Theology Matters

Faith Virtue Knowledge

Theology and Experience


My Experience

Several years ago, when I made the decision to leave a job in pastoral ministry to do further training in theology I came up against a common obstacle—particularly common, I might say, in the Pentecostal-Charismatic/non-denom world that I inhabit. Several people questioned (quite sincerely) the wisdom of doing a formal program of study at all. And there was good reason for it. Had we not all witnessed many young people who had once been so zealous for God that they had taken that fateful decision to go to Bible college? And had we not also witnessed these same zealous ones becoming jaded and cynical, losing their ‘edge’, and sometimes losing their faith? Why would anyone want to study theology? The sentiment was most succinctly, and perhaps best put by a good friend who simply said, “The world doesn’t need more theologians, Clayton.” In a sense of course, he was right. The world does not need more stuffy scholars who care little for God or people, and who know how to articulate a faith with great precision that they have long since ceased to experience if they ever did. (My own experience in Christian higher education leads me to believe that very few such people exist and that this is an unfair caracaturisation by which sincere and good people permit themselves to stunt their own spiritual growth…but that is another story for another day).

The (Imagined) Gulf Between Theology and Experience

The fact is that a gulf exists—or at any rate is held to exist—between theology and experience. Those who have wonderful experiences of God often fear that the pursuit of theological learning will somehow nullify these (though they are often curiously blind to the role that theology itself has had in creating and fostering these experiences), or perhaps, deep down, that they will find that some of their experiences are either false or feigned. On the other hand, those who pride (I use that word advisedly) themselves on having good theology can often be dubious about the subjective nature of ‘experiences’ of God, perhaps fearing deep down that if tangibly experienced, God may ‘mess with their categories’ or they may lose control.

C.S. Lewis (in Mere Christianity Book 4, Chapter 1) tells the story of a talk he gave to airforce servicemen. After he had finished, an old officer approached him and began to protest that he did not need theology, for he had the real thing—an experience of God. Lewis’ reflections on this experience provides some valuable clarity on this issue. As such, I will quote him here at length beginning with the words of the ‘hard-bitten’ officer:

‘I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!’

Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things that you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America….

In other words, Theology is practical: especially now. In the old days when there was less education and discussion, perhaps it was possible to get on with a very few simple ideas about God. But it is not so now. Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones—bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties today are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected. To believe in the popular religion of modern England [or, we may now say, of the modern USA or modern Australia] is retrogression—like believing the earth is flat.

The Community of Living Faith: The Integration of Theology and Experience in the Church

An intellectual faith that has no basis in lived experience is really no faith at all. On the other hand the enthusiasm of a person who starts out with a vibrant experiential faith will inevitably wane unless they, in the words of 2 Pet 1:5 “make every effort to add to [their] faith virtue [that is, the lived experience of that faith]; and to virtue, knowledge…”.

And so, when it comes to theology and experience you cannot have one without the other. But I will go one step further than that. We will typically find that we have a natural bent to emphasise one over the other. The one who defaults to a more rational and analytical faith will find that God challenges them—yes, I said GOD, though he might use those raving fanatics that they have always feared becoming—to grow in the area of their experience of the faith. Conversely, the one who defaults to a more affective faith should not be surprised to find God—not the devil—challenge them to grow in the area of their knowledge.

Not only do we need both theology and experience to be healthy and balanced individual Christians then, but, more importantly in the Church, we need each other. And my highest priority in this regard should not be to do everything possible to ensure that those unlike me learn from me—the comfortable and easy thing—but rather to humbly, submittedly, and intentionally allow myself to be shaped by those who are not like me, but whom nevertheless, God has called me to walk with. This is neither easy, nor comfortable. But it is vital.

Now one final point. The watching world, to whom we as Christians bear witness, like the church, consists of all types. Some come with the questions of the mind, others with the questions of the heart, but deep down, all alike give expression to the hunger of the soul that can only be satisfied by the God who put it there. Whether we are testifying with tears, grappling with the Scriptures, praying for a miracle, or engaging the skeptic, we are bearing faithful witness to the Only One who can truly satisfy the soul: The God who is, the God who can be known, the God who yearns to be experienced, and the God whose mysteries are beyond all searching out.

So do we need more theologians? Or more evangelists? Do we need more knowledge or more experience? The answer of course, is yes.

Author: Clayton Coombs

Christian, full time father, part time theologian, team member at David McCracken Ministries. Reader, writer. Optimist on most days, quiet on the others. Aspirational musician, recreational golfer.

6 thoughts on “Theology and Experience

  1. I love this Clayton. Thank you for starting this blog. It’s long intrigued me how our chosen denomination of Christianity, in Australia at least, seems afraid of theology or considers it a distraction/alternate path from ‘real faith’.

    When I was working in pastoral care I felt that it was only sensible to gain some formal training. After all it is expected in every other job. Sure we get great ‘on the job training’ from mentors and conferences and self directed learning but a theoretical understanding is equally important.

    1 Peter 3:15 implores us to ‘sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence;’ – this is for all of us not just pastoral workers.

    Sure we can get lost in the ‘study’ of theology and the minutiae of pre and post-tribulation rapture debates and I don’t think this pleases or exalts the Lord which is our first responsibility. However like you said, asking questions and seeking answers is a God given curiosity and should be a complement not an alternative to a fulfilling real relationship with God.

    I applaud you for saying no to the ‘Koorong school of Pastor training’ (no offense Koorong you’re great at what you do but cannot replace traditional tried and tested ‘actual’ academic education) and taking it upon yourself and your family to pursue knowledge whilst deepening and strengthening your faith and relationship with God. You are proof that you can have both, knowledge and faith and, may I be bold enough to say, be an even BETTER pastor/disciple/servant because of it.

  2. Hooray for this blog!! More is needed!!!! Maybe I will actually get off my behind one day and do one too – I also strongly feel that call to balancing experience with knowledge. But even if I do, it won’t ever be as thoughtful or measured as yours is. I’m sure this is in large part due to the many more years of study you have at your disposal, and in no small part also due to your calling and character. I will most likely be sending people your way Clatys, so keep it up!

  3. Reblogged this on Theology Matters and commented:

    Hi all. I have not been blogging for some time now, but revisited one of my first posts this morning in preparation for a Theology lecture at Planetshakers College, and I thought it was worth sharing again. I hope it blesses you.

    • Hi Clayton

      Awesome article reminds me of my intro to theology class that has opened my world to the whole works as a beginning.

      I tried emailing you but it kinda bounce?

      Anyway hope you are well thanks once again for being so encouraging with your thoughts. Gb

  4. We need to hear more insights and balanced (in the right sense of the word) teaching like this. You are a gift to the Body of Christ.

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