Fuller & Inability: A Centrist Response to Tom Nettles, Part 3 of 3

Andrew Fuller

Andrew Fuller

 

Other Posts in This Series:      Part 1;       Part 2;       Whole Paper.

In his second installment, “Fullerite: Doctrine of Inability,” Dr. Nettles’ fundamental misunderstanding of Fuller is seen in how he has taken some of Andrew Fuller’s sentences out of context, and turned them around to imply what Fuller actually was teaching against:

In answering both the hyper-Calvinists and the Arminians in The Gospel Worthy of all Acceptation, Fuller pointed out that both believed that “it is absurd and cruel to require of any man what it is beyond his power to perform.” In their ardent desire to steer clear of each other, they finally concur in their attitude toward duty and grace—where there is not grace, there is no duty. “The one [hyper-Calvinists] pleads for graceless sinners being free from obligation, the other admits of obligation, but founds it on the notion of universal grace.” Fuller carefully distinguished, as he did in his earlier confession, between natural inability and moral inability, and asserted that the “inability of sinners is not such as to induce the Judge of all the earth . . . to abate in his demands. It is a fact that he does require them, and that without paying any regard to their inability, to love him, and to fear him, and to do all his commandments always.” Both hyper-Calvinists and non-Calvinist-partial-Arminians find this assertion to imply some kind of contradiction, or at [least] impose on any normal sense of fairness. In spite of all the rantings and reasonings against him and his view, however, Fuller continued to affirm both the absolute moral inability of man and the remaining duty of perfect obedience and cordial love to God and consequently a belief in the gospel.[29]

This axiom, that “it is absurd and cruel to require of any man what it is beyond his power to perform,” is not what Fuller argues against (as if only the hyper-Calvinists and Arminians held to such a thing), but in fact, Fuller agrees with it and argues for its truth in the succeeding paragraphs. He only argues against the two opposite conclusions that either side had drawn from this truth, to wit, that God does not obligate graceless sinners, or that God obligates all due to giving grace to all. Dr. Nettles seems (implicitly) to adopt the same faulty assumption that Fuller is fighting against, that without God’s grace, men have no power to perform what God requires—the only difference is that he has embraced the absurdity, affirming that it is not absurd and cruel to require of any man what is beyond his ability to perform.

Fuller acknowledges, “It is granted to be a dictate of common sense and common equity that no person should be blamed for the omission of that which he could not do if he would […]”[30] He states in clear terms, “[…] 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.” He also states (bold mine):

If the inability of sinners to perform things spiritually good were natural, or such as existed independently of their present choice, it would  be absurd and cruel to address them in such language. No one in his senses would think of calling the blind to look, the deaf to hear, or the dead to rise up and walk; and of threatening them with punishment in case of their refusal. But if the blindness arise from the love of darkness rather than light; if the deafness resemble that of the adder, which stoppeth her ear, and will not hear the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely; and if the death consist in alienation of heart from God, and the absence of all desire after him, there is no absurdity or cruelty in such addresses.[31]

Regarding the statement, “Fuller carefully distinguished, as he did in his earlier confession, between natural inability and moral inability, and asserted that the ‘inability of sinners is not such as to induce the Judge of all the earth . . . to abate in his demands[…],'” this also, in the context of how Dr. Nettles presents it, implies the opposite of what Fuller intended and has been taken completely out of the original context. Fuller’s meaning by this statement was not to affirm the mere idea that God does indeed require what men have no ability to perform—on the contrary, when read in its context, Fuller clearly meant to affirm that God requires these things of men because they are not destitute of all ability to perform them.

Fuller states that the “inability of sinners is not such as to induce the Judge of all the earth (who cannot do other than right) to abate in his demands. It is a fact that he does require them, and that without paying any regard to their inability, to love him, and to fear him, and to do all his commandments always” (bold mine). Contrary to Dr. Nettles’ implied emphasis, Fuller was not defending the right of God to require these things of sinners in spite of their inability. Fuller’s affirmation, “who cannot do other than right,” joins in the assumption that it would not be right to require of men what they have no ability whatsoever to perform. He thus argues that the “inability of sinners is not such”—not the kind of inability that leaves men with an excuse due to leaving them without any power whatsoever to comply—as to induce the Judge of all the earth (who would not require that which sinners had no ability whatsoever to perform) to abate in his demands.

Dr. Nettles states, “[…]Fuller continued to affirm both the absolute moral inability of man and the remaining duty of perfect obedience and cordial love to God[…]” However, it is Dr. Nettles and not Fuller who pairs the term absolute with moral inability. If moral inability were absolute, it would not be an improper, figurative use of the terms of inability, but a use that is just as proper and literal as when natural inability is meant. The very reason that the terms of moral inability are improperly and figuratively used is because moral inability does NOT leave one absolutely unable. Absolute inability is presupposed in natural inability, and thus, it is a proper and literal use of the terms; but, what is presupposed in moral inability is a remaining natural ability. One cannot contemplate natural inability without contemplating absolute inability; and neither can one contemplate absolute inability without contemplating natural inability. Just so, one cannot contemplate moral inability without contemplating a remaining natural ability—remove the remaining natural ability from the idea and moral inability itself disappears with it.

In his article, “A Reply to Ken Hamrick: Ability, Will and Necessity,” Dr. Nettles states;

In looking again over Mr. Hamrick’s objection, he is interpreting “such” as a word that indicates degree of inability, so that the ability is not so absolute as to render command irrelevant or even unjust. If the inability were such, in this matter of absoluteness of degree, commands would be unjust and humans could not be accountable, so it seems Mr. Hamrick interprets Fuller. Fuller, however, uses the word in this comparison to point to kind, not degree, of inability. The inability in either case would be unalterable, determining, invincible, whether it were moral or natural, thus creating a “necessity” in either case. Mr. Hamrick objects to the concept of “necessity” in this moral area supposing seemingly that necessity can only relate to physical or natural events. The natural inability or necessity would make a command irrelevant and punishment for disobedience either irrational or unjust, or both. Moral inability or necessity, however, concerns the present hostility of the human mind and affections to God’s rule and holiness, and, thus, is the subject of both command and blame. This kind of inability, or such an inability, does not make a command irrelevant and punishment for disobedience either irrational or unjust.[32]

It is not that I interpret “such” as indicating degree of inability, but rather, “such” refers to the kind of inability for which Fuller has been providing examples in the preceding paragraphs—the kind of inability that literally leaves one without any ability whatsoever, thus providing an excuse and an escape from accountability. So the criticism that the term points to kind of inability, and not to degree, falls short, since the “degree” is presupposed in the kind: moral inability presupposes a remaining natural ability; while natural inability presupposes an absolute inability.

Dr. Nettles said, “The inability in either case would be unalterable, determining, invincible, whether it were moral or natural, thus creating a ‘necessity’ in either case.” But as we saw in the above section, Fuller does not see moral inability creating a necessity:

To this it is replied, All such terms as necessary, cannot, impossible, &c., when applied to these subjects, are used improperly. They always denote, in strict propriety of speech, an obstruction arising from something distinct from the state of the will. Such terms, in their common acceptation, suppose a willingness in us to perform an action, or obtain an end, but that we are hindered by some insurmountable bar from without.[…] Now, where this is the case, it cannot be said, in strict propriety of speech, that no provision is made for their happiness, or that any man’s salvation is impossible, or his destruction necessary; seeing the way of salvation is open to him, if he will but walk in it. All that can be said in truth is that there is a CERTAINTY in these things.[33]

Why does Dr. Nettles not address the difference between such terms being used properly and their being used improperly? He seems to treat them as if they were used properly “in either case.” Fuller on the term “invincible:”

Invincible is a relative term, and supposes all opposition made, though made in vain. But moral inability is of such a nature, where it totally prevails, as to prevent all real and direct opposition being made. It is the same thing as for the “hearts of the sons of men” to be “fully set in them to do evil”—to be “full of evil while they live;” for “every imagination of the heart” to be “only evil, and that continually.” Now if we say this moral indisposition is invincible, it is for the want of a better term. What we affirm is this, rather: that, suppose it were conquerable, there is nothing of real good in the sinner’s heart to conquer it. If sin is conquered by any efforts of ours, it must be by such as are voluntary. It is not enough that we be “rational beings,” and that conscience suggests to us what ought to be […]; we must choose to go about it, and that in good earnest, or we shall never effect it. But where the thoughts of the heart are only evil, and that continually, it is supposing a plain contradiction to suppose ourselves the subjects of any such volition or desire.[34]

Once again, we find a term of inability that is used improperly when applied to moral inability. Properly, invincible describes what is so strong as to defeat all opposition. But as Fuller explains here, this is not the case with moral inability. If moral inability is to be described as invincible, it is only improperly so, since no opposition within the sinner exists—and further, as we cited earlier from Fuller (Bold mine), “[…] If I be under no other inability than that which arises from a dishonesty of heart, it is an abuse of language to introduce the terms “possible, impossible,” &c.,…” [and I might add, “unalterable, determining, invincible”], “…for the purposes of diminishing the goodness of God, or destroying the accountableness of man. I am not wanting in power provided I were willing; and if I be not willing, there lies my fault. […]”[35] Far from being like an invincible army that is able to resist all opposition that might come its way from any opposing force not currently present, it would instead immediately fall were any real opposition brought against it. If the world’s weakest army guarded a land so isolated as to never have contact with anyone outside it, it may be considered invincible—but only due to the lack of opposition and not due to its ability to resist opposition. The supposed invincibility of moral inability consists not in its resistance to the will, but only in the lack of any resistance in the will. If the sinner is willing, the power is his; and if he is not willing, the fault is his.

Would Dr. Nettles claim that the moral inability is invincible because the sinner could not overcome it no matter how much he might want to? I don’t think he would; but if he did, he would by that claim redefine the inability into a natural one and no longer a moral one. That is the defining question for natural inability: is the man unable no matter how much he might be willing? If so, then the inability is natural and not moral. Or, the opposing question: is the inability owing to the inclination and to nothing else? If so, then the inability is moral and a remaining natural ability is presupposed in it. However, by calling moral inability “absolute,” “unalterable,” and “invincible,” Dr. Nettles seems to imply that when it comes to obeying and believing God, the sinner cannot want to, no matter how willing he might be. And although Fuller agrees that the sinner will never find it within himself to want to believe or obey, Fuller never takes that last step off the precipice of common sense (bold mine):

[…] What then does Mr. T. mean? He must mean this, if any thing, that he could have been willing if he would; that is, he could have willed if he had willed: but this is no meaning at all, being a mere identical proposition. It is possible Mr. T. may here exclaim against such a method of reasoning, and appeal to common sense and common equity, “that no person is blameworthy for the omission of what he could not perform.” It is granted to be a dictate of common sense and common equity that no person should be blamed for the omission of that which he could not do if he would; but not that he should be excused for the neglect of that which he could not WILL if he would; for there is no such thing in being. So far is this from being a dictate of common sense, there is no sense in it, nor do they that talk of it understand what they mean.[36]

“There is no such thing…” as that which a man “could not WILL if he would…” He either wills it or he does not. The idea of will is not to be folded in upon itself (“the will to will”). One cannot change a “will not” into a “cannot,” except as a figurative expression (an improper usage of terms) wherein the meaning is clear from the context that the inability consists only in having no desire and not in a literal (absolute) lack of ability. Fuller asks a penetrating question (bold mine):

The answer of our Lord to those carnal Jews who inquired of him what they “must do to work the works of God,” is worthy of special notice. Did Jesus give them to understand that as to believing in him, however willing they might be, it was a matter entirely beyond their power? that all the directions he had to give were that they should attend the means and wait for the moving of the waters? No: Jesus answered, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.[37]

Fuller also states, in answer to Philanthropos’ objection to the injustice regarding sinners having no “power sufficient to have embraced” the gospel:

It seems, if men had but power to comply, all this injustice would subside. Well, we affirm they have power. They have the same natural ability to embrace Christ as to reject him. They could comply with the gospel if they would. Is any thing more necessary to denominate them accountable beings?[38]

The Arminian has to deny that natural ability is power to embrace the gospel and make men accountable. Instead, they must insist that sinners are given the power over their own inclinations, since they will always choose according to their inclination—therefore, it is reasoned, they must be able to choose their inclinations if they are to have any real power to decide for themselves whether to believe or reject Christ. Without the power over their own inclinations, the Arminian argues that sinners would have no power to embrace Christ and could not be justly held accountable for not doing so. Fuller continues…

[…] “No,” it will be said, “they might have had an inclination if they would;” but let it be considered whether any thing like this is revealed in Scripture, and whether it is not repugnant even to common sense. If they had been willing, they might, or would, have been willing; that is the amount of it, which is saying just nothing at all. […] [We maintain] that natural power is power, properly so called, and is, to all intents and purposes, sufficient to render men accountable beings; that the want of inclination in a sinner is of no account with the Governor of the world; that he proceeds in his requirements, and that it is right he should proceed, in the same way as if no such disinclination existed.[39]

Dr. Nettles comes close to agreeing with the Arminian in this, but from the opposite direction. If the moral inability is so emphasized that the power of sinners to embrace Christ is denied—if natural power is seen as powerless against the “unalterable, determining and invincible” moral inability—then those of opposite poles have come to some agreement with each other, but not with Fuller… nor with Scripture, as Fuller has so admirably expounded.

May God richly bless Dr. Nettles (whom I continue to hold in very high regard), the SBC, and all those who take up these matters in sincerity.

Ken Hamrick, 2014

[See also: “Fuller & Inability: A Rejoinder to Tom Nettles“]


[29] Tom Nettles, “Fullerite: Doctrine of Inability”
[30] “Reality and Efficacy,” Letter IV, p. 529.
[31] “Gospel Worthy,” p. 386.
[32] Nettles, “A Reply to Ken Hamrick: Ability, Will and Necessity,” published 5-8-2014, Founders Ministries, at http://theblog.founders.org/a-reply-to-ken-hamrick-ability-will-and-necessity/
[33] Fuller, “Reality and Efficacy,” Letter X, pp. 545-546.
[34] “Reply to Philanthropos,” pp. 477-478.
[35] “Answers to Queries,” pp. 768, 769.
[36] “Reality and Efficacy,” Letter IV, p. 529.
[37] “Gospel Worthy,” p. 388.
[38] “Reply to Philanthropos,” p. 480.
[39] Ibid., pp. 480-481.

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3 comments

  1. Pingback: Fuller & Inability: A Centrist Response to Tom Nettles, Part 1 | SBC Open Forum
  2. Pingback: Fuller & Inability: A Centrist Response to Tom Nettles, Part 2 | SBC Open Forum
  3. Pingback: Fuller & Inability: A Rejoinder to Tom Nettles | SBC Open Forum

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