Fuller's Fear of the Slippery Slope
In my most recent post, I mentioned that Fuller envisioned true Christianity as a hearty reception of the deity and the atoning work of Christ with “other corresponding doctrines.” In the framework of that nomenclature, Fuller located the fall of man and its consequences in the determination of God to show his perfect grace in the effectual provision of full redemption for those given to Christ, and to show his perfect justice and holiness in the punishment of sin for those given over to themselves.
On several occasions in this vigorous interaction with the high priests of Socinianism, Fuller noted that errors in any of these important connections and “corresponding doctrines” was a step toward infidelity and away from true Christianity. “The smallest departure from the one, is a step towards the other.” Certainly not all steps are of the same length or concern the most vital areas, but “all move in the same direction.” When Joseph Priestly boasted that Robert Robinson (the famous Baptist hymn writer of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”) had been salvaged from the road to deism by the teachings of Priestly, Fuller, who knew Robinson and lamented his pilgrimage, responded that that only proved, “that the region of Socinianism is so near to that of Deism, that, now and then, an individual, who was on the high road to the one, has stopped short, and taken up with the other.” (309). Fuller wanted to warn against stepping on the path to infidelity.
This point provided another caution against Arminianism, in Fuller’s mind. He identified Arminianism as one step on the journey from robust Christianity toward eventual infidelity. He did not present Arminianism as a species of infidelity, but did point to several positions that constituted common ground on the ill-fated path. The Arminian view of the ground, or basis, or foundation, of human responsibility is the same as that of the Socinians. As Fuller presented the case, Socinians held that punishment for the violation of a law whose demands were beyond our powers is unjust, unreasonable, and cruel. If the demands were beyond natural powers, the objection would be warranted, Fuller agreed, but the inability that is a manifestation of moral corruption is a different matter entirely. In responding to the inconsistency of this objection, Fuller observed the “agreement between the Socinian and Arminian systems on this subject. By their exclamation on the injustice of God as represented by the Calvinistic system, they both render that a debt, which God in the whole tenor of his word declares to be of grace. Neither of them will admit the equity of the divine law, and that man is thereby righteously condemned to eternal punishment, antecedently to the grace of the gospel; or, if they admit it in words, they will be ever contradicting it by the tenor of their reasonings.” (83) In other words, if God does not give grace, then man does not owe obedience. If human sin can be overcome only by the omnipotent manifestation of grace, then human sin is excusable. So agreed Arminians and Socinians.
Calvinism is the complete antithesis of Socinianism on this theological point. Fuller noted, as he synthesized several pivotal passages on salvation by grace and not by works, “The doctrines inculcated by Christ and his apostles, in order to lay men low in the dust before God, were those of human depravity, and salvation by free and sovereign grace, through Jesus Christ.” (173) Socinians, strangely ignoring the apostolic arguments, and, substituting their celebration of human goodness as a fair presentation of biblical teachings, looked upon Calvinism as “designed in perfect opposition to the apostolic doctrine.” Consequently, they “are constantly exclaiming against the Calvinistic system, because it maintains the insufficiency of a good moral life, to recommend us to the favor of God.” (175) According to Fuller, “The Calvinistic system” humbles Christians in leading them to “feel their entire dependence upon God for virtue,” whereas the Socinian, “in professed opposition to Calvinism, maintains,” in the words of Joseph Priestly, “that it depends entirely upon a man’s self, whether he be virtuous or vicious, happy or miserable.” (177) In Fuller’s observation on this sentiment of Priestly, he made the point that if Priestly only means that one’s conduct depends on one’s choices, then the Calvinist holds it as clearly as does the Socinian, but “if he means that a virtuous choice originates in ourselves, and that we are the proper cause of it, this can agree to nothing but the Arminian notion of a self-determining power in the will.” (177) When Fuller examined Dan Taylor on this same issue, he surmised that Taylor’s assumption that moral inability would render a person guiltless in his disobedience, meant that the more evil a person is the less likely it is that he can commit sin. Fuller responded with incredulity saying that Taylor “will not, he cannot, abide by its just and necessary consequences.” (1:431) Then after showing the consequences of the Arminian idea of reduced responsibility commensurate with the degree of moral inability, Fuller again affirmed, “These consequences, however anti-scriptural and absurd, are no more than must inevitably follow from the position of Philanthropos [Dan Taylor].”
Again, Fuller viewed the Arminian concept of a general, or universal, atonement, absent any effectual element in it to guarantee its fruitfulness in the salvation of sinners, as destructive of the stated purpose and infallibly conceived outcome of Christ’s work—an error fatal to Christianity. Taylor’s view that Christ’s death for all is a greater grace than his death for a certain and limited number brought from Fuller the extrapolation, “It is true, if Christ had made effectual provision for the salvation of all, it would have been a greater display of grace than making such a provision for only a part; but God has other perfections to display, as well as his grace; and the reader will perceive, by what has been said, that to make provision for all, in the sense in which P. contends for it, is so far from magnifying the grace of God, that it enervates, if not annihilates it.” (1:515) The Arminian view of a general atonement with no provision for its effectuality differed little from the Socinian rejection of Christ’s death as an atoning sacrifice. Fuller believed the most consistent biblical view of Christ’s death was that in which “an effectual provision is made in the great plan of redemption, that he shall see of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied.” (278) Though Taylor remonstrated against the Socinian view that rejected any element of punitive satisfaction in the atonement, he put no element in his view that honored Christ’s death as a truly substitutionary and propitiatory sacrifice, for its efficacy was not in itself but in something extrinsic to it.
Because of these doctrinal connections, Fuller made an observation about the phenomenon of progressive apostasy that “it is very common for those who go over to Infidelity, to pass through Socinianism, in their way.” Not only that, but he also noted that it is not common for “persons who go over to Socinianism, to go directly from Calvinism, but through one or other of the different stages of Arminianism, or Arianism, or both.” (2:337)
This is why many Southern Baptists are concerned with certain elements of the Traditionalist Statement issued last year. Consistent with the concerns of Andrew Fuller, we feel that cautions are in order that these “stages of Arminianism” do not become a reservoir for other theological challenges as they have for many others through the years and even in recent decades. The uncertain God of Open Theism, so recently embraced by a number of evangelicals, with many of its attendant theological detours, learned his ambivalence within these stages of Arminianism.
Tom J. Nettles
Here are Dr. Nettles’ previous articles in this series on Andrew Fuller and Non-Calvinism: