How Can We Learn About God?

Some folk say that we can't learn about God. There is an element of truth in this. We can only learn about God if he chooses to reveal himself to us. Otherwise, a God we could understand by our own efforts would be no God at all!

The Christian belief is that God has primarily revealed himself in a Person: Jesus Christ. We then learn about God as we interact and enjoy a relationship with Jesus.

How do we know about Jesus? Our primary source is the reliable historical record found in the Gospels. These were written by eye-witnesses, or those who had access to eye-witnesses. Some people stop at this point, and seem to want to obtain all their knowledge of God from the Bible. They act as though God revealed himself through a Book rather than a Person.

When we look in that book, we find that there were three ways that people learnt about God:

  1. through their personal experience of him in both normal life and special revelation,
  2. through reports from others of their experience of him,
  3. from written accounts, which are really a way of preserving reports from others.

It seems reasonable to assume that these three methods still apply today, yet some people want to deny or downplay one or more of them or place too much emphasis on another. Some just want to rely on their own experience, which can easily be misinterpreted and lead people astray. Others want to rely on the written record alone, and ignore the fact that the record itself shows people learning through experience. I have even heard it said (in a Proclamation Trust training DVD) that when reading the Gospels we should not place ourselves in the shoes of the people who appear in the account, because we cannot share their experience$. This seems to eliminate all experience: ours, others and those described in Scripture. On this view, all we can deduce from Scripture is theology; we have no examples to follow or avoid. Curiously, Scripture itself say the opposite: that the ways God interacted with people in the past are specifically recorded for us to use as examples.

It seems to me that people who want to rely on experience alone will end up believing nonsense. Their desire to avoid true biblical doctrine means that they will believe false doctrine instead. This will eventually enslave them, and may lead them to attempt to enslave others. The truth sets us free!

Those who wish to stick to doctrine alone may either be trying to compensate for their lack of experience of God, or may have been mistaught by those who lack such experience. They may even come to believe that lack of experience is an advantage: a sign of maturity and increased faith.

Both extremes are dangerous, because they lead people away from the truth. In both cases people will believe themselves to be genuine Christians but they may have been deceived by emotional or demonic experiences, or may have adopted mere intellectual assent to Christianity, respectively. By contrast, Scripture teaches the importance of believing the truth as set out in Scripture, but also requires that genuine faith is shown in actions and experience. We come to Christ by repenting of sin and believing the truth about Him; we know that we have come to Christ by our experience (including the presence of the Holy Spirit) and show it by our actions.

How do we learn about God? The Bible is our authoritative written guide. It describes itself as "God-breathed" so what the Bible says, God says. We must not extend or shorten the Bible, by adding to it or leaving parts out (or ignoring sections, which would be equivalent to omitting them). However, the Bible encourages us by its own example to make good use of experience. Our experience and that reported by others should be tested against the Bible, to see if the experience is genuine or false. We must not elevate experience above the Bible, but neither should we ignore experience or cling to mistaken understandings of the Bible even after our experience has exposed such mistakes. The Bible is reliable; our understanding of it may be faulty.

$ I suspect that the Proclamation Trust is downplaying experience due to their generally cessationist stance. The experience of people in the Bible often included supernatural events, which cessationists believe no longer occur.

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created 14 Dec 2009