Monday, February 27, 2006

NT Theology I: Religious Experience

An interesting point made by L.T. Johnson and Ben Witherington is that the centre of unifying threat of the New Testament is not any one doctrine, but rather it is a shared and common experience amongst believers. Witherington writes:

What we are dealing with here is a group of people who had had profound religious experiences that they interpreted as encounters with the living Lord – that is, with Jesus the Christ. To be sure, some of their leaders, such as Paul or the author of Hebrews or the Beloved Disciple, could match wits with many of the great minds of their age. But it was their religious experiences with Christ that they had in common. And it was their communities of worship and fellowship, which came into being because of those experiences, that provided the matrix for reflection about the meaning of the Christ event.

Ben Witherington, ‘Jesus as the Alpha and Omega of New Testament Thought,’ in Contours of Christology in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 44-45.


C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

Not just a shared experience but a shared interpretation of a shared experience. A shared experience without a shared interpretation leaves you with a community formed around an existential encounter with an undefinable something or someone which is referred to as "Jesus".

This sort of empty "Jesus" was very much in vogue when I was in college (late '60s). Francis Schaeffer spent a lot of time talking about it. But the situation today is much more confused than it was 40 years ago. Today, every time you run into someone on the street talking about "Jesus" you need to listen to them for a while and find out what on earth (or in heaven) they mean by "Jesus". There are all kinds of folks claiming to have had a "religious experience" who use the "Jesus" language who when the smoke clears turn out to be neo-pagan or Buddhist or whatever.


C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

In my previous comment I jumped immediately from the NT era to the contemporary situation. This is a habit which probably annoys professional NT scholars.
It does not take a professional scholar to build a defense for the notion that the shared experience of the risen Jesus was tied to a shared interpretation of the risen Jesus in the earliest period of the Church. Paul's works contain fragments of what look like creedal hymns. Collosians and Ephesian appear to be addressing a situation where the shared interpretation is running into difficulties. The epistles Hebrews, Peter, Jude and John deal with the same problem. Not everyone who claimed to have had "an experience of the risen Jesus" was accepted by the church in the Apostolic period.

I know this is belaboring the obvious, but the notion of an "existential encounter" with Jesus which is tied to no particular interpretation of Jesus has become in my lifetime such a prevalent religious phenomenon that it needs to be addressed now just as it need to be addressed in the Apostolic era.

thank you Dr. Bird, for your post.


Michael F. Bird said...

You raise a good point, in that the shared experiences led to some shared interpretations of those experiences. There were of course a few subtle variations on the interpretation of the experiences (compare John and Paul for example), but they did come to one shared conclusion: the risen Jesus is worthy of worship!
BTW, although it does wonders for my ego, you don't have to call me Dr. Bird!

eddie said...

John Goldingay questions a pure distinction between experience and interpretation.

He writes: 'Experience and understanding are then two sides of one coin. When the same thing happens to people with different beliefs, it is not the same thing that happens to them. One may encounter more, or less, than was objectively there.' (Models for Scripture, 192; cf. 191-193)

A clear distinction and succession between experience and interpretation simply isnt the case.

But hey, this is just getting picky

John C. Poirier said...

Technically, you're right, Eddie. But this means that the real problem that Clay has pointed to is not found in the difference between experience and interpretation, but between experience and a set of basic facts. Yes, it is our *understanding* of these facts that forms our agreement, but the facts themselves (if true) exist prior to our understanding them, and it is their factuality (rather than our agreement with them) that comprises the ground of the Christian religion. It is *not* our *experiences*. For that reason, I greatly appreciate Clay's clarification. There is something dangerous, in my opinion, about expressing things the way Johnson does.


John C. Poirier said...

Correction: expressing things the way *Witherington* does.