T IS IRONIC that Charles Grandison Finney has become a poster boy for so many modern evangelicals. His theology was far from evangelical. As a Christian leader, he was hardly the model of humility or spirituality. Even Finney's autobiography paints a questionable character. In his own retelling of his life's story, Finney comes across as stubborn, arrogantand sometimes even a bit devious.
Unexpectedly to myself they asked me if I received the Confession of faith of the Presbyterian church. I had not examined it;that is, the large work, containing the Catechisms and Presbyterian Confession. This had made no part of my study. I replied that I received it for substance of doctrine, so far as I understood it. But I spoke in a way that plainly implied, I think, that I did not pretend to know much about it. However, I answered honestly, as I understood it at the time [Charles Finney, The Memoirs of Charles Finney: The Complete Restored Text (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1989), 53-54].Despite his Clintonesque insistence that he "answered honestly," it is clear that Finney deliberately misled his examiners. (His ability to parse legal terms would have served him well had he been a politician in the late Twentieth Century. But he betrays an appalling brashness for a clergyman in his own era.) Rather than plainly admitting he was utterly ignorant of his denomination's doctrinal standards, he says he "spoke in a way" that implied ("I think") that he did not know "much" about those documents. The truth is that he had never even examined the Confession of Faith and knew nothing at all about it. He was woefully unprepared for ordination, and he had no business seeking a license to preach under the presbytery's auspices. "I was not aware that the rules of the presbytery required them to ask a candidate if he accepted the Presbyterian Confession of faith," Finney wrote. "Hence I had never read it" [Memoirs, 60.] So when he told his ordination council that he received the Confession "for substance of doctrine," nothing could have been further from the truth! Nonetheless, the council naively (and all too willingly) took Finney at his word and licensed him to preach.
Finney's credibility is further marred by the fact that when he later read the Westminster Standards and realized he disagreed on almost every crucial point, he did not resign the commission he had received under false pretenses. Instead, he accepted the platform he had duped those men into giving himthen used it for the rest of his life to attack their doctrinal convictions. "As soon as I learned what were the unambiguous teachings of the Confession of faith upon these points, I did not hesitate at all on all suitable occasions to declare my dissent from them," he boasted. "I repudiated and exposed them. Wherever I found that any class of persons were hidden behind these dogmas, I did not hesitate to demolish them, to the best of my ability" [Memoirs, 60]. The fact that Finney had obtained his own preaching credentials by professing adherence to the Confession did not faze him at all. "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," he frankly stated. "I could not feel any respect for a document that would undertake to impose on mankind such dogmas as those" [Memoirs, 61].
Even prior to his conversion, Finney had raised many of the very same issues and objected strongly to Gale's teaching on such points. He wrote,
I now think that I sometimes criticised his sermons unmercifully. I raised such objections against his positions as forced themselves upon my attention. . . . What did he mean by repentance? Was it a mere feeling of sorrow for sin? Was it altogether a passive state of mind? or did it involve a voluntary element? If it was a change of mind, in what respect was it a change of mind? What did he mean by the term regeneration? What did such language mean when spoken of as a spiritual change? What did he mean by faith? Was it merely an intellectual state? Was it merely a conviction, or persuasion, that the things stated in the Gospel were true? [Memoirs, 10-12.]Finney's "conversion" does not seem to have altered his skepticism about his denomination's stance on any of these crucial evangelical doctrines. After his experiential crisis, those were the very issues on which he dissented from the Presbyterian Confessiononly now with more vigor than ever. The intense emotional experience Finney regarded as his new birth seems merely to have confirmed his feeling that he was right about Christianity and Scriptureand that most of the leaders of his denomination were either stupid or deluded.
In fact, in his own account of his conversion and theological "training," Finney comes across as utterly unteachable. He meticulously recounts the issues on which he and Pastor Gale disagreed. They are for the most part the same points Finney says he objected to before his conversion. Never once does Finney acknowledge conceding any point to Gale (or to anyone else, for that matter). He obviously believed that his intuitive grasp of spiritual truth, combined with his legal training, automatically made him more doctrinally adept than all the seminary-trained Presbyterian preachers combined. He consistently portrays church leaders who adhered to the Confession of Faith as dupes and dullards. He was convinced they had nothing to teach him, and from the point of his conversion on, he casts himself in the superior role, as a reformer of their outdated and indefensible doctrines. He writes,
The fact is that Brother Gale's education for the ministry had been entirely defective. He had imbibed a set of opinions, both theological and practical, that were a strait jacket to him. He could accomplish very little or nothing if he carried out his own principles. I had the use of his library, and ransacked it thoroughly on all the questions of theology which came up for examination; and the more I examined the books, the more I was dissatisfied. [Memoirs, 55.]Now convinced that his tutor (Pastor Gale) and all the Reformed and Puritan books in Gale's library were utterly worthless, Finney set out to devise a theological system more to his own liking.
At first, being no theologian, my attitude in respect to [Gale's] peculiar views was rather that of negation or denial, than that of opposing any positive view to his. I said, your positions are not proved." I often said, "They are insusceptible of proof." So I thought then, and so I think now. . . . I had nowhere to go but directly to the Bible, and to the philosophy or workings of my own mind as they were revealed in consciousness. My views took on a positive type but slowly. I at first found myself unable to receive his peculiar views; and secondly, gradually formed views of my own in opposition to them, which appeared to me to be unequivocally taught in the Bible. [Memoirs, 55, emphasis added.]In other words, Finney's earliest opinions on "the subject[s] of atonement, regeneration, faith, repentance, the slavery of the will, [and] kindred doctrines" became baggage he dragged along into his own peculiar systematic theology. Having objected to Pastor Gale's doctrinal stance on these issues since before his conversionand especially now that Finney realized these ideas came from the Confession itselfhe grew to despise "Old School" doctrinal standards. He was not about to study books that defended such doctrines.
Without any "positive view" of his own (other than his obvious contempt for Reformed doctrine), he was content for a while to rebuff Gale's tutoring with "negation or denial." But Finney soon realized he needed something more than denial to answer the doctrines of the Presbyterian Confession. So he set to work scouring the pages of Scripture in search of arguments against the doctrines he despised, while devising new doctrines more suited to "the philosophy or workings of [his] own mind." Ideas Finney had toyed with since his pre-conversion days thus became the heart of the theology he espoused until the end of his life. In other words, as a new "convert," Finney simply devised a theology that fit his already-established prejudices.
In his Memoirs, his Lectures on Revival, and his Systematic Theology, what comes through, frankly, is not a man with a high regard for Scripture, but a man with an inflated view of himself. Where Scripture does not suit him, Finney resorts to sophistry to explain it away. Whole sections of his Systematic Theology contain paragraph after paragraph of philosophizing and moralizingsometimes without a single reference to Scripture for many pages.
Finney regarded his own theology as a necessary antidote to hyper-Calvinism. He wrote,
I have everywhere found that the peculiarities of hyper-Calvinism have been the stumbling block both of the church and of the world. A nature sinful in itself, a total inability to accept Christ and to obey God, condemnation to eternal death for the sin of Adam and for a sinful nature,and all the kindred and resultant dogmas of that peculiar school, have been the stumbling block of believers and the ruin of sinners." [Memoirs, 444].But Finney was too much of a novice to distinguish between biblical, orthodox Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism. He lumped them together and ended up rejecting much sound doctrine along with what he thought was "hyper-Calvinism." Far from being a "moderate," Finney answered hyper-Calvinism by shifting to the opposite extremePelagianism.
Notice that under the guise of condemning "hyper-Calvinism," Finney expressly attacked the idea that people are fallen and depraved because of a sinful nature inherited from Adam. That is the doctrine of original sin, not a hyper-Calvinist dogma, but a standard tenet of Christian doctrineand recognized as such by all mainstream Christians since the Pelagian heresy of the Fifth Century. Note, too, that Finney rejected the idea that sinners are totally unable to please God (contra Rom. 8:7-8). Again, total inability is no hyper-Calvinist notion, but a biblical truth defended by Augustine and the Protestant Reformers alike.
Many of the doctrines Finney rejected were central to the gospel itself. Remember his comments about his own pastor's views? ("I could not receive his views on the subject of atonement, regeneration, faith, repentance, the slavery of the Will, or any of their kindred doctrines.") Again, not one of the issues he lists deals with any error that arises out of hyper-Calvinism. Instead, what Finney was rejecting were basic biblical doctrines and long-standing tenets of Christian orthodoxy. He jettisoned several essential aspects of Protestant and Reformed doctrine related to "the atonement, regeneration, faith, repentance, the slavery of the will." Many of the doctrines he argued most vehemently against are, in fact, core biblical truths.
In other words, it was not merely hyper-Calvinismor even simple Calvinismthat Finney rejected, but the biblical essentials of sola fide and sola gratia (justification by faith alone through grace alone). In effect, Finney also abandoned sola scriptura (the authority and sufficiency of Scripture), as shown by his constant appeal to rationalism in support of his new theology. The movement he led therefore represents the wholesale abandonment of historic Protestant principles.
Finney spends a considerable amount of time in several of his works arguing against "that theological fiction of imputation" [Memoirs, 58]. Those who have any grasp of Protestant doctrine will see immediately that his attack at this point is a blatant rejection of the doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide). It places him outside the pale of true evangelical Protestantism. The doctrine of imputed righteousness is the very heart of the historic difference between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. The whole doctrine of justification by faith hinges on this concept. But Finney flatly rejected it. He derided the concept of imputation as unjust: "I could not but regard and treat this whole question of imputation as a theological fiction, somewhat related to our legal fiction of John Doe and Richard Roe" [Memoirs, 60]. Dismissing the many biblical texts that expressly say righteousness is imputed to believers for their justification, he wrote,
These and similar passages are relied upon, as teaching the doctrine of an imputed righteousness; and such as these: "The Lord our righteousness" (Phil. 3:9). . . . "Christ our righteousness" is Christ the author or procurer of our justification. But this does not imply that He procures our justification by imputing His obedience to us. . . [Charles Finney, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany), 372-73].
Here Finney offers no cogent explanation of what he imagines Scripture does mean when it speaks repeatedly of the imputation of righteousness to believers (e.g., Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:4-6). But throughout all his discussions of imputation Finney repeatedly insists that neither merit nor guilt can righteously be imputed from one person to another. Therefore, Finney argues, the righteousness of Christ can provide no ground for the justification of sinners. Furthermore, he continues:
[Subhead:] Foundation of the justification of penitent believers in Christ. What is the ultimate ground or reason of their justification?
By employing terms such as "exact" and "literal," Finney caricatured the position he was opposing. (The immediate context of this quotation makes clear that he was arguing against the position outlined in the Westminster Confession, which accords with all major Protestant creeds and theologians on the matter of justification.) But Finney could not obscure his own position: Having decided that the doctrine of imputation was a "theological fiction," he was forced to deny not only the imputation of Christ's righteousness to believers, but also the imputation of the sinner's guilt to Christ on the cross. Under Finney's system, Christ could not have actually borne anyone else's sin or suffered sin's full penalty in their place and in their stead (contra Isaiah 53:6; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 2:2). Finney therefore rejected the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. (We shall deal with this in more detail below).
Finney's position on these matters also caused him to define justification in subjective, rather than objective, terms. Protestants have historically insisted that justification is a purely forensic declaration, giving the penitent sinner an immediate right standing before God on the merit of Christ's righteousness, not their own (cf. Rom. 10:3; Phil. 3:9). By forensic, we mean that it is a legal declaration, like a courtroom verdict or a marriage pronouncement ("I now pronounce you husband and wife"). It changes the person's external status rather than affecting some kind of internal change; it is a wholly objective reality.
The subjective transformation of the believer that conforms us to Christ's image is sanctificationa subsequent and separate reality, distinct from justification. Since the dawn of the Protestant Reformation, the virtually unanimous Protestant consensus has been that justification is in no sense grounded in or conditioned on our sanctification. Catholicism, on the other hand, mingles justification and sanctification, making sanctification a prerequisite to final justification.
Finney sided with Rome on this point. His rejection of the doctrine of imputation left him with no alternative: "Gospel justification is not to be regarded as a forensic or judicial proceeding" [Systematic Theology, 360].
Finney departed further from historic Protestantism by expressly denying that Christ's righteousness is the sole ground of the believer's justification, arguing instead that justification is grounded only in the benevolence of God. (This position is identical to that of Socinians and theological liberals.)
Obfuscating the issue further, Finney listed several "necessary conditions" (insisting these are not, technically, grounds) of justification. These "necessary conditions" included Christ's atoning death, the Christian's own faith, repentance, sanctification, andmost ominouslythe believer's ongoing obedience to the law. Finney wrote,
There can be no justification in a legal or forensic sense, but upon the ground of universal, perfect, and uninterrupted obedience to law. This is of course denied by those who hold that gospel justification, or the justification of penitent sinners, is of the nature of a forensic or judicial justification. They hold to the legal maxim, that what a man does by another he does by himself, and therefore the law regards Christ's obedience as ours, on the ground that He obeyed for us [Systematic Theology, 362].
Of course, Finney denied that Christ "obeyed for us," claiming that since Christ was Himself obligated to render full obedience to the law, His obedience could justify Himself alone. "It can never be imputed to us," Finney intoned [Systematic Theology, 362].
The clear implication of Finney's view is that justification ultimately hinges on the believer's own obedience, and God will not truly and finally pardon the repentant sinner until after that penitent one completes a lifetime of faithful obedience. Finney himself said as much, employing the undiluted language of perfectionism. He wrote,
By sanctification being a condition of justification, the following things are intended:
Thus Finney insisted that justification ultimately hinges on the believer's own performance, not Christ's. Here Finney once more turns his guns against the doctrine of imputation:
Those who hold that justification by imputed righteousness is a forensic proceeding, take a view of final or ultimate justification, according with their view of the nature of the transaction. With them, faith receives an imputed righteousness, and a judicial justification. The first act of faith, according to them, introduces the sinner into this relation, and obtains for him a perpetual justification. They maintain that after this first act of faith it is impossible for the sinner to come into condemnation; [Systematic Theology, 369].
But isn't that precisely what Scripture teaches? John 3:18: "He that believeth on him is not condemned." John 5:24: "He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life." Galatians 3:13: "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us." It was immediately following his great discourse on justification by faith that the apostle Paul wrote, "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). But Charles Finney was unwilling to let Christians rest in the promise of "no condemnation," and he ridiculed the idea of security in Christ as a notion that would lead to licentious living. He continues, again caricaturing the position he opposes:
that, being once justified, he is always thereafter justified, whatever he may do; indeed that he is never justified by grace, as to sins that are past, upon condition that he ceases to sin; that Christ's righteousness is the ground, and that his own present obedience is not even a condition of his justification, so that, in fact, his own present or future obedience to the law of God is, in no case, and in no sense, a sine qua non of his justification, present or ultimate.As the final paragraph of that excerpt makes clear, Finney himself clearly understood that what he proclaimed was a different gospel from that of historic Protestantism. By denying the forensic nature of justification, Finney was left with no option but to regard justification as a subjective thing grounded not in Christ's redemptive work but in the believer's own obedienceand therefore a matter of works, not faith alone.
The judgment arose from one transgression [Adam's sin] resulting in condemnation . . . . By the transgression of the one [Adam], death reigned . . . . Through one transgression [Adam's sin] there resulted condemnation to all men . . . . Through the one man's disobedience [Adam's sin] the many were made sinners (Rom. 5:16-19).Predictably, Finney appealed to human wisdom to justify his rejection of clear biblical teaching: "What law have we violated in 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 for ever, for inheriting from Adam a sinful nature?" [Systematic Theology, 320].
Naturally, Finney's denial of original sin also led him to reject the doctrine of human depravity. He flatly denied that fallen humanity suffers from any "constitutional sinfulness" or sinful corruption of human nature:
"Moral depravity cannot consist in any attribute of nature or constitution, nor in any lapsed or fallen state of nature. . . . Moral depravity, as I use the term, does not consist in, nor imply a sinful nature, in the sense that the human soul is sinful in itself. It is not a constitutional sinfulness" [Systematic Theology, 245].Instead, Finney insisted, "depravity" is a purely voluntary condition, and therefore, sinners have the power simply to will otherwise. In other words, Finney was insisting that all men and women have a natural ability to obey God. Sin results from wrong choices, not from a fallen nature. According to Finney, sinners can freely reform their own hearts, and must do so themselves if they are to be redeemed. Once again, this is sheer Pelagianism:
"[Sinners] are under the necessity of first changing their hearts, or their choice of an end, before they can put forth any volitions to secure any other than a selfish end. And this is plainly the everywhere assumed philosophy of the Bible. That uniformly represents the unregenerate as totally depraved, and calls upon them to repent, to make themselves a new heart" [Systematic Theology, 249].Finney was therefore not ashamed to take credit for his own conversion. Having rejected sola gratia, Finney had destroyed the gospel's safeguard against boasting (Eph. 2:9). As John MacArthur points out,
In Finney's telling of [his conversion] story, it becomes clear that he believed his own will was the determinative factor that brought about his salvation: "On a Sabbath evening [in the autumn of 1821,] I made up my mind that I would settle the question of my soul's salvation at-once, that if it were possible I would make my peace with God" [Memoirs, 16, emphasis added]. Evidently under intense conviction, Finney went into the woods, where he made a promise "that I would give my heart to God [that day] or die in the attempt [Memoirs, 16]. [John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1993), 236.]
Thus applying nineteenth-century American legal standards to the biblical doctrine of atonement, he concluded that it would be legally unjust to impute the sinner's guilt to Christ or to impute Christ's righteousness to the sinner. As noted above, Finney labeled imputation a "theological fiction" [Memoirs, 58-61]. In essence, this was a denial of the core of evangelical theology, repudiating the heart of Paul's argument about justification by faith in Romans 3-5 (see especially Rom. 4:5)in effect nullifying the whole gospel!
Further, by ruling out the imputation of guilt and righteousness, Finney was forced to argue that Christ's death should not be regarded as an actual atonement for others' sins. Finney replaced the doctrine of substitutionary atonement with a version of Grotius's "governmental theory" (the same view being revived by those today who tout "moral government theology").
The Grotian view of the atonement is laden with strong Pelagian tendencies. By cutting the sinner off from the imputation of Christ's righteousness, this view automatically requires sinners to attain a righteousness of their own (contra Rom. 10:3). When he embraced such a view of the atonement, Finney had no choice but to adopt a theology that magnifies human ability and minimizes God's role in changing human hearts. He wrote, for example,
There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted meansas much so as any other effect produced by the application of means. . . . A revival is as naturally a result of the use of means as a crop is of the use of its appropriate means" [Charles Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, n.d.), 4-5].Thus Finney constantly downplayed God's work in our salvation, understated the hopelessness of the sinner's condition, and overestimated the power of sinners to change their own hearts. When those errors are traced to their source, what we find is a deficient view of the atonement. Indeed, Finney's denial of vicarious atonement underlies and explains virtually all his theological aberrations.
The Western half of New York became known as "the burnt-over district," because of the negative effects of the revivalist movement that culminated in Finney's work there. These facts are often obscured in the popular lore about Finney. But even Finney himself spoke of "a burnt district" [Memoirs, 78], and he lamented the absence of any lasting fruit from his evangelistic efforts. He wrote,
I was often instrumental in bringing Christians under great conviction, and into a state of temporary repentance and faith . . . . [But] falling short of urging them up to a point, where they would become so acquainted with Christ as to abide in Him, they would of course soon relapse into their former state [cited in B. B. Warfield, Studies in Perfectionism, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford, 1932), 2:24].One of Finney's contemporaries registered a similar assessment, but more bluntly:
During ten years, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, were annually reported to be converted on all hands; but now it is admitted, that real converts are comparatively few. It is declared, even by [Finney] himself, that "the great body of them are a disgrace to religion" [cited in Warfield, 2:23].B. B. Warfield cited the testimony of Asa Mahan, one of Finney's close associates,
. . . who tells usto put it brieflythat everyone who was concerned in these revivals suffered a sad subsequent lapse: the people were left like a dead coal which could not be reignited; the pastors were shorn of all their spiritual power; and the evangelists"among them all," he says, "and I was personally acquainted with nearly every one of themI cannot recall a single man, brother Finney and father Nash excepted, who did not after a few years lose his unction, and become equally disqualified for the office of evangelist and that of pastor."Finney grew discouraged with the revival campaigns and tried his hand at pastoring in New York City before accepting the presidency of Oberlin College. During those post-revivalist years, he turned his attention to devising a doctrine of Christian perfectionism. Perfectionist ideas, in vogue at the time, were a whole new playground for serious heresy on the fringes of evangelicalismand Finney became one of the best-known advocates of perfectionism. The evil legacy of the perfectionism touted by Finney and friends in the mid-nineteenth century has been thoroughly critiqued by B. B. Warfield in his important work Studies in Perfectionism. Perfectionism was the logical consequence of Finney's Pelagianism, and its predictable result was spiritual disaster.
Don't be duped by sanitized 20th-century editions of Finney's works. Read the "Complete and Newly Expanded" 1878 edition of Finney's Systematic Theology, recently published by Bethany house Publishers (the unabridged 1878 version with a couple of Finney's later lectures added). This volume shows the real character of Finney's doctrine. (The unabridged 1851 version is now online, and it also exposes Finney's errors in language not toned down by later redactors.) By no stretch of the imagination does Finney deserve to be regarded as an evangelical. By corrupting the doctrine of justification by faith; by denying the doctrines of original sin and total depravity; by minimizing the sovereignty of God while enthroning the power of the human will; and above all, by undermining the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, Finney filled the bloodstream of American evangelicalism with poisons that have kept the movement maimed even to this day.
That's why you'll find Finney listed in the "Really Bad Theology" category of my bookmarks, and in the "Unorthodox" wing of The Hall of Church History.