An Unworthy Gospel (Fullerism)
The 18th century is often called the Century of Reason. This is because Newtonian scientists and philosophers such as Locke taught that the workings of the known world and the ways of the unknown God could all be demonstrated by logical deduction. Men of letters such as Beattie and Blair in Scotland and Lessing in Germany taught that following the paths of logic was akin to following in the footsteps of God. Lessing even went so far as to say that Christ had the right use of reason in mind when He promised that the Holy Spirit would come. In his Education of the Human Race, Lessing pointed out that by the aid of reason, man would go on to perfection and finally reach a state of being Christ-like. Many Christians accepted this philosophy, arguing that as it issued from the pens of practising Christians, it could not be wrong. Others, such as the poet William Cowper, saw through the faulty logic. If reason alone made gods out of men, he argued, then God was quite superfluous. Needless to say, Cowper denounced such a system. To him it was the logic of fallen man and not the reasoning of God as revealed in Scripture.
The 18th century also brought with it a strong desire to reform public manners. The so-called Restoration period, which raised a play-boy King to the throne and brought literature and language down to the bawdy-house floor was not to be tolerate long by Providence. Writers such as Addison and Young began to clean up the English language and the Church of England responded with a best-selling book called The Whole Duty of Man which taught the necessity of good conduct and respectability for right living. High moral principles were put forward as the mark of a Godly life but there was no Gospel in the book but rather a latent teaching of righteousness according to works. Now the moral law, not reason, was emphasised as the measure of all things. This emphasis on duty to the moral law as opposed to the Mosaic law, brought with it an upsurge in Neonomianism and Amyraldism. Sincere obedience to moral precepts became the new gospel.
Then God in His mercy poured out His Spirit on Europe, the British Isles and the American colonies and men were raised up such as Spener, Franke and Untereyck on the Continent, Hervey, Gill, Brine, Toplady, Romaine and Huntington in Britain and Frelinghusen and Whitefield in America commuted backwards and forwards across the Atlantic planting the Word of God wherever they came. These men, though men of learning, logic and highly moral lives, had found something greater. They believed in preaching the righteousness of Christ imputed to elect sinners through the free grace of God as the result of a Saviour’s redemptive and vicarious death for His Church.
Church statistics show that between 1700 and 1785 Protestant churches had grown by well over four hundred percent in Germany. In England literally hundreds of clergymen and Dissenting pastors were now preaching Christ as the fulfilment of the Law for His elect. The American colonies were ablaze with the light of the Gospel. Nevertheless, there were still many human ostriches in the churches at this time. Men who could not accept the mainly Calvinistic beliefs of the pioneers of the Great Awakening. Men who had buried their heads in the sands of false doctrine and not noticed what a great work was going on. The date 1785 is a memorable one for these men. It is the publishing date of a book by a Baptist pastor named Andrew Fuller called The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation. According to Fuller’s followers, there was no awakening in the 18th century amongst Baptists until this book was published and Fuller entered the scene to fill the same role in England that Luther had filled in Germany.
These human ostriches also argued that there was no sign of spiritual life outside of the Baptist churches either and looked upon such Anglican pioneers of the Revival as James Hervey as arch heretics because they taught that faith was a gift of God and not a dutiful response to a Gospel invitation. In spite of the huge spread of the Awakening in the 18th century, Fullerites boast that nothing had really happened of spiritual value before “the shot heard around the world in this spiritual offensive was fired from the pen of Andrew Fuller (1754-1815), an English Particular Baptist.” Up to then, Fuller’s biographers tell us, the system of doctrine which had prevailed amongst believers was “to a considerable extent a caricature of Calvinism, exercising under some of its forms a peculiarly degrading and pernicious influence.” This was also the opinion of Fuller who stresses time and time again that before he emerged theology had been degraded to a ‘dunghill’ and the ‘Christian profession had sunk into contempt.’ Fuller was particularly keen on challenging the theological credentials of his Baptist fathers in the faith such as Gill and Brine whom he accused of being ‘High Calvinists’ or ‘Hyper-Calvinists’ and of having a false view of the Law, the Gospel and redemption. In fact, when Fuller is finished with firing his furious guns at his Baptist brethren, and aiming many a salvo at evangelical Anglicans and Presbyterians, he leaves no one standing in the evangelical field but his own trusty followers.
1785 was a bad year for truth, sound sense, moral integrity and Gospel theology. This paper seeks to show how Andrew Fuller sought to put the clock back on at least 80 years of true Biblical teaching and how he left the beaten track trod by saints who were justified and sanctified by free-grace. He chose to return to the rational doctrines of moral duties and works-righteousness of pre-revival days. It will be shown that Andrew Fuller had a faulty view of man, a faulty view of God, a faulty view of the Law, a faulty view of the Gospel, a faulty view of redemption and a faulty view of Christ’s Church. Pointing out Fuller’s theological follies is no easy task. This is because Fuller delights in using a meta-language of his own invention to describe traditional theological concepts. Anyone trying to follow Fuller`s use of words must invariable lose his meaning at some time or other.
Much of Fuller’s writings is taken up with his trying to clean himself of the miry clay he fell into through leaving the rock of Biblical Calvinism and the plain meaning of Scripture. He accuses his numerous critics of misunderstanding him and reading into his words concepts which were far from his mind. He believed, however, that this was proof that his critics were ‘Hyper-Calvinists and Antinomians’ as his arguments were as clear as day to himself. He never seems to have suspected that the presence of so much ‘misunderstanding’ amongst many saintly men was a clear sign that something was wrong with his own arguments.
Furthermore, Fuller is in his element when boiling down words to what he calls their ‘proper meaning’ which he believes is their secular ‘dictionary’ meaning. This often leaves him with theological concepts quite robbed of their theological content. This is nowhere more clear than when Fuller is dealing with sin and atonement.
Then there is Fuller’s frustrating habit of stating that certain words such as imputation, punishment, debt, sin or phrases such as ‘being made sin’ were ‘improperly’ or ‘metaphorically’ used in the Bible, only to use them himself a few sentences further on apparently with the meaning he denied they contained. He often condemns the arguments of his opponents and then appears to argue in the self same way. Often he redefines a term, giving it an entirely different meaning and yet uses that same term with its usual meaning elsewhere. Not content with this, Fuller would take a critic to task for using words wrongly and then he would use the words in just the same way himself. Never was there such an example of Humpty Dumpty saying that he made words mean what he wanted them to mean!
Fuller’s basic ‘world view’ is outlined in his highly controversial book The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation. This work is a treatise in paradoxical reasoning claiming that on the one hand, Christ died to atone for all men, providing they wished to benefit from it. On the other hand, as the Father saw in advance that no one would wish to accept Christ of their own free will, He changed his original intention of a universal atonement and merely guaranteed that certain sinners would follow their inner sense of duty and repent and believe. Not withstanding the change in plans, Christ still died for all men though His Father had now restricted salvation to a select few. This strange confusion of ideas is hailed by Fullerites as being true ‘evangelical Calvinism’ and the teaching that Christ died to save His flock and thus secured their full salvation without losing a soul is termed ‘False Calvinism’ or ‘Hyper-Calvinism’. When Fuller, however, develops his theory, he tones down the fact that only a remnant will be saved and emphasises that every human being has an inner awareness of the Gospel and feels an inner duty to accept it, should he wish. Unlike Calvin, who believed in preaching election, Fuller maintains that election is an inner secret of the Church and should not be preached openly.
Nowadays Fullerites tread carefully when dealing with their leader’s view that sinful man knows he has a duty to accept the Gospel. They say that God obliges man to accept it, using an ambiguous word. ‘Oblige’ can mean merely ‘ought to’ from God’s point of view rather than ‘can’ from man’s point of view. Fuller, however, argues strongly that fallen man ‘can’ accept the Gospel. The problem is that he will not. This led Huntington to say that Fuller teaches that God, who has concluded all in unbelief, expects them, in spite of themselves, to believe.
Fuller ranks those who believe that fallen man cannot accept the Gospel of himself as false Calvinists with a false view of man. He argues that God would never require of man what he cannot do and as God invites man to repent and believe, man must be capable of it. This would seem to be a direct refutation of I Corinthians 2:14 “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” But Fuller does not look to Scripture for his view of man but to natural revelation. His argument is that natural man can discern God’s glory in creation. This creates a love for God in him. When God, however, displays Himself at any time and love to Him is engendered, He also becomes recognisable regarding His spiritual work. When one reads this, one has to rub one’s eyes and ask oneself if this is really the belief of a man that calls himself a Calvinist and not some quote from Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason.
The Scriptures clearly state that Christ and his disciples commanded their hearers to repent and believe the Gospel otherwise they would perish. Paul, too, commanded his hearers to repent and warned them of the consequences awaiting them if they did not. There is, however, a difference in commanding an action, which, if disobeyed, will bring damnation and if obeyed salvation and inviting men to perform an action which all are fully capable of doing. The former case is in keeping with the Scriptural teaching that the bondservants are separated from the true sons by responding or not responding to the Father’s voice. Christ’s sheep hear his voice and respond, the others do not. The second puts all on the same level. Sons and bondservants, sheep and goats, have all been given the same duties to perform to their Heavenly Father. This is indeed Fuller`s teaching in The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation. When Fuller`s book was read by faithful believers, they protested at once that Fuller did not distinguish between slaves and sons. In his defence Fuller accepted this criticism as proof of the truth of his ideas. Who has ever heard, he asks his readers, of children who have no sense of duty to their parents? As all children have a sense of duty to their parents, so all sinners have a sense of duty to their Creator. This is a clear denial of Galatians 4 and its teaching that the Holy Spirit is put into the hearts of adopted sons to make them such and to make them aware of their relationship to their Father. Fuller argues in this way because he rejects Biblical teaching for his theory of natural religion and natural revelation. Elsewhere Fuller teaches that man is fallen. He cannot, however, according to Fuller, have fallen very far. This is hinted at in Fuller`s argument with Button concerning total depravity where he says that the term does not mean “totally unable to believe in Christ” in the sense of “unable in every respect” .
The doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ was the red flag which always made of John Wesley an angry bull. It is ‘imputed nonsense’, he railed, “For Christ`s sake, don’t mention it! ” Wesley realised exactly what James Hervey was getting at when he used such language against him. Man has no righteousness of his own and only Christ’s perfect righteousness can save him. Christ thus becomes ‘Our Righteousness’ for us. Fuller has grave difficulties, too, with this doctrine. Instead of refuting it, he partly accepts Wesley’s view of it and partly changes it. For him, the righteousness which Abraham obtained by faith was righteousness which came as a result of Abraham’s own faith not Christ’s righteousness which is given to true sons with the gift of faith and justification. Arguing that ‘impute’ as used in Romans 4 is used ‘improperly’ and ‘figuratively’. Fuller explains that in its derived meaning the word rules out any actual imputation either of sin to Christ or righteousness to the elect. The whole is one big metaphorical play on words and by the time Fuller is finished with explaining what ‘imputed’ means, it can mean anything – or nothing.
The same word-juggling is shown when Fuller deals with the atonement. He rejects fully any ‘commercial’ or ‘penal’ sense in the atonement. There was no actual payment of a debt and no actual punishment for sin. After arguing that Christ`s been made sin is not to be taken literally he says, “Sin is a debt only in a metaphorical sense; properly speaking, it is a crime, and satisfaction for it requires to be made, not on pecuniary, but on moral principles.” Here Fuller strikes at the heart of penal substitution. There is nothing unbiblical or even illogical in believing that Christ paid our debts on the cross. Fuller, however, de-theologisessin to make it a mere legal crime and argues that it is wrong to say that Christ took upon himself our crimes. But nobody but Fuller argues in this senseless way. If Fuller were able to accept the fact literally that we are bought with the high price of Jesus`s blood, he would have no difficulty but his silliness in wanting to be clever and redefine theologically loaded words in a non-theological way causes him great difficulties. It is no wonder that Booth and Greatheed accused Fuller of trying to explain Biblical concepts with language borrowed from pagans instead of using the plain language of the Bible.
Fuller argues that Christ was not punished for the sinner`s sake but merely suffered. His ‘proof’ is as interesting as it is unconvincing. If a soldier has his hand cut off for striking an officer, that is punishment. If the soldiers hand gets blown off in battle, that is suffering. He compares Christ’s substitutionary suffering with the latter example. Are we to believe that Christ merely suffered in a moral battle against sin? This would make Him a moralist and a martyr but not a Saviour. Surely there is more to the atonement than this? If another officer had volunteered to take the soldier’s penalty for him in Fuller’s illustration, he would have been nearer the Biblical mark. It seems odd that though there are so many stories in the Bible of the righteous dying for the unrighteous (i.e. the Suffering Servant), Fuller should resort to illustrations quite foreign to the subject. To Fuller, of course, such an illustration is not foreign as he empties the doctrine of the atonement of its penal and substitutionary ‘proper’ meaning and gives it the ‘improper’ meaning of a victory merely in the realms of morals. This is why Fuller claims that the moral law, standing alone without the promises, contains all that is required of the sinner to believe the Gospel. His Gospel is not a theological matter but a mere matter of morals .
Going on to examine Fuller’s theories of the Law and Gospel more closely, it soon becomes obvious that Fuller exchanges their functions. The sinner is saved through accepting the offer of the Gospel and the believer lives by being directed by the Law. Strictly speaking, there is no Mosaic Law in Fuller’s system. This is why he refers nearly always to the moral law as opposed to the Mosaic Law. For him, the Mosaic Law never existed as a means of life. It was never part of a Covenant of Works which said “Do this and live: break this and die”. The “This do and thou shalt live” of Christ in Luke 10:28 seems to have been removed from Fuller’s memory if not his Bible. Fuller is uncertain about when the Covenant of Works was abolished but seems to believe that it ceased to be upheld by God when Adam sinned. There is thus no condemning or commanding Law in the Old Testament but merely a moral code which points the sinner to his duties to love God as much as he can. One wonders why God allowed Christ to die under the curse of the Law if the Law no longer held a curse .
Fuller sees very little difference in the work of the Law and the work of the Gospel. Both, of course, are parts of the whole Council of God and thus belong together but the fact that God has seen fit to divide His plan of salvation into two distinct parts, often escapes Fuller. It is also true to say that Fuller`s conception of the Gospel is very much Old Testament orientated. This is seen clearly in Fuller`s works against Deists where he stresses the need for holiness . His pattern of holiness is not Christian but Jewish and his arguments, though theistically Biblical, are not Christian in any sense. This is because Fuller`s faulty views of imputed righteousness and substitutionary atonement do not allow for an indwelling of Christ in the believer. The ‘holy’ believer, in Fuller`s opinion, is one who is still invited to follow a modified law as if that were the only means of obtaining and keeping saving faith. William Huntington, Fuller’s contemporary, pointed out to Fullerites that if the Old Covenant had been all that was necessary for the believer’s walk with God, a New Covenant would not have been necessary. Fuller took no notice of Huntington, except to call him ugly names and claim there was nothing whatsoever of a Christian nature in his doctrine and teaching. Anyone familiar with Huntington’s works will know what an enormous amount of space he gives to the doctrines of Christ’s indwelling in the believer, of the New Man in Christ, of “Christ in us, our hope of glory”, of being filled with the Holy Spirit and of the Law written on the believer`s heart. After painstakingly reading through hundreds and hundreds of pages of Fuller’s works, such doctrines are conspicuous by their absence. And yet such doctrines are at the heart of the Gospel. Fuller, however, denies time and time again that there is any partaking of Christ’s righteousness in the believer and any transference of Christ’s nature to the believer. What would Fuller say to Galatians 2:20 ff. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live: yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”? This text is nowhere used in Fuller’s works. It is obvious, however, that he would claim that dying ‘with Christ’ and living ‘in Christ’ is merely a metaphorical way of saying that Christ gained a moral victory over our crimes .
Fuller`s adherence to the Old Testament and to God’s dealing with the Jews is apparently the reason for his ambiguous teaching on the atonement. He is convinced that, in the Old Testament the Jews as a nation were invited to believe in their capacity as sinners. Thus in The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation he quotes Psalm 2:12 “Kiss the son, lest he be angry” to prove that “unconverted sinners are commanded to believe in Christ for salvation; therefore believing in Christ for salvation is their duty”. He then looks at Isaiah 55:1-7 “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat” etc. to back up his theory arguing that all this is the language of a general invitation. In arguing in this way Fuller forgets an important piece of theology. The Jews were in covenant with God as His chosen people and thus were a ‘type’ of the true Israel to come. Fuller, however, argues concerning fallen sinners of his age that “God is not in covenant with them, nor they with him.” Furthermore Fuller argues that there is now no Covenant of Works. Nevertheless, Fuller always deals with sinners in the same way as God dealt with his chosen people in the Old Testament.
This is applicable also to Fuller`s stress on following the Law as the sole rule of faith. He emphasises the fact that the Old Testament heroes did this – and thus so should we. Again Fuller forgets a very important theological distinction. David loved a different law to the one taught by Fuller. David`s law was Moses’ law which had a command – not an invitation – attached to it. It also brought with it a curse, death if disobeyed and a reward – life, if obeyed. Fuller denies this but it is the obvious teaching of Deut. 6:24-25. “and the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive as it is this day. And it shall be our righteousness if we observe to do all these commandments before the Lord our God, as he hath commanded us.” This was put even stronger by Christ, as shown above. Fuller, however, has lowered God`s standards. The Mosaic Law is done away within Fuller’s system and he has sifted out of its theological concepts a mere moral law without any commanding and cursing power. This puts Fuller’s theology on a par with the ancient Greeks who also taught allegiance to a moral law as a means of reaching ideals. Now, for Fuller, a breach of the law is not sin but merely a moral slip or a crime. This is in stark contrast to the words of Christ in Matthew 5:18 where He says, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” This fulfilling of the Law is in Christ’s righteousness which is eternal and unchangeable. Christ, however, indwells the believer and makes His holy and eternal standards the believer’s own. The old man is dead but the new man is raised in newness of life in Christ’s righteousness. This is the only way to true holiness. Fuller’s gospel of a sub-standard law as a sole means of living a life in Christ is a gospel unworthy of any acceptance. It can find no acceptance with God as it robs him of His holiness and justice and betrays His plan of salvation and it is unworthy of the believer as it does not show him ´a better way` but the way of the world.
Is then Fuller the arch-heretic which he appears to be? Over half of Fuller’s works are taken up with defending himself as been orthodox or attacking others for being unorthodox. Whatever he said or wrote, he believed, was misunderstood. He always claimed that his views were not such as came over to his readers. In brotherly charity, we should be open to believe him. That he actually taught heresy, whether he realised it or not, cannot be denied. There is a glint of light, however, which might raise some hope in us that Fuller was a Calvinist by belief though a heretic by profession. Some time after the publication of The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptance, there appeared in print a series of letters to Andrew Fuller signed Agnostos. In these letters, which were aimed against the Arminian Rev. Dan Taylor of Yorkshire. Agnostos writes, speaking of husbands loving their wives as Christ loved the Church, “Did not I argue, particularly from Eph. v. 25,26, that the death of Christ is there represented as the result of his love to the church, in the character of a husband, and which must, therefore, be discriminating; – that the church could not here mean actual believers, because they are considered as unsanctified; he died that he might sanctify them; – that Christ did not die for believers as such; – he laid down his life for his enemies; – that, therefore it must mean all the elect of God – all those who are finally saved?” Over the page, Agnostos argues that Christ`s sacrifice was for the sins “of those, and those only, on whose behalf it was offered.” indicating that the atonement was not for all mankind but for His Bride, the elect only.
What has this to do with Fuller? In his ‘Advertisement’ to the letters, Dr John Ryland informs his readers that Agnostos was no less than Fuller himself who had written the letters to himself! He explains that had Fuller used his own name, it would have complicated the issue at stake. This it would indeed have done as Fuller writes in the guise of a Calvinist and not in his usual Amyraldian and Neonomian way. Had Fuller as Agnostos, the unknown, a different faith to Fuller the public figure? Was Fuller thus orthodox at heart? Any hope is dampened by further information Rylandgives about the 13 letters. He tells us that ‘with the exception of one or two pages, they were written by Mr Fuller himself.’ Are these ‘one or two pages’ from another hand the very pages which affirm belief in the Biblical doctrine of the atonement? We shall probably never know this side of Eternity.
George M. Ella is a historian, author and biographer. His writings may be accessed at the online archived, ”Biographia Evangelica”.
George M. Ella, born February 1939 in Yorkshire, England, has lived most of his life on the European Continent. He is a retired Senior Civil Servant formerly employed in teaching, post-graduate teacher-training, chairing examination boards and curricula work. He holds degrees from London, Hull, Uppsala, Essen, Duisburg and Marburg universities with doctorates in English Literature and Theology. Dr. Ella has written regularly since the seventies for a number of magazines and newspapers and published numerous books on Church History, including biographies of William Cowper, William Huntington, James Hervey, John Gill, Augustus Montague Toplady, Isaac McCoy and Henry Bullinger besides works on doctrine and education. He is currently finishing the third volume of his series 'Mountain Movers'; a biography of John Durie; a work on Law and Gospel and further study material for the Martin Bucer Seminar. Dr. Ella is still internationally active as a lecturer and is a Vice-President of the Protestant Reformation Society. He is keenly interested in missionary work and has written on the spread of the Gospel amongst the Same people of Lapland, the people of India and the Native Americans. This present volume follows Dr. Ella's 'The Covenant of Grace and Christian Baptism', also published by the Martin Bucer Seminar. George Ella is married to Erika Ella, nee Fleischman, a former government administrator, and they have two sons Mark (41), Director of a Polytechnic College in Bremerhaven and Robin (39), Leading Senior Physician in a newly-built Geriatric and Psychiatric clinic in Dessau.