Fullerite: Doctrine of Inability

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Editorial note: This is the second post in a series on Andrew Fuller’s theology.  Here is the series so far: Fuller the Non-Calvinist? (Part 1), Fullerite: Doctrine of Inability (Part 2), Fuller and Irresistible Grace (Part 3), Fuller and the Atonement – 1/4 (Part 4), Fuller and the Atonement – 2/4 (Part 5), Fuller and the Atonement – 3/4 (Part 6), and Fuller and the Atonement 4/4 (Part 7).

Andrew Fuller

Andrew Fuller’s belief in the duty of all moral agents has led some to think that he, therefore, rejected the historic Calvinist doctrine of the bondage of the will. This betrays a regrettable misunderstanding not only of Fuller but of the historic Calvinistic doctrine and is at the root of many bypasses in the discussion between these hopefully fraternal parties in Southern Baptist life. In his confession of faith presented at his installment at Kettering, Fuller reflected on Adam’s fall as that covenant relationship in which we fell, and “became liable to condemnation and death, and what is more, are all born into the world with a vile propensity to sin against God.” Affirming this as the teaching of Romans 5, Fuller further explained, “I believe that men are now born and grow up with a vile propensity to moral evil, and that herein lies their inability to keep God’s law, and as such it is a moral and a criminal inability.” All natural capacities for moral agency remain so that men have a natural ability to keep the commands of God, but their heart is wholly disinclined to God and inclined to earthly things. Even so, the gospel, because it is the perfect picture of the excellence and beauty of God’s law and contains an intrinsic wonder in itself as a display of the wisdom of God in remaining just while justifying the believing sinner, “every one who hears or has opportunity to hear it proclaimed in the gospel is bound to repent of his sin, believe, approve, and embrace it with all his heart; to consider himself, as he really is, a vile lost sinner; to reject all pretensions to life in any other way; and to cast himself upon Christ, that he may be saved in this way of God’s devising.” But just as these morally corrupt sons of Adam have no heart, and thus no ability to keep God’s law, so they regard the gospel with the same disdain. “Being wholly under the dominion of sin they have no heart remaining for God, but are full of wicked aversion to him. Their very mind and conscience are defiled. Their ideas of the excellence of good and of the evil of sin are, as it were, obliterated” and thus they “will not come unto Christ for life; but in spite of all the calls, or threatenings of God, will go on till they sink into eternal perdition.”

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 lest 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.

(Comments have been closed for this post.  Another post has been published in response to Ken Hamrick’s comments.)

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9 Responses to “Fullerite: Doctrine of Inability”

  1. Dr. Nettles,

    I strongly disagree with your presentation of Fuller’s view here. I’m at a loss as to how you can think that this is a fair and accurate explanation of what Fuller believed regarding obligation and ability. Wanting to give you the benefit of the doubt, maybe it is I who have misunderstood you—in which case, I ask for your help in clarifying the matter.

    Most Calvinists and libertarians are unfamiliar with Fuller’s (and Edwards’) distinction between moral and natural ability. The force of Fuller’s argument—indeed, his entire theology—depends upon both. What Fuller thought of moral inability cannot be adequately understood apart from how he viewed natural ability. You did well in expounding the moral inability of sinners that Fuller clearly affirmed. But regarding their natural ability, you offered only this:

    All natural capacities for moral agency remain so that men have a natural ability to keep the commands of God, but their heart is wholly disinclined to God and inclined to earthly things.

    In spite of Fuller’s robust explanation of what natural ability is and how it relates to moral inability, your treatment of Fuller’s view here is meager and lacking. But what troubles me is your second paragraph. It seems to me that you have pulled some of Fuller’s sentences out of context, and turned them around to imply what Fuller actually was teaching against. You stated:

    In answering both the hyper-Calvinists and the Arminians… 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.”

    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 (as we will see it in context momentarily). 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, you seem (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 you seem to have embraced the absurdity, affirming that it is not absurd and cruel to require of any man what is beyond his ability to perform. (If I have misread you, please forgive me and I look forward to your correction).

    You rightly point out, “Fuller carefully distinguished, as he did in his earlier confession, between natural inability and moral inability…” but yet, you never tell us what this meant to either fuller or to you, as you continue:

    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.

    This also is taken completely out of 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. This is clear for all to see who bother to read it. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time right now to type it out, but it is the last part of page 171 and continuing onto the left side of page 172, of his Gospel Worthy, which can be read at the following link:
    http://www.wmcarey.edu/carey/fuller/gospel/worthy.pdf

    • Tom Nettles
      Tom Nettles

      God requires obedience to his law and places upon men the duty of repentance and faith simply because they are moral agents with natural ability to perform all that he requires. That is, as creatures made in his image, they have all of the capacities of nature–to love, to hate, to be sorrowful, to have joy etc. These natural capacities qualify man as subjects of command. But at the same time they are morally destitute of any desire for God and his beauty and his excellence. God does require of them the moral actions that they are so averse to but, because they will not, they cannot comply; but command still is just.

      You are arguing a case imputing to Fuller a position that he simply does not take. I am not making my presentation of Fuller out of a partial knowledge or out of any desire to misrepresent him, and I have taken full account of the contexts that you mentioned. I have taught on Fuller for three decades. I am completing a PhD seminar on his works. I also understand the arguments of Jonathan Edwards and just finished for about the eighth time an elective at the master’s level on the works of Edwards. This is not an ad hominem argument but is merely meant to allay your apparent fears that I am a mere dabbler in these issues and have no background to perceive what is the genuine theological argument.

      It appears that we have very severe disagreement in the way we perceive these writings. You write, “Fuller clearly meant to affirm that God requires these things of men because they are not destitute of all ability to perform them.” Agreed. They are not destitute of natural abilities, that is, having all the natural capacities that are part of the natural image of God to perform these commands. They are, however, destitute of all moral ability to perform them. So you have interpreted Fuller in a way that is contrary to the very purpose of his argument.

      I think it is best for me to delay framing responses to your analyses, until I have finished the entire course of articles. I greatly appreciate the time and energy you are giving to these articles and hope you will continue to respond. At the end of the series, I will try to write a more lengthy presentation dealing with your analyses.

      • Dr. Nettles,

        Thank you for your gracious response. I did not for a moment think that you were a mere “dabbler” in any subject you write on. Please forgive me for giving that impression. You do have my respect—just not my agreement. As worthy and admirable as your credentials, knowledge, work and position certainly are, this mere uneducated layman thinks his argument is still worth considering. But I hope you will receive it in the spirit in which it was intended—from one brother in Christ to another.

        It is an honor to even have such a discussion with you.

      • Dr. Nettles,

        You stated, “God does require of them the moral actions that they are so averse to but, because they will not, they cannot comply; but command still is just.” I must insist on the same distinction on which Fuller insists: they cannot only in the moral sense and not in the natural sense of the word. Their “cannot” extends only as far as their “will not,” and consists in nothing other than lack of inclination. That is the only reason why the command still is just—and it is exactly that line of defense of the justness of the command in which 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.” Note the part I put in bold, which you left out of your citation (and left Fuller’s meaning out with it): “who cannot do other than right.” Contrary to your implied emphasis, Fuller was not defending the right of God to require these things of sinners in spite of their inability; but rather, he was arguing from the principle that “the inability of sinners is not such” What does that (“such“) mean to you? Would you have us believe that “is not such” means nothing more than “is not [a weighty enough reason, or a justification] as to induce the Judge of all the earth (who cannot do other than right) to abate in his demands…”? 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 such that it includes both moral and natural kinds so that the sinner is left without any ability whatsoever—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… In his argument (I won’t cite it all, due to the size, but I implore all to read it again), Fuller states (bold mine):

        …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 “Of 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. If the inability of sinners to believe in Christ, or to do things spiritually good, were of this nature, it would undoubtedly form an excuse in their favour; and it must be as absurd to exhort them to such duties as to exhort the blind to look, the deaf to hear, or the dead to walk. But 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 commands always […]There is an essential difference between an ability which is independent of the inclination, and one that is owing to nothing else.

        Dr. Nettles, I don’t see how you, Dr. Ascol, or anyone else can read that context and think that your presentation of Fuller’s views are validated by the text. Please explain it for us. Again, if I’ve misunderstood you, I apologize—but, have I?

        • Tom Nettles
          Tom Nettles

          Ken,

          Thank you for you response. I do not see that you are declaiming against any position that I have taken. As you point out so clearly, Fuller’s position on inability is isolated to the idea of moral inability. In what way does your apparent accusation that I have purposefully omitted vital words from a Fuller quote alter the representation that I have made? Where have I said otherwise? The energy you put into an effort to convince me that I have taken a position I have not taken seems to me a vain exercise. I think that I have answered this same objection twice already, but since I have obviously been unclear or unsatisfactory in some way, I say again, clearly if one possessed no natural ability to believe, that is, if he did not have any of the capacities that constitute him as a moral agent, he could not be required to believe. But he does have these, and all of them are averse to God’s holiness; such moral aversity, such an antagonistic disposition, such a sinful inclination, render it impossible for him to believe while he remains in such a posture of enmity against God. This moral inability, a sinful inability, in Fuller’s construction of it, makes God’s moral commands entirely legitimate even though such a moral agent left in that position of hostility to God’s holy commands cannot comply with them. As you say, he is not hampered by absolute inability, for as Fuller so clearly argues, he retains the natural ability of a moral agent–he loves some things, obeys some things [mainly his own lusts], finds joy in some things, and always feels a sense of moral outrage when he finds people out of harmony with his own personally constructed moral standard. All of these are consistent with natural ability, but do not mean that he, therefore, has no inability at all. His moral inability is a real inability to comply with the purely holy requirements of God. I do not say that your position is wrong, unless there is a hidden assumption somewhere that I am failing to see. I do say that you continually fail to grasp what I have presented. What more can I say than to you I have said?

  2. Tom,

    Thanks for this article and this whole series. Your presentation of Fuller’s views is enlightening and can easily validated by anyone who reads Fuller himself. It is a mystery to me why Fuller is so often mischaracterized by those who claim to have read him carefully.

    I believe Fuller can be a great help in some of the current debate among Baptists over Calvinism. His historical significance to the modern mission movement highlights the importance of his biblical exegesis and theological convictions.

    I look forward to the rest of this series and hope that it will help bring clarity and insight into not only Baptist heritage but also the Word of God.
    ta

    • Dr. Ascol,

      You said, “Your presentation of Fuller’s views is enlightening and can easily validated by anyone who reads Fuller himself. It is a mystery to me why Fuller is so often mischaracterized by those who claim to have read him carefully.”

      You and I have discussed Fuller’s views before by email. Did you get the impression that I did not read him carefully? If Dr. Nettles’ presentation of his views can be easily validated, then it ought to be easily defended from the text itself. Yet, it is not so easy that either one of you has cared to provide that validation in your comments.

      I, too, look forward to the rest of this series and hope it will bring clarity.

  3. Mr. Hamrick,

    I do not recall corresponding with you about Fuller’s views so rest assured that my comment had no reference to such correspondence. Dr. Nettles’ posts on Fuller speak for themselves. I found your critique of what he wrote off putting in its tone and unconvincing in its assertions. I think you have misread Fuller by equating “power” exclusively with Fuller’s “natural ability.” Because Fuller acknowledges and argues for natural ability while locating man’s spiritual impotence in his moral inclination (or moral ability) you seem to think that he agrees with the assertion that “it is absurd and cruel to require any man what is beyond his power to perform” in the way that the Arminians and hyper-Calvinists used it.

    I think it would be accurate to say that, according to Fuller’s distinctions, fallen man has the natural ability to repent and believe but not the moral ability to do so. It would be absurd to blame a physically blind man for never reading the Bible with his physical eyes but it would not be absurd to blame a spiritually blind man for never reading the Bible (assuming both had physical access to the Bible, etc.). The fact that countless numbers of sinful people have repented of sin and trusted Christ savingly demonstrates that sinful people do have the natural ability to do so. The reason that the Scripture says that such people “cannot” come to Christ is because of their fallen natures. Their inability is located in their moral natures as sinners not in their physical natures as humans.

    The fact that a sinner’s inability is moral rather than natural, however, in no way diminishes it’s reality nor does it leave the sinner any less impotent than if he were naturally without ability. Fuller writes,

    “There is an essential difference between an ability which is independent of the inclination [natural], and one that is owing to nothing else [moral]. It is just as impossible, no doubt, for any person to do that which he has no mind to do, as to perform that which surpasses his natural powers; and hence it is that the same terms are used in the one case as in the other.”

    By saying “it is just as impossible” Fuller is refuting the very point you have tried to make, that even without God’s grace men have the power to perform what God requires. God does indeed require of man what is beyond his power to perform but the reason man is unable to perform what is required is owing to his moral inability not to any natural or physical inabilities.

    I have neither time nor interest to engage in a lengthy discussion of this in the comment stream of Dr. Nettles’ post. I find his evaluation of Fuller spot on and very helpful and, like you, look forward to the rest of this series.

    Blessings,
    ta