the fruits of the true Spirit, would do well to consider what kind of spirit they are waiting and praying for, and what sort of fruits they expect he should produce when he comes.”

“What a poor, blind, weak and miserable creature is man, at his best estate! We are like poor helpless sheep; the devil is too subtle for us. What is our strength! What is our wisdom! How ready are we to go astray! And how much do we stand in need of the wisdom, the power, the condescension, patience, forgiveness, and gentleness of our good Shepherd.”

So then, how can we possibly decide what is from truly from the Spirit of God and what is simply our own excited imagination?

George Whitefield, who had undoubtedly gained a better appreciation of Edwards’ insight in 1745 preached a sermon entitled ‘Walking with God’ in which he warns against the extremes of the pendulum so-to-speak:

“Though it is the quintessence of Enthusiasm to pretend to be guided by the Spirit without the written Word, yet it is every Christian’s bounden duty to be guided by the Spirit in conjunction with the written Word of God. Watch, therefore, I pray you, O believers, the motions of God’s blessed Spirit in your soul, and always try the suggestions or impressions that you may at any time feel, by the unerring rule of God’s most Holy Word. And if they are not found to be agreeable to that, reject them as diabolical and delusive! By observing this caution, you will steer a middle course between the two dangerous extremes many of this generation are in danger of running into; I mean, enthusiasm, on the one hand, and Deism, and downright infidelity on the other.”

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Comments
  1. Mark Penrith says:

    Hi there,

    This was too much for one article :).

    On the worship side I’ve been to your church and experienced very rich worship there. I came away truly refreshed.

    On the prophecy side I’ve only ever seen this abused. If I wasn’t a theological cessationist I’d certainly be a pragmatic cessationist.

  2. brotherstone says:

    This all made total sense. I like it.

    I started to get a bit confused when Edwards started talking about the supremacy of The Canon over what he seems to elude to as, basically, God’s voice. Or our interpretation of it, anyway. :]
    I suppose I am more willing to deal with the messiness, and learn to be mature in hearing and discerning God’s Word, or expression, through His spirit into ours…rather than just say than that stuff doesn’t happen anymore, or that it is too scary.
    But then I guess I don’t see anywhere in the new testament where it doesn’t tell us to be “experimental”, or move in our gifts, all of them. Including prophecy, miracles, and generally hearing God’s voice and acting on it, while abiding in His love.

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