The Role Of Religious Experience In Theology -- By: John Jefferson Davis

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 08:2 (Spring 1994)
Article: The Role Of Religious Experience In Theology
Author: John Jefferson Davis

The Role Of Religious Experience In Theology

John Jefferson Davis

An ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA), John Jefferson Davis is Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He received a B.S. and Ph.D. from Duke University, and a M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. This article is from his book, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Baker, 1984) and is reprinted by permission.

It has been noted by many observers that the twentieth-century American sensibility is an experiential one. Feeling, emotion, “sensitivity,” self-awareness and “self-actualization,” “born-again” religion and self-help therapies—all in one way or another point toward the immediacy of personal experience. This experiential emphasis has influenced the character of American religion and theology in both its liberal and conservative expressions. Both the heritage of Puritan and revivalistic Christianity and the tradition of American philosophical pragmatism have tended to reinforce experience as an important dimension of American religious life.

In recent years experience has played a large role in the construction of various forms of liberation theology. According to James Cone, “There can be no black theology which does not take the black experience as a source for its starting point”; for black theology “the categories of interpretation must arise out of the thought forms of the black experience itself.”

Related sentiments are voiced by feminist theologian Letty M. Russell. As an advocate of an inductive method she believes that Christian thinkers must draw out “the material for reflection from their life experiences as it relates to the gospel message.” The gospel is good news” only when it speaks concretely to their particular needs of liberation.”

It is certainly the case that Christian theology must be situated or contextualized adequately in terms of the life experiences of the people whom it seeks to address. The danger in liberation theology, however, is that the contemporary context can come to dominate the biblical content, and in fact become a substitute for it. Concern for various forms of temporal liberation must not be allowed to displace the biblical insistence on the necessity of regeneration, the root of all lasting social transformation.

Another school of recent American theology, sometimes known as the new liberalism, is represented in the writings of David Tracy and Langdon Gilkey, both of the University of Chicago Divinity School. Like the older nineteenth-century liberalism of Schleiermacher it sees human experience as a basic source for the construction of Christian theology. According to Tracy, in his B...

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