My Thanksgiving-break book this year was Paul Brewster’s fascinating Andrew Fuller: Model Pastor-Theologian, a selection in B&H’s “Studies In Baptist Life and Thought” series. Fuller’s is a name you encounter increasingly these days (as evidenced, for instance, by “The Works of Andrew Fuller Project”and “The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies”), and those familiar with the theological, ecclesial, and denominational frictions within the Southern Baptist Convention will understand why.
Andrew Fuller was a British Baptist pastor and theologian (largely self-taught) who exerted a marked influence over the Baptist church which he pastored and the association of which he was an important part. (As an aside, Brewster’s description of the heightened collegiality of British associationalism was quite insightful). So great was his influence, that one historian claimed he achieved a kind of de facto bishopric in the area. His was a ministry characterized by great fruit and great controversy, the latter likely being the reason for the renewed interest in Fuller today.
Essentially, Andrew Fuller pushed back against the “High Calvinism” (read, “hyper-Calvinism”) of John Brine and John Gill. I do understand that the contention that Gill was “hyper” in his Calvinism is hotly disputed. It is possible that Brine’s presentation of Gill’s thought gave rise to the assumption. It is also possible that Gill was, in fact, a hyper-Calvinist. I’ll leave that to others to decide.
The hyper-Calvinism of Fuller’s day had essentially suffocated evangelistic efforts among 18th century British Baptists. Gospel appeals to the lost were expressly avoided unless a lost person gave some evidence of a “warrant,” or indication that they might be among the elect. As such, evangelism suffered and evangelistic means were avoided.
It must be understood that Andrew Fuller did not break with Calvinism per se, he broke with hyper-Calvinism. Fuller nuanced his Calvinism into a kind of evangelistic, missionary Calvinism. He did not reject election. He simply rejected the notion that a warrant must be present to justify evangelistic outreach. Fuller argued that, on this side of Heaven, we do not know who the elect are. As such, we should hear the missionary impulse within scripture and indiscriminately offer the gospel to all people in all nations. It is hard for us to imagine this being controversial, but it was in his day and context.
Fuller also nuanced his approach to limited atonement, arguing that while the atonement was efficient only for the elect, it was sufficient for the sins of the whole world. As such, we may yet again feel not only the freedom, but the imperative of preaching Christ to all people, everywhere, under the biblical assumption that the blood of Christ is a sufficient payment for the sins of the world.
Fuller is also notable for his efforts (alongside William Carey) in beginning the Baptist Missionary Society, which constitutes, essentially, the beginning of the modern missionary movement. Fuller was the society’s head at home, working tirelessly to handle the various organizational, financial, and logistical issues that arose in the execution of this important ministry. He was, in Carey’s famous terminology, the one who “held the rope” for the missionaries while they went to the field.
Brewster reveals that some believe Fuller to have been under-appreciated in his role in the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society. Others seem to overstate Fuller’s importance. To be sure, William Carey’s name is rightly synonymous with the founding of the modern missionary movement, but it is only right to recognize as well the enormous role that Fuller played. To use Carey’s terminology, what would become of those descending below if those holding the rope were not faithful? And, by all accounts, Fuller was a faithful “rope holder,” almost obsessively so.
The current revival of interest in Fuller may be attributed in part (as Brewster recognizes) to the controversies surrounding Calvinism in the Convention today. It is a controversy I’m disinterested in commenting on here. Regardless, Fuller represents a possible via media in the modern controversy, showing the one side that (a) not all Calvinism is hyper-Calvinism and (b) that Calvinism in and of itself is not inherently inimical to fervent evangelism, and showing the other side that an imbalanced preoccupation with the Calvinist system, untempered by those significant portions of scripture that speak of and illustrate the worldwide missionary impulse of the early church and need to take the gospel to the nations can lead to a stifling of missions and evangelism.
A man like Andrew Fuller, and his example of passionate evangelism and missions, may serve to help temper the unfortunate rancor of the modern situation in the SBC. To put it mildly, were the Convention populated by people as passionate about preaching the gospel of Christ to the nations as Andrew Fuller was, we may would just see revival break out in earnest in our day.
I was also challenged by this book’s depiction of Fuller’s approach to pastoral ministry. Fuller was quite scrupulous about the need for him to be an undershepherd to the people of God. He worked tirelessly in knowing and reaching his people, and those outside of his own church. Fuller never seemed to coast in his pastoral duties, even though, at times, his work in the missionary society caused him to do less than he likely should have for his own people.
In all, this is a truly wonderful and insightful biography. It’s well-written (if a tad repetitious at times) and engaging. I suspect that anybody could read it to great profit.