Experience trumps doctrine

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” [John 16:12-13 NRSV]

I’ve been thinking a great deal the last few months about a statement I heard in a sermon back in May 2010, a sermon about the Holy Spirit and the status of revealed truth. This sermon, quoted below, is loosely based on, and references, the above scripture.

Over and over, the Church and all of us must understand that … experience really does trump doctrine.


Taken on it’s own, that statement is powerful stuff. I can hear Bible thumpers already decrying moral relativism and situational ethics: I haven’t even hit the preview button on this post! (The watchdogs of the faith are eager and vicious!)

The sermon I’m quoting from was about the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work of leading us into all truth and, “that we human beings do not have all of the truth right now”.

If you view the scriptures as having been dictated word-for-word by God, transcribed by the apostles, and translated into English once and for all into the King James Version in 1611, then your faith may very well be stunted and immature.

Ask yourself, do you live with the Holy Spirit? Do you embody the Spirit of Christ?

In that same sermon, the speaker continued:

I have, in my life, learned to beware of possessors of the truth. Possessors of truth have too much enmity toward those who don’t possess the truth or (who) possess some other truth.

The issue for Christians, it seems to me, is to ask whether in our embrace of Christianity have we ever been converted to the Spirit of Christ? The Spirit of Christ who has been sent to us to lead us into all truth and to burn up the errors of the way we live our lives.

Where Christianity goes wrong, it seems to me, is when we distort the word “orthodoxy” to mean that we believe that all things worth knowing are already known and have already been revealed. Orthodoxy, if I am reading this morning’s gospel correctly, states that the Holy Spirit is active today, this morning, in this room, continuing to reveal the truth. And is leading us into all truth. And that all revelation is not sealed and contained between the covers of the Bible, or the Prayer Book, or the church’s doctrinal statements. To believe that [all truth has already been revealed] is to advance a culture of cultivated ignorance which guarantees that you and I will remain in some wretched state of arrested development and that will never help the world become the human family that God dreamed it would become when God created us.

If you and I never are converted to the Spirit of Christ, you and I will never change. We will never be led into all truth. We will never know both the pain and the exhilarating liberation of our old errors being burned away. We will become among the living dead, stuck in the certainties of our childhood or whenever it was we uncritically accepted the conventional truth. At that point we became possessors of the truth instead of seekers of the truth.

I think Jesus suggested that we step out of the old script that says either that we possess the truth or we are failures at the truth. And instead, have a new role — to become learners of the truth, seekers of the truth. Seekers of truth can build communities of love. Possessors of the truth always divide communities into enmity and factions and polarities. Jesus’ central theme was that there is something intrinsically sacred, intrinsically deserving of respect, intrinsically calling for and entitled to love in every human being.

The bottom line is, do we think we already know it all, or are we constantly working toward doing better, understanding deeper, and loving more?


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