The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Oberlin Theology

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OBERLIN THEOLOGY. This term is applied to a system of doctrine inculcated at Oberlin College by the teaching of the Rev. Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875), who became professor of theology at Oberlin College in 1835 and president in 1851-66. Finney was an impressive teacher and preacher, who broke away from Calvinism and modified its tenets. Finney carried on revival services in New York, Philadelphia and Boston during the years 1828-57, and in London in 1849-50, and traveled through England and Scotland in 1858, expounding his theories and holding revivals.

The general type of doctrine is 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, 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. Neither sin nor holiness can be transmitted, 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. It is just as impossible that one should be forgiven any sin but his own. The ethical philosophy of Finney and his associates makes the well-being, or blessedness of the sentient universe the Summum bonum, or ultimate good; and the voluntary regard for this good, which is called benevolence, the grand element of all virtue. It is a peculiarity of the Oberlin Theology to regard virtue (or righteousness) and sin as in their own nature antagonistic to one another, 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 Oberlin doctrine of sanctification first promulgated at Oberlin by Mr. Finney and others was based upon the prevalent idea that some sin still remains in the character and action of the converted man, coexisting with his obedience. The problem of sanctification is to eliminate this remnant of sin and make the obedience entire and permanent. On this view there would be two classes of Christians: the simple converted rendering a partial consecration and obedience; and the entirely sanctified whose consecration and obedience are entire. The theoretical and practical views of the Oberlin theology may be gathered from the following: The Oberlin Evangelist (24 vols., Oberlin 1839-62); The Oberlin Quarterly Review (4 vols., Oberlin 1845-49); Finney, Charles G., ‘Systematic Theology’ (2 vols., Oberlin, 1845-46); Fairchild, ‘Moral Philosophy’ (New York 1869); Foster, F. H., ‘Genetic History of New England Theology’ (Chicago 1907). The modern theological ideas of Oberlin College are set forth in King's ‘Reconstruction in Theology’ (1901); ‘Theology and the Social Consciousness’ (1902); ‘The Seeming Unreality of Spiritual Life’ (1908), and ‘The Laws of Friendship: Human and Divine’ (1909).