I recently heard a pastor say that “experience shouldn’t determine our doctrine, only the Bible should.” He went on to explain that we might experience all sorts of things that lead us to believe one thing or another, but that the only true, infallible source of doctrine is the Bible and whenever our experience causes us to question Biblical doctrine, we must always defer to Biblical teaching, since it is the Word of God.
For those from a conservative/fundamentalist background, such an admonition will not come as a surprise — it’s the standard trope of “The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It.” But when I heard those words I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Why? Because such a hermeneutical framework, while seemingly the safest path towards following the teaching of God, is actually the most dangerous!
Regardless of what you believe about the inspiration of the Bible — whether you believe it’s the inerrant and infallible Word of God or that it’s a solely human-produced work fraught with errors (or some other position on that continuum) — we must all acknowledge that our understanding of the Bible is never inerrant and infallible. If there’s one thing we should all agree on, it’s that humans make mistakes. Frequent mistakes. Enormous mistakes. We get things wrong about history and about science and yes, even about the Bible. And it’s a foundational mistake to think that our personal experiences don’t color our understanding of the Biblical text. Anyone who thinks they can sit down in front of the Bible and read it with absolute objectivity has already decided that they’re willing to sacrifice truth for their personal prejudices.
This doesn’t mean that we should uncritically defer to our personal experience over and above the Biblical text — but we also can’t simply dismiss our experiences of reality. If the Bible said that all swans are white and one day I encounter a black swan, am I to doubt my eyes? If the Bible says that Cretans are always liars and I meet a citizen of the island of Crete who seems to be telling the truth, should I automatically disbelieve him? If the Bible says the earth was created six-thousand years ago but we dig up fossils that are millions of years old, should I assume that science is deceiving me? If the Bible says that women in church must keep silent but in virtually every Christian church, from the earliest house-churches described in the book of Acts right on through to the present day, women do speak and teach and sing and laugh and make all kinds of noise in church, am I to assume that some great sin against God is being committed every time a woman utters a word inside a church building?
The fact of the matter is that our experiences have an enormous impact on how we understand the Bible. And where our personal experiences, moral intuitions or reason and logic seem to run counter to our reading of a Biblical text, we should return to the text and carefully re-examine our initial assumptions. Yes, we may not properly understand our experience, but it’s just as likely that we aren’t properly understanding the Bible.
We should all do our best to acknowledge our biases and weaknesses and to take those shortcomings into account when reading the Bible, or for that matter, when engaging in any pursuit of knowledge. Such an acknowledgement should prevent us from making pronouncements with dogmatic certainty, from using the Bible to justify out-dated and immoral traditions and from clinging to pet doctrines at the expense of truth.
A willingness to read the Bible through the interpretive lenses of experience, tradition and reason doesn’t mean we’re ignoring the will of God in favor of our personal whims and foibles, but it does have significant implications for our understanding of gender roles, homosexuality, creation/evolution, eschatology and a slew of other issues. These issues remain hot-button topics within Christianity, but if we honestly assess them with proper deference to appropriate hermeneutical principles, it seems to me that the divisive nature of these subjects would wither in the light of truth.