[P]ersonal Christian experience is an important strand of evidence for the truth of the Christian faith. The question of how people are to be convinced of the truth of the Christian revelation, particularly if they come from a non-Christian background, has concerned theologians ever since the death of the apostles, and numerous proposals have been made. Some have said that the truth of the Christian revelation is established by human reason, while others have appealed to the historical credibility and trustworthiness of the revelation. Some have appealed to the authority of the church while still others have insisted that faith authenticates itself.
It would be rash to dismiss any of these lines of argument out of hand. A revelation that was manifestly logically incoherent could hardly be from the God of truth, nor could a revelation that claimed to reveal what has taken place in history retain credibility if it could be shown to be historically baseless. It could hardly be the case that Jesus Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate if there never was such a man or if he had lived a hundred years earlier or later.
Among these various lines of evidence individual Christian experience has an important and an often underestimated place. It goes without saying that the experience of one person or of countless people cannot alter the truth. If Jesus Christ was not crucified then the existence of a million people who are convinced that He was crucified will not change history. Christianity is not true or even credible simply because countless people have believed that it is credible.
So personal experience cannot change history or objective truth of any kind. Yet one important feature of the Christian gospel is that it is not an abstract or theoretical set of doctrines or historical facts, but that it makes claims which hold good when put to the test in the everyday lives of people, of anyone. The diagnosis of human need in Scripture, the warnings about human plight before God, and the invitations to people to find forgiveness and new life in Christ, are found to hold true for all those who take these words seriously and who respond to them appropriately. Just as one way in which a doctor establishes his skill is in the making of accurate diagnoses, diagnoses which are found to hold good in fact, so the credibility of the gospel is to be established not only by rational argument or historical investigation, important as these are, but by the personal experience of its converting and liberating effects. For if the Christian gospel is true these effects will be found in human lives into which the gospel comes. And the fact that they are found to occur gives general credibility to the claims of the gospel. The fact that not every one finds the good news acceptable has an explanation (e.g. John 5:44), but whoever comes to Jesus will under no circumstances be turned away (John 6:35, 37).
In the third place Christian experience of God's grace is important as an evidence to others of the credibility and reality of what Christians profess to believe. This is a repeated theme of the New Testament. The reality of the truth is seen in changed lives. And the New Testament writers repeatedly draw attention to the inconsistency and hollowness of professing one thing and doing another (e.g. Matt. 23:13-28).
Thursday, September 06, 2007
Christian experience as a line of evidence
From Paul Helm: