As I near my graduation from Covenant Seminary, I am revisiting a few of my assignments (papers, etc.) that I completed. Below is a paper I wrote on B.B. Warfield 2010 for Carl Trueman’s course on Warfield. Thanks to Pastor Duane Otto for his review of my original paper and his helpful suggestions. (I have removed the footnoting to make reading easier).
B.B. Warfield’s Critique of the Theology of Charles Finney
and the Implications for Today’s Church by Bill Pence
Charles Finney was a 19th century revival preacher. He eventually grew discouraged with revival campaigns and for a short time served as a pastor in New York before becoming President of Oberlin College, where he turned his attention to devising a doctrine of Christian perfectionism. He is considered a hero by many evangelicals today, and his influence upon the American church has been profound.
Finney’s training as a lawyer is often evident in his writings. He never went to seminary and began the ministry without formal training, walking from the law office to the pulpit.
Benjamin B. Warfield provided a careful critique of Finney’s theology, finding significant deviations from the biblical teaching. In this paper, I will review and evaluate Warfield’s critique of Finney’s theology, paying particular attention to Finney’s teaching on “Christian Perfectionism” or “Entire Sanctification”. My thesis is that although Warfield’s evaluation of Finney’s theology was accurate and showed Finney to teach Pelagianism, it has had relatively little impact on the legacy of Finney, who continues to be highly regarded by many in the church today. Unfortunately, relatively few are familiar with Warfield’s work today. What can we do to let others know about the significance of Warfield?
Warfield’s Critique of Finney’s Theology
Warfield’s review and critique of Finney’s theology was in-depth. He stated that it was clear that what Finney gave us was less a theology than it was a system of morals. Incredibly, Warfield wrote that God could be eliminated entirely from Finney’s theology without essentially changing its character.
Major areas of Finney’s theology that Warfield critiqued are listed below:
1. Westminster Standards.
In 1823, when his pastor was ill and his church was in need of pastoral assistance, the local presbytery agreed to license Finney to fill the need. He obtained his license to preach as a Presbyterian minister by professing adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith, despite later admitting that he knew very little of what was in the document. Later when he read the Westminster Standards, he realized that he disagreed on almost every crucial point. He writes of being ashamed of them, to as often as possible express his dissent from them and abolish them to the best of his ability. Finney referred to the Confession as “this wonderful theological fiction” and a “paper pope”. Finney argued that Calvinistic beliefs crippled true gospel ministry and made evangelistic success practically impossible.
Warfield, on the other hand, held the Westminster Standards highly, stating “These precious documents appeal to us as but the embodiment in fitly chosen language of the pure gospel of the grace of God”. He believed its doctrine to be the truth of God.
Finney teaches that the entire act of God in salvation is limited to a divine moral persuasion. All God does in salvation is influence the will of men who will do their own choosing. With God’s persuasion, man can make a good heart or change his mind. He declared the doctrine of justification to be “another gospel” because he felt that for sinners to be forensically pronounced just is “impossible and absurd”.
Finney’s Pelagianism is displayed in his belief that a man is justified no further than he obeys, and that he must be condemned when he disobeys. This results in the man moving between justification and damnation depending only on his obedience. Finney taught that atonement had nothing to do with the Augustinian system of imputation by which a sinner is justified even though still a sinner.
Finney denied the doctrine of irresistible grace by writing that man has the ability to withstand the most powerful exertions of the Holy Spirit to effect his sanctification. Warfield states that Finney has a faulty view of the work of the Holy Spirit in that everything that the Spirit does for us is reduced to enlightenment or knowledge.
Finney denied supernatural regeneration. His most popular sermon “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts” includes “There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature”. He taught that man was able to regenerate himself, and that not even God can regenerate man if he will not turn on his own. All that needs to be corrected in man is for him to change the bad will into a good one. In stating that the turning is the sinner’s own act, Finney was repeating the teachings of the New Divinity.
Michael Horton writes that Finney was a 19th century reincarnation of Pelagius. Warfield wrote that:
“Pelagianism is the rehabilitation of that heathen view of the world. There are fundamentally only two doctrines of salvation: that salvation is from God, and that salvation is from us. The former is the doctrine of common Christianity; the latter is the doctrine of universal heathenism”. Finney taught that salvation is from ourselves.
Horton indicates that Finney’s entire theology is driven by a passion for moral improvement, describing the atonement in governmental and moral rather than substitutionary language. He writes that Finney’s gospel is full law, embracing a works righteousness. Warfield adds:
“When Finney strenuously argues that God can accept as righteous no one who is not intrinsically righteous, it cannot be denied that he teaches a work-salvation, and has put man’s own righteousness in the place occupied in the Reformation doctrine of justification by the righteousness of Christ”.
Finney explicitly argued against faith as the only condition of salvation by writing that man’s works or obedience to the law or to the gospel are not the grounds or foundation for justification, but conditions of justification.
3. Christian Perfectionism/Entire Sanctification
Warfield shows that the idea of Christian Perfectionism was introduced into Protestant thought by John Wesley. The teaching accompanied the growth of Methodist churches and was one of the distinguishing doctrines of Methodism in America.
In the course of time Finney admitted that his revival converts were relatively few. After he came to believe in entire sanctification or Christian perfectionism, he claimed that the reason for the frequent disappointments in his revival ministry was the absence of this belief from his ministry.
Finney taught that we make ourselves holy and that regeneration reflected a change of moral character from entire sinfulness to entire holiness, and that all holiness consists in the right exercise of our own will or agency. He taught that when a man is changed he ceases to be a sinner and becomes perfect. He taught that a truly regenerated man cannot live a sinful life because the heart does not and cannot sin. It is man who by his natural constitution as a free agent has the power to obey God perfectly. Few besides Finney have actually suggested that all sin is eliminated in the state of perfection. More commonly the claim to perfection is made on the redefinition of what is meant by sin.
In doing so, Finney was aligning himself with the teaching of Pelagius who asserted not only that all might be sinless if they chose, but also that many saints, even before Christ, had actually lived free from sin.
When Finney was at Oberlin College, the college produced by the New Divinity under the leadership of Finney and Asa Mahan, it became a perfectionist center. The Oberlin perfectionism was Wesleyan perfectionism grafted on the stock of the New Divinity , which was the Gospel to Finney. His book “Views of Sanctification” aligns with the New Divinity, with some concepts brought in by perfectionism. Finney and the Oberlin Theology taught that man was either entirely holy or entirely sinful in each and every action. There could be no mixed actions.
Finney’s Pelagianism makes man sufficient for himself and leaves no need for either Christ or the Holy Spirit to make him perfect. Man can be brought into entire sanctification by just believing. It is not Christ, but faith that makes us perfect. Thus, it didn’t matter much what the object is on which the faith rests. Remarkably, Finney even taught that perfection is possible for a heathen.
The students at the college initially enthusiastically accepted this teaching and communicated it to others. In a relatively short period of time however it was widely condemned. Though it fell out of favor at Oberlin, Finney continued to teach perfectionism for the rest of his life and it continued to influence religious movements such the Higher Life Movement, the Keswick Movement, the Victorious Life Movement and others. Warfield comments on these movements as follows:
“As wave after wave of the ‘holiness movement” has broken over us during the past century, each has brought, no doubt, something distinctive of itself. But a common fundamental character has informed them all, and this common fundamental character has been communicated to them by the Wesleyan doctrine. In all of them alike, justification and sanctification is represented as obtained, just like justification, by an act of simple faith, but not by the same act of faith by which justification is obtained, but a new and separate act of faith, exercised for this specific purpose. In all of them alike the sanctification which comes on this act of faith, comes immediately on believing, and all at once, and in all of them alike this sanctification, thus received is complete sanctification. In all of them alike, however, it is added, that this complete sanctification does not bring freedom from sin; but only, say freedom from sinning; or only freedom from conscious sinning; or from the commission of ‘known sins’. And in all of them alike this sanctification is not a stable condition into which we enter once for all by faith, but a momentary attainment, which must be maintained moment by moment, and which may readily be lost and often is lost, but may also be repeatedly instantaneously recovered”.
Warfield explained the relationship of Finney to the evolution of the various “holiness” movements that were gaining ground in his day in Britain and America, explaining how in revivalism the evangelist is substituted for the Word:
“By a mere gaze, without a word spoken, Finney says he reduced a whole room-full of factory girls to hysteria. As the Lutheran says God in the Word works a saving impression, Finney says God in the preacher works a saving impression. The evangelist has become a Sacrament”.
Warfield wrote that 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 was possibly the classic passage for “entire sanctification”:
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
Warfield writes that God does not represent this complete sanctification as being attainable by human effort alone. Rather, he writes that it is the gift of God alone, hanging only on His unfailing faithfulness. Unlike Finney, Warfield writes that Paul sees this as a hope of what is to come. There is no indication that Paul believes that the Thessalonians have already attained perfection. Instead, Paul has his eyes set on this perfecting taking place at the second coming of Christ. For now, Warfield writes that the Christian will continue to struggle with the remainders of indwelling sin, with the power of the Holy Spirit, but with hope of future complete sanctification.
Warfield denounced varieties of Protestant perfectionism for substituting individual revelatory experiences and “counterfeit miracles” for the completed objective revelation of Scripture.
4. Original Sin.
Augustine’s struggle with Pelagianism at the beginning of the fifth century was a struggle for the very foundations of Christianity. Pelagius consistently denied the doctrine of original sin and taught that man has the ability to do all that righteousness can demand. He can work out not only his own salvation, but also his own perfection.
Finney taught that original sin was an anti-scriptural and nonsensical dogma. He also called it a monstrous and blasphemous dogma. Finney knew nothing of a sinful nature or constitution. Instead, he confined all sin to actual sinning.
Finney’s doctrine of justification rests upon a denial of the doctrine of original sin. He followed Pelagius in denying this doctrine.
Warfield effectively evaluated Finney’s theology as Pelagian and non-biblical. However, his critique has not had much, if any, impact on today’s church. Sadly, few outside of Reformed circles even know who Warfield was, or what he stood for.
The reaction of two young pastors in response to my taking a course on Warfield led me to believe that even they, both Covenant Seminary graduates, had relegated Warfield and his books to dusty book shelves and church history. On the other hand, despite his serious theological errors, Finney continues to be a hero to many evangelicals and his imprint is on much in today’s church.
One wonders how Finney can be looked at as a hero. After all, he denied:
1. Justification by faith.
2. The substitutionary atonement. Finney stated that Christ could not have died for anyone’s sins but His own.
3. Imputation. He denied that Christ’s righteousness was the sole ground of the believer’s justification. Instead, he insisted that justification ultimately hinges on the believer’s own performance, not Christ’s.
4. Original sin.
5. Human depravity.
In Finney’s theology God is not sovereign, man is not a sinner by nature, the atonement is not a true payment for sin, justification by imputation is insulting to reason and morality, the new birth is simply the effect of successful techniques, and revival is a natural result of clever campaigns.
The day before leaving for Covenant Seminary to attend this class, my wife and I listened to Dr. Albert Mohler address a question from a caller on his radio program. As I recall, she was a Baptist and the man she was going to marry was attending a church that taught perfectionism. That call and a suggestion from my senior pastor convinced me to write on the topic of perfectionism.
It was in American perfectionism circles that modern Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on a two-stage Christian experience and the baptism of the Spirit first appeared. Perfectionism is still found in holiness and Nazarene churches today, though its influence has lessened with the growth of the charismatic movement.
Evangelicals today have embraced the assumptions of the Pelagianism of Finney. As an example, recent polls indicate that 77% of evangelicals believe that human beings are basically good and that 84% believe that in salvation “God helps those who help themselves”.
Warfield wrote that when we receive Christ at salvation we receive both His person and His benefits. Yet the Victorious Life Movement teaches that at salvation we need to wait for the second blessing in order to live fully the Christian life. This echoes Oberlin, where there were two kinds of Christians – a lower kind who had received only justification and a higher kind who had also received sanctification.
Michael Horton writes that Finney is explicitly acknowledged and celebrated in contemporary evangelicalism. Wheaton College’s first president Jonathan Blanchard was deeply committed to Finney’s perfectionist principles. V. Raymond Edman, the college’s fourth president called Finney “the most widely known and most successful American evangelist”. His book “Finney Lives On” carried an endorsement from Billy Graham. The Billy Graham Center on the campus of Wheaton College features a display of Finney in tribute to him.
Singer Keith Green, Jimmy Swaggart and Youth with a Mission are among the individuals and organizations that have actively promoted the revivalist’s theology. Finney has been esteemed both by the Christian Right – Baptist minister Jerry Farwell called Finney one of his greatest heroes, and by the Christian Left – Jim Wallis of the Sojourner’s Magazine.
Some current Reformed thinkers such as Michael Horton and Phillip Johnson have linked Finney’s legacy to seeker-sensitive approaches, church growth strategies that emphasize technique, political activism on the part of the church (the idea of a “Christian America”), televangelism, the anti-intellectual and anti-doctrinal tendencies of many American evangelists, nationalism and moralism. R.C. Sproul has said that Finney is not only a heretic, but that he is the arch-heretic. He has been called a “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”
Certainly the practice of scheduled “revivals” that many churches hold look back to Finney’s revivalism, as does the crusade methodology that evangelists such as Billy Graham have utilized effectively over the past decades. The “altar call”, the practice of calling forward those who want to “make a decision for Christ”, got its start from Finney’s “anxious bench”.
Finney’s disdain for the Westminster Standards reminds me of today’s “doctrine divides” talk. Today’s evangelicals resist the thought of creeds and confessions.
History inaccurately reflects that Finney’s “New Measures” were effective. Today’s evangelicals drawn to pragmatism hold Finney in high esteem. They either ignore or are ignorant of his theological errors. They instead choose to focus on his soul-winning “success”. He did not believe or preach the biblical gospel.
Warfield effectively critiqued the errors of Finney. Although few will read Warfield today, I am happy to share this with our blog readers, and hope this will encourage you to read Warfield yourself.