In most ways, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney—their philosophies, theologies, and practices—are polar opposites.
But as I read both of them, I can’t help but notice what appear to be similarities in what they said. And the deeper you read, the more apparent it becomes that unless someone really understands the underlying differences between what they were saying, it may be quite possible to actually follow Finney’s example while trying to emulate Edwards.
Impossible? Let me explain.
Both men agree, in what they said, about the problems with religion. They are really two-fold:
- Professing Christians are not moved by religious things.
- Professing Christians are moved by worldly things.
Here’s a sampling of what they said:
But how insensible and unmoved are most men, about the great things of another world!
And yet how common is it among mankind, that their affections are much more exercised and engaged in other matters, than in religion!
Men are so sluggish, there are so many things to lead their minds off from religion and to oppose the influence of the gospel.
The great political and other worldly excitements that agitate Christendom, are all unfriendly to religion, and divert the mind from the interests of the soul.
They also agree that the solution to these problems is that Christians be moved by spiritual things instead of worldly things:
God has given to mankind affections, for the same purpose which he has given all the faculties and principles of the human soul for, viz., that they might be subservient to man’s chief end, and the great business for which God has created him, that is, the business of religion.
There must be excitement sufficient to wake up the dormant moral powers, and roll back the tide of degradation and sin.
In other words, for both men, intellectual understanding of religious facts is not enough. The heart of a person must be moved to act on those facts in order for him to be truly religious.
Now, what is immediately apparent here is that they use different terms; Edwards uses affections, and Finney uses excitements. However, these could very easily be mistaken as referring to the same thing, both terms being fairly foreign (or at least redefined) in our day. I would suggest that if you eliminate the terms themselves, you might not be able to discern who is talking.
Can You Tell the Difference?
To prove this to the doubtful mind, consider the following quote. I’ll eliminate which term is used so that it won’t give away who said it, but see if you can guess:
Men are so sluggish, there are so many things to lead their minds off from religion and to oppose the influence of the Gospel, that it is necessary to raise [term deleted] among them, till the tide rises so high as to sweep away the opposing obstacles.
Or how about this quote, in which one of the authors suggests that we use means to move people:
Such books, and such a way of preaching the word, and administration of ordinances, and such a way of worshipping God in prayer, and singing praises, is much to be desired, as has a tendency deeply to affect the hearts of those who attend these means.
The first statement was made by Finney (“an excitement” was the term deleted), and the second quote was Edwards. But do you see how the first could just as easily have been Edwards? Place “religious affections” in place of the term deleted, and the quote could have easily come out of Edwards’s The Religious Affections:
Men are so sluggish, there are so many things to lead their minds off from religion and to oppose the influence of the Gospel, that it is necessary to raise religious affections among them, till the tide rises so high as to sweep away the opposing obstacles.
Or do you see how the second statement could have easily have been made by Finney? It might fit quite well in his New Measures.
What is Different?
So what is the difference between these men?
First, they clearly have much different foundational theologies. Edwards was a Calvinist who thought that only God could bring revival. Finney was, at best, a semi-Pelagian who argued that revival could be brought about by a proper use of means. Edwards thought revival was a miracle; Finney clearly did not.
Their practice was also quite different. Edwards believed that revival came as a work of God during the normal preaching and prayer ministries of the church. Finney organized special meetings and sought to create environments that would lead toward revival.
So if we talk about the theology or practice of these men, there is no question that they were different.
Yet it is some of their statements that I have in view here. As I’ve demonstrated above, regardless of their theology and practice, what they said often sounds very similar.
My concern is this: there is a lot of talk these days about affections for God, and I’m grateful for that. A lot of people are reading and quoting Edwards, and I’m thrilled about that.
Yet with the explanations given, illustrations used, and practices suggested and exemplified in these discussions, I have to wonder sometimes if when people say “affections,” they don’t really mean excitements; if when they suggest means for raising “religious affections,” they don’t really mean raising excitements.
None of those who are quoting Edwards and talking about affections have anywhere near the theology of Finney, certainly. And they may not be organizing revival meetings like Finney.
But in practice, could it be that some are emulating Finney’s philosophy of excitements more than Edwards’s philosophy of religious affections?
Difference in Kind
Here is what I think is one of the key underlying differences: With Finney’s philosophy of excitements, the issue was merely redirecting the attention of Christians from excitement rooted in worldly things to excitement rooted in religious things. In other words, the quality and intensity of the excitements were virtually the same; it was just a matter of changing their object. So if people were attracted, as Finney said, more to the excitement of politics than to religion, Finney just sought to create something else just as exciting to redirect their attention and motivate them toward religion.
With Edwards’s philosophy of religious affections, however, the issue was not merely redirecting attention; the issue was the Holy Spirit creating an entirely different orientation in the heart of man. Edwards clearly distinguished between affections that were spiritual and affections that were not spiritual:
Affections that are truly spiritual and gracious, do arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural and divine.
In other words, there is an entirely different source and quality to religious affections than other kinds of affections. We might call both of them “love” or “joy,” but they are of entirely different substance.
Really, what Finney calls excitements are more akin to what Edwards calls passions:
The affections and passions are frequently spoken of as the same; and yet in the more common use of speech,there is in some respect a difference; an affection is a word that in its ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination; but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind more overpowered, and less in its own command.
You can see that how even in Edwards’s day, affections and passions were beginning to be used interchangeably, losing a nuance that is important for discussions of conversion, sprititual growth, and worship. That distinction was probably all but lost by Finney’s day, and it is certainly lost today.
With this in mind, the significant disagreement seems to be in what will be the solution to a person distracted by worldly excitements and inactive toward spiritual things. Finney seeks to just redirect attention with alternate excitements. Edwards wanted worldly excitements to be replaced by something of an entirely different character, namely, religious affections. And these can be brought about only by a work of the Spirit of God.