15 March 2014

The Altar Call of 1776: Charles Finney meets Smith and Wesson


Since the innovations of Charles Finney in the 19th century the Evangelical world has been plagued by different versions of a marketed gospel.

Finney's idea was that if you just created the right kind of conditions and presented the gospel the right way...then any sensible person would become a Christian.

This type of thinking is pretty telling and if you examine his theology further you will start to wonder if he understood the Gospel at all. It was in all actuality a reincarnation of Pelagianism. Sin was watered down and regeneration wasn't so much the work of the Holy Spirit, it was (to use an expression from Joyce) pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. Let's just say it worked very well within an American cultural context.

Sadly Finney's general approach has lived on. His Anxious Bench became our modern Altar Call and his methods and much of his theology was perpetuated by DL Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham and many more. Joel Osteen and those of his school have taken it to another level. You don't even need to 'decide' anymore.

Finney stood for some good things and levied some valid criticisms against the religion of his day, but his alternative was not only unbiblical but has been nothing less than devastating. The historical legacy of his theology is patent in the millions of false converts, who though they have walked away from the faith or never had it to begin with, have been convinced they are going to heaven. Those that have completely walked away are now that much harder to reach. I used to be one of them. For years I was stuck in the Evangelical Altar Call system. I had been told I was a Christian but I knew nothing of Christ or the true Gospel of grace.

Once I was finally converted and started to read the Bible, I was able to begin seeing the fatal flaws of that system, its flawed doctrine of conversion and its watered down concept of saving faith. I first had to realize that I wasn't a Christian, that I had been duped. That's not an easy realization.

Finney's low view of sin led him to believe our alienation from God wasn't that big of a bridge to cross. What people need is a little urging and some kind of significant physical action to go with their emotional pledge.

We do have Divinely sanctioned 'physical signs' such as Baptism, but with Finney his concept of 'signs' was all about 'your' decision. The Gospel exhorts to 'Come' to Christ. But that coming involves repentance and belief. For Finney, the 'coming' meant coming down to the front. Later it evolved into signing a card, saying a quick little prayer or raising a hand. The work of the Holy Spirit was reduced to some little physical action we undertake, or even repeated words. Saving faith was no longer understood in Biblical categories. It was more like signing up for a club or a coupon sale.

Eventually even repentance was made optional and still is in many circles. The results have been telling. These cheap forms of Christianity led to Western New York becoming known as the Burned Over District... the revivals and methods weren't working anymore. It was like people had become inoculated to the gospel message. It hasn't changed. The region is still burned over.

Of course maybe it wasn't the real gospel in the first place. Maybe our whole society is a Burnt Over District.

It became a common practice to try and woo people to Church. The Industrial Age had disrupted society and the regular patterns of life. Sunday School developed trying to get kids some kind of religious education. They offered entertainment to get hardened and weary factory workers to come and hear their quick and easy version of the Gospel.

In more recent years the Finneyite attempt to get people to Church without it 'feeling' like Church has become quite absurd and sometimes overtly manipulative.

A friend of mine is a deputy game warden and generally pretty negative about Christianity. He and I have some great talks. He'll admit he likes talking to me but will also admit he doesn't think much of most Christians.

At one point he was invited to a talk. A guy that had been a Big Game guide and former game warden was giving a talk at a local church building. There was a free dinner and a talk. My friend went. He was interested in hearing the talk and getting the free meal. He related this to me not long after.

He was confused because suddenly the talk about turkeys, deer and bear shifted gears. It had been used as a kind of a bizarre segue to a gospel presentation. My friend was pretty irritated, no longer wanted to be there and felt like he had been tricked. I assured him he had been.

For years we theological conservatives have joked about how these goofy 'churches' should just offer free beer. That will certainly get some people to come and visit.

Well apparently it's now being tried with guns. This has been going on for some time but this story is helpful because it gives us a little window into that world. This is Finney's system reaching its telos, its ultimate and extreme end. It can't go much further. I hope I don't eat my words.

But there's something else going on here too. This isn't just Finney.

The United States was birthed in armed revolution, a fight over taxes and tyrannical government. Those who are trying to argue the reasons for 1776 were over religious freedom have been deceived or are lying themselves.

The Christians who refused to go along were persecuted and many fled to Canada as Loyalists. I believe a branch of my family was part of this group. They settled in Coburg Canada but by the 1850's had changed their mind and moved to Cook County Illinois which at the time was still rural farm country. Later they went west.

Another branch of my family fought in the American Revolution. In fact my GGGGGG-grandfather fought in the French and Indian War and then (when quite a bit older) in the Rebellion of 1776. All of his sons also fought in the war and afterward they moved from the Carolinas down to Georgia and as soon as the Louisiana Purchase opened up they wandered into the Ozarks where they stayed until The Great Depression.

I only say this to make it clear that I have family on all sides. The Civil War too. My own heritage would be enough to make some burst with pride, but also (and rightly) a good deal of shame. But I have no loyalties apart from Zion.

The Christian Meta-Narrative...the story applied to the history... is that America is a Christian Nation, blessed by God and formed by His Providence.

Of course it was Providential, so was the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan. That doesn't mean it was sanctified. But in the American narrative, God had a 'special' plan for the fledgling United States.

The Founders became almost-but-not-quite Saints in a kind of Nationalist religion... which makes sense if you believe the nation was a kind of New Israel. Many nations have done this. England, Scotland, and South Africa are just a few that come to mind.  It seems rather silly and sometimes obscene when the narrative is claimed by other nations, but we seem to miss that when we apply it to America.

The documents that formed the ideology of the new nation were venerated as almost-but-not-quite inspired by God. Some go all the way and admit they do believe they were inspired. Though it's a grievous heresy it is tolerated by many churches.

Basically the notion of armed revolt has been given theological legitimacy. This is critical to understanding the Christian spin on gun culture. The theology is spurious but it is born of the narrative. It is viewed almost in terms similar to that of a holy crusade.

During the Clinton years the country was greatly stirred, perhaps even more than the opening years of the Obama administration. I think some people have forgotten how upset people were to see the changing of the guard. The World War II generation had passed and the Boomer president was dancing on the stage to Fleetwood Mac. He was perceived as the marijuana smoking, draft dodging womanizer who came out of the gate trying to allow gays to be in the military and pass legislation leading to socialized medicine. To make it worse he had his feminist wife lead the legislative charge.

The Ruby Ridge incident had occurred during the last months of the Bush administration but it was fresh in the minds of many on the Right. Then came Waco, followed by the Brady Bill, then the Assault Weapons Ban. The Militia movement was in high gear. Whether or not Janet Reno is a lesbian she was perceived as such and it seemed to many on the Right that the Cold War had been lost...Communists and the New World Order had taken over. The UN army was coming. Clinton proved the coward in Somalia and people were suspicious of his facilitating the deal between Israel and the PLO. The Anti-Abortion movement was in full swing. Reagan and Bush had failed them and now with Clinton in office abortion doctors started to die. Does anyone remember Paul Hill?

Then Oklahoma City happened followed by Eric Rudolph and the Olympic bombing in Atlanta, and then more bombings at abortion clinics. The Montana Freemen prepared for war.

To the rest of the world the New World Order meant an American Empire, Neo-Feudalism, theft and murder through Globalization. Wall Street surged as the technological revolution led to rapid growth and speculation, which only empowered the new transnational corporations which were wedded to American power. The Left battled in Seattle but to the Right, Globalization was a plot to undermine America. Their country had been overtaken by minorities, gays, and multi-culturalism. A One World Government and Religion were on the near horizon.

Rush Limbaugh went from a star to a super-star. The end of America was predicted, people were buying guns and getting gold. I remember those days very well.

The Second Amendment got a boost and has ever since been an issue that stirs deep passions. During the Bush years the energies were focused elsewhere (the perceived threat of Islamic invasion and sleeper cells) but all those forces which lay dormant from the 1990's were reborn during the summer of 2009.

These churches are playing on these fears and emotions. They've used them (sacrilegiously) as a tie-in with the gospel message. They're using them to lure angry people into the church...and for what?

The reality is that the American Revolution is not justifiable in light of Scripture. There's no basis for the taking up of arms against George III. He many have been a scoundrel...most kings were. But if Paul could instruct the Church as he did in Romans 13 and call even the horrid government of Nero a 'good'...then what happened in 1776 was sin.

Rome used taxes to fund their military conquests and build temples to pagan gods. This was known and yet the Church is instructed to pay the taxes and as much as is possible, obey the laws. We won't embrace their ideas about citizenship. We'll speak the truth even if it upsets them, but we're never told to refuse to pay taxes and there's no basis for armed revolt. Those who advocate these views are in sin.

The problem on a basic level is a misunderstanding and/or rejection of the Bible's concept of the Kingdom in this age and our calling as a Church.

Of course if I'm right that destroys the whole narrative...the whole religion that has been created. And let me assure you, people are far more passionate about 1776 than they are about Jesus Christ. Insulting the Rebellion will get you physically attacked and much quicker than someone insulting the Church of Christ.

The crux of the argument is the same that was employed by Niebuhr against the Mennonites. To put it simply, the New Testament ethic of non-violence doesn't work. In the case of these Evangelicals, turn the other cheek is transformed into the boast of Lamech.

With this come some really distorted ideas about Christian 'manhood'. I'm sorry but medieval notions of Chivalry, the idea of a virtuous battle code, the honourable warrior and all that are notions foreign to the New Testament and often hostile to it.

Christ alone is the warrior and the types in the Old Testament are fulfilled by Him. The New helps us to rightly interpret the Old. While feminization is rampant in our culture and the up and coming generation of males certainly could use a little testosterone boost, the gun culture is not the Christian answer. Christian manhood and the warrior ethic are not compatible. That doesn't mean that we're all milquetoast, sloped shouldered, up-talking guys with pretty-boy Justin Beiber haircuts. Masculinity needs to be addressed, but turning to guns is a mistake. The Amish are pacifists and no one would accuse their men of being less than masculine.

Some honestly admit they believe (like Niebuhr) New Testament ethic just doesn't work in the real world. They try and create workarounds but in the end the idea that evil might triumph (in this Age) is not something they will submit to.

They're right it doesn't work in a Sacral context. If the Church sells it soul and confuses Babylon with Zion then right away the ethical system of the New Testament begins to collapse.

It's called apostasy.

Niebuhr wasn't an actual Christian anyway. To him the Bible was part of the canon of Western thought, not the inspired Word. Niebuhr's Christ is still in the grave. It's far more problematic that these gun advocates profess to base their beliefs on the Word of God.

But if the Church abandons the quest for power and we live as pilgrims and exiles and are willing to die for Christ then the thought, the very notion that we would take up arms and kill people in order to defend a flag or a language, or even our possessions quickly becomes both absurd and obscene.

And one quickly realizes as listening to these people how far they are from the Kingdom of God. Is the Bible for them also just part of the Western tradition?

I know they will always pull out the argument that it's right to use violence to defend others. Maybe I'll grant that. Maybe. I'm not anti-gun in an absolute sense.

But that's not what I'm hearing here. They are only deceiving themselves. There's a theology behind their vitriol and zeal. There's an attitude that is foreign to the gospel. It is not one of humility or submission to God's Word. It's one thing to be angry. It's something else when the anger is rooted in nationalistic and individual pride. The zeal isn't for God's house...it's for theirs.

And for those who would be critical of NPR for running this story, please note the pastor invited the media. They're proud of what they are doing and want publicity. The interviewer let them speak. Even if they wanted to give it a liberal spin, they don't have to. It speaks for itself. The issue here isn't the state of the media. The issue is we have churches teaching piety is carrying weapons and a historical narrative of violence is as much part of the gospel story as the babe in the manger.

What we're witnessing is bad theology all the way around. A false marketed gospel with guns to boot.

For those who wish to read more about Finney's system and its fruits I recommend 'The Invitation System' by Iain Murray. The pamphlet is published by Banner of Truth.

While I by no means agree with all M. Horton says in this article many of his critiques of Finney are valid. Presbyterianism was rightly criticized by Finney but his own views of sin and the atonement are sub-Biblical and undermine the Gospel.








Eliyahu BenYsrael said...

I may use your blog entries as commentary for homeschool social studies lessons. People really need to know this kind of info; especially Christians.

Protoprotestant said...

I'm humbled. It's funny though that you mention homeschooling. It's been a blessing to me because I get to revisit so many of these things with my kids. We've got a couple of history 'sections' going and right now in our modern section we're in the 1990's and so we've been talking about what was happening in the Christian Right during those years with guns etc...

My kids are already very well aware of Billy Graham and his influence going back to Eisenhower and the McCarthy era.

There are plenty of people talking about this stuff but unfortunately it seems like a lot of them are kind of loosey-goosey when it comes to the Bible. I'm not saying all of these folks "aren't" Christians, but at the same time there's a lot of questionable stuff mixed in.

I guess my contribution if any is that I'm trying to stick with a Bible-faithful Bible-minded view and yet also try to tell the truth about some of this stuff. I just don't see a lot of that.

I must say it almost leads to despair when I see those standing by the Bible also embracing lies! I can see where it's coming from but it's still upsetting.

My problem is that I'm probably too much of a firebrand and probably lose some people from the get go.

A friend recently told me that he enjoys reading my stuff but is surprised by some of it. My writings can come across as harsh but he insists I'm not that way at all in real life or in how I deal with people.

Maybe I should tone it down, but I feel like I got to shout a little to wake people up and frankly there are times I get really angry about some of this stuff. I hope you can appreciate that.

Cal P said...

Finney sure is a gem. I remember reading some of his stuff for a class on the Jacksonian era. He was at least frank about being a Pelagian. He would boldly write that religion was man-made and it's purpose was to intentionally manipulate the emotions.

I recall hearing a story of a particular, I'm sure Finney-inspired, preacher who traveled with his brother. He would individually evangelize and as soon as he was successful, his brother would come out from hiding and shoot him point blank. Thus a soul was saved and there was no chance for back-sliding.

Then of course there's the cult group Children of God (I think?) that uses a sanctified prostitution to evangelize. You get your john in a weakened, susceptible state and then stick him with tracts and information. Violence and sex, truly the telos if it's as Pelagian as it seems.

I appreciate Finney's zeal, but at what cost? I never know what to do when I hear about "missions" or "missionary work". I tend towards critical skepticism, and being overly negative. But I wonder what is being done. I really have no idea what is happening in most parts of the world in reality, but the numbers and statistics are pulled up.

So, on the one hand, I'm all for repentance being with a contrite heart. It doesn't mean crying, but it involves the entire person (emotions, will, mind etc.) However, I disdain the guilt-tripping, emotional manipulation that comes with some articulations of Law-Gospel.

Jesus didn't have to say anything to Peter, but only to reveal Himself, for ol' Peter to fall on his face and call himself unworthy. Paul said we're to speak the truth, and not peddle the Gospel. Too bad that's just passed over.

I'm all for speaking the truth in translation, to people where they are. But that's a world apart from the marketing approach.

Yet I guess the best anyone can do is try and be faithful in the small things, and rejoice that the Lord uses fallible critters like us to proclaim such a world-shattering truth.

2 cents,

Anonymous said...

Right on, Cal--great points. This little blog is about the only place I can find some thoughtful discussion and dialogue. I appreciate your contributions.