Christian Doctrine and Experience (Machen)
We need to be sure don’t let our experiences in the Christian faith lead the way in defining biblical truths.
Written by Shane Lems | Thursday, May 12, 2016
Our experiences – as valid as they may be – are subjective. But God’s word is objective and foundational. So let’s be careful when we define biblical truths. If we’re only giving a partial definition, it’s good to state it so we don’t mislead people. And if our definition has a subjective aspect to it, we should state that as well – or perhaps get rid of it altogether and save it for one example of application.
Sometimes Christians get doctrine and experience mixed up. For example, suppose a person came to faith by experiencing the kindness of Jesus. Then suppose the same person started teaching that the essence of conversion is experiencing Jesus’ kindness. It is biblically true and wonderful that Jesus is kind. But it isn’t helpful – or 100% biblical – to make one’s experience of this truth the center of a doctrinal definition. J. G. Machen talked about this from a slightly different angle in a radio address he gave just under 100 years ago. The title of the written manuscript is “The Creeds and Doctrinal Advance.”
In this address he said,
“…Christian doctrine is just a setting forth of what the Bible teaches. At the foundation of Christian doctrine is the acceptance of the full truthfulness of the Bible as the Word of God.”
Here’s how he explains the statement:
That is often forgotten by those who today undertake to write confessional statements. Let us give expression to our Christian experience, they say, in forms better suited to the times in which we are living than are the older creeds of the church. So they sit down and concoct various forms of words, which they represent as being on a plane with the great creeds of Christendom.
When they do that, they are simply forgetting what the creeds of Christendom are. The creeds of Christendom are not expressions of Christian experience. They are summary statements of what God has told us in His Word. Far from the subject matter of the creeds being derived from Christian experience, it is Christian experience which is based upon the truth contained in the creeds; and the truth contained in the creeds is derived from the Bible, which is the Word of God. Groups of people that undertake to write a creed without believing in the full truthfulness of the Bible, and without taking the subject matter of their creed from that inspired Word of God, are not at all taking an additional step on the pathway on which the great Christian creeds moved; rather, they are moving in an exactly opposite direction. What they are doing has nothing whatever to do with that grand progress of Christian doctrine of which I spoke last Sunday. Far from continuing the advance of Christian doctrine they are starting something entirely different, and that something different, we may add, is doomed to failure from the start.
The first prerequisite, then, for any advance in Christian doctrine is that those who would engage in it should believe in the full truthfulness of the Bible and should endeavor to make their doctrine simply a presentation of what the Bible teaches.
These are very helpful statements to keep in mind when thinking doctrinally and writing doctrinally. We need to be sure don’t let our experiences in the Christian faith lead the way in defining biblical truths. Our experiences – as valid as they may be – are subjective. But God’s word is objective and foundational. So let’s be careful when we define biblical truths. If we’re only giving a partial definition, it’s good to state it so we don’t mislead people. And if our definition has a subjective aspect to it, we should state that as well – or perhaps get rid of it altogether and save it for one example of application.
Speaking of confessions, one reason I very much appreciate the Reformed/Presbyterian standards is because they do typically give an objective, well rounded summary of Christian truths.
You can read Machen’s entire address in chapter 16 of God Transcendant (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982).
Rev. Shane Lems is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hammond, WI.