Fuller The Non-Calvinist?

Tom Nettles
| April 29, 2014

Editorial note: This is the first post in a series on Andrew Fuller’s theology.  Here is the series so far: Fuller the Non-Calvinist? (Part 1), Fullerite: Doctrine of Inability (Part 2), Fuller and Irresistible Grace (Part 3), Fuller and the Atonement – 1/4 (Part 4), Fuller and the Atonement – 2/4 (Part 5), Fuller and the Atonement – 3/4 (Part 6), and Fuller and the Atonement 4/4 (Part 7).

It has been very entertaining recently to see the name and theology of Andrew Fuller set forth as one whose doctrinal pilgrimage served as a corrective to the Calvinism of the late eighteenth century. His position is supposed to be a model to shame present-day Calvinists for holding so tenaciously to the distinctive tenets of historical confessional Calvinism. If these brothers would embrace the full system of Andrew Fuller, that would virtually end the present polemical engagement on this issue. In fact, in future theological discussion, such an event would significantly rearrange the constituent members of the discussion and give an entirely different tone to the interchange. Recently, Fuller has been presented as a “moderate” Calvinist. Fuller was not unfamiliar with that term and even aligned himself on the issue. When a contemporary asked him about the ranges of Calvinism within Baptist life, Fuller responded, “There are three by which we commonly describe; namely, the high, the moderate, and the strict Calvinists.” The High Calvinists he considered as antinomian “more Calvinistic than Calvin himself.” They considered Fuller an Arminian, a characterization he firmly rejected. The moderate Calvinists were “half Arminian, or as they are called with us, Baxterians.” Those who designate Fuller as a moderate Calvinist today, do so mainly because he disclaimed belief in a “commercial” view of the atonement and he worked energetically to correct the leading principles of hyper-Calvinism. Consequently, they think that because he believed in the duty of all men to repent of sin and believe the gospel, he had rejected both total depravity and irresistible grace. In this short series, I propose to set out clearly Fuller’s views on the traditional “five points,” with the invitation to all to adopt Fuller’s views on these issues; in doing so both the direction and the nature of our rhetoric would shift significantly.

FullerFirst, I will give some attention to Fuller’s understanding of the doctrine of eternal, unconditional, personal election to salvation. In Fuller’s “Confession of Faith” presented to the church at Kettering in October 1783 at the time of his installment there as pastor, he dealt with the issue of human inability to any moral good and thus inferred, “If men on account of sin lie at the discretion of God, the equity and even necessity of predestination cannot be denied; and so the Arminian system falls.” Following on this thought, Fuller went on to affirm, “From what has been said it must be supposed I believe the doctrine of eternal, personal election and predestination” and that “in the choice of the elect God had no motive out of himself.”

In the second edition of Fuller’s The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, he defined his discussion by affirming that “there is no dispute about the doctrine of election, or any of the discriminating doctrines of grace. . . it is granted that none ever did or ever will believe in Christ but those who are chosen of God from eternity.” In Reply to Philanthropos, Fuller reasoned very closely concerning the certain efficacy of the death of Christ for some and not for others. One part of his argument he proposed as a prodosis and apodosis: “If the doctrine of eternal, personal, and unconditional election be a truth, that of a special design in the death of Christ must necessarily follow.” He then placed before Taylor a small part of the Scriptures and arguments which “appear to me [Fuller] to prove the doctrine of election.” He then concluded that that part of mankind spoken of in these Scriptures and denominated as chosen of God and given of the Father were so “because God eternally purposed in himself, that they should believe and be saved.” In The Reality and Efficacy of Divine Grace, Fuller again distilled from several Scripture passages that are explicit in their use of “elect,” “chosen,” “called,” as well as other phrases the “doctrine of eternal, personal, and unconditional election.” Then after a brief review of some variety in certain interpretations of the efficacy of Christ’s death, he asserted that they “never imagined that any besides the elect would finally be saved. And they considered the salvation of all that are saved as the effect of predestinating grace.”

In a small piece entitled, “The Connexions in which the Doctrine of Election is Introduced in the Holy Scriptures,” Fuller, assuming he might take for granted “the doctrine of election . . . as a matter clearly revealed in the word of God” made three observations of its connection with other vital doctrinal ideas. First, he stated that election is placed so strategically “to declare the source of salvation to be mere grace, or undeserved favour, and to cut off all hopes of acceptation with God by works of any kind.” The cause of salvation must be “decidedly and fully ascribed to electing grace” so that sinners will not rely on any personal righteousness, remaining or accrued, but go as “lost and perishing sinners to the saviour, casting themselves at the feet of sovereign mercy.” Second, Fuller argued that the doctrine of election was introduced “in order to account for the unbelief of the greater part of the Jewish nation, without excusing them in it.” [italics original] Paul explained that, given human sinfulness, even among the Israelites “he ever preserved the right of sovereignty in the forgiveness of sin, and every dispensation of saving grace.” Paul’s interaction with his theoretical objector in Romans 9 demonstrates that “the doctrine maintained by the apostle was that of the absolute sovereignty of God, in having mercy on whom he would, and giving up whom he would to hardness of heart.” The third point of connection with election is to “show the certain success of Christ’s undertaking, as it were in defiance of unbelievers, who set at naught his gracious invitations.” Without election of sovereign grace the universal call would be universally unsuccessful. For this reason, the stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner, for all that the Father has given to the Son will come to him.

Fuller died on May 7, 1815. Nine days before, he dictated a letter stating, “I have preached and written much against the abuse of the doctrine of grace; but that doctrine is all my salvation and all my desire. I have no other hope, than from salvation by mere sovereign, efficacious grace, through the atonement of my Lord and Saviour.” On that same afternoon he said to a deacon visiting him, “If I am saved, it will be by great and sovereign grace—by great and sovereign grace.” The next day he observed, “I have done a little for God; but all that I have done needs forgiveness. I trust alone in sovereign grace and mercy.”

On election, those that affirm the Traditional Baptist Statement on Soteriology confess that “election speaks of God’s eternal, gracious, and certain plan in Christ to have a people who are His by repentance and faith.” Fuller would say, and in fact did say, that this is not enough. Election is not just a “plan” but a specific choice. It is “certain” because this choice is of individuals, given to his son with the certainty that they will come. The Traditional Statement carries also the denial that “from eternity, God predestined certain people for salvation and others for condemnation.” Fuller would disagree with this, and would emphasize that salvation is of undiluted grace expressed in the choice of specific sinners and condemnation is nothing else than the manifestation of perfect justice upon individuals whom he had the sovereign right to bypass, as could be the case with every sinner.

If we make Fuller our point of contact with the doctrinal past of Baptists, and a leader of the non-Calvinist movement, then it would be a good thing for us all to join it. The “Traditional Baptist” must realize, however, that he would need to cast aside his publicized view on election, rescind his endorsement of the document, and reformulate the terms and substance of the way he views election. The invitation is open.