Thomas Paine, one of the United States’ Founding Fathers, published The Age of Reason in the 1790s. He advocated deism and argued against institutionalized religion and Christianity in particular. Andrew Fuller’s The Gospel Its Own Witness came out in response in 1799. As the title suggests, Fuller argued that the morality and harmony of Christianity demonstrates its superiority to deism.
Fuller’s defense proceeds in two parts. The first deals with “the holy nature of the Christian religion contrasted with the immorality of deism.” The systems part ways at their very foundations. Deists deny the moral perfections of God, acknowledging only his natural perfections. They refuse Him worship and lack motivation toward virtue, which manifests itself in their lives, lives ultimately of despair. Christians, on the other hand, worship and serve a God of natural and moral perfections. They ground morality in the love of God, rather than self-love. This love of Christ and the promise of a future life motivate toward virtue. Sincere Christians demonstrate this reality in their moral lives and their leavening of society. For Fuller, hope comes exclusively from the gospel.
Part two of Fuller’s apologetic considers the harmony of Christian religion as evidence that it is truly of God. Fuller demonstrates this coherence by drawing attention to fulfilled prophecy, focusing on events recorded outside the canon of Scripture. He shows that the Bible resonates with the conscience of man, serving as a mirror for personal sin and corruption in the world. He illustrates the consistency of Christian doctrine with salvation through a mediator, which appeals to humanity’s sense of justice. Fuller even defends biblical Christianity in light of the immensity of the universe and the possibility of multiple worlds. In the end, Christianity is coherent and inspires love of God and others; therefore it is superior to deism.
Does this two hundred year old defense of Christianity have any value for ministers today? Absolutely! We can learn from both Fuller’s content and approach. He describes “modern unbelievers” as “deists in theory, pagans in inclination, and atheists in practice.” This depiction aptly fits unbelievers today, even those in the pew. They profess God, but believe in a god inferior to the God of the Bible, refuse Him true worship, and live as if He doesn’t exist. They need the gospel, in all its moral purity and glorious harmony. They need to see its superior path to virtue and the good life. They need to see it as the coherent truth that makes sense of the world. Fuller provides a foundation, a starting place, for such engagement.
We should also learn from Fuller’s approach to apologetics. Before he publically responded to Paine, Fuller labored to understand his opponent, to move beyond a simplistic caricature. He didn’t merely dismiss or quote Scripture and move on. Fuller considered Paine’s arguments, took them to their logical conclusions, and relentlessly punctured the weak spots. His case was powerful because Fuller met his deist antagonist on his own turf, a common practice in his apologetics. He compared the systems at precisely the points Paine thought he had won, asking which was more moral, which more consistent.
Further, Fuller’s tone is instructive. He engages Paine in a respectful manner, not resorting to personal attack. Fuller doesn’t misrepresent his opponent or focus on minutia. But he does firmly and explicitly disagree. He is not afraid to point out error and identify sin, though he does so in a tasteful fashion. May this be characteristic of the ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ today! Ultimately, Fuller desires the repentance of his deist readers, that they might come to a saving knowledge of the truth. He plainly says this near the end, where he also reminds them that his disdain is not for them, but rather their principles. Whether one publically debates, blogs, or preaches, Fuller models God-honoring and effective polemics in defending the gospel as its own witness.