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What Is Experimental Religion?

The following piece was written by Dr. William Young

The word “experimental” suggests a scientific experiment.  The scientist frames a hypothesis with a view to explaining an observed matter of fact.  He then proceeds to test the hypothesis by drawing logical consequences from it which may or may not prove to be the case.  If they are not, the hypothesis is false, and must be given up, or at least be modified.  If they turn out to be the case, the hypothesis is verified, and may be held to be probably correct.

Now an analogy may be found in the Christian religion.  The Christian puts his faith to the test in self-examination, II Cor. XIII, 5 ff.   Saving faith has consequences that can be observed in the life of the Christian.  On the one hand if the fruits of faith are absent, there is no living or saving faith.  One such fruit is perseverance.  The stony ground hearers are an example of what has been called ‘temporary faith’, which has no root and fails, when affliction or persecution puts it to the test.  The case of professing Christians relapsing to Judaism is a case in point as set forth in the Epistle to the Hebrews VI: 4ff.

On the other hand, the observed fruits of faith yield to us no more than a probable verification of the genuineness of faith.  Heb. VI: 4ff, provides a striking instance of apparently eminent Christians, who indeed have experienced common operations of the spirit by the Word, who nevertheless fall away and die impenitent.  Not only faith, but every grace accompanying and following faith must be put to the test.  As Thomas Shepard never wearied of pointing out, the danger of evangelical hypocrisy is very great.  This does not detract from the duty or the usefulness of self-examination.  We must ever remember that assurance as faith itself is a sovereign gift of the Holy Spirit that renders self-examination fruitful.

The negative value of self-examination is powerfully taught in James II.  A rotten profession of faith is diagnosed as a dead faith, akin to the faith of devils, James II: 19, 20.  If this is detected let the convinced sinner seek the faith of God’s elect.

Some cautions are in order, if experimental religion is to be properly understood.  First, Christian experience is not to be divorced from doctrine, but on the contrary must be rooted and grounded in sound doctrine.   This was the prevalent position of the Princeton worthies from the time of Archibald Alexander (who along with Charles Hodge was attacked by Dabney on account of their Intellectualism).  Experimental religion is not to be identified with Anti-Intellectualism.  This destructive trend in modern religion is found in the Modernist’s exaltation of life over doctrine, as J. Gresham Machen pointed out and in the superficial piety or rather piousity of much religiosity of modern evangelicals.  Experimental religion as described above could be called a corollary of the 5 points of Calvinism.  It takes seriously the question,  Have I the faith of God’s elect, purchased by the Saviour’s blood, effectually wrought by the Spirit, preserved to the end, or am I deceived by my deceitful heart to hold a lie in my right hand?  Since a sound experience is rooted in doctrine and an unsound experience is wide spread, it is preferable to retain the term “experimental religion” rather than to replace it by “experiential religion.”

Extremes are to be avoided in our conception of experimental religion.   It is a serious mistake to suppose that the experience of all true believers must conform to a pattern derived not from Scripture marks but from the way some eminent saints have been led.  Scripture does not define the length of a period of time of conviction of sin preceding the exercise of saving faith.  Nor does it require the Christian to be able to state the day or hour of his conversion.  Some may do so, but it is enough to be able to say “this one thing know, that whereas I was blind, now I see.”  The Scripture gives marks of grace for the purpose of unmasking hypocrites, not for putting a stumbling block in the way of weak believers, but rather to confirm such in the faith.

Dr. William Young is a Minister of the Word in the Presbyterian Reformed Church, and a retired Professor of Philosophy at the University of Rhode Island.

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