Selling a Paineful, Yet Fuller, Apologetic

First, let it be said that Alan P. F. Sell is prolific, but he’s no hack. I think I’m going to make a point of trying to regularly read his works. Also: sorry for the cheezy title. The names all happen to be verbs, so I wanted to play on that. I don’t think it worked.

Second—and the purpose of this post—Sell does a good, albeit brief, job surveying the evangelical responses to Deism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In his essay, “The Gospel its own Witness: Deism, Thomas Paine and Andrew Fuller,” (from this book) he sets forth a contextual analysis of the ways that various orthodox theologians tackled the challenges posed by Enlightenment opponents. In a test case at the end of the essay he looks at the response to Thomas Paine by Andrew Fuller. Paine, of course, is famous for his The Rights of Man as well as the work under review by Fuller, The Age of Reason. To be honest, I tend to gravitate towards Paine (not in this instance of course) and favour his position against Edmund Burke in their debate over the revolution in France—not the later methods and results of said revolution, but the conclusions of Burke’s conservatism don’t sit well with me.

Paine, as a good Deist, did away with the miraculous or “superstitious” elements of the Christian faith. He adhered to belief in natural religion and the god of nature. He did not believe that the Bible was revelation from God; the only true revelation should be immediate, and found in nature, not mediated through a person or book. This was common trade for Deists like Toland, Tindal, Herbert of Cherbury, etc.

Fuller, on the other hand, was an orthodox Calvinist of the Edwardsian variety (see the newly published study on Edwards and Fuller by Chris Chun [Brill, 2012]). He is famous on a number of fronts; foremost for his response to the John Gill-styled hyper-Calvinism of his youth. He was also the theological backbone behind the Baptist Missionary Society that sent William Carey to India. Fuller not only wrote against hyper-Calvinism and Deism, but he also critiqued Arminianism, and Socinianism, and wrote commentaries on Genesis and Revelation. I would argue that Fuller is the most important theologian in the history of the Baptists—had Gill not strayed into certain unorthodox doctrines like eternal justification, he would hold that distinguished mantle over Fuller.

Sell evaluates The Gospel Its Own Witness, Fuller’s response to Paine’s Age of Reason, showing Fuller’s relevance to contemporary apologetics. While pointing out areas of usefulness, Sell also finds parts of the work wanting. Fuller’s main purpose is to show the internal harmony of the Scriptures, and so does not interact with the external questions of natural theology used by Bishop Butler. In fact, Sell says that Fuller is “the obverse of Butler” (140). Fuller and Paine both agree that rationality is a common ground between Christians and deists. This is problematic for Sell, who asks: “How far can Christian apologetics proceed without invoking the supernatural” (141)? It would appear that Fuller concedes too much to Paine. Fuller, however, does proceed beyond what can be known by unaided reason and appeals to events like the necessary saving work of Christ as proof of the need for revelation; in this, he follows the trajectory of apologists like John Wesley.

On a related score, Sell would like to see Fuller theologize in a more distinctly Trinitarian way in his response to Paine’s notion that God punishes the innocent. Says Sell: “No wedge must be driven between the Father and the Son” (141). This is a curious thing for Fuller to fall trap to, as he famously battled the anti-Trinitarian Socinians, and would have been well aware of the influence of John Gill’s excellent work on the Trinity amongst Baptists.

Sell points to Fuller’s argument that Paine fails to understand the holiness of God. For him to be merely the God of nature gives Paine no platform for a moral high ground because God is stripped of a holy character that is the grounds for morality. But even in this sense Sell argues that Fuller does not go far enough; he should demonstrate why Christianity is necessary for ethics: “It may be more obvious to us that it was to Fuller that people can lead morally good lives whilst believing non-Christian—even fantastic—doctrines, or no doctrine at all” (142).

This last statement of Sell’s make me wonder if Fuller suffers some of these criticisms because of his perceived audience. Did Fuller think that Paine and the leading lights of the Deistic internationale would read his work? Or was the church his primary audience, and he was intending to bolster already existing belief in the rationality and necessity of revelation. I confess to not knowing Fuller’s corpus well enough to answer this question adequately. But it strikes me that Fuller looks a little like contemporary apologists who offer classical proofs for God, who seem to be more useful for those who already believe than those who don’t. Just a thought. This does not diminish the importance of Fuller as a theologian or apologist, nor does it diminish the work under consideration. I guess I’m merely thinking out loud.