It is not my aim in this article to thoroughly discuss or defend the views of Charles Finney. My present purpose is to demonstrate how Phillip Johnson has made a straw man by filling his article with misrepresentations. I will demonstrate that what he has written only serves to prove that he is unwilling to honestly deal with the issue involved, the most offensive example involves the atonement.
As we proceed
please keep in mind one quote referring to Finney by Johnson:
Playing With Fraud?
Some of Johnson’s arguments are more akin to political mud slinging than theological discussion. He started his article by claiming that Finney had deceived the presbytery concerning his knowledge of the West Minister Confession, and had therefore obtained his licenses under false pretenses. However, considering that George W. Gale (who later founded Knox College) was on the board, and had individually supervised Finney's education, it is highly unlikely that he would have been able to deceive them in such a way. If Finney should have known the confession, as Johnson seems to think, it would have been Gale's responsibility - rather than Finney’s - to make it a part of the curriculum. It is indeed very strange that a Presbyterian would not make it a significant part of the curriculum; but we don't have all the information. Johnson implied that without this knowledge, Finney was unprepared for the ministry. Perhaps as a minister of Calvinism, that would be true; but as a minister of Christ, it is unnecessary. Two other points should be noted: firstly, in the midst of Finney’s successes and controversies, he was subject to intense scrutiny. Indeed, by the year 1827 there was so much debate over him that a convention was called in New Lebanon, which was attended by many of the most well known ministers of the day. After the New Lebanon convention, which cleared Finney’s name of serious accusations, members of the 1828 General Assembly introduced a truce which called for an end to the debate over Finney’s measures. This truce was signed by Lyman Beecher as well as Finney. The point I want to make here is that these things are discussed in many of the books about Finney, and as far as I know the issue of the West Minister Confession and his license to preach never came up, nor have I seen any historical sources reference it as an issue. It appears from Johnson's article that he has dreamed up this charge by reading into statements Finney made in his autobiography - which leaves Johnson's accusation speculative at best. This is made worse by the following statement.
Had Johnson thought this through, he would have realized that those men could have taken his license at any time. At the end of the New Lebanon Convention, the only serious issue they were left with concerned women and ministry. Finney allowed women to pray and give testimonies in his protracted meetings, while the Presbyterian commission preferred not to allow woman that liberty (I am not sure if Johnson supports this part of his Presbyterian heritage). Finally, if Johnson would have done more thorough research, he may have realized that Finney did resign his commission. He left the Presbyterian Church in 1833 to became a Congregationalist. Now if someone had made this type of statement of Luther, they would never get away with it because it is common knowledge that he left - or rather was forced out of - the Catholic Church. Concerning Finney, however, Johnson plays on people's ignorance. We could take this conversation in many other speculative directions, but it is more profitable to focus on doctrinal issues.
The Bias Argument
In the following section we will examine how Johnson tries to prove that Finney rejected Presbyterianism because of a pre-conversion bias. We will also examine the validity of the bias argument in general, and as related to pre-conversion.
This section from Johnson's article is quite deceptive. Johnson labelled it "Baggage From The Years Of Unbelief," but starts with a quote relating to Finney's training for the ministry, and associated it with his pre-conversion life. This does not correlate to pre-conversion views. (See Biography Online Ch 4). The main fallacy involved in this section is that the conclusion does not follow from the evidence (ie. it is non sequitor).
We should notice that the pre-conversion reference does give evidence that Finney questioned what the pastor meant; but these references do not imply that he rejected them in preference to pre-existent views. Examples given on pages 10-12 pertained to questions such as whether or not faith was an intellectual conviction or something more. While Johnson concluded that Finney rejected the doctrines here alluded to, the truth is that Finney was accusing the pastor of being vague as to what he meant. Even the post-conversion quote from page 46 states that Finney rejected Gale's views of those doctrines, rather than rejecting the doctrines themselves.
Declaring that Finney rejected his pastor's view of the atonement, repentance, etc. before his examination by the presbytery, proves nothing. For this to be considered a valid criticism, Johnson would have to prove that Gale's views of these doctrines were correct. If Johnson could prove that Jesus did not die for everyone (Gale's view of the atonement), or that God does not want everyone to be saved (Gale's view of the slavery of the will/repentance) he would have a case. However, to many of us, these views seem so far fetched that we find it hard to believe that anyone holds them.
Johnson has worked very hard in his attempt to show that Finney rejected Calvinism because of a pre-conversion bias. What would Johnson expect? That Finney would have accepted Gale's doctrines before his conversion? I rejected much of Catholicism before my conversion; does that mean it was actually true because I realized it before my conversion, and therefore must have been wrong? My subsequent evaluations confirmed my rejection - am I now guilty of dragging a bias into my theology? No doubt I am, but that in no way proves Catholicism to be true. Everyone has biases.
While Finney did study before his conversion, so did the Bereans (Acts 17:11). As to the accusation of skepticism, what is wrong with that? No New Testament writer ever said "swallow whatever a pastor says without thinking." Paul never criticized people for having questions, or for a pre-conversion study of Scriptures; rather, he praised them. Thankfully, Finney's studies lead him to Christ, despite having a pastor who did not make sense.
The bias argument is very poor, especially when coming from someone who claims to be a Believer. Sigmund Freud taught that Theism was socialized wishful thinking; the relativist tries to prove that everyone has a bias, and concludes that nothing is really true. I will not spend time here trying to prove that it is possible to be objective despite our biases, but I will contend that if this is not the case, for all practical purposes relativism is true. Obviously, when someone rejects truth, it is a result of bias; but we do not need to go searching for bias arguments because they prove nothing. The validity of any particular truth claim needs to be evaluated. We will each stand before God who will judge the secrets of our hearts.
In Finney's case, he had come to realize that he needed to be justified by faith in Christ, but was not about to believe anything unless it could be proved. This showed wisdom. We should all test everything and hold fast to that which is true.
Sola Scriptura-Scripture Alone
It is mildly amusing to know that the author if spurgeon.org disagrees with Spurgeon on this point. The very reason I believe the Bible is the authority by which we should judge doctrine is because it is clearly reasonable and rational to do so. I do not merely believe it because it claims to be authoritive; so does the Book of Mormon. Would Johnson consider the use of hermeneutics to be rationalism? When the Bible says "God is our rock," does that mean God is a literal rock, or could it be a metaphor? If someone came to you saying, "I found the God of the Israelites; he is actually made out of granite" would you not be compelled to define a metaphor? What if he said the word metaphor isn't used in the Bible? I know this is an extreme example, but so far Johnson has not proved it is wrong to try and be rational. Nor has he proved that Finney used it in a faulty manor. In the introduction to his Systematic Theology, Finney states:
If an appeal to reason indicated an abandonment of sola scriptura, then Johnson himself would be guilty of the charge he invokes. The proof is in the claim itself, considering that the Scripture does not indicate that an appeal to reason indicates a rejection of sola scriptura. This being the case it appears that Johnson is claiming to make a rational conclusion; this by his own philosophy would indicate a rejection of sola scriptura. If this argument is given in the form of a syllogism, we can see that the argument hangs itself. For those who are unfamiliar with syllogisms, simple ones follow the format of premise, minor premise, conclusion. For example:
Premise All men are mortal
Minor premise Aristotle is a man
Conclusion Aristotle is mortal
If you can fault either premise, it implies that the conclusion is false. In Johnson's case, his argument can be put in the following format:
Premise Appealing to reason (rationalism) implies a rejection of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.
Minor premise. Finney appealed to reason.
Conclusion Finney rejected sola scriptura.
There are two problems with this claim. First of all, both Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul appealed to reason as is indicated in many passages. Therefore, it is evident that the Author of Scripture did not consider an appeal to reason to be inherently wrong. Secondly, as stated above, the claim is in itself an appeal to reason. However faulty it may be, if the statement were true, Johnson would in fact be guilty of his own charge. God is rational, and He is the Author of reason; therefore, it is evident that Johnson's conclusion is false.
The Vicarious Atonement of Christ
I consider the following comments from Johnson to be the most offensive in his paper. Johnson has followed Michael Horton's lead and espoused nothing less than a lie when he states:
This is completely false! Finney defined the atonement as:
"The Greek word rendered atonement is katallage. This means reconciliation to favor, or more strictly, the means or conditions of reconciliation to favor; from katallasso, to "change, or exchange." The term properly means substitution. An examination of these original words, in the connection in which they stand, will show that the atonement is the governmental substitution of the sufferings of Christ for the punishment of sinners. It is a covering of their sins by His sufferings." (Atonement II, pg 197)
The real issue is something other than that addressed by Johnson, and I encourage you to find out why people like him feel so compelled to misrepresent Finney. If you believe what Johnson has written, you will either flee Finney as a demon or hunt him - and people like myself - as a heretic. I am not concerned by the fact that I hold views that conflict with Johnson's; but I refuse to sit back and let him put up a smoke screen and be condemned by a false witness.
There are two issues at hand: the first involves whose view of the gospel actually reflects the glory of the biblical gospel. The second involves a moral issue; that is, the continued propagation of a lie. Rather than attempting to explain Finney's expression of the theological issues, I would prefer for you to read his writings.
Righteousness and Imputation
On the whole, Johnson is fairly sophisticated in his attempt to misrepresent Finney. However, the two main exceptions are found in his section on the atonement and in the following:
It is astounding that Johnson could make reference to Romans 4:4-6, and state that Finney does not explain his understanding of imputation when he does so in the same section Johnson himself took the quote from. To top it off, Finney took his definition from the context of the very passage Johnson referred to! I encourage you to read the context, but for clarity I will quote a more complete expression of Finney's definition found a few pages earlier:
What must bother Johnson is that Finney takes the apostle Paul's definition rather than Calvin's. This would be why Johnson refers to Finney's denial of "justification by imputing his obedience to us" as a denial of imputed righteousness (as in the passage above). It should also be noted that whether you translate the word as imputed (KJV) or credited (NIV), Paul's definition is the same. The issue here is not a denial of imputation; it is a denial of Calvin's doctrinal understanding of imputation. Calvin taught forensic justification, Finney taught justification by grace.
It is not my aim here to explain the arguments against forensic justification. If you want to study further, read the whole chapter on justification by Finney. I have also addressed the issue in "Forensic Justification On Trial." My point is that despite Johnson's assertions that Finney denied imputation, the passages that imply a denial are always in context of a denial of the forensic view of imputation. Consider again this quote: "Here Finney offers no cogent explanation of what he imagines Scripture does mean when it speaks repeatedly of the imputation of righteousness to believers." Now read the following and ask yourself if Johnson's quote is appropriate. Keep in mind that this is taken from the same page wherein Johnson had taken his quotation:
Despite Johnson's assertion that Finney offers no cogent explanation, etc, he did so - in the immediate context. If this is not dishonesty on Johnson's part, I don't know what is.
Justification by Faith
This section is closely
related to the one on imputation, and covers pages four to seven of his
paper. The issues involved hinge upon how Finney defined the grounds of our
justification and the term "conditions." In the following, we will examine
Johnson's assertion that claiming there are conditions for justification
implies a denial of justification by faith.
Before we can get to the issue at hand, it is important to clear up some possible confusion. The quote Johnson used after his statement was one in which Finney was discussing forensic justification, in the context of which he explains why it is impossible for sinners. He was not saying that this is a ground or condition for our justification, as made abundantly clear in the chapter. Johnson, by putting the quote right after his representation of Finney's views of conditions, makes it sound like Finney believed in forensic justification on the grounds of "perfect, and uninterrupted obedience to the law." His footnote makes it clear that this is what he is trying to imply:
"2. Notice that Finney confused the very terms he was ostensibly keeping
distinct, essentially admitting that he regarded the believer's obedience as
a ground of justification." (11)
Johnson makes it sound like
Finney was stating that obedience is a ground for our justification, but
this is false - and Finney makes it clear in the context. As to why this is
the case, I will refer you to Finney's
my own. I now invite you
to consider "conditions."
Some of the issues we're discussing are misunderstood largely due to semantics. I am curious to know what your answers would be to the following questions:
Can you be in a state of justification while deliberately continuing in sin?
Can you be in a state of justification without ever having repented?
Can you be justified apart from the atonement?
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I assume that you would answer "no" to all of the above. These are the questions which Finney is discussing under the terms "Conditions for Justification," which he defined as:
In this sense, faith is a condition of justification, since you could not be justified without faith. In this sense "faith without works is dead." (James 2). I am sure that neither you nor I would assume that the statement James made is inconsistent with the concept of "faith alone"; it is merely used in another sense to describe another aspect. "You see, a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone." (James 2:24 NIV). Finney was trying to use terms that would explain different issues related to justification systematically.
I would say that we are
justified by faith alone inasmuch as faith is the only response to God that
we need in order to be justified. In this sense, if you have faith you have
everything. I do insist, however, that we define faith and remember that the
Bible describes faith as: working "by love," "producing obedience," and that
it "purifies the heart." (Gal 5:6, Romans 1:5, 1 Thes 1:3, Acts 15:9).
Rom. iii. 30: "Seeing it is one God who shall justify the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith;" and ch. v. 1: "Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ." Also, ch. ix. 30, 31: "What shall we say then? that the Gentiles, who followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, who followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but, as it were, by the works of the law." who is saying this paragraph?
Distinctions must be made when discussing conditions, to which end I think it better to say: "justified through faith" (Rom 5:1) "by grace"-"through redemption" that came "by Christ Jesus" (Rom 3:24).
Johnson claimed that, "Since the dawn of the Protestant Reformation, the virtually unanimous Protestant consensus has been that justification is in no sense grounded or conditioned on our sanctification" (6). While Finney did not assert that justification is grounded in sanctification, he did say, and I would argue that, you cannot be justified without also being sanctified. I would further assert that Johnson's claimed consensus is not completely true. When we consider his consensus, I would appeal to your own awareness; do most Protestants teach that the atonement was an unnecessary condition of our salvation? Do they teach that Jesus did not need to die because all we need is faith? How about obedience - can you be saved while deliberately continuing in sin? While some would say that only an intellectual conviction is necessary, most would agree with the idea of conditions when understood in the sense here discussed. The technical issues involve the semantical frame work in which the issues are discussed; the real difference involves the type of faith and the quality of the obedience. For further info on related issues pertaining to Johnson's imaginary "consensus" I suggest a consideration of the following article by Dr Robert Gundry
It is not my goal to discuss all the related issues, only to state that Johnson is leaving people with a very confused idea of justification. His baseless criticisms only serve to mislead people as to the actual issues and objections involved. I encourage you to read Finney's Systematic Theology and then consider again the comments made by Phillip Johnson.
Johnson makes much of various quotes in which Finney and others complained of carnality among the converts. Without going into detail/pointing out inaccuracies, I would only note that even Paul and the other apostles had trouble with the converts from their ministries. Johnson’s comments are no more fair here than if someone would quote from Corinthians or even Marcion and condemn Paul. One of the problems we have today is in that people often do not even seem to care. People sign a "decision for Christ" card, another notch is placed on the pew, and little else happens. For further information, I have another paper which speaks about the positive impact of the Revivals and of the converts. It contains links to both the Library of Congress and papers from secular historians, and should be considered supplemental to information found in the various biographies.