Episode 103: An Interview with Dr. Simeon Zahl – The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience

In this episode we sit down with Dr. Simeon Zahl to talk about how a robust theology of the Holy Spirit can give us better language for talking about the role of experience in the life of a Christian. Grab a copy of his book, The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience here.

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The main thing that drove me to write this book was that Protestant theology had gotten into a false dichotomy: either suspicion about experience or being uncritically accepting of it… I just think we need a better way of accounting for the experiential dimensions of the Spirit’s work… 

I grew up with good Lutheran theology, but when I was in college at Harvard I got involved in the Alpha course… and at the Holy Spirit weekend, a lot of people had experiences of the Holy Spirit that were life-changing… I had been taught that I needed to make a choice between my Lutheran theology and the charismatic experience, but Alpha showed me that wasn’t the case… 

People mean different things when they talk about ‘experience’… but fundamentally, everything is experience… you can’t get rid of it… the thing to do is to try to think well about it…  

The main way the Scripture leads us to think about experience is through the doctrine of the Holy Spirit… the Spirit is the right way of talking about God’s action in the world…  

There’s a story that’s told in the theological academy that the doctrine of justification by faith is a cold, legal, rationalistic form of Christianity… but when you read [the Reformers], you see that it’s all about a kind of experience that you’re being led to… an experience of moving from terror to joy…  

Biblically and theologically, the Spirit is involved in three areas of life: salvation, sanctification, and the mission of the church… these things are not abstract… they are about having our desires transformed so that we desire the things of God…  

There’s a way of talking about the Spirit where when you’re stuck in behavior patterns you can’t change then it must be a sign that you’re not a Christian… that always bothered me… what do we do when there isn’t striking transformation? 

Luther is helpful here… he says you are both a sinner and a saint, which creates room to admit what is true… the gospel creates a firewall against despair… when our attention is on God, things go back into their proper shape… 

We need to beware where we are preaching an idea or a concept that hasn’t been filtered through experience… it will create a disconnect for people…

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