Fuller and the Atonement

This post is occasioned by the recent discussion over Fuller and the atonement begun by Emir Caner, who argued that after a debate with the Arminian Dan Taylor, Fuller adopted a general atonement. This assertion was responded to ably by Michael Haykin who argued that this was not the case, and that the issues involved in Fuller’s theology of the atonement are deeper and need better nuance. David Allen has since replied to Dr. Haykin seeking to vindicate Caner’s original assertions. In his reponse, Dr. Haykin spoke of the influence of certain New England theologians on Fuller’s language of the atonement. I thought I would elaborate on Dr. Haykin’s brief words. For what it is worth, I remain convinced that Dr. Haykin’s initial response to Caner stands.

Last autumn I had the opportunity to present a paper at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society on Andrew Fuller as a Calvinist Theologian. In it I dealt primarily with Fuller’s view of the atonement and whether his later change in theological language prohibited him from a seat at the Reformed table. This paper, together with others delivered as part of the Fuller Studies Group, will be published in a volume introducing Fuller’s life and thought, hopefully some time this year.

The big debate in Fuller studies is whether he changed his view of the atonement from the so-called “limited atonement” perspective championed by traditional Calvinism to a “general” atonement more in line with certain forms of Arminianism. Fuller’s most important work was his Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (1785) that was at once a break with his Hyper-Calvinist upbringing and a spur to the modern missions movement and the sending of William Carey, William Ward, and Joshua Marshman to India. In the first edition of Gospel Worthy he had a succint, but clear discussion of the application of Christ’s satisfaction where he quotes John Owen and Herman Witsius approvingly, self-consciously reflecting a standard Reformed view.

The controversy over Fuller’s view of the atonement comes with the publication of the second edition of Gospel Worthy (1801). It has been argued by a number of scholars that Fuller adopted the “governmental” language of the atonement that was used by the New Divinity men in New England—Samuel Hopkins, Joseph Bellamy, and others who are the heirs of Jonathan Edwards. They famously spoke of Christ’s satisfaction in more general terms. There is no doubt that Fuller was indebted to the New England theologians, as he made clear in a number of places. What is not clear is whether he adopted their view of the atonement in toto. What I argued in my paper (and I am not original here, scholars like Robert Oliver and Tom Nettles have argued likewise) is that though Fuller adopted some of the language of the New Divinity men, it did not require him to change the substance of his theology of the atonement which remained committed to penal substitution, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and particular redemption.

Without going too far afield, Fuller did adopt “figural” language of imputation without denying the reality of it (you will have to read my essay to get more detail about this!). And suffice it to say that Fuller openly adhered to penal substitution after 1801—in 1803 he told his friend John Ryland Jr. that it was never a question with him: “I have no consciousness of having ever called the doctrine of substitution into question” (“Three Conversations,” [687]). But what about particular redemption? Did he deny it?

In the second edition of Gospel Worthy Fuller related the application of Christ’s death to the sovereign design of God. God intended for Christ’s death to be applied to “those that are saved.” To quote him at length:

[A]s the application of redemption is solely directed by sovereign wisdom, so, like every other event, it is the result of previous design. That which is actually done was intended to be done. Hence the salvation of those that are saved is described as the end which the Saviour had in view (“Gospel Worthy,” [374]).

This last line is a statement of particular redemption. Fuller goes on to say, as he argued in the first edition, that there is no contradiction between “the peculiarity of design” and the universal offer of the gospel. As with election, the preacher is commanded to offer the gospel freely to all without fear of contradicting Reformed soteriology. In “Three Conversations” he puts this in the language of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619): that Christ’s satisfaction was “sufficient for all” but in its application was “efficient” for “those whose salvation it was intended” (“Three Conversations,” [696]).

The debate over Fuller’s view of the atonement was initially struck in his own time by the great London Baptist Abraham Booth who feared that Fuller had veered too close to Arminianism. I argued in my piece—following others like Oliver—that Booth misunderstood Fuller. The most notorious modern critic has been George Ella, who I believe has been satisfactorily answered by scholars like Oliver and Nettles. Ella argued that Fuller adopted the “Grotianism” of the New Divinity men—that is, the view of Christ’s satisfaction taught by the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). My basic argument, following Oliver Crisp and Garry Williams, is that Grotius was not a Grotian and neither was Fuller.

While Fuller was an admirer of much of what Hopkins, Bellamy, etc., wrote, he rejected accusations that he accepted their theology carte blanche—see his response to Hyper-Calvinist John Martin in this regard. Though Fuller adopted their language as the lingua franca of the day, he consistently maintained the particularism that he first espoused in 1785.

In the conclusion of my essay I gave the last word to Kenneth Dix who was essentially the curator of the Strict and Particular Baptist heritage of which Fuller was a part—a man that I am happy to say I met in Dunstable, England, with Dr. Haykin some ten years ago now. Dix wrote of Fuller:

There were certainly times when Fuller made statements which might have been construed as a departure from the particularist position, but this was not the case. His belief in an atonement that was sufficient for all men but efficacious only for the elect, offended high-Calvinists, but he never gave up the seventeenth-century confessions. Andrew Fuller was no more responsible for any shift from orthodox Calvinism in the nineteenth century than the men who framed the 1677 Confession could be held responsible for the path taken by some of their descendants into the chilling winds of high-Calvinism (Strict and Particular, [269-270]).