The Disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney

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Ron Bean's picture

Finney's Systematic Theology was a text book for at least one Christian college in the early to mid 20th Century, affecting the graduates and a lot of their followers and providing the foundation for much of the revivalism of that era.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

TylerR's picture

Editor

I know a Pastor, who was assigned Finney's systematic theology at bible college, and ended up doubting his own salvation for months after reading it. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Andrew K's picture

TylerR wrote:

I know a Pastor, who was assigned Finney's systematic theology at bible college, and ended up doubting his own salvation for months after reading it. 

The healthier response would probably be to doubt Finney's salvation after reading it.

David R. Brumbelow's picture

“One of the tremendous affirmations of the great evangelist and preacher Charles G. Finney is this; that it is the truth of God that convicts and that saves.”  -W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, TX and SBC president. 

“Few men have had such a profound impact on their generation as Charles Grandison Finney. Through his Spirit-filled evangelistic ministry, uncounted thousands came to know Christ in the nineteenth century, resulting in one of the greatest periods of revival in the history of America. In addition, he became one of the most widely-read theologians of his time through his lectures and writings. His concern for education influenced whole generations of students.”
“But most of all, Charles G. Finney was a deeply-committed Christian. More than anything else he wanted to serve Christ and be used of Him.”
-Evangelist Billy Graham

Graham goes on to call Finney a “remarkable man,” and “one of history’s greatest evangelists.”

http://gulfcoastpastor.blogspot.com/2012/05/evangelist-billy-graham-on-charles-g.html

“[Charles G.] Finney won multiplied thousands of souls.  Although he preached in a smaller area, and though he was handicapped by some errors in theology, Finney probably had as powerful a manifestation of the power of God upon his ministry as did D. L. Moody or any other preacher since the days of Paul, and in the smaller area which he covered in his revival work a larger proportion of the population was saved than has been true, we suppose, in the ministry of any other great evangelist.”  -John R. Rice, The Power of Pentecost; 1949, 1979.  Rice was founding editor of The Sword of the Lord. 

Robert L. Sumner refers to the “noted and greatly used Charles G. Finney.”

For a positive treatment of Finney (horrors!), see:  The Life and Ministry of Charles G. Finney by Dr. Lewis A. Drummond, Bethany House Publishers; 1983. Drummond was a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Apparently one of the main reasons some condemn Finney is because he wasn’t much of a strict Calvinist. 

David R. Brumbelow

David R. Brumbelow's picture

“You must come to Christ. You must accept of Christ really and fully as your Saviour. Renouncing all thought of depending on any thing you have done or can do, you must accept of Christ as your atoning sacrifice, and as your ever living Mediator before God. Without the least qualification or reserve you must place yourself under his wing as your Saviour.” 

-Charles G. Finney; 1848. 

Doesn’t sound too heretical to me.  

David R. Brumbelow

Ron Bean's picture

Here are some quotes from Finney's "Lectures on Systematic Theology" in which he teaches his heresies:

1. "Several theologians have held that regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit alone … but I might just as lawfully insist that it is the work of man alone." (Charles Finney, 'Lectures On Systematic Theology': Abridged Edition, p. 224)

2. "The doctrine of imputed righteousness, or that Christ’s obedience to the Law was accounted as our obedience, is founded on a most false and nonsensical assumption/" (Charles Finney, 'Lectures On Systematic Theology', Worcester: 1851, pages 320-322)

3. Christ "could do no more than justify himself. It can never be imputed to us … it was naturally impossible, then, for him to obey on our behalf." (Ibid.) This doctrine "of representing the atonement as the ground of the sinner’s justification has been a sad occasion of stumbling to many." (Charles Finney, 'Lectures On Systematic Theology', p. 732)

4. “We shall see that perseverance in obedience to the end of life is also a condition of justification …” (Ibid., p. 735-737) 
 

5. Salvation "is not founded in Christ’s literally suffering the exact penalty of the Law for them, and in this sense literally purchasing their justification and eternal salvation." (Lectures On Systematic Theology, p. 747)

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

TylerR's picture

Editor

Have you read Finney's systematic theology? 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

David R. Brumbelow's picture

“While giving instruction it is wise to appeal to the understanding. True religion is as logical as if it were not emotional. I am not an admirer of the peculiar views of Mr. Finney, but I have no doubt that he was useful to many; and his power lay in his use of clear arguments. Many who knew his fame were greatly disappointed at first hearing him, because he used few beauties of speech and was as calm and dry as a book of Euclid; but he was exactly adapted to a certain order of minds, and they were convinced and convicted by his forcible reasoning. Should not persons of an argumentative cast of mind be provided for? We are to be all things to all men, and to these men we must become argumentative and push them into a corner with plain deductions and necessary inferences. Of carnal reasoning we would have none, but of fair, honest pondering, considering, judging, and arguing the more the better.” 

-Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students. 

David R. Brumbelow

David R. Brumbelow's picture

No, I’ve not read Finney’s Systematic Theology.  I’m sure I would disagree with some of it.  

But I’ve often seen Calvinists unfairly condemn Finney.  They will take a quote out of context to call him a heretic.  

For example, some have accused Finney of not believing in the Sovereignty of God, when in reality Finney and Moderate to Non-Calvinists simply do not believe in their version of Sovereignty.  

Some may believe man plays a role in salvation in the sense that under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, a man uses his free will to accept Jesus as his Savior.  A strict Calvinist may disagree with that, but that view is not unbiblical or heretical.  

Another example.  Someone may not believe in Eternal Security or Believer’s Baptism by Immersion.  I would strongly disagree with them, but think it unfair to imply they are a heretic.

That’s the kind of thing I’ve seen done against Finney, over and over.  I imagine some of the selected quotes of Finney would not appear so bad, if you read his entire writings.  

David R. Brumbelow

Andrew K's picture

David R. Brumbelow wrote:

No, I’ve not read Finney’s Systematic Theology.  I’m sure I would disagree with some of it.  

But I’ve often seen Calvinists unfairly condemn Finney.  They will take a quote out of context to call him a heretic.  

For example, some have accused Finney of not believing in the Sovereignty of God, when in reality Finney and Moderate to Non-Calvinists simply do not believe in their version of Sovereignty.  

Some may believe man plays a role in salvation in the sense that under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, a man uses his free will to accept Jesus as his Savior.  A strict Calvinist may disagree with that, but that view is not unbiblical or heretical.  

Another example.  Someone may not believe in Eternal Security or Believer’s Baptism by Immersion.  I would strongly disagree with them, but think it unfair to imply they are a heretic.

That’s the kind of thing I’ve seen done against Finney, over and over.  I imagine some of the selected quotes of Finney would not appear so bad, if you read his entire writings.  

David R. Brumbelow

If people are condemning Finney for not being "Calvinistic enough," or not holding to God's Sovereignty "strongly enough," and subsequently calling him heretical, your charges would be relevant.

Since, however, we are accusing Finney of denying the imputation of Christ's righteousness, denying original sin, teaching sinless perfectionism, distorting./denying substitutionary atonement (with his "Moral Govt" theory), denying eternal security, embracing Pelagianism, (these all being obvious to anyone who reads some of his work and words), and not even being particularly honest about any of this initially (which is perhaps how Spurgeon got taken in), etc., all the quotes in the world aren't going to rehabilitate him. All this stuff is out there and open to all who want to read it.

I typically suspect defenders of Charles Finney of being reactionary anti-Calvinists.

David R. Brumbelow's picture

“Finney began to receive opposition from many people as well. The Old School Presbyterians, led by the New England revivalist Asahel Nettleton, resented Finney’s modifications to Calvinist theology. Traditional Calvinists taught that a person would only come to believe the gospel if God had elected them to salvation. Hence, a person might hear the gospel in church, go home to meditate on the preacher’s message, and pray and wait for assurance from on high. Finney stated that unbelief was a “will not,” instead of a “cannot,” and could be remedied if a person willed to become a Christian. The revivalistic Congregationalists, led by Lyman Beecher, feared that Finney was opening the door to fanaticism within the ranks by allowing too much expression of human emotion. On the other side, the Unitarians and Universalists opposed Finney on the general grounds that he was using scare tactics in his messages in order to gain converts. They were particularly offended by his references to Hell as the destination of those who refused to believe the gospel.”

http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-20/charles-grandison-finney-father-of-american-revivalism.html

David R. Brumbelow

TylerR's picture

Editor

Read his systematic - don't rely on secondary sources.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

G. N. Barkman's picture

I've been involved in similar discussions about Charles Finney in years gone by.  I've learned that some will defend Finney regardless of the evidence.  Quotations of support from others,  no matter how appreciative, does nothing to answer the evidence of Finney's heresies.  The famous men who endorsed him probably had not seen the evidence we have today, some of which has been posted above.  Charles Spurgeon undoubtedly made his comments before Finney wrote his Systematic Theology.  To his admirers, Finney was a great evangelist and the father of the modern altar call.  That, for some, is enough to enshrine him in the hall of fame.

Let's put preconceived notions aside, and deal strictly with the evidence available to us today.  Deal with Finney's heretical statements.  Can his defenders endorse them?  If not, are they willing to concede that Finney might not have been the great Christian evangelist many suppose?  I'm afraid it's the age-old problem of apparent visible success.  If a man is "successful", draws large crowds, and reports many conversions, he has to be good.  Hopefully, discerning Bible believers have learned to look beyond surface impressions to examine true substance.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

Never have seen the likes pile up for comments like I have on this thread.  Wow.

David, what you're doing, beyond relying on secondary sources, is doing "appeal to authority."   Whether Graham, or Rice, or whoever endorses Finney's work, with or without qualifications, proves very little.  Moreover, your comment about it being about Calvinism is a nice straw man--an argument which really does not bear any resemblance to the argument presented.  It also has strong marks of the red herring and ad hominem.  

Gentle hint for you; if your comments would qualify as a good object lesson on what not to do for a class in informal logic, maybe you need to rethink how you're doing things.  I would suggest you start by reading the comments Finney made on various topics as listed by other commenters, and then proceed, if you like, to Finney's systematics.  The ugly reality is that any fool can look plausibly pastorial in a snippet from one of his books, just like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes do today.  It is when one takes a few steps back that one can see clearly what's really going on with some doctrines that are clearly bald-faced lies from the pit of Hell. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

David R. Brumbelow's picture

“The atonement did not consist in the literal payment of the debt of sinners, in the sense which the Universalists maintain; that it simply rendered the salvation of all men possible, and did not of itself lay God under obligation to save anybody; that it was not true that Christ suffered just what those for whom He died deserved to suffer; that no such thing as that was taught in the Bible, and no such thing was true; that, on the contrary, Christ died simply to remove an insurmountable obstacle out of the way of God forgiving sinners, so as to render it possible for Him to proclaim a universal amnesty, inviting all men to repent, to believe in Christ, and to accept salvation; that instead of having satisfied retributive justice, and borne just what sinners deserved, Christ had only satisfied public justice, by honouring the law, both in His obedience and death, thus rendering it safe for God to pardon sin, to pardon the sins of any man and of all men who would repent and believe in Him.  I maintained that Christ, in His atonement, merely did that which was necessary as a condition of the forgiveness of sins; and not that which cancelled sin, in the sense of literally paying the indebtedness of sinners.”  -Charles G. Finney, Memoirs of Rev. Charles G. Finney. 

Take note that this is a primary source.  While you may disagree, this is not a heretical view.  

David R. Brumbelow

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Salvation "is not founded in Christ’s literally suffering the exact penalty of the Law for them, and in this sense literally purchasing their justification and eternal salvation." (Lectures On Systematic Theology, p. 747)

This Finney quote, stated above in this thread, is an accurate, yet out of context and disingenuous quote.  See, Charles G. Finney on Atonement, quote above.  Finney was simply arguing against a literal payment view of the atonement, not denying the atonement and salvation.  

Also, note again the (primary source), Finney on Salvation, quote above.  

Perhaps some Finney critics should do a little more reading of Finney.  And, perhaps they should more fairly quote and criticize him.  

I would not agree with everything Finney taught, just as Charles H. Spurgeon and John R. Rice did not agree with him on everything.  Yet, like them, I admire Finney and the great evangelistic ministry he had.  

David R. Brumbelow

David R. Brumbelow's picture

"Several theologians have held that regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit alone … but I might just as lawfully insist that it is the work of man alone." (Charles Finney, 'Lectures On Systematic Theology': Abridged Edition, p. 224)

This quote is given above as a criticism of Finney.  Makes him sound heretical.  Read his fuller quote, however, and it shows Finney’s correct view, and his view here is very biblical.  He is simply pointing out that the Bible ascribes different persons, and other agencies, as bringing about salvation.  

In Context

There are generally other agents [in regeneration, salvation], one or more human beings concerned in persuading the sinner to turn. The Bible recognizes both the subject and the preacher as agents in the work. Thus Paul says: “ I have begotten you through the gospel.” Here the same word is used which is used in another case, where regeneration is ascribed to God.

Again an apostle says, “ Ye have purified your souls by obeying the truth.” Here the work is ascribed to the subject. There are then always two, and generally more than two agents employed in effecting the work. Several theologians have held that regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit alone. In proof of this they cite those passages that ascribe it to God. But I might just as lawfully insist that it is the work of man alone, and quote those passages that ascribe it to man, to substantiate my position. Or I might assert that it is alone the work of the subject, and in proof of this position quote those passages that ascribe it to the subject. Or again, I might assert that it is effected by the truth alone, and quote such passages as the following to substantiate my position: ‘Of his own will begat He us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures.’—James 1:18.  ‘Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever.’—1 Peter 1:23.”  

-Charles G. Finney, Systematic Theology.  Note: this is a primary source.  

 

For a little more detail on different people having a biblical part in saving others, yes, saving others!, see:

http://gulfcoastpastor.blogspot.com/2016/09/can-christian-save-others-yes.html

David R. Brumelow

AndyE's picture

David R. Brumbelow wrote:

Take note that this is a primary source.  While you may disagree, this is not a heretical view.  

David R. Brumbelow

I don't know. That still seems heretical to me. If "Finney was simply arguing against a literal payment view of the atonement, not denying the atonement and salvation," can you show me what his view of the atonement actually is?  Is there anywhere that he advocates for substitutionary atonement? What does he mean by denying "retributive justice" and what exactly does he mean by "public justice?"  What does he say about the imputation of Christ's righteousness to our account?  How in Finney's theology is God both Just and the Justifier?

AndyE's picture

David R. Brumbelow wrote:

"Several theologians have held that regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit alone … but I might just as lawfully insist that it is the work of man alone." (Charles Finney, 'Lectures On Systematic Theology': Abridged Edition, p. 224)

This quote is given above as a criticism of Finney.  Makes him sound heretical.  Read his fuller quote, however, and it shows Finney’s correct view, and his view here is very biblical.  He is simply pointing out that the Bible ascribes different persons, and other agencies, as bringing about salvation.  

In Context

There are generally other agents [in regeneration, salvation], one or more human beings concerned in persuading the sinner to turn. The Bible recognizes both the subject and the preacher as agents in the work. Thus Paul says: “ I have begotten you through the gospel.” Here the same word is used which is used in another case, where regeneration is ascribed to God.

This is wrong, too.  Regeneration is a specific thing and a work specifically of the Holy Spirit alone.  God may use people to lead others to Christ, to call on men to put their faith in Christ and be saved, but the work of regeneration is something only God can do.  Finney is completely wrong here. There is no place where the Bible gives man credit for the work of regeneration.  All the passages that Finney quotes are referring to other things ---  things perhaps connected to salvation but not regeneration.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Your citations from Finney's systematic only convince me more that the man was a heretic. I'll re-read some of it tonight.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

David R. Brumbelow's picture

“What is gospel justification?  It consists not in the law pronouncing the sinner just, but in his being ultimately governmentally treated as if he were just; that is, it consists in a governmental decree of pardon or amnesty—in arresting and setting aside the execution of the incurred penalty of law—in pardoning and restoring to favor those who have sinned, and those whom the law had pronounced guilty, and upon whom it bad passed the sentence of eternal death, and rewarding them as if they had been righteous.”

“The vicarious suffering or atonement of Christ is a condition of justification, or of the pardon and acceptance of penitent sinners.” 

-Charles G. Finney, Systematic Theology.  Note: this is a primary source

Finney had a different angle than others, on some doctrine.  In his explanations, it is easy to take a quote out of context and make him sound heretical.  It is also dishonest and unfair.  Read the entire section, and other of his writings, to honestly get his view. 

David R. Brumbelow

TylerR's picture

Editor

I'll re-read some of it tonight, David. I'd be very interested to know if there are any good scholarly articles chronicling his methodology, theology and his impact on the revivalist tradition of evangelism. I'll search Galaxie this evening, too.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

David R. Brumbelow's picture

AndyE,

What is your definition and differentiation of Regeneration and Salvation?

The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, talked about “saving” people.  And this was in reference to salvation or regeneration.  

If by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them.  -Romans 11:14 

For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?  -1 Corinthians 7:16 

To the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.  -1 Corinthians 9:22

Obviously, Jesus saves us through His sacrificial death.  Yet, Scripture also speaks of others saving us through witness and preaching.  See my article linked above.  Scripture is not always as picky about terminology as we sometimes are.  Finney seemed to notice and expound this as well.  

I still maintain we may disagree with Finney, we may say things differently than Finney, he certainly had his own angle about some doctrines, but he was no heretic.  

David R. Brumbelow

AndyE's picture

David R. Brumbelow wrote:

AndyE,

What is your definition and differentiation of Regeneration and Salvation?

I would say that salvation is a more general term that basically refers to deliverance from sin and its power, penalty, and presence.  There are many things that make up our salvation - justification, redemption, propitiation, imputed righteousness, forgiveness, sanctification, glorification, adoption, union with Christ, and regeneration (and probably some other things that I'm forgetting).  

Regeneration is a specific act where God makes us alive, gives us new life, raises us spiritually, makes us born again.

We need to be picky when it comes to theological concepts like regeneration. It's one thing to use a generic term for deliverance to highlight man's role in leading people to salvation, but it is quite another to attribute a specific element of salvation, such as regeneration (or justification, propitiation, glorification, etc) and say that man has a role in that. 

 

Bert Perry's picture

David R. Brumbelow wrote:

AndyE,

What is your definition and differentiation of Regeneration and Salvation?

The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, talked about “saving” people.  And this was in reference to salvation or regeneration.  

If by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them.  -Romans 11:14 

For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?  -1 Corinthians 7:16 

To the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.  -1 Corinthians 9:22

Obviously, Jesus saves us through His sacrificial death.  Yet, Scripture also speaks of others saving us through witness and preaching.  See my article linked above.  Scripture is not always as picky about terminology as we sometimes are.  Finney seemed to notice and expound this as well.  

I still maintain we may disagree with Finney, we may say things differently than Finney, he certainly had his own angle about some doctrines, but he was no heretic.  

David R. Brumbelow

....is that David's cherry-picking a few verses to support Finney in the same way that he does regarding wine to argue that must/wine in fermentation tanks proves non-alcoholic wines in Bible times. He's using figurative language used a handful of times to come to a conclusion that simply does not work well with the majority of uses, variations of "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved."  If one looks at the usage of Strong's 4982 in the way David does, we would also find that things like jealousy (Romans 11:14)  have a soteriological impact. 

That's simply not how sound exegesis and hermeneutics works.  The obvious clarifies the obscure, not vice versa.  

 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Tyler,

I’m sure there are scholarly treatments of Finney, pro and con.  My concern is that people understand Finney’s complete doctrinal positions before they condemn him.  Also, that they recognize they may disagree with him on non-fundamental doctrines, but that does not make him a heretic.  Heresy is a word we should use with caution, and solid, fair evidence.  Are strict Calvinists going to disagree with Finney?  Of course.  But that does not mean Finney is a heretic. 

I’d recommend you check out The Life and Ministry of Charles G. Finney by Dr. Lewis A. Drummond, Bethany House Publishers; 1983. Drummond was a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Especially the chapter on “The Educator’s Theology.”  This chapter answers a number of accusations from Finney’s critics.

David R. Brumbelow

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Tyler,

You might also be interested in the following book.  I haven’t read it, but just ordered it.  It looks good.  

Theology of the American Revivalists: The Theology of the Great Awakenings from Edwards to Finney, by Robert Caldwell, IVP Academic; 2017.  

https://www.amazon.com/Theologies-American-Revivalists-Whitefield-Finney-ebook/dp/B072BGHD6L/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1510614419&sr=8-1&keywords=Theology+of+the+American+Revivalists%3A+The+Theology+of+the+Great+Awakenings+from+Edwards+to+Finney%2C+by+Robert+Caldwell&dpID=51ASqImB6iL&preST=_SY445_QL70_&dpSrc=srch

David R. Brumbelow

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