Faith and Experience

 

Does objective truth suffice

so that we can have a true and proper faith

without any subjective engagement?

 

Christians, if quizzed, will favor firm objective truth rather than loose subjectivity. 

If, for instance, believers are asked, “Do you know that God loves you?” most will respond with, “Yes, of course”.  We can treat God’s love as an objective certainty affirmed in the Bible.  But if the subjective question is asked, “Do you often feel God’s love?” many will probably answer “no”.

Our engagement with objective truth is a well-grounded bias as we recognize how many features of faith are based on proclaimed truth rather than on personal experiences.  We worship Jesus, for instance, as a man the Bible reveals to be God’s Son: one who is wholly God, wholly man, and wholly one in his divine humanity.  This portrayal of Jesus is a bedrock of faith yet we embrace it because we find it in the Bible and not because we somehow, “feel it must be true”.

But what about knowing Christ as in John 17:3? 

Is some sense of relational experience crucial to Christian faith or is it optional?  Does objective truth suffice so that we can have a true and proper faith without any subjective engagement?

Let me answer by affirming that subjectivity is crucial as it completes God’s revelation to us—as in the completion of an electric circuit.  God reveals his heart of love to us, and our hearts then respond in kind as we experience that love.  To know the God who “is love” (1 John 4:8 & 16) is to engage his love in a personal experience.  To know him is to love him.

I enjoy reading the Puritan preacher, Richard Sibbes (1577-1635), on this. 

He held that regeneration is our experience of God that only those who meet Christ can know, and those who have a “veil of ignorance” cannot fathom: “Of spiritual things, such as is union [with Christ], and as is the communion between Christ and us, and the mystery of regeneration in the new creature, such as is the joy in the Holy Ghost, the inward peace of conscience” [Works, 2.462].

Sibbes pressed the point in a sly jab towards academics who could talk about God without loving Christ: “As a blind man can talk of colours, if he be a scholar, and describe them better than he that hath his eyes, he being not a scholar.  But he that hath his eyes can judge of colours a great deal better.”

Red to orange in the rainbowHis point is well taken: a man born blind can learn and even teach about the spectrum of light but it takes a sighted person to tell another viewer, “Look at that part of the rainbow where red turns to orange”.  This is where the difference between a revealed truth, such as Christ’s full humanity and his true deity, and a relational truth such as our experience of the Spirit telling us to speak to God as our “Abba—Daddy” overlap.  Both are true and mutually supportive, but—to use a radio analogy—one operates in the spiritual frequency of an unfelt explanation of Christ’s being while the other operates in the spiritual frequency of a felt encounter with Christ’s love.  We can think, for instance, of the difference between the visible and the invisible spectra of light.

The lesson is this: to engage God in whole terms—in both the objective and subjective reality of his being—we need his self-disclosure to become visible to the “eyes of our hearts” (as in Ephesians 1:18).  Engaging God in Christ is not an “either-or” option that distinguishes thinking Christians from emotional Christians.  Rather it is a “both-and” faith.  So some of our earlier Reformation companions, including John Calvin and Sibbes, were correct to speak of faith as a personal experience of God’s love for us as revealed to our hearts and minds by the Spirit who uses objective Bible promises from God to speak to our hearts.

Some may not be there in their experience. 

So we must ask: is this subjective faith out of reach for some?  For those who have never felt God’s love in Christ but who “want it”?  No.  There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that God keeps us from feeling his attractive love, a love that always elicits a response of love in return.  We love him because he first loved us.

The problem is in us: in our refusal to look towards him with open hearts.

Paul said as much in the case of people being blinded by “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4).  How does the enemy maintain such power?  By misguided loves: when the blinded person’s real love is for what the world offers, as in John 3:19—they love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.

So let’s affirm objective truth while also responding subjectively in love to the one who is, in himself, the ultimate living Truth.  He’s absolutely and objectively lovely and those who know him will experience that love subjectively.

Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s article at Cor Deo.

~ Ron

 

Dr. Ron Frost

Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].

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