Between Experience and Interpretation: Engaging the Writings of the New Testament

Between Experience and Interpretation: Engaging the Writings of the New Testament

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The writers of the New Testament had a powerful experience of the living, crucified, and resurrected Christ that required a complete reinterpretation of the world and their place in it. The worshiping community today has an ongoing experience of the spirit of Christ that leads it back, time and again, to the texts of the New Testament, seeking to understand the meaning of that experience.Written in honor of Luke Timothy Johnson, whose own work has centered around the interplay of religious experience and scriptural interpretation, this book will aid all who seek the meaning of the New Testament, and its meaning for the life of the church today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780687647392
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 07/08/2010
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

O. Wesley Allen, Jr., is Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Preaching at Perkins School of Theology, Dallas, Texas. He is the author of A Homiletic of All Believers, Preaching and Reading the Lectionary, Matthew: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries and several other books. For many years he was Professor of Preaching at Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, Kentucky.

Mary F. Foskett is the Zachary Smith Associate Professor of Religion at Wake Forest University. In addition to her extensive experience teaching undergraduate and graduate students in both religious and theological studies, Mary enjoys lecturing and teaching in congregational settings. Her major writing is in the area of New Testament and Christian Origins. Mary's previous publication includes contributions to For All the Saints: A Calendar of Commemorations for United Methodists. Her latest publication and contribution to the Jesus Collection was Moral Teachings of Jesus. Mary resides with her family in Winston-Salem, NC.

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Between Experience and Interpretation

Engaging the Writings of the New Testament
By Mary F. Foskett

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2008 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-687-64739-2

Chapter One



One of the many services that Luke Timothy Johnson has done for New Testament scholarship, and Christian reflection at large, has been to draw attention to the importance of religious experience in the beginnings of Christianity. This is "a missing dimension in New Testament studies"—the subtitle of his book on the subject. As one who shares the concerns he expressed in that book, it is perhaps appropriate to add my further pennyworth on the subject, both to express my appreciation to Johnson (Happy Birthday, Luke), and to further underline the importance of the missing dimension. I do so as one who came from a rather cerebral Presbyterian tradition and who found that John Wesley's experience of the "heart strangely warmed" spoke to something that had been lacking in his own pilgrimage.

The point was illustrated for me early on by the contrast between Calvin and Wesley on the witness of the Spirit (Rom 8:15-16). For Calvin the witness of the Spirit was the conviction of the truth of scripture. For Wesley, on the other hand, "the testimony of the Spirit is an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly witnesses to my spirit, that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me; and that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God". Despite my continuing respect for Calvin, I could not but conclude that Wesley's was a much superior grasp of Romans 8:15-16. My increasing familiarity with the hymns of Charles Wesley reinforced for me how important was the theme of assurance—that is, not the doctrine of assurance, but the experience of assurance—for the early Methodists. And my growing appreciation of the religious experience attested by the New Testament brought home to me how similar were the beginnings of Christianity and the beginnings of Methodism in this respect.

Equally illuminating for me in my early days of research was the recognition that the tension between the Apollonic and the Dionysiac is a constant in religions generally, and how the balance between the rational and the experiential has fluctuated in our own western European history, with the Enlightenment and the Romantic revival marking two of the most prominent swings of the pendulum. It was certainly a step forward when the History of Religions movement re-emphasized the importance of religious experience over against an understanding of Christianity as doctrine, as Johnson points out, though his criticism of the movement for being diverted into looking for precedents for Christian beliefs and practices is valid. What struck me forty years ago was the fact, missed by most theologians, that at about the same time as the History of Religions school began to dominate studies of earliest Christianity, nineteen centuries later Pentecostalism was beginning to emerge as a third force in western Christianity, emphasizing and winning its steadily increasing support precisely in that it gave primary place to the experience of the Spirit. The point is even more obvious today, given that Pentecostal and the similarly charismatic new churches seem to be becoming an ever stronger expression within world Christianity.

So perhaps it is appropriate to reinforce Johnson's plea to highlight the "missing dimension" in NT studies, since it may be a dimension that needs to be rediscovered yet again in traditional contemporary Christianity.

The fundamental point for me is that the Spirit of God is an experiential concept. By that I mean that "Spirit" has been the term used from the beginning of Judaeo-Christianity to speak of the experience of God; the Spirit of God is God insofar as mere human beings can experience God. The point has been made repeatedly in New Testament studies since Hermann Gunkel's break with the concept of the spirit in idealism: "The theology of the great apostle [Paul] is an expression of his experience, not of his reading.... Paul believes in the divine Spirit, because he has experienced it/him." Eduard Schweizer in the opening words of the New Testament section of his famous Kittel article on pneuma echoed the same point: "Long before the Spirit was a theme of doctrine, He was a fact in the experience of the community." Highly appropriate, then, is the title Gordon Fee gives to his thoroughgoing analysis of the references to the Holy Spirit in the letters of Paul—God's Empowering Presence. I assume Johnson is on the same tack when he writes, "the symbol 'Holy Spirit' serves as the linguistic expression of the experience of power."

The very word first used, ruach, remains a vital key. Its range of reference is noteworthy: (1) "wind"—an invisible, mysterious but powerful force experienced by humankind, regularly with the notion of strength or violence; (2) "breath" (or "spirit")—the same mysterious force understood as the life and vitality of humans (and beasts), a force which can be disturbed or activated, diminished or revived; (3) divine power— when ruach possesses an early charismatic leader or inspires a prophet.

It is not that these are distinct meanings or references, for they overlap, most strikingly in Ezekiel's famous vision of the dry bones (Ezek 37:910), and in the equally famous word play in Jesus' dialogue with Nicodemus (John 3:8).

What seems to unite these different strands is the experience of energy, of vitality. We could almost use ruach to describe the life force, the mystery of the experience of living. In Hebrew thought this was closely linked with the experience of God, God experienced as life-giving power. Hence the interconnected thought from Genesis 2:7, through Ezekiel 37:9, to John 20:22—the divine breath as that which breathes life into what was otherwise inert and lifeless. So too the early understanding of the human spirit as an extension of God's Spirit—as in Genesis 6:3: "My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever"; and Psalm 104:29-30: "When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit they are created." From which, no doubt, derives the degree of confusion evident in the New Testament as to which pneuma is being referred to—human or divine? It is no accident or coincidence, then, that the New Testament knows the Spirit particularly as the "life-giver." A vital, living relation with God is the work of the Spirit, and the Spirit is characteristically manifested in the experience of life, of that living relationship.

It also needs to be stressed afresh that the beginnings of Christianity are forever tied to fresh experiences of the Spirit. The Gospels are united in their presentation of Jesus' mission as beginning with his anointing by the Spirit (Mark 1:10-11). That should not be reduced to the equivalent of some ritual act, independent of Jesus' own experience. The naming of the event as "the baptism of Jesus" is regrettable since it allows the event to be understood as a sacrament which conveys grace whether the baptizand experiences anything or not. But the central feature of the event, as described by the Evangelists, is not the baptism itself, but the descent of the Spirit following the baptism. And although all of the Evangelists do not tell the story as an experience of Jesus, in the earliest version of it the descent of the Spirit and the heavenly voice is described as a personal encounter which Jesus experienced (Mark 1:10-11). Moreover, it would appear that Jesus himself referred to the event as an anointing by the Spirit, entailing a strong sense of commission in the spirit of Isaiah 61:1-2. And one of the earliest narrations of the event apart from the Gospels likewise speaks of Jesus being anointed with the Spirit and power (Acts 10:38).

Similarly it is evident that Christianity began as a fresh experience of God, of God's Spirit. We are not dependent solely on the account of the first Christian Pentecost in Acts, vivid as that is, in terms of the group of the first disciples being filled with the Spirit and with ecstatic praise (Acts 2:1-11). Such a revivalist launch of Christianity is embarrassing to more sober-minded Christians of subsequent generations, and it would be easy to discount the Acts testimony as a solitary voice within the New Testament canon. But in fact the experiential character of the first Christians coming to faith is strongly emphasized elsewhere in the New Testament, particularly in the other two dominant contributors to the New Testament, Paul and John. Paul takes it for granted that all believers have been "baptized by one Spirit into one body ... and we were all given of the one Spirit to drink" (1 Cor 12:13 NIV) once again an experience of Spirit which is not simply to be reduced to undergoing the rite of baptism. He recalls his Galatian converts to their experience of receiving the Spirit, as something they could readily remember (Gal 3:2-5). He speaks of the love of God "poured out" (the Pentecost word) in their hearts through the Holy Spirit given to them (Rom 5:5). The nearest he comes to defining a Christian is in terms of the Spirit indwelling believers, again obviously referring to their experience of the new life given them (Rom 8:9). And the witness of the Spirit, the Spirit bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God by crying "Abba, Father" (Rom 8:15-16; Gal 4:6-7), uses intense language (krazein) which can hardly be divorced from experience. Likewise John uses the vivid imagery of the Spirit as a well of life-giving water welling up in their inner beings (John 4:10, 14), a powerfully experiential image. Similarly the Spirit is depicted as a river of living water bringing life to the one who comes and believes (7:37-39). And in 1 John 3:24 and 4:13 the presence of the Spirit is one of John's "tests of life."

A point that should be given particular emphasis is the fact that the great, the amazing breakthrough of taking the gospel to uncircumcised Gentiles, is attributed in our texts entirely to the work and experience of the Spirit. For all Peter's loyalty to traditional Jewish practices and attitudes, it was the manifest fact that the Spirit had been poured out on Cornelius and his friends which convinced Peter that God had accepted them, and that they should be baptized forthwith (Acts 10:44-48). And the proof of the Spirit was so strong that it convinced even traditionalist James of Jerusalem (11:3-18; 15:14-18). Paul's account of the breakthrough is to similar effect. When at the Jerusalem conference, the pillar-apostles, James, Peter, and John, saw that the grace of God had been so fully and freely given to Gentiles through the mission of Paul and Barnabas, they agreed that God no longer required Gentile believers to be circumcised (Gal 2:6-9)—a hitherto unheard of step. The terms of Paul's report of his evangelistic success are indicated in his questions to his Gentile Galatian converts: "How did you receive the Spirit? By works of the law, or by hearing with faith?" (Gal 3:2). In both versions of the great breakthrough, the key factor is the same. In both accounts it was the experience of the Spirit, the manifest fact that non-Jews were receiving the Spirit of God without becoming proselytes, that convinced even traditional Jewish believers in Jesus that it was now God's will to dispense with the scriptural requirement of circumcision.

The point is worth reflecting on further. For what the joint testimony of Acts and Paul tells us is that without the Spirit being experienced as it was, the new messianic sect of the Nazarene might never have reached far beyond the confines of the Judaism of its time. The point is not to be reduced to another paragraph in the doctrine of the Spirit. The point is that Gentiles experienced something which they had not experienced elsewhere. The experience presumably included a sense of forgiveness and acceptance, an experience of joy, enthusiastic or ecstatic rejoicing in many cases, no doubt. But an experience understood as an experience of the Spirit of God, of God as proclaimed by Peter and Paul. And it was this experience that proved decisive—not (just) their confessing belief or undergoing baptism, but (primarily) their experience of the Spirit. At this point the comment of Lesslie Newbigin in regard to Paul's encounter with the twelve disciples in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7) is apropos:

The apostle asked the converts of Apollos one question: "Did ye receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" and got a plain answer. His modern successors are more inclined to ask either "Did you believe exactly what we teach?" or "Were the hands that were laid on you our hands?" and—if the answer is satisfactory—to assure the converts that they have received the Holy Spirit even if they don't know it. There is a world of difference between these two attitudes.

There is indeed!

The testimony of the New Testament is also important at this point, since it includes directions on how the abuse of spiritual experience, the experience of the Spirit, may and should be guarded against. Luke's account of Christianity's beginnings encourages a strong emphasis on the experience of the Spirit and on the importance of what may loosely be described as "charismatic phenomena." One need think only of the experiences of glossolalia and inspired speech which evidently manifested the Spirit's coming at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11), implied at the conversion of the Samaritans (ch. 8), and evidently crucial in the breakthrough to the Gentiles in Caesarea (10:44-48) and in the drawing in of the twelve "disciples" in Ephesus (19:1-7). But also to be noted are the accounts of extraordinary miracles (e.g. 5:15-16; 19:11-12), and the reports of decision-shaping visions (9:10; 10:3-6, 10-16; 16:9-10; 18:9; 22:17-18), two of them explicitly described as "ecstatic" (10:10; 11:5; 22:17). So it is no wonder that the Book of Acts has provided such encouragement to subsequent revivalist movements within Christianity or that it serves as the primary textbook for contemporary Pentecostalism. The problem is, however, that Luke himself seems to share the uncritical attitude to such phenomena which is so often a feature of "enthusiasm" (Schwärmerei). In this, we may say, he provides an authentic reflection of the enthusiastic character of earliest Christianity—again a matter of some embarrassment to subsequent more formal and strait-laced generations of Christian. What Acts does not provide, regrettably, is clearer guidelines on how such enthusiasm can be prevented from going to extremes.

It is Paul in particular who shows awareness that checks and balances are necessary in regard to spiritual experience. He himself can hardly be regarded as strait-laced: he counsels his converts to be "led by the Spirit" (Rom 8:13-14; Gal 5:16-18, 25); and he does not hesitate to give thanks to God that he speaks in tongues more than all the Corinthians (1 Cor 14:18)! Nevertheless, the church at Corinth showed Paul clearly how quickly spiritual enthusiasm can get out of hand (see 1 Cor 14:12, 23), and he takes care to warn against that possibility and to provide guidelines for the scope to be granted to enthusiastic phenomena in the gathered assembly.

Here we may express a word of gratitude to the Corinthian church, or at least be grateful for the facts both that there was such a church within the first generation of Christianity, and that Paul was required to address problems which have re-emerged periodically in subsequent generations. For he showed that the way to avoid or deal with excesses of experience-oriented Christianity is not to exclude experience from the definition of Christianity or to disparage experience as inevitably dangerous to good order, but to treat its vitality maturely, as a parent treats the sometimes excessive energy of a child. The advice with which he ends what was probably his earliest letter sums up a balance he evidently sought to maintain throughout his ministry: "Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil" (1 Thess 5:19-22).


Excerpted from Between Experience and Interpretation by Mary F. Foskett Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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