Experimental Theology

I have been writing a lot of my thoughts on the church in my journal lately, and began to organize them last night. There are five things that I would like to see be true of all churches, but especially those in the SBC. Let me begin with the foundation: theology. Before you get on this wagon, let me warn you of two things: 1. I am “Reformed” in theology and 2. I think the first in need of repenting theologically are the “Reformed.”

Many in Calvinistic circles see theology as an end in itself. Studying God, or the “discourse concerning God” is an “interest” many list in their blogger profiles. For some, this is a simple way of saying it is enjoyed, but for others (most?) that is all it is. A hobby. We have theology clubs, and theology pubs, we promote the reading of good books, teach and preach doctrine, but it seems that most of the time the truth exists merely to be gathered together, arranged neatly, and displayed in a tasteful shadow box. In truth, I believe it is worse than this. I believe in many cases we have replaced God with theology. Often our zeal is for doctrine over deity, and many of us are more about having the answers than having God. We delight in the beautiful system of thought more than the God that stands above it all. Let me put it this way; theology – even the right theology – can be the idol that subtly leads us away from God. Of course the problem is not the doctrine, we are. We have allowed pride and arrogance to smother our study so that much of it is more about us than God.

It should be different in the church. Theology must be prized, loved, and entered into as the means of knowing, experiencing and worshipping God. It must be more than an intellectual hobby or mental exercise. J.L. Dagg explains this in the beginning of his Manual of Theology,

The study of religious truth ought to be undertaken and prosecuted from a sense of duty, and with a view to the improvement of the heart. When learned, it ought not to be laid on the shelf, as an object of speculation; but it should be deposited deep in the heart, where its sanctifying power ought to be felt. To study theology, for the purpose of gratifying curiosity, or preparing for a profession, is an abuse and profanation of what ought to be regarded as most holy. To learn things pertaining to God, merely for the sake of amusement, or secular advantage, or to gratify the mere love of knowledge, is to treat the Most High with contempt.1

For Dagg (like the Puritans before him), doctrine was always tied to experience and response. His section on Theology Proper begins with its connection to loving God. In the third book on “The Will and Works of God” he shows how we ought to delight in such things. When dealing with The Fall and hamartiology he begins with the need for repentance. His section on Christology stresses the need to believe. When writing on heaven and the future state of man he is compelled to write on the need to prepare for such a future. Dagg got it; the end of theology is not amassing knowledge, but knowing and experiencing our God leading to worship. In the past this was called “experimental” theology. Experimental Calvinism was the theology of the Puritans. It was theology experienced and applied working within believers a real change. Instead of producing pride and arrogance it results in faith, meekness and humility before God, and a boldness and mercy before man.

The big problem in our Convention is neglecting theology. For this we have to repent, for without it we cannot know God and are crippled in our experience of him. We have no way of interpreting what he is doing in our lives, or how to approach him in prayer and worship. To the degree that there is a vacuum of, or error in, our theology, there will be corresponding trouble in our experience of God2. But those of us who love theology, who champion it, who call for a reformation in ecclesiology and evangelism, often fall into the trap of fashioning doctrine into a gold statue and then dance around it as if it is our God. For this we must repent, because when theology ends here it leaves us unchanged.

It is not enough to be right, it is not enough to know the truth. We must know the God of whom the truth speaks and be made good by it. Theology in the church should be the liveliest discussions because it is a conversation leading us to know God more intimately, obey him more fully and worship him more holistically. We need an experimental theology.

-------------------- 1. J. L. Dagg, Manual of Theology, Pg. 13 2. Archibald Alexander, Thoughts on Religious Experience, pg. xix