The Atonement in Evangelical Thought: Part IV

Andrew Fuller’s Moral Government theory of the atonement

     It was left to the Englishman Andrew Fuller, to combine the teaching of Abelard, Chandler and that of the New Divinity School and, in effect, re-introduce pure Grotianism with its affirmation of the moral government theory of the Atonement and its denial of vicarious and penal substitution. This is clearly seen in Fuller’s teaching on moral and positive laws, the nature and fitness of things, divine revelation, man’s natural abilities as a medium for spiritual truth and experience, and a metaphorical interpretation of Bible doctrine. Fuller outdid Grotius, in redefining the doctrines of the fall, imputation, satisfaction, substitution, ransom, redemption, atonement and Christ’s being made sin for our sakes. Indeed, the only possible slogan that fits Fullerism, as his heresy came to be called, when thinking in terms of orthodox Biblical doctrine, is, ‘You name it – Fuller changed it!’

Fullerism and the modern neo-evangelical Reformed establishment

     Fuller won over his followers in an ingenious manner. Apart from when speaking about the law, he closely followed traditional terminology concerning the main doctrines of the gospel, though he completely re-defined their sense content. He was so brilliant at propagating his views that he duped thousands into believing that it was ‘strict Calvinism.’ Fashions in thinking come and go and Fullerism is again being marketed by holders of various moral government theories. Once again, he is being presented as the Calvinist and evangelist par excellence. Modern Fullerites, however, do not like the epithet ‘strict’ and prefer to use Chandler’s term ‘moderate Calvinist’. Fuller’s new popularity is quite amazing. Though Particular Baptist contemporaries of Fuller such as John Stevens and William Gadsby saw him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a troubler in Israel, a divider of churches and even an evil gangrene bringing death and destruction to spiritual life and the spread of the gospel , Baptists of all kinds and even Independents and Presbyterians are once again leaving the old Biblical paths for Fuller’s mixture of Grotianism, Chandlerism, New Divinity teaching and Socinianism. It is astonishing to find professedly Reformed magazines such as Reformation Today, Banner of Truth and Evangelical Times now opening their pages to full-blown Fullerite propaganda.

Reformation Today recommends the Anti-Reformed teaching of yesterday

     One of the first major attempts to re-popularise Fuller in modern times was in two publications which appeared in 1984 in Issue 82 of Reformation Today with two special recommendations of the articles by editor Erroll Hulse. The articles were taken from the works of American Tom Nettles. The first article Why Andrew Fuller? resembles Nettles foreword to the Sprinkle Publications of Fuller’s Complete Works re-published in 1988. It is the usual positive introduction which one expects from such a foreword. However, neither the Reformation Today essay nor the Sprinkler Publications foreword is a study in depth of Fuller’s works in any way. Nettles presents Fuller as a follower of Jonathan Edwards Sen. (has he mistaken him for Jonathan Edwards Jun.?), and as a staunch Calvinist who was thoroughly Biblical in his approach, neither modifying nor apologising for his Reformed doctrines. He is presented as a believer in sovereign grace and the driving force behind sending Carey to India. He is said to have ‘altered the course not only of English Baptist history but of American Baptist history as well.’

     In his book By His Grace and For His Glory, Nettles deals with Fuller’s doctrine far more specifically and it is from this work that Hulse has selected some of Nettle’s more positive views concerning Fuller, entitling them Andrew Fuller and Free Grace. Actually their rearrangement in this way is rather unfair on Nettles as it is presented by Mr Hulse as a special work showing the particular importance of Fuller, whereas one of the main thrusts of the complete original work was to re-establish John Gill as the great Bridge Over Troubled Waters (Nettles’ term) of the Baptist Movement giving him much of the credit for keeping the Particular Baptist churches and beyond on a Biblical basis. Hulse has written against John Gill, viewing him as the very opposite of Fuller, yet Nettles adorns Fuller with many feathers he claims Fuller had from Gill. Furthermore, Nettles firmly establishes his own theology of the atonement as been in line with Gill’s and, in his account of Fuller’s view of atonement confesses that he disagrees with him. This vital factor is neatly left out by Hulse, who thus isolates his views of free grace from the doctrine of atonement. He portrays Nettles as arguing for Fuller’s orthodoxy on the basis of total depravity and election alone. One cannot help thinking that a very balanced writer such as Nettles is being used in a most unbalanced way. This is symptomatic of Neo-Evangelicalism founded on a re-interpretation of total depravity and an emphasis on election through repentance and belief as opposed to an election secured and settled by the Atonement.

One heart and one soul with Andrew Fuller

     Another modern Baptist writer, Canadian Michael Haykin, is striving to popularise Fuller, arguing that on essentials he is absolutely orthodox. He complains openly in print against those who find him heretical. Formally he refused to accept that Fuller was a Moral Government man, then gradually noted his tendencies to Governmentalism, confessing that this alarmed Fuller’s friends. Now Haykin, in his recent work One Heart and One Soul, has reviewed Fuller’s theology and presents him along with his friends Ryland, Sutcliff and Carey as debtors to Governmentalism. Haykin’s new view is obviously that to be an evangelical Calvinist, one must be a Grotian.

     Haykin, outlines how it was through reading Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins and Jonathan Edwards Jun.  that Fuller and those who were ‘one heart and one soul’ with him, rejected ‘False Calvinism’ i.e. the doctrines that had been taught by Wallis, Noble, the Wallins, Gill, Brine, Martin and Ryland Sen. i.e. to mention good men of his own denomination , and embraced Grotian and New Divinity teaching. Haykin explains enthusiastically, without a shade of analytical criticism, what a ‘warm welcome’ Grotianism received amongst the theological heirs of Jonathan Edwards and in stating this shows the weakness in his own theological and denominational thought. Grotius was a vowed opponent of the Baptists, indeed, of any Dissenters, and as Anti-Calvinist as could be imagined.

The breech between Edwards Sen, and the New Divinity school denied

     Haykin is apparently unaware of the gigantic breech between the theology of the New Divinity School and that of Edwards Sen.. In his book, he makes it appear that even Edwards was ‘one heart and one soul’ with the later theology of his own son Jonathan Edwards Jun.. Haykin gives no evidence but suggests that Edwards’ private notebooks – we are not told which – indicate this. Haykin is probably thinking of the rough notes Edwards made on the Medium of Moral Government which have been published from time to time in a highly edited, shortened (minus the long quotes) and rearranged version. Haykin’s whole exercise in basing his new view of Edward’s theology on unpublished notes, indeed the most private of notes not meant for publication, raises the question of the propriety of such an act, as the writer himself obviously did not feel the views were worth airing in public. Nevertheless, it is certainly true that Jonathan Edwards speaks of God’s rightful moral government in his private notes. This is quite legitimate. Not all who speak of God’s moral rule are Grotians! However, it is the odd reference to this term that convinces Haykin that John Sutcliff was a Grotian. Edward’s, in his notes makes it crystal clear that he is distinguishing between God’s moral rule through the revelation of Scripture and the idea that men can be left to their own reason. Needless to say, he completely rejects the latter proposition. Throughout these notebook jottings, Edwards maintains, with reference to a true knowledge of right and wrong, and an awareness of the purpose of life and creation, ‘It is apparent, that there would be no hope that these things would ever be determined among mankind, in their present darkness and disadvantages,  without a revelation.’

     Equally alarming and ill-founded in Haykin’s work is that he links not only Fuller and John Sutcliff with the New Divinity School but those great missionaries David Brainerd and William Carey, too. A brief perusal of Brainerd’s literary remains will reveal how he was a fervent supporter of what Fuller disparagingly calls the ‘commercial’ view of the atonement and in his diary he explains how he overcame the linguistic difficulties of teaching the Indians how Christ died ‘a ransom for many’. Those who feel they can find any resemblance to Grotianism in William Carey’s work and teaching must have a very defective theological microscope indeed! On the contrary, as much as Fuller emphasised the legal duties of the unconverted to exercise faith savingly according to the nature and fitness of things as if this were the gospel, Carey exhorted the converted to exercise the clear and precise duties they had been given at the Great Commission to go out into the world and save those who were totally incapable naturally and morally of saving themselves.

The Banner of Truth and ‘provincial’ theology

     Writing in his biography of Jonathan Edwards published in 1987, Iain Murray of the Banner of Truth Trust stresses how the New Divinity School saw things radically different from Jonathan Edwards Sen. with both Hopkins and Edwards Jun. paving the way for later Finneyism. Murray, without going into any detail whatsoever, dismisses the New Divinity teaching as metaphysical and, using the words of B. B. Warfield, declares them to be ‘provincial’. Yet Murray must have known from his reading of the period that it was the New Divinity men who radically influenced Andrew Fuller whose theology Murray has advocated strongly since writing his book on Edwards, introducing him as the answer to the Hyper-Calvinism of John Gill. Indeed, the theology expressed anonymously in the notorious Voice of Years article in the July 1988 Banner magazine but for which Murray claims responsibility, portrays the very New Divinity theology that Murray formerly viewed as ‘provincial’ .

     Fuller’s general theology has been closely dealt with in other works  but let us look specifically here to his writings appertaining to the Moral Government heresy.

Fuller and the fitness of things

     Fuller’s system is often so close to that of Grotius and Chandler as to make no differnece. He is especially Grotian in his view of the Jews as following revealed law but Christians opting for the nature and fitness of things. Writing to the Church at Serampore to tell them how to manage their affairs, Fuller gives them a nice piece of Grotianism to help them with problems of church discipline. He tells the brethren that, “the form and order of the Christian church, much more than that of the Jewish church, are founded on the reason and fitness of things . Under the former dispensation the duties of religion were mostly positive; and were of course prescribed with the nicest precision, and the most exact minuteness. Under the gospel they are chiefly moral, and, consequently, require only the suggestion of general principles. In conforming to the one, it was necessary that men should keep their eye incessantly on the rule; but in complying with the other, there is more occasion for fixing it upon the end.” He goes on to argue that the form and order of the Christian church needed no pattern as Christians were endued with ‘a holy wisdom, to discern and pursue on all occasions what was good and right.’ Here we have the teleological ideal of the ancient Greeks that life in harmony with Natural Law produces the maximum good.

     Fuller, realising that he was in danger of stepping outside of the Biblical view of law and divine precepts here, raises the question, ‘Will not the considering of these things as moral, rather than positive (i.e. revealed ), open a way for the introduction of human inventions into the church of God?’ His answer is, ‘Why should it?’ He then goes on to make one of the many compromises he often makes, either because of the uncertainty of his position or because he did not wish to appear radical. He argues that though the greater part of what belongs to the organisation and discipline of the church is founded in the fitness of things, we must have some form of divine revelation to guide us, providing we do not adhere too minutely to its precepts and examples. This is still better, Fuller argues, than to exercise the liberty to prefer what may appear fit and right to us.’ Even this rough rule does not cover everything for Fuller, however, as he argues that there are indeed positive rules in the New Testament similar to the patterns laid down by Moses such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which must be kept ‘as they were delivered.’

     Warning his readers that it would be expecting too much to look for scriptural authority, respecting the form, order and organisation of the Christian church, Fuller nevertheless argues that he will prove that such a form, order and organisation of the New Testament church can be derived from ‘the fitness of things,’ and he goes on to describe his idea of New Testament practice according to the ‘genius of Christianity.’ Non-Fullerites would feel quite at a loss here as Fuller continually advises them not to take Christ’s precepts literally, leaving only ‘general principles’ as a guide which he interprets in a very singular way.

Fuller on moral and positive precepts

     Fuller argues the Grotian case more fully in his On Moral and Positive Obedience which was surprisingly an annual pastoral letter to the local Baptist Association pastors. In this work, Fuller lays great store on the right use of reason or ‘right reason’ as he calls it. The word reason signifies to Fuller ‘the fitness of things’. This is the way, he argues, the apostles used it when they said, ‘It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables ;` that is, it is not fit or proper.” Right reason, Fuller tells us, “is perfect and immutable, remaining always the same.” “No Divine truth can disagree” with it. Such reason may, however, “be above and contrary to” man’s reasoning which is shattered by sin, blindness and prejudice. Fuller, however, in stressing that right reason may not of necessity contradict man’s reasoning, obviously feels that man is somehow capable of using right reason. In fact, for Fuller, the practical use of right reason distinguishes New Testament teaching from the Old which was law-bound . The Old hindered man from using his reason whereas the New encourages it. This is keeping with Fuller’s own reasoning which rules that man is not dead in trespasses and sins as God could not reason with a dead man. He only speaks to one capable of hearing and responding. This is why Fuller argues in his The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation,

“Or if the inability of sinners to believe in Christ were of the same nature as that of a dead body in a grave to rise up and walk, it were absurd to suppose that they would on this account fall under the Divine censure. No man is reproved for not doing that which is naturally impossible; but sinners are reproved for not believing, and given to understand that it is solely owing to their criminal ignorance, pride, dishonesty of heart, and aversion from God.”

Notable here is Fuller’s de-theologisation of sin which he sees as ‘criminal ignorance.’ All these symptoms, Fuller reasons, do not point to physical and spiritual death, nor even moral inability, but merely an ‘unwillingness to believe’. This is his mock fall. The real fall, according to Fuller, comes when Christ is rejected on hearing the gospel because man then refuses to use his inherent capabilities to believe in Christ savingly.

Fuller’s Grotian principle of two standards of ‘right’

     In Fuller’s On Moral and Positive Obedience, he teaches that there are eternals such as the order of nature and temporals such as God’s Law and revelations to man which are entirely arbitrary. The latter are right only because God commanded them and have no relation to the intrinsic nature of God’s own character, nor to the ‘fitness of things.’ Echoing Chandler, Fuller quotes Philippians 4:8,

‘Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report ; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.’

Like Chandler, he emphasises that Paul is teaching that the moral law is implanted in the minds of men. Like Chandler, he does not seem to realise that the standard for true, honest, just, pure and lovely things – things which lead to a good report – are Scriptural standards, i.e. revealed standards, given because they reflect God’s own unchangeable character. Revealed precepts, however, are to Fuller in ‘positive’ form and no absolute authority as they ‘arise merely from the sovereign will of the Law-giver.` As an example of the latter, ‘positive’ law, Fuller gives I Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17 summed up in the words, ‘Be ye followers of me as I also am of Christ.’ He also gives I Cor. 11:2, ‘Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.’ Fuller then goes on to argue, that Phil. 4:8 (Whatsoever things are true etc.) is commanded because it is right; but I Cor. 4:16 (where Paul says ‘as I teach every where etc.’) is right because it is commanded, and adds, “The great principles of the former are of perpetual obligation, and know no other variety than that which arises from the varying of relations and conditions; but those of the latter may be binding at one period of time, and utterly abolished in another.’ Again, Fuller is using his own trust in ‘right reason’ to judge these things. He does not seem to realise that we have learnt to follow Christ through the written testimony of such as Paul and that the teaching Paul claims in I Cor. 4 he has from Christ has become the Word of God itself.

Fuller cautions concerning the commandments of Christ

     In  his eagerness to find what he calls ‘general principles’ in the Bible, Fuller is highly critical of the exact words and precepts of Christ Himself, arguing, ‘the commandments of Christ, however, are not all of the same kind, so neither is our obedience required to be yielded in all respects on the same principles.’ He means by this that we must use our right reason to discern when Christ is speaking according to fixed eternal moral laws or is merely giving ‘positive’ instruction. Fuller believes this is orthodox theology claiming, ‘The distinction of obedience into moral and positive is far from novel.’ Without this distinction, he tells us, we will never be able to understand Scripture. He goes on to express what is moral and what is positive in Scripture by saying, ‘We can clearly perceive that it were inconsistent with the perfections of God not to have required us to love him and one another, or to have allowed of the contrary. Children also must needs be required to ‘obey their parents; for this is right.’ But it is not thus in positive institutions. What ever wisdom there may be in them, and whatever discernment in us, we could not have known them had they not been expressly revealed; nor are they ever enforced as being right in themselves, but merely as being of Divine appointment. Of them we may say, Had it pleased God, he might in various instances have enjoined the opposites; but of the other, we are not allowed to suppose it possible, or consistent with righteousness, to require any thing different from that which is required.’ Man’s obligation to the moral law, Fuller goes on to argue, is coeval with his creation ‘but it was not till God had planted a garden in Eden, and there put the man he had formed, and expressly prohibited the fruit of one of the trees on pain of death, that he came under a positive law. The former would approve itself to his conscience as according with the nature of things; the latter as being commanded by the Creator.’ Fuller seems never to have heard of a ‘seared conscience’.

Fuller’s use of right reason is wrong

     It is interesting to note that Fuller uses Ephesians 6:1 concerning children’s obedience in a manner showing that he is already implementing his rule of ‘right reason’ to stress the importance of his moral law over positive law. The Scripture reads, ‘Children obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.’ The words ‘in the Lord’ have been omitted by Fuller as they refer to post-Edenic revelation expressing what Fuller calls positive law. Children are to obey their parents, not because the Lord so wills but because what is right commands this. This is older and therefore more absolute than the revealed will of God. This idea of ‘right’ is coeval with man and prior to the revealed Word of God. Actually, as becomes clear in reading through On Moral and Positive Obedience, Fuller is advocating a completely utilitarian way of life  and a de-theologising of Christianity. Fuller gives a host of examples as to what Christian action or ordinance is ‘moral’ and what is ‘positive’ but he confuses his own distinctions when applying them to the revealed Word of God and their outcome in Christian behaviour. The pattern of behaviour which he presents in separating the moral from the positive shows much common-sense, though also much denominational narrowness. Nevertheless, after setting up clear distinctions between what is ‘moral’ and what is ‘positive’, Fuller is so full of exceptions where he finds that the moral is positive or the positive is moral that rational chaos is the result. After telling his readers, for instance, that man’s knowledge of the moral law is coeval with man and that man has the natural wherewithal to understand this, he dampens our moral enthusiasm by confessing, ‘If, on the other hand, we do everything according to the letter of the moral precepts, we shall often overlook the true intent of them, and do that which is manifestly wrong .’ Indeed, Fuller seems to be constantly looking for what is ‘manifestly right’ and what is ‘manifestly wrong’ by reinterpreting the precepts of Christ and the patterns of behaviour laid down in the gospel according to what he calls ‘parity of reasoning’ and presenting them as new laws for right reasoning, though he is obviously always plagued by second thoughts on the matter. It is perhaps not too unkind to Fuller to suggest that he defines what is ‘moral’ and thus eternal and what is ‘positive’ and thus temporal according to what temper he is in that day! It is thus no wonder that Fullerites call orthodox Christians Antinomians as the latter recognise only the Mosaic Law as a covenant of works but Fullerites have ever changing ‘right reason’ to go by. Fuller claims that the old covenant of works has been abolished for sinner and saint alike yet his doctrine of a penal gospel and rules for right thinking are really a new covenant of works based on the gospel. This is Fuller’s enigma. Though he has such a low view of the law, and might therefore with absolute fairness be called an Antinomian, he is, nevertheless, an extreme legalist.

     Fuller’s often mentioned ‘end’ of which gospel revelation is a mere figurative ‘means’ is never actually revealed or fully reasoned out in his system. Thus there is no solid hope of salvation in his teaching. The Biblical way to heaven in his map of salvation is marked out in winding paths of symbols of signs of imagery and metaphor illustrated with pseudo-philosophic axioms which can only totally confuse and disorientate the Christian pilgrim. Wherever one follows Fuller’s reasoning one never seems to come to the end of the chain. He constantly requires his readers to make do during the search for his ‘end’ with a pious kind of utilitarian ‘situation ethics’ which can only lead to utter scepticism as to what is truth. All his talk of moral and positive obedience is, as Gill told Chandler in similar words, mere pseudo-intellectual verbal waffle to cover up a distrust of revealed religion.

No law substitute for a full atonement of grace

     Neither the Moral Influence theory, nor the Government theory, nor their Fullerite combination provides a solution to the problem of law and sin. The Moralists say that Christ’s example should prompt us to love Him and the Govermentalists tell us that the fact of Christ’s deterrent death ought to frighten us into obedience. Fuller appeals more to law but to the wrong one. He takes man’s gaze from the atonement which is necessary for the divine law to be fulfilled and places it on a moral or natural law which, for him, is not a covenant of works and claims that it is a metaphor to tell the criminal (rather than the sinner) to love Christ as if he had never apostatised and in fulfilling this duty he will be saved . Love + Fear = Duty + Salvation in Fullerism but this is not one whit better than the mock-gospel Grotius, Chandler and Hopkins give us. It does not deal with the guilt of man. It does not deal with sin as sin and does not even begin to answer the question of how a man may get right with an angry God. Indeed, Fuller depicts God as being narrowly but lovingly benevolent to the point of exhibiting blindness to justice and mercy. Fuller subjectifies the atonement as he teaches that actual at-one-ment is instigated by personal repentance and faith. He thus robs the Atonement of its objective, historical display of mercy in which Christ covered His Bride’s sins there and then on the cross. The atonement is thus also robbed of the very benevolence of which Fuller boasts. Fuller and his modern followers equally rob the Atonement of its justice as they deny that it was at Calvary that the ransom was paid once and for all time.

     Part V of this series will deal with the superiority of revealed law and gospel over Grotian thinking and the actual and factual outworking of the Atonement as opposed to Fullerite tokenism and symbolism.