Christian Living,  Culture,  Scripture

A Christian Critique of Personal Experience

Personal experience is currently regarded as the primary means of knowledge and truth in our culture. Whether it is the current issues of racism or LGBT rights, or it is something like biblical interpretation; personal experience is regularly elevated as the controlling determiner of truth.

Girl with experience of looking over the sea

Take for example the following claims of experience:

“Systemic racism must exist because I have experienced it.”

“You cannot judge a transgender individual because you don’t have his experience. You don’t know what it’s like for him.”

“I have had the experience of speaking in tongues; therefore, Scripture has to be interpreted to allow for speaking in tongues.”

Now at the outset, I freely acknowledge the value of personal experience. Scripture clearly expects wisdom to be possessed by the mature because of their many days of experience (Job 12:12). Also, many of the Psalms are based on a response to personal experience. Further, our personal experiences are a benefit in our personal sanctification (James 1:2-4)! So, I understand the value of personal experience. But as Christians we need to think critically about the relationship between personal experience and truth.

Our Physical Flaws Taint our Personal Experience.

By using the word “physical,” I am primarily emphasizing (1) our physical limitations, and (2) the noetic effects of sin.

An example of our physical limitations might be our hearing. Perhaps our hearing is not as good as it once was, or could have been. Whatever the case, many people hear something else than what was actually said. Or, perhaps they hear something behind what was said which was not really there. In this case, physical limitations impact our personal experience.

Additionally, because the physical creation is negatively impacted by sin, this includes noetic effects. In other words, our observations and experiences are often misremembered or partially forgotten. This is observable in many ways. For example, the NCSC has a strong statement about the problems eyewitnesses have in identifying criminals.

Social scientists have demonstrated through studies since the 1960s that there was significant reason to be concerned about the accuracy of the eyewitness-identification testimony used in criminal trials. Although witnesses can often be very confident that their memory is accurate when identifying a suspect, the malleable nature of human memory and visual perception makes eyewitness testimony one of the most unreliable forms of evidence.

Our Spiritual Flaws Taint our Personal Experience

Not only is our personal experience hampered by physical flaws, but we also have spiritual flaws. By referring to spiritual flaws I am simply referring to the fact that we are all sinners (Rom 3:23). Because we are all sinners, we will unintentionally (and intentionally) deceive ourselves and others (cf. Jer 17:9).

Although unbelievers are labeled as liars (1 Tim 1:10), believers are instructed to put off lying (Eph 4:25). However, our flesh still wages war against the things of God (Gal 5:19-21), and the remaining sin within us contributes to our failures (Rom 7:22-24).

Understanding we are spiritually tainted is an important step to wisdom. Proverbs is replete with warnings to those who are wise in their own eyes (Prov 12:15; 16:2; 21:2; 26:12). According to Proverbs, because we are intrinsically biased, personal experience must be challenged by external authority—whether that be the Word itself (Prov 13:13; cf. 15:32), or wise counselors who are assumed to be influenced by the Word (Prov 11:14; 15:22; 20:18; 27:9).

For this reason, personal experience is always to be subjugated to Scripture. One of my favorite portions of Scripture speaks very clearly about the superiority of Scripture to personal experience.

Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.

Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me.

I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation.

I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.

Psalm 119:97-100

The Search for Objectivity and The Anecdotal Fallacy

Christians are not the only ones to have observed that personal experience and emotion are dangerous in making arguments. Aristotle and the ancient Greeks recognized the importance of reason and logic in making decisions. In fact, early on in the field of debate and logic, a list of fallacies emerged. A fallacy is simply a mistake in reasoning. Pertinent to our discussion is The Anecdotal Fallacy.

The Anecdotal Fallacy is committed when a recent memory, a striking anecdote, or a news story of an unusual event leads one to overestimate the probability of that type of event, especially when one has access to better evidence. In other words, the mistake is to allow the emotional effects of a vivid memory or story to outweigh stronger evidence, such as statistics, on the frequency of such events.

Throughout history it has been recognized that arguing from experience is a much weaker form of argumentation. This makes sense from a Christian worldview because we know our personal experience is tainted by sin. But even non-Christians have historically recognized the need for objective standards.

However, we live in a day where over 58% of Americans believe truth is decided by the individual. Long gone are the days of objective, rational dialogue. But, for the Christian, we still are called to operate by the same standard. We must be consistent, objective, and fair. Whenever possible, we want to use means of learning which mitigate our bias and the biases of those around us. Primarily this relates to using Scripture, but it is also an argument for utilizing data and statistics as well.

At the end of the day, there are benefits to personal experience. I will not deny that. But I would urge tremendous caution in using personal experience as the primary lens through which we are evaluating cultural trends or interpreting Scripture. To do so is, to put it in Proverbial language, foolish.

Photo by Myles Tan on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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