Charles Finney – the fount of all our ills
July 31, 2013
Charles Finney is rightly targeted as the most illustrative figure of the American revivalist tradition — at least, in its most crass form. In certain respects, he was a fount for the ills that plague the church of today. His theology is terrible, but he at least knew theology and what he was rejecting, which is something that cannot be said for his current heirs. In fact, he actually wrote a systematic theology. Yet, given his anthropocentric focus, it is inevitable that doctrinal concerns (you know, God) would be sidelined in a short time, and the pietist form of faith is not exactly known for its theological interests.
A good concentration of his thinking can be found in the sermon, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.” The title pretty much says it all. Here are some excerpts, illustrating his rejection of Reformation theology:
All holiness, in God, angels, or men, must be voluntary, or it is not holiness. …Holiness is virtue; it is something that is praiseworthy; it cannot therefore be a part of the created substance of body or mind, but must consist in voluntary obedience to the principles of eternal righteousness.
…moral character cannot be a subject of creation, but attaches to voluntary action.
[After discussing Adam’s “voluntary dedication of all his powers” before the Fall, he turns to God’s own holiness:] Indeed the continued holiness of God depends upon the same cause, and flows from the same fountain. His holiness does not consist in the substance of his nature, but in his preference of right.
[On the Fall:] It was not a change in the powers of moral agency themselves, but simply in the use of them; in consecrating their energies to a different end.
[After discussing the necessary “influence” of the Holy Spirit:] The fact is, that the actual turning, or change, is the sinner’s own act. The agent who induces him, is the Spirit of God.
…Now, in speaking of this change, it is perfectly proper to say, that the Spirit turned him, just as you would say of a man, who had persuaded another to change his mind on the subject of politics, that he had converted him, and brought him over.
(Charles G. Finney, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts,” in Issues in American Protestantism, ed. Robert L. Firm, pp. 158-166. Underlining is mine.)
The underlined portion is my favorite part! Finney then continues to specifically reject the Reformed doctrine of “physical depravity,” as he terms it. In its place, he upholds the “inconceivably great importance” of understanding that “God rightly converts souls by motives.” Interesting stuff. Luther and Calvin would barely recognize this as Christian.