Is Charles Finney the Prototype for Evangelicalism?

With the recent publication of the second edition of a book from the 1970’s, Douglas M. Strong has repackaged Donald Dayton’s theory that evangelicalism is defined by faith experience and right living, rather than by doctrinal fidelity. 

 Dayton’s book uses Charles G. Finney and those closely tied to him as the exemplars of this trend. While it cannot be denied that Finney preached the gospel (or at least a form of it) widely and pointed many to Christ, there is significant doubt that Finney’s belief system is a viable foundation for a sustainable Christian faith, much less being at the heart of historic evangelicalism.

 Charles G. Finney

Charles G. Finney

 Finney’s intellectual hubris was his theological undoing. As a trained lawyer, and by all accounts a very intelligent man, Finney assumed that he could, without cultural influence, rightly interpret Scripture. Based on a likely limited library at his teacher’s house, Finney rejected all historical Christian teachings because he did not like the way they were argued. Instead, he committed himself to a “no creed but the Bible” approach, without the aid of theological conversation with contemporary or historical peers. This unfortunate confidence was enabled by Finney’s quick wits and premature promotion to public ministry. In truth, Finney’s belief that he could rightly interpret Scripture without any external influence affecting the outcome rests very close to what is known as the “fundamentalist fallacy.”

Misunderstanding the Atonement

 In his autobiography, Finney records his opportunity to debate with a Universalist while he was still in his ministerial training. His teacher was ill and Finney stood in, ostensibly to defend orthodoxy. Finney writes,

I delivered two lectures upon the atonement. In these I think I fully succeeded in showing that the atonement did not consist in the literal payment of the debt of sinners, in the sense in which the Universalist maintained; that it simply rendered the salvation of all men possible, and did not of itself lay God under the 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’s 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 deserve, Christ had only satisfied public justice, by honoring 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 sin; and not that which cancelled sin, in the sense of literally paying for the indebtedness of sinners. (Charles G. Finney, Charles G. Finney: An Autobiography [Westwood, N. J.: Barbour Books], 38)

Finney rejected the notion of election, divine calling, and substitutionary atonement in Christ’s death on the cross.

In truth, Christ’s death on the cross as a human in human form was only necessary because it is substitutionary. If all Christ did was make possible salvation in a general way, it could have as simply been done by fiat as by self-sacrifice. Without extending this post with further discussion on the atonement, it is clear that Christ came as a redeemer not as an enabler. Even taking a thematic view of Scripture, rather than pursuing a verse by verse defense, it does not seem that Finney’s perspective on the atonement is helpful. In short, even without accepting a fully Calvinistic theological paradigm, Finney’s reasoning seems better suited to win an argument against Universalism than to be considered biblically faithful.

An Unsound Foundation for Evangelicalism

 In all this, I am not making the claim that Finney was not converted, nor that he did not have a profound impact on many people. Finney preached a form of the gospel that enabled many to come to faith in Christ through repentance of sin. He was also instrumental, as Dayton and Strong rightly argue, in ending the evils of American slavery.  All of these things could have been, and were otherwise, done while still maintaining doctrinal integrity.

 By basing their image of historic evangelicalism on individuals on the fringe of orthodoxy, more subject to their culture than to Scripture, Dayton and Strong have undermined their own case.

 In fact, most of the organizations and theological movements cited in this volume have tended to cut their mooring to Christian orthodoxy in the years since Finney’s influence. Wheaton University has maintained fidelity to its evangelical doctrine. On the other hand, the Salvation Army is no longer concerned with salvation in any meaningful sense. Oberlin College, where Finney was president, is no longer distinctly Christian.

The track record of Finney’s theology demonstrates a failure to thrive in the long term. In the first generation, the theological content is assumed, in the second it is unknown, and by the third it is rejected.

This should point present day evangelicals toward the need to be active in pursuing social justice while adamant about maintaining the doctrinal orthodoxy of our Christian heritage.