I always think it’s ironic and comical when a Christian mocks or discredits creeds and confessions then turns around to favorably quote popular evangelical leaders on social media. While social media is new, this anti-confessional and pro-popular leader mindset is not new. It was a central characteristic of 19th century American revivalist religion. For example, Charles Finney talked said it was “highly ridiculous” for a church to recognize and utilize the Westminster Confession of Faith. Finney called the Westminster Confession a “dead Pope;” he said “It is better to have a living than a dead Pope.” Richard Lints explained this well in 1993:
“The revivalist located the ‘living Pope’ not in Rome but in the human heart. The experience of the Holy Spirit became the lens through which the works and words of God were interpreted. The work of the Spirit was severed from the confessions and creeds of the church in such a manner that an individual led by the Spirit was considered to be directly and immediately in touch with the meaning of Scripture. The work of the Spirit was not mediated by the community of past believers….”
“A curious effect of this emphasis on the subjective leading of the Spirit was the growth in power of the ‘popular popes’ of evangelicalism. Though highly individualistic in their approach to salvation and populist in their biblical interpretation, populist Bible teachers and preachers served to draw people together in a mass movement largely through the strength of their personal popularity. As Mark Noll puts it, ‘Evangelical interpretation assigned first place to popular approval.'”
“The right of private interpretation that they promoted can be understood as a desire for freedom from opposing viewpoints. It would seem that the early evangelicals were not so much interested in removing all human authority as they were in choosing human authorities with whom they agreed. And once they found these individuals, they were willing to invest them with a great deal of de facto authority.”
There’s another downside to this trend/movement:
“A striking result of the rise of the popular leader was the displacement of the theologian from the place of preeminence in the evangelical movement. The new leaders of the movement were popularizers of the gospel message, revivalists, and Bible conference preachers. This tradition persists today; the theological leadership of the movement is provided by preachers who travel the circuit of popular conservative Bible conferences” (p. 34-35).
This is not a great picture of evangelicalism: it doesn’t have a Pope like Rome, but it does typically have a pope within (the heart) and a pope without (a celebrity pastor). Remember this next time someone criticizes the confessions and gushes over some quote of a popular preacher!
The above quotes are from Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).