Volume Eleven — Article 2 part 1 Volume 11 | Home

Religious Experience Over the Word
Geoffrey J. Paxton

The HandshakeWe are living in an age of unprecedented ecumenical acceleration. Such is due to the three great "neo's" of the current religious scene neo-Pentecostalism, neo-Romanism and neo-evangelicalism.

Optimism is at an all-time high with regard to the religious ferment of today. Not so long ago, for instance, Christianity Today quoted John A. McKay as saying that the future of Christendom may well lie with a reformed Catholicism and a mature Pentecostalism. Not a few see the "awakening" of today as the greatest religious awakening since Pentecost!

The three great "neo's" are diverse, and this makes generalizations even more hazardous than usual. However, the responsibility of assessing the current religious scene, amid its diversity, must not be evaded. It is not our intention to magnify excesses or successes but to arrive at the fundamental drift of the religious ferment.

Surely one of the basic aspects of any movement or conglomerate of movements is the place of the Bible. In the three "neo's" there are passionate assertions abounding with reference to the Bible. "The baptism in the Spirit" is said to give a greater love for the Bible; the "charismatic experience" is said to have unlocked the Bible for many. Few have not heard about Rome's "new approach" to the Scriptures, her new "open attitude" even to the fundamental tenets of Reformation theology. It behooves us to inquire into these assertions.

What does the evidence reveal? What is the fundamental drift with regard to the Bible? Can it be stated with relative safety in a short compass? Notwithstanding exceptions here and there, we believe that the general drift with reference to the Scriptures is cause for alarm. For the most part the Bible is subordinated to experience. The general drift is toward experience over the Word. We suggest that this is anything but a sound platform for the future of the church!


The following statements may be made about new-face Catholicism and the Bible:

1. Neo-Romanism views the Bible in itself differently from the traditional Roman Catholic view of the Scriptures. Although the Bible was subordinated to the Church in traditional Romanism, nevertheless she held a high view of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures. Neo-Romanism holds only to a qualified inerrancy and authority. This (as is to be expected) is stated variously by the different scholars in the progressive movement of the Church of Rome.

Cardinal Newman2. If the Bible has only a qualified inerrancy and authority, what has absolute authority? In order to come to grips with this question, we recommend that interested readers study the influence of the nineteenth century John Henry Newman in Vatican Il's approach to the Bible and revelation. We can only state the crux of his view here: Newman believed that Scripture has reduced only a part of special revelation to written form. There is also revelation which is not found in Scripture – a nonpropositional revelation. The mind enables the Christian to come to grips with the written revelation, whereas "intuition" (also called "insight") allows access to unscripturated revelation. The revelation grasped by intuition "fills the gaps and puts flesh on the ribs of that which has been committed to writing."1

The famous and popular Hans Kung reflects the same qualification of Biblical authority. Not all the Bible is the Word of God for Kung. In fact he would rather speak of "the infallibility of religious encounter" than the infallibility of the Bible. For Kung the Bible is the nearest that the theologian can come to describing the reality of God and of Christ. This being the case, both the words of the Bible and the theologian are defective.

3. To sum up, if the Bible does not have absolute authority, then absolute authority must be placed in man. Despite the obvious differences between new-face and old-time Catholicism, this tragic positing of final authority outside the Bible itself is common to both. The religious experience of man still stands over the written Word.


As mentioned earlier, claims of greater love for the Bible are not infrequently heard among charismatics (and sometimes outside the charismatic movement). "The baptism in the Spirit" is said to "unlock the Bible" for charismatics. To what does the evidence point when we look into charismatic literature? It points to the subordination of the Bible to the human spirit – experience over the Word. We make the following observations regarding the charismatic use of the Bible:

1. Frequently the Bible is quoted out of its context. When this takes place, a meaning from without is imposed on a text or passage. The word of man is placed over the Scripture and is then called the Word of God. We can do this with great fervor and enthusiasm, eulogizing the text. But falsification of the Word has taken place. "Text out of context is pretext."

2. In so much charismatic writing there is an alarming superficiality evident in the use of Scripture. A lack of careful consideration of a text or passage is not the sign of preoccupation with its meaning. A meaning which comes from a framework other than the Bible is imported into the Scripture despite the fact that a closer examination of the text will show another meaning. For instance, consider the frequent use of Acts 5:32 to show that obedience is a condition for the gift of the Spirit. In actual fact the meaning is exactly the opposite of what the charismatics seek to show. The text says God has given (past) the Holy Spirit to those who are now obeying Him (present). Obedience is the sign of the Spirit, not its precondition! Many other passages could be quoted along with references from charismatic literature, but such would be space-consuming. Superficiality with regard to the Bible is hardly a sign of increased devotion to the meaning, the real meaning of Christ's Word!

3. A third and tragic aspect of the charismatic approach to the Bible is that it is just ignored in too many instances. This ignoring of the Bible is done with a show of spirituality, but it is none the less serious and tragic. Frequently, ignoring the Bible takes place under an appeal to the Spirit. This appeal, however, is an appeal to the Spirit apart from and even over the Word.

For example, Dorothy and Kevin Ranaghan in their book, Catholic Pentecostals (Parmus, N.Y.: Paulist Press, 1969); extol ideas solely upon the basis of experience. Also, in an appendix it is seriously argued that "the values of Pentecostalism as a meaningful and valid part of Christianity can be appreciated from both the theological left and right." — p. 261. By the left is meant the radical stream of Robinson and Bultmann, who have plainly discarded the orthodox view of the Bible; and by the right is meant those who still hold to the historic orthodox view. Apparently the Spirit is quite indifferent to the Word. It makes no difference whether the Bible is believed or denied; the Spirit still comes in His glory!

Should Protestants take refuge because the preceding citation comes from Roman Catholics, here are a couple no less disturbing citations from a Protestant charismatic, J. Rodman Williams, president of Melodyland School of Theology:

"… we often in the past argued the nice points of the "Real Presence" among ourselves. Such now is completely done away, and in the fellowship of the Spirit we sit down together at the Lord's Table not to discuss the Real Presence, but to enjoy it.

I can . . . recall occasions of full participation at the Lord's Supper in traditions as widely different as Roman Catholic and Assembly of God, Episcopalian and Church of Christ." — J. Rodman Williams, The Era of the Spirit (1971), p.45.

The import of what Williams says is that the baptism in the Spirit has rendered meaningless the old disputes. It appears as though there is a fellowship of the Spirit which is apart from the Word – yes, even above the Word. Yet nowhere in the Scriptures can we find love for the Bible expressing itself by deliberately ignoring the Word. The tragedy is that such quotations as those just given could be multiplied ad nauseam.

4. The final point concerning charismatics and the Bible is that, essentially, the charismatic method of handling the Word is derived from evangelicalism. The charismatic uses an evangelical approach to the Bible and comes up with a different account of the Christian life (though in our estimation, not all that different).

All the things we have said about the charismatic's use of the Bible are applicable to evangelicalism also. It is impossible to raise serious questions about the way the charismatic uses the Scriptures without at the same time questioning well-entrenched evangelical methods.

This final point, it must be remembered, is not expressed by one who is not an evangelical, but by one who is evangelical and the principal of an evangelical Bible college in Australia. Behind this last point lies the observation of evangelical young people and their use of the Scriptures.


When we come to speak of neo-evangelicalism, we do not wish to deny the great benefits that have come from neo-evangelical scholarship in Biblical studies. The fact remains, however, that the great bulk of evangelical folk have their Biblical theology molded by popular convention speakers and authors and not by solid, sober theologians and exegetes from evangelical ranks. The big names in popular evangelicalism are not the names of our better theologians and exegetes. Often when the work of such scholars is consulted, it is consulted in the already fixed framework of the one doing the consulting.

1. We repeat for emphasis that what has been previously said about the neo-Pentecostal and the Bible is true of the neo-evangelical Christian. Frequently the Bible is treated as a contextless repository of information supportive of a (very unsatisfactory) preconceived view of Christian existence. Superficiality marks so much of influential speaking and writing in evangelical circles today. Also, not infrequently, the Bible is just simply ignored. Only recently I was reading an earnest statement concerning Christian existence which was quite wide of the Biblical perspective. One of the chief characteristics of the presentation was the well-nigh complete absence of Scriptural support.

There are two chief characteristics of so many of the young folk who apply to our college in Australia. First, a self-confessed ignorance of the Bible. (Most of them give the reason for coming to college as "To get to know the Bible.") Second, an unshakable dogmatism in what they believe! Wherever they get their theology, it is not from the Word of God!

2. When we say that the Bible is so much ignored in neo-Pentecostalism and neo-evangelicalism, this raises the question, Where does their information come from? In many instances it comes directly from the Lord Himself – or His Spirit! More than once I have heard popular and influential leaders say things which could only be attributed to a "private session with the Lord Himself only the night before"! This, we might add, apart from the Word!

Sometimes evangelical leaders will even lay claim to special visions and revelations as the source of their (sometimes quite bizarre) views. We call this "evangelical guruism." But alas, how dominant is this type of thing! This is appeal to the Spirit apart from the Word. It is not unfair to say that if such a position is challenged, there is even appeal to the Spirit over the Word!

3. This leads us to a third characteristic of so much popular evangelicalism – the determinative role of experience. If the neo-Pentecostal or the neo-evangelical has experienced it, then the Bible must teach it! This appeal to experience over the Word takes different forms.

For example, one of the most frequently encountered forms is "the changed life criterion." How difficult it is to suggest something may not be Biblical if it has changed the person's life! Have you ever tried to get a charismatic to rethink his view when he keeps telling you how great a change it has brought into his life? How much more he loves Jesus because of the experience! This is the pragmatic approach: "It works!" It works; therefore it is Biblical.

Another form is "the great numbers criterion."  If a particular Bible teacher has great crowds flocking to hear him, then surely this is a sign that the Lord is endorsing his message. Would the charismatic movement be endorsed so heartily were it not so huge and widespread? Would Bill Gothard's Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts seem so true if it were attended by only 200 people in an obscure part of Los Angeles rather than 18,000 in the Los Angeles coliseum? "Might means right" is more a part of our mentality than we realize! It amounts to the fact that great crowds are seen, ipso facto, as the blessing and endorsement of the Lord. The basis of this is a legalistic premise—the Lord only blesses us when we are right.

How difficult it is to get people to consider what a person says if that person is in the minority! Minority is inferiority while majority is superiority in so much evangelical thinking.

In conclusion we suggest that the three great "neo's" are fundamentally agreed in this subordination of the Bible to the human spirit. Though there are outward differences and even some exchange of hostility, herein lies the fundamental affinity of the three "neo's."

When we speak of experience over the gospel, we are asserting that the message of the Bible is subordinated to the message of man. And when we speak of experience over the Word, we are saying that the meaning of the Bible is subordinated to the meaning which man imposes on the Word.

This focuses, we believe, the fundamental drift of the current religious scene. We do not suggest for a moment that there are no long-lost Biblical elements coming through the three "neo's" (e.g., the denial of papal infallibility and other emphases of Dr. Kung, the stress of the wide distribution of the gifts of God by the charismatic movement, etc.). But such Biblical elements are within a fundamentally wrong frame-work. We are all, because of our sinfulness, saddled with error. However, it is better to have elements of error in a correct Biblical framework than to have elements of truth in a fundamentally incorrect framework. In this last instance even the elements of truth serve the deeper-lying error.

Notwithstanding the imperfections of the sixteenth century Reformation, it was a Reformation in the true sense of the word. The Word of God dictated the thinking of the Reformers. Today in the supposed reformation to end all reformations, we suspect that the reformers are dictating to the Word what it should say and when it should say it. But there is no genuine movement of the Spirit without a genuine movement of God's gospel and the Word.

1 For comments on Newman, see the Roman Catholic Bruce Vawter's "Biblical Inspiration" in Theological Resources (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), pp.23, 136, 137, 141,~166. See also Vatican II's Constitution on the Church, pp.12,35, and The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, p. 52, for a ratification of Newman's approach.

Read Part II
Read Part III