My final paper for my seminary course ending this month (Theology in the Modern Era). Enjoy, comment, pass on with proper credit given.
Grace to y’all
The Passing Down of Charles Finney’s Spiritual DNA
Charles Grandison Finney stands among the most influential Christian leaders since the Reformation. He pushed hard throughout his career against all he perceived to be stultified, spending terrific energy on social justice problems and prodding the sleepy American church culture with a ministry of Revivalism. The fires of revival that he lit burned with hot emotion, as per his philosophy: “unless the religious feelings are awakened and kept excited, counter worldly feeling and excitement will prevail, and men will not obey God.”
Although ordained a Presbyterian minister claiming some level of concord with the Westminster Confession of Faith, Finney worked from a different set of practical theological assumptions in ministry. A lawyer by training, Finney relied on rationalistic deductions in forming what he believed and practiced. He always had his eye on results, and had little patience for the “sophistry of seminary-educated Calvinists”  who waited around for God to do a miracle of revival. In crafting a rationalistic, pragmatic ministry, Finney left behind the anthropology and soteriology of the Reformation, as well as its ecclesiology.
It is therefore no exaggeration to interpret Finney as a radical in his root theological commitments; he was convincingly Pelagian as demonstrated in his essential doctrines of sin and humanity, revivalism and moralism.
By extension, whatever had to be said, whatever antics were needed to persuade sinners to repent—these were the very words and actions that Finney would employ. Finney’s innovative, results-driven ministry has been widely admired and mimicked since his day, and has accordingly infected generations of modern Evangelicalism with pragmatic Pelagianism. As such, his influence has been extensively devastating to the Reformation heritage.
Charles Finney the Pelagian
As Pelagius had long before rejected the church’s doctrines of anthropology and grace, so did Finney; both men were intelligent and moralistic, interpreting spiritual passivity in the church as owing to an overemphasis on humankind’s sin nature.
In Memoirs, Finney recounts himself praying fervently for a particular woman to be converted, beseeching “the God of all grace” on her behalf, thus demonstrating an orthodox instinct. It is in spite of this instinct that Finney later wrote concerning revival that “it is not a miracle…There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. It consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature. It is just that, and nothing else.” In this, Finney may be seen to have lived in two different theological worlds—namely, prayer and waiting on God for his grace, while at the same time maneuvering mechanical conversions in people ostensibly possessing libertarian free will.
In the former case, Jonathan Edwards’ influence was ubiquitous in early American religion, and Finney was not to escape the magisterial Puritan’s shadow. Over and above his familiarity with Edwards, Finney had also imbibed the “New Divinity” featured in Samuel Hopkins’ teaching. It was within the innovative approach of Hopkins to original sin that Finney found the knot “loosened between a fallen Adam” and the rest of humanity; and in this he found justification to presuppose libertarian freedom such that sinners may create for themselves regenerate hearts.
For instance, Finney baldy claims that the Christian is quite able to obey God’s moral law just as Christ did. This is possible because “the moral law requires nothing more than honesty of intention,” over against a maniacal strain of the will. Demonstrating his signature rationalism, Finney deduces from his premise that “whenever [the Christian] sins, he must be condemned; he must incur the penalty of the law of God. If he does not, it must be because the law of God is abrogated.” This maneuver indicates Finney’s fundamental redefinition of the gospel. Instead of the double imputation work of Christ for his people, he offered a Pelagian version of Christ-as-moral-exemplar, teaching “The Christian…is justified no longer than he obeys, and must be condemned when he disobeys.” His reliance on his legal training showed through in every attempt to discuss Christian justification, as for example: “can [the Christian] be pardoned and accepted, and justified, in the gospel sense, while sin, any degree of sin, remains in him? Certainly not.” Finney pulled no punches in laying the framework for a new Pelagianism, thus describing the doctrine of original sin as “anti-scriptural and nonsensical dogma.” As Michael Horton points out, “the doctrine of original sin” is “held by both Roman Catholics and Protestants,” and was denied by a man (Pelagius) “who was condemned by more church councils than any other person in church history.”
Finney’s plain rejection of both the spirit and the substance of the Reformed confessions on grace, gospel, and justification—and with them the heart of the gospel recovery wrought in the magisterial Reformation—made him a corrupting influence as a widely known theologian-revivalist.
Charles Finney’s Sacrament of Revival
It seems that Finney’s zeal to see religion promoted led him to reinterpret Christianity as a more workable, results-driven system. As he surveyed the seeming apathy of the traditional churches, he opined “The state of the world is [such] . . . that religion must be mainly promoted by means of revivals.” His choice of the word “means” here reflects his exaltation of the extraordinary over that of ordinary, mundane “means of grace” used in the church from ancient times. Revival was therefore not only an aspect of Finney’s appearances, but was itself his choice sacrament.
In the early nineteenth century, revivals throughout America were so frequent that the line between a genuine move of God’s Spirit and unhinged enthusiasm had been badly blurred. Regarding Finney’s pragmatic Revivalism, Iain Murray notes it “did not so much derive from Finney as an individual as it did from the whole situation out of which he emerged;” yet he was to become the most prominent American revivalist.
As the chief proponent of the culture of Revivalism, and with his characteristic fervor for souls, Finney excoriated sinners for holding back their allegiance to God. He was not one to wait around under the ordinary ministry of word and sacrament, remarking in his dramatic fashion “No doubt more than five [billion] have gone down to hell, while the church has been dreaming, and waiting for God to save them without the use of means.” The “means” that Finney here claims the church had not used are not the historic, duly “constituted means of grace” in the preaching of Scripture and the sacraments, rather he lamented the lack of revivals in church history. 
Upstate New York’s hot-blooded preacher wanted results. There were to be no excuses admitted into Finney’s court of law: if one had working ears and half of their mind, the only thing stopping them from obeying God was their own “stubborn” refusal. To this end, Finney entitled part of his magnum opus “How to Promote a Revival,” whereby instructions are given to assist fellow preachers in manipulating the mechanics of a revival of religion. As the conjurer of revival, Finney believed little to be off limits in getting results.
A strong postmillennialist, he believed his “new measures” of Revivalism were to hasten the golden age. Yet whatever the end goal, Finney’s new ecclesiology—that of using any means to get results—was to become the model for those who also hope to take a shortcut to whatever currently defines ministry success. For Finney and those who have followed in his footsteps, the allure of results, and of “control[ing] their own religious destiny” has proven an idol too good to refuse.
Influence and Results
Among Evangelical leaders since his time, Finney is often recognized as “the most widely known and most successful American revivalist.” In promoting the new measures that revolutionized much of conventional Protestantism, he has inspired generations hence who have adopted his ministry philosophy.
Finney’s pragmatic Pelagianism and “naturalistic moralism” are now a part of the DNA of the broad Evangelical family of movements—not the least of which is the pernicious “church growth movement.” Yet it was not church growth that Finney left in his wake, for as the revivals left town, the disciples also disappeared. As little as a couple of years after revival had broken out in Upstate New York, a local minister reported that “everything looked black and desolate” in specific regard to the “raging flame” that “had passed through” in Finney’s revivals. Yet these historical notes have not curtailed the legacy effect of Finney being a successful evangelist worth mimicking.
From the immediate followers of Finney up through D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and up to the brand-name preachers of our day—Evangelicalism in America has become inseparable from its Revivalism and celebrity culture. In the current context, it has been the broad “megachurch model” of Evangelicalism that has been functioning as the chief heir to the spirit of Finney’s pragmatic Pelagianism.
In Finney’s day, the pragmatic ministry looked stern, high-minded, and had an air of gravity about doctrines of the faith (as went the culture). In the postmodern incarnation, pragmatic ministry looks chipper, sycophantic, and is flippant about doctrine—even hostile toward Christians who ask for more substance in church. Although the tone and look has changed, the theology of today’s megachurch movement operates upon the same foundation of pragmatic Pelagianism that underpinned Finney’s Revivalism.
In what has become a rather average example of this, for the grand opening of the Mall of America, a church service was held in the mall, deemed “A Sunday Mallelujah!” Thousands of attendees arrived and participated in what can only be described as the perfect self-parody of the megachurch: consumers in a mall of choices—the literal biggest mall ever—sampling the latest fad in religious flavor. Once more, the root is pragmatism: since it can be done, it should be done, seeing the church-in-the-mall was “effective evangelism.” This is the trademark of contemporary megachurch Evangelicalism—whatever ideas can be utilized to bring in more people, these should be implemented—doctrine and tradition are optional. Thomas Oden put his finger on this spot when he judged “there has been a wholesale devaluation of the currency of Christian language, symbolism, teaching, and witness—a total sellout and bankruptcy to support the fixed habits of modern addictions,” which addictions change from generation to generation.
Although it may seem improbable at first glance, the megachurch movement is the blossom of Finney’s ministry, updated with a sweeter voice and a frozen smile to quell the skittishness of soft-minded Western consumers. The historic church universal, including the martyrs, those in other lands living under threat of persecution and death, the Reformers, the apostles et alia would probably not recognize their religion if they were to walk into one of our slick revival machines known as American megachurches.
Conclusion: A Grim Present, a Questionable Future
Where Finney was brash and moralistic, his heirs are docile, comforting characters. In either case, the assumption has been that the audience is made up of “self-actualiz[ing]” agents who just need to be convinced, on some level, to change their thoughts and hearts—and to embark upon a more or less moral life. The difference in style is according to the era and culture in which Revivalism is practiced—with Jesus fit somewhere into the system.
Where Finney was focused on providing theological justifications for his new measures, so the new pragmatists have found little need to delve into the Christian traditions. Where Finney had to answer to scholastic Protestantism, modern revivalists need only give the most fleeting lip service to theological challenges. Both cases are the maneuverings of salespeople who know their audiences.
And it is at this point that the Evangelical tradition stands upon a precipice. Either a great awakening will grip our churches, shaking us loose from trivial excitements and celebrity encounters, or we will follow the ghost of Charles Finney off the cliff down into the bewildered footnotes of future generations. The failure in the system is all theological, and all wrapped in a reflexive eschewing of church history; perhaps the Lord will have mercy on his Western churches and grant a genuine revival of catholic, orthodox, average Christianity. This generation needs reformation in like degree to the church of the late medieval period—thus we hope, pray, and work toward that end.
. David B. Chesebrough, Charles G. Finney: Revivalistic Rhetoric (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 43-47; Iain H. Murray, Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 233-245.
. Charles G. Finney, “What a Revival of Religion Is,” Lecture I, introduction, in Lectures on Revivals of Religion, http://www.ccel.org.
. Charles G. Finney, Memoirs (New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1876), 42-46. Here Mr. Finney remarks concerning the standard doctrine of substitutionary atonement in Reformed theology “that this was absurd,” “… it seemed to me that Jesus only satisfied public justice, and that that was all that the government of God could require.”; Marianne Perciaccante, Calling Down Fire: Charles Grandison Finney and Revivalism in Jefferson County, New York, 1800-1840 (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003), 5; Murray, Revivalism, 244-246.
. Chesebrough, Rhetoric, 8-9; Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 35-36. Here the author notes how Finney compared the congregation to a jury, needing persuasion to make a decision for moral change.
. Hambrick-Stowe, Evangelicalism, 2.
. Finney, “Revival,” Lecture I, chap. I, par. 3, in Lectures; Chesebrough, Rhetoric, 46.
. Finney, Memoirs, 45-46; Bob DeWaay, “Charles Finney’s Influence on American Evangelicalism: Exposing Charles Finney’s Heretical Teachings,” in Critical Issues Commentary 53 (July/August 1999): under “Finney and Theological Innovation,” http://cicministry.org/commentary/issue53.htm (accessed November 25, 2014); Chesebrough, Rhetoric, 47.
. Finney is recalled as the father of modern Evangelical Christian feminism and egalitarianism in Donald W. Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1976), 88, 101; cf. Hambrick-Stowe, Evangelicalism, 141-142.
. Finney, Memoirs, 45-46. In regard to the cardinal Reformed doctrines of humankind’s depravity and moral inability, Finney here states “These doctrines I could not receive.” See also Hambrick-Stowe, Evangelicalism, 25: “Finney was convinced that in certain key areas of doctrine, specifically on original sin and the atonement, the traditional Calvinist position officially held by Presbyterians was unreasonable, unbiblical, and, from the viewpoint of evangelical preaching, impractical;” 80-81.
. Finney, “Revival,” Lecture I, sec. I., par. 3, in Lectures; Finney, “A Wise Minister Will be Successful,” Lecture XI, entire, in Lectures; Murray, Revivalism, 244-249.
. Murray, Revivalism, 249; Hambrick-Stowe, Evangelicalism, 80-81; cf. Finney, “Revival,” Lecture I, introduction, in Lectures: “Religion is the work of man. It is something for man to do. It consists in obeying God with and from the heart. It is man’s duty.” Here and elsewhere “Evangelical” is being defined as a generally conservative, intellectual tradition found within most denominations descended from the Reformation a la Alister McGrath, A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 22-23.
. Roger E. Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 270, 274-275; Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “Pelagianism.”
. Finney, “When a Revival is to be Expected,” Lecture II, sec. I., par. 3, in Lectures; Chesebrough, Rhetoric, 8-10; Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2010), 1:214-245; DeWaay, Influence, under “Finney on Human Ability.”
. Finney, Memoirs, 37-39.
. “Orthodox” will be defined in this paper as generally conforming to the Augustinian view of grace.
. Finney, “Revival,” Lecture I, chap. I, par. 2, in Lectures.
. “Libertarian free will” defined as that of someone having the ability to make uncoerced decisions wherein the opposite decision was truly possible, free of determination from any outside agents or factors.
. Hambrick-Stowe, Evangelicalism, 29-30.
. Ibid., 30-31.
. Ibid., 31.
. Charles G. Finney, “Lecture IX: Unity of Moral Action. Can Obedience to Moral Law Be Partial?” sec. 2, par. 2, in Systematic Theology, http://www.ccel.org.
. Ibid., sec. 5, par. 1, under “Objection. Does a Christian cease to be a Christian, whenever he commits a sin?”
. E.g. John Owen, “Imputation, and the nature of it; with the imputation of the righteousness of Christ in particular,” in The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, through the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ; explained, confirmed, and vindicated, http://www.ccel.org.
. Finney, “Lecture IX”, “Unity of Moral Action. Can Obedience to Moral Law be Partial?” sec. 5, par. 1, under “Objection. Does a Christian cease to be a Christian, whenever he commits a sin?” in Systematic.
. Ibid., “Lecture X: Obedience Entire,” sec. 7. Note the terminology and cadence of a lawyer.
. Ibid., “Lecture XXIII: Moral Depravity,” under Psalm li. 5; Olson, Belief, 274. Finney is here labeled a “Semi-Pelagian,” but in substance the usage by Olson is the same as what is normally described as Pelagianism.
. Michael S. Horton, “The Legacy of Charles Finney,” in Modern Reformation 4, no. 1 (Jan./Feb. 1995), under “What’s So Wrong with Finney’s Theology?,” http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var1=ArtRead&var2=625&var3=main&var4=Home (accessed November 25, 2014).
. Finney, Memoirs, 30-31. Here note Finney’s admiration as he watched a prayer meeting that was marked by a flamboyant deacon and its effect on the people in the room; cf. Hambrick-Stowe, Evangelicalism, 28: “…Finney . . . aimed at developing an evangelical theology that would produce conversions in a revival.”
. Finney, “Revival,” Lecture I, introduction, par. 3, in Lectures.
. Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 195, http://www.ccel.org; Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q88-100ff, http://www.ccel.org. Finney’s familiarity with the Westminster standards would indicate a conscious use of the word “means” in reference to revivals over against those described here in the catechisms.
. Murray, Revivalism, 163-177. Note “enthusiasm” is here defined in the literal, etymological sense of “God-within-ism,” in contrast to God “extra nos” in the classical Reformation use. For “God-within-ism,” see Michael S. Horton, “The Gospel and the Sufficiency of Scripture: Church of the Word or Word of the Church?,” in Modern Reformation 19, no. 6 (Nov./Dec. 2010), under heading, http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var2=1191 (accessed November 30, 2014).
. Murray, Revivalism, 238.
. Finney, Memoirs, 62-63.
. Finney, “Revival,” Lecture I, par. 3, in Lectures. Emphasis mine.
. Francis R. Beattie, “The Presbyterian Standards,” in Westminster Shorter Catechism Project, sec. IV http://www.shortercatechism.com/resources/beattie/wsc_be_091-093.html (accessed November 30, 2014).
. Finney, “False Comfort for Sinners,” Lecture XVII, sec. 10, par. 3, in Lectures.
. Ibid., “How to Promote a Revival,” Lecture III.
. Murray, Revivalism, 245-252; Chesebrough, Rhetoric, 35-36, 46-47, 65.
. Finney, “Hindrances to Revivals,” Lecture XV, sec. III. 9, in Lectures; Murray, Revivalism, 240-242.
. Randall Balmer, “Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism: II The Transition from Postmillennialism to Premillennialism,” in Ashland Theological Journal 38 (2006): 51.
. V. Raymond Edman, Finney Lives On: The Secret of Revival in Our Time (Wheaton, IL: Scripture Press, 1951), 15, quoted in Dayton, Heritage, 15.
. R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 185; Murray, Revivalism, 240-242.
. Horton, Legacy, under “What’s So Wrong With Finney’s Theology?”; Bob DeWaay, “Recovering Reformation Theology: Rejecting Synergism and Returning to Monergism,” in Critical Issues Commentary 93 (March/April 2006): under “Ephesians 2:8, 9,” http://cicministry.org/commentary/issue93.htm (accessed December 3, 2014).
. Murray, Revivalism, 295.
. John H. Rice, A Memoir of the Rev. John H. Rice, D.D. (Philadelphia: J. Whetham, 1835), 344.
. Shayne Lee & Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 17-24; Billy Graham has given unqualified approval to Finney, e.g. “Through his Spirit-filled ministry, uncounted thousands came to know Christ . . . resulting in one of the greatest periods of revival…” Billy Graham, “Foreword” to Lewis A. Drummond, Charles Grandison Finney and the Birth of Modern Evangelism (London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 1983), 6, quoted in Murray, Revivalism, 298.
. R. Albert Mohler Jr., “Is the Megachurch the New Liberalism?”, AlbertMohler.com blog, entry posted May 1, 2012, http://www.albertmohler.com/2012/05/01/is-the-megachurch-the-new-liberalism/ (accessed December 4, 2014); Lee & Sinitiere, Mavericks, 1-3. Note that each of the main subjects in this volume is a leader of a large church or movement.
. David Hughes, “Foodies – The Big Burger,” sermon, November 2, 2014, 36:00ff., http://cbglades.com/teachings/foodies/1/ (accessed December 4, 2014). Here Pastor Hughes compares Christians asking for “more doctrine…more worship” to being the excrement of the body of Christ. Several more near identical examples could be given from recent sermons in megachurches around America.
. Michael Scott Horton, Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 47-57; Kimon Howland Sargeant, Seeker Churches: Promoting Traditional Religion in a Non-Traditional Way (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 108.
. Os Guinness, Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 11.
. Sargeant, Seeker, 106 ff.; Thomas Oden, After Modernity, What? Agenda for Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 24.
. Guinness, Dining, 11-12. Emphasis mine.
. Walt Kallestad, “Think Like a Missionary, Act Like a Marketer: Effective Ways to Take the Church Public,” in Making Church Relevant, ed. Dale E. Galloway (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1999), 71-74; Billy Hornsby, The Attractional Church: Growth through a Refreshing, Relational, and Relevant Church Experience (New York: Faith Words, 2011), 24-30, 153ff; Guinness, Dining, 57-59; Lee & Sinitiere, Mavericks, 86.
. Oden, Modernity, 31; Horton, America, 60-71.
. Lee & Sinitiere, Mavericks, 30.
. Robert Schuller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (Waco: Word, 1982), 98: …nothing has been “more destructive…to the evangelistic enterprise, than the unchristian, uncouth strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.”
. Michael Horton, Christless Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), 73-74.