Apologetics,  Christian Living

Must You Have Experience to Truly Know?

photo of expert button showing advanced experience

It is very common in today’s culture to argue that experience is the ultimate authority. However, as I have written before, not only is it foolish, but it is dangerous to elevate experience as the determiner of truth. Additionally, Christians need to be adamant that lack of experience does not prohibit one from having an opinion or even speaking authoritatively on an issue.

The idea that experience is not the decisive argument is counter cultural. It is extremely common to hear arguments like, “You don’t know what it is like,” “You have not been there,” or “You are not like me, so you don’t know.” Whether it is a culturally sensitive issue, like the racial minority decrying whites for not understanding their oppression, or whether it is an individual issue, like someone describing his or her depression or anger; the belief that experience is what ultimately leads to understanding is prevalent in our society.

Although the belief that knowledge relies on experience has been around since sin entered the world, this viewpoint has experienced an uptick in recent years. This uptick in elevating experience is at least partially due to Postmodern and Critical Theory influences, both of which teach group identity and experience determine what you can or cannot know (and how you know it). This form of argumentation should be suspect because it assumes experience is the primary pathway to knowledge.

Pathways to Knowledge

I have written before about how there are three possibilities for attaining knowledge:

  • Authority
  • Rationalism (reason or thought)
  • Empiricism (observation or experience)

Each of these are valid means to attain knowledge, however, it can (and should) be argued that the most effective means of learning is through authority, specifically the authority of the Creator. In fact, if there is no Creator, rationalism and empiricism cannot create true knowledge, they can only be used to describe probabilities.

For example, if evolution were true, there would be no guarantee that what we observe or experience would not change. There is no guarantee of consistency and therefore there is no guarantee that what we observe will be repeated. It is only if the world is in a stable existence that experience becomes a valid indication of what will continue through time.

God as the Ultimate Authority

What is the point? The point is that God has revealed His nature, and the nature of His creation through the special revelation of Scripture. This means that God (who is the Authority) has spoken to us, revealing how we should understand the world in which we live.

The authority of Scripture then becomes the best means for knowledge about the world since the value of knowledge is related to the depth and breadth of that knowledge. In other words, the source of Scripture (God) creates the supreme value of Scripture. God created everything and knows everything. Hence, His revealed knowledge is superior to all other forms of gaining knowledge.

This has been a very philosophical way to say one thing: you don’t have to experience something to know about it. The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture teaches that Scripture is sufficient for all of life’s challenges and questions that must be answered.

As an example, you don’t have to be a parent to know how to parent. You don’t have to struggle with pornography or same sex attraction to know how to deal with it. You also don’t have to experience a bad relationship (spouse, parents, kids) to know how to respond to those situations. All of these issues are dealt with explicitly and by principle in Scripture. The key is to know Scripture.

The culture will continue to say that white people can’t speak to racial issues, men cannot speak on abortion (a “woman’s issue”), cisgender individuals cannot speak on Transgenderism. But, as Christians we understand that knowledge and wisdom are not gleaned through experience alone. One of the best passages to speak on the issue of experience is Psalm 119:98-104.

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.
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.

(Psalm 119:98-100, 104)

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

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