American Evangelicalism is one of the largest and most important religious movements of the modern day. Though by its nature Evangelicalism is difficult to define or limit, the Pew Research Institution claims that over 80 million Americans self-identify as Evangelical. Unlike traditional denominations, it can be very difficult to track the origins and doctrines of the movement due to its general lack of creeds or unifying institutions. There are however a few clear theologians and events through which Evangelicals can trace their history. Some of the most obvious of these are the First and Second Great Awakenings and the Billy Graham revivals.
Through these events and their leading theologians, the characteristic Evangelical focus on a personal relationship at the expense of organized religion, which today manifests itself in the common phrase “It’s not a religion it’s a relationship” and Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I hate religion but love Jesus”, developed. Evangelicalism is undeniably rooted in revivalism, and this mentality of relationship over religion sits at its core. While this focus leads to many good fruits such as Evangelicals giving more time and money than any other Christian movement or even attending church more often, it also has some very troubling effects.
One of the primary problems that this mindset has produced is a lack of reliable theologians and a glorification of evangelists over theologians. The Evangelical movement certainly can trace itself back to some great theologians, such as Jonathon Edwards and John Wesley. However, along the way the movement has also embraced men who I believe we must be very wary of.
As I write this article, I want to be very clear that I am a born and raised Evangelical Christian who dearly loves the passion with which I watch my Evangelical brothers and sisters pursue God. I am however concerned that in our search for personal relationship and evangelism, we have abandoned the focus on theology that protected us from false teachers who have managed to creep into the church.
Primary among these false teachers is Charles Finney. While it is very likely that only a few Evangelicals know who Finney is, he stands as one of the most important fathers of the movement. Michael Horton, in his article The Legacy of Charles Finney, argued that Finney was “the tallest marker in the shift from Reformation orthodoxy, evident in the Great Awakening, to Arminian (indeed, even Pelagian) revivalism, evident from the Second Great Awakening to the present.” Mark Noll, the leading historian of Evangelicalism, agrees with Horton calling Finney “one of the most important public figures in 19th-century America. Beyond doubt, he stands by himself as the crucial figure in white American evangelicalism after Jonathan Edwards.”
Charles Finney was a Methodist revivalist preacher of the 2nd Great Awakening. His preaching drew thousands of listeners and as he traveled throughout the American East Coast he quickly became one of the leading evangelists of the awakening. While Finney was an incredibly moving orator, his theology was extremely troubling and many of its elements still remain in the church today. Few modern theologians have studied or addressed Finney’s work, however, those who have often find his work heretical. Upon reading some of Finney’s writings, R.C. Sproul said: “the only conclusion we can come to is that Charles Finney was not a Christian.” Sproul makes this claim primarily on Finney’s view of human nature.
Finney aggressively rejects the doctrine of original sin. As he states in lecture 24 of his systematic theology “This doctrine is a stumbling block both to the church and the world, infinitely dishonorable to God, and an abomination alike to God and the human intellect, and should be banished from every pulpit, and from every formula of doctrine, and from the world.” Because of this rejection, Finney believes that humanity isn’t fallen and in need of regeneration, but is instead simply misguided. Salvation is not God reaching down to man and cleansing him, but simply man deciding to follow God.
As Finney says in his 28th lecture when speaking on man’s need for God’s regeneration in salvation, “it has been sufficiently refuted in the lectures on moral depravity. If, as was then shown, moral depravity is altogether voluntary, and consists in selfishness, or in a voluntary state of mind, this philosophy of regeneration is of course without foundation.” This idea of man simply choosing God for salvation rejects the previous 1,500 years of church doctrine and hearkens back to the work of Pelagius.
Pelagius was a 4th Century Englishman who, upon discovering St. Augustine’s writings on man’s fallen human nature, rejected the common thinking of the church and instead claimed that man was inherently good but misguided by the influence of the world. He rejected any conception of fallen human nature and any need of regeneration. Pelagius was condemned by Pope Innocent I for his beliefs and is known as one of the archetype heretics of Church history. Almost exactly 1,500 years later, Charles Finney fell into the exact same error. I am not claiming that Finney’s rejection of original sin survives in the Evangelical Church today, however, Finney did create a new path to salvation based on his theology, which is still commonly used in many churches.
Because Finney believed that salvation was an act of man choosing God and not God reaching down to man, Finney created a means of encouraging his listeners to make that decision, which he named the anxious bench. Instead of following the normal path of salvation, which was through baptism and living out a regenerated life, Finney encouraged his listeners to come forward at a set point of the service and sit on the bench. Those on the bench would pray and declare themselves for the Lord and be saved. Finney expressly states that this is the “new baptism” in his lectures on the nature of revival.
This view took away from the classical church doctrine of God reaching down to someone and then that person simply following Him. The focus was never on the moment of salvation it was on living a life of following Christ daily and openly joining the body of Christ through baptism. Finney’s model put the focus on the moment of salvation and presented it more as man’s decision than God’s work. This anxious bench eventually became the modern altar call and is widely used in Evangelical churches. I hope to address the development of the altar call more fully in another article, but it is critical for Evangelicals to realize that the altar call is rooted in a belief that man chooses God instead of God choosing man.
Another surviving mark of Finney’s theology in the modern church is an inherent distrust of seminaries and higher theological study which permeates much of the Evangelical movement. Charles Finney never attended seminary and in fact actively campaigned against them. Shortly after his salvation, Finney looked to his pastor Gale as a mentor. However, when Gale encouraged Finney to attend a seminary, Finney recorded his response to this proposition in his journal saying “I plainly told them that I would not put myself under such an influence as they had been under.”
In his memoirs, however, Gale remembers the occasion differently saying “Finney did not go to seminary because he was unable to gain admittance.” Regardless of whether he was always against seminaries or just couldn’t get into one, Finney’s massive influence over the Second Great Awakening and his dislike of seminaries led to a distrust of seminaries throughout the country, which is still prevalent in the American Church today.
I plan on pursuing a Ph. D. in religion and I have had that decision questioned many times by friends, leaders, and fellow church goers. There is a general sense that higher religious study corrupts the student. While there are plenty of schools where the influence is likely more negative than positive, to generalize across the board and dislike higher theological education as a whole is a foolish and dangerous position, as it prevents willing leaders from studying to defend the church and ground it in proper theology.
Theology is an incredibly important tool in combating false doctrine and leading a congregation safely through this age of confusion and constant false teachers, in which we live today. I do not want to attack or discredit any pastors who have not attended a seminary; I know many incredible pastors who never received a higher education in theology. However, to discourage desirous future pastors from dedicating themselves to the study of the subject seems foolish in the extreme.
These are just a couple out of many troubling innovations that Finney injected into the Evangelical movement which still remain in common thought today. I want to encourage Evangelicals to study these topics and check their own theology for traces of Finney’s rejection of original sin. Though he is only mentioned rarely in the Evangelical community today, Finney’s theology still permeates our thoughts on salvation, education, the role of reason, and many other areas.
As a movement, it is time that we begin thoroughly studying our origins. There are many good and beautiful parts of Evangelicalism, but there are also some false teachers, such as Finney, who have been embraced along the way. We must be on guard for the wolves in sheep’s clothing who threaten to infect the church with false doctrine and a false understanding of God’s grace and action in salvation.