Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Brief defence of Experimental Christianity

John Robbins' recent diatribe against the Puritans and experimental Christianity uses an essay by Douglas F. Kelley to launch an attack upon them as 'semi-Pagan' and 'antithetical to the gospel'. Perhaps Kelley has not made the case for an experimental emphasis in the best way and allowed some confusion in introducing the medieval angle, but Robbins dismisses the entire practical writings of the Puritans (a considerable body of work and all experimental) under this label with no more than a throwaway reference. If there is a case to build I am sure it could be constructed in a more reasoned way. Perhaps part of the difficulty is that Mr Robbins has misunderstood the emphasis of experimental Christianity. He focuses on the word 'experience', but this ought to be understood in the older sense of trying and proving (hence experimental) rather than as wholly subjective and personal. Experimental Christianity proves the reality and depth of a profession in relation to the Word of God. It desires that the truth of the Word should be wrought on men's hearts with power and reality by the gracious working of the Spirit and to stimulate greater godliness and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. It fears a mere 'form of godliness' which denies 'the power thereof'.

Christian experience cannot be divorced from the Word, rather it has a bibline character. This emphasis is found in the Westminster Confession's chapter 18, the Larger Catechism's treatment of self-examination and the Shorter Catechism's teaching on the several benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification' viz. 'assurance of God's love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end.' There are three dimensions, as it were, to true religion: doctrine, practice and experience - we cannot do without any, they are interdependent. John 'Rabbi' Duncan warned that our emphasis must be proportionate: 'If you preach all doctrine, then that is all understanding and that is a monster. If you preach all experience, that is all heart and that is a monster; and if you preach all practice, that is all hands and feet and that is a monster. Preach doctrine, experience and practice.'