Fullerite: Doctrine of Inability

Editorial note: This is the second 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).

Andrew Fuller

Andrew Fuller’s belief in the duty of all moral agents has led some to think that he, therefore, rejected the historic Calvinist doctrine of the bondage of the will. This betrays a regrettable misunderstanding not only of Fuller but of the historic Calvinistic doctrine and is at the root of many bypasses in the discussion between these hopefully fraternal parties in Southern Baptist life. In his confession of faith presented at his installment at Kettering, Fuller reflected on Adam’s fall as that covenant relationship in which we fell, and “became liable to condemnation and death, and what is more, are all born into the world with a vile propensity to sin against God.” Affirming this as the teaching of Romans 5, Fuller further explained, “I believe that men are now born and grow up with a vile propensity to moral evil, and that herein lies their inability to keep God’s law, and as such it is a moral and a criminal inability.” All natural capacities for moral agency remain so that men have a natural ability to keep the commands of God, but their heart is wholly disinclined to God and inclined to earthly things. Even so, the gospel, because it is the perfect picture of the excellence and beauty of God’s law and contains an intrinsic wonder in itself as a display of the wisdom of God in remaining just while justifying the believing sinner, “every one who hears or has opportunity to hear it proclaimed in the gospel is bound to repent of his sin, believe, approve, and embrace it with all his heart; to consider himself, as he really is, a vile lost sinner; to reject all pretensions to life in any other way; and to cast himself upon Christ, that he may be saved in this way of God’s devising.” But just as these morally corrupt sons of Adam have no heart, and thus no ability to keep God’s law, so they regard the gospel with the same disdain. “Being wholly under the dominion of sin they have no heart remaining for God, but are full of wicked aversion to him. Their very mind and conscience are defiled. Their ideas of the excellence of good and of the evil of sin are, as it were, obliterated” and thus they “will not come unto Christ for life; but in spite of all the calls, or threatenings of God, will go on till they sink into eternal perdition.”

In answering both the hyper-Calvinists and the Arminians in The Gospel Worthy of all Acceptation, Fuller pointed out that both believed that “it is absurd and cruel to require of any man what it is beyond his power to perform.” In their ardent desire to steer clear of each other, they finally concur in their attitude toward duty and grace—where there is not grace, there is no duty. “The one [hyper-Calvinists] pleads for graceless sinners being free from obligation, the other admits of obligation, but founds it on the notion of universal grace.” Fuller carefully distinguished, as he did in his earlier confession, between natural inability and moral inability, and asserted that the “inability of sinners is not such as to induce the Judge of all the earth . . . to abate in his demands. It is a fact that he does require them, and that without paying any regard to their inability, to love him, and to fear him, and to do all his commandments always.” Both hyper-Calvinists and non-Calvinist-partial-Arminians find this assertion to imply some kind of contradiction, or at lest impose on any normal sense of fairness. In spite of all the rantings and reasonings against him and his view, however, Fuller continued to affirm both the absolute moral inability of man and the remaining duty of perfect obedience and cordial love to God and consequently a belief in the gospel.

(Comments have been closed for this post.  Another post has been published in response to Ken Hamrick’s comments.)

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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