The Cult of the Charismatic Personality

In early September, I wrote about John Oliver’s video which ridiculed the prosperity gospel.  Faced with its abuses, many Christians have exclaimed, “How on earth do people get bamboozled by the prosperity gospel?  It’s so obviously contrary to the Bible that it is crazy how these pastors can get such a following.”  A man named Ole Anthony thought the same thing and sought to strike down prosperity preachers… and ironically, he himself embodied the answer: Give an audience to a man with odd ideas who has enough charisma, and he can somehow fool and influence a lot of people.

Because John Oliver brought up the televangelist scandal of the 80’s, especially regarding Robert Tilton, I decided to read up on how ABC’s investigative report embarrassed these televangelists and ultimately led to their downfall.  ABC was helped immensely by a self-described Christian organization called the Trinity Foundation, founded by the aforementioned Ole Anthony(first name pronounced “O-lee”).  Anthony and his people gathered what information they could on these prosperity televangelist: For example, like Oliver, they purposefully got onto these ministries’ mailing lists to see what kind of mail they sent out.  They also did some undercover work to expose the greed of these ministries, and they even dug through the dumpsters that Robert Tilton’s ministry used to find documents.  Furthermore, they allegedly found thousands of discarded prayer requests in the trash, giving the impression that Tilton’s ministry merely grabbed whatever money was mailed to them and casually threw the accompanying prayer requests away.

All of this sounds rather noble for Ole Anthony and the Trinity Foundation, and no doubt they did some good in bringing to light the corruptions of the prosperity gospel.  However, the more I kept reading about them, the more disturbed I was concerning Anthony and his organization.  First of all, it became clear that Anthony and ABC producers exaggerated and tampered with evidence to make everything look worse.  More so than that, however, the Trinity foundation started to seem like, well, a cult.  A cult ran by a powerful personality who wielded surprising authority over his people, people who were supposed to be following Christ as their authority and not a mere man.

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The Maturing Theologian: Knowing that Certain Answers Don’t Come Easy

In my systematic reading seminar, we recently read two works by Philip Melanchthon, or rather, two versions of one work: His Loci Communes (Commonplaces) from 1521 and one of the final versions of that, Loci Praecipui Theologici (The Chief Theological Topics) written in 1559.  The difference in tone and overall quality between the versions is striking; in 1521, Melanchthon was a young Greek scholar with a humanist background and who did some exegetical work on Romans.  He was loyal to Martin Luther and adopted much of Luther’s sharp tone against the Roman Catholic Church and others who did not fully agree with him.  In this early period, while Melanchthon is clearly intelligent and while his work was well-received, he honestly sounds fairly naive and presumptuous on many topics, lacking sophistication in many of his arguments.  In contrast, the 1559 version is much more measured in tone and handles many issues with more depth, more nuance, and ultimately more patience.  This is not to say that the 1559 version is perfect (I disagree with many parts of it), and many Lutherans feel like Melanchthon departed too much from Luther’s theology as he aged and after Luther passed away; still, I would argue that you certainly see more acuity on Melanchthon’s part in this latter work.  I think the main reason for this is clear: He shows much more awareness of the full testimony of the Bible rather than just the book of Romans, so he comes off a lot less as a brash know-it-all and more like a seasoned scholar.

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