Evangelicalism’s Popes (Lints)

(This is a slightly edited re-post from December, 2015)

It’s ironic and humorous when Christians mock or discredit creeds and confessions while at the same time firmly attaching themselves to some well-known preacher, podcaster, or blogger. Many Christians who are anti-creed are pro-celebrity pastor. This anti-confessional and pro-popular leader mindset is not new. It was one of the main characteristics of 19th century American revivalist religion. For example, Charles Finney 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 – but it’s still very relevant today!

“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.”

The same thing still happens today! There is 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).

The above quotes are from Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI