Thursday, May 08, 2008

Interesting Info About Charles G. Finney

Finney’s background influenced him as he formed his theological framework. He felt that he did not benefit from the Calvinistic preaching to which he was first exposed:

"When I went to Adams to study law, I was almost as ignorant of religion as a heathen. I had been brought up mostly in the woods. I had very little regard to the Sabbath, and had no definite knowledge of religious truth. At Adams, for the first time, I sat statedly, for a length of time, under an educated ministry. Rev. George W. Gale, from Princeton, New Jersey, became, soon after I went there, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in that place. His preaching was of the old school type; that is, it was thoroughly Calvinistic; and whenever he came out with the doctrines, which he seldom did, he would preach what has been called hyper-calvinism [sic] . . . . I was rather perplexed than edified by his preaching." (1)

Finney eventually rebelled against the Calvinistic doctrines described by his pastor, George Gale:

"He held to the old school doctrine of original sin, or that the human constitution was morally depraved. He held also, that men were utterly unable to comply with the terms of the Gospel, to repent, to believe, or to do anything that God required them to do; that while they were free to all evil, in the sense of being able to commit any amount of sin, yet they were not free to perform any good; that God had condemned men for their sinful nature; and for this, as well as for their transgressions, they deserved eternal death. He held also that the influences of the Spirit of God on the minds of men were physical, acting directly upon the substance of the soul; that men were passive in regeneration; and in short he held all those doctrines that logically flow from the fact of a nature sinful in itself. These doctrines I could not receive. I could not receive his views on the subject of atonement, regeneration, faith, repentance, the slavery of the will, or any of the
kindred doctrines." (2)

Thus, Finney came to have a Pelagian view of human beings.

Iain Murray discussed the Pelagian nature of Finney’s theology: “By asserting that man’s only problem was his will, Finney had put himself among the Pelagians who denied the reality of man’s ruined nature.” (3) Rather than believing that all humans are born with an innate depravity, Finney believed that depravity is a voluntary acquisition: “I insisted upon the voluntary total moral depravity of the unregenerate.” (4) He distinguished between physical depravity (innate, involuntary depravity) and moral depravity (voluntary depravity): “Physical depravity, as the word denotes, is the depravity of constitution, or substance, as distinguished from depravity of free moral action. . . . Moral depravity is the depravity of free-will, not of the faculty itself, but of its free action.” (5) He elaborated on his position: “I assumed that moral depravity is, and must be, a voluntary attitude of the mind; that it does, and must, consist in the committal of the will to the gratification of the desires.” (6) Finney clearly resented being called a Pelagian:

"It has been common for theologians of the old school, as soon as the dogma of a physical regeneration, and of a physical influence in regeneration, has been called in question, to cry out and insist that this is Pelagianism, and that it is a denial of divine influence altogether. . . . I have been ashamed of such representations." (7)

He clearly denied the doctrine of original sin: “The Bible once, and only once, incidentally intimates that Adam’s first sin has in some way been the occasion, not the cause, of all the sins of men. Rom. v. 12-19.” (8)

Because Finney did not believe in innate, involuntary, physical depravity, he did not believe that a special, physical act of God (at the time that the plan of salvation is presented) is necessary to counteract depravity so that conversion can occur. He thus rejected the Calvinistic concept of regeneration preceding conversion in logical order, and he also rejected the Wesleyan concept of prevenient grace preceding conversion in logical order.

Finney was licensed as a Presbyterian minister, but he eventually criticized the Westminster Confession of Faith. When a presbytery questioned him prior to granting him a license, he was not adequately examined, and he was familiar enough with the Westminster Confession of Faith at that time to discuss it:

"The presbytery was finally called together at Adams to examine me; and, if they could agree to do so, to license me to preach the Gospel. . . . I expected a severe struggle with them in my examination; but I found them a good deal softened. . . . They avoided asking any such questions as would naturally bring my views into collision with theirs. When they examined me, they voted unanimously to license me to preach. . . . They asked if I received the confession of faith of the Presbyterian church. I had not examined it. . . . I replied that I received it for substance of doctrine, so far as I understood it." (9)

Later, Finney opposed the Westminster Confession of Faith: “When I came to read the confession of faith, and saw the passages that were quoted to sustain these peculiar positions, I was absolutely ashamed of it.” (10) He questioned the knowledge of the framers in regard to their belief in innate depravity:

"The framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith made this affirmation in words, at least; whether intelligently or unintelligently, we are left to inquire. The reason of a moral agent condemning himself . . . for possessing a nature entailed on him by a natural law. . . . This can never be." (11)

Finney, licensed as a Presbyterian, did not accept believers’ baptism, but he saw the need for converts to make some type of profession of faith:

"I had never, I believe, except in rare instances, until I went to Rochester, used as a means of promoting revivals, what has since been called 'the anxious seat.' I had sometimes asked persons in the congregation to stand up; but this I had not frequently done. However, in studying upon the subject, I had often felt the necessity of some measure that would bring sinners to a stand. . . . I had found also that something was needed, to make the impression on them that they were expected at once to give up their hearts; something that would call them to act, and act as publicly before the world, as they had in their sins; something that would commit them publicly to the service of Christ. . . . I made a call, I think for the first time, upon all that class of persons whose convictions were so ripe that they were willing to renounce their sins and give themselves to God, to come forward to certain seats which I requested to be vacated, and offer themselves up to God, while we made them subjects of prayer." (12)

Finney further expanded on his rationale for the anxious seat:

"If you say to him, 'There is the anxious seat, come out and avow your determination to be on the Lord’s side,' and if he is not willing to do so small a thing as that, then he is not willing to do anything, and there he is, brought out before his own conscience. It uncovers the delusion of the human heart, and prevents a great many spurious conversions, by showing those who might
otherwise imagine themselves willing to do anything for Christ, that in fact they are willing to do nothing. The church has always felt it necessary to have something of the kind to answer this very purpose. In the days of the apostles baptism answered this purpose. . . . It held the precise place that the anxious seat does now, as a public manifestation of their determination to be Christians." (13)

These procedures, however, were not original with Finney. Iain Murray commented,

"If Finney had not so resolutely defended the new measures, their correctness might have been discussed apart from his own ministry. He was not, after all, their originator, for they were not new at all. They did not derive from Burchard, Beman, or anyone else in New York State. The encouragement of physical responses to preaching (such as falling to the floor); women speaking in worship; meetings carried on through long hours and on successive days (protracted meetings); and, above all, inviting individuals to “submit to God” and to prove it by a 'humbling action' such as standing up, kneeling down, or coming forward to 'the anxious seat'—all came straight from the procedures that some Methodists had been popularizing for a quarter of a century." (14)

Russell Richey described Finney’s popularization of the new measures with their emphasis on human effort as a turning point: “Since Finney, ministers have self-consciously assumed control, even manipulative control, over these rituals; as revivalists they have presumed that they could produce revivals.” (15)


[1] Charles G. Finney, Memoirs of Rev. Charles G. Finney (New York: A. S. Barnes & Company, 1876), 7.
[2] Ibid., 46.
[3] Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 7.
[4] Finney, Memoirs, 77.
[5] Finney, Lectures on Systematic Theology, ed. J. H. Fairchild (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 228-229.
[6] Finney, Memoirs, 154.
[7] Finney, Lectures on Systematic Theology, 296.
[8] Ibid., 253.
[9] Finney, Memoirs, 51.
[10] Ibid., 60.
[11] Finney, Lectures on Systematic Theology, 339-340.
[12] Ibid., 288-289.
[13] Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1898), 254.
[14] Murray, 241-242.
[15] Russell E. Richey, “Revivalism: In Search of a Definition,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 28, no. 1 and 2 (Spring-Fall 1993): 168.

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