Oberlin Theology

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Oberlin Theology [1]

Animpression has very generally prevailed that the theological views inculcated at Oberlin College by the late Rev. Charles G. Finney and his associates involve a considerable departure from the accepted orthodox faith; and the term Oberlin Theology was for many years supposed to embrace very serious errors, if not "damnable heresies." There has been, doubtless, much misapprehension on the subject; and while these teachers have held views of their own on some points of metaphysical or ethical theology, and even of practical religion, there has scarcely been such divergence from the accepted doctrines of the Church as to warrant the idea of a new theology.

1. The general type of doctrine inculcated has been the New-School Calvinism, of which the characteristic thought is that all responsible character pertains to the will in its voluntary attitude and action, and that each moral agent determines for himself, in the exercise of his own freedom, under the motives which gather about him, whatever is morally praiseworthy or blameworthy in his character and life; that sin is a voluntary failure to meet obligation, and that nothing else is sin; and that righteousness or holiness is a voluntary conforming to obligation, such as is always in the power of every moral agent. Anything desirable or undesirable in the nature or the thought or the feeling, which lies beyond the range of voluntary action, is riot a matter of immediate obligation, and can be neither holiness nor sin. Hence neither sin nor holiness can be transmitted or inherited or imputed, in the sense of being reckoned to the account of one in whose will it has not originated. As punishment can be inflicted only as an expression of blameworthiness, no one can be liable to punishment for Adam's sin, because no one can be blameworthy for any sin but his own; just as impossible is it that one should be forgiven any sin but his own.

The repentance required as a condition of salvation is the renunciation of sin, an obligation which presses upon every sinner, and which is always within his power. The power to sin involves the power to renounce it, and this voluntary renunciation of sin is the change required of every sinner in order to acceptance with God. The work of the Holy Spirit in the sinner's conversion is a moral work, accomplished by the presentation of motives which induce repentance; and the subsequent work of sanctification and preservation is essentially of the same nature a work accomplished by the Spirit through the truth. The sovereignty of God works always in harmony with the freedom and responsibility of the creature, so that one factor in man's salvation must always be his own voluntary consent and cooperation. As the sin of one cannot be imputed to another, so neither can righteousness or merit. Hence the atonement cannot involve the transfer either, of our guilt to Christ, or of his righteousness or merit to us, but consists rather inn such an exhibition, in the cross of Christ. of divine love and faithfulness, and of man's sin and ill-desert, as to make the remission of penalty safe and right in the case of the penitent sinner. These views, in general, characterize what has been called the Oberlin Theology.

2. The ethical philosophy inculcated by Mr. Finney and his associates of later years is essentially that of the elder Edwards, which makes the well- being or blessedness of the sentient universe the summum bonum, or ultimate good; and the voluntary regard for this goodrespect for all interests according to their value which is called benevolence, the grand element of all virtue. This benevolence is the love which is the fulfilling of the law not, a mere kindly or amiable feeling, or any emotion whatever, but an attitude of will giving to every apprehended interest its proper place; a good-will exercised towards every being capable of good, beginning with God, the value of whose being is infinite, and coming down to the meanest of his creatures, embracing alike the evil and the good, the just and the unjust. This benevolence is consistent with every natural emotion, involving complacency when exercised towards God and .other virtuous beings, and displacency when exercised towards the wicked, but exhibiting the same essential character-regard for the well-being of its object. The faculty by which the primary duty of benevolence is apprehended is conscience, and its affirmation, in its own sphere, is inevitable and infallible. Every moral being affirms the duty by the very necessity of his nature; and in reference to primary, subjective duty, the utterance of conscience is forever the same, and always right. A being whose conscience failed in this respect would cease to be a moral being. In all executive action the carrying out of the benevolent attitude of the will in the performance of relative duties the judgment must decide what on the whole will tend to promote well-being, or the good; then conscience follows the judgment, and enjoins the performance of this apprehended duty as an expression of benevolence. But the judgment is fallible; and there may be and often is misjudgment on the subject of outward or objective duty, and conscience may thus require us to do what is outwardly wrong. Still we must follow the best judgment we call obtain, and the error is a mistake, and not a sin. The moral character is right while the conscience is followed in the maintenance of the benevolent attitude. Blameworthiness can be involved only in a failure in this required ultimate attitude of the will. Hence a moral being always knows his duty that which is immediately binding upon him and meeting this duty he is truly conscientious, and at the same time truly righteous.: His mistakes are not sins. They require correction, enlightenment, not forgiveness. Thus the voluntary attitude called benevolence is the constant element in all virtuous character, and the source of all virtuous action. It is the root of all the particular virtues, and constitutes the virtuous element in them all. Justice, mercy, obedience, veracity, and the like, become virtues by being expressions of benevolence under varying conditions, and they cease to be virtues when the benevolence fails. All duty finds its binding force and its limitations in the primary duty of benevolence. In this all duties must forever harmonize. The duty of benevolence is apprehended intuitively and rationally in connection with the idea of well-being, and can never fail to be duty to every moral being. It is seen to be binding from its own inherent nature, irrespective of all tendency, while all executive action prompted by benevolence is seen to be duty only on condition of its tendency to promote well-being. In: this respect the Oberlin view is distinguished from every scheme of utilitarianism.

As benevolence is the whole of virtue, so the refusal to be benevolent is the whole of sin, whatever the motive which induces this refusal These motives are always the solicitations of impulse, desire, or passion, which turn the will aside from the requirements of benevolence. The sin takes its form from the immediate impulse to which the will subjects itself; but the essence of the sin is the refusal to assume that benevolent attitude which reason or conscience requires. The sinner then is not pursuing his own good as his supreme end. He sacrifices duty and his own good alike, in his subjection to an unworthy impulse. He is "carnally minded" cares for the flesh or the desires. Benevolence requires him to regard his own well- being as well as that of his neighbor, but he sacrifices both in his voluntary subjection to desire. Every moral being, in the exercise of his freedom, stands between the motives which the reason presents, which urge to benevolence regard for the well-being of God, and of the sentient universe because of its value-and the motives which the desires or impulses present, urging to self-gratification immediate or more remote, to the neglect of the true good of himself and of the universe at large, including the Creator. The character and action determined by the motives of the reason are right they meet obligation; determined by the motives of the flesh the desires and passions they are wrong, and are in violation of obligation. The righteousness on the one hand and the sinfulness on the other must lie in the voluntary attitude assumed in the acceptance of one or the other class of motives which address the will; and this character, right or wrong, remains while the voluntary attitude remains, whether the circumstances admit of outward action or not. Virtue or righteousness lies in that primary attitude of benevolence, and virtuous action is the action which springs from benevolence. Sin is in the refusal to be benevolent, and sinful action is the expression of the unbenevolent will in the outward life.

Thus it is a peculiarity of the Oberlin ethical philosophy to regard virtue, or righteousness, and sin as in their own nature antagonistic to each other; each being contradictory of the other, and necessarily exclusive of it. Virtue being. benevolence, and sin the refusal to be benevolent, they cannot coexist in the same will. The will must be, at any given time, wholly in one attitude or the other. They may alternate, one giving place to. the other, but in the unity of action which of necessity belongs to the will they cannot coexist. The supposition of coexistence involves essentially a twofold personality, capable of maintaining at the same instant contradictory ultimate attitudes of will. Hence the sinner, in turning from his sin, discards it utterly for the time being, and yields his whole will to God.; and the good man, falling into sin, fails utterly in the benevolent attitude of the will; and, so far as his moral action is concerned, during that lapse he is wholly wrong. Many of his former experiences and plans and executive purposes may remain unchanged; but the element of righteousness the benevolent attitude of the will is at the time wholly wanting.

3. This view of moral action as necessarily either right or wrong, and of moral character as necessarily, at any given time, either one thing or the other, has shaped what has been known as the Oberlin doctrine of sanctification. The view first promulgated at Oberlin by Mr. Finney and others was based upon the prevalent idea that somewhat of sin still remains in the character and action of the converted man, coexisting with his obedience. The problem of sanctification must be to eliminate this remnant of sin, and make the obedience entire and permanent. This view led to the idea of a special experience, corresponding with the original conversion, in which the Christian rises from a partial to a complete obedience. The attainment of this condition must be always possible and obligatory, just as the original conversion was possible and obligatory to the sinner. The only difficulty in the way must be a partial and imperfect faith. On this view, there would be two classes of Christians the simply converted, rendering a partial consecration and obedience, and the entirely sanctified, whose consecration and obedience are entire. The preaching of the privilege and duty of entire sanctification, as thus apprehended, in the community at Oberlin, led to a very general quickening of the religious life, and to many marked experiences regarded at the time as the experience of entire sanctification. But in the fuller development of the conception of moral action as necessarily simple, forbidding the coexistence of sin and holiness, a restatement of the doctrine of sanctification became necessary. In this view conversion necessarily becomes entire consecration, and obedience and faith, as moral exercises, are necessarily complete. The difficulty with the regenerate soul is not that he has made only a partial surrender of his will, but that he is weak and temptable and inexperienced, liable at any moment to lapse into sin under the pressure of temptation. Sanctification, then, becomes a growth, an attainment of experience and strength, not to be found in one special experience, an instantaneous rising from a partial to an entire consecration, but in the attainment of stability and strength and spiritual power by successive enlightenments and baptisms of the Spirit, and by "patient continuance in well-doing." No clear line of division can separate sanctified and unsanctified Christians. Every believer is sanctified in the sense of being entirely consecrated; and there are as many degrees of enlightenment and strength and stability as there are varying experiences in the Church of God. With this clearer view of the nature of moral action, the inculcation of the attainment of sanctification by one special experience ceased to be a feature of the religious instruction at Oberlin. The baptism of the Spirit is still presented as an object of faith and prayer, the standing promise of Christ to his people, affording to him who receives it light and strength and stability.

4. The theoretical and practical views maintained at Oberlin may be gathered from the following publications: The Oberlin Evangelist (Oberlin, 1839-1862, 24 vols.); The Oberlin Quarterly Review (ibid. 1845-1849, 4 vols.) Finney's Systematic Theology (ibid. 1845, 1846,. 2 vols.; republished in London, 1851, 1 vol.); Acceptable Holiness and The Gift of the Holy Ghost (two small vols. by Prof. Morgan [ibid. 1875]); Fairchild's Moral Philosophy (N. Y. 1869). See also New-Englander, Oct. 1872, art. vi; Bullet. theol. 1869, Dec. 25, p. 310; Hauck, Theol. Jahresbericht, 1869, 2:65. (J. H. F.)