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


Deconstructing Evangelicalism

Product Details Some of our readers will no doubt be interested in this book: D. G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004).  What is it about?  Hart gives a summary in the introduction:

“My point put simply is that the movement neo-evangelical leaders patched together ended up splintering because it lacked the discipline and rigor of the church.  Of course, the aim of evangelicalism was to find a lowest common denominator faith that would take members from diverse denominations and independent congregations and stitch them together into a recognizable quilt.  It was, as Jon R. Stone has rightly observed, a work of coalition-building.”

“The problem, however, was that the effort to establish a flexible and potent union of Protestant conservatives was predicated on a fundamentally liberal maneuver.  To defend and propagate the essential truths of the Bible, neo-evangelical leaders pared back denominational (read: churchly) accretions such as a full-blown creed, an order of worship, and a polity to govern ordination and exercise discipline.  In effect, the creation of a core set of common beliefs was similar to (if not the same as) the liberal attempt to separate the kernel from the husk of the Bible.”

“The study that follows could lead the rather disconcerting conclusion, then, that for mere Christianity to survive, its wise and constant diligence needs to be directed to as complete a reflection on biblical truth as possible.  In other words, to preserve the minimum, you need to defend the maximum.  This is the logic that those who call themselves evangelical have instinctively avoided” (p. 30-31).”

The following sentence stuck out for me: “to preserve the minimum, you need to defend the maximum.”  Well said.  You’ll have to get the book to see how Hart expands and explains this summary.

D. G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism.

rev. shane lems

The Yearling

Product Details Most of the books we blog about here are biblical and/or theological in nature.  But since we’ve dabbled in other areas a few times, I thought it would be good to mention one of my favorite novels of all time: The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings.  I read this book after hearing Andrew Peterson’s imaginative song, “The Ballad of Jody Baxter.”  For various reasons, this book captured me like few others have.  It also reminded me of My Side of the Mountain, and Where the Red Fern Grows, two books that got me into reading as a young boy living on the edge of the fields and streams in the Midwest.

The story unfolds in the backwoods of late 19th century Florida.  As you may have guessed (or known), the story involves a boy and an orphaned fawn.  I don’t want to give the whole story here because I want to avoid spoilers.  Just let me say that the novel is very well written, especially in the way Rawlings depicts the feelings and emotions of the major characters.  She writes in such a way that emotion almost drips from the dialogue.  Further, the way she paints word pictures is amazing; it’s the sort of book that makes you almost smell the mossy river bed or the bacon on the cast iron stove.  This book stimulates the imagination and makes writers want to write better.

Here are a few dialogues that will give you an idea of the contents of this book.  And if you’ve read it, they’ll hopefully jog your memory in an excellent way.  FYI, the book does a good job of portraying the “Christianity” of late 19th century America (generally speaking).  This is a dialogue between the father, Penny, and the boy, Jody.

“’I’d love a baby fox, or a baby panther.  Kin you tame ‘em, do you git ‘em young?’  ‘You kin tame a ‘coon.  You kin tame a bear.  You kin tame a wild-cat and you kin tame a panther.’ He pondered.  His mind went back to his father’s sermons. ‘You kin tame arything, son, excusin’ the human tongue’” (p. 84-5).

One more:

“Jody filled the buckets with the gourd dipper that hung on the rim of the trough.  Against his father’s warning, he filled them nearly full.  He would like to walk into the yard with them.  He crouched and bent his shoulders under the yoke.  When he straightened, he could not rise against the weight.  He dipped out part of the water and was able to stand and pull his way up the remainder of the slope.  The wooden yoke cut into his thin shoulders.  His back ached.  Halfway home, he was obliged to stop and set down the buckets and pour out more of the water.  The fawn dipped its nose inquisitively into one of the buckets.  Fortunately, his mother need not know.  She could not understand how clean the fawn was, and would not admit how sweet it smelled” (p. 197).

If this genre and subject interest you, and you like good literature, read this book soon!  And don’t miss the themes woven deeply in the story.  Stories like this make us better readers.  And if you want, read it purely for the enjoyment of a good story.  I’m convinced it is one of those common grace gifts of God which we can appreciate and for which we can give him thanks.

The Yearling, Marjorie Rawlings.

shane lems

You Ask Me How I Know He Lives?

Product Details In this brilliant book that traces the roots of unbelief, agnosticism, and atheism in America, one thing James Turner discusses is how religion moved out of the head and into the heart.  In other words – and for better or worse – at one point in American history, belief in God was spoken of as a matter of modernistic scientific knowledge.  But since the arrival of Darwinism, American religious leaders were forced to prove the existence of God in other ways.  Since evolution began to dominate the scientific field, it became difficult to use science and scientific reasoning to prove God’s existence. 

So in the 19th century the emphasis of religious feelings, individualistic emotions, raptured hearts, and love-sick souls arose in American religion.  The existence of God was reduced to a feeling in the chest, emotional high, or spiritual experience.  These things are clearly evident in many hymns from the 19th century.  Turner uses a few different religious figures from the 19th century to explain this.

“Now, to more and more people, belief in God seemed to express feeling rather than to state knowledge.  Chauncey Wright called faith in God, ‘a sentiment, not a faculty of knowledge.’  Henry Adams described it as a form of ‘imaginative and emotional expression,’ ‘a state of mind, like love or jealousy.’  Lester Ward defined it as ‘the embodied and organized state of the emotions.’  The neurologist George Beard said bluntly that ‘to prove a religion would be to kill it – to transfer it from the emotions, where it belongs, to the intellect, where it can find no home’” (p. 198).

Lyman Abbott captured this inward turn when he said, “If I was to retain any really forceful belief in God and immortality, or even in practical morality, I must believe in the trustworthiness of spiritual experience” (p. 188). 

As I said before, I cannot recommend this book enough when it comes to the studies of American religion.  If you truly want to “engage” American religious culture today, you have to trace the roots of our religious past.   Without God, Without Creed by James Turner is one of the best and most readable resources for that purpose.  In other words, this book will make you see the 19th century American connection between 1) the Mormon “burning bosom in the chest,” 2) the words of the hymn, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart,” and 3) the theology of today’s Hallmark card.

shane lems

In (the) God (of Deism) We Trust

Product Details It is no secret that many of America’s influential founders and leaders weren’t Christians, but deists.  Much more could be said about that statement, but I simply want to point our readers to a book that chronicles American religion – specifically the movement from Christianity and deism to atheism between 1700 and 1900.  Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America by James Turner is an excellent account of those 200 years of American religion. 

I’m not quite finished with it, so I won’t yet comment on it extensively.  So far I’ve found it very easy to read, clearly written, and more than a little fascinating.  The only gripe I have with it is that sometimes it seems that Turner doesn’t quite “get” the Reformation, nor does he seem to appreciate the nuances of Calvinism.  Aside from those issues, I’m really enjoying the book.  Here’s what he writes about deism – which is helpful even in our day where quite a few Americans are still deistic in their religious beliefs.

“Deism professed to be a religion founded on reason alone, composed solely of truths about God evident in the order of nature, subjecting all beliefs to the tests of reason and experience.  In fact, it usually amounted to a severely stripped down version of Christianity, with all that smacked of mystery and superstition pared away” (p. 52-53).

The fundamental tenets of most Deists are “that a Supreme being exists and requires worship, that a moral life is the best worship, and that God will reward virtue and punish vice in an afterlife” (p. 52).

“Thoroughgoing Deists expunged everything unsuited to a clockwork God: anything irregular (miracles, special providences, divine revelations), anything inaccessible to reason (the Trinity, the divinity of the man Jesus, the Resurrection).  Deists took rational religion with full seriousness” (p. 53).

“Alexander Pope…deified (Isaac) Newton as a demiurge of rational clarity: ‘Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night / God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and All was Light.’  …As Newton was deified, so the temptation was great to Newtonify the Deity” (p. 49).

For those of you interested in the history of American religion, you simply must get this book: Without God, Without Creed.  Again, it is not overly difficult to read; you can find a used copy on Amazon for a decent price.  It goes hand in hand with Nathan Hatch’s fine work, The Democratization of American Christianity.  Studying the history of American religion is important.  Not only does it teach us as Christians what pitfalls to avoid, it also gives us the background of many cults that exist in the United States today. Finally, it shows us why, as one author famously said, modern American religion is moralistic, therapeutic deism.

shane lems

Religion Of, By, and For the People

I’ve mentioned Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity on this blog before and I’m sure I’ll mention it again.  This is the book you need to read if you’ve ever wondered how Christianity got so screwed up in the United States.  If you’ve wondered where goofy patriotic hymns originated, if you want to learn when Americans began to dislike creeds, confessions and church membership, if you’ve wondered about the origin of evangelical superstars, or if you want to learn about the source of the phrase “no creed but the Bible,” you must get this book.  Hatch’s book is far too detailed to summarize here, so I’ll simply quote an insightful paragraph now and blog on it again some other time.

In chapter four, Hatch discusses the 19th century democratic, republican, and populist view of religion – that each man should approach religion and the Bible independently, freely, and as his own source of authority.

“[They] called for common folk to read the Bible as if mortal man had never seen it before.  People were expected to discover the self-evident message of the Bible without any mediation from creeds, theologians, or clergymen not of their own choosing.  This explicit faith that biblical authority could emerge from below, from the will of the people, was the most enduring legacy of [this] movement.  By the 1840s one analyst of American Protestantism concluded, after surveying fifty-three sects, that the principle ‘No creed but the Bible’ was the distinctive feature of American religion.  John W. Nevin [a German Reformed theologian] surmised that this emphasis grew out of a popular demand for ‘private judgment’ and was ‘tacitly if not openly conditioned always by the assumption that every man is authorized and bound to get at this authority in a direct way for himself, through the medium simply of his own single mind.’  Many felt that the exhilarating hope that democracy had opened an immediate access to biblical truth for all persons of good will.  Americans found it difficult to realize, however, that a commitment to private judgment could drive people apart, even as it raised beyond measure their hopes for unity.”

I’m not against democracy, but I do believe Christians should be careful not to let democracy creep into the church (including hermeneutics, ecclesiology, theology, and so forth).  Also, we should be self-critical: how have our own churches been affected by democracy?  Does the will of the people rule our churches (songs, sermons, theology, worship) or God’s word given to the church?  In what ways are our own churches more democratic than Christian?  How can we exist in a democratic culture without letting it direct our churches?  What steps can we take in our churches to become less democratic?

Again, I strongly recommend this book: The Democratization of American Christianity.

shane lems

Unitarian Universalism: An American Faith

Unitarian UniversalismThis will work quite well in the United States, though biblical Christian churches must flee from it like the plague.  Of course, I think this is the opposite of historic Christianity, but I post the following dialogue to show you part of the “core-values” of many Americans who are “religious.”  This kind of stuff makes the NYT bestseller list because most average Americans think in these terms.

Mr. F, is it true that you’re a minister?
Where’s your church?
-We’re standing in it.
But this is a bookstore and its a Friday.
-Yes, but you might also choose to see it as a cathedral of the human spirit – a storehouse consecrated to the full spectrum of human experience.  Just about every idea we’ve ever had is in here somewhere.  A place containing great thinking is a sacred space.
Really?  Just what kind of minister are you?
-Unitarian Universalist.
And you hold services in bookstores on Fridays?  You’re putting me on.
-No, but I am giving you an example of how Unitarian Universalists think.  More than anything else, our religion is defined by an attitude.  An open-minded point of view.  About everything and anything….  A church is not just a specific building, but also a way of looking at the building you’re in at the moment.  …A religion is not contained in a single book; there’s something religious in almost any book.

And so the conversation goes – it is America’s faith for sure, and this book (A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism by John Buehrens and Forrest Church [Boston: Beacon Press, 1998]) talks about it in terms of awakening, experience, deeds not creeds, the cathedral of the world, and so forth.  This is Thomas Jefferson + Socinus + liberalism + Emerson + a few traditional American values all wrapped up as a “faith” or “religion.” 

shane lems

sunnyside wa