Monday, May 16, 2016

Some Thoughts on the 19th century Evangelist/Theologian Charles G. Finney

I posted this several years ago on the Confessing Christ listserv as part of an extended debate on the orthodoxy of Charles G. Finney's moral government theology.

I first encountered Finney when I was taking an advanced history course on the U.S. antebellum reform era and the prof, a Christian, recommended Finney. I was also attending an assembly of God church at the time in the full flush of a born again experience in 1972. Finney became the topic for my MA thesis where I focused on his revivals of religion. It was exhilarating studying Finney during the week then going home to the on fire Assembly of God church on the weekends and gaining an experiential sense of the quest for the presence of the spirit of God and a vision of "Victory in Jesus," a core staple of Finney's theology and of the AA church.  Finney never denied the reality of sin, but his best reasoned logic would not allow him to adopt any notion of physical depravity, though he was keen on identifying moral depravity as a voluntary embrace of sin which he tended to identify as specific acts like drinking coffee as well as owning slaves rather than any intrinsic state of mind or spirit.

 At that time I had little understanding of Reformed theology, though I was a good Bible reader in which the Epistle to the Romans was my favored text--a text that Finney spent much time on, also.  For Finney, the theology of Victory in Christ served as a pathway for the embrace of holiness as a lifelong quest with the most serious existential intent.  He did know the difference between justification and sanctification and often returned to the former in his preaching in his objective of being God's agent (aka, attorney) in encouraging potential converts to turn to Christ or what he termed "backsliders" to return home.  On this his preaching could be both incredibly tender as well pointed in its judgmental power in which he took the wrath as well as the love of God with radical seriousness.

 Finney cannot be understood outside the potency of his 1821 conversion experience which served as the touchstone of the remainder of his spiritual life.  For the first 10 years of his post-conversion experience he concentrated on revival preaching from Boston in upper New York State, NYC, and to the pulpits of New England where he was allowed.  This period of his life was marked by a great deal of controversy, which might also be viewed as his most vitriolic period in which he was taking no prisoners.  His caricature of old school religious coldness was one of his chief targets in a period in which one of his key texts, Lectures of Revivals of Religion were published (1835). 

 It is to this text and to this period of his life that most critiques turn to and they miss out or downplay the subtle changes that he underwent from around 1840 through the rest of this life.  His move to Oberlin and his shared ministry with Asa Mahan at the newly formed college was one pivotal factor.  Another, coming from the influence of Mahan, was a renewed experience of the Holy Spirit, which drew for him a very clear distinction  between the spirit of God and human ability.  While he recognized the centrality of both justification and sanctification he clearly emphasized the later as well as the theoretical capacity to obey the will of God as far as we knew it (and for him, that's all that was asked), however much our native ability may have bneen marrred by the consequences of sin. (I'm not necessarily defending this position, but any subtle analysis of Finney's theology needs to be sifted with a knowledge of some of the precise ways he defined this.  The final point I'll major here is that he and his arch rival Charles Hodge carried on a series of very extensive point-counter point debates and it is those debates in particular that need to be carefully sifted through before making a reasoned judgment on Finney's theology and the significance of his broader influence in 19th century U.S. and English Protestant circles.

 I do not consider myself a Finneyite, though there have been periods of my life where his work has been influential in my life in which given both his influence and large body of work merit close examination in which a balanced perspective could emerge through a binocular  affirmational/admonitional reading.

 Two final points;

  1. When I read devotional writers or theologians I try to get a sense of some of the ways that God may have been working in their lives (obviously an imperfect science) and then sifting that person's work and my relation to it accordingly in which i am implicitly asking, what is driving me to consider this person's work at this time.  Thus, at one period of my life I was highly influenced by Walter Brueggemann; in more recent times, JI Packer has had much influence in my life.  Our theological interpretations are invariably affected by such inclinations.
  2. If one takes seriously the distinction Fackre makes between Scripture as the primary source of faith and theology as a primary resource, the one could make a plausible argument that there is an unfathomable gap between the two in which theology, while valuable is always secondary to a canonical approach to Scripture read through the lenses of common and critical sense, through the third litmus test in the hierarchy of values, the context.  on this reading I would place both Reformed theology and Finney's systematic theology as an important secondary concern and sift both works first and foremost through the monocular lens of Scripture as a serious heuristic worthy of much effort, however ultimately impossible that is to do since context is invariably part of the interpretive process.  At the least this could lead to a "post-critical interpretation" in the sense that the text has its own authorial integrity whatever reader-response bias we place on it,.  Through this approach, one shapes one's theology accordingly, drawing on all the resources that one can, yet, if the hierarch of values does hold (and I realize that for Gabe this schema is a heuristic) then that does suggest turning to the Bible first and foremost for understanding and direction, however much we ,may draw on other resources for amplification.

I've linked one pro-Finney review of BB Warfield's assessment of Finney's theology[1].htm