Charles Finney: Hero or Villain?

“Danger Ahead!” should be the sign stamped on the cover of every study of Charles Finney and the New Haven Theology that was at the heart of his revised Palagian teaching known as Oberlin Holiness Theology. Yet, in casual reference after casual reference from both evangelicals like Ray Comfort (of Way of the Master fame) to scholars such as George Marsden (Duke University) list him as a leader in the early evangelical/fundamentalist movement and a champion of evangelism.

Finney and New Haven Theology

The New Haven Theology  (a new perspective on the revival theology pioneered by Jonathan Edwards and others in puritan infused New England) with its Palagian leanings opened the door at the end of the 19th century to a greater danger to the gospel than the evangelical and fundamentalist church faced in liberalism, because he came from a man who some consider to be a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. This new theology argued essentially that “All sin is voluntary, not inherited” and that “People always have the power to act contrary to sin”. This is not Protestant theology, nor even modern Roman Catholic teaching, but accurately represents an historic Palagianism, which the Church has recognized as a heresy for 1500 years.

I have never been able to reconcile why conservative Evangelicals continue to point to a man who rejects the most fundamental of the fundamentals of the Faith, the gospel message of the New Testament as a “Hero of the Faith”. Finney’s Theology is often referred to as an “Arminianized Calvinism”.  This is a strange misrepresentation of both Calvinist and Arminian Doctrine. Finney denied the very faith, which both Calvinists and Arminians have preached (Whitfield and Wesley must be aghast as they watch together from Heaven).

An Ironic Debt

Finney’s teaching though attacking the Faith, has ironically had a largely positive impact on my own growth and ministry. Growing up in conservative evangelical circles, I was repeatedly presented Finney as a role model. But, as a seminary student, I sat with a dorm mate who systematically rejected all the corse elements of the evangelical faith, especially mocking the doctrine of Justification by faith as a myth. It came out in the conversation that he was relying for his critique on a dog eared copy of Charles Finney’s Systematic Theology.

In that moment, God led me to see a clearer view of the urgent practical importance of the impact of theology on ministry and faith, a large debt I owe, ironically, to Finney.

Abhorrant Teachings

In his Systematic TheologyFinney calls Justification by Faith “a myth” stating: “There is scarcely any question in theology that has been encumbered with more injurious and technical mysticism than that of justification” (396). He states forcefully, “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” (398).  He also attacks the Vicarious Atonement of Christ stating: “representing the atonement as the ground of the sinner’s justification, has been a sad occasion of stumbling to many” (399).

Finney teaches the explicit view of the Roman Catholic Church, which was the material cause of the reformation, rejecting the protestant faith altogether: “Present sanctification, in the sense of present full consecration to God, is another condition, not ground, of justification. Some theologians have made justification a condition of sanctification, instead of making sanctification a condition of justification. But this we shall see is an erroneous view of the subject” (405).

Impact and Legacy

Finney should be studied as carefully as Henry Ward Beecher, as he had just as much impact as that liberal  architect of the New American Theology on 20th Century Evangelicalism. But rather than being a counter influence from the outside, Finney’s teaching became an insidious influence from the inside. Those who look back to Finney today as a mentor, in the way my dorm mate did, are sadly in danger of falling from the Faith.  For more on Finney, see Phil Johnson “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” (link).

____________ Finney, Charles Systematic Theology e-text (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library [1878]).

2 thoughts on “Charles Finney: Hero or Villain?

  1. Finney’s view of free will and the avoidability of sin was in perfect agreement with all of the Early Church Fathers prior to Augustine. The doctrine of original sin and man’s natural inability was a Gnostic heresy brought into the Church through Augustine. Finney was not a heretic, as he simply went back to what the Early Church Fathers believed about free will.

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