Andrew Fuller, an eighteenth century British Baptist, greatly influenced the Baptists of his day, and his thought has continued to shape Baptists to this day. His influence is most evident in both his support of what has been called evangelical Calvinism as well as his apologetic work. In Fuller's day Baptists faced great danger. On the one hand hyper-Calvinism was threatening the health of Particular Baptists; if not their very existence. On the other hand a great number of diversions from historical orthodoxy had arisen and were beginning to make inroads. If Baptists could survive the evangelical complacency perhaps the heresy would have so altered their identity that they would no longer be recognizable as orthodox Baptists. Fuller fought against both trends.
When speaking of Fuller these are, rightly, the areas that are most considered. In a time of great significance, when Baptists would continue in decline, or possibly be swept away by the latest theological error, Andrew Fuller stood in defense of an evangelistic, orthodoxy. But while these aspects of Fuller's thought undoubtedly had the greatest influence in his own day as well as in shaping Baptists since then, there can be little doubt that at the heart of all of this was Fuller's undying devotion to the Word of God. That is, whether it was his apologetic work or his emphasis on the necessity of preaching the gospel; the underpinning or foundation was always the Word of God. For this reason James Tull says "It is not surprising to find Fuller to be a Biblicist,"1 and Phil Roberts says "Fuller built his theology on scriptural grounds".2 Fuller did not merely defend a system of doctrine he had reasoned out in his own mind or received from
1 James E. Tull, Shapers of Baptist Thought (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1972), 93.
2 Phil Roberts, Baptist Theologians, Edited by Timothy George and David Dockery (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), 133.
other men. Rather, he, to the best of his ability, sought to expound and defend the clear teaching of the Bible contra all perversions of the same. Fuller himself said, in his sermon entitled The Nature and Importance of an Intimate Knowledge of Divine Truth, that he saw the Word of God as the place from where theological truth must come. "We may learn other things from other quarters; and things, too, that may subserve the knowledge of God; but the knowledge of God itself must here be sought, for here only it can be found."3 For Fuller, then, the only source of this "knowledge of Divine truth" was God's Word.
The clear motivation for Fuller's activities, then, was to rightly understand and expound the Word of God - this sole source of Divine knowledge. If he defended evangelical Calvinism, it was because he believed it to be the Scriptural position. If he wrote against Socinianism, it was because he believed it not to be in line with the truth of God's Word. Therefore the aim of this work is to seek to understand Fuller's approach to the Word of God. Particularly it will examine Fuller's use and interpretation of the Old Testament. This will be done through looking, primarily, at Fuller's commentary on Genesis and secondarily his writings and sermons on other Old Testament texts. Observations will then be made that will aid in further study of Fuller Old Testament hermeneutic.
Fuller a Pre-Critical Exegete
Andrew Fuller lived in a unique time. He was on the cusp of the age of full-blown Biblical criticism. To be sure there were already critics in his day. One need not look any further than Fuller's interaction with Thomas Paine's work and his writings against Deism to see that the kind of critical ideas that would shape Biblical studies for centuries to come had already begun in his day. For instance, Fuller speaks of the fact that the present age is an "age of trial."4 He goes
3 Andrew Fuller, The Complete Works Vol. I (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1988), 161.
4 Fuller, Vol. I 172.
on to explain, "Not only is the gospel corrupted by those who bear the Christian name, but, of late, you well know, it has been openly assailed." Fuller saw clearly that in the future the challenge would come from those who, while bearing the name of Christian, would assail the Scriptures. The contention that Fuller was pre-critical in his interpretation of scripture may then seem unfounded. However there can be little doubt that the criticism with which Fuller contended in his day was but a mere drop of the flood of criticism which would come in only a matter of decades. In other words, it seems that Fuller is coming near to the end of his life as modern Biblical criticism is really beginning to take hold and influence the masses.
The fact that Fuller was pre-critical is especially evident in such works as his commentary on Genesis. Fuller lived thirty years before Julius Wellhausen and his theory which have since dominated the landscape of Pentateuchal studies. It is clear that Fuller does not entertain the idea that some author other than Moses wrote Genesis. Beyond the fact that he does not even address the authorship of Genesis in his commentary - a practice almost universal in modern commentaries - he in every place assumes Mosaic authorship. For instance, notice Fuller's comment when dealing with a matter of question in his day as to whether or not the patriarchs kept the Sabbath. He says, "Some have questioned whether it was kept by the patriarchs, or before the departure of Israel from Egypt; supposing that Moses, who wrote the Book of Genesis about that time, might be led to introduce God's resting from his works on the seventh day as a motive to enforce what was then enjoined upon them."5 In other places he says things like "Moses proceeds to narrate their history."6 This point is simple and obvious considering Fuller's place in time, but, in a day when nearly all exegesis is dominated by critical theory, it is important to understand that Fuller is not really dealing with these kinds of questions.
5 Ibid., 7.
6 Ibid., 39.
This uncritical approach is also evident in Fuller's handling of the creation account as well as other Old Testament narratives which, in this day, are predominately understood as being fabrications used to teach moral or spiritual lessons. For Fuller, however, they are accurate historical accounts; the question that they are otherwise is not even entertained by Fuller. There is a clear assumption that the text is to be read and understood as historical truth. Perhaps this is seen nowhere more evidently than in Fuller's words concerning the creation account. He says,7It is common for writers of other histories to go back in their researches as far as possible; but Moses traces his from the beginning. The whole book is upon the origin of things, even of all things that had a beginning. The visible creation, the generations of man, moral evil among men, the spiritual kingdom of the Messiah, the new world, the church in the family of Abraham, the various nations and tribes of man; every thing, in short, now going on in the world, may be traced hither as to its spring-head. Without this history the world would be in total darkness, not knowing whence it came, nor wither it goeth. In the first page of this sacred book a child may learn more in an hour than all the philosophers in the world learned without it in thousands of years.In addition to the obvious assertion that the Genesis record is pure, factual history; it is also important to note that Fuller speaks of philosophers. There had always been philosophers who sought to understand the great questions of life apart from the revelation of the Word of God. This seems to be the group of which Fuller speaks. But there is a feeling of distance and isolation from these philosophers. They are outside, not part of Christianity or in any significant way shaping Biblical interpretation or theology. These philosophers were easily dismissed as those who needed to come to the Word of God to learn simple truths even a child could understand. It would only be a short time until these philosophers would be, inside, part of Christianity, shaping and influencing not only the Biblical interpretation and theology of the academy but entire denominations. Fuller is clearly not wrestling with that at this point.
7 Andrew Fuller, The Complete Works Vol. III (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1988), 2.
All of this is not to say that Fuller never dealt with any issues of a critical nature. For instance, when dealing with Noah's flood he dealt with some of the proof for the validity of a historical, universal, flood. However, his argumentation is basic and generally of the same nature as that found throughout much of Christian history. Fuller's interpretation of scripture would undoubtedly be far closer to that of Augustine and Calvin than modern critical exegetes. Fuller, then, was largely pre-critical in his exegesis of the Old Testament and this must be understood by the modern reader who seeks to glean from Fuller's expositions of the Old Testament.
Fuller an Objective Exegete
Fuller urged others to read the Bible without a system before their eyes, and it seems that, although this did not keep Fuller from having strong theological beliefs based on his reading of the Bible, Fuller generally followed his own advice. He was not claiming, as some have throughout history, to be some sort of restorationist - restoring truth that was lost through the theologizing of the Church by reading the Bible as though for the first time. He, instead, was merely trying to impress the fact that Scripture should be taken at face value and not molded to fit into a presupposed scheme or system. He was advocating objectivity. This does not mean Fuller thought interpreters should avoid any kind of scheme that gave unity to the Scripture or any systematization of Biblical truth. There is, after all, a distinction between coming to the text with a presupposed system and allowing a system to arise from the study of the same. Fuller clearly saw himself as doing the latter. He was reading the scripture objectively and then seeking to make statements of theological truth based on this objective reading.
That Fuller did not refuse to organize the truth found in the Bible into any kind of system is clear. He did not read the Bible in a vacuum - each verse, chapter, or book somehow
isolated from other parts of Scripture. That is not what he meant by instructing some to "read the Bible without a system before their eyes". In fact, in a sermon titled The Nature and Importance of a Deep and Intimate Knowledge of Divine Truth and preached at an associational meeting in 1796, Fuller would argue strongly for the systematization of Biblical truth. He said, 'To be without system is nearly the same thing as to be without principle. Whatever principles we may have, while they continue in this disorganized state, they will answer but little purpose in the religious life". Later he says, "No man could decry systematic knowledge, in anything but religion, without subjecting himself to ridicule of thinking men".8
For Fuller, then, systematizing Biblical truth or seeking to find the way in which the Bible coheres was not the problem; it was presupposing a system, coming to a text with the design of finding support for that system. For Fuller the truth had to come from an objective reading of the text and then fit together with other passages to form a system. The key was in allowing the Bible itself to form the categories. It was Scripture that supplied the building materials which were then to be fit together. Fuller spelled out the way in which this was to be done. "Many religious people appear to be contented with seeing truth in the light in which some great and good man has placed it; but, if ever we enter into the gospel to purpose, it must be by reading the word of God for ourselves, and by praying and meditating upon its sacred contents. It is 'in God's light that we must see light.' By conversing with the sacred writers, we shall gradually imbibe their sentiments, and be insensibly assimilated into the same spirit". Fuller, then, did not think the best method of study was one which placed great value on a system of man but one that emphasized a natural reading coupled with prayer and meditation. This was the surest way of coming to an accurate interpretation.
8 Andrew Fuller, The Complete Works Vol. II (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1988), 203.
This approach is readily seen in Fuller's commentary on Genesis. Fuller does not read and interpret Genesis in order to build up a system of theology. This is clear throughout. For instance, Fuller was presumably covenantal in his approach to the overall scheme of the Bible. However one finds almost no mention of that system in his commentary. In addition, generally Fuller does not read his own theological debates into Scripture. Many scholars, of late, have criticized Martin Luther for inserting the theological issues of his day into scripture - reading Galatians as though the Judaizers were one and the same as 16th century Catholicism. For Fuller this is not really an issue. He does not see Sandemanians in Sodom or hyper-Calvinists in Haran. His approach is to meditate on scripture without too much thought of the light in which others have placed it. He sought to "imbibe the sentiments" of the original author.
Fuller a Practical Exegete
If Fuller was not concerned with critical issues or primarily with theological ones; what then was the nature of Fuller's understanding of the way in which Scripture, the Old Testament in particular, should be interpreted? What was its use? For Fuller, the primary use of the Old Testament, seen in the way in which he applies the Old Testament as well as in his comments concerning the matter, was to provide an example or instruction for believers. That is, he saw the primary use of the Old Testament as exemplary in nature.
He makes a comment to this affect when he says, "The Holy Spirit has drawn the likeness of man in all situations, that we might find our case and learn instruction. If we barely read the Scriptures as a description of the concerns of persons who lived a long time ago, and
9 The Particular Baptists of Fuller's Day were primarily covenantal in their theology (cf. the 2nd London Baptist Confession's article "The Covenants"). Fuller also seemed to use terminology that evidenced he held this view e.g. he routinely referred to OT people of God as the Church. However Fuller, and perhaps other Particular Baptists, seemed to have a unique view. Fuller refers to the covenant of works as pertaining to Sinai not to the covenant made with Adam.
make no application of them to ourselves, we shall miss the great end for which they were given us."10 The great end, therefore, in the mind of Fuller is to "find our case and learn instruction." In other places Fuller speaks of the "great end" of scripture as being the salvation of man11 but this is not inconsistent with his assertion that its great end was to find instruction. This is easily reconcilable when considering that it is through the instruction that one perseveres and is finally saved. In other words, salvation is understood in broad terms; rather than the narrow view of many current evangelicals who see salvation only in terms of a past event. No, for Fuller perseverance is essential and one of the means given to aid believers is the example of Old Testament saints and sinners.
Perhaps it could be questioned whether Fuller, in the above quotation, is giving an unequivocal statement as to his view of the purpose of scripture, but after examining his Commentary on Genesis and his various sermons on the Old Testament it is quite clear that he does indeed see this as the primary use of the Old Testament. He nearly always makes some form of application based on the exemplary nature of the passage. In this sense Fuller, although nowhere explicitly stating such, seems to take Paul's statement to the Corinthians as paradigmatic for his interpretation of the Old Testament. "Now these things were our examples (I Corinthians 10.6)."
One would not be too surprised to find this kind of approach homiletically. Sermons usually call for some sort of application of the passage and often the most natural way to do this is to present it as an example either to be followed or to be shunned. However, this approach is seen just as readily in Fuller's commentary as well.12 One may think that a commentary would be
10 Fuller, Vol. I 230.
11 Fuller, Vol. II 88.
12 Fuller states in his introduction that "the Exposition was delivered in public worship" - they were sermons. However they were certainly adapted to this format and Fuller explicitly said that his desire was "to convey the general scope and design of Scripture". In other words he was seeking to explain the meaning and significance of the text. As such they give us a window into Fuller's understanding of the Old Testament.
the place to deal with more theological issues and less practical ones, but this simply is not the case in Fuller's commentary. He always has an eye for the way in which a particular passage or account serves for instruction.
A few examples of the above described manner of interpretation will be helpful to illustrate that this is indeed primarily the way in which Fuller interpreted and applied the Old Testament. However these few examples are only a sample of many practical exhortations Fuller gives based on the text.
Fuller's comments on Genesis 2.16-17 illustrate Fuller's view that the Old Testament narrative is given primarily for instruction. Here God gives Adam and Eve the instruction not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In this command Fuller finds an abiding example. He says, "The consequences attached to a breach of this positive law teach us also not to trifle with the will of God in his ordinances, but implicitly to obey it."13 Here a positive command is a command which has no innate moral value. It is right because it is commanded. It was not immoral for them to eat of this tree, but it was wrong because God commanded it. So Fuller sees in this a warning to present day believers not to trifle with God's "ordinances".14 Some may question whether something that is not a moral issue is of less consequence but Fuller warns that the consequence of breaking this command - death - serves to warn us of the seriousness with which we should take the "positive commands" of God.
In addition, Fuller sees illustrated in this passage the need for believers to remember the commands of the Lord.
13 Vol. III, 8.
14 Fuller, here seems to be insinuating the church ordinances, Baptism and the Lord's Supper, although the word ordinances could refer to other positive commands.
"Thou shalt not eat of it." So long as this was kept in mind it was well; and it appears to have been deeply impressed, from the first answer of the woman to the serpent, chap.iii. 3. It was this impression which he aimed to efface by his devilish question, "Yea, hath God said it?" And when once she began to doubt of this, all was over. Let us learn to keep God's words in our minds, and hide them in our hearts, that we may not sin against him. It was with - Thus and thus it is written, that our Lord repelled all his temptations.15Again, Fuller is not interested so much in philosophical questions as to why the Lord commanded this thing, or critical questions as to the historical accuracy of this account. He does not focus primarily on theological issues - how it was that Adam served as the head of all humanity. No, Fuller sees in this account, as well as most others, instruction to be learned from and applied to the lives of believers.
The Old Testament is not a random collection of theological truths waiting to be set in order. It is not a mythical history of God's people waiting to be demythologized. It is not a collection of meaningless accounts which must be allegorized in order to have significance. The Old Testament, for Fuller, is the accurate historical account of God's dealings with his people in ages past that find their primary significance in the fact that they offer the present day believer instruction in the way that he or she should live.
A second example shows a similar pattern. This time the passage is Genesis 17.19-27. Here God has renewed the covenant with Abraham and instituted circumcision. Fuller takes special notice to the obedience Abraham renders in fulfilling this ordinance of the LORD. "His conduct on this occasion furnishes a bright example to all succeeding ages of the manner in which Divine ordinances should be complied with."16 Fuller notes three ways in specific which Abraham's obedience is exemplary. First he notes it was prompt - he did it the same day God
15 Ibid., 8.
16 Ibid., 72.
had spoken it. Second it was punctilious - his obedience was "minutely exact". Third it was yielded in old age - Abraham was ninety-nine.
Again it should be noted that Fuller does not here primarily deal with the issue of circumcision or perhaps renounce any connection with Baptism in the New Testament. He is focused on offering instruction and exhortation for the believer. He sees in Abraham an example of prompt and careful obedience which is a pattern for believers of all ages to follow.
Fuller on Christocentrism
In light of the present emphasis by many scholars of the Christocentric nature of all scripture, including the Old Testament, Fuller's approach is subject to criticism.17 Is Fuller doing little more than moralizing the text? Certainly some might have varying opinions on that. Fuller seems to be employing the same hermeneutic that Paul does in I Corinthians 10. However it is interesting to note that Fuller did mention the Christocentric nature of scripture in Letter VII of his "Letters on Systematic Divinity" entitled The Uniform Bearing of the Scriptures on the Person and Work of Christ. This work offers some light into Fuller's thinking on this matter.
First it should be noted that Fuller would caution modem day exegetes against seeing a reference to Christ in every passage. He says, "We need not follow those who drag in Christ on all occasions. To suppose, for instance, that all the Psalms of David refer to him, is to establish the gospel on the ruins of common sense. Still less need we see him prefigured by everything in which a heated imagination may trace a resemblance. This were to go into a kind of spiritual Quixotism, finding a castle where others would only find a windmill."18 Fuller then would not
17 E.g. Graeme Goldsworthy, and others who emphasize the Christological aspect of all scripture. These men many times speak of any kind of exegesis which seeks to call for people to follow the example in the text as mere moralizing.
18 Fuller, Vol. I 702.
agree with those who say that he has done something less than Christian in applying the Old Testament without doing so directly by way of Christ.
Second this should not imply that Fuller was by any means against a Christocentric understanding of the Old Testament. In that very same reference just quoted, Fuller goes on to say, "Nevertheless, the sacred Scriptures are full of Christ, and uniformly lead to him. What follows then is a brief summary of the Christological themes and references in the Old Testament." Through this summary it becomes very evident that Fuller truly does view the Old Testament as being "full of Christ".
Andrew Fuller certainly did base his ministry on the word of God. It was his sole source of the knowledge of the Divine. All of his apologetic work and his emphasis on the need to evangelize came from his understanding of the Bible. But for Fuller the Bible was not just about right belief - it was that. But it was also that which leads men into devotion and holiness. It is that which shows us our case that we might find instruction in the way we must walk to the great end that we might be saved.
[Andrew Hunt was a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY, at the time of this writing. He has since graduated. This is a paper presented to a class in 2010. Used with permission. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
More on Andrew Fuller
Baptist History Homepage