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Rev. CHARLES G. FINNEY.
Speeches and Sketches
GATHERING OF HIS FRIENDS AND PUPILS, IN
OBERLIN, JULY 28TH, 1876
CRITICAL ESTIMATES OF
MR. FINNEY'S CHARACTER AND
PRESIDENT FINNEY'S THEOLOGICAL SYSTEM
AND ITS GENERAL INFLUENCE
[BY REV. GEORGE F. WRIGHT]
Others speak to us to-day of President Finney, as in some measure filling the role of a Whitefield, a St. Bernard, and a Gamaliel. The subject of our thoughts on this occasion was distinguished as a preacher of the Gospel, as a man of remarkable spiritual attainments, and as the founder of a school; for, whatever share others may have had in laying the foundations of this institution, they would probably all of them readily yield the precedence to the distinguished revivalist who so early cast his lot in with this enterprise, and for more than a generation became its best known representative abroad, and its spiritual inspiration at home.
It is expected of me to speak of President Finney in the role of an Augustine, elaborating a theological system, and through it reaching onward with a direct grasp to the generations of the future.
With, of course, many qualities that are in contrast, these characters certainly have numerous striking points of resemblance. Their early neglect of religion, the pronounced nature of their conversion, and the overwhelming flood of emotion that accompanied it, the philosophical cast of their minds, and, what is more in point, the mental furniture with which they began and carried on their expositions of the Christian system of thought, give a striking likeness to these remarkable men. Augustine knew no Hebrew, and very little Greek. Yet, in the opinion of those best qualified to judge, "no single uninspired name has ever exercised such power over the Christian Church, and no one mind ever made such an impression upon Christian thought." (Ency. Britan. on Principal Tulloch.)
President Finney frankly acknowledged, that while he had studied Hebrew and Greek to some extent, he nevertheless did not consider himself competent to venture on any independent criticism of the Scriptures in their original languages. Our English version was to him what the Vulgate was to Augustine.
With regard to the future influence of President Finney's system of Theology, authorities differ. There are those who say of it, that it is already as dead as the Pharaoh whose host was drowned in the Red Sea. The present gathering is sufficient refutation of this idea. It does not, however, become us to be too sanguine in our assertions and our expectations, but calmly to consider the truth, and to bestow only that meed of honor which is actually due. In speaking of a system of thought, it is best not to presume upon the sympathy of the audience addressed, especially when they are admirers of the author of the system. We ought not to say anything here for which we would not willingly be called to account before his sympathetic auditors. Truth is truth irrespective of the source from which it comes. The personality of the author fades from the view of even his survivors; but of truth it is well said, "The eternal years of God are hers."
President Finney's system of Theology may be described as a growth rather than a creation. He did not set himself to work in early life to write a symmetric treatise of Divinity. It has not the pointless mediocrity of such a production.
But his system is the outgrowth of a profound religious and extensive practical experience, coupled with an unusual aptitude for philosophical speculation and logical discrimination. He has interpreted Scripture not after the delusive and belittling method of the mere linguist, who is so buried in the details of the grammar and the lexicon that he can never see the broad current of general doctrine that underlies and comprehends it all. He is not like many of modern commentators, prevented from seeing the forest by reason of the multitude of trees.
President Finney approaches the Bible, as every one must do, with a certain amount of presupposition regarding the nature of the subject to which it is addressed. In his view, as in that of Augustine, the Bible is a religious revelation to the common people, which does not to any great degree lose its perspicuity in a translation. Its main revelation is so plain that a wayfaring man, though a fool, need not err therein. It is a practical revelation of a highway of holiness, which is not a substitute for common sense, but a supplement to it. Regarding the points in dispute among evangelical Christians, the characteristics of his system are briefly these:
1. The human will is self-determining in its action.
2. Obligation is limited by ability.
3. All virtuous choice terminates upon the good of beings, and, in the ultimate analysis, on the good of being in general.
4. The will is never divided in its action, but with whatever momentum it has at each instant, it is either wholly virtuous or wholly sinful.
With regard to total depravity, he accepts it as a biblical doctrine, that all the acts of men since the fall, and previous to regeneration, are sinful.
Regeneration and conversion are treated as synonymous terms, descriptive of a coetaneous act both of the Holy Spirit and of the human will. He is content to accept the facts and let alone the mystery; insisting, however, that the human reason is always so far respected, that the truth is in all cases the instrument through which conversion is secured by the Spirit.
The condition into which men are brought by regeneration is either that of continued holiness, increasing in volume, or of states alternating from entire holiness to entire sinfulness; the former state finally predominating, and ending, according to the ordinary Calvinistic doctrine of perseverance, in everlasting salvation. The final perseverance of the saints is accepted as a revealed truth, which the reason can not contradict, and whose mysteries are left with the Lord.
Likewise, the doctrine of election is maintained as being, in the wisdom of God, our only assurance that the salvation of any will be secured. There is a plan of salvation whose means and ends were chosen from eternity, and which is now unfolding before us.
In this plan Christ is the central figure; a being who is both God and man, and whose humiliation and sufferings are a governmental substitute for the punishment of those who are sanctified through faith in His name. The Atonement satisfies the demands of general justice, and its provisions are freely offered to all men. Almost all the statements we have here given would be accepted by what are called New School Calvinists.
The exceptions would relate to the nature of virtue so far as concerns the ground of obligation, the simplicity of moral action, and the process of sanctification.
So far, however, as relates to the nature of holiness, President Finney's system is the first cousin, if not the grandson of that of President Edwards the elder. The Oberlin student finds himself very much at home in Dr. Samuel Hopkins' "Inquiry into the Nature of True Holiness," which is scarcely more than a development of the Edwardian theory of virtue.
To avoid the charge sometimes made against this theory, that it substitutes abstract for concrete objects of love, or, as Dr. Hodge states it, puts "the universe in the place of God, as that to which our allegiance is due," President Finney was very particular to use a formula in which God was expressed. In designating the objects of love, he was over-careful to say, "God and the universe." At the same time he emphasized as much as President Edwards the thought that "all other beings, even the whole universe, is as nothing in comparison of the Divine Being." The charge of Dr. Hodge, as made against President Finney, is one of the grossest literary blunders that was ever committed. For it was made against a two hundred-fold repetition, designed to guard against that very misconception. We trust that in the new edition of President Finney's works which is contemplated, his editors will not curtail those repetitions.
The view of benevolence of which President Finney was so noteworthy as a defender, and so powerful as a preacher, is adopted in an unparalleled degree from the maintenance of just views, both of the goodness and the severity of God. By regarding "benevolence" as good willing," as the generic virtue under which all minor virtues range themselves as species, we are raised to a point of view from which the reason can not indeed and of itself prove the evangelical doctrines of Christianity, but from which it can most easily approve them.
De Quincey has well remarked that Christianity is the only religious system that provides any place for preaching, in the true sense of that word. Dr. Albert Barnes has narrowed the field to still closer limits, and has shown us that all great preachers have gone for their most effective weapons to the armory now in possession of the New School Calvinists. It is an old saying, that Calvinists preach Arminianism, and that Arminians pray Calvinism, and so in one way or the other the whole truth of both is preserved by congregations of either stamp; and, therefore, neither of these bodies of Christians has been abandoned to the uncovenanted mercies of God.
President Finney has, we believe, succeeded better than any other author with whose writings we are acquainted, in elaborating a system of Theology which combines and harmonizes the truth of these contending parties. He has done this in part in a negative way, by not philosophizing overmuch. Contrary to an industriously propagated impression, we affirm that it is not the New School Calvinists who are spoiling the Evangelical system by an excess of philosophy. The charge, rather, pertains to the so-called Old School theologians, who burden the system with their inflexible theories of "an imputed guilt, which is not actual guilt;" with an idea of obligation which is dissevered from ability. It is the Old School theologians who enter into the philosophy of regeneration, and attempt to prove a universal negative regarding it, asserting that it is an act of the Spirit which is not moral and persuasive. They undertake to prove that in regeneration the Spirit produces a change "in those immanent dispositions, principles, tastes, or habits, which underlie all conscious exercises."
In President Finney's theory of virtue, especially in his statement of the simplicity of moral action, he is sometimes accused of rationalism, while in his doctrine of sanctification he is liable to the charge of mysticism. His theory that each act of the will is wholly right or altogether wrong, gives him this advantage, that he can interpret in an absolute manner the command to "Love God with all our heart." At the same time the ground of hope that we shall attain actual stability and constancy in holy exercises of the heart, is open for discussion on independent principles.
The questions concerning the assurance we may have of a state of entire, i.e., continuous, sanctification in this life, and, if attainable, the methods by which it may be obtained, fall into the same category with those concerning perseverance of the saints, and security in our heavenly estate. The maxim upon this point, deducible from this theory of simplicity in the action of the will, is, "sufficient for the day is the evil thereof." His exhortation with regard to sanctification is really nothing more than this: Give perfect obedience now to the will of God; fill your minds to their utmost present capacity with the persuasive knowledge of Christ; open your hearts in the fullest manner to the present work of the Holy Spirit. This may keep you for the future, but our duty is always with the present. The large space in his systematic theology which President Finney has devoted to the offices of Christ in securing our sanctification, will always remain classic passages upon that subject, and wherever they are known, will be valued most highly by the most devout in the Christian Church. No one is more ready than he to exalt Christ and crown Him Lord of all. If it be rationalism to use words in such manner that they are self-consistent, and to propound a philosophy which neither does violence to the reason nor robs Christ of His glory, the charge need not be feared. And on the other hand, with regard to mysticism, it is essential to emphasize thus the pre-eminence of Christ, for there is no magical power in the formulas of President Finney's system either to determine practical duty for us, or to determine us to duty. The good of being, considered as a general conception which we are to choose, is so diffused, so vast, and so far off, that the choice of it does not of itself aid us much in threading our way through the practical questions of casuistry. The navigator needs a chart of the ocean as well as a look at the North star, to guide his course through the shoals and into the harbor. After we have chosen the highest well-being of God and the universe, we shall have to fall back on all the old-time helps of laws, customs, traditions, tendencies of mind and revelation, in order to determine what things to do and what to leave undone.
The Edwardian theory of virtue is in no sense a substitute for the Gospel. It is only an unfolding of the words of Christ when He said that all the Law and the Prophets hung on the two commandments, to "Love God with all the heart, and our neighbor as ourselves." Under this divinely enunciated law, the Gospel ranges itself as the clearest of all revelations of subordinate duties, and the most persuasive of all incentives to virtuous action, and the most perfect vindication of the justice and mercy of our God.
President Finney's example is invaluable in this, that he leaves no excuses for sin; that he presses home upon all present responsibility; that he exalts the Atonement of Christ, and magnifies the Holy Spirit. His system must be judged as a whole. The student who stays one year at Oberlin, and goes two years somewhere else, will be in danger of getting just enough of it to misunderstand it. We understand no theory of virtue till we have adjusted it in a complete system of theology. Of the many advantages of the comprehensive theory of virtue we are here discussing, it is not the least that it affords a ready solution to the increasingly difficult problems of final causes which scientific discussions are forcing upon us. It is becoming more and more hazardous in us to say for what ends particular contrivances in nature were designed. The scheme of nature grows upon us in its vastness and comprehensiveness. We can no longer refrain from giving to final causes a unity that is as far off and made up of as many particulars, as the last, end in virtuous choice.
With God, to choose is to perform. He chooses the good of being, and everything in heaven and on earth, and under the earth, is designed for the promotion of that end. We can not fathom any of His ways, but halt along with such provisional interpretation as serves the practical ends of our existence. For knowledge, both of personal duties and of God's subordinate designs, we have to pray for daily bread, and we go forth six days in the week to gather the manna that comes down from heaven.
The end for which anything is created is the sum of all the uses to which it is ever put. This principle, which in its sphere is coincident with President Finney's definition of virtue, is destined yet, I have no doubt, to play an important part in adjusting natural theology to scientific theories of nature. An Oberlin student will have less trouble with such theories than any one else. In stating correctly the true theory of virtue, one has put himself in the way of reconciling every problem of recent scientific investigation as it stands related to the doctrine of design in nature.