More on Charles Finney and His Innovations ~ Praxis Habitus - On Race Religion & Culture

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

More on Charles Finney and His Innovations

I wrote yesterday about Charles Finney, the American evangelist who carefully considered his methods in the conduct of his astoundingly successful revivals in the still-young United States and in England.

Jesus SavesImage by Terrapin Dawg via Flickr

My thinking more about Finney's ministerial work is motivated by his connection to the continued work of evangelism today - a work that is truly worldwide. Such evangelistic endeavors are considered by many Christians to be both normal and natural.

As simple as his approach to conversion seems today, Finney is notable for his willingness to re-work his approach to preaching because of his conclusions about the state of Christianity in his day back in the early 1800s. His conclusions led him to innovate methods of preaching and evangelism that have become the norm for Christian communities across the globe.

Here are a few thoughts about what makes Finney and his innovations interesting to me.

First, Finney was convinced that the standard theology of the day was flawed. Pointing to what he called the "old school" and to the then-current training of ministers at Princeton College, Finney believed that the prevailing theory of atonement was just wrong. Looking at Finney's reframing of doctrine shows how theology matters and its practical importance for the reshaping of religious traditions.

Image via Wikipedia

According to Finney, most established preachers at the time asked their people to pray that God would change their hearts in order to repent. Finney considered this advice to come from a type of hyper-Calvinism that kept earnestly seeking people from doing what they really needed to do -- simply repent.

Repentance for Finney meant a willful submission of oneself to God. The work of repentance was not prayed for but rather just needed to be done. And people can repent because Finney believed that human nature was not innately depraved (meaning unable to approach godliness) bur rather their sinfulness was "voluntary." Sinners needed only to express their commitment to Jesus and give their life (will, desire, and possessions) over to his use.

All of Finney's innovations in relation to the use of altar calls and all of his recorded revival work stemmed from this important shift in his theological approach, and much of the memoirs is dedicated to its explanation.

Second, Finney adapted his messages to the language and circumstance of the local population. Finney was trained as a lawyer and appreciated how lawyers were trained to make reasonable arguments in order for juries to side with their party. Thus, upon entering the ministry he produced messages that had "points," statements of truth drawn from Scripture that were carefully argued in a straightforward, colloquial manner.

Jesus Saves Jesus Heals MinistryImage via Wikipedia

Finney shunned merely religious language. He especially avoided embellished, dogmatic, and oratorical flourishes. Instead, he sought to speak plainly and directly, believing that other highly educated professionals (e.g., doctors, lawyers, professors) were easily converted once the plain message of Scripture was presented in a systematic, defensible manner.

No hiding behind theological dogma, Finney sought the plain truth of the Bible as he best understood it and readily gave out his own views on salvation, sanctification, and other doctrinal issues for as long as people were willing to sit and listen. He even wrote his own systematic theology which is readily available online.

Third, Finney sought to connect most often with listeners who had been disenfranchised by the established church. More than once, Finney side-stepped arguments with so-called "Christians" in favor of speaking to the curious, the unconverted, and even the antagonistic. Using plain language but still basing himself on Scripture, he argued for the relevance of the Bible, the reasonableness of God's judgment on those who willfully continued in their life against him, and the fallacy of established religious views as taught by other preachers.

PREACHING IN CABADIANGANImage by who.log.why via Flickr

He argues in his memoirs that his messages were always given in a loving attitude and that no listener would ever believe him to be angry or judgmental. Still, we know that Finney was forceful and direct in style so as to shock and amaze his hearers. The sensation of hearing him preach would fill rooms to overflowing over the decades of his ministry.

Connected with this desire to talk with those outside the common practices and fellowship of established congregations, Finney often used homes, halls, hotels -- even tents, taverns, and theaters -- to speak to crowds.

One revival discussed by Finney admonished his dedicated flock to bring to meetings only those who were curious and open but not yet religiously committed. Once people responded to the altar call (and scores of them did), dedicated volunteers would meet and pray with them to assure them of salvation and eventually lead them toward a regular church fellowship.

These are just a few, interesting aspects of Finney's ministry that comes from my reading his remarkable memoirs. Although you might not be fortunate to find your own used copy at your local bookstore, there is a nicely presented and carefully prepared edition of Finney's memoirs currently available from Zondervan.

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