We Need The Lutheran Confessions Because A Theology Of Experience Is Not Easily Transferable

1179695_old_man_2This past week I had a dialogue with a gentleman on Facebook over a theological topic. Part way through the discussion he asked me to define my position so that he could properly understand my context and perspective. I also asked him to define himself a little more thoroughly. Therefore, I took 2 minutes to type out a brief paragraph that was rooted in the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. To my surprise though, the gentleman did not give me a brief paragraph but a 5 minute Youtube video of a person giving their personal testimony. Long story short, I posted another question asking him to further clarify his position and he then responded with 4 more testimony Youtube videos.

What was happening here? Whether this man knew it or not, he was finding it very difficult to communicate his theology in print because his theology was rooted in experience. In other words, his theological framework was rooted not in doctrinal content but primarily experience, which made it nearly impossible for him to transfer/communicate. This is the reason why he had to resort to presenting 5 testimony videos ranging in length from 6-8 minutes apiece.  His hope was that I would capture the overarching spirit of approximately 30 minutes of videos, so that I might understand his theological context.

Dan van Voorhis in a Faith Lutheran Church of Capistrano Beach Vimeo Presentation speaks on this saying,

“A theology of experience cannot be easily transmitted from generation to generation. Without an external set of beliefs, passing on the faith is extremely difficult and catechism is impossible.”

Carl R. Trueman in his small booklet, “The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” also comments on this saying,

“Experience without doctrine is an unstable, often mystical, and wholly inadequate tool by which to define a movement. ‘To repent of sins,’ ‘to trust in Jesus for salvation,’ ‘to be born again’—the expressions used by evangelicals to describe conversion imply doctrinal content. But if there is no consensus about what repentance means or why it is necessary, about what constitutes sin or a sinful nature, about who Jesus was and is, about what Jesus did and does, and about what terms like ‘born again’ mean, then the problem of a lack of doctrinal coherence stubbornly remains. Experience without contentor experience about which there is no agreement on the meaning of the words used to describe itremains incapable of proving any clear identity…”


1318895_untitled_1It is very tempting to define our theology solely by what we experience as a Christian. The reason being, personal experiences grip us because we are, at times, captivated by the ethos embedded in these experiences. Furthermore, there is the pressure to exchange the supposedly dead, heady, and cold Lutheran Confessions for active, alive, tangible, and visible experiences; the words of Rick Warren echo throughout American Christianity, “We need deeds, not creeds.” However, as noted by Trueman and van Voorhis, experience is very unstable and inadequate to define, communicate, and transmit Christianity, especially when experience is void of doctrine. Furthermore, the reason why experience is not adequate to describe the church and her theology is that many people’s experiences will differ. Whose experience will the church be defined by and what means could be used to pass down subjective experiences to our children and grandchildren? Keep in mind that one’s experiences are closely tied to their working Ethics; Ethics depend on one’s worldview; one’s worldview rests on doctrine; and one’s doctrine rests on the Word of God. J. Darly Charles says, “Without a theological foundation, the church is utterly incapable of explaining, much less presenting, the outlines of Christian Ethics.”[1]

Experience void of doctrine does not transfer easily, but the Confessions can be transmitted from generation to generation.  Furthermore the Confessions are objective, external, time tested, grounded in the Word, and wonderful in shaping and forming every generation’s epistemology and worldview.   Thus, there is a great need for us to be continually grounded in the Word and our Lutheran Confessions today and especially tomorrow.

May our experiences be filled with content, Biblical content that is transferable, stable, and able to provide a clear picture of our identity in Christ.


“Feelings come and feelings go,
And feelings are deceiving;
My warrant is the Word of God–
Naught else is worth believing.

I’ll trust in God’s unchanging Word
Till soul and body sever,
For, though all things shall pass away,
His Word shall stand forever!”

-Martin Luther



1] J. Darly Charles, The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism: Recovering the Church’s Moral Vision (InterVarsity Press, 2002), 71.

About Pastor Matt Richard

Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard is the pastor at Zion Lutheran Church of Gwinner, ND. He was previously a Senior Pastor in Sidney, Montana, an Associate Pastor of Spiritual Care and Youth Ministries in Williston, North Dakota, and an Associate Pastor of Children and Youth in Rancho Cucamonga, California. He received his undergraduate degree from Minot State University, ND and his M.Div. from Lutheran Brethren Seminary, MN. His doctor of ministry thesis, from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, was on exploring the journey of American Evangelicals into Confessional Lutheran thought. Pastor Richard is married to Serenity and they have two children. He enjoys fishing, pheasant hunting, watching movies, blogging, golfing, spending time with his family and a good book with a warm latte! To check out more articles by Pastor Matt you can visit his personal blog at: www.pastormattrichard.com.


We Need The Lutheran Confessions Because A Theology Of Experience Is Not Easily Transferable — 11 Comments

  1. I agree. Individuals ought to be able to explain from Scripture and the Confessions what they believe teach and confess. Experience tells us about how that theology works when put into practice, but it is still subjective — some might like it, some might not; some might respond a certain way, some might not.

    THe flip side of this is that we ought to be willing to explain and confess what we hold to. This ought to bring shame to so many of the confessionals on Steadfast who are ssssssllllloooooooowwwwww to actually confess what they hold to and why. (a pet peeve of mine)

    May our experiences be filled with content, Biblical content that is transferable, stable, and able to provide a clear picture of our identity in Christ.


  2. @Mark Louderback #1

    You just never like our answers. I know I have tried before, but I don’t think you want to get past point A to points B, C and so on until you get us to agree with your answer to A.

    But again, just for you: Liturgical worship because it provides a better structured order (God is a god of Order), a “sameness” that will promote concord and koinania, glimpses form Revelation (focused on Christ, singing praises like Hosanna, not God is cool), connection to the OHCAC both lviging and dead (hints of Creed and liturgy, sad many contemporary people despise dead theologians), which also brings up Biblical admonisions of heeding the prophets of old (we can learn form OT worship), liturgy is replete with BIble verses (so if pasotr has an off day, or those how are just that bad, the laity can still hear the Word and Gospel)….

    At least this is a QUICK response. Now I wait for you to bash me for not being Biblical enough. Or not adiaphora enough, so you can do wantever you please irrespective of the larger faith tradition you claim to be a part of. Please tell me how Pr. Roosow, Pr. Scheer, Pr. Fisk, Sasse, Gerhard, Chemnitz and Luther are all wring an dhad no idea what they were talking about.

  3. Mark Louderback :
    May our experiences be filled with content, Biblical content that is transferable, stable, and able to provide a clear picture of our identity in Christ.

    Mark, it’s a year later already! Did you offer your Lutheran congregation for Christmas Day this year more than just the Biblical content they would experience from a joint service at a Presbyterian Church?

  4. Part of the reason experience is less useful to convey the faith is the extra nos aspect of the work of Christ. He did and experienced something that is credited to me. There were transactions between the Persons of the Trinity that saved me.

    Another reason is that people tend to focus experience testimonies on an element of repentance rejected by Luther, namely, satisfactions. Repentance is contrition and faith, without satisfactions. Contrition is a work of God, not without means, but through the Law. Faith is a work of God, not without means, but through the Gospel, Baptism, Communion, and Absolution. Testimonies, or experience talk, generally do not tend to focus on the works of God or his chosen means.

  5. You all just need to use the “Experiencing God” Bible Study. Nothing like some Baptist Theology in a Lutheran church Been used twice in my church. My checking in on what it teaches told me it was pure and utter garbage. Therefore I passed. It changed the life of the woman leading it so I guess she wanted to pass it on.

  6. Francis Schaeffer continually warned of an “Existential Christianity” epistemology that says, “The only things I know to be true are the things that I know to be true!”

    This is of course “Solipsism” (i.e., a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing; also: extreme egocentrism) and is the inherent theology of Modern Evangelicalism.

    Whenever a Mormon missionary testifies, “I know Joseph Smith is a Prophet!” the average Modern Evangelical can only say, “I know Jesus in my heart!” Herein lies the subjective dilemma! Which is true…Joseph Smith or Jesus in my Heart?

    The answer is Sola Scriptura or Special Revelation having final authority. Otherwise, we end up with another Sauron (Lord of the Evil) taking his place of Pope!

    In the Lamb,

  7. Experience is THE worst source for theology. It is a dangerous and subtle step away from the absolute truths of doctrine as laid out in Scripture when we begin to place experience on equal footing with the Bible.

    Rome has Scripture and Tradition, while the evangelicals have Scripture and Experience. Lutherans need to stick to Scripture alone and avoid the foolishness on either side. It’s tempting to follow the “more exciting” things seen in the evangelical church, but what you get in the end (as one who has been there) is a theology always searching for the next better feeling and experience while setting sound doctrine on the shelf.

  8. In his must-read book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’…Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, the late Neil Postman (Published 30 years ago) shows how we are in an age where our lives are defined by stuff that is barely skin deep. Experience, and our endless need to be entertained has taken over much of what we see in our culture including religion.

  9. I’ve been reading Fire and the Staff by Klemet Preus. Among other things he discusses how as Americans we don’t want to offend each other. So when we talk about Christ it is usually as an expression of an exciting/unique experience, or our opinion of our “personal faith”, not as a matter of fact. He gives a good discussion on how “witness” is different the “confession”. He states “nowhere in the Bible are we told to witness to Christ.” A witness is someone who sees something. He continues by saying in Acts 1:8 Jesus refers to the 11 disciples as witnesses. Later in Acts 8 Philip wasn’t an apostle or a witness, but evangelizes and proclaims.
    Preus makes the point we are to confess Christ, rather than our own experience. What happens when we place our belief in a feeling we had from an amazing redemptive experience? What happens when our feelings or memory of it diminish over time? What happens when we are called into question or it is doubted as true? Or, is God forgetting us when we haven’t had one of those experiences? All these things come from within, Christ’s work is outside of us, it cannot be questioned, lost or diminished, it is equally for everyone.
    As someone coming out of this type of surrounding I am happy to have these resources, confessions, so that it doesn’t depend on me and how dynamic my experience.

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