Monday, February 07, 2005

Experiential Religion

Religionists of the nineteenth century held experience in high esteem. To receive membership in a local congregation, nearly every denomination required of the applicant the relation of an experience. Such experiences could take several forms. A believer might report they felt something as simple as a surge of warmth overwhelming them as they prayed for acceptance. The experience might be a dramatic testimony or a physical manifestation. In every case, such experiences depended on feeling.

Although much of this originated in the Calvinist doctrines of predestination and the direct operation of the Holy Spirit, a renewed emphasis came in the 1700s from Theodore Freylinghuysen. Freylinghuysen, a Reformed preacher in New Jersey’s Raritan Valley, taught that true religion grew from a feeling – a feeling of dependence. God, who Freylinghuysen said was unknowable, could be experienced through an inner feeling of dependence.

Revivalism also gave a “shot in the arm” to religious feeling and experience. George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Samuel Davies were all powerful preachers who could stir the emotions. Preachers and hearers alike often mistakenly attributed these emotional feelings to the working of the Holy Spirit whose regenerating power brought conviction and release. The “Second Great Awakening” of the early nineteenth century also saw its share of emotional phenomena. Hearing of remarkable events in Logan County, Kentucky, Barton Stone went to hear James McGready preach and to see for himself the revival’s effects. Returning to Bourbon County, Stone arranged for what became known as the Cane Ridge Revival. Richard McNemar, in The Cane Ridge Revival, reported the outbreak of strange physical phenomena that occurred there. Stone later reported that although such experiences were not normative, he did believe God was working during the revivals. After the revival, the desire to continually seek such experiences fractured the Springfield Presbytery. McNemar and John Dunlavy continually sought experiences. Their search eventually led them into Shakerism. Revivalists such as Finney, D.L. Moody, and Billy Graham used emotional appeals to bring their hearers to conviction and response.

Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott rejected the necessity of experience in salvation. Campbell attributed emotionalism and the call for experience to enthusiasm. Writing of the “camp meetings” of his day, Campbell wrote, “Camp meetings is [sic] the order of the day among (a host of groups). … I object not to a camp or field meeting, a one day, two day, or seven day meeting, as such; but you understand that “camp meeting” means not merely hill or dale, field or forest meeting; but a meeting for a revival – for deducing fire from heaven – for altars, anxious seats, mourning benches, and all the machinery of ‘getting religion’ by animal excitement” (“Letter to Elder William Jones,” Millennial Harbinger, 1835, p. 355). Campbell observed that thousands “got religion” but knew little of the Book or its teachings.

The reformers of the nineteenth century rejected any idea of such overt operations of the Spirit along with any need for experience, emotional or otherwise, for proving faith. As Campbell put it, “I teach that the Spirit of God only now operates through the written word, either in convincing sinners or in consoling saints” (ibid).

For Campbell, and others, faith originated in a quiet confidence in the testimony of the Scripture. Because the eye-witnesses faithfully reported their experiences, one could come to believe without reservation that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. Paul’s letters, and the writings of others in the New Testament, continued Christ’s teachings as “he led them into all truth” (John 14:26). Leaders in the Restoration Movement realized it was not their experience but the experience of the Apostolic writers that meant something. Campbell taught that faithful proclamation of the ancient gospel produced faith in the hearers. Faith led to repentance, confession, and obedient submission to Christ in baptism for the remission of sins.

I find it interesting that religionists are today returning to a “religion of feeling and experience.” Commentators on the contemporary religious scene tell us that those around us are “seeking an experience with God” – indeed, they want to “experience God.” But what do they mean? They mean they want their emotions excited, their feelings moved, and their heartbeat stimulated. Today’s hearers must come away from a religious gathering with their “ears tickled” and “feeling moved.” Add to this, the sad fact that “booming bass” is often becomes a substitute for religious feeling. If one can feel the music, then there is an experience with God.

I am not making a case here for traditional worship, which is by common interpretation often boring worship. Uninteresting or boring worship is an offense against God. It is my conviction that one can present the ancient gospel in an interesting and winsome way, a way that appeals to thoughtful consideration without making it dreary or dull. At the same time, one does not have to dismiss the content component while emphasizing the emotional component to make disciples. Our churches are rapidly becoming large and shallow. Our preachers continue to spoon-feed pablum when long-time believers should be into the meat of the Word.

Campbell described our day well when he wrote, “The half has not been told you of what I have seen and heard. Tens of thousands in America have got a religion by ‘the baptism in fire of the Holy Ghost,’ who, if eternal salvation depended on it, could not tell where Jesus Christ was born, where the gospel was first preached, or what the gospel means. Myriads, too, have held this religion for a year, who, at the end of it, could not tell who wrote the Acts of the Apostles, or the design of that book. I should not be believed were I to tell half of what I know of the ignorance of the Book in this religious, enthusiastic, and fanatical population. ‘The preaching of the Holy Ghost,’ instead of preaching Christ crucified, buried, risen, glorified, is the chief cause of this.”

Time spent with God and with each other should be enjoyable and even entertaining. Enjoyment and entertainment, however, can never be the chief end. Worship must never degenerate to the level of “the show”. It is a gathering of the saints to celebrate what God, through Christ Jesus, has done for us. We express our thanks for his experiences rather than seeking one of our own. As in most things called Christian, it is a matter of balance as opposed to extreme.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wish you would have been there to preach this message to your first followers at Cane Ridge!!!
They certainly needed to hear it.