It can make some theologians nervous to say that good theology is formed from experience. The pages of Scripture are a story of God interacting with people, not a hard and cold set of impersonal facts about God.
I formed my theology about God’s goodness at 2:00 am several years ago when my world was falling apart after a significant injury and a resulting surgery. I arrived at a hopeless place where despair wanted to overcome my life. At that moment, I cried out to God, and He met me as I began to fall into a bottomless pit of despair where a lie waited to consume my life.
I asked God what was going on. He said He did not create the despair I was going through, but He would use my experience to reveal His goodness to me. I will never forget His words, “If you can understand my goodness here in this dark and painful place, that definition will work anywhere and at any time in the future.” At that moment, my interaction with God created and affirmed a personal theology that God is always good even when I find myself overwhelmed by pain and suffering. My theology followed my experience – an experience confirmed in Scripture and by the life experiences of those who went before me on this journey of faith.
A theologian is similar to an anthropologist who studies culture as people live and interact with the world around them and with each other. Where some theologians get in trouble is when they place acts of faith in submission to their theology. Theology does not take the lead over faith in importance. Scripture tells us it is impossible to please God without faith. It does not say we please God with a well-crafted theological statement.
Faith requires an experience where it can be exercised. In the experience of our faith is where we discover the personal understanding of our theology. When God created the Earth and the humans who would walk on its surface we developed our theology defining a creative God. When the Church was empowered on the Day of Pentecost, we created an aspect of our theology about a person called Holy Spirit. An experience where faith is exercised in response to God is the laboratory where our theology is discovered and defined.
The revelation of God is always expanding. As someone wisely said, “All of the Bible is God, but not all of God is in the Bible.” As that expansion and its accompanying revelation continue to unfold, we should always be learning new aspects of God. He is not changing in the expansion. We are merely discovering something new about an unchanging, yet unimaginably expansive God. The cutting edge of that expansion is where a nervous theologian fears to tread. An increase in our understanding of a particular truth can appear to some to be an attack on one specific version of orthodoxy a theologian subscribes to and lives to defend. At this juncture, we must relate to each other with wisdom and mercy.
All our experiences should be studied in light of Scripture and in consideration of Church history, whether we like a particular piece of our shared history or not. Add to that study the guiding hand of God’s Spirit in our current experience and we can make a safe theological journey. In that process, we can be led to a new frontier of faith where we will experience something previously unexplored that will require us to expand our current understanding of theology without ever violating the essence of truth.