Fuller & Inability: A Centrist Response to Tom Nettles (Whole Paper)

Posted on August 7, 2014 by

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Andrew Fuller

Andrew Fuller

An Addendum, incorporating the Rejoinder, was added, 11-25-2014.

by Ken Hamrick

[13,200 words…] 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.

Fuller’s Distinction Between Natural & Moral Inability
It will be helpful, prior to addressing further differences with Dr. Nettles, to establish what Fuller means by his distinction between natural and moral inability. Speaking of himself in the third person, in the preface of Gospel Worthy, Fuller explains that he was introduced to the difference between natural and moral inability by studying Jonathan Edwards:

He had also read and considered, as well as he was able, President Edwards’s Inquiry into the Freedom of the Will, with some other performances on the difference between natural and moral inability. He found much satisfaction in this distinction; as it appeared to him to carry with it its own evidence—to be clearly and fully contained in the Scriptures—and calculated to disburden the Calvinistic system of a number of calumnies with which its enemies have loaded it, as well as to afford clear and honourable conceptions of the Divine government.[10]

Fuller’s adoption of this distinction does not establish that he adopted the theology (and philosophical baggage) of Edwards in toto. It would beg the question if one were to argue, that because the meaning of Edwards carries a certain nuance and philosophical bent, then Fuller’s meaning must carry the same. To understand Fuller, we must look to Fuller and how he understood this distinction.

The main difference between moral inability and natural inability, to Fuller, was that in natural inability, one is unable no matter how much one might be willing; whereas, moral inability consists only in one’s unwillingness due to “an evil bias of heart.” Natural inability is “the want of natural powers and advantages,” while moral inability is merely “the want of a heart to make a right use of them.”[11] Fuller, arguing the duty of faith and the implicit ability of sinners to believe, stated:

If faith were no more a duty than election or redemption, which are acts peculiar to God, the want of the one would be no more ascribed to the evil dispositions of the heart than that of the other. Or, 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. No man is reproved for not doing that which is naturally impossible; but sinners are reproved for not believing, and given to understand that it is solely owing to their criminal ignorance, pride, dishonesty of heart, and aversion from God.[12]

Fuller states, “It is common, both in Scripture and in conversation, to speak of a person who is under the influence of an evil bias of heart, as unable to do that which is inconsistent with it.”[13] Fuller points to Joseph’s brothers, in Gen. 37:4 , who “could not speak peaceably” to Joseph, as an example of an expression of moral inability.[14] Who would think from reading this verse that Joseph’s brothers were unable to speak peaceably to him no matter how much they might want to? Everyone immediately comprehends that their inability was not the kind that provides an excuse. It is universally understood that when it comes to terms of inability, such as cannot, could not, and unable, the context determines whether they are meant in the literal, natural sense of being absolutely unable, or meant in the figurative, moral sense of being unable only from lack of desire.

Fuller also explains, “If sinners were naturally and absolutely unable to believe in Christ, they would be equally unable to disbelieve; for it requires the same powers to reject as to embrace.”[15] Fuller states:

He that, from the constitution of his nature, is absolutely unable to understand, or believe, or love a certain kind of truth, must, of necessity, be alike unable to shut his eyes against it, to disbelieve, to reject, or to hate it. But it is manifest that all men are capable of the latter; it must therefore follow that nothing but the depravity of their heart renders them incapable of the former.[16]

For Fuller, natural inability is an absolute lack of ability, which gives one an absolute lack of accountability. As Fuller stated above, “[…] it were absurd to suppose that they [whose inability… were of the same nature as that of a dead body… to rise up and walk] would on this account fall under Divine censure.” Fuller explains:

[…] Some men pass through life totally insane. This may be one of the effects of sin; yet the Scriptures never convey any idea of such persons being dealt with, at the last judgment, on the same ground as if they had been sane. On the contrary, they teach that “to whom much is given, of him much shall be required.” Another is deprived of the sight of his eyes, and so rendered unable to read the Scriptures. This also may be the effect of sin; and, in some cases, of his own personal misconduct; but whatever punishment may be inflicted on him for such misconduct, he is not blameworthy for not reading the Scriptures after he has lost his ability to do so. A third possesses the use of reason, and of all his senses and members; but has no other opportunity of knowing the will of God than what is afforded him by the light of nature. It would be equally repugnant to Scripture and reason to suppose that this man will be judged by the same rule as others who have lived under the light of revelation. “As many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law; and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law.” The inability, in each of these cases, is natural; and to whatever degree it exists, let it arise from what cause it may, it excuses its subject of blame, in the account of both God and man. The law of God itself requires no creature to love him, or obey him, beyond his “strength,” or with more than all the powers which he possesses.[17]

Yet, sinners remain accountable in spite of their moral inability. Fuller goes on to state, “There is an essential difference between an ability which is independent of the inclination, and one that is owing to nothing else.”[18] He describes this moral inability “that is owing to nothing else” (than inclination) as “aversion of heart:” “They will not come to Christ that they may have life; will not hearken to the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely; will not seek after God; and desire not the knowledge of his ways.”[19] It is inability used in its improper or figurative sense, and not in its proper, literal sense, because being morally unable does not leave one absolutely unable. Fuller explains in his “Reply to Philanthropos:”

[…] when the terms cannot, inability, &c. are used in these connexions, they are used not in a proper, but in a figurative sense; that they do not express the state of a person hindered by something extraneous to his own will, but denote what we usually mean by the phrase cannot find in his heart; […][20]

Fuller affirms that “the whole of our meaning” is that moral inability is unwillingness (and that there is a certainty to that unwillingness), in his reply to Dan Taylor:

But Mr. T. contends that “there is no goodness, no mercy, no tender mercy, exercised towards a person who is placed in such a situation that he could not avoid sinning and being damned, and whose damnation is necessarily increased by calls and commands to repent, and believe in Christ; when the great God, whose commands these are, has provided no mercy for him, nor intends to give him the least assistance, though he knows the poor sinner cannot, nor ever possibly could, obey these calls and commands, any more than he can fly to the moon,”—XIII. 106. To this shocking representation I have only to say, This is not my hypothesis, nor any thing like it; […] The whole passage is mere declamation, founded on the abuse of the terms cannot, could not, &c. If, instead of “cannot, and never could,” he had said will not, and never would, his account of the poor sinner’s case would not have appeared so plausible; and yet this he knows is the whole of our meaning.[21]

In “Answers to Queries,” Fuller rebuts the claim that moral inability is absolute inability, and affirms that the sinner’s “ability to comply” is “in the power of his hand:”

[…] I believe the heart of man to be by nature the direct opposite of honest. I am not aware, however, that I have any where represented an honest heart as constituting our ability to comply with gospel invitations, unless as the term is sometimes used in a figurative sense, for moral ability. I have said, “There is no ability wanting for this purpose in any man who possesses an honest heart.” If a person owed you one hundred pounds, and could find plenty of money for his own purposes, though none for you; and should he at the same time plead inability, you would answer, there was no ability wanting, but an honest heart: yet it would be an unjust construction of your words, if an advocate for this dishonest man were to allege that you had represented an honest heart as that which constituted the ability to pay the debt. No, you would reply, his ability, strictly speaking, consists in its being in the power of his hand, and this he has. That which is wanting is an honest principle; and it is the former, not the latter, which renders him accountable. It is similar with regard to God. Men have the same natural powers to love Christ as to hate him, to believe as to disbelieve; and this it is which constitutes their accountableness. […]

[…] 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., 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. […][22]

Answering those who would deny the significance of the distinction between moral and natural inability, Fuller explains:

“If we be unable,” say they, “we are unable. As to the nature of the inability, it is a matter of no account. Such distinctions are perplexing to plain Christians, and beyond their capacity.”—But surely the plainest and weakest Christian, in reading his Bible, if he pay any regard to what he reads, must perceive a manifest difference between the blindness of Bartimeus, who was ardently desirous that “he might receive his sight,” and that of the unbelieving Jews, who “closed their eyes, lest they should see, and be converted, and be healed;” and between the want of the natural sense of hearing, and the state of those who “have ears, but hear not.”[23]

Masterfully, Fuller turns the tables and charges those who deny the significance of the distinction with being ready to make use of it “where their own interest is concerned:”

If they be accused of injuring their fellow creatures, and can allege that what they did was not knowingly, or of design, I believe they never fail to do so; or, when charged with neglecting their duty to a parent or a master, if they can say in truth, that they were unable to do it at the time, let their will have been ever so good, they are never known to omit the plea; and should such a master or parent reply, by suggesting that their want of ability arose from want of inclination, they would very easily understand it to be the language of reproach, and be very earnest to maintain the contrary. You never hear a person in such circumstances reason as he does in religion. He does not say, “If I be unable I am unable; it is of no account whether my inability be of this kind or that:” but he labours with all his might to establish the difference.[24]

Answering those who contend that the inability of sinners is of both kinds, Fuller argues that moral inability presupposes a natural ability, and a natural inability precludes a moral one:

Some writers […] have allowed that sinners are the subjects of an inability which arises from their depravity; but they still contend that this is not all, but that they are both naturally and morally unable to believe in Christ; and this they think agreeable to the Scriptures, which represent them, as both unable and unwilling to come to him for life. But these two kinds of inability cannot consist with each other, so as both to exist in the same subject and towards the same thing. A moral inability supposes a natural ability. He who never, in any state, was possessed of the power of seeing, cannot be said to shut his eyes against the light. If the Jews had not been possessed of natural powers equal to the knowledge of Christ’s doctrine, there had been no justice in that cutting question and answer, “Why do ye not understand my speech? Because ye cannot hear my word.” A total physical inability must, of necessity, supersede a moral one. To suppose, therefore, that the phrase, “No man can come to me,” is meant to describe the former; and, “Ye will not come to me that ye may have life,” the latter; is to suppose that our Saviour taught what is self-contradictory.[25]

Fuller expands on this:

[…] some writers have affirmed that men are under both a moral and a natural inability of coming to Christ, or that they neither will nor can come to him: but if there be no other inability than what arises from aversion, this language is not accurate; for it conveys the idea, that if all aversion of heart were removed, there would still be a natural and insurmountable bar in the way. But no such idea as this is conveyed by our Lord’s words: the only bar to which he refers lies in that reluctance or aversion which the drawing of the Father implies and removes. Nor will such an idea comport with what he elsewhere teaches. “And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not. Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me? He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye cannot hear my word.” These cutting interrogations proceed on the supposition that they could have received the doctrine of Christ, if it had been agreeable to their corrupt hearts; and its being otherwise was the ONLY reason why they could not understand and believe it.[26]

Those whose vision is polarized and who see the issue only as ‘determinative versus nondeterminative’ tend to view the prospect of moral inability as if that inability was absolute just as natural inability is absolute. However, this is to conflate the two, as if the moral use of the terms of inability were just as proper and literal as the natural use of those terms. Again, replying to Taylor, Fuller affirms the figurative use of the terms of inability and further, draws out the connection to the issue of certainty as opposed to necessity:

[…] “If,” says he [Mr. T.], “any such election be maintained as supposes that all the rest of mankind never enjoyed the possibility of happiness, nor had any provision of happiness made for them, but were necessarily, either from eternity or from their birth, exposed to eternal misery, such election as this I deliberately consider as opposite to the spirit and design of the gospel, and to the tenor of Scripture,”—XIII. 100. 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. Such an idea is always annexed to the use of such terms; and Mr. T. certainly has this idea in his use of the terms necessary and impossible, in this place. His meaning is to oppose that doctrine which represents a part of mankind as placed in such circumstances, as that, though they should be willing to embrace him, yet it would be all in vain. But such a doctrine nobody maintains; at least, I had no such ideas of the subject. I have no such notion of election, or of the limited extent of Christ’s death, as that it shall be in vain for any of the sons of men truly to seek after God. If they are willing to be saved in God’s way, nothing shall hinder their salvation; and (if there were any meaning in the expression) if they were but truly willing to use means that they might be willing, all would be clear before them.[27]

Having denied the necessity and the absolute inability, Fuller, continuing, goes on to address the certainty:

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. It is certain that none will be saved but those who choose to be saved in God’s way. It is certain that no one will choose that which is opposite to the prevailing bias of his heart. Yea, it is certain that, whatever means there may be adapted to the turning of his heart, a man who is wholly averse from God will never make use of them with such a design.[28]

Fuller clearly and explicitly affirmed—and with the emphasis of all capital letters—that the moral inability of sinners puts them (apart from God’s grace) under a “CERTAINTY” of rejecting Christ and not a necessity. Moral bias of heart does not leave men absolutely unable, but only results in the certainty that they will not use the natural ability that they have to believe and come to Christ (apart from the persuasions of God’s grace).

Problems with Dr. Nettles’ Portrayal of Fuller’s View
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.

ADDENDUM: Rejoinder, 10-21-2014
Dr. Nettles has given us a reply, but only in brief comments (one initial[40] and one final[41]). I had hoped he would step up to the task of a substantive engagement. Be that as it may, I will in this rejoinder address his comments and show the continuing inadequacies of his defense.

Dr. Nettles states:

I agree […] that human sin in the fallen state is certain. I also agree that Fuller resisted capitulating to any concept of mechanical, or natural, necessity or impossibility in the issue of sin or, on the other hand, of faith and repentance. I disagree with [Hamrick’s] argument that certainty in the area of moral choice is substantially different from moral necessity. He states, “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.” Given the entire fabric as to how humans make decisions in light of the inflow of motivations to the understanding, and that it is impossible to demonstrate that any decision ever goes contrary to the prevailing motivation, then how to separate certainty from necessity in this moral realm I must leave to Mr. Hamrick for I cannot do it. He must argue for contra-causal choice, which I don’t suppose he will want to do; or he must say that one’s choice has no cause at all, which will immediately contradict, in both of these cases, our Lord’s description of the human heart as the fountain of all moral choice.

Contrary to Dr. Nettles, in this moral realm, necessity can be distinguished from certainty as surely as sovereignty can be distinguished from justice—as surely as might from right. To justly punish someone is to presuppose that he had a choice to make between right and wrong and he chose wrongly. Why will God judge men for their deeds? Why does He hold them to a standard that will not be met? Is it merely because He can? If so, then it is not a matter of justice but only a matter of sovereignty. If men are unable to choose what their desires or inclinations will be, and if they are unable to choose any other action than what accords with those inclinations, then their sin is not their crime but their misfortune… and their judgment is only the final link in an unbreakable chain of unchangeable calamities.

Dr. Nettles inconsistently oscillates between two ideas, seeing sinners as choosing wrongly and also seeing them as bound by necessity to only that selection. Yet, the concepts of choice and necessity are mutually exclusive. If there really is no viable option to choose the right, then there really is no choice between the two, and men are thus punished not for their choices, which are merely the necessary manifestations of their inclinations, but for their inclinations themselves. And since no man chooses his inclinations, then any so-called punishment is merely a calamity and no punishment at all. In such a case, justice is a lost concept, swallowed up by sovereignty.

Dr. Nettles, following Jonathan Edwards, sees only as far as that what a man chooses in any particular instance has some prior thing, event or circumstance that has caused the man to choose as he has—and that without this antecedent factor, the man would have chosen differently, so that this factor was necessary to his choosing what he chose. But the faulty assumption that plagues such Necessarians is that a necessity in the antecedent causal factor yields a necessity in the effect—that because a certain prior thing is necessary to a man choosing a certain way, then the way that he chooses is also a necessary result of that prior thing. But that simply does not follow when we are dealing with men rather than with dominoes. Dr. Nettles insists that every human choice has a cause; but let me point out that every man has a conscience and no man has an excuse. Who on Judgment Day will be able to claim, “There was nothing I could do but sin as I did, since my choices were the necessary result of things beyond my control?” No one. Every man’s conscience convicts him of sin, bearing witness that in every sinful choice, the right choice was both possible and available. Dr. Nettles claims that no man can choose against his prevailing inclination. He is only partly right: every man can choose against his prevailing inclination, but no man will choose against his prevailing inclination. That is the difference between a repugnant necessity and a Biblical certainty—and the very difference that Andrew Fuller endeavors so diligently to establish, but which seems to be lost on Dr. Nettles.

The ideas of command and obedience, free will and accountability, run throughout Scripture. The Bible everywhere presupposes that those who have chosen to sin should have and could have chosen otherwise. While it is true that no decision is ever “contrary to the prevailing motivation,” it is an error to take that so far as to assume that because a man would not choose otherwise then he could not choose otherwise. To say that a man would not choose otherwise speaks of certainty, while to say that he could not choose otherwise speaks of necessity. The former allows a just judgment for not choosing rightly, but the latter does not. This is not, as Dr. Nettles seems to object, to plead for “contra-causal choice;” but rather, it is to insist on a real choice existing and not merely the term stripped of the substance of its meaning. Yes, a man’s prevailing inclination causes him to prefer one option over another, but never to such an extent that he does not have it within his power to take the less-desired option. Every man’s conscience has convicted him, upon choosing wrongly, that he could have and should have chosen rightly. This universal truth seems to be forgotten when Dr. Nettles speaks of moral choices as if it were impossible for men to choose otherwise in any case.

Dr. Nettles distinguishes between natural and moral necessity, but only insofar as the one applies to the natural realm and the other to the moral realm. I cannot find where he makes the distinction that Fuller does, insisting that the terms of inability, such as necessary, impossible and unable, are used only improperly and figuratively when used in the moral sense, in contrast to these terms being used properly and literally in the natural sense. This I have addressed in my previous critique, but Dr. Nettles has not answered. I suspect that this distinction does not fit with his Necessarian understanding. His arguments for moral necessity seem to allow for no difference in the nature of how the term necessity is applied, but only mark off the separate “realms” of the moral and the natural, to which he applies the term in much the same way. He seems to overlook that Fuller saw the terms natural and moral as not only different realms but different senses by which the terms of inability are used and understood. The very reason why Fuller insisted that the moral use of such terms was figurative and improper was because moral inability—unlike natural inability—did not presuppose an absolute inability. Instead, a moral inability always presupposes a remaining natural ability to do the very thing that one is characterized as being morally unable to do. To Fuller, natural inability alone presupposes that absolutely no ability of any kind remains, and that is why only natural ability provides an excuse. To be excused requires that one have absolutely no ability to perform what is required, and only natural ability leaves one in such a state—moral inability only leaves one guilty of not having it in one’s heart to do what is right, even though one still has it in the power of his hand to do what is right.

Mr. Hamrick seemingly will not recognize that my argument from physics and mechanical necessity was given only to illustrate that we operate on the basis of the expectation that all things that come into being, whether in nature or in moral action, have an explanation, that is, a cause. I am clear that the realm of moral choice always involves human responsibility and that a moral agent always makes moral choices. He thinks that these assertions are empty because I do maintain that necessity in the moral realm does not eliminate praiseworthiness or blameworthiness in the moral choice. He noted, “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.” Without going into arguments that I have already given, such as the necessary moral goodness of God, in previous articles, I simply must say that he misrepresents, not only me, but the case as it is. Also, his assertion that my view would “deny men the responsibility, the opportunity, or the natural ability to choose rightly” simply is not true. If I have not made my argument clearly enough to this point for him to know that I affirm, in harmony with the arguments of Fuller, all three of these things that he claims my view denies, then I do not know how to make it clearer than before. I simply refer the reader to the previous posts on this issue.

“Cause”—that word itself can have either a natural or a moral sense. Someone bumping into me may cause me to fall down, though I be ever so willing to remain upright. But, it is entirely a different sense of “cause” when someone causes me to fall morally. A solicitation to sin may be presented, which, when combined with my prevailing inclination, results in such sin. However, we can harldy be expected to believe that the results of the cause in the latter case are just as “necessary” as in the former! The former provides an excuse, since I could not remain upright no matter how willing I might have been; whereas the latter leaves me without excuse, since I could have remained morally upright if I had been willing to remain so. These things are universally understood by any man with a conscience.

Dr. Nettles leans on a false idea, to wit, that there is a sense in which the sinner cannot will the right no matter how much they might try to be willing. I say that he leans on this idea because he does not explicitly affirm it; but yet, he seems to continually imply it. It is difficult indeed, when speaking of will and inability together, to keep from slipping into natural inability when speaking of the depraved moral will. It is an error that must be guarded against, and the guarding boundary is this: only natural inability has the capacity to overwhelm any resistance. Therefore, when speaking of the moral inability of the will, we must guard against implying a strength greater than any possible resistance. The strength of moral inability is only in the complete absence of any resistance, and if any resistance were offered, the moral inability would be overcome. Moral inability is only “invincible” in the moral sense of the certainty that no resistance will be offered, and not in the natural sense of being necessary regardless of any resistance offered. Dr. Nettles continues:

We certainly see an aspect of “necessity” in the moral realm when we affirm the necessity of a substitutionary atonement for the forgiveness of sins and the impossibility of God’s forgiving sin apart from it. The moral dynamic of this is not mechanical but all the connections are none-the-less necessary. I do not believe that Mr. Hamrick would want to argue against the necessity of a substitutionary, propitiatory atonement and that this necessity arises from the unchangeability of moral absolutes. Even so, Fuller, from the standpoint of the certain, universal, and inevitable human resistance to all the operations of the Spirit through the word and upon the natural conscience of men falling short of bringing about repentance and faith, argues for the necessity of an efficacious call, which means that an entirely new moral disposition is necessary for true repentance and faith: “From the depravity or perverseness of the human heart arises the necessity of a special and effectual influence of the Holy Spirit. The influence before mentioned may move the soul, but it will not bring it home to God. When souls are effectually turned to God, it is spoken of as the result of a special exertion of almighty power.” [CW 2 518, 519].

If God is to forgive men of their sins, and do so in a way that accords with justice, then a substitutionary atonement is necessary. However, it is not necessary that God want to forgive men, and neither was it necessary that God be so gracious as to provide a substitutionary atonement. Again, Dr. Nettles is mistaking the necessity of a cause for the necessity of an effect. While Christ dying on the cross was necessary in order for our sins to be forgiven, His death does not make the salvation of any man necessary. It is certain that the elect will be saved, but they come freely to Christ and God freely saves them.

As for the necessity of an efficacious call, Fuller did hold that no man will believe unless God first does a supernatural work of regeneration in the man; however, Fuller also affirmed that such a supernatural work did not cause the man to do what he could not otherwise have done, but only caused him to do what he already should have and could have done, if he had only been willing. Dr. Nettles continues:

Also Mr. Hamrick seeks to divide certainty from necessity in Fuller’s understanding and implied that he avoided the concept of impossibility. He quoted Fuller, “ 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.” Piggybacking on that, he denies that Fuller would accept the idea of moral necessity. He quoted Fuller, “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.” Hamrick used this to deny that Fuller affirmed both necessity and impossibility in the moral realm. Hamrick does not see Fuller as attributing to the willingness of the moral agent such terms. Contrary to this assertion, however, Fuller resists those terms only when a person understands by them an obstruction extraneous to the will.

I will, therefore, close this response with a couple of quotes from Fuller and have to allow the reader to judge for himself how Fuller argues this point of the relation between certainty, impossibility, and necessity and the subtleties that must be set forth clearly in the meaning of the words, nature, natural, and moral.

“If the gospel and its invitations were addressed to them when their destruction was certain, then it is not inconsistent to address those invitations even to men who, as it may afterwards prove, were at the very time, as the just reward of their iniquity, appointed to utter destruction. The indefinite call of the gospel including them as well as others, and the declaration of our Lord, ‘Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out,’ holding good in regard to them as well as any others, it might be said with truth that there was no Natural impossibility in the way of their salvation; that if they had repented, they would have found mercy. But the impossibility respected their being brought to repentance, Heb vi 4, 5. They were under the power of a moral impotence; or, which is the same thing, of a rooted enmity to Christ; and God had determined to leave them in that state to perish for their sin.” [CW 2 559]

“But whether the words natural necessity, or inability, be retained or given up in this matter, Mr. T. insists upon it that our depravity comes upon us according to the nature of things; that is, if I understand him, according to the established law, or settled order of things; and this he thinks equivalent to a natural necessity, and must therefore denominate it blameless. . . . But if Mr. T. can thus prove our native depravity blameless, I think I can, by the same mode of reasoning, prove all the fruits of it to be blameless too. Is there not a settled order, or an established law, of some sort, for the operations of the human mind, and indeed for all human actions? Is it not according to the law of nature, according to the nature of things, that a man always chooses that which, all things considered, appears in the view of his own mind the most agreeable; and pursues, if he have opportunity, that which, all things considered, is the object of his choice? It is impossible that a man should choose, in any instance, that which at the same time and in the same respects, all things considered, appears in the view of his mind disagreeable, and refuse that which is agreeable. And it is equally impossible that he should act in contradiction to his prevailing choice. An evil tree, according to the nature of things, will bring forth evil fruit; and a good tree will bring forth good fruit; and no less certainly will ‘wickedness proceed from the wicked,’ according to the proverb of the ancients and the manifest implication of our Lord’s words, Matt. xii. 33, 34. But does it thence follow that the evil fruit produced by a bad heart comes by a natural necessity, and is blameless? Which way will Mr. T. take? Will he deny an established order in the human mind, and maintain that we choose totally at random, without any respect to what is agreeable or disagreeable in the view of the mind; that we act without any necessary connexion with our prevailing choice; and that we must do so, in order to be free agents? Or will he admit of such a connexion in the operations of the mind, and instead of placing all blame in actions, and none in the state of the mind, as he seems to have done all along hitherto, will he now exculpate from blame all those acts which necessarily arise from choice, and all those volitions which necessarily arise from the view of the mind, and throw all the blame upon the state of the mind itself? He must either do this, or else allow that what comes to pass according to established laws, may nevertheless, be blameworthy.” [CW 2:526, 526]

Dr. Nettles has completely failed to squarely engage the argument. Where does he explain why it is that Fuller says that the terms of moral inability, such as impossible, necessary, unable, cannot, etc., are used only improperly and figuratively (rather than properly and literally)? Rather than give us an answer to that question, Dr. Nettles has side-stepped by merely presenting other quotes from Fuller that use such terms. Are we to ignore the previous denials by Fuller that such terms are meant literally and properly, and assume that Fuller is inconsistent? I think not. When Fuller states, “But the impossibility respected their being brought to repentance..” he means by impossibility not the literal cannot of absolute inability (and necessity), but the would not of moral inability (and certainty). And when Fuller says, “It is impossible that a man should choose, in any instance, that which at the same time and in the same respects, all things considered, appears in the view of his mind disagreeable, and refuse that which is agreeable. And it is equally impossible that he should act in contradiction to his prevailing choice,” it is impossibility in the moral sense, which is never absolute but always presupposes a remaining natural possibility. It is not that it is impossible that a man could choose a certain way, but that it is impossible that he would choose—Fuller is speaking of the utter certainty that every man will choose according to his prevailing inclination, but Fuller is not offering that kind of impossibility as an excuse of absolute inability to choose otherwise. Rather, Fuller’s use of impossibility here is in full accord of what he has explained elsewhere, that such terms as impossible, invincible, etc., are not meant in their literal sense when used to describe moral inability.

Mr. Hamrick and I have reached an impasse in communication. He believes that I miss Fuller’s point and violate context in my citations. I think the same about his exposition of Fuller. The puzzling nature of his interaction is represented in the query, “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?” ” No matter how much he might want to?!” What does that mean when one is dealing with moral inability? That is the very point of moral inability. The sinner does not want be rid of his hostile evaluation of the claims of God both in the Law and in the Gospel. If he wanted to overcome it (out of a sincere sense of wanting to know and honor a God of holy love), then the bondage already would be broken. My last reply in the comments above on this issue on August 4, 2014 is the final installment of all I have to say in light of Mr. Hamricks’ objections to my discussion of Fuller. The reader simply must look at what I have argued and what he has argued, look at the sources, and decide for himself.

I did not merely assert that Dr. Nettles missed Fuller’s point in some cases and took Fuller’s statements out of context. Rather, I established it by substantively engaging Dr. Nettles’ arguments—by citing the proper contextual meaning and proving the proper points. Where is Dr. Nettles’ substantive engagement of those arguments? Directing the readers to what he has already written is hardly a rebuttal.

In reply to my question, “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?” Dr. Nettles seems to be at an impasse in his understanding: “‘No matter how much he might want to?!’ What does that mean when one is dealing with moral inability? That is the very point of moral inability. The sinner does not want be rid of his hostile evaluation of the claims of God both in the Law and in the Gospel. If he wanted to overcome it (out of a sincere sense of wanting to know and honor a God of holy love), then the bondage already would be broken.” Had Dr. Nettles truly understood Fuller and moral inability, then he would know the essence of moral inability is unwillingness, and that it is not so “invincible” that the sinner could not overcome it by merely choosing to do what is right. The man is not bound in the sense that he cannot choose the right no matter how much he might try to choose the right, but rather, he is bound only by the fact that a sinful heart will not freely choose the right on its own. Rather than the bondage of cannot (no matter how much one might want to), it is a bondage of will not (and will never want to). Therefore, it is a bondage only of certainty and not of necessity.

These are arguments that ought to be answered, and I hope Dr. Nettles will attend to these worthwhile matters.

Again, 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


[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.
[10] “Gospel Worthy,” p. 330.
[11] Ibid., p. 331.
[12] Ibid., pp. 354-355.
[13] Ibid., p. 356.
[14] Ibid., p. 377.
[15] Ibid., p. 357.
[16] Ibid., p. 378.
[17] Ibid., p. 376.
[18] Ibid., p. 377.
[19] Ibid., p. 330.
[20] “Reply to Philanthropos,” Complete Works, vol. II., p. 476.
[21] “Reality and Efficacy,” Letter XII, p. 551.
[22] “Answers to Queries,” Complete Works, vol. III., pp. 768, 769.
[23] “Gospel Worthy,” p. 377.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid., p. 378.
[26] Ibid., pp. 356-357.
[27] “Reality and Efficacy,” Letter X, pp. 545-546.
[28] Ibid.
[29] 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.
[40] Dr. Nettles’ comments made on 8-4-2014, (at http://theblog.founders.org/fuller-the-non-calvinist/#comment-99803), on “Fuller The Non-Calvinist?”
[41] Dr. Nettles’ comments made on 8-7-2014, (http://theblog.founders.org/fuller-the-non-calvinist/#comment-102676), on “Fuller The Non-Calvinist?”

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