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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Religious Experience


1. Evidential value of religious experience.—Experience is the ultimate test of truth. All knowledge comes from within. World-knowledge, self-knowledge, God-knowledge, all equally depend upon the trustworthiness of this inner organ of information. A universal experience, or an intuitive consciousness, gives us knowledge lifted to the highest power. That which is most universal and most enduring is vouched for by the nature of things. The religious consciousness is as clear and universal as the world-consciousness. It is as natural to man as volition or mathematics. Every baby is born blind and dumb and without the power to will, and there may be some tribes with poor eyes and slow tongues and no theology; but in normal humanity there is a latent capacity for sight and speech and volition, and at least a hope that the soul has relations with the supernatural. Religion is not something miraculous. It is as natural to man as eyesight and star-gazing. It is as normal as any physiologic function. Modern psychology has indisputably proved that religious experience is as closely related to the nerves and blood as puberty; the vital organs and psychic mechanism are built with reference to it. Its importance and value to the race are doubly starred, for ‘its best fruits are the best things history has to show’ (James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 259). To doubt its veracity would be an insolence to the Providence of the universe. Modern psychology has only emphasized Augustine’s decision: ‘Lord, if we are deceived, we are deceived by Thee.’* [Note: Professor James, from a study perhaps too largely devoted to abnormal developments of the religious emotions, reaches nevertheless the significant conclusion that, ‘if intercourse between man and God is not a fact, then religion does not simply contain elements of delusion, but is rooted in delusion altogether’ (op. cit. p. 465, cf. p. 547).] It is because the NT grew out of, and is the record of, genuine first-hand religious experience that it has the gift of tongues, and can speak to every man in the language wherein he was born.

2. Pre-requlsites of religious experience.—The great fundamental pre-requisites of religious experience the Gospels take for granted. There is no more of an attempt to prove God’s existence than man’s existence, or God’s power of speech than man’s. God loves to speak to man, and man can understand. God is the imperative preliminary to all religious life; He is the chief factor in its continuance and perfecting. Each soul possesses as its birthright a knowledge of moral distinctions, a sense of moral obligation, a, conscious power of obedience or disobedience to such law as the soul knows. All this, where not affirmed, is assumed by all the Gospel writers.

3. Pre-Christian religious experience.—Much of the religious experience described in the Gospels is pre-Christian. Primitive Christianity never imagined that a rich religious experience was not possible outside the Christian community. The Divine Shepherd has ‘other sheep’ besides the Israelites (John 10:6). Jesus Himself expressly affirms this, and refers to Naaman the Syrian, the widow of Zidon, the Roman centurion, and the Syrophœnician woman as possessing better religious experience than their Jewish neighbours, and definitely announces that ‘many’ shall come from the heathen nations and enter the future Kingdom in peace (John 12:20; John 12:23, Luke 4:25-28, Mark 7:24, Matthew 8:10; Matthew 15:28). So, the Samaritans were at various times praised by Jesus, and one of them was selected as the ideal type of brotherhood (Luke 7:11; Luke 7:19; Luke 10:25-37). Yet, while Jesus proclaimed faith and gratitude and compassion to be religious virtues wherever found, and evidently preferred honest heresy to thoughtless orthodoxy, He nevertheless regarded Gentiles and Samaritans as heretics, and the Jews as the natural ‘children of the kingdom’ (Matthew 8:12; cf. Matthew 18:17, John 4:22). The Apostles were all Jews, and the holy men and women whose prayers and hymns filled the earth with prophetic hope at the birth of John and Jesus were representative OT saints. They had been ‘prepared for the Lord’ (Mark 1:17), and were ‘prayerful,’ ‘devout,’ and ‘righteous’ people who ‘rejoiced in God,’ being ‘filled with the Holy Ghost,’ and could depart this world ‘in peace’ (Luke 1:6; Luke 1:47; Luke 1:67; Luke 2:25-29, cf. John 1:47). Such religious fruit does not grow on a tree with a rotten root.

4. Christian experience contrasted with all other religious experience.—Nevertheless, as compared even with the best religious experiences of the Old Covenant, those of the New seemed like ‘new wine’ (Mark 2:22), like newly discovered treasure (Matthew 13:34), like a wedding day (Matthew 9:15), like the ‘one pearl of great price’ (Matthew 13:46), like a king’s banquet (Matthew 22:2), like the rising of the sun (Luke 1:79, cf. John 1:17). The religious knowledge and outlook even of that holy prophet and herald of whom Jesus Himself said that there had been ‘none greater born of women,’ were to be so eclipsed that he who was ‘little’ in the New Kingdom should be greater than he (Matthew 11:11). New standards, new ideals, new spiritual magnitudes, above all, a new spiritual dynamic had appeared, and with these a totally new spiritual experience. The new things introduced by the gospel have often been catalogued, but Jesus was the supremely new thing in the new religion. Much of the teaching, even its central Golden Rule, was old, but He was new. He, not His teaching, was the centre of the new gospel. He was the gospel; Himself the glad tidings of great joy. His coming brought a new morning to the world (Luke 1:78), and originated a new vision of righteousness and a new sunrise type of religious experience in the souls of men.

5. Religious experience of Jesus.—But although Jesus created a new religion characterized by strangely new religious dispositions, it is a difficult task to discover from the records the facts concerning His own soul life. That He prayed and had the inner certainty of reply; that He was tempted; accepted the Father’s will even when unexplained to Him; that He had great confidence in God, and felt a peculiar harmony between Himself and the Infinite Goodness,—all this, and much more, is known. But did the self-identity with the moral law which He claimed (John 14:6, cf. Mark 8:34; Mark 10:21; Mark 13:31, Matthew 5:17) involve the consciousness of self-identity with Jehovah? So St. John’s Gospel certainly teaches. According to all the Gospels, He claimed a jurisdiction here and hereafter which no other sane man has ever ventured to claim. He showed no hesitancy in calling Himself ‘meek and lowly,’ while in almost the same breath He demanded absolute submission of intellect and will from all who expected to remain His ‘friends,’ or hoped to be at peace with God hereafter (e.g. Matthew 7:21 ff; Matthew 11:28 ff., Luke 6:46, John 15:14). Even in Mk. He is represented as claiming, without misgiving, to be the expected Messiah and Judge of the world (Mark 8:29), who has power to forgive sins (Mark 2:10), and to whom all men owe absolute spiritual allegiance (Mark 8:34; Mark 8:38). The other Synoptics, as well as Jn., specifically represent Him as claiming to be superior to the wisest lawgivers and prophets of the past (Matthew 12:42; Matthew 19:8, Luke 11:31, John 1:17)—One whose mission in the world was to give His life a ransom for the race (John 3:16, cf. Mark 10:45), Himself the centre and object of the devotion of all men loyal to the inner light (Luke 19:14; Luke 20:18, John 5:40; John 7:17), the only Being who knew God (Matthew 11:27), a Saviour and Judge whose ‘Depart from me’ was the severest penalty which could be pronounced on guilty man (Matthew 1:21; Matthew 7:23). Yet, notwithstanding all this, He is represented in every Gospel as being peculiarly calm, sincere, humble, and self-forgetful, possessing a heart of singular purity, having not the slightest doubt of His own right relationship to God, trusting the inner witness perfectly, and constantly possessing a peace ‘deep as the unfathomed sea,’ which peace He believed He could impart to others. The self-consciousness of Jesus was the spring underneath the Temple-altar, out of which flowed the healing waters of Christianity.

6. Christ’s relation to Christian experience.—Whatever we think, who never ate at the same table with Him, there is not the slightest doubt as to what the earliest Christians thought of Jesus. They never attempted to analyze His states of consciousness,—He was to them the object rather than the subject of religion,—but of one thing they were absolutely sure, it was He who had worked the mighty change in them. Whereas they had been blind, they could now see; whereas they had been helpless, they now had conscious victory over sin; and new powers in many directions were theirs. These new experiences came through Him. In coming to Him they had found God, and a new type of thought and life had appeared within themselves. Jesus Christ was the source of this change of personality. All the NT writers agree as to this.

A writer in the JE [Note: E Jewish Encyclopedia.] (art. ‘Jesus’), though believing that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah, at the same time acknowledges that ‘his most striking characteristic was his claim that spiritual peace and salvation were to be found in the mere acceptance of his leadership.’ Nathaniel Schmidt (Prophet of Nazareth, 1905) also makes a suggestive admission when he says that, while Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah, yet all the hopes of OT prophets embodied in King, Redeemer, and Divine Manifestation were more than fulfilled in Him; and although He never, probably, claimed to forgive sins, yet He could forgive them, and historically He has actually been the Saviour of the world, and is saving men yet (pp. 8, 203, 317).

That Jesus Christ was the Saviour every man needed, One who could save up to and beyond the limit of the man’s best hope, was the common thought of those who most thoughtfully observed His influence and reported His words. It is constantly assumed as a fact of consciousness, and often declared in unequivocal language, that every man has so flagrantly sinned against light and become such a slave to sin that he needs the very power of the Almighty to enable him to fulfil his moral duty and reach his spiritual ideal. He needs more than one act of omnipotence. He needs a God who will come and stay close to him, ruling the life, not from without but from within (Mark 7:15, Matthew 15:8, Luke 17:21, John 4:21; John 15:1-6). The earliest Christians are unanimous in the declaration that in coming to Jesus Christ they had found the Father, and that He was not afar off but within; and after Pentecost they speak of the inward Presence either as ‘God,’ ‘Spirit of God,’ ‘Holy Spirit,’ or ‘Spirit of Christ.’

7. Origin of Christian experience.—Herein lies the explanation of the earliest typical Christian experience. The new religion was rooted in a new conception of the Holy Ghost. A perfected Christian experience was not possible until after Pentecost. There is no emphasis in the Gospels upon personal experience. They have to do with ‘Jesus only.’ His statements as to truth and His promise of future blessedness were sufficient grounds of certainty without any ‘experiences’ to corroborate them. Salvation, according to the earliest Christian Gospel, is proved not by personal experience but by practical morality, a compassionate spirit, and obedience to the inner law—this inner law being objectified in Jesus Christ when He is known (Matthew 25:14-45). The proper use of talents, helpfulness, mercifulness, prayerfulness, and love for brother man—these are the marks of a Christian. To be humble and self-forgetful, to care for the poor, and the sick, and the sinful—this is to ‘inherit the kingdom’ (Matthew 6:14). A man may be a member of Christ’s Kingdom even though he has not consciously been serving Him (Matthew 25:37-39). He who forgives shall be forgiven (Matthew 6:14). To be a Christian is not to ‘accept the word with joy,’ but to live, bearing fruit (Matthew 13:20-23, Luke 8:13). In Mk. it is not even remembered that Jesus ever promised ‘joy,’ or ‘peace,’ or ‘rest.’ These words do not meet us in this earliest Gospel. Jesus was the sole object of thought. How a disciple felt was of too little importance to be noticed. In Mt. the transforming principle is the word spoken by Jesus, and the result is ‘rest’ (e.g. Matthew 7:28; Matthew 11:29; Matthew 13:23). In Jn. the transforming principle is Jesus, who is ‘the Word’ and ‘the Life,’ and the result is ‘peace’ (John 3:4, John 6:33, John 14:27, John 17:3). With St. Paul the transforming principle is the Holy Ghost applying the redemption purchased by the blood of the cross, and the result is ‘joy’ and ‘glory.’ In the Synoptics the command is ‘Come,’ and if you endure to the end you ‘shall be saved.’ In Jn. the command is ‘Believe,’ and he that believeth ‘hath everlasting life.’ With St. Paul the central interrogation is, ‘Have you received the Holy Ghost?’—if so, you ‘have been saved’ (cf. Ephesians 2:5). In the Synoptics it is following Jesus that is emphasized; in Jn. it is being one with Jesus; in St. Paul’s letters it is being united with Him in His death. In the Synoptics salvation is educational; in Jn. it is biological; in St. Paul’s letters it is sacrificial. The first type of thought emphasized the fact of salvation, the second its psychology, the third its philosophy. In their deepest meaning these three are one; but they represent three types of Christian thought, from which resulted three types of Christian doctrine and Christian experience. Each type finds its root in the Gospel teaching; but the appeal to the ‘inner witness,’ the making prominent of Christian experience, and the rise of what may be called the emotional type of Christianity, are all post-Pentecostal developments. So long as Jesus remained with them, the disciples did not think it worth while to talk of themselves, or notice their own inward emotions or mental experiences. But Jesus left them, and in utter loneliness and sorrow they stood gazing into the heavens which had received Him. But at Pentecost they began to awaken to the fact that He was still alive, still near them, still able to talk with them, and make their hearts burn as He talked. Then their eyes were turned within, and Christian experience began to be of vital theological importance. It was the new Christian thought of the Holy Ghost which gave birth both to the Johannine and to the Pauline theologies and experiences. The Holy Spirit represented Christ in the believer’s heart. It spake with the authority of God Himself, and in the very accents of the One now gone. Christ was with them again. He had promised to come, and to abide with them always (John 6:56; John 14:18). He had kept His promise. The Word was again incarnate, and was in each one of them. The believer’s flesh was His flesh (cf. Ephesians 5:30, and especially the startling words of 2 Corinthians 3:17 ὁ δὲ κύριος τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν). This discovery, that it was the Lord Jesus Himself who was speaking within them in the Person of the Holy Ghost, brought the experiences of the soul into new importance. It was this consciousness of the indwelling Christ which filled the hearts of the early Christians with joy, and made them a wonder to the heathen world.

Typical Christian experience did not begin until Pentecost (John 7:39, Acts 2:17; Acts 19:2); yet the Synoptic Gospels contain all the roots of the beautiful rod which budded in those later ecstatic experiences. Although, when a sinner repented and was forgiven, it was only the joy of God and the angels which the Synoptics thought important enough to mention (Luke 15:7; Luke 15:10), incidentally we learn that the return to God brings a kiss to the soul and a song to the lips (Luke 15:20; Luke 15:24). It was a home-coming. There can be no doubt that ‘praising God,’ and ‘gladness of heart,’ and an exhilaration which was like the exhilaration of wine, were characteristic of the earliest Christian experiences (Acts 2:15; Acts 2:46-47), Every later Apostolic experience, however jubilant, appears prophetically in Jn. (e.g. John 4:36; John 15:11; John 16:20; John 16:22; John 16:24).

8. Range and content of Christian experience.—No part of human nature is excluded from the influence of saving grace. Schleiermacher centred religion in the feelings, Hegel in the intellect, Kant in the will; but Jesus Christ centred it in the man. The Torah of Jesus brought into loftiest prominence the fact that all man’s faculties of sensibility, intellect, and volition must be brought to focus in the act and state of loving self-surrender to God (Mark 12:30). Christian experience, as depicted in the NT, includes a new intellectual vision, a radical shifting of the emotional centre, and a rectification and strengthening of the will.

The first step in a typical Christian experience is the recognition of a new horror in sin. Sin is a more hateful and deadly thing to the Christian than to the Hebrew or the Babylonian. It is not only an epidemic universal and fatal (John 1:29), a blood-poisoning (John 9:41, John 15:22; John 15:24), worse than a lifelong paralysis (John 5:14), which may be eternal (Mark 3:29), a slavery (John 8:34), and an insanity (Luke 15:17); it is ungrateful (Luke 16:6), traitorous (Mark 14:56), unfilial (Luke 15:11); the assassination of one’s higher self (Luke 9:25), and a fratricidal blow at Jesus Christ (Matthew 21:38, Luke 9:22). The cross shows God’s thought of sin, and those who have seen the cross get a totally new view of the guilt of sin. Jesus can never be seen as a Saviour, in the Gospel sense, until a man sees himself to be a lost sinner having no hope of help except from God (Luke 7:42; Luke 15:4-32; Luke 19:10). It is no sign of ‘healthy-mindedness’ to feel no terror of sin. The ‘neurotic state’ is not one of keen sorrow for sin, but a state of hardness and callousness (e.g. Luke 15:17, cf. Ephesians 2:1). Repentance is not a ‘pathological condition of melancholia,’ which is to be avoided; it is the sinner’s only hope. It is the goodness of God which leadeth him to repentance. To be ‘pricked to the heart’ when one faces the cross is characteristic of a genuine Christian experience. When one reaches a state where he cannot feel these sharp goads of pain, then even God Himself cannot help him (Matthew 12:31; Matthew 12:41, cf. Hebrews 6:6). Sackcloth and ashes are the appropriate clothing for the penitent (Matthew 11:21). Yet it is not the emotional drapery, but the decisive action of the soul away from the wrong and towards the right (i.e. Christ) which is made emphatic (John 14:6). The first call is to repentance (Mark 1:15). This is the first thing commanded, for it is the first possible active effort of the man co-operating with the constant effort of God—without whom he could neither will nor act aright—in his own salvation. It is the first active human preliminary to a conscious Christian experience. It is a radical change of mind (μετανοέω), involving a radical change of front (ἐπιστρέφω). The response of the will to revealed duty is the ‘Yea’ or ‘Nay’ to God’s call. With the ‘Yea’ his eyes open, and he gets new vision. Sin can shut out even the sight of God and blind the soul to the difference between good and evil (Matthew 12:24). Purity of intent and purpose cleanses the lens of the intellectual telescope so that one can see God; and when one sees God, many other things previously obscured become visible (John 4:29; John 5:40).

Saving faith, according to the Gospels, centres in Christ. It is not faith in one’s self or in one’s own salvation, present, past, or future; it is a loyal surrender to Him who represents the soul’s highest ideal of right, as Lord. Having accepted Him as Lord, the soul then finds Him to be Saviour (John 5:23-24). In the Synoptics the words πίστις, πιστεύω do not mean as much as with St. John and St. Paul, because the words ‘Christ’ and ‘Saviour’ did not mean as much; but in every case the surrender is to Jesus up to the level of all the light received. Whosoever ‘wills to do his will’ shall know at least this, that Jesus can be trusted (John 7:17, cf. John 9:36). The testimonies to conscious personal trust in Jesus Christ as the supreme standard of right and the never-failing and ever-present Helper of all sin-sick souls, fill every page of the NT. The result of the exercise of faith is not infrequently a change of opinion and judgment; it is always a change of affection and volitional relation to God. The man’s whole nature changes. Jn. states this by the strongest possible figure—that of a second birth (John 3:10); but the Synoptics hint prophetically at the same thing. The man must make a new beginning, as radical as if he had become a child again (Matthew 5:45; Matthew 18:3, cf. Mark 10:15). A new seed of personality must be planted within him (Luke 8:4-15; Luke 17:21). There must be a change of the life passion (Matthew 6:25; Matthew 10:39). Newborn thoughts and feelings and powers must develop until the vital functions are practically reversed (Mark 8:35; Mark 12:30; Mark 12:35, Matthew 5:3-10; Matthew 16:25, Luke 17:35).

St. Paul constantly dwells upon this. The new life which one consciously obtains through faith in Jesus Christ is likened to that which would be needed in quickening a corpse or bringing about a resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:22, Colossians 2:13, Ephesians 2:5). The man obtains a new self, as if he had been recreated (2 Corinthians 5:17). Christ has started a new race, as truly as did Adam (1 Corinthians 15:22; 1 Corinthians 15:45), and the result is a new manhood, a new humanity (τὸν καινὸν [τὸν νέον] ἅνθρωπον, Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10), governed by a new law of life.

All the Gospel writers mention, though incidentally or prophetically, the liberty and the new strength and courage to will and to do the right which come with trust in Jesus, as well as the new and glad sense of love for both man and God (e.g. Mark 12:30-31, Matthew 11:30; Matthew 25:40, Luke 6:32; Luke 11:21-22, John 8:36). One is not merely conscious of his own sincerity; he can testify that a Father’s welcome has been given him, and that Christ has ‘manifested’ Himself to him (Luke 15:20, John 14:21). Perhaps the Gospel doctrine most fully developed in the later writings of the NT is that of spiritual unity with Christ, through self-surrender to become one with Him. This doctrine is found in germ in every Gospel, but comes to complete flower in the profound teachings of St. John. Unity with Christ does not, however, mean identity. The disciple may be perfectly like his Lord, but magnitudes differ. The best experience has in it a good hope of a better experience. Unity with the Divine does not make man a god, but splendidly and fully human. The Ego not only finds peace when it turns to God, but finds itself (Matthew 10:39; Matthew 15:16; Matthew 15:25, Luke 15:16-17). Progress is now possible. The man can now ‘win’ his own soul (Luke 21:19). Jesus lifts life out of the ‘tragedy of the commonplace’ by offering to it a perfect ideal and the highest possible impulse to reach it. This guarantees never—ending development. He who takes the Perfect for his ideal, and strives for an experience to match his vision, must have grace and more grace, life and more life (John 1:16; John 10:10).

Literature.—See Biblical Theologies for main discussion. Among best recent books on validity of knowledge given by experience: Bowne, Theory of Knowledge, Metaphysics. On content of Christian consciousness: Starbuck, Psychology of Religion; Coe, Spiritual Life; Hall, Adolescence (vol. ii.); James, Varieties of Religious Experience. On content of consciousness of a pious non-Christian: art. by present writer in Meth. Rev., Sixth Series, vol. xxiv. Best popular works on religious experience: Black, Chr. Consciousness; Newbolt, Gospel of Experience; Granger, Soul of a Christian; Forrest, Christ of History and Experience; Everett, Psychologic Elements of Religious Faith; Dale, Living Christ; Clifford, Chr. Certainties; Hall, Universal Elements of Christian Religion, and Chr. Belief interpreted by Chr. Experience; Stearns, Evidence of Chr. Experience.

Camden M. Cobern.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Religious Experience'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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