Andrew Fuller: Balance in a Time of Extremes

Andrew Fuller was fully aware of the state of his denomination as he entered the pulpit. From the beginning of his pastoral ministry, Fuller set out to correct the many extremes that had overtaken the Baptists in his day. As noted earlier, the General Baptists by 1750 had almost dwindled to nothing because of the fact that many within that camp had abandoned Trinitarianism. Against those who had moved into the heterodoxy of Unitarianism, Fuller staunchly maintained and defended Trinitarian orthodoxy as a non-negotiable of the Christian faith. In one of his letters Fuller writes, “There is greater importance in the doctrine of the Trinity than commonly appears…chiefly on account of its views affecting our doctrine of Christ, which cannot be removed without the utmost danger.”  Fuller throughout all of his polemical efforts against the extremes of either Baptist camp, continually maintained his “system of principles” established at his induction service as Pastor in his church at Kettering. It was his high view of Scripture, and his unwillingness to abandon it that fortified the strengths of his argumentation regardless of the extreme he was dealing with. This continual appeal to the Scriptures can be seen in his argumentation for the necessity of holding to the doctrine of the Trinity. He writes, “It is a subject of pure revelation. If the doctrine be not taught in the oracles of God, then we have nothing to do with it; but if it be, whether we can comprehend it or not, we are required humbly to believe it.”

andrew-fuller

The next major extremes that Fuller focused his attention on was found within his own camp, namely the Particular Baptists. The two major extremes that had creeped in among Particular Baptist thinkers was that of hyper-Calvinism and Sandemanianism. The latter of the two will be discussed first. Sandemanianism was put forth by Robert Sandeman as an attempt to protect the doctrine of justification by faith. Sandeman himself, was not of the Baptist faith, but much of his ideas regarding justification being the sole work of God with no regard to human response, appealed to many hyper-Calvinists. Though Sandeman’s desire was to protect a biblical doctrine, he went far beyond the biblical teaching in regards to what he considered was true justifying faith and what divulged into the realm of works. Fuller summarizes Sandeman’s teaching as following:

He (Sandeman) considers as the effect of truth being impressed upon the mind, and denies that the mind is active in it. “He who maintains,” says he, “that we are justified only by faith, and at the same time affirms…that faith is a work exerted by the human mind undoubtedly maintains, if he had any meaning to his words, that we are justified by a work exerted by the human mind.”

Fuller saw this kind of thinking as both unbiblical and spiritually deadening. Sandemanianism severed the roots of faith by stripping it of its holiness, and denying it of its active impulse to produce the fruit of love. Because of the danger this extreme posed for the church, Fuller launched a work consisting of 12 separate letters that outlined the unbiblical nature of this teaching, entitled “Strictures on Sandemanianism.”  One of Fuller’s strongest arguments against Sandeman’s teaching dealt with the connection between repentance and faith. Sandeman taught that God in His providence passively applied faith to the human soul, thereby justifying them, and then after their justification making it possible for them to repent. It is easy to see why such thinking appealed to the many hyper-Calvinists within the Particular Baptist camp because it sought to remove every aspect of human responsibility within the salvation of an individual. Fuller wasted no words in refuting that the uniform witness of Scripture taught different. He writes, “All that I contend for is, that, in the order of cause and effect, whatever as may be said in regards to time, repentance both precedes and follows the faith of an individual.” 

The reason that Fuller saw it so necessary to undue this type of thinking was not only because it was unbiblical and spiritually deadening to the churches who held to it, but also because he believed that the goal of the church was to be the instrument of God to take head on the global unbelief in Jesus Christ. This optimism and hope that Fuller had to see the kingdom of God overcoming the unbelief of this world can be greatly attributed the postmillennialism he inherited from his Puritan forebears. Getting in the way of this triumph of the kingdom of Christ over this global unbelief were false views of justifying faith and false views of gospel preaching. Sandemanianism was an attack on justifying faith, and it was the next extreme that radically robbed gospel preaching of its power.

Hyper-Calvinism had become a glaring attribute of much of the Particular Baptists in the first half of the 18th century. Dr. John Gill for over 60 years through numerous writings and teachings became the most influential Particular Baptist. Though Gill was a brilliant scholar, and much can be gained from his writings he became one of the staunchest advocates of hyper-Calvinism within the Baptist tradition. Fuller had grown up fully aware of Gill’s teachings, and through studying Scripture saw that Gill had gone too far with what Scripture taught. This launched Fuller into writing one his earliest and most recognized works, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (1785). Fuller maintained his Calvinistic views regarding eternal election and predestination, the total depravity of man, and irresistible grace, but he fully believed based upon the testimony of Scripture that it was the duty of all people to believe and accept the gospel. The premise of Fuller’s thinking was that it is impossible for one to know who is and who is not elect without the universal call of the gospel to all people in which the elect will respond and the non-elect would not. Though he held to the total depravity of man, reiterating the ideas of Jonathan Edwards, Fuller argued that there is a distinction between the “natural and moral inability” of the sinner. For the hyper-Calvinist such a distinction was needless. Advocates of this view saw an invitation for one to believe in Jesus as not only wrong, but pointless. It was this lack of deep gospel preaching, and a cold heart towards seeing the lost come to Christ that caused a massive decline of the Particular Baptists in the first half of the 18th century.

Fuller was indeed a Calvinist, he fully held to the doctrines of grace, but unlike the hyper-Calvinists, Fuller held to an evangelical form of Calvinism. A form of Calvinism that did not see the sovereignty of God and responsibility of man as incompatible, but fully compatible. Fuller argued that both hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism utilized faulty logic that was not based on Scripture. Defending this claim he writes:

They are agreed in making the grace of God necessary to the accountableness of sinners with regard to spiritual obedience. The one [High Calvinism] pleads for graceless sinners being free from obligation, the other [Arminianism] admits of obligation but founds it on the notion of universal grace. Both are agreed that where there is not grace there is no duty. But if grace be the ground of obligation, it is no more grace, but debt.

Though it seems like this was merely a game of theological semantics and argumentation, Fuller knew that the nuances of every theological view came with enormous practical implications for evangelism and mission work. Fuller believed that it was disobedient to do anything less than to preach the gospel to all who would hear it.

In a time of great extremes, from complete heterodoxy, to radical views on justifying faith, to a cold and indifferent heart towards evangelism and missionary effort, Fuller fought hard to restore the biblical balance between God’s eternal saving purposes (the End) and the command to preach the gospel to all who would hear it (the Means). Fuller’s “new” (though it was not new, but merely a right understanding of the compatibilistic nature of the doctrines of grace) theology won wide circulation among English Christians. It was a theology that was deeply rooted in Scripture, radically mission minded, and would be vital in shaping the legacy of the next generation of Baptists.

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