The Theology Of Charles Finney: A System Of Self-Reformation -- By: Jay E. Smith

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 13:1 (Spring 1992)
Article: The Theology Of Charles Finney: A System Of Self-Reformation
Author: Jay E. Smith


The Theology Of Charles Finney:
A System Of Self-Reformation

Jay E. Smith*

According to Mark Noll, Charles Finney “stands by himself as the crucial figure of American evangelicalism since Jonathan Edwards.”1 Sydney Ahlstrom apparently agrees, calling him “an immensely important man in American History by any standard of measure.”2 Similarly, Richard Hofstadter feels that he “must be reckoned among our great men.”3 Importance, however, must never be confused with respect and admiration, and this American revivalist, theologian, and educator of the nineteenth century, though admired by many, is not without his detractors.4 In recent years, Finney’s theological views increasingly have become the focal point of a debate over his stature within evangelicalism.

Appraisals of the value and emphasis of Finney’s theology fall into one of two camps. His theology has been judged either as “true to Scripture”5 or as “a system of morals [from which] God might be eliminated … entirely without essentially changing its character.”6 This debate over Finney’s theology should not be

* Jay E. Smith is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

relegated to the antiquarian interests of the church historian, for American evangelicalism is currently experiencing a significant “revival” of interest in Finney and his theology.7 This makes a fresh evaluation of Finney’s theology all the more important.

In attempting to provide such an evaluation, this essay agrees with the latter view and contends that Finney’s theology is more morality than theology.8 It will seek to defend this position by showing that collectively (1) the formative influences behind Finney’s theology, (2) the actual content of that theology, and (3) the results of his theology (how Finney’s theology manifested itself in his ministry) point unequivocally to the conclusion that Finney’s theology is primarily a system of morals based upon human effort with little need for God.

In seeking to accomplish this task, the formative influences, content, and results of his theology will be examined in order. The formative influences behind Finney’s theology are discussed first, not as a subtle attempt to prejud...

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