Many Christians today use human reason to determine the meaning of their personal experiences more than they use the Bible. Many who do so would deny that they are doing so, and often times they are aided in that claim by pastors and preachers who have torn some Bible verses out-of-context in order to “prove” that a certain experience should be validly interpreted in a certain way. In response to this trend towards forming beliefs based on experience rather than Scripture, some other Christians raise the cry of “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone), harkening back to the return to the authority and sufficiency of the Bible which was championed at the time of the Protestant Reformation.
But sadly, this call to “Sola Scriptura” is often misunderstood to mean that experience has no place in the Christian life. That is blatantly false. Both today and in the Scripture, experience is an essential and valid part of the Christian life. But the value and meaning of experience all depends on what we use to interpret our experience.
In Jeremiah, chapter 44 there is a clear example of how people can come to very different conclusions about spiritual truth while looking at the same experience, and the same data. As we come to Jeremiah 44, we find Jeremiah and some Israelites in Egypt, having fled there after the king of Babylon attacked and seized Jerusalem, taking many people into exile. This was a shared experience that both Jeremiah and other Israelites had together, but their interpretation of it is very different.
Relying on a word that he received from the Lord, Jeremiah explains that this disaster has come upon them because they worshipped idols and were unfaithful to the Lord their God. The solution is to repent of idolatry:
“1The word that came to Jeremiah concerning all the Judeans who lived in the land of Egypt, at Migdol, at Tahpanhes, at Memphis, and in the land of Pathros, 2 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: You have seen all the disaster that I brought upon Jerusalem and upon all the cities of Judah. Behold, this day they are a desolation, and no one dwells in them,3 because of the evil that they committed, provoking me to anger, in that they went to make offerings and serve other gods that they knew not, neither they, nor you, nor your fathers. 4 Yet I persistently sent to you all my servants the prophets, saying, ‘Oh, do not do this abomination that I hate!’ 5 But they did not listen or incline their ear, to turn from their evil and make no offerings to other gods. 6 Therefore my wrath and my anger were poured out and kindled in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, and they became a waste and a desolation, as at this day." (Jeremiah 44:1-6)
The other Israelites with Jeremiah, however, have a very different interpretation of their experience. They conclude that their former prosperity was because they made sacrifices to the queen of heaven, but disaster came upon them because they stopped making sacrifices to the queen of heaven. Their solution is to resume making sacrifices to the queen of heaven.
“15 Then all the men who knew that their wives had made offerings to other gods, and all the women who stood by, a great assembly, all the people who lived in Pathros in the land of Egypt, answered Jeremiah: 16 “As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we will not listen to you. 17 But we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our officials, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no disaster. 18 But since we left off making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.” (Jeremiah 44:15-18)
For both Jeremiah and the other Israelites, experience was extremely important but they disagreed on how to interpret their experience. On the one hand, Jeremiah was convinced that the word of God should be the ultimate authority in determining the meaning of their experience. The other Israelites in Egypt, however, chose to make their own reason the ultimate interpreter of the meaning of the disaster that happened to them. If I may apply a couple of terms anachronistically, Jeremiah held to Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) and the other Israelites held to Sola Experientia (Experience Alone).
Experience is a vitally important part of the Christian life and God wants to communicate with us through our experiences. But, like the Israelites in Jeremiah’s time, we run the risk of missing what God wants to say to us if we decide for ourselves the meaning of our experience rather than letting the word of God tell us how we should understand what we experience.