Response to Tom Nettles’ “Andrew Fuller & David Allen, Parts 1 & 2″

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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“If the speciality of redemption be placed in the atonement itself, and not in the sovereign will of God, or in the design of the Father and the Son, with respect to the persons to whom it shall be applied, it must, as far as I am able to perceive, have proceeded on the principle of pecuniary satisfactions. In them the payment is proportioned to the amount of the debt; and, being so, it is not of sufficient value for more than those who are actually liberated by it; nor is it true, in these cases, that the same satisfaction is required for one as for many. But, if such was the satisfaction of Christ that nothing less was necessary for the salvation of one, nothing more could be necessary for the salvation of the whole world, and the whole world might have been saved by it if it had accorded with sovereign wisdom so to apply it. It will also follow that, if the satisfaction of Christ was in itself sufficient for the whole world, there is no further propriety in such questions as these–”Whose sins were imputed to Christ? for whom did he die as a substitute?“–than as they go to inquire who were the persons designed to be saved by him? That which is equally necessary for one as for many must, in its own nature, be equally sufficient for many as for one; and could not proceed upon the principle of the sins of some being laid upon Christ, rather than others, any otherwise than as it was the design of the Father and the Son, through one all-sufficient medium, ultimately to pardon the sins of the elect rather than those of the non-elect.”

Andrew Fuller, Six Letters to Dr. Ryland, Letter III (Fuller’s Works, 708)

Some readers may wonder why Dr. Nettles and I, and Dr. Haykin previously, are engaged in this discussion on Andrew Fuller. There is a simple reason: we think it is important: historically and theologically. Given the minutiae of the discussion, neither Dr. Nettles nor I should be surprised should the five other people who are left reading our back and forth find this discussion an instant cure for insomnia. There are really not much fireworks here.

Regarding Fuller’s view on the extent of the atonement, in an effort to further the dialogue, let me summarize the situation by means of the following four questions.

1. Did Fuller, especially in his later writings, distinguish among the intent, extent, and application of the atonement?

2. What did Fuller understand about the atonement with respect to Christ’s substitution for sins?

3. What did Fuller see in the atonement that lays “a foundation for any sinner to come to God for salvation?”

4. What does Fuller mean when he speaks of the “sufficiency” of Christ’s death?

In order to answer these questions, let’s attempt an analysis, something of an exegesis if you will, of Fuller’s Letter III on “Substitution” (Fuller’s Works, 2:706-09) to Dr. Ryland, written in 1803, two years after Fuller published his 2nd edition of Gospel Worthy. Nettles draws heavily on this letter to justify his claim that Fuller held to a limited substitution for the sins of the elect only.

This is one of six letters Fuller wrote in January, 1803, to his friend, John Ryland, concerning Fuller’s ongoing dispute (1796-1806), chiefly over the atonement, with Abraham Booth, a former Arminian who had converted to Calvinism. Booth was especially critical of the influence he believed the New Divinity men in America were having on Fuller. Booth suggested that Fuller denied substitution. Fuller’s third letter to Ryland denies this charge. This context is crucial in the interpretation of the letter. Fuller is not here remonstrating with Dan Taylor, the Arminian, but with a fellow Calvinist, who may have been the source of the false rumor floating around that Fuller had admitted in private he was no longer a Calvinist but an Arminian.

The reader will find it helpful to have a copy of the letter available while reading this post. The letter is fourteen paragraphs in length. I will address every paragraph, but not every sentence in each paragraph, lest the analysis become too unwieldy. Only the most important material for the question at hand will be covered.

The topic of the letter is contained in the first sentence of paragraph one: “Whether Christ laid down his life as a substitute for sinners, was never a question for me.” Fuller clearly acknowledges the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death.

In paragraph two, the important point is in the last sentence:

“But, perhaps, Mr. B. [Booth] considers ‘a real[1] and proper imputation of our sins to Christ,’ by which he seems to mean their being literally transferred to him, as essential to this doctrine [substitution]; and if so, I acknowledge I do not at present believe it” (706).

Here Fuller states two things. First, he interprets Booth’s view on imputation to be that of transactualism (“sins being literally transferred” to Christ. Second, Fuller states he does not affirm commercialism.

Fuller states in paragraph three:
“For Christ to die as a substitute . . . is the same thing as his dying for us, or in our stead, or that we should not die” (706). Fuller indicates that these phrases in italics are equivalent terms for describing Christ’s substitution.

Paragraph four begins:
“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.’” Fuller states he intends to be “as explicit as I am able” in his answer. Here Fuller clearly and correctly identifies the issue at hand.

In paragraph five, Fuller imagines a hypothetical question being asked of him: when the gospel is introduced into a country, “For whom was it sent?” His answer is twofold and takes into consideration his belief in God’s revealed will and secret will. If answered in respect to the former, Fuller said the gospel “is sent for men, not as elect or as non-elect, but as sinners.” “But if I had respect to the secret will or appointment of God as to its application, I should say . . . to take out of it a people for his name” (707). Here is Fuller’s affirmation of particular redemption in the sense of God’s ultimate intent in the atonement: to save the elect and them only. This statement alone indicates that in Fuller’s mind there is a distinction between for whom it was made and for whom it was designed to save. But this does not implicate Fuller as a proponent of limited substitution. He says nothing about a limited extent, merely a limited intent and application.

Paragraph six continues this topic:
In like manner concerning the death of Christ. If I speak of it irrespective of the purpose of the Father and the Son, as to its objects who should be saved by it, merely referring to what it is in itself sufficient for, and declared in the gospel to be adapted to, . . . It was for sinners as sinners; but if I have respect to the purpose of the Father in giving his Son to die, and to the design of Christ in laying down his life, I should answer, It was for the elect only (707).

Fuller now moves from the question of “for whom was the gospel sent” and “in like manner” speaks of the death of Christ. Notice that semantically, Fuller is contrasting what the atonement “is in itself sufficient for…and declared in the gospel to be adapted to,” with its purpose and design which is for the elect only. What is it that is being contrasted? Answer: an atonement that is “for sinners as sinners” is being contrasted with an atonement that is “for the elect only.”

Fuller here notes a distinction between the nature and the design (application) of the satisfaction. What does Fuller mean by the term “sinners”? All sinners, or some sinners? Nettles thinks he means only elect sinners because he believes Fuller believes that Christ satisfied only for the sins of the elect. But the context here and throughout the letter makes it clear Fuller intends the meaning “all sinners.” Whenever Fuller intends to speak of elect sinners only, he carefully qualifies the word “sinners” with “elect” or an equivalent term or phrase. For Fuller, “sinners as sinners” means “sinners qua sinners.” If I say I love Americans as Americans, I don’t mean only certain kinds of Americans, but Americans qua Americans. There is no other distinction in mind. If one is an American, I love him by definition. There is no way for Nettles to get around this. Fuller’s use of the term “sinners” must be universal as well as qualitative (as opposed to limited and quantitative). If a man is a sinner, Christ has substituted for his sin. This is the thrust of Fuller’s explanation to Ryland of the argument against Booth.

Fuller then places a footnote where he cites John Owen’s distinction between what the atonement is in itself sufficient for, and what it is as applied. He further quotes Owen: “That it should be applied unto any, made a price for them, and become beneficial to them, according to the worth that is in it, is external to it, doth not arise from it, but merely depends upon the intention and will of God.” Fuller rightly notes that it is on this ground that Owen “accounts for the propitiation of Christ being set forth in general and indefinite expressions…” (707). But does Fuller intend his quotation of Owen to indicate his agreement with Owen’s notion of limited substitution? Nettles thinks it does. But this is problematic contextually since Fuller has already indicated the actual atonement was “for sinners as sinners,” not that it was merely sufficient in terms of its intrinsic or internal value for all sinners. Nothing in Fuller’s footnote on Owen’s concept of sufficiency is used by Fuller to deduce a limited substitution, as Nettles has done.

Paragraph seven continues:
“In the former of these views, I find the apostles . . . addressing themselves to sinners without distinction, and holding forth the death of Christ as a ground of faith to all men.” Why does Fuller say “all men” here? This point Fuller makes to Booth is vital. If it is only the sins of some men, then those for whom Christ’s death was not a substitution have no “ground of faith” for them. They are, as such, not saveable. That, implies Fuller, is his challenge to Booth.

Fuller then appeals to two Scriptures, Matthew 22:14, where the servants are sent to call guests to the marriage supper, “Come, for all things are ready,” and 2 Corinthians 5:21: “he hath made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (707). Here, Fuller does not appeal to the sufficiency of the atonement as the “ground of faith to all men,” but the atonement itself as this ground of faith for all men. This is evidenced clearly by his quotation of 2 Corinthians 5:21. Fuller does not interpret the first clause of this verse in a limited fashion as do those Calvinists who affirm limited imputation of sin to Christ. Rather, he uses the verse to support the contention that there is a ground of faith to all men in the death of Christ. What is that ground of faith? It is the substitutionary death of Christ for all men.

In paragraph eight, Fuller continues:
“In the latter view” (Fuller’s statements in paragraph six concerning God’s secret will for the “purpose” and “design” of the atonement”) God’s “discriminating grace” is for the elect only. This is no affirmation of limited substitution because Fuller is speaking about “purpose” and “design” to effectually apply the satisfaction, not “extent.” Notice here and elsewhere in this letter Fuller never answers the question he asked in paragraph four (whether Christ was a substitute for the “the elect only” or “mankind in general”) with any statement affirming it was for the elect only.

Fuller continues to elaborate his meaning in paragraph nine.
He states if his definition of substitution above is correct, then with respect to the “designed end” of the atonement, it “is strictly applicable to none but the elect.” Notice carefully the phrase “designed end” and the word “applicable.” Fuller’s next statement is very important in context: “for whatever ground there is for sinners, as sinners, to believe and be saved, it never was the design of Christ to impart faith to any others than those who were given him of the Father. He therefore did not die with the intent that any others should not die” (707).

Notice Fuller clearly affirms the limitation is not in the extent of the atonement, but in the application of the atonement. This is evidenced in that Fuller contrasts the “ground there is for sinners, as sinners, to believe and be saved” (unlimited substitution for sinners as sinners), with his point that “it never was the design of Christ to impart faith to any others” than the elect. Fuller does not say it never was the design of Christ to make expiation for, or substitute for, anyone other than the elect. Rather, he says it never was the design of Christ to impart faith to anyone other than the elect. Notice carefully how Fuller distinguishes the intent, the extent, and the application of the atonement.

Fuller asserts in paragraph ten that whether he can reconcile these two statements (Christ’s death as ground for sinners as sinners to be saved, and the fact that there never was the design of Christ to impart faith to any other than the elect), he believes both are taught in Scripture, and Fuller sees no inconsistency in them. If all Fuller meant by this was the reconciliation of an intrinsic sufficiency with the understanding that the intent of the atonement was for the elect alone, then there would be no reason to respond to Booth, for he affirmed the same. Much more is at stake.

It is Fuller’s next statement in this paragraph that indicates he is speaking about something more than a mere sufficiency of value in the death of Christ. If the death of Christ was a substitution of such kind as to be

equally required for the salvation of one sinner as for many—is not this the same thing as acknowledging that atonement required to be made for sin as sin; and, being made, was applicable to sinners as sinners? In other words, is it not acknowledged that God redeemed his elect by an atonement in its own nature adapted to all, just as he calls his elect by a gospel addressed to all? (708)[2]

Notice first that Fuller is speaking of substitution, not sufficiency. Second, Fuller speaks of this substitution as “equally required” for one or many sinners. Third, he asserts the atonement was made “for sin as sin” and “was applicable to sinners as sinners.” He certainly does not say, indeed, he rejects the idea that the atonement was made for the sins of the elect only, but for sinners as sinners. It is not possible in this context to interpret Fuller’s use of “sinners” here to be “elect sinners,” rather, it must mean “all sinners.” Fourth, notice Fuller speaks of the elect as being “redeemed” by an atonement “in its own nature adapted to all.” Fuller does not say “sufficient” for all, though he believes that it is. Rather he says “adapted to all.” How could such language be used by one who affirms a limited substitution? How could the atonement be “adapted to all” if it is only a substitution for the elect? Fifth, he draws a comparison (“just as”) of atonement made with the call of the gospel addressed to the world. How could Fuller make these comments and draw this last comparison if he affirmed both a limited substitution and an unlimited gospel call?

Now compare these statements of Fuller with Nettles’ claim (Part 2):
“Fuller does not think that Christ died for the ‘sins’ of all people, certainly not for the ‘sins of the non-elect,’ nor even precisely for the sins of the elect.” The operative word here is “precisely,” as Nettles attempts to pit me against Fuller in his suggestion that I am setting forth “a kind of universal commercialism, implying that Christ has shouldered the full wrath of all the sins of all men of all times to the degree that all their sins deserve.” Nothing could be more mistaken on Nettles part, and for good reasons. First, Nettles has confused the categories of imputation and substitution. Sins were not imputed to Christ in bits and pieces, in a “quasi-quantitative” manner, to use Haykin’s term. But Christ did indeed substitute for sinner as sinners, that is, all men as they are sinners, elect and non-elect sinners, and that is Fuller’s point. Second, to believe “that Christ has shouldered the full wrath of all the sins of all men of all times to the degree that all their sins deserve” is the biblically and theologically correct way to speak of Christ’s substitution. Nettles is at least correct on one thing: I do indeed, and with all my heart, affirm that, and I think Fuller did too.

On Nettles’ terms, when he says that Christ “certainly” did not substitute for the non-elect, and not “precisely” for the elect, this becomes incoherent in light of Fuller’s argument and my own rejection of equivalentism, commercialism, and transactualism. Nettles’ problem in his reading of Fuller is the issue of congruity. If Fuller himself holds to limited substitution, why doesn’t he just agree with Booth on that point?

Paragraph eleven is lengthy. Fuller queries if the “speciality of redemption,” (by which he means limited substitution) “be placed in the atonement itself” and not in either God’s will or design, then with respect to the recipients (the elect), it must proceed on the “principle of pecuniary satisfactions,” where the payment made is an exact equivalent of the debt owed. (708).

If this is the case, Fuller concludes that the satisfaction “is not of sufficient value for more than those who are actually liberated by it.” Quite right. He also concludes that in these cases it is not true “that the same satisfaction is required for one as for many,” as noted in paragraph ten. He continues: “if the satisfaction of Christ was in itself sufficient for the whole world,” there is no need to ask such questions as whose sins were imputed to Christ or for whom did he die as a substitute, any more than asking the question “who were the persons designed to be saved by him?” (708) How can Fuller say this? He can do so because the satisfaction of Christ is for sinners qua sinners.

Here Nettles comes into conflict with Fuller. Follow the logic carefully.
Fuller has already stated his affirmation that “the same satisfaction is required for one as for many.” Fuller is using the term “many” here as equivalent to the whole world. Here he concludes that if the atonement is limited in its extent, then with respect to the elect, it must proceed on commercial principles (equivalentism), thus negating Fuller’s affirmation that the same satisfaction is required for one as for many. And if this is the case, Fuller further concludes it “is not of sufficient value” for anyone other than the elect. Fuller rejects commercialism, and in so doing affirms universal substitution. Otherwise his words become incoherent.

It is Fuller’s next statement, to which Nettles appeals to prove Fuller affirmed a limited substitution, that is crucial to note: “That which is equally necessary for one as for many, must, in its own nature, be equally sufficient for many as for one; and could not proceed upon the principle of the sins of some being laid upon Christ rather than others” (708). After making this point, Fuller again states that the purpose and intent of the atonement was for the elect only. “To them, his substitution was the same, in effect, as if their sins had by number been literally transferred to him.” Of course, Fuller has already made clear that he rejects this notion of commercialism and/or literal transactualism, which is why he employs the conditional “if” and the phrase “in effect,” which he places in italics. His point is that when it comes to actual substitution, it is not possible for Christ to substitute for some (the elect) and not for others. The only way a limited substitution can work is in a commercial understanding of imputation of sins, and Fuller clearly has rejected such. However, it is possible for God to design the atonement to be applied only to the elect, and that is exactly what Fuller believes. Finally, he concludes the paragraph with the statement “All this I suppose to be included in the design of the Father and the Son, or in the “sovereign application” of the atonement” (708).

Nettles’ reading of Fuller results in incoherence. If we were to ask Fuller, “if any man is a sinner, can he say that Christ suffered for his sins?” Fuller clearly answers “yes.” Nettles would have to say, “No, only if that sinner was an elect sinner.” But now certainly we are right back with Booth, so how does Fuller disagree with Booth, on Nettles’ terms?

Having established that it is not possible for Christ to have accomplished a limited substitutionary atonement, in paragraph twelve Fuller turns his attention to answer the question how it is that the sufficiency of Christ’s death can provide the necessary grounds for the general (universal) gospel offer, “if the design was confined to the elect people?” (708) Notice Fuller does not say “if the extent was confined to the elect,” but “if the design was confined to the elect.” Fuller has demonstrated that he does not conflate these two concepts, as do Nettles and all high-Calvinists.

Fuller offers a three-fold answer in paragraph thirteen.

1. It is a fact that Scriptures rest the general invitation of the gospel upon the atonement of Christ, 2 Cor. V. 19-21; Matt. xxii.4; John iii. 16.
2. If there were not a sufficiency in the atonement for the salvation of sinners, and yet they were invited to be reconciled to God, they must be invited to what is naturally impossible. The message of the gospel would in this case be as if the servants who went forth to bid the guests had said ‘Come,’ though, in fact, nothing was ready if many of them had come.
3. 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 (709).

Nettles makes the argument that Fuller’s words, “objective fullness,” with reference to the atonement are equivalent to “sufficient in value” only, and he thinks this is proved by what Fuller said two paragraphs earlier. But he has misread what Fuller said. Contrary to Nettles’ interpretation, Fuller’s point is that the reason why it is a moot point to query “for whom did he die as a substitute” has been answered in the very paragraph Nettles quotes from, where Fuller stated “that which is equally necessary for one as for many, must, in its own nature, be equally sufficient for many as for one” (708).

For Fuller, “objective fullness” equates to unlimited substitution. Interestingly this is the same language and use of Matthew 22:4 that dozens of Calvinists, who affirm unlimited substitution before, during, and after the time of Fuller, have used to make their case against a strictly limited atonement. God cannot offer to the non-elect what does not exist for them, namely, an atonement as the grounds for their salvation. If Nettles is right, that Christ certainly did not suffer for the sins of the non-elect, then there is, indeed, a barrier, making it impossible for the non-elect to be pardoned and saved.

This was the crux of Taylor’s argument and Fuller came to see it clearly and abandoned his view of limited substitution. Here in this letter he now is attempting to answer Booth’s charge that he had abandoned substitution altogether. Fuller had not abandoned it; he had merely defined it differently than Booth because he now rejects a limited substitution, along with a commercial understanding of the atonement, which Booth affirms.

Fuller’s last paragraph is interesting. He states three things. First, he says these are his views on the subject “as well as I am able to explain them.” Second, he humbly states he could be mistaken “in some particulars, and, if so, I should be happy to receive further light from any one.” This is refreshingly typical of Fuller’s general humility throughout his writings, one of many things I have come to appreciate about him. Third, until he receives further light, “I shall not think the worse of what I have written for the names by which it may be stigmatized” (709). It appears from Fuller’s perspective that Booth erroneously considered him an Arminian, but rightly recognized that Fuller had indeed affirmed an unlimited atonement with respect to Christ’s substitution for sins.

I return to a quote from Fuller used in my original post in response to Haykin, which Nettles, understandably, chose not to address in his two-part post. As Fuller said concerning his debates with Dan Taylor in The Reality and Efficacy of Divine Grace, Letter X, published in 1790:

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. (Works, 2:543-44)

It seems clear that Fuller, at this point, was in agreement with Taylor concerning the extent of Christ’s substitution: “Christ died for all mankind.”

Returning to our four questions at the beginning, we are now in a position to provide answers.

1. Did Fuller, especially in his later writings, distinguish between the intent, extent, and application of the atonement?

Yes.

2. What did Fuller understand about the atonement with respect to Christ’s substitution for sins?

Fuller believed Christ substituted for all the sins of all sinners, insofar as he died for sinners qua sinners, but only the elect, according to the design and purpose of God in the atonement, will be saved.

3. What did Fuller see in the atonement that lays “a foundation for any sinner to come to God for salvation?”

Christ’s substitution for the sins of all mankind (i.e., sinners as sinners, which entails all sinners by definition).

4. What does Fuller mean when he speaks of the “sufficiency” of Christ’s death?

Context determines the answer to this. Sometimes Fuller refers to a sufficiency of worth and value. At other times he speaks of a sufficiency that is objective and the result of Christ’s substitution for the sins of all.

In summary, Nettles’ interpretation of Fuller fails the congruency test and renders Fuller’s statements incoherent. Indeed, he must flip Fuller on his head to say the very thing Fuller says he rejects. Fuller cannot be interpreted as excluding the non-elect in Christ’s substitutionary work on the cross. He rules out any sort of qualitative or quantitative satisfaction for the elect to the exclusion of the non-elect. He simply denies both options.

The reader must judge whether it is Nettles or I who has misread Fuller.

Postscript:
In his “Andrew Fuller and David Allen,” Part 2, in response to my statement that high-Calvinists often fail to acknowledge the distinction between those Calvinists who affirmed an unlimited substitution and those who did not, Nettles can’t imagine about whom I’m speaking and directs me to his quotation in his By His Grace and For His Glory, where he identifies two streams of thought from Calvinists who affirm limited atonement. In so doing, Nettles demonstrates that he has completely misunderstood my point, and apparently John Leadley Dagg as well, from whom I quoted. Nettles is, in his quotation, contrasting two streams within Calvinism of those Calvinists who defend limited atonement as a limited substitution. I am speaking of those two streams of Calvinists which Dagg refers to in his Manual of Theology, 326. Dagg stated: “Other persons who maintain the doctrine of particular redemption, distinguish between redemption and atonement, and because of the adaptedness [Fuller’s term] referred to, consider the death of Christ an atonement for the sins of all men; or as an atonement for sin in the abstract.” Dagg is asserting there are two kinds of Calvinists who affirm particular redemption: those who affirm a strictly limited substitution (Dagg, Nettles, and Haykin, for example), and those who affirm Christ made an atonement “for the sins of all men” (which would be all the first generation of Reformers, including Calvin, followed by a great cloud of witnesses in the history of Reformed theology too numerous to name here), including Fuller, as demonstrated in his Letter III on Substitution (see my chapter in Whosoever Will for details).[3] My original assertion stands.
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[1] All italics in quotations of Fuller are his.

[2] See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 2:544-45; and Robert Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology, 525, 527. Hodge uses the almost identical wording of Fuller in making the same point. Both Hodge and Dabney did not affirm limited atonement and believed Christ substituted for the sins of all people.

[3] David L. Allen, “The Atonement: Limited or Universal?” Whosoever Will: a Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, ed. by David L. Allen and Steve Lemke (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 61-108.