Finney: The Aftermath
by Monte E. Wilson
Modern Evangelicalism bears little resemblance to the faith of our Puritan
and Pilgrim fathers. Our aim is to make people feel better, theirs was to teach
them how to worship God. We hear of how God enables people to save themselves,
they spoke of the God who saves. Our aim is to evenly distribute honor and
praise between man and God, their chief aim was to see that God received all
glory. The average modern evangelical believes that revivals come via
techniques, our Puritan and Pilgrim fathers believed that revivals were
sovereign acts of God. Today, the local church is held in low esteem and
evaluated not by the fruit of changed lives but by the standard of numbers: how
many buildings, how much money, how many converts. Our forefathers believed
that the local church was the most important institution in the community and
evaluated it by its faithfulness to God, His Word and His Ways. Today the mind
is seen as a hindrance to true spirituality. Jonathan Edwards and the average
minister of his day believed the training of the intellect to be of paramount
importance, This transformation of mind sets did not happen overnight and
cannot be solely attributed to one event or one person. However, it can be said
that one man, more than any other, acted as a catalyst and prototype: that man
was Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875.) While practicing law in New York,
Finney attended church services conducted by a friend, George Gale. In 1821, he
became a Christian and almost immediately declared that he has been retained by
God to "plead His cause." For the next eight years he held revival
meetings in the Eastern States. For a short while he was the pastor of Second
Presbyterian Church in New York City. However, He withdrew from the presbytery,
rejecting the Presbyterian disciplinary system. In 1835 he became a professor
in a new Bible college in Oberlin, Ohio, serving as president from
1851-1866. When Finney began his itinerating as a frontier evangelist,
his meetings were almost immediately attended with large numbers of
conversions, as well as great controversy (Iain H. Murray, Revival &
Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858,
[Banner of Truth Trust, 1994] pp. 231-235). The general points of
controversy can be seen in the following headings from a Pastoral Letter,
drafted by pastors of Congregational churches in Oneida and sent to ministers of
the Ministers of the Oneida Association.
"Condemning in the gross, or approving in the gross; Making too much of any favorable appearance; Not guarding against false conversions; Ostentation and noise; The hasty acknowledgment of persons converted; (The strength of a church does not consist in its numbers, but in it's graces . . . We fear that desire of counting numbers is too much indulged, even by good people.)";
"Suffering the feelings to control judgment; Talking too much about opposition; Censuring, as unconverted, or as cold, stupid, and dead, those who are in good standing in the visible church; Praying for persons by name, in an abusive manner; Denouncing as enemies or reviling those who do not approve of everything that is done; Taking the success of any measures, as an evidence that those measures are right, and approved by God." (Murray, p. 234f.)
The problem was not that the concerned pastors did not believe in revival. Their concern was with Finney's methodology and the fact that the means to attaining a "revival" were being so perverted that the results were not only detrimental to the church but injurious to the glory of God. Up to that time, the majority of ministers attributed revivals to the sovereign act of a merciful God. With the coming of Finney, such beliefs were supplanted. While it is a shock to the majority of modern Christians in America, Calvinism and Reformed Theology were the majority report from the beginning of our nation until the time of Finney. While Whitherpsoon, Edwards and Whitefield taught that God was sovereign in the affairs of humanity, Finney helped propagate the Arminian belief that all was in the hands of the individual. This was especially true regarding revival. For Finney and his followers, revivals came via promotion. As he writes in his Lectures on Revivals of Religion:
"Revivals were formerly regarded as miracles . . . For a long time it was supposed by the Church that a revival was a miracle, an interposition of Divine power, with which they had nothing to do, and which they had no more agency in producing than they had in producing thunder, or a storm of hail, or an earthquake. It is only within a few years that ministers generally have supposed revivals were to be promoted, by the use of means designed and adapted specially to that object" (Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revival [Leavitt, Lord & Co., 1835]. p. 17f)
To the modern ear, Finney sounds quite "normal." But to the Calvinistic ears of our spiritual forefathers, he was espousing nothing short of heresy. To say that revivals could be planned, promoted and propagated by man necessitated a revamping of one's appraisal of human nature. If humans are dead in sin, as the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, then regeneration depended upon the sovereign act of the Holy Spirit. However, if regeneration was a matter of a will not enslaved to unrighteousness but free to choose between sin and righteousness, then the individual needed to be argued or persuaded into the Kingdom of God (A great overview of Finney's theology can be found in Benjamin Warfield's, Perfectionism, Chapter IV. "The Theology of Charles G. Finney."). One obvious consequence of this reappraisal of human nature is the placing of technique at the forefront of evangelism and revivals. Before Finney, preaching the Word of God and prayer were generally believed to be the means of grace God would use in His sovereign timing, to bring revival. Now, it was a matter of changing people's minds. Therefore, most anything that could accomplish this end became "holy": anything that was seen to hinder the individual's decision-making process was either foolish or evil. Did teaching "mouldy orthodoxy" (Henry Ward Beecher) bore people? Then it must be replaced with emotionally challenging storytelling that will move the masses. Does the singing of King David's Psalms excite the masses? If not, write simple (simplistic?) choruses and put them to popular tunes. Everything the church does must now be evaluated by one thing: results.
This, of course, leads to a reevaluation of the qualification of the minister. In the beginning of our nation's history, the majority of our spiritual forefathers understood the necessity of education and saw a sound mind as a character quality required by God. The Puritans placed great value on education and were typically the leading educators. As Richard Hofstadter notes,
"Among the first generation of American Puritans, men of learning were both numerous and honored. There were about one university-trained scholar, usually from Cambridge or Oxford, to every forty of fifty families. Puritans expected their clergy to be distinguished for scholarship, and during the entire colonial period all but five percent of the clergymen of New England Congregational churches had college degrees. These Puritan emigrants, with their reliance upon the Book and their wealth of scholarly leadership, founded that intellectual and scholarly tradition which for three centuries enabled New England to lead the country in educational and scholarly achievements (Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," [Alfred A. Knopf, 1979] p.60).
With Finney and the Second Great Awakening, this testimony to academic and intellectual excellence waned. Because so many of the pastors of "dead" churches (i.e., those who did not attain the desired results) were not "converted," (i.e., they disagreed with Finney and men of his ilk), a polarization took place between men of the "Spirit" and men of "intelligence." It increasingly became a badge of honor to be ignorant! To be educated could well be grounds enough to call into question one's conversion—or at least his sanctification. What the modern minister needed was not so much an education in biblical languages, orthodoxy, history and the like but an understanding of human psychology and the techniques of moving the sinner's will to choose God. It seems that what God needed was not ministers but salesmen. As Iain Murray writes of this time,
"In the new age of democracy, now dawning, traditional positions and offices stood for far less, and half-educated, fast-talking speakers, claiming to preach the simple Bible, and attacking the Christian ministry, were more likely then ever to find a hearing . . . . Finney frequently criticized ministers of the gospel: His lectures were full of examples of revivals which had been killed by the inept practices of ministers unskilled in the science of revivalism." (Murray, p. 282).
From the Puritan ideal of the minister as an intellectual leader, the church, under men like Finney, began to think of the ideal minister as a crusading exhorter who never moved away from the most simplistic explanations of the faith for fear of "quenching the Spirit" and resisting revival. Finney, like Dwight L. Moody, opposed the formal study of divinity. Quoting Nathan O. Hatch, David Wells notes that "Their sermons were colloquial, employing daring pulpit storytelling, no-holds-barred appeals, overt humor, strident attacks, graphic application, and intimate personal experience." Charles Finney despised sermons that were formally delivered on the grounds that they put content ahead of communication . . ." (David Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams, [Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994] p.62).
The church as Mater and Schola was replaced with the church as a revival center. What was all-important to the leaders of the Second Great Awakening was one's "personal salvation." Every other concern (e.g., social, intellectual, political) was secondary, if of any importance at all. Subsequently, only those denominations "which exploited innovative revival techniques to carry the gospel to the people, flourished" (Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, [Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994] p.62).
Finney believed that proof of the truths he was preaching concerning revival was in the great numbers of those being converted. He never wearied of telling his fellow ministers that, if they would just follow his techniques, revival would inevitably follow. However, by Finney's own admission, rather than a continuous revival sweeping across the land "(T)he glory has been departing and revivals have been becoming less and less frequent—less powerful"(Murray, p.285f). Worse, he admits that the great body of those who were thought to have been converted were a "disgrace to religion" (Murray, p.289). By Finney's own standard, his teachings on how to produce converts and revival, as well as their underlying assumptions, were proven wrong.
Finney's theology betrayed him. Because he believed that everyone had the ability to instantly receive Christ upon hearing the gospel, many who were spiritually unprepared decided to accept Christ, but in reality were still, at best, seekers. Finneyism, in seeking to close the sale, actually served to close hearts and minds to the biblical message of salvation, leaving people deceived as to their spiritual state, wondering why the Christian life eluded them. Tragically, Finneyan theology is still all the rage in much of Evangelicalism. One can only hope that its defective fruit will plague, burden and shame us to the point where our humiliation will turn to humility which will lead to the pursuit of biblical truth and godly practices.
An Open Letter To A Charismatic Pastor
The following letter is a small part of a response to an inquiry of a pastor of a charismatic church which was moving toward Reformed theology: "If you could sit down with my elders exactly what would you say to them? They are classical Charismatics with a bent toward Latter Rain theology and a deep fascination with personal prophecy."
I have frequently been informed by my Reformed friends that it is impossible to wed Reformed theology to charismatic practice. I must say that my own experiences in such quests have been marked by more failures than successes. But, since I see Reformed theology and the present reality of the gifts of the Holy Spirit as biblical, I don't see where we have the right to ignore either as we seek to lead those whom we pastor. However, you should face the fact that the hard core on both sides of the wedding will run out of the church screaming before you can get them down the aisle for the giving and receiving of vows!
I think one of the most important things I would seek to communicate with your elders is to stop referring to themselves as "Charismatic." Besides the divisiveness of drawing lines between "us" and "them," it simply is not a biblical distinction. All Christians have the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings gifts with His presence. Therefore, all Christians are gifted by the Holy Spirit; they are ALL Charismatics. Now the fact that Paul exhorts us to be filled with the Holy Spirit implies that we can be dangerously close to empty. However, Second Blessing theology is biblically unsound. Yes, there is the day of Pentecost but, besides the historical uniqueness of this event, please note that these same people, two chapters later, are huddled in another upper room asking to be filled again. This is the normal Christian experience: filled again and again and again. Certainly the first experience may carry a special significance in our journey due to its "firstness" but it is still just one of the first blessings among many more to come.
"Orthodoxy matters," is another point I would try to make to your leaders. Now, admittedly, if I was speaking to other churches I might say something like, "For many of you, orthodoxy is enough. I wish to ask, however, enough for what?" But Charismatics are notorious for building great edifices with no foundations. "And the rains fell, and the winds blew . . . " Imagine the changes in theology and practice if the charismatic wing of things would spend time studying the orthodox teachings of the Church concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation of Christ, taking their churches through the Nicene Creed, teaching them about the statement of Christ's nature found in The Creed of Chalcedon and then spent a year on the attributes of God.
One of the more difficult but necessary shifts in thinking I would try to help your elders make concerns "being led of the Spirit." First, they must see that Paul was speaking to the Romans about becoming holy, not following impressions. Second, we were given minds and the ability to choose between two roads because the Father wishes for His children to increase in wisdom. As I have noted many times, God did not tell Adam what to the name the animals, just that he was to name them. Adam did not "prophecy" over the animals (God speaking through him):
"Yea, thou art a monkey." Adam was to exercise his considerable talents and endowments toward the end of maturation. Too many Charismatics are not growing up, not increasing in wisdom, because of the mistaken notion that their brains and capacity for decision-making are of little use in the Spirit-filled life. Third, we must emphasize "being obedient" over "being spiritual," what "the Bible commands" over "what I feel and sense God is saying." Along this line of thought, I would also discuss the whole notion of "being led into truth." Do we read the Bible and just allow our mind to float and glob onto any notion that arises, calling it "the Truth"? Or should we prayerfully use "tools" like, dictionaries, commentaries, the historical teachings of the Church, principles of interpretation (context, grammar, etc.)? Anyway, that particular promise was specifically given to the Twelve Apostles, and, therefore, only has a secondary application to any other believer. One of the more common sins in most Christian camps is intellectual bigotry. We refuse to relate to, much less to study, any one who is not in our camp. If they aren't Reformed, then we don't give them the time of day. If they aren't Charismatics, why place any weight on their teachings? If they don't pronounce and define our pet doctrines exactly as we do (can you say, "Shibboleth?), why waste time? I recommend you buy your elders D.A. Carson's book , Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of I Corinthians 12-14 and RJ Rushdoony's, Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church. These two books ought to stretch their thinking. Personal prophecy, huh? What a tar pit that is going to be. What I tried as a pastor was to leave it alone for a while—just ignore it—and emphasize objective truth, wisdom and decision-making skills. You want to watch people squirm? Teach on the commandment to Not Take the Name of the Lord in Vain or to Not Bear False Witness. That ought to set people back in their seats and make them re-think all this nonsense masquerading as The Word of the Lord. It should concern people that most all of the prophecies they hear in these meetings inform people of their greatness: they will perform great and mighty deeds, be like David (is anyone ever going to be like, say, the martyr Stephen?), be a leader of leaders and be healthy, wealthy and wise. No one is ever going to be a nondescript housewife who raises godly children or a quiet, lower middle-class unassuming brother who salts his community with good deeds of charity and service. Very suspicious, if you ask me. Years ago I was in a meeting when a lady spoke forth, "Thus saith the Lord, Don't be discouraged, My little children...even I get discouraged sometimes'." Whoa! And we wonder why our Refomred friends look askance at the gift of prophecy? I believe God, by His Holy Spirit, brings clarity to His Word and helps us see how to apply it to our lives, churches and culture. I believe He "supernaturally" gives insight into particular issues and problems. I frequently chuckle as I listen to men who deny the gifts of the Spirit stop in the middle of their messages and say, "There may be someone here who is saying, This won't work for me,'" and then proceed to cast the arrow of God's Word right at the heart of the doubter, using illustrations specifically tailored by the Holy Spirit for this person's problems. I believe that God speaks to us far more often than the Reformed brethren believe (has He gone deaf, dumb and blind since the Apostle John died?) and far less frequently than the majority of Charismatics believe. This, of course, leaves me being ridiculed by both sides of the argument.
I think one of the more healthy things for a charismatic church to work on is the development of a biblical understanding of suffering and perseverance. The whole charismatic idea of true spirituality and of the normal Christian life is painfully close to the idea of a life touched by magic: perfect marriages, obedient children, no sickness, no divorce, no poverty, no tragedies, no defeats, no death. "No dice," saith God. Read Peter Kreeft's book, Making Sense Out of Suffering. Take your elders through an historic overview of the ten great persecutions of the Church and ask them if these people were "Spirit-filled."
Be patient. You're probably not going to get too far down the road toward your
destination. Just try to make a few steps in the right direction and clear as
much debris away as possible. Hope for the best. . .but prepare for the worst.
Copyright 1996 Monte E. Wilson permission to reprint granted as long as full credit and address cited Classical Christianity PO Box 22 Atlanta, GA. 30239 MonteThird@aol.com