Andrew Fuller on the Extent of the Atonement: A Response and Rebuttal

by Dr. David L. Allen
Dean of the School of Theology
Professor of Preaching
Director of the Center for Expository Preaching
George W. Truett Chair of Pastoral Ministry
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

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It is with grateful appreciation to Dr. Michael Haykin for his interaction on the issue at hand that I offer this response to his most recent surrejoinder of my article posted at SBCToday on April 24, 2014. My comments and critique should be read in the light of my deep admiration for him and his wonderful work at the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. Nevertheless, in the interest of historical accuracy, I am compelled to offer this response.

In reference to three mentions of Fuller in my chapter on the extent of the atonement in Whosoever Will: a Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, Dr. Haykin stated: “This background to Allen’s remarks may well explain elements of his reply to me: he perceives there to be theological and biblical issues at stake and he is eager to recruit Fuller to defend his position on those theological and biblical issues. I, on the other hand, am approaching Fuller as an historian . . . .”

My interest in Fuller is also historical. Like Haykin, I want to understand what Fuller is saying about the specific issue of the extent of the atonement. Fuller’s theological and practical impact on late 18th and 19th century Baptist life is immense. I agree that the question of whether Fuller is right or wrong on the extent of the atonement is not the issue. What he himself believed is the issue. Biblical and theological scholars, even homileticians, can do objective historiography too.

Haykin correctly noted that I stated Fuller had shifted in one aspect of his understanding of the atonement, namely, he abandoned a commercial model of substitution (or the view that “the measure of Christ’s sufferings were according to the number of those for whom he died, and to the degree of their guilt” Works, 2:373). Haykin also correctly stated that I noted Fuller still held to particular redemption, albeit redefined. At this juncture, let me point out clearly that I stated Fuller continued to hold particular redemption with respect to the application of the atonement, (which results from Christ’s effectual purpose to save the elect alone), but with respect to the actual extent of the atonement, Fuller came to believe that Christ’s death was an objective satisfaction for all sins. This is a crucial distinction.

Fuller and the New Divinity Movement

Haykin rightly references the New Divinity movement’s great influence on Fuller. He then states the New Divinity folks “advocated belief that Christ’s death was sufficient for all men and women.” The operative word here is “sufficient.” The New Divinity people interpreted “sufficient” to mean more than just “hypothetically” sufficient; they understood and used the term to mean “actually sufficient in that Christ actually substituted himself for the sins of all people.” Haykin’s quotation of Joseph Bellamy in his footnote 2 makes this clear. Furthermore, this was the way the term was originally understood in the Lombardian formula which the 16th century Reformers inherited and used. As I have pointed out elsewhere1, the second and third generation within the Reformed tradition began to revise this term and convert its meaning to a “hypothetical” sufficiency when applied to the death of Christ on the cross. I shall return to this point below.
Haykin defines the understanding of the New Divinity men on Christ’s sufficiency with respect to the extent of the atonement, namely, that it is “for all,” though only the elect will be drawn in the effectual call. He then makes this startling statement: “Fuller’s mature position on the extent of the atonement is all but identical.” Agreed! That is exactly my point in my article which elicited the surrejoinder from Haykin. Fuller had come to the place where he understood the atonement of Christ to be “sufficient” for the sins of all men and women because Christ actually substituted himself for the sins of all men and women, even while continuing to maintain Christ’s effectual purpose to apply the saving benefits of His death to the elect alone.

Haykin rightly notes Fuller also affirmed election and efficacious calling as defined by Dort and Westminster, though there were some terminological differences. Haykin then quotes from Fuller’s rebuttal of Taylor, including Fuller’s defense at this point in time of particular redemption. But note careful the chronology. Haykin himself notes this occurred in the late 1780’s “prior to his [Fuller] intensive reading of the New Divinity in the 1790’s….”

Haykin follows his quotations from Fuller with this statement: “The witness of the scriptures to the latter [unconditional election] was both perspicuous and plentiful, and if accepted, the doctrine of particular redemption [for Fuller] followed perforce.” He places a footnote here citing Fuller’s Works and recommending Nettles’ discussion on Fuller’s view of the extent of the atonement. But this is slightly misleading.

The problem here is not what the early Fuller believed about particular redemption. All are agreed on this point. The question at hand is whether the later Fuller continued to believe in the variety of “particular redemption” that maintained a non-commercial yet limited imputation of sin to Christ with respect to His substitution — defined as Christ only suffered for the sins of the elect.

Fuller, Equivalentism, and “Sufficiency”

Haykin continues, quoting Fuller: “the sufferings of Christ, in themselves considered, are of infinite value, sufficient to have saved all the world, and a thousand worlds, if it had pleased God to have constituted them the price of their redemption, and to have made them effectual to that end;” and “the same infinite atonement would have been necessary for the salvation of one soul, consistently with justice, as for the salvation of a world.” Haykin rightly concludes from these quotations that “Fuller is seeking to exclude a ‘quasi-quantitative’ view of the atonement (equivalentism), where the sufferings of Christ are reckoned to be numerically equivalent to the sins committed by the elect.” Fuller’s use of “sufficiency” at this point relies on Owen’s concept of intrinsic sufficiency in the sense of “value” such that with respect to the sins of the non-elect, Christ’s death can only be understood as hypothetically sufficient and not an actual extrinsic sufficiency whereby Christ made an actual atonement for all sins.

Haykin then continues:

Later, as Allen rightly notes, during his controversy with Abraham Booth in 1803, Fuller would admit that his view of the atonement and its extent had been altered by having to respond to Taylor’s Arminianism. “I found,” he wrote to Ryland, “not merely his reasonings, but the Scriptures themselves, standing in my way.” Fuller’s reading of the New Divinity writers during the 1790s and his subsequent turning away from predominantly commercial imagery to describe the substitutionary work of Christ further encouraged him in his commitment to this perspective on the extent of the atonement.

From this point, Haykin mentions that the 2nd edition of Gospel Worthy (1801) reflected this development in his [Fuller] thinking. Haykin’s antecedent to “this perspective” is Fuller’s shift away from equivalentism. Here is the rub: Haykin is assuming that this is the only shift Fuller made, and thus, for Haykin, Fuller maintains his view of particular redemption in a sense that includes the notion that Christ only substituted himself for the sins of the elect, just not in an equivalentist fashion. But is that the end of the story? Hold that thought.

Haykin quotes Fuller in his section “On Particular Redemption” (Gospel Worthy, 1801 ed.) as saying that Christ’s death, in itself, is “equal to the salvation of the whole world, were the whole world to embrace it” and “the peculiarity [particularity] which attends it [to] consist not in its insufficiency to save more than are saved, but in the sovereignty of its application.” But here it must be noted that Fuller is speaking about the actual extent of Christ’s sin bearing with respect to humanity, not the equivalentist issue of the tit for tat “quasi-quantitative” view of the atonement with respect only to the sins of the elect.

Notice the difference in what Fuller says here compared with what he said above (appx. 14 years earlier) regarding the death of Christ being of infinite value “if it had pleased God to have constituted them the price of their redemption.” Here (in 1801) the death of Christ is not only of infinite value, sufficient for the whole world, but it is actually “equal to the salvation of the whole world.” That is a horse of a different color altogether. Fuller has come full circle and abandoned limited atonement as understood and championed by Owen and Booth.

This is the point Haykin has missed and which is the cause of his misreading of Fuller it would seem.  Notice in Haykin’s continued quotations of Fuller how Fuller speaks of the “application,” “intent,” and “design” of the atonement. As I have carefully argued in Whosoever Will as well as in numerous blog posts in recent years, one must distinguish between the intent, extent, and application of the atonement in order to accurately describe various positions within Calvinism historically. This is precisely what Fuller is doing at this point. Notice Fuller says the application of the atonement is directed by God and is the result of previous design or an effectual intent. Haykin follows these very quotes by Fuller with the statement: “Christ’s death, in other words, was sufficient for all humanity, but particular in the sense that God the Father intended to extend its benefits only to the elect.” Precisely. The problem, however, is that Haykin reads the sufficiency terminology as a bare sufficiency, or simply as a statement of infinite instrinsic value, whereas Fuller had come to believe that Christ substituted himself for all mankind, and so it was actually sufficient for all in that sense. The particularity of the atonement resides not in the impetration, or substitution for sin, but in the intent to apply. This is Fuller’s mature position on the extent of the atonement, and it is the key point missed by Haykin, and I might add, Nettles.

Fuller, Universal Atonement, and the Free Offer of the Gospel

Haykin then adds this statement: “Fuller also felt that this perspective on the extent of the atonement provided a more solid foundation for the free offer of the gospel, which was a concern that had been prominent in the early years of Fuller’s ministry.” But again, here Haykin is apparently referring to Fuller’s abandonment of equivalentism, and not the fact that Fuller had also abandoned his former belief in limited substitution. The fact that Fuller abandoned a limited substitution can be seen in his Letter III to Dr. Ryland on “Substitution” (Works, 2:706-709, dated January 12, 1803). Fuller says, “The only subject on which I ought to have been here interrogated is, ‘The persons for whom Christ was a substitute; whether the elect only, or mankind in general.’” It becomes clear that Fuller argues for the latter.

How could the problem of the free offer of the gospel be helped merely by abandonment of equivalentism? It cannot. If Christ only substituted himself for the elect alone, then the salvation of the non-elect would be “naturally impossible.” However, “If there be an objective fullness in the atonement of Christ sufficient for any number of sinners, were they to believe in him, there is no other impossibility in the way of any man’s salvation to whom the gospel comes than what arises from the state of his own mind” (Works, 2:709).

Through Reformed history, many within that tradition, long before Fuller, argued the case that the free offer of the gospel was not possible on a limited substitution scheme, and they were arguing the case against Reformed brothers, the vast majority of whom rejected equivalentism.

What Haykin has missed is that Fuller is saying that the free offer of the gospel is grounded in the fact that Christ died for the sins of all people, not just the elect. This is further evidenced in Fuller’s next paragraph in the section “On Particular Redemption” which Haykin does not quote.

There is no contradiction between this peculiarity [particularity] of design in the death of Christ, and a universal obligation on those who hear the gospel to believe in him, or a universal invitation being addressed to them. If God, through the death of his Son, have promised salvation to all who comply with the gospel; and if there be no  natural impossibility as to a compliance [note the Edwardsian distinction between  natural and moral ability in man here], nor any obstruction but that which arises from  aversion of heart; exhortations to believe and be saved are consistent; and our duty,  as preachers of the Gospel, is to administer them, without any more regard to  particular redemption than to election…. (Works, 2:374)

Notice Fuller says there is no obstruction to salvation other than the aversion of the human heart. If particular redemption understood as limited substitution for the sins of the elect alone were Fuller’s mature position, he could never have consistently made this statement. In such a case, there would have been a huge impossibility: no atonement exists for the sins of the non-elect if they were to believe, any more than there would be for fallen angels who have no atonement for their sins (Works, 2:374).

This is Fuller’s point of agreement with Dan Taylor, and he states it clearly in Letter XII in his Reality and Efficacy of Divine Grace (Works, 2:550). In Letter XII, Fuller admitted he had been mistaken about the terms “ransom” and “propitiation” being applied only to those who were among the elect. Now these terms were “applicable to all mankind in general . . . ,” an admission which clearly shows Fuller had abandoned limited substitution/atonement, not merely his earlier equivalentism. No one affirming the kind of particular redemption that has a limited substitution component would ever say Christ’s death serves as a “propitiation” and “ransom” for the sins of all people. (See also Works, 2:555 where Fuller agrees with Taylor on John 3:16, Matt. 22:1-11, and John 6:32 with respect to the extent of the atonement covering the sins of all men.)

Lest there be any doubt, Fuller dispels it completely in Letter X (Works, 2:543-44). Speaking about his debates with Dan Taylor, Fuller states:

He [Taylor] would not dispute, it seems, about Christ’s dying with a view to the certain salvation of some, provided I would admit that, in another respect, he died for all mankind. Here, then, we seem to come nearer together than we sometimes are. The sense in which he pleads for the universal extent of Christ’s death, is only to lay a foundation for this doctrine, that men, in general, may be saved, if they will; and this is what I admit: I allow, that the death of Christ has opened a way, whereby God can, consistently with his justice, forgive any sinner whatever, who returns to him by Jesus Christ; and, if this may be called dying for men, which I shall not dispute, then it is admitted, that Christ died for all mankind.2

It seems fairly clear that Fuller, at this point, was in agreement with Taylor concerning the extent of Christ’s substitution, or His death for every man.

Fuller and Abraham Booth

At this point, when Haykin launches into a discussion of Abraham Booth’s criticism of Fuller and the meetings they had during 1802, he actually unwittingly supports my point on the issue. He pointed out how Fuller continued to argue that Christ’s death, “merely referring to what it is in itself sufficient for,…was for sinners as sinners.” This is Fuller’s statement of unlimited atonement with respect to extent. Haykin continues: “But, when viewed with respect to the purpose of the Father in giving his Son to die, and to the design of Christ in laying down his life, then it must be seen as for the elect alone. Put succinctly, the atoning work of Christ was ‘sufficient for all, but effectual only to the elect.’” I agree that Fuller meant that Christ’s death, when considered in and of itself, was for sinners as sinners, but add that Fuller thought it was for all sinners as such. I also grant that Fuller thought Christ’s death, when considered with respect to its design, was for the elect alone, so long as one does not think Fuller’s sense of design limited the substitution.

Haykin continues to unwittingly support my point when he quotes Booth’s statement about the sufficiency of the atonement. But note carefully how Booth’s version of sufficiency differs from Fuller’s version: Booth says he is willing to admit the sufficiency “to have redeemed all mankind, had all the sins of the whole human species been equally imputed to him.” Booth believed only in a hypothetical sufficiency, or a limited imputation of sin to Christ. Not so, the later Fuller.

Fuller and Richard Baxter

Haykin at this point employs a subtle shift in his argument and attempts a logical coup. He appeals to Booth’s charge that Fuller should be reckoned among the followers of Richard Baxter, who also believed in Christ’s unlimited sin-bearing. Haykin remarks: “Fundamental to his reasoning was that Fuller’s position on the sufficiency of Christ’s death was essentially that of Baxter, who argued that the redemption purchased by Christ was for all of humanity.” Here Haykin is referencing Fuller’s Letter VI to Dr. Ryland on “Baxterianism” (Works, 2:714-15). Haykin’s logical argument seems to proceed as follows:

Baxter held to unlimited atonement as a moderate Calvinist.
Fuller disagreed with Baxter’s notion of unlimited atonement.
Therefore, Fuller did not hold to unlimited atonement.

Case closed. . . . Not so fast, my friend! Note carefully Fuller’s actual words in paragraph three:

Mr. Baxter pleads for “universal redemption;” I only contend for the sufficiency of the atonement, in itself considered, for the redemption and salvation of the whole world; and this affords a ground for a universal invitation to sinners to believe; which was maintained by Calvin, and all old Calvinists. I consider redemption as inseparably connected with eternal life, and therefore as applicable to none but the elect who are redeemed from among men. (Works, 2:714)

Consider carefully what Fuller states. He says that one of his differences with Baxter is over the use of the term “redemption.” Baxter connected the term “redemption” both with Christ’s substitution for the sins of the world on the cross and the application to those who believe. Fuller reserved the term “redemption” only for the application of the atonement: those actually saved or possessing eternal life. As demonstrated above, Fuller has already affirmed his support for an unlimited imputation of sin to Christ. Fuller never says he differs with Baxter over the issue of unlimited imputation. Haykin’s second premise is faulty.3

Further support for this understanding of what Fuller is saying can be found in J. L. Dagg. In speaking about particular redemption, Dagg affirms there is variety within the group of people who describe themselves by this label: “Other persons who maintain the doctrine of particular redemption, distinguish between redemption and atonement, and because of the adaptedness referred to, consider the death of Christ an atonement for the sins of all men; or as an atonement for sin in the abstract.”4 Notice that Dagg is affirming there are at least two particular redemption positions within Calvinism, those who affirm limited substitution [like John Owen, and Dagg himself] and those who affirm unlimited substitution [like Fuller]. Contemporary students and teachers of the history and theology of Calvinism, particularly those embracing Owen’s views, fail to acknowledge this historical distinction.

The bottom line is this: Baxter did indeed affirm an unlimited satisfaction for sins, just as Fuller did. However, Fuller disagreed with Baxter’s use of the word “redemption” for the sufficient death of Christ on the cross for the sins of all people, not with Baxter’s notion of Christ’s unlimited satisfaction for sins.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I suggest that Haykin has misread Fuller on the question of the extent of the atonement, and has failed to see how and why Fuller came to connect the free offer of the Gospel with the necessity of an unlimited atonement. Fuller made two shifts in his theological position: 1) from equivalentism to limited imputation; 2) from limited imputation to unlimited imputation. Thus, the situation is actually even more nuanced than Haykin suggests in his surrejoinder.
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1 David L. Allen, “The Atonement: Limited or Universal?” Whosoever Will: a Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 61-107.

2 Note that later in this letter, Fuller speaks of the English Reformers who “fully avowed the doctrine of predestination, and at the same time spoke of Christ’s dying for all mankind.” Fuller not only affirms this historically, but states his own agreement with it as well. He then lists Cranmer, Latimer, Hooper, Usher, and Davenant, all of whom were examples. Davenant was the leader of the English delegation to Dort and a signatory of the final Canons. Fuller’s agreement with these men seems to offset Haykin’s observation that Fuller disagreed with Baxter.

3 It should be noted that Fuller was not influenced by Baxter, so it is unfair to charge him with “Baxterianism.” He disagreed with Baxter over a great many things, not the least of which included “obscure terms,” “artificial distinctions,” the role of faith in justification, the gospel as a “new law” (Neonomianism), Baxter’s sense of universal enabling grace, and the extent to which Baxter thought Calvinists and Arminians could be reconciled. Nevertheless, Fuller does state that he found several of his own sentiments in Baxter. With respect to the extent of Christ’s death, Baxter, though he had his own peculiarities, did agree with Cranmer, Latimer, Hooper, Ussher, and Davenant, just as Fuller did.

4 J. L. Dagg, Manual of Theology (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1990), 326.
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Of significant import to this article’s topic is a 3-part post from Dr. Allen titled:
“On the Insufficiency of the Notion of Sufficiency Among Some Calvinists, parts 1-3″
part 1
http://bit.ly/1jQsNiD
part 2
http://bit.ly/QzpCmY
part 3
http://bit.ly/1igGvss