No Creeds! (Except What Celebrity Preacher Says)

Democratization of American Christianity  “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.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

8 thoughts on “No Creeds! (Except What Celebrity Preacher Says)”

  1. Question. Weren’t many of the Christian scholars who wrote the creeds celebrity leaders of sorts in their day? Or did that come long after? I’m really not sure. I don’t really like to read the opinions of the celebrity leaders of our day–the skeletons in the closets are just far too many. They talk a good game, but don’t stick to the same legalism they preach to others. I prefer the guys who don’t have best selling books twice a year and the Holy Spirit leading me through the Word.


    1. Thanks for the notes, Brenda.

      There were well-known preachers before 19th century America for sure, but “stardom” and “celebrity” are quite Western and American (I’m reading a biography of Sam Clemens/Mark Twain, and “celebrity” was prevalent in a non-religious aspect of 19th century America as well).

      We can say that some of the men involved in writing creeds and confessions were well known, but it would be quite inaccurate to call them celebrities.

      Thanks again, and blessings!


  2. Truly current American Christianity’s lack of creedal faith is alarming. Many years ago when I left my devote Italian Catholic faith for Protestantism I wondered, “Do these people know what they believe?” For many years I read the bible four times a year to learn it by immersion. I knew the Apostle’s Creed well, we recite it at each Mass but I wanted to know the scriptures well.

    Then ten years ago I discovered reformed theology online and audited two Masters degree seminary programs online. At last I’d found a biblical and intellectually sound theology! However having said that I do now see the fallacies of reformed theology and once met a Presbyterian who told me, “I go to the Charismatic church to pray; Presbyterians do not pray like that.”

    And as a 37 year missionary I have never met a reformed missionary or their converts. (The resurgence of reformed theology in the past years must be credited to a hunger for truth and not an evangelistic effort on the part of reformed leaders.) In addition to the lack of prayer and evangelistic fervor in reformed churches and though I am perhaps more aware of the scriptural illiteracy and outright heresy in Charismania, I must assert that no one has ever been saved by perfect theology! Currently reformed preachers denounce the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the voice of Him who speaks in this present day, I’ve thought, “I wouldn’t brag about not hearing the voice of God.” (I do recognize completely the excesses, abuses and dangers of thinking you hear when you don’t; and do measure every word heard against the written word of scripture.)

    In fact the reformed attack on hearing His voice, attacked my faith, I’ve heard directly from the Lord so many promises, many fulfilled some still unfulfilled. Then just last month, Whitesburg Baptist, Huntsville, AL hosted a mission conference featuring Henry Blackaby as keynote speaker. Brother Blackaby’s preaching restored and encouraged my faith that indeed Jesus, our friend who sticks closer than a brother, speaks personally to me today.


    1. The Presbyterian Church of Taiwan — founded by “reformed” missionaries — celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. It has more than 200,000 members in more than 1200 congregations.

      The National Presbyterian Church in Mexico — also resulting from “reformed” mission work — has almost 3 million members in 6000 congregations.

      What is your definition of a “missionary”?


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