Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Theology of Charles Finney

Many Christians over the years have given rave reviews to the eighteenth century revivalist, Charles G. Finney. Books have been written about his life, preachers quote him from the pulpit and lest we forget the great number of people that “came to the Lord” as a result of his ministry. However, as you begin to review the life and the beliefs of Charles Finney, you will find that he was very much NOT an evangelical, and not at all orthodox in his beliefs.

Charles Finney was born in 1792 in Connecticut but lived most of his life in Oneida County, New York. Raised by unsaved parents, he grew up largely ignorant of Christian doctrine. The religion that Finney remembered as a child was, he said later, “of a type not at all calculated to arrest my attention”. Finney characterized his pastor’s sermon content as “a dry discussion of Theology”.

Finney decided to study law and took an apprenticeship in Adams, New York, where for the first time he became actively involved in Church. The local Presbyterian Pastor, George W. Gale, took a special interest in Finney and made him choir director. Then over the years, Finney made a profession of faith and later felt the call of God to preach. It was, I believe, extremely unfortunate that Finney chose to pursue a preaching ministry immediately after his conversion. Devoid of any solid Christian influence in his life, he was almost completely ignorant of the Scriptures and Theology. He was a brilliant man; however, and his legal training had conditioned him to think logically, but it also saddled him with a world of wrong presumptions. Finney’s notions about justice, guilt, righteousness, transgression, forgiveness, responsibility, sovereignty, and a host of other terms were drawn from his legal studies, not the Scriptures.

Wherever Finney preached, people responded enthusiastically. Finney boldly challenged conventional doctrine and persuasively championed his own rather novel set of doctrines. He interpreted everything from a nineteenth-century American legal standard to every biblical statement. “I had read nothing on the subject of the atonement except in my Bible”, he wrote, “and what I found on the subject, I had interpreted as I would have understood the same or like passages in law books”. He concluded that God’s justice demanded that He extend grace equally to all. He reasoned that God could not righteously hold mankind guilty for Adam’s disobedience. In his opinion, a just God would never condemn people for being sinners. Finney wrote, “The Bible defines sin to be a transgression of the law. What law have we violated inheriting this sin nature? What law requires us to have a different nature from that which we possess? Does reason affirm that we are deserving of the wrath and curse of God forever, for inheriting from Adam a sinful nature”.  Thus Finney discarded the clear teaching of Romans 5:16-19 in favor of human reason. Worse yet, Finney denied that a holy God would impute people’s sin to Christ and of Christ’s righteousness to believers. Finney concluded that the doctrines clearly taught in Romans 3-5 were “theological fiction”. In essence he denied the core teachings of evangelical theology.

Unfortunately, Finney’s early success in preaching obscured his serious flaws in Theology. Finney himself admitted that when he was being examined by his Church to be licensed to preach, the presbytery, “avoided asking questions that would naturally brings my views into collision with theirs”.  When asked if he agreed with the Westminster Confession of Faith, he said, “I replied that I received it for substance of doctrine, so far as I understood it”. Then later confessed that he had never read it.

There is much more that I could say about him and if anyone is interested I will share, but for my purposes on this article what I have said will suffice, because you get the message. One of the  marks that you always hear about  Finney is the great number of people that came to “know the Lord” under his preaching. In closing I want to quote a contemporary of Finney, “During ten years, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, were annually reported to be converted on all hands, but now it is admitted that Finney’s real converts are comparatively few. It is declared, even by himself, that “the great body of them are a disgrace to religion”; as a consequence of these defections, practical evils, great, terrible, and innumerable, are in various quarters rushing into the Church.

Finney’s logical way of thinking, instead of biblical, and heretical teaching caused the superficial “conversion” of many. He denied the most cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, and his presentation of the Gospel bore little fruit. Thank God for pastors who are strong on Biblical doctrine. 

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