Should Experience Trump Scripture?

Sean McDowell, Ph.D.

In my recent book The Beauty of Intolerance, my father and I discuss how a new view of tolerance has crept its way into the church. One powerful way this is seen is how an increasing number of Christians approach Scripture.

For instance, in his book God and the Gay Christian, Matthew Vines begins by affirming the final authority of scripture on questions of morality and doctrine.[1] And yet when Vines discovered his own same-sex attraction, his perspective began to change based on his personal experience. Now he has become an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights within the church, and his goal is to lead a movement to convince Christians that they can affirm the full authority of scripture and also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.

I have met Matthew a number of times, and even had a lengthy discussion with him and some pastors at Biola, which was covered by the NY Times. I have always found him kind, gracious, and engaging, even though we disagree considerably on this issue.

A Simple Test for a Genuine Prophet

Vines claims to recognize how important it is that we not elevate our experience over scripture. In fact, he says, “I wasn’t asking them [conservative Christians] to revise the Bible based on my experience. I was asking them to reconsider their interpretation of the Bible.” Fair point. But he continues, “While Scripture tells us not to rely solely on our experience, it also cautions us not to ignore our experience altogether.”[2] Vines supports his point with an example from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus warned against false prophets:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15–20 ESV).

According to Vines, Jesus provides a simple test for a genuine prophet: “If something bears bad fruit, it cannot be a good tree. And if something bears good fruit, it cannot be a bad tree.” Since Vines believes traditional Christian teaching on homosexual behavior brings harm to gay people (depression and suicide, for instance) then it must not be biblical. By contrast, embracing monogamous same-sex relationships brings “good fruit” to gay people, and so it must be right.

Since Vines believes this is a question of interpretation, not biblical authority, the question is a matter of what the text means. If you read the larger context for this passage, it becomes clear that “bad fruit” is not stressed out people who feel marginalized from society, as Vines suggests. Rather, according to Jesus’ words in context, bad fruit is “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them” (v. 26 ESV). And “good fruit” is “everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them” (v. 24 ESV). In other words, good fruit is characterized by obedience to Christ and to God’s commands. And bad fruit is sin.

The reality is that there are many issues of orthodox teaching that can cause considerable hardship in people’s lives. Can you imagine the amount of distress and anger that would be caused if people followed the biblical guidelines on marriage and divorce (Matt. 19:3–12; 1 Cor. 7)? Millions of Christians would experience angst, stress, depression, and frustration over what they believe are unreasonable demands to remain married to someone with whom they’ve fallen out of love. Sure, many people choose not to follow this teaching.

But do we have the authority to change biblical teaching because it is difficult to live? It is hard to imagine Jesus and Paul adopting such an approach. In fact, by Vines’ interpretation, the preaching of the apostles, which lead them to be threatened, beaten, thrown in prison, and even killed, would be considered “bad fruit.” And so would Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” Even though Paul pleaded with Christ to remove it, he was told, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV). For the sake of Christ, Paul willingly embraced “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” (v. 10 ESV). Should we expect any less?

Experience and Scripture

In a review of God and the Gay Christian, Christopher Yuan provides a proper context for experience and the interpretation of scripture:

A high view of Scripture is more than just talking about Scripture. It is learning from Scripture. Vines certainly talks about Scripture, but he tends to emphasize his experience and tangential background information, downplaying Scripture and its relevant literary and historical context.

Experiences do inform our interpretation of Scripture. As a racial minority, biblical texts on sojourners and aliens mean more to me than to someone who is not a racial minority. However, experiences can also hinder the interpretation of Scripture. Although it is impossible to completely distance the interpretive process from one’s experiences, it is important to recognize our biases and do our best to minimize them. A high view of Scripture involves measuring our experience against the Bible, not the other way around.

It appears to me that Vines starts with the conclusion that God blesses same-sex relationships and then moves backwards to find evidence. This is not exegesis, but a classic example of eisegesis (reading our own biases into a text). Like Vines, I also came out as a gay man while I was a student. I was a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in dentistry. Unlike Vines, I was not raised in a Christian home. Interestingly, a chaplain gave me a book from a gay-affirming author, John Boswell, claiming that homosexuality is not a sin. Like Vines, I was looking for biblical justification and wanted to prove that the Bible blesses gay relationships. As I read Boswell’s book, the Bible was open next to it, and his assertions did not line up with Scripture. Eventually, I realized that I was wrong—that same-sex romantic relationships are a sin. My years of biblical language study in Bible college and seminary, and doctoral research in sexuality, only strengthened this conclusion. No matter how hard I tried to find biblical justification and no matter whether my same-sex temptations went away or not, God’s word did not change. Years later I found out that the gay-affirming chaplain also recognized his error.

 


 

[1] Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian (New York: Convergent, 2014), 2.

[2] Ibid., 13-14.

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6 replies
  1. Louie says:

    So, is a guy like Vines was who Jesus was warning against in Matthew 7:15–20? Vines interpretation does not align with scripture from the book of Romans or Timothy, so it makes you wonder…

    Reply
  2. Luke says:

    You say that verse 24 of Mathew 7 says that “‘good fruit’ is ‘everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them’.”

    I checked the ESV, and “good fruit” is not mentioned in this verse, though you put quotes around it in the sentence which contains the citation. Moreover, this verse is separated from the “Prophets” (good vs. bad fruit) section by yet another section.

    I’m not saying that you are wrong, but how is stating “when Jesus says ‘“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.’ Jesus is saying that “when I mentioned good fruit earlier I meant that ‘good fruit is characterized by obedience to my commands. And bad fruit is sin.” not adding meaning that is not there through the words and rules of grammer?

    Are you confident this concusion isn’t eisegesis?

    Moreover, if we do accept this interpretation (as I said, I am not claiming it is wrong), just before mentioning good and bad fruit, Jesus distills the law down for us: “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

    Therefore it seems quite logical to conclude that if commiting sin is bad fruit, and treating others in a way different than you’d like to be treated is sin, then treating others in a way that is different than you’d like to be treated is bad fruit.

    I don’t think many of us would like to be treated as second class citizens while watching others enjoy rights we don’t have (being served by a business no matter who we love, not being fired from work because of who we love, being able to build a life with the person we love, etc.). So it seems to me Mr. Vines can easily make a case of bad fruit not on secondary effects (depression and suicide), but on primary sin — breaking the law of the prophets as Jesus described it; bad fruit, as you described it.

    Thanks,

    Luke

    Reply
    • Sean McDowell, Ph.D. says:

      Hey Luke,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate that you read the post and the corresponding passage so carefully.

      Technically you are right that “good fruit” does not appear in v. 24. But that’s why I separated it from the actual quote from v. 24. The words “good fruit” don’t appear there, but the idea does, which is what matters.

      Some context may help. Verses 15-20 are about good and bad prophets and recognizing them by their fruit. But the passage alone does not define what is meant by fruit. To understand that point (since “fruit” often has different meanings in various biblical books), we have to consider the context. When we keep reading, we realize that the following passage gives broader context. The following verses, 21-23, are about people who claim to know and follow Jesus, but he says to depart from him because they are “workers of lawlessness.” In other words, despite their supposed good works, they disobey the law.

      Verses 24-27, then, bring the greater context, which is that people who listen to God’s teaching are really those that bear good fruit, and those who disobey do not bear good fruit. Sure, the words “good fruit” are not there, but that is irrelevant to the larger point Jesus is making, namely, that true loyalty to God will always reveal itself in obedience and righteous living.

      Jesus begins with the assumption that a true prophet will proclaim a message that results in obedience by those who listen. Thus, if the prophet is proclaiming genuine truth, it will result in righteous living. If a prophet is teaching falsehood, it can’t lead to righteous living. His point is not about the subjective experience of people who claim to follow him, but whether or not they obey. Vines has it backwards, by beginning with experience, and thus misses the larger point Jesus is making.

      I hope this helps some!
      Sean McDowell

      Reply
  3. Luke says:

    Sean,

    Thanks for your response. It is always nice to be able to interact and bounce ideas off of different minds.

    I will give this some thought, rather than responding with a “hot take” (as the kids say).

    Thanks again,

    Luke

    Reply
  4. Luke says:

    Dr. McDowell,

    I’m going to try to keep this short, so some detail may be missing, but I hope I can get the point across. I look forward to your comments.

    I agree with you that context tells us more than a single verse does, but would you agree that how we see and interpret context is at least to some degree subjective?

    Let me go through a bit of reasoning with you though, and please tell me if you think these premesis and conclusions are sound, or where they are wrong.

    1. The value of a phrophet can be known by their fruit. (Mat 7:16-20)
    2. False prophets bear bad fruit. (Mat 7:16-20)
    3. “Those who disobey do not bear good fruit.” (Sean McDowell)
    4. Disobedience of G-d is sin. (1 John 3:4)
    5. A tree cannot produce some bad fruit and some good fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit. (Mat 7:18)
    6. All men sin (Romand 3:23)

    Therefore
    7. All men are bad trees and produce only bad fruit (follows from 3,4,5,6)
    8. All prophets are false prophets (follows from 7,1,2)

    I think this is pretty tight logically (I could be wrong, of course), and the Biblical verses are also really clear (there’s no subjective reading here; it’s all really plain). Your premise is the one we could really question, it seems to me — if we don’t wish to question scripture itself. (Again, I could be wrong.)

    (I don’t know what your larger worldview is. Perhaps you’re coming from a Calvinist tradition and say “of course all men are bad trees; we’re totally depraved!”, so perhaps you endorse these conlcusions and see no problem with them. Even in that case though it does seem quite off (to me) for Jesus to say “you can tell the good ones from the bad ones…” while really meaning “they’re all bad ones, but I’m just going to be really sly about saying that”.)

    I’ll conclude now, as I have the propensity to write novels on a single Bible verse. I look forward to your comments.

    Thanks,

    Luke

    Reply

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