It has been customary since the seventeenth century to use the word ‘experimental’ to characterize a certain kind of teaching and preaching. To those who support the use of the word, experimental preaching is a good thing. It is how preaching should be. Besides being exegetically well-founded in Scripture, and its doctrine biblical, and set in the context of the whole counsel of God, the experimental preacher should place it within the theology of the whole of the Bible, and its manner and its applications should be ‘experimental’. A preacher well-versed in the practice of making such applications came to be known as a ‘experimental divine’.
This phrase, ‘an experimental preacher’, has come to be thought quaint, and potentially misleading. For – the thought is – what has scientific experimentation to do with the life of God in the soul of man? It may even be suggested that the word ‘experimental’ must have changed its meaning in the intervening years. It seems now to mean that an experimental preacher is one who makes experiments in the pulpit, trying out various ideas on his congregation.
It’s now becoming usual to think that the word ‘experimental’ is an old-fashioned word for ‘experiential’, and that such a preacher is making reference to ‘religious experience’, ‘contextualising’ it appropriately, making it relevant to the experiences of the people.
But experimental preaching is neither of these things. It is not a quaint and out of date reference to natural science, or ‘the science of the mind’, nor has it to do with trying out ideas on the congregation to see if some doctrine has relevance to young mothers or to grumpy old men. Nor with religious experience in some general sense covering, say, the experience of revival, of levitations and glossolalia, of out of the body experiences, or mysticism.
What is it then?
Experimental preaching has to do with testing. A scientist puts his theory to the test by devising experiments on the relevant substances or events. He may as a result have his hypothesis confirmed, modified and he may, sadly, have to abandon it. (It is not a good idea for a scientist to develop bonds of affection with a theory. He must try to test his theory to destruction. A certain ruthlessness is implied. A scientist who looks only for confirmations of his theory is not doing his job.)
Nevertheless ‘experimental’ suggests testing, and a preacher who follows the contours and sensibilities of the New Testament must inevitably be an experimental preacher. For the New Testament contains not only doctrines, delivered in various ways by its writers, but also accounts of the impact that the doctrines have and are to have (and sometimes, the impact they are not to have) on the inner life (motives, feelings, self-understanding) and on the conduct of the hearers. The way that doctrine is ‘delivered’ in Scripture includes some aspect of the Good News and then, in addition, some story about the way it was received in this congregation or that. That’s one important difference between the New Testament and Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (for example) important though that book is as a masterly delineation of doctrines. There is more to the New Testament than this, though not of course less that this. With doctrine should come ‘use’ and ‘application’, characteristic of Puritan preaching.
In his Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 R.T. Kendall refers to English experimental theology (and explicitly not ‘experiential’) to refer to a strand of English Puritanism, and I think he was correct to stick to the term, for the reasons given, and to link it explicitly with the testing of the self by the word of God.(9) But whether ‘experimental predestinarianism’ forms a distinct tradition, as he claims, a tradition distinct from that of ‘creedal predestinarianism’ is another matter. (80) For one thing, experimental preaching covers more than the matter of the establishing of personal assurance, embracing the whole life of the life of faith. For another thing the Westminster Confession of Faith (a ‘creed’, surely) does not simply provide a compendium of doctrines as normative for Christian belief, such as the so-called ‘Apostles’ Creed’, but goes beyond this in including the normative religious and moral states that a hearty belief in a doctrine calls for. Not only is doctrine normative in the ‘creedal’ sense, its normativeness extends to what Scripture holds is the proper impact of belief on life.
So the Chapter on Providence includes these sentiments
The most wise, righteous and gracious God doth often-times leave for a season his own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover to them the hidden strength of corruption, and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends. (V.V.)
Plenty of material here for ‘experimental’ preaching and experimental religion. The Chapters of the Confession almost without exception follow the ‘doctrine’ + ‘use and application’ style characteristic of Puritan preaching, in which the uses were not invented by the preacher, but taken from Scripture. Here’s the example from the chapter on good works (XVI) discussing the relation between justification and conduct.
Their [believers’] ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. And that they may be enabled thereunto, besides the graces that they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will and to do of his good pleasure: yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty, unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them. ((XVI.III)
So ‘experimental’ preaching means preaching that is testing, preaching that directs the believer to self-examination and action, not preaching that is dry or academic in tone or content. Nor preaching that is ‘experiential’ (in some generalized sense). Such preaching ought not to be some exotic, occasional exercise, but rather part of the staple diet of the Christian church, by which the wheat is separated from the chaff, and the believer is established in the faith that works by love. ‘Experimental’, not merely ‘experiential’. We should save the term from the lumber-room, and give proper emphasis to it