Charles Finney: A Brief Sketch

Portrait of an unnamed balding man

Charles Grandison Finney

History was my first favorite subject; and it currently still is, outside of theological study. In looking back at church history, particularly a favorite history of mine to study, several men stand out as having a profound, culture-shaking impact. And in the history of the church and culture in America, there have been several “great awakenings;” four to be exact. The character I want to highlight in this post is Charles Finney. My reason for doing so is: In doing some reading on Arminian theology (Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities; not an Arminian but do like to study theology other than my own for it sharpens my thinking), I was reminded of the differences of Arminianism and semi-Pelagianism, the latter more so represented by Finney, and thought it would be good to refresh our memories of who he is and what he believed.

Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) was a prominent figure of the Second Great Awakening (approx. 1820’s-30’s). He was an attorney who converted to evangelical Christianity, and became the foremost revivalist of the Second Great Awakening. Finney became president of Oberlin College in Ohio in 1835 and published a series of influential lectures on revival and on systematic theology. His Lectures on Systematic Theology was published first in 1846 with later enlarged editions following (Olson, 27). Olson describes Finney’s theology as follows (note Olson is an Arminian, so the language he employs is in part to sever Arminianism’s association with Finney):

Finney rejected high Calvinism in favor of a vulgarized version of Arminianism that is closer to semi-Pelagianism. His legacy in American popular religion is profound. He denied original sin, except as a misery that has fallen on the majority of humanity and is passed on through bad examples (“aggravated temptation”). He believed that every person has the ability and responsibility, apart from any special assistance of divine grace (prevenient grace) other than enlightenment and persuasion, to freely accepting the forgiving grace of God through repentance and obedience to the revealed moral government of God. He wrote that “There is no degree of spiritual attainment required of us, that may not be reached directly or indirectly by right willing,” and “The moral government of God everywhere assumes and implies the liberty of the human will, and the natural ability of men to obey God.”

Finney vulgarized Arminian theology by denying something Arminius, Wesley and all the faithful Arminians before him had affirmed and protected as precious to the gospel itself- human moral inability in spiritual matters, and the absolute necessity of supernatural prevenient grace for any right response to God, including the first stirrings of a good will toward God. According to Finney, in distinction to classical Arminianism, the only work of God necessary for the exercise of a good will toward God and obedience to God’s will is the Holy Spirit’s illumination of human reason, which is clouded by self-interest and is in a state of misery due to the common selfishness of humanity: “The Spirit takes the things of Christ and show them to the soul. The truth is employed, or it is truth which must be employed, as an instrument to induce a change of choice.” Arminius, Wesley and classical Arminians in general affirmed inherited total depravity as utter helplessness apart from a supernatural awakening called prevenient grace. But Finney denied the need for prevenient grace. For him, reason, developed by the Holy Spirit, turns the heart toward God. He labeled the classical Arminian doctrine of gracious ability (ability to exercise a good will toward God bestowed by the Holy Spirit through prevenient grace) an “absurdity.”

In the footnotes of page 28, Olson adds,

(a problem is that) Finney was not entirely consistent in his explanations of sin and salvation; on some occasions he verged closer to the semi-Pelagianism and on other occasions he seemed more willing to affirm the divine initiative in salvation. Overall and in general, however, I find Finney’s account of sin and salvation closer to semi-Pelagianism than to classical Arminianism for the reasons given here.

Finney placed great emphasis on the individual will in salvation, which also creates a complexity when it comes how does a saved person remain saved (i.e. by self’s efforts as in his view of regeneration or does God eternally keep them when they make a decision). This also shows some of the inconsistency in his theology, as Olson mentions in his footnotes. In his 1851 lecture on the “Perseverance of the Saints” (lecture LXXIX or 79), he says,

I would remark, that I have felt greater hesitancy in forming and expressing my views upon this, than upon almost any other question in theology. I have read whatever I could find upon both sides of this question, and have uniformly found myself dissatisfied with the arguments on both sides. After very full and repeated discussions, I feel better able to make up and express an opinion upon the subject than formerly. I have at some periods of my ministry been nearly on the point of coming to the conclusion that the doctrine is not true. But I could never find myself able to give a satisfactory reason for the rejection of the doctrine. Apparent facts that have come under my observation have sometimes led me seriously to doubt the soundness of the doctrine; but I cannot see, and the more I examine the more unable I find myself to see, how a denial of it can be reconciled with the scriptures.

As Finney wrestles with Calvinistic doctrine like Perseverance of the Saints (though he admits he can find no serious alternative to the doctrine), he spoke of Jonathan Edwards, a Calvinist, and had this to say,

Edwards I revere; his blunders I deplore.

While we (both calvinists and arminians [part of the point of the post was to distinguish Finney and Arminianism via Olson]) do not agree with Finney’s theology seeing it is heresy, the effects 0f his evangelistic efforts are undeniable. One can respect Finney’s revivalistic passion (which is lacking in many Protestant and evangelical circles) while deploring him for his bad (heretical) theology. In fact, we can conclude with a quote from Olson,

Finney I revere; his blunders I deplore.

References:

Finney, Charles G. Lectures on Systematic Theology, 1851.

Olson, Roger E. Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, InterVarsity Press, 2006.

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