A Chapter From
CHARLES GRANDISON FINNEY
G. FREDERICK WRIGHT, D.D., LL. D.
Charles Grandison Finney by G. Frederick Wright is one of the best biographys on this hero of the Christian faith. This book details the life, ministry, and theology of the greatest revivalists America has ever seen. While Finney’s modern critics always try to downplay his success as an evangelist, this book was written by someone who was actually there in the 19th Century, who knew and worked with Finney for 30 years.
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THE THEOLOGIAN AND PHILOSOPHER
Early Theological Predilections.
ACCORDING to the ordinary course of things, it would seem in the highest degree preposterous for a man with Finney’s experience previous to 1835 to set about the task of restating the theology of the church, and of reconstructing its underlying philosophy. For, as already stated, the first Bible he owned was purchased as a law-book when he was nearly thirty years old; while his conversion was of such an extraordinary character as almost of necessity to thrust him into the work of preaching without preliminary study. But it should be remembered that his knowledge of practical affairs and his legal training, combined with the deep experience of the gospel in connection with his conversion, made him a most apt student of the Scriptures; and it is everywhere evident in his writings that he had studied the Bible faithfully, and had obtained a thorough knowledge of its teachings. The illumination of the Spirit which he sought upon his knees was connected with the illumination reflected to his eyes from the book always open before him. Moreover, his study of the Scriptures was for the practical purposes of the hour, that he might meet the wants of the hungry souls to whom from the first he was called upon to minister. In his pastor and first instructor, Mr. Gale, also, he was associated with a man of no inferior quality, whose influence was probably greater upon his mind than he ever realized.
On coming to labor in the vicinity of Rome and Utica, in the second year of his ministry, Finney was brought into contact with ministers of New England training, in whose minds the theology of Edwards and his successors was the dominating influence. It was in the house of Rev. Dr. Aiken, of Utica, that he first read Edwards “On Revivals,” as well as other volumes by the same writer. Of these he “often spoke with rapture,” according to Dr. Aiken,(53) who adds that Edwards “On Revivals” and Edwards “On the Affections” were more read by his own family than any other book except the Bible. Dr. Aiken thinks these books had a perceptible influence on Finney in toning down the original harshness of his expressions in preaching. It was about this time that Finney preached in Utica his celebrated sermon, above referred to, upon the text, “Can two walk together except they be agreed” And this sermon certainly shows many indubitable marks of Edwards’s influence.
Upon going from Utica to Troy, in the winter of 1827, Finney became acquainted with Rev. N. S. S. Beman, whose influence, as already remarked, was making itself powerfully felt in the liberalizing movement which ended in the disruption of the Presbyterian Church ten years later. It is instructive to notice that Beman’s published opinions on the atonement coincided closely with those which Finney himself subsequently wrought out.
When, a little later, Finney went to New York, and came in contact with the Tappans, he was brought into the circle of influences then radiating from Dr. Taylor, of New Haven, who was then the great advocate of the self-determining power of the human will. Yale Divinity School was established in 1822. While gathering funds for this, Beecher and Taylor made the house of Arthur Tappan their headquarters when in New York. Just how much association Finney had with Taylor cannot now be directly ascertained; but it is related(54) by the late Rev. George Clark that, previous to 1836, he was present at New Haven at an interview between Finney and Taylor, and listened with rapt attention to these two as they discussed great theological questions.
Finney’s first labors in Boston also brought him into close contact with the theological speculations of the New England divines. His sermon in that city in 1831, upon the duty of sinners to change their own hearts, provoked most lively discussion. Rev. Asa Rand took notes, and severely criticised it in “The Volunteer,” a paper started in Boston, and edited by him, for the express purpose of counteracting the new measures coming into use for the promotion of revivals. His strictures were soon afterwards enlarged, and published in a pamphlet, which called out answers from various quarters; these, in turn, led to a rejoinder in another pamphlet by Rand. The most important publication which appeared in defense of Finney’s views was an anonymous pamphlet attributed afterwards to Rev. Dr. Wisner, pastor of the Old South Church, Boston. The two theological parties then dividing New England were respectively called ‘”Tasters” and “Exercise Men.” The Tasters were best represented by Asa Burton, of Thetford, Vt., who in his quiet parish had trained a large number of ministers, and by his writings had profoundly affected the thought of his time. His views were essentially those of the Old School Calvinists, since he maintained that there must be a radical change in the tastes of the soul before it could choose holiness. In this view, regeneration is regarded not as coetaneous with conversion, but as preceding it. As before intimated, the exhortation to sinners naturally connected with this belief is, not that they should repent, but that they should read the Bible, attend the means of grace, and wait upon the Lord till He should change their affections and “give them a relish” for holiness.
The Exercise scheme was that advocated by Nathaniel Emmons, also a country pastor, in whose house a still larger number of ministers had been trained. According to this, regeneration and conversion are coetaneous, and the sinner is called upon, in view of the light he has, to exercise his native powers in repentance and faith. In the anonymous pamphlet just referred to, it was shown that Finney’s teaching upon this point was closely allied to that of Emmons, and much learning was displayed in proving, also, that these views had always been prevalent in the church, and had always been recognized as orthodox.
Thus, before coming to Oberlin, Finney was thoroughly identified with the New School Calvinisin of the times. On entering his new field, and setting about the task of systematizing his belief so as to impart it to his pupils, he found himself still further aided in the formulation of the New School position, both by his associate teachers and by his pupils. Professors John and Henry Cowles were fresh from the classes of N. W. Taylor at New Haven; while Professor Morgan, during his college course and in connection with Mark Hopkins, had sat in the classes and under the preaching of President Griffin, of Williams College, and, later, had come under the private instruction of pastors in New York city and of Beecher in Lane Seminary, and had acquired full knowledge of the New School position. President Mahan was an Andover graduate. The students, also, were by no means deficient in theological ideas and predilections, but were all of them young men of remarkable independence of thought, who demanded to know the reason of the faith they were to preach. The main parts of the system wrought out by Finney under these influences we will now detail.
Views of Inspiration
At the close of his first five years at Oberlin, Finney printed for class use an important volume, of two hundred and forty-eight octavo pages, containing the skeletons of his theological lectures as then elaborated. These cover the subjects of natural theology; the authority of the Bible, and its teaching concerning the natural and moral attributes of God; the nature of Christ and of the Holy Spirit; the foundation of moral obligation; the government of God; the sanctions of law; and the atonement. In this volume there was not much to which any of the New School Calvinists of that time could object. The introductory lectures upon “The Intuitions of the Reason” and upon “The Nature of Evidence” show rare skill in penetrating the central points of the themes under discussion, and are worthy of the closest study. The lectures upon “The Existence of God” and upon “Various Phases of Atheism” are also, even in this sketchy condition, of the very highest value; as are the chapters upon “The Divine Authority of the Bible,” – a doctrine which he defends in the most thorough going manner.
Finney did not often write book reviews; but upon the appearance, a year or two later, of a book likely to have a wide circulation, and which contained, as he believed, erroneous views concerning inspiration, he wrote a letter to the “Oberlin Evangelist,” from which the following quotation is made, principally to show the quickness of his mind in perceiving the questions at issue in modern discussions upon the subject.
“The ground taken by the writer is that the historical parts, especially, of the New Testament are not inspired, not even with the inspiration of such a degree of divine superintendence as to exclude error and contradiction from them. He takes the ground that there are palpable inconsistencies and flat contradictions between the writers of the Gospels, and points out several instances, it appears to me, very much with the art and spirit of infidelity, which he affirms to be irreconcilable contradictions. The ground taken by him is that the doctrinal parts of the New Testament are inspired, but that the historical parts, or the mere narrative, are uninspired.
“Who will not see at first blush that, if the writers were mistaken in recording the acts of Christ, there is equal reason to believe they were mistaken in recording the doctrines of Christ? Who does not know that the record of the doctrines preached by Christ is mere narrative and history, just as much as the journeyings, conversations, and acts of Christ? To say that the narrative of the gospel is uninspired with the inspiration of superintendence is the same thing as to say that the whole gospel is uninspired. For what are the Gospels but narratives or histories of Christ’s birth, life, preaching, conversations, miracles, death, resurrection, ascension, etc.? Now, what an inadmissible distinction is attempted when it is affirmed that the didactic or doctrinal portions of the gospel are inspired, while the narrative is uninspired? Only convince the world and the church that the narrative of the gospel is uninspired, – that there are irreconcilable contradictions between the writers, – and who will or who can consistently believe that they may not have committed errors in stating the doctrines of the gospel?
“The cases brought forward by this writer, supposed by him to be irreconcilable contradictions, are specimens of just that class of apparent discrepancies which forbid the idea of collusion among the witnesses. When such apparent discrepancies as these exist among witnesses in courts of justice, and it is found, on a thorough examination, that they can be reconciled with each other, such apparent discrepancies are considered as greatly corroborative of the truth, and add much to the credibility of the witnesses, upon the ground that they forbid the supposition of collusion among them. Now nothing is to be regarded as a contradiction except that which cannot by any possibility be reconciled. And there is no serious difficulty, in any of the cases adduced by the writer, in showing that the account of each of the evangelists may be strictly true, one omitting some circumstances mentioned by others. . . .
“It is amazing that the writer of that article should not have ingenuity enough, if he had never seen the subject examined, to discover some way in which those writers could be easily enough reconciled with each other, and their apparent discrepancies satisfactorily explained. In all such cases we are bound to show only that they may be consistent with each other.”(55)
To such an extent did Finney rely upon the direct illumination of the Spirit in securing conversion and sanctification, that it is important to notice, as in this extract, how firmly he held to the plenary inspiration and the absolute authority of the Bible; and it is interesting and instructive also to observe how his legal training led him to formulate the proof of inspiration in accordance with the strictest principles of inductive reasoning. In his lectures, he goes over the whole ground in the broadest and most comprehensive manner. The doctrine, he says, does not imply that the writers received everything they recorded by direct revelation, nor that they were passive instruments, nor that their own individuality of style should be destroyed, nor that they should record only circumstances of great importance, nor that every part of the Bible is equally intelligible to all persons in all ages and places, nor that the writers themselves always fully understood what they wrote, nor that different writers should notice the same particulars in recording the same transactions. It is only necessary that they have substantial agreement with out absolute contradiction; that they wrote nothing which, when properly interpreted, is false; and that by divine illumination and guidance they communicated authoritatively the mind and will of God.
That the Bible is so inspired he proves, not by a bare appeal to tradition, nor by an appeal to the miraculous powers of the writers, nor by the mere assertion of the writers themselves, unless they were endued with miraculous powers, nor by the elevated style of the writing alone, nor by the sublimity of the doctrines, nor by arguments independent of the style and doctrines; but, assuming the authenticity, genuineness, and credibility of the books to have been proved, he argues that inspiration follows from the facts that Christ promised his apostles the gift both of miracles and of inspiration, that He actually gave them miraculous power, that some of them positively affirmed their inspiration, and that their style, their doctrines, and their freedom from known error confirm these claims. In the treatment of proof-texts substantiating these points, nothing seems to be wanting, and the omission in the positive argument of proper reference to tradition is supplied in the answer he gives to objections.
For example, to the objection that Mark and Luke were not apostles, and therefore that the promises of inspiration and miraculous power did not extend to them, he replies that miraculous power was certainly possessed by many of the early disciples besides the apostles, and so by inference was doubtless the gift of inspiration; that Mark and Luke evidently wrote under the eye of apostles; and, finally, that if the apostles had not approved and confirmed these Gospels, they could not have been so universally received by the church, from the very first, as of divine authority.
To the objection that Paul in some instances seems to declare that he was not inspired, as in 1 Cor. vii. 10, 12, 25, 40, and in 2 Cor. viii. 8, 10, 11, 17, he replies, first, that “if Paul really intends to notify his readers that in these instances he did not write under the influence of divine inspiration, it greatly confirms the fact of his actual inspiration in all other cases, for why should he be so careful in these particular instances to guard his readers against the supposition that he spoke by divine authority if in other cases he did not in fact do so? But, second, Paul might, and probably did, mean nothing more in these instances than that the Lord had given no express command in respect to these particulars, as no universal rule in relation to such matters could be adopted in the then circumstances of the church, and that he therefore, as an inspired apostle, did not mean to give a command in the name of the Lord, but simply give his inspired advice as one who had the Spirit of the Lord.”
As to the objection drawn from 2 Cor. xi. 17, where Paul says that he speaks, “not after the Lord, but as it were foolishly,” Finney remarks that “the apostle seems here to have meant that he felt embarrassed by the circumstances under which they had placed him, and was constrained therefore to speak, not after the example of the Lord in respect to speaking in his own defense, but was obliged to speak as it were foolishly, as if he were a confident boaster. This does not imply that he does not consider himself inspired, but that his inspiration made it necessary, under the circumstances, for him to say what might appear immodest, and as inconsistent with Christian humility.”
He concludes his discussion of the subject by remarking that “the question of the inspiration of the Bible is one of the highest importance to the church and the world, and that those who have called in question the plenary inspiration of the Bible have, sooner or later, frittered away nearly all that is essential to the Christian religion.” From this it appears that he was as far as possible from being open to the charge sometimes urged against him of disregarding the Bible in the formulation of his theological system. Whatever tenets of theology he held, he certainly suppposed he was justified in holding them by a proper interpretation of the Scripture, and at every point he appealed to the Scripture for confirmation of the positions taken.
Reason and Revelation
Nevertheless, Finney maintained with great strenuousness that the correspondences between the Bible and the intimation and teachings of man’s moral nature as revealed in consciousness were so minute and extensive as to furnish, in preaching, an unimpeachable working basis for securing belief in the gospel, and for exhortation to the higher duties of the Christian religion. The skill and power with which he handled this subject appears to advantage in a sermon preached, in 1854 upon “The Inner and Outer Revelation,” from 2 Cor. iv.2. After drawing out in some detail the fundamental affirmations of our moral nature concerning the existence and the law of God, and concerning our own helplessness under the condemnation of a broken law, he goes on to show that the provisions of grace are so fully and beautifully correlated to our wants and necessities as sinners, that we cannot help regarding the Bible as coming from the same Being who has created our moral nature and revealed himself in it.
“Having the first revelation,” he goes on to say, “to reject the second is most absurd. The second is to a great extent a reaffirmation of the first, with various important additions of a supplementary sort, e.g. the atonement, and hence the possibility of pardon; the gift and work of the Spirit, and hence the analogous possibility of being saved from sinning.”
In Finney’s treatment of this subject, as the previous quotation shows, he on the one hand avoided the mystical vagueness of those who unduly rely for light upon the so-called “Christian consciousness,” and, on the other, stood far aloof from the cold agnosticism of those who unduly rely upon the unaided powers of the human reason. While always and everywhere acknowledging the authority of Scripture, at the same time he was confident that a popular audience could be made to see the main grounds on which the reason is led to accept its doctrines as authoritative. Recognizing, as he did, that few persons are able to give independent study to the historical argument in support of the Bible, he maintained that there is a shorter course which is equally trustworthy, and which fully justifies the popular use of the Bible among Protestant communities. “It is,” he says, “a simple problem: given, a soul guilty, condemned, and undone; required, some adequate relief. The gospel solves the problem. . . . It answers every condition perfectly; it must therefore come from God; it is, at least, our highest wisdom to accept it.” In expanding this thought, he contends that the written revelation is so perfectly correlated to the affirmation of man’s moral nature concerning law, God, obligation, guilt, and ruin, that both must have had the same originator. Only the Creator of the human heart could have made such adequate provision for its wants as is found in the Scriptures. “In the Bible,” he says, “we have a system of duty and salvation of such sort that it interlocks itself inseparably with truth intuitive to man, and manifestly fills out a complement of moral instructions and agencies in perfect adaptation to both man and his Maker.” In the Bible we have a key that threads the countless wards of a most complicated lock. The Bible and the human heart must therefore have come from the same author; the one was made to fit the other. “You cannot grant to man an origin from God but you must grant the same origin to the Bible. . . . The reason, therefore, why the masses receive the Bible is, not that they are credulous, and hence swallow down absurdities with ease, but the reason is, that it commends itself so irresistibly to each man’s own nature and to his deep and resistless conviction, he is shut up to receive it; he must do violence to his inner convictions if he reject it. Man’s whole nature cries out, ‘This is just what I need.”‘
But with Finney this did not end in mere sentimentalism. For, according to him, one need of the human heart is of such a manifestation of God’s justice as is made either in the punishment of the incorrigibly wicked, or, if their just punishment is remitted, in such remedial provisions as are found in the atonement.
In the sermon referred to, the principle is illustrated by a characteristic account of his dealing with a young lady who came to him in great spiritual darkness, and who was unable to believe that God’s promised mercy comprehended her own case. She freely admitted her guilt; but, as she had not been brought to have unquestioned faith in the Bible, she despaired of mercy. At this point, Finney unfolded before her mind the facts recorded in the Bible respecting what God had done to alleviate the consequences of sin, and asked if this was not just such a manifestation of God as her soul needed and craved. She assented that it was, but pronounced it incredible that God should have done so much for his sinning creatures. It was too good to be true. Still she gave intellectual assent to the statement that God is infinitely good. At this crisis in her experience, Finney solemnly called upon her to give God credit for sincerity, and believe the word which He had pledged concerning the forgiveness of sin. To this she responded, “I do believe,” and burst into loud weeping as a result of the joy accompanying her belief. Upon relating this, Finney exclaims, “What a scene, – to see a skeptic beginning to give her God credit for love and truth!”(56) Thus it was that Finney ever looked upon faith as an act, as well as an intellectual state. When the evidence was brought before the mind, he assumed that there must be a moral delinquency if one failed to take the proper action in view of it. His skill as a preacher consisted not only in unfolding the evidence, but in narrowing the sphere of immediate activity down to so clear a point that conviction of immediate duty could not be resisted. He called for no action that was not at the time demanded by the reason of the case as apprehended by his hearers.
All the chapters upon the attributes of God, in Finney’s preliminary volume, display to good advantage the metaphysical cast of his mind, and the strong grasp which he had of the fundamental questions in philosophy. Some further attention to these is necessary, in order to understand the ampler discussions concerning the controverted theological doctrines found in his later works.
Finney’s hold upon the doctrine of the personality of God is strong and his argument in proof of the existence of such a personality as expressed in these “Skeletons,” though brief, is most cogent. First and foremost of these proofs is the existence and demand of our moral nature. Man is conscious of having moral character, and has a sense of being praiseworthy or blameworthy for his conduct, that is, he has a moral constitution which intuitively imposes upon him a moral law. The possession by a finite being of such a constitution and moral law irresistibly reveals a Creator who is himself a moral being and a lawgiver. It was upon the argument from these common convictions of men with reference to the divine existence, traceable to the existence of a moral law within them, that Finney chiefly relied for his proof of God’s personality; and he assumed that the elements of this argument were present in the human mind from the very first, previous to any theoretical or formal statement. So cogent is the argument, he avers, that it “always has insured and always will insure the conviction of the great mass of men.” In perusing his sermons, one constantly encounters this line of reasoning, and the success of his preaching is largely attributable to his skill in securing the assent of his hearers to his fundamental propositions, whether they believed the Bible or not. With inquirers who were desirous of drawing him out to the discussion of subsidiary questions of doubt and difficulty, his conversation was likely to be something as follows: “You have no time for such discussions now. Do you “believe in a moral law?” The inquirer could but answer, “Yes.” “Are you not conscious of having broken that law?” He was a very hardened man who would not also answer, “Yes.” “When you are willing to pledge obedience to that law as far as you understand it, and to the God who made it, we can discuss these other difficulties, but not before.”
But Finney recognized other considerations as confirmatory of the moral argument. He did not neglect to maintain that the existence of the physical universe indicates a First Cause, and that the adjustment of means to ends in that universe indicates a designing Cause, and that the general consent of mankind to the existence of a God is also confirmatory of the main argument. The metaphysical argument is drawn out by him – to a considerable length, in which he concludes that “the existence of God is an inference or affirmation of reason removed one step back from consciousness. I think, therefore I am. This is the first inference. I am, the universe is, therefore God is, is the second step or affirmation; and the second has the same certainty as the first, because it is based upon it. The existence of God, then, is as certain as my own existence and the existence of the universe. . . . The events of the universe being admitted or proved, it is impossible that God should not exist. The contrary supposition is an absurdity, as it assumes that the universe of events is uncaused, which is absurd. If by ‘demonstration’ we mean that which shows that the proposition in the question can but be true, the argument for the existence of God amounts to a demonstration.”(57)
Some of Finney’s answers to atheistic objections are specially worthy of note. For example, to the objection that a God of infinite goodness, knowledge, and power could not be the author of a universe involving so much evil both physical and moral as is known to exist, Finney answers, “Infinite goodness, knowledge, and power imply only that, if a universe were made, it would be the best that was naturally possible. This objection assumes that a better universe, upon the whole, was a natural possibility. It assumes that a universe of moral beings could, under a moral government administered in the wisest and best manner, be wholly restrained from sin; but this needs proof, and never can be proved.”
Falling back upon the doctrine of God’s inscrutability, he argues that our failure to understand all the reasons for the present constitution of things is no bar to our believing that there may be ample reason for its existence, and proceeds not only to enforce the positive evidence of benevolent design, but to show that much which seems to us void of design, and especially of benevolent design, may, after all, be the product of the highest benevolence. The principal starting-point for all this line of reasoning is found in the emphasis which we are permitted to throw upon the possibilities of moral freedom and the nobility of moral discipline; still, with respect to the natural evils to which the animal creation is subjected, another line of argument has to be introduced, which, as we shall see a little later, Finney used with as much confidence and skill as is displayed by any modern naturalist.
In coming to the subject of the moral attributes of God, we approach questions upon which systems of theology begin to diverge from each other. Finney held, with Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, and N. W. Taylor, that benevolence, in the sense of willing the existence of the highest attainable absolute good, is the sum of all virtue in man, and of all the adorable moral attributes of God. Justice, mercy, truth, in all their manifestations, are but forms of benevolence, modified by the conditions under which the benevolent volition expresses itself. Regarding God, therefore, as a moral agent possessing true freedom, as well as infinite knowledge, Finney finds in the very fact of his omniscience the ground of our confidence that God is benevolent. His whole treatment of this subject, even in the skeleton form, is most suggestive.
Finney argues the benevolence of God from his omniscience. For God cannot but know all the reasons in favor of benevolence, and cannot divert attention from them so as to obscure their character, and the reason affirms that God must always act under the full force of these motives to benevolence. As Finney clearly perceived, this statement of the case involves the Socratic idea that sin is a result of ignorance. The wicked man does evil because his attention is temporarily diverted from the strength of the motives urging him to benevolence. Nevertheless, without any attempt at explanation, Finney adhered to this ground of belief in God’s unvarying benevolence, and, at the same time, rejected the necessitarian interpretation usually put upon the Socratic doctrine. He knew how to distinguish between a certainty and a necessity, – between the action of a moral motive and that of a locomotive.
An additional argument adduced by Finney for the divine benevolence is drawn from the fact that God has bestowed upon man a moral nature, and has thus made him capable of approving the good and condemning the evil. If God were not perfectly good, He would have every motive to abstain from bestowing upon the creature a capacity which would compel him to abhor the conduct of his Creator.
With respect to the question of the Creator’s benevolence towards the animal creation as considered by itself, Finney sides with naturalists like Wallace, rather than with sentimentalists like Arnold, John Stuart Mill, and Tennyson. Indeed, some of the passages in Wallace’s recent chapters on the beneficence of nature(58) might well have been taken from these “Skeletons” of Finney, written fifty years before. So far from being depressed, as Tennyson was, by the wholesale destruction of many forms of life, Finney, like Wallace and others of his class, – finds it possible to derive an actual argument for the divine benevolence from this quarter, concluding that not only is it no insurmountable objection, to either God’s wisdom, or power, or benevolence, that –
“From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, A thousand types are gone,”
but that these very facts afford proof of the Creator’s benevolence.
“Animal life,” he says, “while it lasts, is a real blessing, and probably in every instance more than compensates for the pain of death.
“From the very constitution of animals, they are necessarily mortal, and it is certainly good economy to make the carcass of one food for others, as in this case a greater number of animals can subsist upon the earth; e.g. let the earth be filled with vegetable-eating animals, as many as could subsist upon that species of diet; then let us suppose another class of animals to subsist upon the flesh of the vegetable-eating animals, and another class to subsist upon the milk both of the vegetable and flesh-eating animals: it is easy to see that in this way a greater amount of animal life, and consequently of bestial happiness, can be secured than would be otherwise possible. The fact that animals do so subsist is, therefore, a striking evidence of the economic benevolence of the Creator. Just so in the sea. One species of fish may live on certain marine substances; and when the number is so multiplied as that no more can be supplied with such kinds of aliment, other species may exist that will prey upon these, as is actually the fact, and thus a greater number of fishes may exist than were otherwise possible.
“It cannot be shown that the whole amount of animal happiness is not greater than if animals and fishes were not to prey upon one another.”(59)
So of the objection to God’s benevolence drawn from the existence of pain in general, Finney affirms that it “cannot be shown that, in a world like this, sickness, pain, death, and other apparent ills are real evils. They certainly are often only blessings in disguise. And it cannot be shown that they are not invariably so.
“With respect to the death of infants and of animals, their death may be mercifully ordered to prevent still greater calamities befalling them. And in the case of infants, there is no reason to doubt that their natural death is only the entrance upon eternal life.”(60)
Nor does he shrink from facing the most appalling of all objections to the coexistence in God both of benevolence and almighty power, namely, the prevalence of sin in the universe. In maintaining the existence of these divine attributes in face of the moral evil which so abounds in the world, Finney falls back, with the New Haven theologians of his time, upon the manifest principle, that the best possible universe might not be the best conceivable universe. We can conceive that the universe would be actually better than it is if the moral beings created had uniformly used their moral powers aright; yet it might not in the nature of things be possible to bestow these high powers upon created beings, and then compel absolute obedience. It is sufficient to justify the ways of God in the creation and government of the universe to prove that the universe as it is, is better than no universe at all; or rather, it is incumbent upon those who deny or doubt either the benevolence or the power of God, To prove that the existence of the present universe is not a positive addition to the sum of well-being. Upon this point a single paragraph gives the gist of Finney’s views: –
“It cannot be shown that the present system, with all its natural and moral evils, does not, after all, result in a greater amount of virtue and happiness than any other system would or could have done. Had there been more temptation, it might have destroyed all virtue. Had there been less, virtue had certainly been less valuable, and final happiness less complete.”
In this line of reasoning, Finney’s training as a lawyer gave him marked advantage, and we consequently find him stating with rare clearness the questions to be proved, and pressing with skill the considerations underlying the legal maxim, that the defendant is to have the benefit of the doubt, and that in proportion to the established character of his reputation. It is enough, therefore, Finney maintains, to show that the existence of moral evil in the world “may be accounted for in consistency with the truth of all the evidence for the benevolence of God.” There is so much clearly indicating the benevolence of God, that we may believe in his benevolence where we cannot see it.
Under Finney’s view of benevolence, the justice, mercy, and truth of God will more naturally come up for treatment in connection with the subject of the atonement. We may also briefly pass over his treatment of the unity and triunity of God, upon which his views do not differ materially from the orthodox doctrine. We should note, however, that, in proof of the Trinity, as well as of the twofold nature of Christ and of the personality and divinity of the Holy Spirit, he depends almost wholly upon Scripture.
Respecting subjects of anthropology, Finney’s views coincided, as has been previously remarked, with those maintained by the New School Calvinists. Upon the group of questions connected with this subject Finney published elaborately, first in the “Oberlin Evangelist” from 1839 on, and then in two volumes upon “Systematic Theology,” filling twelve hundred octavo pages, published in Oberlin in 1846 and 1847. The topics embraced in these volumes are the atonement, moral and physical depravity, regeneration, philosophical theories, evidences of regeneration (vol. i.), ability (natural, moral, and gracious), repentance, impenitence, faith and unbelief, justification, sanctification, election, reprobation, divine purposes, divine sovereignty, and perseverance (vol. ii.).
These volumes were subjected to very searching criticism, especially on account of the fact that, since 1840, the views of Finney and Mahan upon the subject of sanctification, or Christian perfection, had been so much spoken against and misunderstood that, as already said, Oberlin Perfectionism became for a long time a byword of reproach. Not only were ministers silenced for preaching it, but church members were excommunicated for holding the action of the will, materially modified the doctrine, and at the same time added to the difficulty which many had in apprehending its real merits.
When he came to Oberlin, where the great majority of those who listened to his stated preaching were already converted persons, his attention was naturally turned to the work of building up the character of both the colonists and the students in those respects which would make them most effective as Christian witnesses. Very soon, and in consequence of his preaching, a select number of his best pupils became profoundly agitated over the question, If we are perfectly consecrated in our conversion, why cannot we hope, through the grace of God, to attain an abiding state of consecration? To this proposition, when first presented, Finney replied, with his accustomed vigor, that it was entirely out of the question; that if they could find a man who was perfectly keeping the commands of God and living up to his light, he would creep on his hands and knees all the way to the Atlantic Ocean to see him. Nevertheless, he was soon persuaded that the promises of the Bible contemplated this state of abiding consecration on the part of believers, and that these promises were such that men might, through the abundant grace of God, aim at such a condition, with the rational hope of attaining it. In all this, however, there was no thought of imposing any yoke upon others to which he did not also himself submit.
In an early number of the “Oberlin Evangelist,” about Christ, and that a multitude of things were said about Him in the gospel of which I had no spiritual view, and of which I knew little or nothing.
“What I did know of Christ was almost exclusively as an atoning and justifying Saviour. But as a Jesus to save men from sin, or as a sanctifying Saviour, I knew very little about Him. This was made, by the Spirit of God, very clear to my mind. And it deeply convinced me that I must know more of the gospel in my own experience, and have more of Christ in my own heart, or I could never expect to benefit the church. In that state of mind, I used often to tell the Lord Jesus Christ that I was sensible that I knew very little about Him, and I besought Him to reveal himself to me, that I might be instrumental in revealing Him to others. I used especially to pray over particular passages, and classes of passages, in the gospel, that speak of Christ, that I might apprehend their meaning, and feel their power in my own heart. And I was often strongly convinced that I desired this for the great purpose of making Christ known to others.
“I will not enter into detail with regard to the way in which Christ led me. Suffice it to say, and alone to the honor of his grace do I say it, that He has taught me some things that I asked Him to show me. Since my own mind became impressed in the manner in which I have spoken, I have felt as strongly and unequivocally pressed by the Spirit of God to labor for the sanctification of the church as I once did for the conversion of sinners. By multitudes of letters, and from various other sources of information, I have learned, to my great joy, that God has been and is awakening a spirit of inquiry on the subject of holiness throughout the church, both in this country and in Europe.”(61)
Unfortunately, in his views upon this doctrine, Finney did not carry with him the leading New School Calvinists of the time, and, apparently to avoid the prejudice aroused against it, they felt themselves compelled to take special pains to clear their skirts of responsibility for the doctrine. Committees were therefore from time to time appointed by the presbyteries, synods, and other church judicatories to consider the subject, and they pretty generally made reports adverse to the truth and orthodoxy of the views. The criticism which Finney felt most keenly was that made by the Troy Presbytery in 1841, and which was signed and bore marks of having been written by his former friend and coadjutor, Dr. N. S. S. Beman. This manifesto of the Troy Presbytery closed with a resolution declaring the doctrine to be false in itself, calculated to engender self-righteousness, disorder, deception, censoriousness, and fanaticism, contrary to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and altogether such that it was the duty of ministers to preach against it, and expressed much regret and sorrow that the theological professors at Oberlin should have espoused the heresy.
About the same time, also, Professor Woods, of Andover, published a courteous but very positive review in condemnation of it. Other utterances in condemnation are too numerous to mention, and the bitterness of the opposition is too painful to contemplate with pleasure. Faithful ministers were not only shut out from entering the pulpit, but were interrupted in the midst of useful work upon the frontier, and were so utterly proscribed that they and their families were left to suffer in penury and want. Even missionaries in distant foreign lands were dropped by the American Board, and left to seek support by their own labors or by special appeals, and Oberlin students were refused beneficiary aid by the American Education Society. The ostensible reason for this last effort was that the course of study in the college department was below the standard in classical attainments. It was clearly shown, however, that, if Hebrew was reckoned as equal to Latin, the Oberlin standard in college was scarcely at all below that at Yale.
The Old School Presbyterians were not slow to see their advantage. Upon the appearance of Finney’s “Theology,” Prof. Charles Hodge, in the “Biblical Repertory” of June, 1847, published a review of it which was characterized by much acuteness but more acerbity, in which he extolled to the highest. degree Finney’s logical power, but manifestly for the sake of forcing home upon the NewSchool men the conviction that Finney’s theology was a complete reductio ad absurdum of the whole NewSchool system, and that the only way of avoiding his heretical conclusions was by abandoning the fundamental principles of the whole NewSchool party.
This attack of Hodge was followed in October of the same year by a pamphlet entitled “A Warning against Error,” written by Dr. Duffield, a prominent New School pastor of Detroit, Mich., and formally approved by the Synod of Michigan, which endeavored to show that Finney’s views were not the necessary outgrowth of the fundamental principles of the New School party.
To both these attacks Finney made extensive replies in the “Oberlin Quarterly Review,” while the “Oberlin Evangelist,” both before and after this time, frequently commented upon the “backward track” which the New School men were taking to avoid acceptance of the Oberlin views upon sanctification. It should be said, however, that the views of sanctification, as practically held at Oberlin, were maintained originally and chiefly on the ground of their biblical character; and that the three main advocates of the views, namely, Mahan, Finney, and Cowles, were by no means agreed in all their philosophical speculations upon the matter. As already intimated, Finney, in working out his system of theology, had adopted the Edwardean or Hopkinsian theory of virtue, namely, that the highest good of being in general is the foundation of obligation. With regard to the will, also, he had adopted the view of Emmons, that, at every successive moment, it is wholly virtuous or wholly sinful, – a doctrine styled in Finney’s “Theology” “the Simplicity of moral action.” The former of these views Mahan never adopted, and the latter Cowles was never known to approve.
What they were all agreed in, however, was the natural ability of the human will to keep the law of God, or, in other words, the equation between the extent of obligation and that of natural ability. All held, also, the certainty that without divine grace man would always fall short of meeting this obligation, and that therefore both regeneration and sanctification were dependent upon gracious influences freely bestowed upon believers, according to the promises of the Bible. The practical aim of Finney in all this discussion was to induce the church to strive after a higher standard of Christian life, and to attain a more joyful and satisfactory experience, than had characterized the older form of Calvinism. In this there is no doubt he was successful, and an examination of his system will reveal a solid basis both for the evangelical activity which he exhibited and urged, and for such readjustments of evangelical thought as are made necessary by the changing character of modern development. This will appear as we now proceed to pass under review the more peculiar portions of his system.
Ability and Obligation
In his analysis of the human mind, Finney distinguishes between the sense, which receives impressions from the outside world; the understanding, which takes up, classifies, and arranges the objects and truths of sensation; and the will, which, in presence of the motives presented by the sense and the reason, commits the life to an end which is good or bad. The idea of absolute or ultimate good is first given in the sensibility, for it is through this faculty that man first experiences happiness or satisfaction. Happiness, in the fullest and broadest sense of that word, is the only absolute or ultimate good. Other things which are called good are only relatively so, that is, they are good for something. Food is not good in itself, but only in its relation to sentient being. Food gives pleasure to the animal which appropriates it, and that pleasure is an absolute good. Food gives strength and pleasure to a man. So far as it gives pleasure, it accomplishes an absolute good, but the strength imparted is only another stage of relative good, which may be used for higher purposes, – to produce, for example, a piece of sculpture, a painting, a poem, or a song, which in turn are only still higher forms of relative good. If, now, there is a cultivated eye to perceive the beauties produced, a cultivated ear to appreciate the melody of the song, and a cultivated mind to be thrilled by the poetry, this satisfaction of the mind is an ultimate good. Thus, in ever-widening spheres, the summum bonum is, to the moral reason, indicated in the comprehensive phrase “the highest good of being,” and this is intuitively seen to be an object worthy in itself of supreme choice. This “highest good of being,” or, as Finney was careful to say, “highest good of God and the universe,” is the foundation of obligation. To choose the highest good of being is right and praiseworthy in itself. This is, indeed, the essence of all virtue. The character of a choice is not determined till we have found its attitude with reference to this comprehensive ultimate good. How, for example, should we determine the character of an industrious, frugal, and well-behaved young man whose conduct is under consideration? He is industrious, frugal, and well-behaved for the purpose of obtaining money. He desires money to get an education. He desires an education to get more money. He desires more money to found a college or a church. But still we have not arrived at the ultimate choice upon which the real character of the man depends. He may desire to found a college to perpetuate his fame, which may or may not be a virtuous choice. Or this may be the last step in a train of causes which he would set in motion to promote the glory of God and the good of the universe, when, and when only, it would be true virtue. Three brief statements of Finney cover the whole ground: “The well-being of God and the universe of sentient existences is intrinsically important or valuable, and all moral agents are under obligation to choose it for its own sake. . . . God’s ultimate end in all He does or omits is the highest well-being of himself and the universe, and in all his acts and dispensations his ultimate object is the promotion of this end. . . . All obligation resolves itself into an obligation to choose the highest good of God and of being in general for its own sake, and to choose all the known conditions and means of this end for the sake of the end.”
The theory of virtue with which this is most likely to be confounded is the form of utilitarianism advocated by Prof. N. W. Taylor, of New Haven. Like Finney, Taylor maintained that the only ultimate thing good in itself is mental satisfaction or happiness, but he does not distinguish with equal clearness between the absolute and the relative use of the word “good.” For example, Taylor correctly says: “Were everything as it is, – were God and his vast creation as they are, with the single exception of all capacity of happiness and all possibility of such happiness, – all would be utterly worthless.” But in the sentence before this, Taylor had confounded two uses of the word “good” between which Finney was always careful to distinguish. Taylor had said, “Nothing is good but happiness and the means of happiniess,” including the absence of misery and the means of its absence. This lack of discrimination between ultimate or absolute good and proximate or relative good necessarily led Taylor into a form of utilitarianism. Taylor’s statement is, that “all the worth or value of man, or of any other moral being, consists in his capacity of happiness, and of that self-active nature which qualifies him to produce happiness to other beings and to himself. All the worth or value, or goodness or excellence, which pertains to action on the part of a moral being, is its fitness or adaptation to produce the results. The best kind of action, therefore, on his part, is that which is exclusively and perfectly fitted to produce the highest happiness of others and his own highest happiness. This kind of action, in its relation to the happiness of others, and its relation at least in one respect to the happiness of the agent himself, is benevolence, or benevolent action. This kind of action is good, not simply as it is perfectly fitted to produce the highest happiness of all other beings, but also as, by being thus fitted to produce the highest happiness of all other beings, it is perfectly fitted to produce the highest happiness of the agent of which he is capable, from any object or end of action.”(62)
Finney’s criticism of Taylor’s position would be, that he confounds the end with the means, and has failed to distinguish what the political economists would call “value in use” from “value in exchange.” When Taylor says that all the goodness of an action pertains to its adaptation to produce results, an incongruous element is introduced into the discussion. Finney would say, with Kant, that good-willing is praiseworthy and excellent in itself, without reference to any actual tendency to promote the well-being which is the object of choice. It is “the value of the end, and not the tendency of the intention to secure the end, that constitutes the foundation of the obligation to intend.”
But, on the other hand, Finney clearly enough maintains that the obligation to use any particular means to do good must be conditioned upon the supposed “tendency of those means to secure the end.” But this is the obligation to put forth a proximate rather than an ultimate choice. Ultimate intention has no such condition.
“The perceived intrinsic value imposes obligation without any reference to the tendency of the intention.”(63) This distinction between the conditions upon which the will is bound to make use of certain means adapted to promote the highest well-being, and the good of being itself, which is the ground of obligation to intend, must always be kept clearly in mind in interpreting Finney’s system. The obligation to choose the ultimate end is intuitive and absolute, and is imposed upon the mind by the moral reason just so soon as the idea of absolute good is revealed to man by his sensibility. The obligation to use certain means arises only as the understanding, often slowly and hesitatingly, reveals their adaptation to the end. The choice of the good of being may be defined as that attitude of the soul in which it is committed to the use of every means for the promotion of the end which shall be brought to light. The soul that has made the highest good of being its ultimate choice stands ready to promote it by the use of all appropriate means.
Does the End sanctify the Means?
Finney’s view that the only absolute rule of obligation is that man should choose the highest good of being, and be ready, with such knowledge and power as he has, to make use of all means tending to promote it, sounds, when baldly stated, like the jesuitical doctrine that the end sanctifies the means. Prof. Charles Hodge was not slow in perceiving this, and in his criticism of Finney’s “Theology” made it one of the two main points of attack, alleging that Finney’s theory had its natural outcome in the doctrine of the Jesuits, and therefore must be false. To this Finney replied at length in the Oberlin Quarterly Review.”(64)
Dr. Hodge had said that the only difference between Finney’s view and that of the Jesuits is that Finney inserts the word ultimate” before “intention,” maintaining that all other things are right or wrong as they proceed from a right or wrong ultimate intention.” But, said Hodge, we cannot see that this makes any real difference in the doctrine itself. Both parties (i. e. the Jesuits and Mr. Finney) agree that the intention must be right, and, if that is right, everything which proceeds from it is right. The former says that the honor and welfare of the church is the proper object of intention. Mr. Finney says the highest good of being is the only proper object. The latter, however, may include the former, and the Jesuit may well say that in intending the welfare of the church he intends the glory of God and the highest good of the universe. In any event, the whole poison of the doctrine lies in the principle common to both, namely, that whatever proceeds from a right intention is right. If this is so, then the end sanctifies the means, and it is right to do evil that good may come, which is Paul’s “reductio ad absurdum.”(65)
To this charge Finney answered that the insertion of the word “ultimate” before “intention” in the jesuitical statement entirely transforms the doctrine, since the real error of the Jesuits consists in unduly exalting a subordinate end. The question whether it is right in all circumstances to defend the Catholic Church depends on the larger question whether that church is a necessary means of promoting the highest good of being in the universe. In order to settle this question, it is necessary to look beyond the subordinate end, and this the Jesuits declined to do. The ultimate choice of the good of being which Finney contemplates involves the choice of all the means which, according to the dictates of reason and revelation, are adapted to the securing of that end. “One cannot choose an end in obedience to God and reason, and then disobey and disregard both or either in the use of means to secure his end. This is impossible. If honest in his end, he will be and must be honest in the use of means. Benevolence consists in the choice of the highest good of universal being as an ultimate end, and implies the choice of every interest of every being, according to its perceived and relative value.”(66)
Farther on, Finney shows that the substitution of other standards of virtue, in the place of the good of being, does not relieve one from the hazards of jesuitical casuistry. “Nothing,” he says, “is gained by replying to the Jesuits by assuming that there are divers independent grounds of moral obligation, and consequently divers moral laws; for, if the supposition be admitted that there are, either these laws may come into conflict or they cannot. If they can, who will say that the law of benevolence shall yield to the law of right; or that it can be a duty to will abstract right as an end, rather than the highest well-being of God and the universe? But if these supposed moral laws cannot come into conflict, why then the Jesuit will of course reply that it is, and must be always, right to will the highest well-being or good of God and the universe, with the necessary conditions and means; and therefore the end, or the intention, must give character to and sanctify the means. Or, again, suppose that there be divers ultimate ends or grounds of moral obligation, he would tell you that, in the pursuit of any of these, the end or intention sanctifies the means; so that nothing is gained, so far as avoiding the perversion of the Jesuits is concerned, by assuming that there are divers grounds of moral obligation, and of course divers moral laws. And the same is true whether it be admitted or denied that these ends or laws come into conflict.”(67)
Comprehensiveness of Love
Dr. Hodge complained of Finney’s theology that it was too comprehensive, and was a vain attempt “to squeeze all this [the Scripture idea of love] down, and wire-draw it through one pinhole. . . . We may admit,” says Hodge, “that love is the fulfilling of the law, without being sophisticated into believing, or rather saying, that faith is love, justice is love, patience is love, humility love.”
In reply, Finney had but to point to his ample treatment of this subject in his published volume, where it would seem that he had sufficiently guarded against any such misapprehension; for example, on pages 183-185 of his first Oberlin edition (211-213 of the later London edition), he had said: –
“All the moral attributes of God and of all holy beings are only attributes of benevolence. . . . God is love. This term expresses comprehensively God’s whole moral character. . . . But from this comprehensive statement, accurate though it be, we are apt to receive very inadequate conceptions of what really belongs to or is implied in benevolence. To say that love is the fulfilling of the whole law; that benevolence is the whole of true religion; that the whole duty of man to God and his neighbor is expressed in one word, love, – these statements, though true, are so comprehensive as to need, with all minds, much amplification and explanation.
The fact is, that many things are implied in love or benevolence. By this is intended that benevolence needs to be viewed under various aspects and in various relations, and its dispositions or willings considered in the various relations in which it is called to act. Benevolence is an ultimate intention, or the choice of an ultimate end. Now, if we suppose that this is all that is implied in benevolence, we shall egregiously err. Unless we inquire into the nature of the end which benevolence chooses, and the means by which it seeks to accomplish that end, we shall understand but little of the import of the word ‘benevolence.’ Benevolence has many attributes or characteristics. These must all harmonize in the selection of its end, and in its efforts to realize it. Wisdom, justice, mercy, truth, holiness, and many other attributes, as we shall see, are essential elements or attributes of benevolence.”(68)
On recurring to the place referred to in Finney, one will find no less than sixty pages occupied with the discussion of the attributes of benevolence, and no less than thirty-seven attributes specified and defined. True benevolence is voluntary; is free; is intelligent; is in conformity with the perceived nature of things in its relation to the end chosen; is disinterested; is impartial; is universal in the objects of its embrace is efficient and active; is penitent in view of sin; is trustful in presence of all the revelations of God’s character; is complacent in view of all revealed virtue; is opposed to sin; is compassionate for the miserable; is inclined to the exercise of mercy where mercy is wise; is ready to execute justice where necessary for the public good; is veracious; is patient; is meek; is long-suffering; is humble; is self-denying; is condescending; is candid; is stable; is kind; is on occasions severe; is holy (that is, is inclined to emphasize the importance of conformity to the law); is modest; is sober; is sincere; is zealous for the truth; is single in its aim; is full of gratitude for favors received; is submissive to the dictates of wisdom; is disposed to bestow favors upon others; and finally is regardful of the principles of economy in all its subordinate manifestations.
The Simplicity of Moral Action
In company with Dr. Emmons, Finney regarded the action of the will at each moment as necessarily altogether holy or altogether sinful. The will is like a railroad train: whatever movement it has must be in one of two directions. – If it moves at all, it must be either forwards or backwards. The velocity and momentum may be of varying degrees, proportionate to the greatness of the being who is acting and to the intensity of the light under which the choice is put forth. “The breast of every Christian,” according to Emmons, “is a field of battle where sometimes benevolence and sometimes selfishness gains the victory.”(69) “Sin and holiness are diametrically opposite affections, and cannot be united in one and the same volition.”(70) This principle leads to the apparently absurd position that, if a person at a particular instant puts forth a praiseworthy choice, he is as good as he can be; and if he puts forth a blameworthy choice, he is as bad as he can be. This form of stating the conclusion led to the charge that, on Finney’s theory, growth in holiness was impossible, and degeneracy of character out of the question. This, however, is a misdirected criticism, arising from amphibology in the terms employed. The phrase “good as one can be” may be used either in the present tense or in the future. By Finney it is used in the present, and refers merely to the character of an instantaneous choice under given conditions. At each successive moment of choice the conditions change, and so successive choices may be compared with each other as more or less intense.(71) Furthermore, in our general estimates of character, we attach great importance to the permanence of the choices involved. In both these respects, Finney was free to maintain the possibility of improvement. Speaking of growth in grace, he says that “it consists in two things: first, in stability or permanency of holy ultimate intention; second, in intensity or strength. As knowledge increases, Christians will naturally grow in grace in both of these respects.”(72)
The alternative theories concerning the will are reduced by Finney to five: First, “that selfishness and benevolence can coexist in the same mind,” a supposition which both Finney and Emmons declare to be as inconceivable as “that a volition to walk should be partly a desire to move, and partly a desire to stand still.” Second, “that the same act or choice may have a complex character on account of complexity in the motives which induce it.” But in the ultimate analysis this is the same as the first. Character is determined by a choice between motives. The right action of the will is a positive choice of the highest good of being. Refusal to put forth that choice is without excuse, and is sin. Third, “that an act or choice may be right in kind, but deficient in intensity or degree.” To this, Finney replies: “If all the strength is not given, it must be because part of it is voluntarily withholden. That is, I choose the end, but not with all my strength; or I choose the end, but choose not to choose it with all my strength,” either of which contradicts the demands of benevolence. A fourth supposition is, “that the will or heart may be right while the affections or emotions are wrong.” But the affections and emotions do not constitute the essence of moral character. They may be signs of it. They may indicate what the character has been in the past, but in the ultimate analysis the real character is found in an act of the will. But it is, as Emmons pronounced it, both a groundless and a dangerous doctrine to suppose “that Christians may live days and months, and even years, in a dull, stupid, lifeless state, their principle of grace continuing, but not in proper sensible exercises.” Men deceive themselves when they suppose that they are better than their exercises. Fifth, it is held by some “that there may be a ruling, latent, actually existing holy preference or intention coexisting with an opposing volition.” To this it is replied that the supposition involves a confusion respecting the relation of ultimate and proximate choices. The opposing volitions spoken of, if they relate to the ultimate end, involve real vacillations of character. If they relate merely to the means of attaining the ultimate end, and arise from uncertainty of judgment respecting those means, they do not of course affect the character. And so the position remains unshaken, that the attitude of the will is always either “wholly right or wholly wrong, and never partly right and partly wrong at the same time.”
The most plausible objection to this theory consists in the attempt to show that it is contrary to the facts of experience; since, it is held, if there were these violent alternations in character from moment to moment, we should be more distinctly conscious of them than we are, and so the theory has been facetiously called “the pendulum theory of moral action,” and declared to be destructive of all ideas of permanence in character, and to imply most violent and impossible transitions, not merely of actual character, but of the emotions appropriately representative of character. To this Dr. Emmons replied that, since the Scripture represents holy affections as entirely distinct from unholy affections, this affords much stronger proof of the fact than a mere want of consciousness can afford to the contrary. “We all know,” he says, “that our thoughts are extremely rapid in their succession. We cannot ascertain how many thoughts we have in one hour, or even in one minute. And our affections or volitions may be as rapid in their succession as our thoughts; yea, it is very evident that they are too rapid for observation.”(73)
This line of argument was prominent in many of Finney’s sermons upon the subject of self-deception. On nothing did he dwell more strongly than on the danger of having the “conscience seared,” that is, of becoming, through inattention, oblivious to the character of the choices that are really controlling our activity. The whole effort in such sermons was to bring clearly out into consciousness the character of each ultimate choice, that in view of it the feelings might be appropriately moved. From this aim arose, in considerable degree, the analytical character of much of his preaching. He attempted at all points to show the bearing of every proximate choice upon the ultimate object of worthy desire, and to make his hearers feel that in what are regarded as the most trifling things they might be guilty of setting aside the whole law of God. Nothing was more marked in his preaching than its effect in quickening the consciences of his hearers, and making them scrupulous in their action concerning small things as well as great.
Another form of objection to this theory, that the action of the will is at every instant as good as it can be or as bad as it can be, is that it lowers the claims of the law upon those who have by any means impaired their power of action. “If,” it is contended, “we dwarf or abridge our powers, we do not thereby abridge the claims of God; if we render it impossible to perform so high a service as we might have done, the Lawgiver, nevertheless, requires the same as before; should we dwarf or completely derange or stultify our powers, He would still hold us under obligation to perform all we might have performed had our powers remained in their integrity.” To this Finney replied by a general denial, affirming that the law does not, and cannot in justice, demand of us impossibilities. If a man has sinfully diminished his powers, he is blamed, and may justly be punished, for that sin. But future commands are based upon the remnants of capacity which the agent still retains. In reference to the effect of ignorance upon our capacity of rendering service to God, Finney contended that “present ignorance is present inability,” and that this is as absolute an inability as would be the present want of a hand. If, however, one willingly remains in ignorance of God, this is not a natural inability, since it is within the agent’s power instantly to overcome it; as, for example, by opening his eyes when willfully keeping them shut. But the present ignorance of mankind cannot be instantaneously removed by an act of volition on the part of men. Much of the ignorance of man is the natural effect of moral delinquency. Neglect of duty occasions ignorance, and this ignorance, while it remains, constitutes a natural inability to perform those duties of which the mind is ignorant. For this neglect of duty God will hold men fully responsible, and liable to punishment. But the present command for action has reference solely to what is at present attainable by an effort of the will.
Total Depravity of the Race
With these views of the freedom of the will and the claims of the divine law upon man, Finney’s position is already defined with regard to the nature of human depravity, and the method of regeneration and sanctification. Depravity he divides into physical and moral. Physical depravity, as predicated of the mind, expresses the fact that its powers, “either in substance, or in consequence of their connection with and dependence upon the body, are in a diseased, lapsed, fallen, degenerate state, so that the healthy action of these powers is not sustained.”(74) Such depravity has no moral character, but a person may be blameworthy for having rendered himself physically depraved either in body or in mind. Moral depravity is simply a choice at variance with moral right, and is synonymous with sin. Man is both physically and morally depraved. There is no such thing as perfect health in the world. The appetites, passions, and propensities are in a state of most unhealthy development. The human mind is out of balance in consequence of the monstrous development of the sensibility.
Attendant upon this natural depravity, there is a universal moral depravity of the human race. Subsequent to the commencement of moral agency, and previous to regeneration, sin is a universal phenomenon. This Finney proves from the Bible, and by an appeal to history, universal observation, and the universal consciousness of the unregenerate. Still, while carefully distinguishing physical from moral depravity, and insisting that sin is essentially an act of the will, and not an inherent quality of the nature, he believes that there is an infallible connection between the physical depravity of man and his moral depravity, and that “we can predict, without the gift of prophecy, that with a constitution physically depraved, and surrounded with objects to awaken appetite, and with all the circumstances in which human beings first form their moral character, they will seek universally to gratify themselves, unless prevented by the illumination of the Holy Spirit.”(75) Later on, he even attempts to account for this universal moral depravity.
“The sensibility acts as a powerful impulse to the will, from the moment of birth, and secures the consent and activity of the will to procure its gratification before the reason is at all developed. This committed state of the will is not moral depravity, and has no moral character until the idea of moral obligation is developed. The moment this idea is developed, this committal of the will to self-indulgence must be abandoned, or it becomes selfishness, or moral depravity. But, as the will is already in a state of committal, and has to some extent already formed the habit of seeking to gratify feeling, and as the idea of moral obligation is at first but feebly developed, unless the Holy Spirit interferes to shed light on the soul, the will, as might be expected, retains its hold on self-gratification.”(76)
To the uninitiated it may seem that the radical difference between Finney’s views upon this point and those of Dr. Hodge is not so great as they were accustomed to suppose, but that their contentions were pretty largely the result of unfortunate phraseology. Finney insisted that, while we were not born with natures actually sinful, our natures were so constituted and circumstanced that sin was certain to be the universal characteristic of our first activities. On the other hand, Hodge, while holding most vigorously that, “in virtue of the union, representative and natural, between Adam and his posterity, his sin is the ground of their [man’s] condemnation, that is, of their subjection to penal evils,” makes haste to add that the sin of Adam is no ground to us of remorse,” and “there is no transfer of the moral turpitude of his sin to his descendants.”(77) A sin of nature which has no moral turpitude will not to most people seem much of a sin, and will appear hardly distinguisbable from Finney’s “physical depravity.
Nature of Regeneration
As a logical result of his views concerning the foundation of obligation and the nature of moral depravity, Finney held, with the New School Calvinists in general, that regeneration and conversion are practically synonymous terms, designating an occurrence in which God and the sinner are coagents. This is in line with the positions maintained in the sermon, already referred to, upon the duty of sinners to make for themselves new hearts. Regeneration, according to Finney, “is a radical change of the ultimate intention. . . . A selfish ultimate choice is a wicked heart, out of which flows every evil; and a benevolent ultimate choice is a good heart, out of which flows every good and commendable deed.”(78) To secure this change of ultimate intention, the instrumentalities necessary are truth, and the means by which truth is made vivid to the mind. All the appointed ordinances and ministrations of the church, the providences of God, and, most of all, the direct agency of the Holy Spirit, force the truth upon the soul as a motive inducing to repentance. Without the presence of divine persuasive agencies, conversion is never secured, and ordinarily not without the co-operation, also, of human instrumentality outside the agent. Regeneration is not, like the breathing of the Spirit upon the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision, a mere act of omnipotence. Still, according to Finney, “regeneration is always induced and effected by the personal agency of the Holy Spirit.”(79)
But, although this is brought about by divine moral suasion, there is no necessity of supposing a direct physical agency of the Holy Spirit, acting upon the constitutional susceptibilities of the soul, to quicken it and predispose it to be duly affected by the truth. There is a natural adaptation in the truth, by whatever agency presented, to persuade the soul into changing its ultimate choice, – that is, to make for itself a new heart. As already said, however, this persuasive influence of the truth is never effective except in connection with the direct operation of the Holy Spirit. The importance which Finney attached to this position is seen in the urgency with which, in his revival efforts, he always insisted upon prayer as essential to success. It also seemed extremely important to him that we maintain correct views upon this point, because thus only is the Holy Spirit duly honored without disparaging the truth and the other agencies effective in converting the world.
The practical bearing of the doctrine is set forth by him as follows: –
“If sinners are to be regenerated by the influence of truth, argument, and persuasion, then ministers can see what they have to do, and how it is they are to be ‘workers together with God.’ So, also, sinners may see that they are not to wait for a physical regeneration or influence, but must submit to and embrace the truth, if they ever expect to be saved. . . . When truth is made clear to the mind and is resisted, the Holy Spirit is resisted, for this is his work, to make the mind clearly to apprehend the truth. . . . Sinners are most likely to be regenerated while sitting under the sound of the gospel, while listening to the clear exhibition of truth. . . . Ministers should aim at and expect the regeneration of sinners upon the spot, and before they leave the house of God.”(80)
In these views we have the foundation for Finney’s whole method of procedure in the promotion of revivals. He pressed every consideration upon the attention of sinners just as heartily and freely as if he expected to convert them himself. He urged upon all believers the responsibility of praying for the co-operation of the Holy Spirit. He threw upon the soul of the sinner the responsibility of immediately accepting or rejecting the truth as then apprehended.
Finney’s views respecting the foundation of obligation and the nature of regeneration enabled him to speak with great clearness and discrimination upon the evidences of regeneration and the dangers of self-deception, subjects which were, as already remarked, very prominent in his preaching, and which are duly dwelt upon in his “Systematic Theology.” Concisely stated, the contrast between the regenerate and the unregenerate man is, that the regenerate man has submitted himself to the control of reason and of the moral law of God, – in other words, to the law of disinterested and universal benevolence; whereas the sinner is not governed by reason and principle, but by feeling, desire, and impulse. If you wish to move him, you must appeal strongly to his feeling. The gales of excitement must be raised, and the mainspring of his impulsive action must be touched and directed to rouse his will, before you can quicken him into life. His feelings are his law. On the contrary, the saint has received the will of God as the unfailing index pointing always to the path of duty. He makes no calculations to sin in anything. He does not cast about, and pick and choose among the commandments of God professing obedience to those that are the least offensive to him, and trampling on those that call to a sterner morality and to hardier self-denial. . . . He no more expects to take advantage of his neighbor than he expects to rob him on the highway.”(81)
In these statements of the essence of sin, Finney has avoided a confusion which elsewhere pretty generally appears in his principal definition, and in much of his discussion concerning the nature of the sinful choice. Here he says correctly that sin consists in a refusal to be governed by reason and principle, and in submission of the will to the control of the feelings, desires, and impulses. But in other connections he has pretty generally maintained that there is a unity of object in the sinful choice similar to that which characterizes a virtuous choice. As the virtuous choice centres on the good of universal being, so, he maintains, the sinful choice is definitely centred upon self, and is thus synonymous with selfishness. The infelicity of this form of statement has been pointed out by President Fairchild, who makes it appear that sin is in no sense true devotion to self-interest, and that the sinner is always aware of this. There is no unity in the sinner’s choice. He simply “gives rein to desire and follows where it leads. He is carnally – minded. His life presents no definite, self-consistent aim, like that of the good man. The desires themselves are conflicting, and which shall be in the ascendant depends upon constitutional organization, education, and changing circumstances. . . . The sinner always knows that his life is unreasonable, contemplated in view of his pleasure, his welfare, or his duty.”(82)
In his statement of the doctrine of justification, as well as in that of the atonement, the influence of Finney’s legal training comes prominently into view. Gospel justification consists, he says, “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 had passed the sentence of eternal death, and rewarding them as if they had been righteous. It is an act either of the law-making or executive department of government, and is an act entirely aside from, and contrary to, the forensic or judicial power or department of the government. It is an ultimate treatment of the sinner as just; a practical, not a literal pronouncing of him just. It is treating him as if he had been wholly righteous, when in fact he has greatly sinned.”(83)
In further defining justification, Finney tries to distinguish between the ground of justification and the conditions of its exercise, maintaining that the atonement of Christ was not the ground, but simply one of the conditions, of justification. The ground (by which he means the moving, procuring cause of justification, that in which the plan of redemption originated as its source, and which was the fundamental reason or ground of the whole movement) “was the benevolence and merciful disposition of the whole Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This love made the atonement, but the atonement did not beget this love. The Godhead desired to save sinners, but could not safely do so without danger to the universe, unless something was done to satisfy public, not retributive justice. The atonement was resorted to as a means of reconciling forgiveness with the wholesome administration of justice.”(84)
“Public justice required, either that an atonement should be made, or that the law should be executed upon every offender. By ‘public justice’ is intended that due administration of law that shall secure, in the highest manner which the nature of the case admits, private and public interests, and establish the order and well-being of the universe. In establishing the government of the universe, God had given the pledge, both impliedly and expressly, that He would regard the public interests, and, by a due administration of the law, secure and promote, as far as possible, public and individual happiness.”(85)
If one were disposed to criticise this view, he might show that, after all, Finney had failed, even on his own theory, to point out the real ground of man’s justification; for, in the ultimate analysis, the real ground is, not the love of God, but the good of being, which is promoted by the plan of justification. A necessary condition for securing such a provision is, of course, the fact that God is love. Such criticism, however, might seem to be an attempt at discriminating too closely between a ground and a condition of action, and would probably end in still greater confusion of thought.
Having thus stated the governmental necessity of an atonement, Finney proceeded to show that the sufferings of Christ were vicariously substituted for the punishment of such sinners as should, through repentance, seek an interest in the sacrifice. Thus the atonement is universal in the sense that its promises are open to all, and nothing but the sinner’s own neglect of duty can prevent participation in its advantages.
While the atonement of Christ is the primary condition of justification, the condition upon man’s part is an entire consecration of heart to God in view of all which the atonement signifies. This consecration of heart includes repentance for sin and faith in Christ. In this Finney differed from many of his New School coadjutors, in that he made entire consecration under the persuasive influences of the Holy Spirit precede justification. For this he was severely criticised in this country by Dr. Duffield in the pamphlet already referred to, and by the celebrated textual critic, Tregelles, in England; and it must be confessed that, at first sight, it seems difficult to understand how Finney’s view of justification could be maintained under the Calvinistic system, which involves the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints; that is, of the ultimate salvation and glorification of those who have once been justified. But, as will be seen later, Finney experienced no more difficulty upon this point than he did in maintaining, notwithstanding his belief in the self-determining power of the will, the total depravity of the human race previous to regeneration. Finney did, indeed, protest vigorously against the doctrine, maintained by many, that the soul once justified is always justified, and maintained that the penitent soul remains justified no longer than this full-hearted consecration continues; and still he did not believe that the justified soul would ever fail of ultimate salvation, but held that the first experience of justification established such relations between God and the sinner that God could wisely interfere to guard and keep him to the end.
Since Finney’s position with regard to the doctrine of entire sanctification in this life drew upon him severe criticism from almost every side, it is important to ascertain exactly what it was, and what was the occasion of the opposition aroused against it. As already intimated, his attention was turned to the doctrine after he came to Oberlin, and when he was laboring under some depression of mind, in view both of the apparent decadence of the revival spirit of earlier years, and of the relatively low attainments in piety which both he and his converts had made. To counteract this tendency and supply the lack in his previous preaching, he set himself to the work of unfolding more fully the riches of God’s promises in the gospel, and of setting forth the exalted privileges of the believer. In this effort he simply followed in the line of his views already formulated with reference to regeneration. Regeneration is, in his view, the beginning of an entire consecration of the soul to God and the interests of his universe. This consecration is practically secured by intensifying the motives to holiness. As the soul is moved to righteousness by the truth, this is brought about only through the enlargement of the sinner’s conception of truth.
The agents in the presentation of truth are the various means of grace as applied by the church, and God himself, acting through providence, and, more directly still, through the Holy Spirit. What Finney aimed to impress upon the Christian public was, that those agencies which secured entire consecration at the beginning of the Christian life might rationally be expected to secure afterwards a permanent state of consecration, and that this was what he meant by the term “sanctification.” In his views upon this point he agreed with Emmons, who regarded the sanctification of believers as “precisely the same as continued regeneration.”(86)
The exact position maintained at Oberlin was clearly set forth in a declaration of sentiments issued by a convention of those interested in the doctrine of entire sanctification in this life, held at Rochester, N. Y., in July, 1841, and of which Finney was a prominent member.
After premising that the opponents of this doctrine occupy the singular position of holding that “it is fatal not to aim at and pray for this attainment in this life,” and at the same time “that it is a dangerous error to believe or expect that we shall make this attainment,” they proceed to define their own position as follows:
“The advocates of this doctrine affirm that obedience to the moral law, or a state of entire consecration to God in this life, is in such a sense attainable as to be an object of rational pursuit with the expectation of attaining it.
“We do not believe that the moral law is or ever can be repealed, or so modified in its claims as to demand anything less of any moral agent than the entire, universal, and constant devotion of his whole being to God.
“We do not believe that any such state is attainable in this or any other life as to preclude the possibility and necessity of constant growth in holiness.
“Nor do we believe that any state is attainable in this life that will put the soul beyond a state of warfare with temptation.
“We do not believe that any such state is attainable in this life as will preclude the necessity of constant dependence upon the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the agency and indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
“We do not believe that any such state is attainable in this life as to preclude the necessity of much watchfulness and prayer, together with the diligent use of the ordinances of God’s house, and of all the appointed means of grace, to perpetuate holiness of heart.
“We do not believe in any system of quietism, Antinomianism, or inaction in religion.
“We do not regard the true question at issue between us to be, whether a state of entire sanctification has ever been attained in this life; but the true question is that which has been stated above, to wit, Is this state attainable in such a sense as to render its pursuit, with the expectation of attaining it, rational?
“Those of us who have affirmed that this state has been attained, have ever regarded the fact of its attainment only in the light of an argument in proof of its attainability in the sense above explained.”(87)
President Fairchild takes issue with Finney respecting this doctrine, and contends that his arguments for permanent consecration are mostly misdirected, being applicable merely to the attainability of entire consecration at any moment, and that no present experience can furnish assurance of the future; but Finney never acknowledged any flaw in the argument, and maintained to the end the importance of the doctrine as above stated. His defense of it, however, rests not upon the mere fact of human ability, but upon his conception of the riches of God’s grace, and does not fail to emphasize the idea of man’s dependence upon the work of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. If there is any mystery or seeming contradiction in this view, it is only of the same kind as that attending the whole system of gracious influences, and especially the doctrine that those influences shall preserve saints forever in heaven. As the love of Christ has there become all-controlling, so, he believes, it is not too much to hope that the believer may here feel the force of the “expulsive power of this new affection” to such a degree that he shall come into a permanent state of obedience.
Still, Finney did not encourage any to announce themselves as living in a permanent state of entire consecration. Nor was he ever known to speak of himself as having attained that state. He knew too well the deceitfulness of the human heart and the fallibility of memory to encourage such claims, and so, as the declaration expresses it, attention was to be turned, not to the question whether any were now actually attaining this state, but whether it was attainable in any such sense that it could rationally be striven after. The believer’s great need, according to Finney, is to have such a revelation of the great truths of the gospel that they shall serve as a counterpoise to the abnormal development of the lower propensities. It should therefore be the aim of preachers and teachers, he maintained, so to exalt the character and work of Christ that disloyalty to Him shall seem as odious as a child’s disloyalty to his mother, or a patriot’s to the flag of his country. The gist of the whole philosophy of the matter is in the following extract: “This can only be done by the revelation to the inward man, by the Holy Spirit, of those great and solemn and overpowering realities of the spirit land that lie concealed from the eye of flesh.”
“We often see those around us whose sensibility is so developed in some one direction, that they are led captive by appetite and passion in that direction, in spite of reason and of God. The inebriate is an example of this. The glutton, the licentious, the avaricious man, etc., are examples of this. We sometimes, on the other hand, see, by some striking providence, such a counter development of the sensibility produced, as to slay and put down those particular tendencies, and the whole direction of the man’s life seems to be changed; and, outwardly at least, it is so. From being a perfect slave to his appetite for strong drink, he cannot, without the utmost loathing and disgust, so much as hear the name of his once loved beverage mentioned. From being a most avaricious man he becomes deeply disgusted with wealth, and spurns and despises it. Now, this has been effected by a counter development of the sensibility; for, in the case supposed, religion has nothing to do with it. Religion does not consist in the state of the sensibility, nor in the will’s being influenced by the sensibility; but sin consists in the will’s being thus influenced. One great thing that needs to be done, to confirm and settle the will in the attitude of entire consecration to God, is to bring about a counter development of the sensibility, so that it will not draw the will away from God. It needs to be mortified or crucified to the world, to objects of time and sense, by so deep and clear and powerful a revelation of self to self, and of Christ to the soul, as to awaken and develop all its susceptibilities in their relations to Him, and to spiritual and divine realities. This can easily be done through and by the Holy Spirit, who takes of the things of Christ and shows them to us. He so reveals Christ that the soul receives Him to the throne of the heart, and to reign throughout the whole being. When the will, the intellect, and the sensibility are yielded to Him, He develops the intelligence and the sensibility by clear revelations of himself in all his offices and relations to the soul, confirms the will, mellows and chastens the sensibility, by these divine revelations to the intelligence.”(88)
In Finney’s discussion of this subject there follow one hundred and thirty pages in which he unfolds the various aspects of Christ’s nature and relations adapted to quicken our spiritual susceptibilities, and to set at work the needed counteracting agencies spoken of. Of these he enumerates no less than sixty-one. The Holy Spirit needs, he says, to reveal Christ to us as king; as mediator; as advocate; as redeemer; as our justification, our judge, the repairer of the breach, the propitiation for our sins, the surety of a better than the first covenant; as dying for our sins; as risen for our justification; as bearing our griefs and carrying our sorrows; as the one by whose stripes we are healed; as being made sin for us; as the one on whose shoulders is the government of the world; as head of all things to the church; as having all power in heaven and earth; as the prince of peace; as the captain of salvation; as our passover, our wisdom, and our sanctification; as the redemption of the soul; as our prophet and high priest; as the bread of life; as the fountain of the water of life; as the true God and eternal life; as our own life; as all in all; as the resurrection and the life; as the bridegroom or husband of the soul; as the shepherd, the door, the way of salvation, the truth, the true light; as Christ within us; as our strength, the keeper of our souls, our friend, and elder brother, the true vine, the fountain opened in the house of David; as Jesus the Saviour; as he whose blood cleanseth from all sin; as the wonderful, counselor, the mighty God; as our shield, our portion, our hope, our salvation, and the rock of our salvation; as the rock cleft in the wilderness, the great rock that is higher than we, rising amidst the burning sands of our pilgrimage, under the cooling shadow of which the soul can find repose and comfort; as the rock from which the soul is satisfied with honey; as the rock on which the church is built; as the strength of our hearts; and, finally, as the one through whom we can reckon ourselves dead indeed unto sin, but alive to God.
Finney did not hold that we could be expected fully to realize all these aspects of Christ at once; “but that, when tried from time to time, a new revelation of Christ to the soul, corresponding to the temptation, or as the help of the soul in such circumstances, is a condition of its remaining steadfast. This gracious aid or revelation is abundantly promised in the Bible, and will be made in time, so that, by laying hold on Christ in the present revealed relation, the soul may be preserved blameless, though the furnace of temptation be heated seven times better than it is wont to be. . . . Sanctification is by faith as opposed to works. That is, faith receives Christ in all his offices, and in all the fullness of his relations to the soul; and Christ, when received, works in the soul to will and to do of all his good pleasure, not by a physical, but by a moral or persuasive working. Observe, He influences the will. This must be by a moral influence, if its actings are intelligent and free, as they must be to be holy. That is, if He influences the will to obey God, it must be by a divine moral suasion. The soul never in any instance obeys in a spiritual and true sense except it be thus influenced by the indwelling Spirit of Christ.”(89)
Finney’s estimate of the practical importance of the doctrine of sanctification as he presented it appeared in many ways. In letters written to friends while laboring in England in 1858-59, he repeatedly referred to the low standard tolerated and aimed at by professing Christians, and attributed it largely to the fact that the prevailing doctrine of justification was erroneous in its conception, and Antinomian in its tendency. Sinners were taught to believe that entire consecration was not expected of them, except at occasional intervals, and that they could not rationally hope to attain anything but a spasmodic obedience to God. He felt, therefore, that he had a mission in England, as elsewhere, to raise the standard of Christian hope and endeavor, and so of Christian life.
These ideas were also abundantly developed in his “Lectures on Systematic Theology,” where the relation of hope to the instigation of activity and the attainment of result is set forth at length, and where the extent and grounds of that hope with reference to entire sanctification are clearly presented. In this part of the discussion he maintains that whatever removes hope from the human mind cuts the nerve of all activity; for, however ardently we may desire the attainment of an object, the incentive to action will be entirely lacking unless the desire is accompanied with some degree of expectation. No one will use means for the accomplishment of an end unless he believes there is some possibility of connection between the use of the means and the attainment of his purpose. Religion can be undermined with equal effect by representing it either as undesirable or as impossible of attainment. Hence, on the one hand, Finney protests strongly against those representations of Christianity which “throw around and over it a fanatical or a melancholic or a superstitious cant, whining, grimace, or a severity and hatefulness that necessarily disgust rather than attract the enlightened mind,”(90) and, on the other hand, represents the consequences as equally fatal if religious attainments are held to be desirable, but beyond our reach, for obligation is only commensurate with ability. If, therefore, men are to be exhorted to entire obedience, and a perfect standard is to be held up as obligatory upon them, it is essential to insist upon the practicability of its attainment. Finney’s real aim, therefore, was to elevate the standard of practicable attainment by insisting upon the unlimited privileges of the believer. In exalting the promises he was exalting the standard of hope and expectations.(91)
Addressing Calvinists who believe in the doctrine that all who have once experienced regeneration will certainly be kept from final apostasy, and so be saved, Finney contends that it is no more irrational to hope, on the basis of past experiences, for complete sanctification in this life, than to hope, on the same basis, for ultimate victory, and contends that the same degree of doubt may exist as to the reality of personal regeneration as exists with reference to the experiences which give hope of a permanent state of sanctification in this life. In expanding this point, he urges with force that all must admit “that most Christians might rationally hope to be indefinitely better than they are,” and that the only rational ground for this hope is in the promised indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The same promises and rational grounds, upon which persons may hope to be better than they are, furnish also the basis for the fuller hope of coming into a state of permanent consecration or sanctification. In this connection, Finney dwelt much upon such passages of Scripture as Eph. iv. 13, where the apostle declares it to be the will of God that the saints should be perfected, and should come to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; and 2 Peter i. 4, where it is said that through divine power believers are made partakers of the divine nature, having “escaped from the corruption that is in the world by lust.” To the objection drawn from experience that it is easier to keep us from sin “generally than uniformly,” it is replied that we do not know this. It may be as easy for God to “give us a complete victory as to suffer us to sin, and then to recover us again. At any rate,” he contends, “it is just as truly rational to expect” the fulfillment of the promises holding out to us a hope of permanence in our consecration in this life as of those relating to final perseverance.
A natural tendency of Finney’s doctrine of sanctification is to raise in the minds of those accepting it innumerable perplexing questions of casuistry, so that sensitive souls are in danger of becoming despondent over their shortcomings in trifling matters. If, as Finney contends, the “choice of the good of being” involves the choice of all the known means calculated to promote that end, so complicated is the scheme of the universe that it would seem a very hazardous operation to touch any of its secret springs, especially if God is so strict in marking iniquities that to fail in one point is to be guilty of all. This tendency of the doctrine, when connected with that view of justification which makes it ineffectual except so far as it is accompanied by sanctification, was early brought to Finney’s attention by the perplexities into which many of his followers fell, and he devoted much time and strength to the task of setting the matter in its right light. In doing this, he was careful not to lower the standard of the divine law, but spent much effort in defining the limitations of ignorance under which the mind is compelled to act.
Among the most interesting and instructive of the cases of perplexity coming before him is that of a lady in Vermont, who, about the year 1845, confided to him, by correspondence, the difficulties she found in making her life conform to the high ideal which Finney’s doctrine had seemed to impose upon her. In her anxiety to adopt a perfect standard of obedience, it appears that she had formed a solemn resolution to devote certain portions of the day to prayer, and she was greatly distressed in mind because she did not succeed in so arranging her other duties as to avoid interference with these hours of devotion. Finney met her difficulty in a letter published in the “Oberlin Evangelist” by explainingthat we have no right to make an unalterable resolution which might clash with the duties imposed upon us by God’s providential arrangement of our lives. He tells her that our duty to appropriate a certain hour to rest or exercise, to sleep, to prayer, to refreshment, to labor, to recreation, to study, to meditation, to visiting the poor, to taking care of the sick, or to any of ten thousand other supposable things, depends entirely upon the circumstances of the case, and that we should never promise to do or omit anything that may be inconsistent with the circumstances in which Providence may place us. Providence, he assures her, is nothing else than a great book of divine revelation in which we are passing over successive chapters and pages and verses day by day, and its behests, so far as we are able to understand them, are as binding as a written revelation, or even an audible voice from heaven. She therefore must be careful not to take the whole ordering of her life into her own hands.
In a second communication, Finney answers the good woman’s perplexities concerning dress. It appears that, in the high standard of duty which she had adopted, she had come to cherish a morbid fear of conforming to the fashion of the world, and was afraid that she would sin if she should change the form of her dress. Instead of setting aside the difficulties with a sneer, Finney enters into an argument with her to show that variety both in diet and in dress is necessary for the good of the human race; that it is made necessary by the constitution of our nature; and that the beautiful is a proximate good of great value which she is not to despise; and, except in telling her that she is not to pay too high a price for the beautiful by unduly sacrificing other interests, he has little advice to give, only that she is to avoid extravagance and whatever is injurious to health and inconsistent with pure and correct taste, and that her dress is to be determined in a great degree by the society in which she moves. There may be as much danger that she should think too little of her dress as that she should think too much of it, and he warns her that she is to discriminate carefully between scrupulousness and conscientiousness.
This correspondent was also troubled upon the subject of wearing mourning apparel at the death of her friends. This, again, Finney discusses with her with gentle condescension, entering into the argument pro and con, touching especially upon that of the inordinate expense likely to be incurred, and the subtle danger of pride entering in as a motive leading to funeral display. But he points out that what she is to do is dependent largely upon her family and social relations, and upon the wishes of her husband, or, if her parents are living, upon their desires. In closing he dwells on the fact that such struggles as she is passing through in her efforts to settle these embarrassing questions are the common lot of humanity, and by no mean,; imply that she is alienated from her Saviour. On the contrary, they are in the line of Christ’s own experiences, and are such as prepare us to share with Him in his glory.
From the fourth letter to this same lady, it seems that she was also greatly exercised by fears that she had failed of her duty to speak or pray in certain public meetings. In respect to this, Finney reminds her that mere suggestions, impulses, and feelings are not a sufficient ground for determining one’s duty on such occasions. While holding that it is perfectly proper for a woman to speak in a conference meeting, the propriety of exercising the privilege, he tells her, must be determined in view of all the attendant circumstances. From her statement of the case, his opinion is, that Satan is trying to make her appear ridiculous. She must take into account the public sentiment in her community, and the views of her friends, in determining what is proper and right in the case.
In the same letter, replying to her queries about what she should eat and drink, Finney confesses that when he first read Graham’s works on physiology and dietetics, he was deeply interested in them, and, as it was at the time the best light, as he supposed, which he could get, he became very scrupulous in his conformity to Graham’s views. “But after a while,” he says, “I found myself in complete bondage to what is called Grahamism.” He adds that where some are manifestly in bondage to their appetite, and have no command over themselves, others are in equal bondage to Grahamism or some other ism, and so are in danger of starving themselves to death before they can get a particular kind of diet.
Another general question, upon which Finney’s followers were perplexed, related to the intensity of feeling which should accompany their virtuous volitions. This he solved by pointing out that no executive volition calls for any more force of feeling than is required to secure it. The amount of feeling which we can endure is limited by the amount of our physical strength, and the law of economy would dissuade us from wasting our energies. We should save our strength in order to concentrate it upon the supreme efforts of life. Steadiness of purpose does not involve either an iron-clad uniformity of outward action or a dead level of emotion, either high or low.
Election and Reprobation
Upon these doctrines Finney held to the essential Calvinistic forms of statement, agreeing in this with the New School Calvinists of that time in accepting the facts of the case, but insisting on an explanation of their ground which should be in consistency with their view of the freedom of the will. Finney’s statement is, that God does indeed “bestow on men unequal measures of gracious influence, but that in this there is nothing arbitrary.” He bestows upon all sufficient grace to secure their salvation if properly improved. He does for all as much as He wisely can, but the Creator’s knowledge enables Him to see beforehand at what points in his moral government He can concentrate influences, as, for example, upon the Apostle Paul, so as to secure a result different from what would have occurred under the ordinary means of grace. If conversions like that of Paul were the ordinary mode of entering the kingdom of heaven, every one would look for and expect the same degree of attention, and what is now extraordinary would come to have no more persuasive force than the ordinary. The problem before the divine mind was to give greatest influence to the system as a whole, and in doing this the system must be so arranged that common means of grace shall not be supplanted by the more violent demonstrations of power.
The crucial question, however, in determining one’s Calvinistic position, is, “Was election in the order of nature subsequent to, or did it precede, the divine foreknowledge?” To this Finney gives the Calvinistic as distinguished from the Arminian answer, namely, that logically the knowledge of what could wisely be done precedes the knowledge of what ought to be done; and that the knowledge of what ought to be done precedes, in the divine mind, the knowledge of what would be done. “Foreknowledge of what would be done followed or was subsequent to election.”(92)
This position concerning election, or the positive bestowment of gracious privileges designed to lead men to repentance, involves also a doctrine of reprobation. In deciding upon the system as a whole, God must have designed the points of lesser privilege as well as of greater opportunities. In this He is dealing with a problem which is limited by the existence of logical contradictions; as, for example, in the inducements brought upon men to supply their temporal wants, man is ordinarily compelled to sow and reap, and gather into barns, and thresh and grind and cook, before he can provide himself with bread. It is only on extraordinary occasions that God has Provided manna from heaven, and multiplied loaves and fishes without stint. Such extraordinary provisions could not be claimed as the right of all, without throwing discredit upon the ordinary means, and robbing them of their salutary stimulus. So, in the distribution of the persuasive influences of the spiritual world, every one has sufficient to insure his salvation if rightly used, but he has no absolute claim upon the store of extraordinary privileges. Some must be content with the common conditions of life. As a benevolent being, God must resign such to their fate. This is reprobation. No means are used designing to make them sinful. The simple case is, that God cannot bestow a superabundance of opportunity upon them without robbing himself of the power of urging greater motives upon other objects of his creative love. With reference to the lost, we must suppose that “God regards their destruction as a less evil to the universe than would be such a change in the administration and arrangements of his government as would secure their salvation. Therefore, for their foreseen wickedness and perseverance in rebellion, under circumstances the most favorable to their virtue and salvation in which He can wisely place them, He is resolved upon their destruction, and has already in purpose cast them off forever.”(93)
In his statement of the doctrine of divine sovereignty, Finney exerted himself to the utmost to avoid any contradiction of the rational principles of benevolence. The “sovereignty of God,” he contends, “is nothing else than infinite benevolence directed by infinite knowledge.” The knowledge of God is such that it cannot be increased by other counselors, and hence He must act upon that knowledge, however far above the comprehension of his creatures it may be. It is in accepting the prerogative of the Divine Being to do things which are above our sight, that the strongest demands are made upon faith. This aspect of the Creator’s activities also leaves room and creates a demand for a special revelation of the Divine to man. It is possible to conceive that the entire will of God could be inferred at each point of time from the pulsations of force in every portion of space in the universe; but such a feat of interpretation would involve in the interpreter the possession of infinite knowledge and experience. In this appears the absurdity of pure rationalism. The human reason is not competent to attempt a complete interpretation of every portion of the universe coming within its purview. It is easier for the Creator to give the reason assurance of the reality of a special revelation than to give it confidence in its attempts to unravel from experience his entire scheme of action.
With all the emphasis which Finney lays upon the freedom of the human will, he still falls back, for comfort and support, upon the thought that, though God is infinite and his ways inscrutable, we still have abundant evidence that all He does is prompted by love and guided by perfect wisdom, and concludes his chapter upon this subject with one of those characteristic passages which relieve his ponderous work from dullness: –
“A proper understanding of God’s universal agency and sovereignty, of the perfect wisdom and benevolence of every measure of his government, providential and moral, is essential,” he says, “to the best improvement of all his dispensations toward us, and to those around us. When it is understood that God’s hand is directly or indirectly in everything that occurs, and that He is infinitely wise and good, and equally wise and good in every single dispensation; that He has one end steadily and always in view; that He does all for one and the same ultimate end, and that this end is the highest good of himself and of universal being; I say, when these things are understood and considered, there is a divine sweetness in all his dispensations. There is then a divine reasonableness, and amiableness, and kindness, thrown like a broad mantle of infinite love over all his character, works, and ways. The soul, in contemplating such a sacred, universal, holy sovereignty, takes on a sweet smile of delightful complacency, and feels secure, and reposes in perfect peace, surrounded and supported by the everlasting arms.”(94)
Perseverance of Saints
With reference to the perseverance of saints, Finney encounters, as has already been shown, the same metaphysical difficulties which were urged against his doctrine of entire sanctification in this life. If the will is free, it is often asked, how can there be any certainty of its future action? But that there may be such certainty, all hold who believe that the saints in heaven will remain immutable in their happy condition. Certainty, therefore, does not necessarily contradict freedom, even in the opinion of Arminians. On the same ground, Finney maintained that the connection between regeneration and final glorification might be made certain without any necessary abrogation of human freedom, and thus without inconsistency he was able fully to believe “that all who are at any time true saints of God are preserved by his grace and spirit through faith, in the sense that, subsequently to regeneration, obedience is their rule, and disobedience only the exception; and that being thus kept they will certainly be saved with an everlasting salvation.”(95)
But the attainment of final salvation implies the use and improvement of all the means and gracious influences provided in the case. To the question, Is there no danger that a regenerate person will fall away? Finney answers, Yes and No. In the sense of there being danger that a skillful pilot will run his ship upon the rocks if he is negligent of his duty, Yes. But in the sense of there being danger that this pilot will be criminally negligent of his duty, No. It may be that the very presence and prominence of the possible danger is a means of preventing the actual danger. The illustration which Finney uses, although written before the days of Blondin, is that of a person who should attempt to cross the gorge below the falls of Niagara upon a rope stretched from brink to brink. If he relaxes his effort for a single instant, he will fail. But the very presence of the danger keeps him from relaxing his effort, and confidence in his success is in part the means of bestowing upon him the power to attain it through the use of the means. It is thus that Paul, with his shipwrecked companions, made the most scrupulous use of means, although a positive divine promise of security had been made to him.
The proof of the doctrine of the perseverance of saints is, with Finney, entirely scriptural, but of this he finds such an abundance as effectually to overcome the great hesitancy which, from theoretical considerations, he at first felt in giving adhesion to it. He finds the Scriptures teaching “the persevering nature of true religion through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.” By the phrase “persevering nature of true religion” he does not mean “that religion, as it exists in the hearts of the saints in this life, would of itself, if unsupported by the grace and indwelling Spirit of God, prevail and triumph over his enemies; but the thing intended is, that, through the faithfulness of God, He that has begun, or shall begin, a good work in my heart will perfect it unto the day of Jesus Christ.”(96)
It is instructive to recall that when, at last, in the silence of the midnight hour, Finney, with his fingers upon his failing pulse, saw that death was approaching, he had no ecstatic vision, but simply said, “I have not apostatized, have I?” The pathos of these dying words is fully seen only by recalling a few paragraphs written by him more than thirty years before, when treating of the doctrine now in question.
“It is also admitted,” he then wrote, “that the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is liable to abuse, and often is abused by the carnal and deceived professor; but is this a good reason for rejecting it, and for withholding its consolations from the tempted, tempest-tossed saint? By no means. Such are the circumstances of temptation from within and without, in which the saints are placed in this life, that when they are made really acquainted with themselves, and are brought to a proper appreciation of the circumstances in which they are, they have but little rational ground of hope, except what is found in this doctrine. The natural tendency and inevitable consequence of a thorough revelation of themselves to themselves would be to beget despair, but for the covenanted grace and faithfulness of God. What saint, who has ever been revealed to himself by the Holy Spirit, has not seen what Paul saw when he said, ‘In me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing’? Who that has been made acquainted with himself does not know that he never did and never will take one step towards heaven, except as he is anticipated and drawn by the grace of God in Christ Jesus? Who that knows himself does not understand that he never would have been converted but for the grace of God anticipating and exciting the first motions of his mind in a right direction? And what true saint does not know that, such are his former habitudes, and such the circumstances of trial under which he is placed, and such the downward tendency of his own soul on account of his physical depravity, that although converted he shall not persevere for an hour, except the indwelling grace and Spirit of God shall hold him up, and quicken him in the path of holiness?
“It shocks and distresses me to hear professed Christians talk of being saved at all, except upon the ground of the anticipating, and persevering, and sin-overcoming, and hell-subduing grace of God in Christ Jesus. Why, I should as soon expect the Devil to be saved as that any saint on earth will be, if left, with all the promises of God in his hands, to stand and persevere without the drawings, and inward teachings, and over-persuading influences of the Holy Spirit. . . . This doctrine, though liable to abuse by hypocrites, is nevertheless the sheet anchor of the saints in the hours of conflict.
“I could no more hope that myself or any one else would persevere in holiness in our best estate, even for one day or hour, if not kept by the power of God through faith, than I could hope to fly to heaven.”(97)
Charles Grandison Finney by G. Frederick Wright is one of the best biographys on this hero of the Christian faith. This book details the life, ministry, and theology of the greatest revivalists America has ever seen. While Finney’s modern critics always try to downplay his success as an evangelist, this book was written by someone who was actually there in the 19th Century, who knew and worked with Finney for 30 years.
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