Regeneration and Morality: A Study of Charles Finney, Charles Hodges, John W. Nevin, and Horace Bushnell
By Glenn A. Hewitt
Reviewed by Ken Sarles
4.2 (Fall 1993) : 233-236
Among the most debated issues in nineteenth-century American Evangelism was the nature of conversion, including the respective roles of the human and the divine in the process, the consequent changes wrought in the human condition, and implications for gospel presentation. Hewitt highlights the diversity of theological opinion on conversion, an issue that was anything but a monothlic concept in North American Protestantism during the last century. He examines four leading theologians, contrasting their understanding of conversion and its relation to Christian morality. The four, all of whom wrote on the subjects of regeneration and revivalism, represent the Arminian, Reformed, mystical, and liberal traditions.
Hewitt first scrutinizes Charles Finney, the leading revivalist of the antebellum era. He correctly observes that Finney held to the premise that obligation presupposes ability (27); therefore regeneration arises from a voluntary decision to change the ultimate intention of the will (30). In an understatement, Hewitt takes Finney's position as enhancing the stature of the individual as the agent in regeneration (31). He sees an implication of Finney's position that moral good as such exists independently of God's will (41). If the human will becomes prominent in salvation, by logical necessity the divine will declines. The one misfire in Hewitt's analysis of Finney involves the connection of the human faculties in conversion. The author states that the intellect and sensibilities were irrelevant in Finney's view of regeneration (28), but it is possible to prove the opposite from Finney's own writings. See Lectures on Systematic Theology [London: Wm. Tegg, 1851] 1-3; Lectures to Professing Christians [New York: E. J. Goodrich, 1878] 400; Sermons on Important Subjects [New York: John S. Taylor, 1836] 8.
The author then deals with Charles Hodge, perhaps the greatest of the Princeton theologians. Though contemporaries exposed to the same Presbyterian tradition, Hodge and Finney were polar opposites, not only in theology, but in epistemology, style, and temperament as well. What the one affirmed, the other denied, and vice versa.
Because of his commitment to total depravity and absolute divine sovereignty, Hodge wanted to protect God's exclusive action in regeneration (57). Unlike Finney, he advocated passive rather than active regeneration. Hewitt summarized the difference between the two well:
The dispute between Finney and Hodge on the process of regeneration is largely reducible to the question of agency. For Finney, the sinner has full ability to choose to be regenerated. . . . For Hodge, God has already chosen who will be regenerated and the action is entirely in God's hands. . . . For Finney the important factor was the sinner's will; for Hodge it was the supernatural decree of God. Whereas Finney collapsed regeneration into conversion, Hodge maintained the distinction and the priority of regeneration (61).
Since Hodge was as consistent in his perspective as Finney was in his, he also differed from the latter in his understanding of the relation of God's will to morality (72). Hodge argued that the moral law found its basis in the will of God, and therefore was not outside of it. Hence, he correctly categorized Finney's theology as a moral philosophy, based on Finney's conviction that the standards of the moral law existed independently of the divine character.
The only time where the author departs from a cogent analysis of Hodge is when he evaluates Hodge's application of the moral law. Hewitt notes,
Those laws which Hodge liked could be conveniently interpreted as eternally binding laws of God. Other laws, inappropriate to Hodge's nineteenth-century American culture, could be limited to ancient Israel. It is not suggested that Hodge did this consciously. Rather his culture and society subconsciously shaped his understanding of which laws should still be applicable and which should not (81).
Despite his disclaimer, the author's criticism is invalid for two reasons. First, it is next to impossible for Hewitt to judge the status of Hodge's subconscious, especially in light of his historical distance from him. Second, the premise that culture shapes the subconscious is open to question, because even if it were true, one's ability to detect it would be dependent upon a mind that itself is shaped by culture in a subconscious way. This type of criticism leads to an unhealthy historical skepticism, which by the way, neither Finney nor Hodge would have advocated.
The third theologian considered is John W. Nevin, one of the architects of the Mercersburg Theology. He moved away from the older faculty psychology of Finney and Hodge, and developed a more complex personality theory centered on the formation of the self (107). In Nevin's words, as quoted by Hewitt, "In a profound, awful sense, every man is the architect of his own person; he builds himself, year after year, into spiritual being" (112). Regeneration for Nevin was an inexplicable mystical union between the self and the life of Christ communicated through His corporate body (119-20). Epistemologically, Nevin departed from the Common Sense tradition of Finney and Hodge, and articulated a developmental approach to theology. He "conceived of Christian theology not as a timeless body of knowledge, but as an evolving self-understanding of the church" (122). Though not critiqued as such by Hewitt, this represents the Achilles heel of Nevin's thought.
The final thinker analyzed is Horace Bushnell, the father of American religious liberalism. For Bushnell, regeneration occurs gradually by natural law (132). In the same way, regenerative power is transmitted from parent to child through natural laws (143). Clearly, Bushnell is the furthest removed from any biblical notion of regeneration. Hewitt properly criticized him for his excessive optimism and exaltation of human ability to do good. He states simply, "Bushnell failed to note the pervasiveness of evil" (158).
This volume is commendable for its extensive research and scholarship. It is also well written and carefully organized, though designed for the reader already acquainted with nineteenth-century American religious history. Of the four approaches to the doctrine of regeneration detailed in the book -including Finney's rationalism, Hodge's biblicism, Nevin's mysticism, and Bushnell's naturalism- his reviewer prefers the biblicism of Hodge. This work is highly recommended as a comparative study in historical context of the biblical view of regeneration and the various departures from that view.