Fuller & Inability: A Centrist Response to Tom Nettles, Part 1

Posted on August 4, 2014 by


Andrew Fuller

Andrew Fuller


 Other Posts in This Series:      Part 2;       Part 3;       Whole Paper.

by Ken Hamrick

The focus of the debate between Calvinists and Traditionalists returns ever more often to Andrew Fuller. His theology is ideally suited to bringing the two closer together—not merely by a spirit of cooperation, but closer in doctrinal view—the usual argument over his meaning notwithstanding. There is indeed a middle ground, and it is more Biblical than either side alone. It simply needs to be well articulated, and Fuller is as articulate as they come. It is true that Fuller thought of himself as a standard Calvinist; but his arguments go well beyond Calvinism and toward the center with a Biblical depth and penetrating clarity that has given his writings great value across the last two centuries. Of course, Calvinists want to proudly include this bright light in their number, since he defeated the Hyper-Calvinism of his day and was instrumental in founding the Baptist Missionary Society. But to do so, they must paint over those differences in which he shined the brightest.

Dr. Tom Nettles, a Calvinist and professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently posted a series of articles on Fuller, at the Founders Ministries blog. Having “taught on Fuller for three decades,”[1] Dr. Nettles seems to have been prompted to post these latest articles by the prospect, offered by Traditionalists, that Fuller’s teachings can be used as a bridge by which Calvinists can become Non-Calvinists.[2] As a Baptist Centrist (one who holds to both unconditional election and the freedom of men to “choose otherwise”), I see Fuller as a bridge by which both sides can gain a better understanding. Etched across that bridge should be the following from Fuller:

If I find two doctrines affirmed or implied in the Scriptures, which, to my feeble understanding, may seem to clash, I ought not to embrace the one and to reject the other because of their supposed inconsistency; for, on the same ground, another person might embrace that which I reject, and reject that which I embrace, and have equal Scriptural authority for his faith as I have for mine. Yet in this manner many have acted on both sides: some, taking the general precepts and invitations of Scripture for their standard, have rejected the doctrine of discriminating grace; others, taking the declarations of salvation as being a fruit of electing love for their standard, deny that sinners without distinction are called upon to believe for the salvation of their souls. Hence it is that we hear of Calvinistic and Arminian texts; as though these leaders had agreed to divide the Scriptures between them. The truth is, there are but two ways for us to take: one is to reject them both, and the Bible with them, on account of its inconsistencies; the other is to embrace them both, concluding that, as they are both revealed in the Scriptures, they are both true, and both consistent, and that it is owing to the darkness of our understandings that they do not appear so to us […][3]

In reading Dr. Nettles’ articles, I was troubled to find that he had turned Fuller’s arguments around in such a way that they now seem to support what Fuller was actually arguing against. I have much respect for Dr. Nettles as a scholar, a Southern Baptist leader, and a brother in Christ; but, as Fuller himself admonished, “Truth ought to be dearer to us than the greatest or best of men.”[4] As such, I hope this critique is received in the spirit in which it is offered.

Was Fuller a Centrist? The Real Difference
To recognize the full import of the distinctions that Fuller makes, the philosophical lenses of Calvinism and Centrism must be considered. Calvinism’s philosophical lens is that of a determinative necessity. In other words, God determines all things by making all things necessary, leaving no alternative paths or choices even possible. It is thus impossible for any events to happen or any choices to be made that are not in exact accordance with God’s decree.


As Dr. Nettles describes it, in his article, “A Reply to Ken Hamrick: Ability, Will and Necessity,” “[…] The fact that it is a moral inability does not render the direction of its course of action less necessary and determined than if it were related to a law of physics, e.g. A perfectly round object placed on an incline will necessarily move downward toward the center of the earth by the force of gravity, and will never roll up, unless there is a countervailing force that presses it upward with a force greater than the force of gravity. Our moral inability establishes such a necessity, both of decline when left to itself and of a sufficiently powerful reconstruction of its inclination if it ever is to choose rightly.”[5] His comments continue:

[…] Necessity does not relate only to mechanical, or chemical forces, but also to any field in which preceding factors can so influence an outcome as to be the reason for its existence. All the moral factors that precede a moral, voluntary, action are the reason for its existence. Those reasons, given their impact on the mind’s understanding cause the decision and thus make it necessary. […] Necessity is just as valid in the moral realm as in the physical realm, and human decision and action are no less related to the prevailing influence of previous connected factors than in physics.[6]

Such a “Necessarian” view is straightforward. Men make choices based on the prevailing motivation or influence at the time of decision, and these motivations or influences have come to prevail due to other preceding factors. However, it is falsely assumed that since these causal factors were necessary to the decision, the decision must then be a necessary result of these causal factors. This assumption is not justified. Dr. Nettles’ does affirm that “all sin is voluntary and is moral, not mechanical;”[7] but his view results in sin as a necessary, mechanical effect, since it is “no less related to the prevailing influence of previous connected factors than in physics.” There is nothing voluntary about a round object rolling down an incline. The meaning of voluntary agency has been robbed of all substance, so that only the shell of meaning and sound of the words remain, when choices are portrayed as merely a cause carried through to a necessary effect.

Such a philosophy comes from the academy and not from Scripture. The Bible everywhere presupposes that men have real choices to make, and will be held accountable for their wrong choices precisely because they should have and could have chosen rightly. While it might work for a strictly philosophical view to claim that mere inclination suffices to disqualify alternative courses of action as impossible, the Bible knows no such excuse. Antecedent influences may affect inclination and render a chosen action certain, but the man is still held accountable because inclination alone does not render alternative courses of action impossible.

It is true that God’s eternal plan is being carried out in the smallest detail without fail. But while events and choices may be necessary to the plan, they are not necessary to the man. From the perspective of God’s eternal plan, all things are absolutely certain. But contingency is the fabric out of which our temporal existence is made. When we speak in terms of possibility and impossibility, we are speaking of this temporal world. At every moment, we are met with a myriad of possible courses of action—and all of which are genuinely valid possibilities.

The philosophical lens of Centrism is that of a determinative certainty. In other words, God determines all things by making all things certain, but not necessary. This leaves all alternative possibilities intact even though they will certainly be rejected. The certainty of God’s eternal plan, as well as the certainty that sinners will continue to choose sin over God apart from His grace, are also found throughout Scripture—but never in such a way as to deny men the responsibility, the opportunity, or the natural ability to choose rightly. Never in Scripture is the sinner portrayed to be in such a position that there was nothing he could do but sin as a necessary effect of an irresistible cause. God affirms, for example, that with every temptation, He has provided us with “a way of escape”—not provided only for those temptations successfully resisted, but also provided even when that escape is ignored. To assert a necessary cause-and-effect makes a farce out of such Biblical promises, since there can be no escape from necessity.

When such Necessarian philosophy is read into Scripture, it can easily lead to the kind of hyper-Calvinism that Fuller was fighting against. And it was exactly Fuller’s means of fighting such extremes, in his Gospel Worthy, to argue that sinners are not without any ability whatsoever to believe. As a Calvinist, he held that not one of them will use their natural ability to come to Christ apart from God’s work of grace; but as a Berean, he faithfully argued that the ability was there nonetheless—and an ability that called for both evangelistic action and divine accountability. Sinners were not “walking corpses” after all, but men to whom the gospel targets a response and requires a decision that all do have the ability to make.

God is able to make all events certain without making them necessary by using both His knowledge of what each free agent would do in any circumstance, and His immanent working and intervention in the affairs of His creatures. Thus, men are continually faced with many possible courses of action from which to choose; but it is utterly certain that they will freely choose only that course which God has planned. There are various ways in which this determinative certainty can be held (including, but not exclusively, antinomy and Molinism), all having in common an affirmation of unconditional election, a rejection of the more mechanical views of determinism, and an affirmation of the freedom of men to “choose otherwise.”[8] Fuller was not alone in this. There has always been a significant number who affirm the freedom that is self-evident to every man while also affirming the Biblical revelation that God is the ultimate determiner of destinies.

Whenever Calvinists read Fuller through the lens of a determinative necessity, they are prone to misinterpret his strong affirmations of certainty as affirmations of necessity. The problem is that Calvinists and their opponents from the opposite side have been conditioned by their long history of debate into a polarized vision that neither expects nor readily recognizes any middle position; so the distinction between necessity and mere certainty is easily missed. Therefore, it is natural for Calvinists to think that Fuller is fully in their camp—especially since he claimed to be only defending true Calvinism against the hyper-Calvinists and Arminians. However, in his Berean zeal to understand the Biblical truth of these matters, the astounding defense that he constructed from Scripture strikes standard Calvinism with as much force as hyper-Calvinism when it comes to this matter of necessity versus certainty. And although Fuller only briefly addresses the distinction itself in an explicit way, that presuppositional conflict finds expression throughout his arguments and that of his opponents:

[…] 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. […]

[…] it cannot be said, in strict propriety of speech, 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. […][9]

Certainty as opposed to necessity is at the heart of Fuller’s view. As we will see, the main thrust of Fuller’s Gospel Worthy is that sinners are not unable (in the absolute sense, or in the proper sense of that word) but are unwilling, even though both are referred to by the same expressions of inability. Their inability extends only to their unwilling hearts and to nothing else. This is his theme and purpose in writing. And although he does not speak much on the explicit difference between necessity and certainty, that for which he so tirelessly contends—that sinners are unwilling rather than unable (or, unable in the figurative sense of that word, so that they are unable only insofar as they are unwilling)—is the very essence of the Centrist insistence that God determines human choices by certainty and not by necessityThe parallel is undeniably clear: men choose according to God’s plan not because they are unable to do otherwise (in the absolute sense of necessity) but only because they are unwilling to do otherwise.

Unlike his Necessarian brothers, Fuller always leaves open the door of hypothetical salvation for the unelect. It is the only door through which God can extend His hand of universal invitation (and obligation) to believe. We find this not only in Fuller’s teaching on inability, but also in his teaching on regeneration and atonement. His teaching is always marked on the one hand by the absolute certainty that sinners apart from God’s grace will not believe, and on the other hand by their having only their unwillingness to keep them from salvation. He held that no man would believe unless he was first regenerated; but he also held that such a regeneration only caused a sinner to do what he should have and could have done without such regeneration. There is no necessity that keeps a man in unbelief, but only an utter certainty that he will continue to refuse to believe. Fuller held that God planned for Christ’s death to atone only for His chosen people; but he also left that other door open, so that Christ’s death would save even the unelect sinner, if he would but be willing to believe. In all of these, no man’s unbelief and destruction are necessary, the universal offer is genuine, and it is utterly certain that only the elect will believe.

Ken Hamrick, 2014

[1] Tom Nettles, from comments made at May 3, 2014 at 11:49 am, on “Fullerite: Doctrine of Inability,” (published 5-2-2014, Founders Ministries, at http://theblog.founders.org/andrew-fuller-the-doctrine-of-inability/)
[2] In his article, “Fuller The Non-Calvinist?”  (published 4-29-2014, Founders Ministries, at http://theblog.founders.org/fuller-the-non-calvinist/), Dr. Nettles begins with the following:

It has been very entertaining recently to see the name and theology of Andrew Fuller set forth as one whose doctrinal pilgrimage served as a corrective to the Calvinism of the late eighteenth century. His position is supposed to be a model to shame present-day Calvinists for holding so tenaciously to the distinctive tenets of historical confessional Calvinism.

In his article, “Fuller and Irresistible Grace: The Necessity of Regeneration as Prior to Repentance and Faith,” (published 5-6-2014, Founders Ministries, at http://theblog.founders.org/fuller-and-irresistible-grace-the-necessity-of-regeneration-as-prior-to-repentance-and-faith/),  Dr. Nettles ends with this: “[…] if Fuller is to serve as a bridge from Calvinism to non-Calvinism all parties must still anticipate the meeting on this bridge.” And in his article, “Fuller and the Atonement (Part 2): A Way Out or a Way In?” (published 5-9-2014, Founders Ministries, at http://theblog.founders.org/fuller-and-the-atonement-a-way-out-or-a-way-in/) Dr. Nettles concludes, “If non-Calvinists suppose Fuller is a way out of Calvinism for Baptists, others might justly contend that he is a way in.”
[3]  Andrew Fuller, “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation,” The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle, 1988), vol. II, p. 367.
[4] Ibid., p. 397.
[5] 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/
[6] Nettles, from comments made at May 9, 2014, on “A Reply to Ken Hamrick: Ability, Will and Necessity.”
[7] Ibid.
[8] For perspective, the lens of Traditionalism and Arminianism is that of a nondeterminative certainty, whereby the choices of men are as certain as the perceptive foreknowledge of a timeless God, but are determined only by the men themselves in the moment of decision.
[9] Fuller, “The Reality and Efficacy of Divine Grace,” Letter X, Complete Works, vol. II., pp. 545-546.

Related articles:
Interesting Series on Andrew Fuller by Tom Nettles