Limitations of an "experience model"

Jerome Ellard shares the following quote from JB Torrance's book "Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace." Torrance contrasts what he terms the "experience model" of Christianity with a model that emphasizes our participation in Jesus' life for us with the Father through the Spirit.

To illustrate the limitations of the experience model, Torrance addresses the "point of salvation." The experience model locates this point at the moment of a "personal decision" for Jesus, when there is typically a profound personal experience of conversion to Christ.

Torrance comments on the limitations of seeing salvation principally from the persective of personal experience (the "experience model")-and note that what is shown in brackets are my clarifying additions to the words of Torrance.

"I was asked by a student, 'What is wrong with that [experience] model? That is me! I was converted two years ago and gave my life to Christ.' I [Torrance] replied that, as I saw it, there was nothing wrong in it as a description of genuine evangelical experience. From New Testament times onward, whenever the cross of Christ has been faithfully preached by Paul, John Stott or Billy Graham, people have come to faith and conversion. But do not build your theology on it!

"For example, what happens to our understanding of the Lord's Supper in that [experience] model? It reduces it to being merely a memorial of the death of Christ. Luther, Calvin and Knox all vigorously rejected such an interpretation.

"[As another example], baptism [is reduced to] outward sign of my faith, my conversion, my dying and rising (my subjective sanctification). But it is not my faith or my decision and conversion, my dying and rising which washes away my sins. It is Christ's vicarious baptism for us in blood on the cross, his death which we, by grace, participate through water and the Spirit.

"[As another example], the church [is reduced to]...the gathering of true believers with a common experience and less than a royal priesthood sharing in Christ's priesthood."

Torrance continues with another anecdote:

"After one of my lectures in Seattle, an American Pentecostal minister, reflecting on the weakness of this model, said to me that for ten years he had been "whipping up" himself and his congregation to live out of their experience. He said: 'I am weary and tired and have come to see that the center is all wrong. We feed upon Christ, the Bread of Life, not our own subjective experience.'...More important than our experience of Christ is the Christ of our experience."

Torrance notes further the weakness of the experience model:

"[It] emphasizes our faith, our decision, our response in an event...which short-circuits the vicarious humanity of Christ and belittles union with Christ...It fails to see the place of the high priesthood of Jesus Christ... It is he who leads our worship, bears our sorrows on his heart and intercedes for us, presenting us to the Father in himself as God's dear children, and uniting us with himself in his life in the Spirit.

"To reduce worship to this two-dimensional thing - God and ourselves today, is to imply that God throws us back upon ourselves to make our response. It ignores the fact that God has already provided for us that response which alone is acceptable to him - the offering made for the whole human race in the life, obedience and passion of Jesus Christ.... Whatever else our faith is, it is a response to a response already made for us and continually being made for us in Christ, the pioneer of our faith."

What are your thoughts on the experience model? Is personal experience of no value? What do we look to in order to interpret personal experience?


Pastor Jonathan said…
For me these excerpts from Torrance are an excellent expression of why my heart and soul so strongly rejected the Son Life view of Jesus, the church and evangelism.
1.) What are your thoughts on the experience model?

If we are united to Christ, and He shares His experience of the Father with us (and we are, and he does), then we HAVE to have some type of experience!

2.) Is personal experience of no value?

Absolutely not (for the same reasons mentioned above.) We MUST and WILL experience something of the ACTUAL life of Jesus! You can't get any more personal than the Triune God Who is in union with us as a human being!

3.) What do we look to in order to interpret personal experience?

We will see ourselves looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith and share in some grateful acknowledgement of what Jesus is experiencing in His relationship with His Father as a human!

I also think, in the light of being a specific and acknowledged disciple of this Jesus of our inclusion, that we will see baptism and communion come into our willing experience. Not legalistically, but as two things that he said we would and could participate in that point to His sharing of his Relationship and Life with humanity and creation!

I think the Creative Imagination of the Holy Spirit, in our personal distinction, also brings too many more possible experiences to mind than can be thought about, written, or guessed about in our ever-limited minds! :-)
Anonymous said…
Have you ever heard of Medinet Madi temple? Well, it is an Egyptian temple, which came into being some 3800 years ago. This temple was the site for the
worship of at least two gods, including the harvest goddess Renenutet.

Recently, some interesting archeological finds have been made at that temple, including a royal correspondence, which reflects the feelings of many Egyptians from the time of the Ptolemaic Pharaohs. This correspondence is
from the wife of Pharaoh Ptolemy I to the priest of Renenutet in which she thanks the priest for the temple's "magnificent services." Her actions at worship there made her feel that she had touched and been touched by Renenutet.

I mention this because our “good” experience with “god” can be an attempt to reach and be touched by a remote, ultra demanding, even fictitious, one. What we should be looking to in WCG is involvement with the great mystery of the faith, which is Christ in you the hope of glory. Law theologies and experiential theologies not based on this can open us up to questionable experiences and block our involvement with the Jesus Christ within, which presence comes through belief in His name.


J. Richard Parker
Ted Johnston said…
Hi Jonathan,

I hear you concerning your reservations about the SonLife Ministries view of Jesus and his ministry. I think some of the SonLife language (which is characteristic of evangelicalism in general) tends to connote a theology of *exclusion.*

I would hasten to add, however, that the training I received from SonLife Ministries trainers (including founder Dann Spader), put this material into a highly relational/inclusive context.

Some of my SonLife trainers have gone on to found their own ministries that are contextualizing the SonLife materials within what I see as a more adequate Trinitarian model/vocabulary (see, for example This is true of SonLife Ministries itself, which is now led by Chris Folmsbee, author of "A New Kind of Youth Ministry."

Clearly the Holy Spirit is moving us all toward a theology that is more adequately expressive of the truth that is in Jesus!

One of the things we will address in the 2008 WCG-USA regional conferences (first one coming up in February in SoCal) is how we may participate actively in the basic rhythms of Jesus' love and life in our world. We have addressed these in the recent past using Sonlife training materials. We will address how these rhythms are seen through the lens of a fully Christ-centered (or call it Trinitarian) theology. They do not cancel one another out, but there are more adequate ways to understand and describe them.

Such change is part of our journey of growth together in Jesus.