Important Principles in Theological Discussion: Fuller Reflects on Rules of Engagement

When, in The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, Andrew Fuller entered the lists of controversy with both hyper-Calvinists and Arminians on the issue of human inability and responsibility, he made a statement about controversy in general that seems an excellent principle to bear in mind. He wanted to avoid “the spirit into which we are apt to be betrayed, when engaged in controversy—that of magnifying the importance of the subject beyond its proper bounds” (1:11). Throughout his ministry he had abundant opportunity to check himself on this principle as well as to examine the details of controversial method. In light of the necessity of carrying on controversy within fraternal, and sometimes not so fraternal, bounds, it would be profitable to look at some of these ideas of a master Baptist controversialist. The three mentioned in this article are operative in Fuller’s engagement with the Socinians.

First, one must be convinced that doctrinal content is important. One of the ideas against which Fuller argued in dealing with Socinianism was “the non-importance of principle itself, in order to the enjoyment of the divine favor.” (317) Socinians, as well as Deists, disliked all the doctrinal points that Calvinists considered as constituent of saving faith. “Nothing is more common,” Fuller observed, “than for professed Infidels to exclaim against Christianity, on account of its rendering the belief of the gospel necessary to salvation.” (317) Those who objected to the doctrinal content of Christianity substituted morality and sincerity as the means of acceptance before God. In so doing, they really substituted another doctrinal basis for eternal life. Their enlightened rationality and genteel manners made obnoxious to them such teachings as vindictive justice, the necessity of atonement for forgiveness, divine sovereignty in salvation, the deity of Christ, and the final infallible authority of Scripture built on its divine inspiration. These ideas, they felt, were so clouded in obscurities, caused such confusion and division among Christians, that the uncertainty was purposeful on the part of the deity “to whet human industry, and the spirit of inquiry into the things of God, to give scope for the exercise of men’s charity and mutual forbearance of one another, and to be one great means of cultivating the moral dispositions,” not the grasping of perfect knowledge “which so few can attain.” (257)

In Fuller’s opinion, they rejected the inspiration and clarity of Scripture because the doctrines built on such a view ran counter to their rational assumptions. “One thing, however, is sufficiently evident,” Fuller noted, “while they vent their antipathy against the holy scriptures in such indecent language, they betray a consciousness that the contents of that sacred volume are against them.” (321). On the one hand, therefore, the idea that doctrinal principles are unimportant to faith simply cannot be maintained in true Christianity. The belief of the revealed truths of Scripture are necessary to faith, not only for the sake of the truth, but for the frame of mind that must be present for the full belief of that which is revealed about human sin, our acceptance before God only in the righteousness of another, and of God’s prerogative in granting this to whom he will. “Are the doctrines which Socinians disown (supposing them to be true),” Fuller asked, “of such importance, that a rejection of them would endanger their salvation?” (194) He believed so and stated as much.

On the other hand, the resistance to principle is simply a façade for the positive presentation of a different doctrinal system. In theological controversy, the cause of truth is not aided by minimizing the importance of any doctrine that constitutes a part of the faith. Our intent must be to work toward further clarification and eventual full unity and acceptance even of controverted points and hard doctrines. Any temptation to declare a moratorium on doctrinal engagement must be resisted, for it is a path to the minimization of the importance of truth in Christian faith.

Fuller, as a second principle, pointed out that nothing substantial is gained, but true weakness comes to the fore, when argument proceeds on the basis of insult. Argument by insult seeks to discredit a position by bringing in impertinent data. Being judgmental about the emotional state or the mental abilities of an antagonist does nothing to discredit the argument. When a Socinian saw the determination of orthodox Christians to defend the deity of Christ, he concluded that “there is no reasoning with them” and felt that they were “to be pitied, and considered as being under a debility of mind, in this respect, however sensible and rational in others.” (257) Socinians felt that they were the true thinkers of the day and that soon their viewpoint would win over the vulgar, that is the non-thinking, non-innovative part of the population that simply accept the rational convictions of the few. This is the way that Trinitarian orthodoxy had won the day; leading intellects formulated the creeds and the vulgar simply followed them. So it is with science in any day. People believe what has always been believed until the more enlightened set a new standard, or, as it were, create a paradigm shift. Fuller recognized the case to be so in matters of scientific research where knowledge is dependent on human investigation which yields only to certain esoteric skills. But in matters of divine revelation, in the grasping of truths for the eternal well-being of the soul, things that eye has not seen and ear has not heard God has revealed. “We have a standard; and one, too, that is adapted to the understanding of the simple.” The Socinians considered ordinary persons as “incapable of forming religious sentiments for themselves; as if the Bible were to them a sealed book, and they had only to believe the system that happened to be in fashion, or rather, to have been in fashion some years before they were born, and to dance after the pipe of learned men.” (324) But if the Scriptures are indeed so obscure and adapted only to create genial moral dispositions, “why this abusive and insulting language?” The Socinians defended their rejection of orthodoxy on the supposed indecipherability of the standard of belief combined with the naivety and mental debility of the orthodox. Such a presentation does not amount to an argument and shows the uncertain ground on which the Socinian claim to be rational Christians was based.

Third, though controversy creates an atmosphere where the temptation to insult is great, one must not be too quick to take offense. Fuller looked closely at the position of his antagonist and took care not to identify an argument as an insult. If an argument aimed at discrediting his doctrine assumed a discernible position and from it drew pertinent inferences, even if the inferences were severe toward his belief, he did not consider such strategy or argument insulting. If Socinians believed that belief in the deity of Christ is wrong, and the consequent worship of him is forbidden by the commands against idolatry, and that orthodox Christian are therefore, idolaters, that is but a necessary conclusion from a premise they think is clear, and is certainly open to candid investigation by their opponents. Fuller took all this in stride and wrote, “If Socinians have a right to think Trinitarians idolaters, they have, doubtless a right to call them so; and, if they be able, to make it appear so: nor ought we to consider ourselves as insulted by it. I have no idea of being offended with any man, in affairs of this kind, for speaking what he believes to be the truth.”

Courting of compliments from one another did no good in such disagreements but instead antagonists should “encourage an unreservedness of expression, provided it be accompanied with sobriety and benevolence.” (205) The charge of bigotry, however, brought against orthodox Christians would be true, and not an ad hominem insult, only under certain characteristics that Fuller delineated. But the conviction that certain beliefs are necessary to salvation, and an attachment to those doctrines “on account of their appearing to us to be revealed in the Scriptures” (203) does not lend itself to the charge of bigotry, but is a manifestation of fair, honest, benevolent, and rational forthrightness. Concerning the several and highly pertinent points of controversy, Fuller wrote.

It must be allowed, that these doctrines may be what we consider them, not only true, but essential to Christianity. Christianity, like every other system of truth, must have some principles which are essential to it: and, if those in question be such, it cannot justly be imputed to pride or bigotry, it cannot be uncharitable, or uncandid, or indicate any want of benevolence, to think so. Neither can it be wrong to draw a natural and necessary conclusion, that those persons who reject these principles are not Christians. To think justly of persons is, in no respect, inconsistent with an universal good will towards them. It is not, in the least, contrary to charity, to consider unbelievers in the light in which the scriptures represent them; nor those who reject what is essential to the gospel, as rejecting the gospel itself. (194)

To deny the importance of principle is a path to infidelity. To argue by insult, corrects no opponent and brings no light to the point of disagreement. To take something as an insult that is intended as a salutary, truth-clarifying, gospel-manifesting, God-glorifying proposition of biblical doctrine does nothing to reconcile divergent positions and may be dangerous to the soul.

Tom J. Nettles


Here are Dr. Nettles’ previous articles in this series on Andrew Fuller vs. Non-Calvinism:

1. A Non-Calvinist Challenges a Calvinist: Andrew Fuller’s Defense of Calvinism

2. Another Non-Calvinist Challenges a Calvinist: The Sandemanians Challenge Fuller

3. Andrew Fuller Encounters Non-Calvinism: Again

4. Fuller’s Fear of the Slippery Slope

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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