Doctrine versus Experience

(by The Rev. Dr. Curtis I. Crenshaw, Th.M., Th.D.)

Once upon a time, there was the great Reformation that formally began under Martin Luther when he nailed up the 95 Theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg, challenging the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church regarding Indulgences. An Indulgence is a work a Christian does to lessen the time he must stay in purgatory to be cleanses of his sins before he can go to heave. The Reformation, practically speaking, began at least 200 years earlier under John Wycliff in the 1300s and Jon Hus in the 1400s, both of whom were declared heretics by Rome. By the time of the Reformation, Wycliff was dead, but they exhumed his bones to undo his Christian burial. Hus, even though Rome gave him safe conduct to and from his meeting, was burned at the stake. So were Anglican scholars Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer in the 1500s.

The title of this article is Doctrine versus Experience, but the word “versus” need not be there. Indeed, Paul—and the Bible in general—do not see a necessary contrast between doctrine and experience, and Paul bases experience on doctrine.

But we must be careful to define these two things. Doctrine is easy enough: it is what Holy Scripture tells us about God, ourselves, the Son of God, sin, and so on. Experience is how we live in light of such unchanging truths. The problem develops when we try to establish doctrine based on our experience, or when we think that doctrine is just spouting off propositions about God with no thought of living for Him or having His joy, peace, love, etc manifested in our lives. Experience without doctrine is heat without light; enthusiasm without knowledge quickly leads one into heresies of all kinds. Doctrine without experience is cold, ineffective, quickly becomes mean spirited, like quoting Greek conjugations just with the idea of getting them over. Once learned and recited, they can be quickly discarded.

We have both kinds of Christians in various denominations, and though I’ll give some examples (from my denomination also, the Reformed Episcopal Church), I do not mean that there are not fine exceptions in each denomination. On the one hand, in Presbyterianism, there can be—and too often are—egg head Christians, those who have knowledge without love. These people love to blast other Christians, demonstrating how much more knowledge they have than other Christians, as if propositions alone meant one knew and loved God. As I grew up, we used to say one could know God with his head but not his heart, and is that not what St. Paul stated?

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1 Cor. 13:2).

One the one hand, though I’m not charismatic, what are we to think of the experience of millions of charismatics worldwide who claim to be able to heal others and to speak in tongues? Does experience have no place?

On the other hand, in Charismatic circles there is the tendency to derive doctrine from one’s experience. I’ve heard many times, “I know tongues are for today because I have experienced them.” No amount of biblical exegesis would convince Charismatics otherwise. My point is that this is a wrong priority.

Surely, there must be a balance somewhere. As Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell (died 1862) stated:

Truth must be exhibited warm and glowing from the fullness of the Christian heart. It must be not nakedly truth, but truth according to godliness. The writer must know it, because he has been taught by the Spirit and feels its power. This living consciousness of its preciousness and sweetness and glory is absolutely essential to save a system from the imputation of a frozen formalism. Infuse life, and you have a noble organism. (The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, 1:35)

So what is the point? It is that we must have objective truth based on the unchanging written word, but also truth that moves us, that has the fire of the heart and the Holy Spirit to make us new. It is a shame to hear the word written, confessed, sung, preached, and tasted in communion, and have the people sit like a pile of stones with grim faces, afraid to express any emotion lest they be considered weird. I’d rather be weird for Jesus. But emotion in itself without truth means nothing, and truth without emotion is deal formalism, but at least the latter has the gospel.

I took some postulants to the ministry to a church growth seminar provided by the ACNA (Anglican Church in North America), of which we (Reformed Episcopal Church) are a part. We were supposed to hear about how to do church growth. Instead, we constantly heard “God told me” such, how one pastor followed the leading of the Spirit with subjective feelings and grew a church. What was conspicuous by its absence was anything from God’s written word. Another told us how to receive the Holy Spirit, as if we could be Christians without Him: “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Rom. 8:9). It seems that just using the Bible and common sense is not enough, but we must divine God’s will apart from Holy Scripture. How is one to know that it was God speaking to him and not the pizza one had?

Now consider this experience: I’m not charismatic, but there has been a phenomenon in the last 100 years as noted by several modern church historians. Throughout our planet, there has been a huge movement of charismatics, a movement of the Holy Spirit they would say, a revival of huge proportions.

But consider that what the historians report (Alister McGrath; Christianity’s Dangerous Idea; Philip, The Next Christendom): of the two billion Christians in the world, about half of those are Protestants, and of those more than half are charismatic in some form. They may be distinct, independent churches, various denominations, or within various denominations, and virtually all denominations, such as Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, Baptist, to some extent Eastern Orthodox, and even the Roman Catholic Church, have had charismatic growth. Though we may question some of their “experience” with good doctrine, yet how are we to account for so many coming to know Christ? Of course, we all know that no church is infallible; even Rome does not claim that except for the Pope and that on rare occasions. Is it possible that many can be converted without their doctrine being perfect? I suggest there is no other way any of us are converted to Christ except through imperfect humans with imperfect doctrine.

And what is their origin? We now know they came from everywhere, at the same time, and independent of one another. As modern church historian Alister McGrath has recently stated:

A number of roughly contemporary movements with recognizable shared beliefs and expectations emerged in the first decade of the twentieth century, but without any obvious indication of reciprocal causality.

The picture that is now becoming clear is that a series of local “Pentecostalisms” emerging in the first decade of the twentieth century. The 1906 revival at Azusa Street was one of them. So was the 1903 revival in Pyongyand, Korea; the 1906-7 revival at Pandira Ramabai’s Mukti Mission in Poona India. The Manchurian revival of 1908; the revival in Valparaiso, Chile, in 1909; the revival that broke out in the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, and the Liberian Kru in 1914; and other revivals in Norway, China, Venezuela and elsewhere. (Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, p. 422).

The Pentecostal movement is leading the way south of our border and in Africa. Moreover, there are numerous Muslims who are saying that Jesus has appeared to them, telling them to leave Mohammad and seek out Jesus in some particular church, and they are being converted to Christ. But—and here is the point—they begin to read the Bible, to trust in the Triune God, and to worship with other believers. If one of them came to my church, I would not want to try to talk him out of his vision but to point him to Holy Scripture and to worship.

Were all these movements gospel centered, with the Son of God presented as the center? I don’t know, but we do know that the Holy Spirit exalts Him (John 16:14). Pentecostal or charismatic growth has been explosive the last hundred years, especially the last 50 years (in my lifetime). It is Protestant, holding practically to the Apostles’ Creed, though perhaps they do not say it in their worship services. Of course, there are heresies, such as the “Oneness” movement spawned by charismatics, who deny the Holy Trinity, believing that Jesus is the Father and is the Holy Spirit. In other words, God is role playing, not having three persons but one who manifest Himself as three different persons at various times. But this is a small movement, and Protestantism has had its heresies that it has created before Pentecostalism came along, though Pentecostalism itself is not a heresy. Moreover, the word-faith movement also tends to be heretical, saying either that the Son of God was not God while on earth or at least did not manifest His divine attributes while on earth. They say things like Jesus did his miracles only by the power of the Holy Scripture, not by His own attributes; and since we have the same Holy Spirit, we can do all that He did. Since charismatics are long on experience and short on doctrine, they are easy prey to those who claim to have the same kinds of experiences. I’ve written a book on the word-faith movement: (

I repeat that I am not charismatic, and I could never hold to their view of the baptism of the Holy Spirit (my doctrine over their experience), but can we not at least recognize that something most unusual has happened, that millions of people have come to Christ through this movement? God has been striking straight blows with crooked sticks for many centuries. Pentecostalism began all over the world at the same time, with basically the same expressions, and with the same basic gospel? How do we explain that? My view is that their sensationalism is wrong but their gospel emphasis a good one.

Those who reject charismatics based on their doctrine do not seem to understand that what really matters, according to the Church for the past 2,000 years, has been given to us in the three creeds, especially the Nicene Creed, but the Apostles’ Creed and Athanasian Creed also. It is not the claiming of supernatural gifts that makes one heretical (or orthodox) but the denial of the historic Church’s teaching as given in the creeds. I may disagree with someone over speaking in tongues and over the so-called “word of knowledge” they allegedly receive, but that does not mean they are condemned as heretics to suffer in hell forever. Orthodoxy is the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, His death and resurrection, Ascension, Second Coming, forgiveness of sins, and Church and Sacraments that make up the essence of the Gospel—not tongues.

For me, doctrine is always the foundation for experience, never the reverse. The bottom line for me is to obey Holy Scripture, obey those over me in the Lord (Heb. 13:7, 17), and do what I like. AMEN.