Andrew Fuller and David Allen (Part 1)

 The Reason for Such a Long Discussion

In a recent blog post, David Allen argued for a second shift in Andrew Fuller’s view of the atonement. Allen never denied Fuller’s continued proposition that the intent of Christ’s death was for the elect only establishing the ground for a particular redemption. Fuller, according to Allen, rejected, however, in his mature view of the atonement a hypothetical sufficiency and replaced it with an “actual extrinsic sufficiency whereby Christ made an actual atonement for all sins.” Allen summarizes this second shift in his conclusion as a move “from limited imputation to unlimited imputation.” Because this supposed second shift moves Fuller from the mainstream of Calvinist proposals on the atonement, his claim merits a close investigation.

Fuller’s Shift

Andrew FullerWithout exception, readers of Fuller recognize that between the first and second editions of The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (1785, 1801) Fuller refocused his discussion of Christ’ atoning work in its relation to redemption. Driven by the obvious apostolic insistence on both unconditional election and the obligation of all men to turn from sin and believe in Christ, he looked more carefully at how Christ’s death related to these together.

In 1785 he argued that whether a person had an interest in the death of Christ or not, or whether he knew of his interest in the death of Christ or not, it still was his obligation to believe the gospel. In illustration of the title of his book, the gospel stood as such a profoundly worthy fulfillment of all righteousness that all persons are obligated to believe it. When Fuller used the language of “interest in Christ” he referred to whether Christ’s death provided specific payment for that person’s sins. His subsequent discussion of this issue with Dan Taylor, the leader of the New Connection of General Baptists, led him to drop his attempt to defend the warrant and duty to believe in spite of having no interest in Christ’s redeeming work. If no interest of any sort were granted to all sinners as sinners, it would create a kind of natural barrier to salvation for sinners. Something besides their own sinful rebellion made their salvation impossible.

Soon, Fuller presented Christ’s death and New Testament gospel preaching as opening “a door of hope to sinners of the human race as sinners; affording a ground for their being invited, without distinction, to believe and be saved.” (2:374, italics original) In this context, Fuller, reflecting on John 3:16, Matthew 22:1-11, and John 6:32, stated, “These passages prove that there is that in the death of Christ which lays a foundation for any sinner to apply to God in his name; and that with an assurance of success.” (2:555) These affirmations must be seen in the light of Fuller’s equally insistent observation that “Christ, in his death, absolutely designed the salvation of all those who are finally saved; and that besides the objects of such absolute design, such is the universal depravity of human nature, not one soul will ever believe and be saved.” (2:551)

The question, therefore, is what is this “ground,” what is the “that,” that warrants and demands universal calls and yet allows something else to be an “absolute design” for salvation, in the death of Christ, for the elect. Fuller answered by identifying himself with the larger Calvinist witness in the words of Witsius, that the obedience and sufferings of Christ “considered in themselves, are on account of the infinite dignity of the person, of such value as to have been sufficient for redeeming not only all and every man in particular, but many myriads besides, had it so pleased God and Christ that he should have undertaken and satisfied for them.” (2:489) At this point, Fuller affirmed, “These views of the subject accord with my own.”

I see no shift other than this in Fuller’s discussion of the atonement from 1787 until his death in 1815.

Dr. Allen’s Shift Proposal

Dr. David Allen
Dr David Allen

Allen contends that Fullers’ final position set forth Christ’s death as an “objective satisfaction for all sins.” He labels this insight of his into Fuller’s second shift as a “crucial distinction.” He recalls the idea at several points in his post. “Christ actually substituted himself for the sins of all men and women.” He reasons from Fuller’s reading of New Divinity theology his agreement with a position that Christ’s death was “actually sufficient in that Christ actually substituted himself for the sins of all people.”

How Dr. Allen developed this conclusion is not clear, for this misreads both New Divinity and Fuller. The Moral government theory of New Divinity did not endorse a view that posits Christ as an “actual substitute” for the sins of others, and moved away from a view that involved Christ’s death as a manifestation of wrath upon a substitute. While Fuller was interested in their image of God as a moral governor because of such an image’s portrayal of the necessity of law, he did not give full approval to their view . In contradistinction to their omission of the component of wrath in the atonement, Fuller maintained, “I believe the wrath of God that was due to us was poured upon him.” (2:705 in a letter to Dr. Ryland about imputation)

Undaunted in his pursuit of the second shift in Fuller, Allen sets forth an analysis of Michael Haykin’s quote of Fuller’s assertion, in the second edition of Gospel Worthy, that Christ’s death, in itself, is “equal to the salvation of the whole world, were the whole world to embrace it.” Allen interprets this to refer to “the actual extent of Christ’s sin bearing with respect to humanity.” In one sense this is true, but not as Allen misinterprets it. Allen continues:

“Notice the difference in what Fuller says here compared with what he said above (appx. 14 years earlier) regarding the death of Christ being of infinite value ‘if it had pleased God to have constituted them the price of their redemption.’ Here (in 1801) the death of Christ is not only of infinite value, sufficient for the whole world, but it is actually ‘equal to the salvation of the whole world.’ That is a horse of a different color altogether. Fuller has come full circle and abandoned limited atonement as understood and championed by Owen and Booth.”

Allen is making the point that Fuller changed again between his first interaction with Dan Taylor in 1787 and the publication in 1801 of the second edition of Gospel Worthy. Not only is there nothing in Fuller’s discussion in the section under dispute that would justify this conclusion, Fuller himself had no knowledge of this supposed change, a point I will demonstrate later. Everything Fuller argued in the context is a legitimate inference from the “infinite value” understanding of the death of Christ. Allen superimposed his own view irrespective of Fuller’s intent in his language.

Allen’s mention of Owen and Booth together could mean that Fuller, in Allen’s view of Fuller’s shifts, had rejected not only Booth’s view but Owen’s view as well, the supposed second shift. If he means, however, that Booth and Owen held the same view, that too is a misreading and could explain something of Allen’s confusion. They were not the same. In both interpretations of Allen’s phrase, “Owen and Booth,” he puts Fuller at a distance from Owen. While Fuller disagreed with Booth’s quid pro quo development of biblical justice in its relation to the atonement, he quoted Owen approvingly in 1803, in the same vein as he had with Witsius 14 years earlier, as stating his view. [2:707] Fuller admitted no changes in his position and continued to insist on the same language and theological lineage used earlier in his Reply. Owen’s language spoke of the “dignity, worth, or infinite value of the death of Christ” as well as the “innate, real, true worth and value of the blood-shedding of Jesus Christ” as the ground of its “true internal perfection and sufficiency.” That is the language Fuller footnoted as an explanation of his view of what the death of Christ is “in itself sufficient for” compared to its being “for the elect only” in the “purpose of the Father” and “ the design of Christ.” (italics original)

Staring Down the Evidence

Allen finds evidence for this change everywhere. Using Haykin as a springboard for his observations, Allen believes, at several points, that Haykin “unwittingly” adds evidence to Allen’s interpretation. Haykin noted that Fuller was driven in his view of the atonement by a concern that it support the free offer of the gospel. Allen analyzed the statement:

“But again, here Haykin is apparently referring to Fuller’s abandonment of equivalentism, and not the fact that Fuller had also abandoned his former belief in limited substitution. The fact that Fuller abandoned a limited substitution can be seen in his Letter III to Dr. Ryland on “Substitution” (Works, 2:706-709, dated January 12, 1803). Fuller says, “The only subject on which I ought to have been here interrogated is, The persons for whom Christ was a substitute; whether the elect only, or mankind in general.” It becomes clear that Fuller argues for the latter.”

How Allen so severely misreads documents is a mystery to me, but not an unfamiliar fact, for Fuller does no such thing as Allen claims. On the contrary, Fuller points to the “proper definition of the substitution of Christ” as “comprehending the designed end to be answered by his death,” that is, he died “in the place of others that they should not die.” In such an understanding, Christ’s substitution “is strictly applicable to none but the elect.” While in itself considered, Christ’ death is sufficient for “sinners as sinners,” “it never was the design of Christ to impart faith to any others than those who were given him of the Father. He therefore did not die with the intent that any others should not die.” In this letter, he footnotes Owen on “infinite value” [quoted above] as the ground of Christ’s dying for men as men and sinners as sinners showing that he had not shifted a second time in his view of the atonement.

Another area of fatal misperception on the part of Allen concerns his judgment that “Fuller admitted he had been mistaken about the terms ‘ransom’ and ‘propitiation.” I dealt with this in a previous blog, but I will revisit the issue here. In Reply to Philanthropos, Fuller stated clearly his belief that in the death of Christ a “way is opened for sinners, without distinction, being invited to return to God with the promise of free pardon on their return.” While some interpreted the terms ransom and propitiation to “convey this idea,” Fuller had a slightly different view of those terms: “The terms ransom, propitiation, &c appear to me,” Fuller claimed, “to express more that this, and what is true only of those who are finally saved. To die for us appears to me to express the design or intention of the Redeemer. Christ’s death effected a real redemption through which we are justified.”

This prompted new objections from Taylor. Fuller again responded in The Reality and Efficacy of Divine Grace. Here Fuller stated his former position on those terms in question and, for the sake of argument, conceded to Taylor’s objection:

Now admitting that I am mistaken in my supposition—admitting the terms ransom, propitiation, &c are applicable to mankind in general, and are designed to express that there is a way opened for sinners, without distinction, to return home to God, and be saved—nothing follows from it but that I have misunderstood certain passages of Scripture, by considering them as conveying an indefinite, but not a universal idea.

This, as Fuller saw the issue, would not change the main contention that a “way is opened, by the death of Christ, for the salvation of sinners, without distinction; and that any man may be saved, if he is willing to come to Christ.” But Taylor also asserted that the death of Christ mitigated the effects of original sin and gave men a “power to be willing if they will.” Fuller did not think any meaning could be made of such an idea. He then went on to reassert his difference with Taylor, “I now proceed to particulars, by observing,” Fuller continued, “that whether my sense of the passages of Scripture adduced by Mr. T. be just or not, it does not appear to me that he has invalidated it.”

The same idea Fuller affirmed as the intent of terms, all men, world, whole world, that is, to treat them as “denoting men universally” was “contrary to other scriptures” “I have gone over the passages in debate between us,” Fuller repeated, “merely to prove that, whether my sense of those passages be just or not, Mr. T. has not invalidated it.” [2:550-555]

To Dr. Allen this may seem to be Fuller’s admission of mistake in interpretation, but to me it seems clearly to be the opposite. It was merely a method of argument by theoretical concession that allowed him in the end to affirm his original position. What explains this carelessness I am not sure, but Fuller’s method of argument cannot be transformed into an admission of capitulation to Taylor’s objection and a shift to “agreement with Taylor concerning the extent of Christ’s substitution, or his death for every man.” All Allen’s inferences, therefore, drawn from this supposed admission of change are invalid.

Here’s “Andrew Fuller and David Allen (Part 2).”

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.
Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts