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Encyclopedia > Charles Gradison Finney

Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875), often called "America's foremost revivalist," was a major leader of the Second Great Awakening in America that had a profound impact on the history of the United States.


Life and theology

Born in Warren, Connecticut as the youngest of seven children, Finney had humble beginnings. His parents were farmers, and Finney himself never attended college. However, his six foot two inch stature, piercing blue eyes, musical skill, and leadership abilities gained him good standing in his community. He studied as an apprentice to become a lawyer, but after a dramatic conversion experience in Adams, New York at the age of 29, Finney became a minister in the Presbyterian Church. Yet even from this stage, he was unwilling to embrace entirely the standards of faith expressed in the Westminster Confession, preferring to go straight to the Bible for his beliefs.

Finney moved to New York City in 1832 where he pastored the Broadway Tabernacle. Finney's logical, clear presentation of his Gospel message reached thousands and promised renewing power and the love of Jesus. Some estimates are that his preaching directly influenced the lives of over 500,000 people. His writings continue to challenge many to live a life holy and pleasing to God. His most famous work is the "Lectures on Revivals of Religion."[1] (http://www.gospeltruth.net/1868Lect_on_Rev_of_Rel/home68revlec.htm) The Christian singer Keith Green was heavily influenced by Finney and other famous evangelicals like Billy Graham speak highly of his influence. Although Finney was originally a Presbyterian, he eventually became a Congregationalist and often bears much criticism from conservative Presbyterians.

Theologically, Finney drew elements from the eighteenth century American preacher, Jonathan Edwards and the New Divinity Calvinists. His teachings also resembled that of Nathaniel William Taylor, a professor at Yale University. Many people teach that Finney was an Arminian in his theology, but he explicitly denied this. Much closer to a "New Divinity" Calvinist, his views on the atonement and original sin are much closer to those espoused by the "moral government" theory that was particularly advocated by Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins. For example, Finney's views on the atonement were much closer to the moral government system that Edwards' followers embraced because it rejected the notion that Jesus died only for Christians. Nevertheless, he bore a tremendous amount of criticism by theologians such as Charles Hodge for departing from traditional high Calvinism, criticisms frequently repeated today. It has been reported that the theologian G. Frederick Wright pointed out that Hodge misrepresented Finney's views in his criticism, however.

Finney was known for his innovations in preaching and conducting religious meetings, such as allowing women to pray in public and the development of the "anxious bench," a place where those considering become Christians could come to receive prayer. Finney was also known for his use of extemporaneous preaching.

In addition to being a successful Christian evangelist, Finney was involved with the abolitionist movement and frequently denounced slavery from the pulpit. Beginning in the 1830s, he denied communion to slaveholders in his churches.

In 1835, he moved to Ohio where he would become a professor, and later President of Oberlin College. Oberlin was a major cultivation ground for the early movement to end slavery. Oberlin was also the first American university that allowed blacks and women into the same classrooms as white men.

Finney's place in the social history of the United States

As a new nation, the United States was undergoing massive social flux during the 19th century, and this period birthed quite a large number of independent, trans-denominational religious movements such as the Jehovah's Witnesses (1870), The Seventh_day Adventist Church (1863), Millerism (1830's and beyond) and Mormonism (1830). America's westward expansion brought about untold opportunities and a readiness to dispense with old thinking, an attitude that influenced people's religious understanding.

The Burned-over district was a geographical area described by Finney himself as a "hotbed" of religious revivalism, and it was in this area (largely western New York State) that he had much of his success. The lack of clergy from established churches ensured that religious activity in these areas was less influenced by traditional Christian teachings.

What Finney managed to achieve was to be the most successful religious revivalist during this period, and in this particular area. While groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists became closed and exclusivist, Finney was widely admired and influential amongst more mainstream Christians. Finney never started his own denomination or church, and never claimed any form of special prophetic leadership that elevated himself above other evangelists and revivalists.

More flexible Christian denominations, such as the Baptists and Methodists, were able to draw many of Finney's converts into their churches while more established denominations, such as the Presbyterians, were not as successful.

Finney's involvement with the abolitionist movement ensured that the Northern states had some form of legitmate religious backing to their opposition to slavery. There is no doubt that the religious beliefs of the South were more conservative and more in line with the established church - including confessional Calvinism. In this sense, then, Finney's religious beliefs and his success matched the attitudes of the North more so than the South. It also set up a direct link between Revivalism and social welfare, a link that grew stronger in the church after the Civil War.

Just how successful was Finney's ministry?

There is some conjecture about the overall success of Finney's ministry. Despite the many "conversions", some reports have suggested that not even a tenth of converts actually remained Christians, while those that did caused a great deal of trouble in their respective churches. [2] (http://www.the-highway.com/articleApr99.html) To be fair, these reports have been sourced by theologians at the time and immediately after who were intent on opposing Finney's ministry. What proportion of people remained true to their new faith and what proportion gave it up cannot be known. What is known is that Finney was instrumental in the overall success of the Second Great awakening. Yet even Finney knew that there were many who, after experiencing a conversion, turned away over time:

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 again into their former state.[3] (http://wesley.nnu.edu/RelatedTraditions/Finney/Systematic/finney4.htm#37%20SANCTIFICATION)

Such was the state of most of these converts that Finney lamented:

Brethren, I confess, I am filled with pain in view of the conduct of the church. Where are the proper results of the glorious revivals we have had? I believe they were genuine revivals of religion and outpourings of the Holy Ghost, that the church has enjoyed the last ten years. I believe the converts of the last ten years are among the best Christians in the land. Yet, after all, the great body of them are a disgrace to religion. [4] (http://www.gospeltruth.net/1836LTPC/ltpc08_confrmty_2_world.htm)

Controversy over Finney's theology

Since the early 1990s, a number of well-known Reformed theologians have raised serious questions about Finney's theology and have even claimed that his understanding of the Evangelical Gospel was fatally flawed. Such theologians have included RC Sproul and Michael Horton.

Objections over Finney's Gospel have arisen because of a number of explicit comments that Finney made and recorded in his systematic theology. In chapter 9 of this work ("Unity of Moral Action"), he attempts to answer the questions "Does a Christian cease to be a Christian, whenever he commits a sin?". His answer is as follows:

Whenever he sins, he must, for the time being, cease to be holy. This is self-evident. Whenever he sins, he must be condemned; he must incur the penalty of the law of God ... If it be said that the precept is still binding upon him, but that with respect to the Christian, the penalty is forever set aside, or abrogated, I reply, that to abrogate the penalty is to repeal the precept, for a precept without penalty is no law. It is only counsel or advice. The Christian, therefore, is justified no longer than he obeys, and must be condemned when he disobeys or Antinomianism is true ... In these respects, then, the sinning Christian and the unconverted sinner are upon precisely the same ground.[5] (http://wesley.nnu.edu/RelatedTraditions/Finney/Systematic/finney1.htm#UNITY%20OF%20MORAL%20ACTION)

This quote appears to clearly set out the belief that once a Christian sins, he or she immediately loses their salvation and will remain under God's judgement until they have "re_repented". The Evangelical doctrine of "Perseverance of the Saints" is in direct contradiction to Finney's position as outlined above. Although many evangelicals do not necessarily believe in Perseverance, Finney's teaching is problematic because it 1) Implies that a Christian can live a perfect life without sin after they have repented; 2) That any form of sin, great or small, can instantly turn the Christian back into an unbeliever; and 3) That a person's standing with God is based upon obedience rather than faith. This is further emphasized by the following quote from chapter 36 (Justification):

By sanctification being a condition of justification, the following things are intended:
(1.) That present, full, and entire consecration of heart and life to God and His service, is an unalterable condition of present pardon of past sin, and of present acceptance with God.
(2.) That the penitent soul remains justified no longer than this full_hearted consecration continues. If he falls from his first love into the spirit of self_pleasing, he falls again into bondage to sin and to the law, is condemned, and must repent and do his "first work," must return to Christ, and renew his faith and love, as a condition of his salvation. This is the most express teaching of the Bible, as we shall fully see.[6] (http://wesley.nnu.edu/RelatedTraditions/Finney/Systematic/finney4.htm#36%20JUSTIFICATION)

All this suggests that Finney's understanding of Justification rests upon the perfect love that the believer has for God _ his or her "first love". If the Christian falls into sin (and thus loses their "first love"), then they are condemned and lose their salvation. Not until the Christian repents and renews their faith once again is their eternal destiny secure.

What, therefore, is considered "sin" that causes the Christian to fall away? According to Finney, it is habitual sin, not an occasional or rare lapse:

These (1 John 5:1, 4, 18) and similar passages expressly teach the persevering nature of true religion, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit: in other words, they teach that the truly regenerate cannot sin, in the sense at least of living in anything like habitual sin. They teach, that with all truly regenerate souls, holiness is at least the rule, and sin only the exception; that instead of its being true, that the regenerate souls live a great majority of their days subsequent to regeneration in sin, it is true that they so seldom sin, that in strong language it may be said in truth, they do not sin. This language so strongly and expressly teaches that perseverance is an unfailing attribute of Christian character, that but for the fact that other passages constrain us to understand these passages as strong language used in a qualified sense, we should naturally understand them as affirming that no truly regenerate soul does at any time sin. But since it is a sound rule of interpreting the language of an author, that he is, if possible, to be made consistent with himself; and since John, in other passages in this same epistle and elsewhere, represents that Christians, or truly regenerate persons, do sometimes sin; and since this is frequently taught in the Bible, we must understand these passages just quoted as only affirming a general and not a universal truth; that is, that truly regenerate persons do not sin anything like habitually, but that holiness is the rule with them, and sin only the exception.[7] (http://wesley.nnu.edu/RelatedTraditions/Finney/Systematic/finney6.htm#49%20PERSEVERANCE%20PROVED)

Yet even this definition _ that habitual sin causes a loss of salvation _ is problematic. It still makes the assumption that Christians have an innate ability (as a result of the indwelling Holy Spirit) to live a sinless life, and that anything less than this is either an exception (occasional sins) or a fall from grace. Christians from a Reformed persepctive believe that this teaching strikes at the heart of Gospel _ that it is faith that saves and not perfect obedience.

Finney's understanding of Christian perseverance rests upon this perfect obedience of the Christian. For Finney, the focus of perseverance is upon obedience, while for Calvinists and other Evangelicals, the focus of perseverance is upon faith. Finney charges that Christians can persevere in their obedience (and therefore have the ability to remain perfect and not sin), while Reformed Christians charge that Christians can persevere in their faith (and remain trusting in Christ's work of salvation on their behalf). Reformed Christians point out again that this issue shows where Finney's focus lies _ upon works rather than upon faith.

There are also questions over Finney's understanding of the meaning of Jesus' death on the Cross. In lecture 36 of his Systematic Theology ("Justification"), Finney makes the following points:

But for sinners to be forensically pronounced just, is impossible and absurd... As we shall see, there are many conditions, while there is but one ground, of the justification of sinners ... As has already been said, 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. [8] (http://wesley.nnu.edu/RelatedTraditions/Finney/Systematic/finney4.htm#36%20JUSTIFICATION)
The doctrine of an imputed righteousness, or that Christ's obedience to the law was accounted as our obedience, is founded on a most false and nonsensical assumption, for Christ's righteousness could do no more than justify himself. It can never be imputed to us....It was naturally impossible, then, for him to obey in our behalf. Representing the atonement as the ground of the sinner's justification has been a sad occasion of stumbling to many. [9] (http://wesley.nnu.edu/RelatedTraditions/Finney/Systematic/finney4.htm#36%20JUSTIFICATION)

Finney's understanding of the Atonement was that it satisfied "Public Justice" and that it opened up the way for God to pardon people of their sin. In other words, the death of Christ was not a literal punishment that God chose to mete out upon his only Son so that his wrath and anger are satisfied (forensic justification). It was, instead, merely a door that opened up the possibility of forgiveness.

For Christians who believe that Christ's death on the cross was as a sin substitute, and that his righteousness was transferred to all believers in order to perfect them and make them acceptable to God the Father, these quotes from Finney's theology are more than just problematic - they indicate that Finney had departed from the Biblical faith and was proclaiming another gospel. Both Horton and Sproul have concluded that Paul's warning in Galatians 1:9 ("If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what we accepted, let him be eternally condemned.") must apply to Charles Finney.

It could be that the Gospel according to Charles Finney is summarised in this way: When a person is called by God to repent, and when they choose to repent and serve God, then the Holy Spirit comes upon them and enables them to lead the perfect life that God wants them to lead. Filled with love for God and for others, the Christian is able to fully please God through his obedience. Christ, and his death upon the Cross, is a representation of how the perfect life can be led, and is an example for us to follow in terms of obedience. A Christian who falls back into habitual sin then loses his or her salvation, but can regain it if he or she earnestly and honestly repents.

External links

  Results from FactBites:
Second Great Awakening (705 words)
The revival in western New York was largely the work of Charles Gradison Finney, a lawyer from Adams, New York.
The area from Lake Ontario to the Adirondack mountains had been the scene of so many religious revivals in the past that it was known as the "Burned-Over District." In 1821 Finney experienced something of a religious epiphany and set out to preach the Gospel in western New York.
Finney preached in the Burned-Over District throughout the 1820s and the early 1830s, before moving to Ohio in 1835 to take a chair in theology at Oberlin College.
Kids.Net.Au - Encyclopedia > Second Great Awakening (717 words)
The revival in western New York was largely the work of Charles Gradison Finney[?], a lawyer from Adams, New York.
The area from Lake Ontario to the Adirondack mountains had been the scene of so many religious revivals in the past that it was known as the "Burned-Over District." In 1821 Finney experienced something of a religious epiphany and set out to preach the Gospel in western New York.
Finney preached in the Burned-Over District throughout the 1820s and the early 1830s, before moving to Ohio in 1835 to take a chair in theology at Oberlin College.
  More results at FactBites »



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