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Searchlights on Contemporary Theology by Nels F. S. Ferré

Dr. Ferré was for many years Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Copyright 1961 by Nels F.S. Ferré. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. All rights reserved by Harper & Brothers. This material has been prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 17: The Nature and Power of Christian Experience

When science, the historical consciousness, and skeptical philosophy made more and more difficult a precritical acceptance of the Bible as the sole standard for the Christian faith, Protestantism veered sharply, among its advance leaders, toward experience as the ground of validity. J. Clifford Hindley has shown with care how much John Wesley was indebted in the case of his experimental theology, to Peter Browne in particular and to John Locke in general.("The Philosophy of Enthusiasm," London and Holborn Quarterly Review, April and July, 1957) The Moravian influence, to be sure, should not be underrated, but Wesley’s whole casting of his thought is sensitive to claims for experience and criticisms of "enthusiasm" on the part of Browne. Friedrich Schleiermacher later formulated religious knowledge as such in terms of "the feeling of absolute dependence." He did so, however, within the total aura of what Alfred North Whitehead has called "the subjectivist bias."

This radical turning away from the towering heights of classical objectivity by the breaking of what Arthur O. Lovejoy has termed "the great chain of being," namely, the general equating of the outreaches of mind with reality, began with Descartes, curved away rapidly with the British empiricists -- Locke, Berkeley, and Hume -- and eventuated in the basic redirection of assumptions in Immanuel Kant. Reformation and Renaissance, however unlike in some respects, shared not a little of the spirit of subjectivism; and the close following of the major turn in philosophy upon the Protestant Reformation witnesses also to a general turn inward. Martin Luther’s justification by faith strikes a stronger note than his sole reliance on the Bible, which was not a little compromised in his own thinking. John Calvin’s stress on the internal witness of the Spirit and his existentialist preference for singing to reciting the creeds testifies to the same trend. Kant formulated, in general, a philosophy opposed to all external standards and especially opposed to all metaphysics and to every theology that claimed priority of knowledge for supernatural or transcendent sources. By so doing, Kant expressed the spirit of his age, a spirit that had originated centuries before and had culminated in more than two hundred years of crescendoing subjectivism. Albrecht Ritschl’s reliance on a special religious faculty and Rudolf Otto’s resort later to the numinous experience of the holy are merely the further exemplifications and outworking of this total drive.

In one sense, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s metaphysics would seem to have gone contrary to the trend, but his method of making the reasonable the real and then equating the whole of human experience and history with the true (das Ganze ist das Wahre) in effect deified the cosmic process. Thus, he too continued and did not break with the basic tradition of this-worldliness. SØren Kierkegaard, on the contrary, in spite of his stress on subjectivity as truth and on the centrality of the individual to knowing, revolted profoundly against all stress on experience as continuous with reality, and proclaimed instead the infinite, qualitative distinction between time and eternity. Between all human thought and God’s revelation, he held that there was an unbridgeable gulf.

Karl Barth incarnated the spirit of this revolt and let it loose in his famous second edition of The Epistle to the Romans. In one sense, of course, he fought "against the stream" of centuries of subjectivism in terms of methods and systems which centered in experience and history, but in another sense he exemplified and articulated the deepest revolt of a whole new age against making man’s experience central to knowledge, particularly with relation to God. Kierkegaard has flashed and Barth has thundered that the less certain cannot prove the more real. How can man’s experience prove or even enunciate the reality of God? Only revelation can do that. Only man broken of his pride can receive the high and holy self-impartation of God in Christ as the basis from beyond this world of biblical revelation. Barth’s cry for rending the veil of man-made systems found electric response throughout the world. Storms of neo-orthodoxy, as many called the revolt, uprooted theologies of experience, leaving them withered if not dead. The atmosphere and assumptions of a new age were both hostile and haughty with regard to any reliance on Christian experience.

Several times, however, Barth has gone back on his extreme stand, as in the first volume of Church Dogmatics (1927) and later in Fides Quaerens Intellectum (1931). In Die Menschlichkeit Gottes (1956) he repudiates his own extreme position, calling it heretical and saying that it was called forth by the enemy at the time. His retraction is wholehearted, but guarded. Unfortunately, it is also as yet without sufficient insight into the nature of his "heresy." The fact is, of course, that unless God can be known in experience in some way, unless he can be related to life organically in some manner, and unless God authenticates his own presence by some means, revelation becomes both relative and irrelevant. There is then nothing left for us except some completely arbitrary choice on God’s part, working faith in us directly, or some entirely capricious faith-judgment on our part.

Possibly the problem that is set for us in this chapter, even by this historical sketch, is, therefore, as difficult as any problem of human thought. The question is this: Is there any way that we can find a distinctive Christian experience sufficiently valid to allow us to return to the power of the classical Christian faith without landing in the pitfalls of irrelevance and arbitrariness? Can objectivism and subjectivism be synthesized constructively even by the correct understanding of Christian experience?


The problem of experience is that we have to be ourselves. We cannot escape this our privilege or our plight. At the same time, the hardest thing in the world is to be ourselves. How can we become ourselves, and are we potentially better and more than we know? How can we live our true life now, and is there beyond our every now some fulfilling then and there? Are these not the basic problems of experience? First of all, then, self-acceptance is most difficult. We did not choose to be born. Nor did we choose the circumstances into which we were born. We cannot even honestly say that what we are is mostly of our own making. We have drives from within, physical, psychological, social, and spiritual, that we cannot explain, but they are there. They are somehow ourselves. When we can control them, we usually suffer and labor in so doing. Somehow, too, we become alienated from ourselves in struggling with the self that we never chose to be. In the same way, we have received hurts or helps from the outside, not of our own choosing, and we find ourselves craving and striving to be the selves that we want to be; yet we find ourselves seemingly caught in something we have to acknowledge as ourselves but against which we nevertheless rebel as being ourselves.

Self-improvement is a strong desire that engenders a wide response; the hope of it gives confidence to many, yet countless people live on the edge of despair, knowing themselves controlled from within and by circumstance rather than being in control. Some lose the battle of the mind, becoming statistics of mental illness. Others seek escape in death. In any case, life generally is hard, and heavy is the battle of and for the self. Well have our existentialists called anxiety a characteristic of human experience. Martin Heidegger describes experience as man being ahead of himself, or possibility; being already in the world, or facticity; and being involved in the world, or fallenness. Anxiety, for him, is merely a special case of man’s Sorge, his being caught in the despair of death. Paul Tillich knows that even if the essential self is free, the existential self is bound. Deliverance for him must be eschatological, an entering into the "Gestalt of Grace." Rudolf Bultmann, too, knows how dark and deep is man’s natural predicament, how besetting his sin. He offers decision for the Kingdom, faith in Christ, as victory over anxiety. All these men know the dread of existence. They advocate authentic experience. How can we become real, and what of hope happens when we do?

The problem on the level of experience seems to be as follows: Is there a normally attainable experience that as such can witness to any reality capable of offering a fulfilling and authentically satisfying life? Or is all general experience so beset by anxiety, strife, and despair within, or at least by chronic dissatisfaction, and some such pressures and conflicts from without, that we go on living, having moments of enjoyment, hoping always for better days, feeling responsible for work and family, and dreading in our depth consciousness to die, not knowing for certain what is ahead if we do? Is much of our unhappiness a matter of being too busy with the things that have caught us to the point where we have no time to be or to become ourselves? Or are we thus busy because we dread being ourselves?

Are even our pleasures in food, sex, and sociability substitutes for genuine well-being? We cannot feel others’ physical pain; we cannot enter into their mental anguish; we cannot plumb their spiritual cravings. Those whom we know best are still strangers to us as regards their deepest feelings about ultimates. Some of the most popular and seemingly happy people we have known have taken their own lives in the midst of what we took to be highly satisfactory living. What, then, is normal experience that can be held up as something possible of attainment? And what relevance, again, does it have for those whose structures and drives are not normal and who have tried beyond belief to become so, only to be defeated and to keep being defeated indefinitely? Life for most people seems to be too complicated; there seem to be too many choices where often even taking a good choice brings hurt to the self because it cannot also take the other choices. Is suffering our lot, and learning to suffer our best lesson? There seems to be no end to such questions and no way of settling them.

The problem of experience is that if we stay within its confines, for the sake of reality and relevance, we find no high hope for knowledge and salvation from beyond it. If we leave experience behind, all promised power seems arbitrary and unfounded. Some lives, to be sure, seem to find more serenity, confidence, sense of achievement, and satisfaction than others. But are the sources of these lives public and can they become standard for human life in general, or are they to be explained in terms of their own givenness and circumstance? Many of these persons claim help from beyond our ordinary experience, but how can we know that there are realms of reality beyond what we experience?

The Christian Gospel speaks directly to these problems. Some of us have to admit to only a partial understanding of its nature and to a most fragmentary realization of its claim. Yet what we know, what we have seen and have experienced, we dare not deny. We have discovered, too, that the Christian claim is far more real than our experience of it. What is this claim? It is that Christ delivers us from the morass of subjectivism without hanging us on the high cliffs of arbitrary objectivism; that Christ comes beyond all theoretical solutions, besides, as the healing and helping Savior whose presence and power are man’s final and fulfilling Good News.


The claim of Christ is that he is from beyond this world, that he came into it, yet is of such a nature that he truly fulfills what the world needs. If his claim or the claim made for him is true,(The truth of Christ’s claim I have tried to work out in a series of volumes beginning with Faith and Reason.) then we know from within our world what is more than the world. Then we can experience in him what is yet more than ordinary experience. We then have a light and a life that can radically change what is in this world. In such a case, we have in him a remedy for our situation and the power to solve our problem.

The claim of Christ is that he is the Son of God. God is the creator, ruler, and finisher of this world. Christ is the very presence and power of God on earth. God is love. Technically speaking, love cannot be qualified by anything real and good as external to itself in ultimate source and status. We cannot say high, holy or wise love, except colloquially, for God as love is all these by his very nature. There is no real and full love that is not of God; God is the only source of love. Man’s "possession" of it is at best but participation in the life of God. Man has in creative altruism a reflection of this reality in his need for love. Love is God and of God; he who remains in love remains in God and knows God. Apart from love no one can know God, for God is love. Therefore, the Son of God is the Son of his love, and this is life eternal to know the eternally begotten Son of God, the love who goes out to create and to redeem, to produce community and to perfect it. God is Spirit; love is Spirit and can be known, therefore, only as we receive the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, the eternal love who alone is and gives eternal life. "Love only comprehendeth love and knoweth whence it came."

Thus, Christ is not of and from this world but of and from God. He is the Incarnation, revelation, redemption and resurrection of eternity in time, of God in man. Him we know, and knowing him we know God. Thus, within history and by means of experience we know God who is both incomparably and immeasurably beyond this world and beyond all full understanding. The reason that we know him, however, is that although he is from beyond this world he is yet in the world revealing to man what he most needs. Man needs God. He is empty at the center of his life. This emptiness makes growth possible. Man in himself is more empty than not, for fullness of being is of God alone. Man in himself is made for God, but man never is God or in any part a bit of God. The emptiness in man craves filling. Only God can fill the emptiness of man, which is the hunger for love. The fact that God made man in his own image comes out in man’s capacity to carry on the imitation of love. God’s agape is reflected in man’s altruism. Man loves with a small "l." But such love leaves man still empty and hungry.

The claim of Christ on us is that he is the enmanment of the love for which man is made. Therefore Christ is God’s answer to man’s need at the center of his life. Man craves love and carries on a search for it. He longs to be accepted and known. He craves to be respected and admired. He longs for the community where he can both be himself and be fulfilled beyond the self. Man needs freedom, for freedom is a need for self-being. Man craves freedom, for freedom is also a condition for satisfactory community. But freedom in either direction becomes unconcerned and irresponsible unless it is motivated by love. Man’s motivation in himself is at best "a drive" of love in the human sense. Such love is a distorted reflection of the love whom God is. Therefore, such love meets only partially man’s need for reality and fulfillment. Man needs the fullness of love that comes only with the fullness of God.

Man needs also to be able to accept love. Many shut themselves off from what they most want and crave. They have to be themselves and yet fail to be. They want love so much and have so often been hurt by what passes for it that they dare not open their lives to reality. Thus they have to be, and yet dare not be, themselves. They know not how to become real. Man’s niggardly and besmirched love has so hurt the self who needs God’s presence and power that he dares not believe that God is real and can fulfill him. A. H. Maslow has well written in Motivation and Personality that love is as much of a necessity for man as salt. Actually a person can get along, however unsatisfactorily, on a comparatively salt-free diet; but without love the soul shrivels, it hurts, and harms others. In order to give love, man needs to receive love. Man needs to become lovable by letting God love him. He needs God at the center of his life. Man’s misery consists mostly in being starved for the only full and final medicine for his sickness and for the true nourishment for full health.

A need shows the nature of man with regard to his origin, environment, and end. A value is a way of meeting a need. It is a guide to the fulfillment of need. Nothing is essentially valuable which does not fill a genuine need. Man’s need for love is a universal need. It is as wide as the life of man. Therefore it is also as high as the heart of God. A universal need reflects back on the creator of that need, or on the origin and source of man. An authentic need also reveals the nature of the environment which produced the need, and which offers directives for its fulfillment. A true need bespeaks man’s fulfillment and thus his destiny. If God’s presence in Christ provides the potential fulfillment of man’s basic and universal need, then the Christ is both the answer from beyond our partial vision and our bungled attempts to fill those needs, and also the fulfillment within the world of its deepest lack. Christ, being the presence and power of God from beyond our world, is the power for its salvation, for as a true man of earthly existence he is through and through relevant to our human situation.

God’s Gospel is therefore both sufficiently powerful and relevant to meet us where we are and to give us radical help. The Gospel of God’s grace in Christ is neither arbitrary nor impotent. It is in but not of the world. It is from beyond our world and yet all for it. Therefore, the experience of Christ is at the same time our present need and our ultimate hope. Christian experience is both a universal need and a true potential. Christianity as the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, of the universal love of God for which we are all made, by which alone we can be fulfilled, and within which alone is perfect freedom, is therefore no in-group religion, no faith among faiths, but the realism of reality as the illumination of life, the judgment of wrong, and the power to become right.


The nature of Christian experience presupposes its power, namely, to find the fulfillment of life in the love of Christ which passes knowledge. To know is not man’s basic need. Of course he needs to know, but knowledge is not the heart of life. Nor is man’s deepest need to do. He certainly needs to act and to feel sure that his activity is both important and right. But man is not made for action. He is made for love. Love includes but goes beyond all aspects of self. The power of Christian experience comes, in fact, through forgiveness. The validity of Christian experience depends on its capacity to fulfill man’s central need for life. The power of forgiveness is had as man becomes able to accept what he most needs.

Man suffers from ignorance. Knowledge is power to explore nature and to exploit its resources for meeting human need. Man cannot get along without power of knowledge. The full order and meaning of nature cannot be known or appropriated apart from God’s purpose with it. Christ shows us this, especially in our precarious and perilous age. Man also needs to act on what he knows, for without such action his knowledge lies impotent and his spirit lies frustrated. Ultimate concern, the love of God, is man’s fullest motivation for creative and co-operative personal and communitarian relations. Above all, however, man needs to be forgiven, for guilt more than anything else separates man from God, from others, and even from his true self.

Guilt results from wrong relations at the heart of life. The feeling of guilt reflects the inner sense of wrong. Guilt oppresses man by the registering of reality in his inward parts of his false choices and his wrong relations. These threaten the moral integrity of the self. The experience of guilt reflects the awareness on the part of man’s most sensitive self that it has forfeited its integrity and lost its true self. Guilt gives rise to the experience of man’s inner self-punishment, a fleeing of the sinner "when no man pursues him!" Guilt eventuates in the disquiet of evil forebodings produced by an inner understanding of the right relation between choices and consequences. Guilt feelings unmask the anxiety of the self that tries to own up to its own past and even to right it, but that cannot cope adequately with that past. Guilt occasions the crying of the soul for forgiveness. Guilt engenders the suffering of the self that shuns right relation and runs from God, from others, and from the true self. Guilt paralyzes man’s spirit and robs him of vitality; guilt drains what vitality is left by excessive defenses or by foolish aggression. Guilt distorts knowledge, misdirects action, and robs the self of life itself as well as of the sense of reality and importance.

Guilt indicates the failure to love. It is the witness within to the sin against the Spirit. It is the drowning of the soul in the poisoned pool of self-concern. Guilt shuts the self in on himself. It makes life seem hopeless and without luster. Guilt makes life a burden to be borne or a threat to be escaped. Guilt is the groaning of God in man, the call of God’s Spirit to man’s spirit for right relations. At its deepest, guilt is understood within the context of the suffering of love on the cross of man’s lovelessness. Guilt is man’s central problem, his strongest enemy, and his deepest enslavement.

Therefore, man needs, above all, to be forgiven of his guilt, because forgiveness is the only way for man to God, to his deepest self, and to the filling of his central need. Man cannot accept himself, live freely with his neighbor, or live fearlessly before God until he is forgiven by God. God’s forgiveness, however, waits for man’s wanting to be forgiven. Forgiveness never violates freedom. Forgiveness by God that is apart from man’s full acceptance of it is no real forgiveness. God is kept from forgiving until man forgives himself. The sign of such acceptance is whether or not the forgiven in turn forgives all others. God’s forgiveness is always universal in character. It is a state of reality in which we participate. There is no reality in partial forgiveness; God’s forgiveness is full or not at all. To be sure, we appropriate or actualize God’s forgiveness in proportion to our actually forgiving others. The understanding, experience, and social effectiveness of forgiveness vary with moral sincerity and with spiritual maturity. But until total forgiveness is intended by faith, God is not personally present as power for Christian experience.

Only full surrender to God’s forgiveness in integrity of intention lets in the love of God. All partial surrenders achieve only grades of human reflections of love. They may not be inconsiderable to experience and to effective living, but they never bring full forgiveness by the presence of God. They never let love in to rule. Here is man’s most insistent and constant spiritual problem. He wants something of God, but not God himself. He wants to be saved, but not entirely and immediately. Narrow, indeed, is the way of Christian experience and few there be who find it.

The power of Christian experience is the freedom of the forgiven man. Man’s two strongest enemies are guilt and bondage. The Gospel is not first of all an explanation of, or a direction for, salvation. It is primarily the power for forgiveness and for freedom from bondage. This truth is the reason that the Cross has had, and always will have, the place it has within the Christian faith. Only what God has done and will do avails. Whatever doctrine of atonement is accepted, none will ever suffice that does not place grace, as God’s work, and faith, as man’s response, central in the relation between God and man. The atonement, at its heart, is the message of how God made forgiveness a reality and how man accordingly can become free through forgiveness.

Man is guilty through and through. Therefore, he fears God. Fear has torments. Fear holds man in bondage. Man flees freedom as long as he hates God. Freedom before God comes only when, through forgiveness, man knows that God has accepted him and when he, in turn, is able to accept others and himself within that forgiveness. Freedom comes only as love throws out fear. Freedom comes only from fulfillment of life. Only God can fulfill the life he has made for himself. Guilt makes man shrink from God and suffer within. God is not the hope of his life and his portion forever. For the fearful man, Christ has not come to set him free, because he feels that God threatens the very way in which life is meaningful to him. Freedom in God is freedom through the forgiveness of guilt.

Again, freedom from others is the result of forgiveness. Fear of others and the resultant slavery of man-pleasing turn through forgiveness to the freedom with others and for others. Man longs for conformity because he is afraid of God and feels a degree of confidence in the community of guilt. Even the ordinary church life is insurance against God. There, guilty man finds that most persons who claim freedom before God actually fear him; and therefore he justifies his state as natural, and wants to consider it safe. But even in the crowd, man is lonely, and as Kierkegaard avers, the depths of man know that the crowd is untruth. Community of guilt, therefore, turns out to be no reliever of it. There is no freedom in fellowship that is not the result of the community of love.

Christ alone affords man true liberty. The Church is best defined as the community of effective forgiveness, for it is the locus of the operation of effective grace. The community of forgiveness, however originated and constituted, is the community of Christ who is the source on earth of God’s love shed abroad through the Holy Spirit, the presence of God in the community of his Son. There is no final power for freedom in community that does not stem from God’s love actively operating in human togetherness. Forgiveness is the key to the power to love, the power of the presence of God who is love. Thus, Christian experience is the forgiveness of God that lets love loose. Love let loose always breaks down barriers by effecting degrees of supergroup community. Forgiveness is the way to community through the Cross by the power of the resurrection. Christian community fulfills man by the God-centered community in which he participates.

Forgiveness alone ensures fullness of life. Guilt dams up life. Guilt leads to lessening of life. God is gone. Relation with reality is broken. Or a fever of life tries to substitute for its fullness. Thus lassitude or nervousness, spiritlessness or activism, sometimes expressed in sensuousness and sometimes in asceticism, become the expression of the failure of life. Forgiveness restores the relation. It sets the self free for fulfillment. The full life of forgiveness involves uninhibited self-acceptance. The self no longer wastes itself in fearing God, in defending itself against others or in fighting itself.

The Christian experience is thus the finding of the love of Christ that shows the self reliably its own true situation. The problems of selfhood and of community are made clear by seeing them in the light of the needs of the self, as it in turn is seen in the light of the source and the destiny of man. But experience alone can effect such a living, forgiving, and empowering revelation. Teaching and preaching can give prescription for the solution of life’s problems, but they cannot afford conviction. Conviction results only from the testing of the prescription. Most people, unfortunately, never dare take with full seriousness the whole prescription. Therefore, there are few who can witness firsthand to the nature and power of Christian experience.

Our age is more and more coming to appreciate how right Kierkegaard was when he said that life’s hardest task was to become a Christian. Hegel spoke of "going beyond Christianity," and he produced a learned interpretation of the nature and course of world history. Kierkegaard revolted against the superficiality of Hegel’s understanding of Christianity and taught, instead, that the way of Christ is "an existence-communication" that is narrow to the point of despair. Only a few dare go on beyond giving up all to the finding of all in God. And those few in history exemplify the power of Christian experience: the St. Pauls, the St. Francises, and the Albert Schweitzers. But beyond all the towering figures of Christian experience stands the strange figure of Galilee through whom our very age order was changed. Mysterious and miraculous is the power of a life concluded on the Cross but consummated by the resurrection where God as love once for all became manifest as man’s ultimate source, present power, and true destiny.

The New Testament promises that of Christ’s fullness his followers are to partake. Only the actual experience of the dependability of this promise can ground man’s faith in God rather than in theory. Only such knowing of the presence of God in one’s own life can give one the right and the freedom to speak at all of the nature and the power of Christian experience. Our faith must become more personal, more intimate, more real and rich in experience. The more it does, the more we shall reject the subjectivism in religion that starts and ends with experience. The more, instead, the experience itself will point to the Godman through whom Christian experience once became actual and is now possible for us.

Christian experience is, in fact, the presence and power of God in Christ, of God made flesh; only as Christ becomes incarnate in us as the hope of glory, therefore, can the nature and the power of Christian experience become real for us and through us. When it does, we shall turn away the more readily from mere theory. We shall point with conviction born of experience to "the medicine of immortality" without which life can be neither free nor whole, and without which the problems of life must prevail, if, indeed, the world perish not entirely.

The claim of Christ remains: to meet man’s deepest need, the need of God, the need for love, the need for meaningful existence and community. Only as the power of forgiveness through God’s grace and our faith becomes the power of Christ for new lives and for a leavened world shall we grasp in grateful confirmation the nature and the power of Christian experience.


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