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Did Andrew Fuller modify Calvinism?

By Michael A.G. Haykin–

It may be the case that Calvinistic soteriology is wrong-headed biblically—if so, many, if not most, of our Baptist forebears in the 18th century were wrong-headed. But my concern is not so much there right now as with regard to some recent statements circulating about Andrew Fuller made by Dr W R Estep. Contrary to Dr Estep’s “Calvinizing Southern Baptists” (was that his title? And has not this piece made the rounds before?), there was no modification of Calvinism by Andrew Fuller. He was a full-blown Calvinist: in fact, he called himself a “strict Calvinist” in opposition to the confused views of Richard Baxter, on the one hand, and the hyper-Calvinism in certain quarters, on the other.

According to Estep, “Andrew Fuller wrote The Gospel Worthy of all Acceptation [GWAA] against [John] Gill’s Calvinism, concluding: ‘Had matters gone on but a few years, the Baptists would have become a perfect dunghill in society’.” Actually, GWAA did not include that statement. It comes in a letter to Archibald McLean, the Scottish Sandemanian Baptist (see Works, III, 478) dealing with what Fuller frequently called false Calvinism.

In one very insightful text, a review of two sermons by a hyper-Calvinist by the name of W.W. Horne, Fuller writes this (Works, III, 583):

“In calling the doctrine defended by Mr. Horne false Calvinism I have not miscalled it. In proof of this, I appeal to the writings of that great reformer, and of the ablest defenders of his system in later times—of all indeed who have been called Calvinists till within a hundred years. Were you to read many of Calvin’s sermons, without knowing who was the author, you would be led, from the ideas you appear at present to entertain, to pronounce him an Arminian; neither would Goodwin, nor Owen, nor Charnock, nor Flavel, nor Bunyan, escape the charge. These men believed and preached the doctrines of grace; but not in such a way as to exclude exhortations to the unconverted to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. The doctrine which you call Calvinism (but which, in reality, is Antinomianism) is as opposite to that of the Reformers, puritans, and nonconformists, as it is to that of the apostles.

We do not ask you to relinquish the doctrine of salvation by grace alone: so far from it, were you to do so we would, on that account, have no fellowship with you. We have no doubt of justification being wholly on account of the righteousness of Jesus; nor of faith, wherever it exists, being the free gift of God. …But we ask you to admit other principles, equally true, and equally important as they are; principles taught by the same inspired writers, and which, therefore, must be consistent with them.”

Ah, this is what I love about Fuller: his balance—a profound embrace of sovereign grace coupled with a passion for the salvation of sinners. These doctrines are never at odds, but companions in the extension of Christ’s kingdom. So what are we to make of the statement by Dr Estep that “Fuller’s modification of Calvinism among the Baptists made possible the foreign mission movement of which Carey became the catalyst.” Respectfully, we have to say, he has not read Fuller aright.

Michael A. G. Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His most recent book is Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church (Crossway, 2011). Haykin is the director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.

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