“The study of the religious convictions of self-taught Americans in the early years of the republic reveals how much weight was placed on private judgment and how little on the roles of history, theology, and the collective will of the church.”
So writes Nathan Hatch in his assessment of American religion in his excellent book, The Democratization of American Christianity. Many of the major weak spots in the American church today were already prevalent in the 19th century (e.g. “no creed but the Bible” was a common sentiment in the 19th century). Hatch writes,
“In a culture that mounted a frontal assault upon tradition, mediating elites, and institutions, the Bible very easily became, as John W. Nevin complained, ‘a book dropped from the skies for all sorts of men to use in their own way.’ …In the assertion that private judgment should be the ultimate tribunal in religious matters, common people started a revolution.”
Hatch calls this “populist hermeneutics” because it wasn’t necessarily a Christian hermeneutic, a churchly hermeneutic, or a confessional one – it was a hermeneutic of the common individual divorced from the church and the historic Christian tradition. “Solo Scriptura” had its American origins in the 1800s.
Ironically, this populist hermeneutic was led by “a few strong [religious] figures imposing their own will.” Nevin, who was critical of this hermeneutic, said this:
“The liberty of the sect consists at last, in thinking its particular notions, shouting its shibboleths and passwords, dancing its religious hornpipes, and reading the Bible only through its theological goggles. These restrictions, at the same time, are so many wires, that lead back at last into the hands of a few leading spirits, enabling them to wield a true hierarchical despotism over all who are thus brought within their power.”
In other words, the [celebrity] leaders of this “populist hermeneutic” told common Americans to read the Bible as if they were the first ones reading it and forget about the creeds and Christian scholars before them. On the other hand, the leaders were ultimately dominating the movement and many of the people were following them. Rather than follow in the footsteps of those Christians in history who went before them, these people were forgetting those who had gone before them and following the current popular [celebrity] leader.
Sadly, this still happens today.
The above quotes were taken from pages 182-3 of The Democratization of American Christianity.
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)