By Rev. Charles G. Finney
I HAVE not yet been able to stereotype my theological views, and have ceased to expect ever to do so. The idea is preposterous. None but an omniscient mind can continue to maintain a precise identity of views and opinions. Finite minds, unless they are asleep. or stultified by prejudice, must advance in knowledge. The discovery of new truth will modify old views and opinions, and there is perhaps no end to this process with finite minds in any world. True christian consistency consists, not in stereotyping our opinions and views and in refusing to make any improvement in knowledge lest we should be guilty of change, but it consists in holding our minds open to receive the rays of truth from every quarter, and in changing our views and language and practice as often and as fast as we can obtain further information. I call this christian consistency because this course alone accords with a christian profession. A christian profession implies the profession of candor and of a disposition to know and to obey all truth. It must follow that christian consistency implies continued investigation and change of views and practice corresponding with increasing knowledge. No christian therefore, and no theologian should be afraid to change his views, his language, or his practices in conformity with increasing light. The adoption of an opposite maxim would keep the world, at best, at a perpetual stand-still, on all subjects of science, and all improvements would be precluded.
Hundreds of years since, when intellectual and moral science was a wilderness, an assembly of divines, as they are called, affecting to cast off popery, undertook to stereotype the theology of the church and to think for all future generations, thus making themselves popes in perpetuum. Every uninspired attempt to frame for the church an authoritative standard of opinion which shall be regarded as an unquestionable exposition of the word of God, is not only impious in itself, but it is also a tacit assumption of the fundamental dogma of Papacy. The assembly of divines did more than to assume the necessity of a pope to give law to the opinions of men; they assumed to create an immortal one or rather to embalm their own creed and preserve it as the pope of all generations. That the instrument framed by that assembly should in the nineteenth century be recognized as the standard of the church, or of an 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, and as injurious and stultifying as it is absurd and ridiculous. It is better to have a living than a dead Pope. If we must have an authoritative expounder of the word of God let us have a living one so as not to preclude the hope of improvement. "A living dog is better than a dead lion;" so a living pope is better than a dead and stereotyped confession of faith that holds all men to subscribe to its unalterable dogmas and its unvarying termonology [sic.]. Whether this was ever intended by its authors or not, such is the use made of the instrument in question. In the volume published last year I informed my readers that should I ever publish my course of instruction, as teacher of Systematic Theology, entire, one volume at least would precede that. The present volume will be the third of the series. The reasons for publishing in this order are:
1. The necessities of my classes. They need class books, especially on those topics in theology which are contained in the volume now given to the world. The same is true indeed of points open which I have not yet published; but upon these they more especially needed something more to read than has hitherto appeared. Let it be understood, however, that these volumes are not intended to preclude original investigation but on the contrary to encourage and forward it. They are designed not to forestall and preclude, but to mark out the general outline of the course of discussion pursued in our classes. I hold myself sacredly bound, not to defend these positions at all events, but on the contrary to subject every one of them to the most thorough discussion and to hold and treat them as I would the opinions of any one else; that is, if upon further discussion and investigation I see no cause to change, I hold them fast: but if I can see a flaw in any one of them, I shall amend or wholly reject it, as further light shall demand. Should I refuse or fail to do this, I should need to blush for my folly and inconsistency, for I say again that true christian consistency implies progress in knowledge and holiness, and such changes in theory and in practice as are demanded by increasing light. The opinions advanced in this and the preceding volume, I at present honestly entertain. In reviewing the previous volume, I can already see wherein, in several respects, the phraseology might be improved and the sentiment modified. Should I rewrite it a hundred times, I have no expectation that I should not continue to see how it might be improved. I have no doubt the same will be true of the present volume. On the strictly fundamental questions in theology my views have not, for many years, undergone any other change than that I have clearer apprehensions of them than formerly and should now state some of them differently from what I formerly should have done.
It is our custom in this Institution to settle every question, especially in theology, by discussion. I have now for twelve years been going annually over my course of instruction in this manner, and owe not a little to my classes, for I have availed myself to the uttermost of the learning and sagacity and talent of every member of my classes in pushing my investigations. I call on them to discuss the questions which I present for discussion, and take my seat among them and help and guide them according to my ability; and not unfrequently, I am happy to say, do I get some useful instruction from them. Thus I sustain the double relation of pupil and teacher.
I am also much indebted to my beloved associates in teaching. My brethren of the Faculty often afford me invaluable aid in many ways. Very full and frequent interchange of views has been of great service to me. The present volume appears at an earlier date than I anticipated. The lectures it contains have hitherto existed only in skeleton form. I sat down last winter to write them out and completed about one half of them and was then induced to leave and spend the remainder of my vacation in Michigan laboring in revivals. I returned much wearied, not intending to write or publish this summer, but was overruled by the solicitations of those who take an interest in their publication, and have, in the midst of much bodily exhaustion and labor, both as Professor and Pastor, written out the remainder of the volume as it now appears. I have done the best I could under the circumstances.
2. Another reason for publishing at this time and in this order is, I have been represented as differing so widely from many who are esteemed orthodox, that it is no more than just that one in my relations should define his position and give to the church the substance of his views, especially if he be reported as not sound in the faith.
3. Because I do not differ so widely from the commonly received views as I have often been represented as doing; and,
4. That by subjecting my views to a more extended criticism than can be had in our circle here, I might have the help of my brethren the world over, (if they will take the trouble to read and write and discuss,) in coming as near as may be, in this state of existence, to the exact truth.
5. That before I die I may see whatever serious errors I may hold in theology and correct them if the Lord will. I do not preserve my views to be published after I am dead, to spare myself the mortification of seeing them severely criticised, and overturned if false; but on the contrary I desire to subject them to the fullest criticism, that whatever is wrong in them may be thoroughly sifted out.
As to the style in which they are written I can say nothing, except that I am aware that it is not in so good taste as I could wish. But it is in vain for me to affect or to claim literary merit. I aim at perspicuity, but am aware that I often fail in this respect. But my readers will bear with me if I do the best I can. As I am writing on christian theology I can hardly be called upon to apologize for making so copious quotations from scripture as I have done. Yet some may think that I have been needlessly prolix in this respect. My object has been, in many cases, to give the student a view rather of the general tenor of scripture upon the points under consideration than to give but few isolated passages. I have sometimes repeatedly quoted the same passages in different connexions. This I have done alone for the sake of perspicuity and to avoid the necessity, in reading, of hesitating to remember the language of the passage referred to. Perhaps I have done this too frequently to edify those who are familiar with their bibles. If so, they can without trouble pass over those passages that are requoted, while those less familiar with their bibles may be edified by finding the living oracles so copiously and so repeatedly spread before their eyes. Indeed there are many parts of scripture that are so striking and always so new and interesting to me that I am never tired of seeing, hearing or reading them.
I trust I shall not be sorry to see any reviews of this or any other volume of mine, when it appears that the reviewer has examined for himself, and understands my work, and is manifestly inquiring after truth. I will not promise to regard cavilers or any who may be disposed to find fault without really knowing "what they say or whereof they affirm." Let us have the truth, come from whomsoever it will.
I have not hesitated in this volume to make free use of what I had before written and published in another form. I have done this when I could, not only to save labor, but to avoid the appearance of affecting to say something new upon the same subjects; but I have found it necessary to change my former phraseology considerably. This, as I have said, I always expect to continue to do while I keep my mind awake to inquiry and open to conviction.
As the reader will perceive I am also indebted to Prof. Morgan for an article on the holiness of christians in this life. With his leave I inserted it, because it will more edify the student than any thing I could say upon that subject. This was prepared to my hand and deserved a most permanent form than that of a mere pamphlet.
Oberlin, August 25th, 1847.