Thursday, October 1, 2015

Should I use personal experience to interpret the Bible?


In our Wednesday night eschatology study, we spent a couple of weeks talking about hermeneutics, or the principles of biblical interpretation.  It’s critical that we understand which tools or principles are valid aids to interpretation and which ones are not.  There are a number of “tools” that can actually end up sabotaging sound interpretation.  I’d like to do a short series of articles exposing some of these enemies of sound interpretation.

One tool that is very common and very difficult to identify in our own thinking is the tool of personal experience.  Frequently, students of the Bible rule-out or rule-in interpretations of a given text based upon whether or not their personal experience validates that interpretation.  Let me give a few examples.
A number of years ago I had a discussion with someone regarding the famous “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” passage in Romans 7.  He was adamant that the passage described the normative extreme difficulty that Christians have living a godly life.  That is, it is normal for Christians to want to do good but to be unable to do so.  I asked him what made him so certain of this interpretation, especially when it seems diametrically opposed to the context.  He said, “That’s just always been my experience.”  I’ve heard similar comments regarding this passage at least a couple of other times.  People gravitate toward that interpretation because it resonates with their own personal experience.  For them, personal experience is an overriding consideration in their interpretation.
Another example involves a common objection to the postmillennial view of eschatology.  Postmillennialism holds that the gospel will increasingly succeed in converting the world so that eventually Christianity will permeate every government and social institution.  In a sense, the world will be Christianized.  A common objection is “that just does not look like what is happening in the world.  It looks like things are getting worse, not better.”  Because it seems like the vast majority of the world is unbelieving and there seems to be no movement of the world toward Christ, many people reject this view of eschatology, which otherwise is quite faithful to the Scriptures.  That is, their personal experience determines whether the interpretation is valid.
Another example pertains to women teaching and/or exercising authority over men in the church.  1 Tim 2:11-13 is quite clear that it is unbiblical for a woman to teach men or to exercise authority over men.  Yet, a common objection is that many men have been blessed by the teaching of women, have been saved through the teaching of women, etc.  So some deduce that it can’t be the case that God would object to women teaching men, otherwise He wouldn’t use their teaching to bless men.  Thus, personal experience is used to rule out a seemingly obvious interpretation.
We must keep in mind, however, that experience is not a valid hermeneutical tool.  We must never interpret Scripture by our experiences.  Rather we must interpret our experiences by Scripture.  
There are at least a couple of reasons to remove personal experience from our hermeneutical tool box.  The first is that experience is an inherently subjective thing.  Isn’t it obvious that we all approach the Scriptures with different experiences?  What if my experience contradicts the Scriptures, but yours affirms it?  Whose experience is “right”?  Experience is a wholly subjective thing and therefore unreliable as a tool for interpreting Scripture.
Second, it seems that the apostles held Scripture above experience, not vice versa.  Consider the apostle Peter.  He had certain experiences that would seem to trump anything that we could appeal to.  He spent three years with Jesus.  Even among the twelve disciples, he was in the inner circle of three.  He saw the risen Christ with his own eyes.  He even draws our attention to one of his more amazing experiences, the Transfiguration of Christ, in 2 Peter 1:17-18: For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.
We might expect Peter to then appeal to this experience to say, “Look, people, you can trust me when I tell you about Jesus Christ – I saw his transfiguration with my own eyes and heard the voice of the Father with my own ears.  Pay close attention to my experience!”  But he does no such thing.  Instead he shows that Scripture is a surer conduit of truth than his experience.  Immediately following the above two verses, he writes, “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention…”  The word is more fully confirmed than what?  Peter’s experience, according to the context.  If Peter didn’t rely upon his own experience, nor did he call others to rely upon his experience, why should we rely upon our own? 
There are many truths in Scripture that my limited life experience has not validated, but that does not make them any less true.  When we are considering a passage, we must remember that the original author infused his words with a particular meaning. The historical, grammatical, and cultural context can help me find what that particular meaning is.  My 21st century life experience can be found nowhere in that context and should not be considered when seeking the author’s meaning. 
Often my experience will affirm the truth of the Scriptures.  I know from experience that God is gracious, wise, and generous.  I know from experience that my sin will find me out.  Yet, my experience is not what makes those things true.  My experience is not necessary to confirm that they are true.  And if my experience contradicts what Scripture teaches, it is not the Scriptures that must be reinterpreted, but my experiences should be reinterpreted.  If my experience tells me that God is not gracious, that He is unwise, and that He is miserly, I’m not interpreting my experience rightly.  The Bible is unfallibly true, not my interpretation of my experience.
If I put experience in my hermeneutical toolbox, I can be assured that it will lead me astray.  It’s best to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture and allow Scripture to interpret my experience, but not the other way around.

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