Charles Finney vs. The Westminster Confession

Charles Finney vs. The Westminster Confession

The most famous evangelist of the nineteenth century declared that The Westminster Divines had created “a paper pope” and had “elevated their confession and catechism to the Papal throne and into the place of the Holy Ghost.” “It is better,” he declared, “to have a living than a dead Pope,” dismissing the Standards as casually as the boldest Enlightenment rationalist: “That the instrument framed by that assembly should in the nineteenth century be recognized as the standard of the church, or of any intelligent branch of it, is not only amazing, but I must say that it is highly ridiculous. It is as absurd in theology as it would be in any other branch of science.”1

Given the unpopularity of Calvinism in particular and confessionalism in general, all of this might not have raised the slightest hint of impropriety except for the fact that the evangelist was Charles G. Finney, an ordained Presbyterian minister. In his introduction to Finney’s Lectures on Revivals of Religion, William McLoughlin wrote the following:

The first thing that strikes the reader of the Lectures on Revival is the virulence of Finney’s hostility toward traditional Calvinism and all it stood for. He denounced its doctrinal dogmas (which, as embodied in the Westminster Confession of Faith, he referred to elsewhere as ‘this wonderful theological fiction’); he rejected its concept of nature and the structure of the universe…; he scorned its pessimistic attitude toward human nature and progress…; and he thoroughly deplored its hierarchical and legalistic polity (as embodied in the ecclesiastical system of the Presbyterian Church). Or to put it more succinctly, John Calvin’s philosophy was theocentric and organic; Charles Finney’s was anthropocentric and individualistic….As one one prominent Calvinist editor wrote in 1838 of Finney’s revivals, ‘Who is not aware that the Church has been almost revolutionized within four or five years by means of such excitements?’

In this brief survey, our purpose will be two-fold: first, to understand the factors that shaped Finney’s theology and practice and, second, to appreciate the legacy of both for contemporary evangelicalism and especially Reformed faith and practice in the United States.

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