Charles Finney Redux

Coming back to the topic of Mr Finney the Pelagian heretic in the light of R.C. Sproul’s excellent Willing to Believe (also @google books)

Some quotes from the 8th chapter on Charles Grandison Finney:

“Later in the same article [Robert] Godfrey says “B. B. Warfield once observed of the theology of Charles Finney: ‘God might be eliminated from it entirely without essentially changing its character.’ The same might be said of contemporary evangelicalism.” (p170)

“Godfrey’s criticism is only slightly more severe than Warfield’s when, as a historian, he charges that in all of church history ‘there is probably not a theologian as Pelagian as Finney.” (p170-171)

“At the heart of Finney’s theology is the conviction that man has a free will: Man has not only the natural ability to make choices, but also the moral ability to make proper choices. He categorically rejects Jonathan Edwards’s view of moral inability, and by implication Augustine’s distinction between free will and liberty. ‘The human will is free,’ he says, ‘therefore men have power or ability to do all their duty. The moral government of God everywhere assumes and implies the liberty of the human will, and the natural ability of men to obey God. Every command, every threatening, every expostulation and denunciation in the Bible implies and assumes this.
Finney fiercely opposes the distinction made by Edwards in The Freedom of the Will between natural and moral ability, seeing it as a distinction without a difference. ‘Let the impression, then, be distinct,’ he says, ‘that the Edwardean natural ability is no ability at all, and nothing but an empty name, a metaphysico-theological fiction.’ Finney does not like Edwards’s insistence that all choices are determined by prior inclinations or motives.” (p183)

And yet in the light of objections by B.B. Warfield and Charles Hodge in the day, and Robert Godfrey and R.C. Sproul today and the very clearly heretical writings of Finney we see people saying, as does L.G. Parkhurst Jr. in the introduction to Finney’s Systematic Theology:

“He tried to be Biblical, rather than adhere to any theological system or group of his day. In some cases, he seems to take a middle ground between the old school Calvinists and Arminians, which makes each group critical of certain parts of his theology” and “Those less informed in matters of sound theology have promoted and passed on to others the falsehood that Finney was not orthodox in his theology or that his gospel was not according to the gospel of Paul” (p171)

… Well, well, well, its apparent to this reader that both Calvinists and Arminians would together take issue with the same heresies of Finney and both would denounce him for the same. (Unless they were liberals masquerading). He wasn’t between these groups he was a Pelagian (even Socinian), not a semi-Pelagian, not an Arminian — he categorically denies justification by faith, both the forensic nature of it and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, he denies the substitutionary atonement, he makes sanctification a pre-condition for “justification”, he denies original sin, and makes man’s will morally able to choose Christ or reject him in a fully autonomous way unimpaired by a sinful nature, wanting only for teaching or enlightenment or persuasion. This man did not preach the same gospel, he preached a radically different gospel. He is not “between” anyone in the Christian faith, he is on the radical fringe with heretics Pelagius and the Socinians.

I find it incredible that Parkhurst can write what he did in an introduction to Finney’s systematics work which contains these things in damning detail. Admittedly contorted in some places, in many places very tedious, but overall still clearly denying essential doctrines of Christianity. Makes me wonder if he has read those lectures, or perhaps he didn’t examine the writings critically but rather “re-interpreted” them in the most charitable light possible under the assumption that he was orthodox because of the revival, and the fact that people were saved. It could be that the purported 500 000 souls saved in the Second Great Awakening trumps the truth of the gospel many people’s mind: “he must surely be orthodox” type of reasoning.

Another example of this very positive spin is Charles G. Finney: Revivalist, Abolitionist, Suffragist where we read:

Due to Finney’s rejection of the doctrines of imputed sin and limited atonement, elements of his evangelistic methodology and his later teaching of Perfectionism he was branded an Arminianist by his Old School adversaries. The idea that Finney and his revivalism was Arminian has been passed down and been touted as historical truth. Mark Noll says that “In his theology, Finney was yet more Arminian than John Wesley…” Hambrick-Stowe however, maintains that Finney was actually a child of New England, Edwardian theology with a few changes. He says “Finney would follow Edwards in much of this Calvinistic theology except concerning the ability of the sinner to turn to God.”15 Finney’s theology was very close to that of New Haven Theology or Taylorism. Nathaniel William Taylor a professor at Yale College would be the first scholar to organize, circulate and publish these “New School” ideas. Taylor did not reject Calvinism but made what he felt were necessary adjustments. According to Hambrick-Stowe, “Taylor took pains to couch his reappraisal of Calvinism in the language of the Westminster Confession.” So it appears that the previous historical claim that Finney was an Arminian is either false or strongly questionable.

One wants to gag. Of course he isn’t Arminian, that is a slander of the Arminians, and pray tell how on earth would he “would follow Edwards in much of this Calvinistic theology except concerning the ability of the sinner to turn to God” after denying the substitutionary atonement or imputed righteousness of Christ or justification by faith? He doesn’t just reject “limited atonement” — he rejects the whole of substitutionary atonement! Yes he says good and proper things in many places in his Systematic Theology, but he takes them away later, or twists them into something very different from the orthodox understanding of them. This is can be seen by reading several of his lectures. Which I highly recommend to anyone interesting in testing this, I suggest particularly 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 25, 35, 38, 56.

Once can also read B. B. Warfield’s paper Oberlin Perfectionism which has a section on Finney in The Princeton Theological Review Vol. 19 No. 4 (1921). (Unfortunately some important pages, 610 and 611, seem to be missing, I have asked the librarian if they would be so kind as to remedy this).

About Anthony Caetano

Christian husband & father. Also an IT person but that doesn't come into this site much at all. Not on facebook or twitter, probably never will be. You can email me at my firstname at this domain.
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