Andrew Fuller’s Advice for Your Daily Quiet Time

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Man-Reading-Bible235x275Various Christian traditions tend to emphasize different practices when it comes to cultivating a healthy personal piety. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, prayerful meditation, often with the aid of icons, has occupied a signal place in personal spirituality. In Roman Catholicism, Marian piety remains a perennial emphasis. In Anglicanism, the Book of Common Prayer shapes individual devotional practice almost as much as corporate worship. For most evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, arguably the central spiritual practice is the daily quiet time of Bible reading and prayer.

The famous Baptist pastor-theologian Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) was once asked to give his advice about personal Bible reading. It’s interesting that over two centuries ago, what he described is so very similar to what we would consider to be a healthy daily quiet time. He recommended daily Scripture reading and prayer, suggesting that morning was the best time. He recommended using commentaries and other tools when you come across something in your reading that confuses you, though he cautions against over-reliance on these non-inspired study tools. He suggested not just reading the Scriptures, but meditating on what you read. Fuller even recommended journaling about insights that come to you as you read and meditate on the biblical text. In other words, Andrew Fuller was Richard Foster and Donald Whitney before the latter two were cool. You can read his short essay below.

I do not wish the following remarks to supersede any other answer which may enter more fully into the subject. All I have to offer will be a few hints from my own experience.

In the first place, I have found it good to appoint set times for reading the Scriptures; and none have been so profitable as part of the season appropriated to private devotion on rising in the morning. The mind at this time is reinvigorated and unencumbered. To read a part of the Scriptures, previous to prayer, I have found to be very useful. It tends to collect the thoughts, to spiritualize the affections, and to furnish us with sentiments wherewith to plead at a throne of grace. And as reading assists prayer, so prayer assists reading. At these seasons we shall be less in danger of falling into idle speculations, and of perverting Scripture in support of hypotheses. A spiritual frame of mind, as Mr. [Samuel] Pearce somewhere observes, is as a good light in viewing a painting; it will not a little facilitate the understanding of the Scriptures. I do not mean to depreciate the labours of those who have commented on the sacred writings; but we may read expositors, and consult critics, while the “spirit and life” of the word utterly escape us. A tender, humble, holy frame is perhaps of more importance to our entering into the mind of the Holy Spirit than all other means united. It is thus that, by “an unction from the Holy One, we know all things.”

In reading by myself, I have also felt the advantage of being able to pause, and think, as well as pray; and to inquire how far the subject is any way applicable to my case, and conduct in life.

In the course of a morning’s exercise it may be supposed that some things will appear hard to be understood; and I may feel myself, after all my application, unable to resolve them. Here, then, let me avail myself of commentators and expositors. If I read them instead of reading the Scriptures, I may indeed derive some knowledge; but my mind will not be stored with the best riches; nor will the word “dwell richly in me in all wisdom and spiritual understanding.” If, on the other hand, I read the Scriptures, and exercise my own mind on their meaning, only using the helps with which I am furnished when I particularly need them, such knowledge will avail me more than any other; for, having felt and laboured at the difficulty myself, what I obtain from others towards the solution of it becomes more interesting and abiding than if I had read it without any such previous efforts. And as to my own thoughts, though they may not be superior nor equal to those of others, in themselves considered, yet, if they be just, their having been the result of pleasing toil renders them of superior value to me. A small portion obtained by our own labour is sweeter than a large inheritance bequeathed by our predecessors. Knowledge thus obtained will not only be always accumulating, but of special use in times of trial; not like the cumbrous armour which does not fit us, but like the sling and the stone, which, though less brilliant, will be more efficacious.

I may add, it were well for those who can find leisure to commit to writing the most interesting thoughts which occur at these seasons. It is thus that they will be fixed in the memory; and the revision of them may serve to rekindle some of the best sensations in out life.

See Andrew Fuller, “Reading the Scriptures,” in The Works of Andrew Fuller, vol. III, ed. Joseph Belcher (1845; reprint, Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), p. 788.

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Andrew Fuller on Confessions of Faith

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One of the key differences between most Southern Baptist conservatives and most moderate Baptists in the South is the place of confessional statements. This difference was magnified during the years between 1998 and 2002 when Southern Baptists amended and then revised the Baptist Faith and Message and required denominational employees to affirm the confession of faith. It remains a sticking point: many conservatives accuse moderates of being theological pluralists, while many moderates accuse conservatives of being “creedal” and exalting man-made statements over the Bible. I believe both accusations are more political rhetoric than reality, but that’s par for the course in intra-Baptist squabbles.

Political exaggeration aside, it is true that moderate Baptists tend to be more suspicious of confessions. It is also true that conservative Southern Baptists are typically more favorable toward confessions. Both groups can find support for their position from Baptist history—we are too diverse a tradition for a cut-and-dry approach. That said, as a Southern Baptist who is comfortable with confessions of faith, I know that my position is not out of sorts with Baptist history. Over the course of 400 years, many Baptists have embraced confessionalism as a valid way to summarize biblical doctrine, commend those beliefs and hold Baptist Christians accountable to those convictions.

As in so many Baptist discussions, Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) offers wisdom on this topic. In his short essay “Creeds and Subscriptions,” Fuller makes a Baptist case for a robust confessionalism. Note the following excerpts:

It has been very common, among a certain class of writers, to exclaim against creeds and systems in religion as inconsistent with Christian liberty and the rights of conscience; but surely they must be understood as objecting to those creeds only which they dislike, and not to creeds in general; for no doubt, unless they be worse than the worst of beings, they have a creed of their own. The man who has no creed has no belief; which is the same thing as being an unbeliever; and he whose belief is not formed into a system has only a few loose, unconnected thoughts, without entering into the harmony and glory of the gospel. Every well-informed and consistent believer, therefore, must have a creed—a system which he supposes to contain the leading principles of Divine revelation.

It may be pleaded that the objection does not lie so much against our having creeds or systems as against our imposing them on others as the condition of Christian fellowship. If, indeed, a subscription to articles of faith were required without examination, or enforced by civil penalties, it would be an unwarrantable imposition on the rights of conscience; but if an explicit agreement in what may be deemed fundamental principles be judged essential to fellowship, this is only requiring that a man appear to be a Christian before he can have a right to be treated as such. Suppose it were required of a Jew or an infidel, before he is admitted to the Lord’s supper, (which either might be disposed to solicit for some worldly purpose,) that he must previously become a believer; should we thereby impose Christianity upon him? He might claim the right of private judgment, and deem such a requisition incompatible with its admission; but it is evident that he could not be entitled to Christian regard, and that, while he exclaimed against the imposition of creeds and systems, he himself would be guilty of an imposition of the grossest kind, utterly inconsistent with the rights of voluntary and social compact, as well as of Christian liberty….

The substance of the inquiry therefore would be, whether a body of Christians have a right to judge of the meaning of the doctrines and precepts of the gospel, and to act accordingly? That an individual has a right so to judge, and to form his connexions with those whose views are most congenial with his own, will not be disputed; but if so, why have not a society the same right? If Christ has given both doctrines and precepts, some of which are more immediately addressed to Christians in their social capacity, they must not only possess such a right, but are under obligation to exercise it. If the righteous nation which keep the truth be the only proper characters for entering into gospel fellowship, those who have the charge of their admission are obliged to form a judgment on what is truth, and what is righteousness; without which they must be wholly unqualified for their office.

It is a trite and frivolous objection which some have made against subscriptions and articles of faith—that it is setting bounds to the freedom of inquiry, and requiring a conformity of sentiment that is incompatible with the various opportunities and capacities of different persons. The same objection might be urged against the covenanting of the Israelites (Neh. 10:29) and all laws in society. If a religious community agree to specify some leading principles which they consider as derived from the word of God, and judge the belief of them to be necessary in order to any person’s becoming or continuing a member with them, it does not follow that those principles should be equally understood, or that all their brethren must have the same degree of knowledge, nor yet that they should understand and believe nothing else. The powers and capacities of different persons are various; one may comprehend more of the same truth than another, and have his views more enlarged by an exceedingly great variety of kindred ideas; and yet the substance of their belief may still be the same. The object of articles is to keep at a distance, not those who are weak in the faith, but such as are its avowed enemies. Supposing a church covenant to be so general as not to specify one principle or duty, but barely an engagement to adhere to the Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice, the objection would still apply; and it might be said, One man is capable of understanding much more of the Scriptures than another, and persons of more enlarged minds may discover a great deal of truth relating to science which the Scriptures do not pretend to teach: why, therefore, do we frame articles to limit the freedom of inquiry or which require a conformity of sentiment incompatible with the opportunities and capacities of persons so differently circumstanced? The objection, therefore, if admitted, would prove too much. The powers of the mind will probably vary in a future world; one will be capable of comprehending much more of truth than another; yet the redeemed will all be of one mind, and of one heart.

Every one feels the importance of articles, or laws, in civil society; and yet these are nothing less than expositions or particular applications of the great principle of universal equity. General or universal equity is that to civil laws which the Bible is to articles of faith; it is the source from which they are all professedly derived, and the standard to which they ought all to be submitted. The one are as liable to swerve from general equity as the other from the word of God; and where this is proved to be the case in either instance, such errors require to be corrected. But as no person of common sense would on this account inveigh against laws being made, and insist that we ought only to covenant in general to walk according to equity, without agreeing in any leading principles, or determining wherein that equity consists; neither ought he to inveigh against articles of faith and practice in religious matters, provided that they comport with the mind of God in his word. If the articles of faith be opposed to the authority of Scripture, or substituted in the place of such authority, they become objectionable and injurious; but if they simply express the united judgment of those who voluntarily subscribe them, they are incapable of any such kind of imputation.

For the complete essay, see Andrew Fuller, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, vol. III, ed. Joseph Belcher (1845; reprint, Sprinkle, 1988), 449–51.

Andrew Fuller and Southeastern Seminary: A Tradition

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As regularly readers probably know, the major emphasis in my scholarly research right now is Andrew Fuller and his circle of friends in the Northamptonshire Association, ca. 1760–1820. In 2007, I wrote an article for the Midwestern Journal of Theology on Robert Hall Sr., a British Baptist pastor who mentored Fuller, William Carey, and their friends. In 2011, that article was reprinted as the introduction to a new edition of Hall’s Help to Zion’s Travellers (BorderStone Press), which I edited. This volume was one of the first broadsides against hyper-Calvinism published by a British Particular Baptist. Hall’s views influenced Fuller’s own arguments in the latter’s important treatise The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (1785; second edition published 1801). I’ve also published one journal article on William Carey, with a second essay currently under review with a journal.

More recently, I’ve turned my attention to Fuller himself. Lord willing, in the next couple of years I will publish a journal article and a couple of book chapters related to Fuller (they’ve all been written and are forthcoming). I’m also editing two volumes in the critical edition of The Works of Andrew Fuller. I hope to complete the first volume, a critical edition of Fuller’s Strictures on Sandemanianism (first published 1810), by the end of 2014. If you’ve never heard of the Sandemanians (or Glasites) before, check out this Wikipedia entry. Other possible Fuller-related projects are still in the planning stages.

In studying Fuller’s life and thought, I’m actually standing in a long line of Southeastern Seminary scholars that dates to our earliest years. Pope Duncan taught church history at Southeastern from 1953–1960 before serving as the president of two colleges in South Georgia (God’s Country!) and Stetson University in Central Florida. Duncan wrote a Th.D. dissertation at Southern Seminary in 1917 titled “The Influence of Andrew Fuller on Calvinism.”  John Eddins, who taught systematic theology at Southeastern from 1957–1993, also wrote his Th.D. dissertation on Fuller at SBTS. The title is “Andrew Fuller’s Theology of Grace.” James Tull taught systematic and historical theology at Southeastern Seminary from 1960–1985. Though his influential dissertation at Columbia University was on Landmark ecclesiology, Tull wrote a chapter on Andrew Fuller’s theology for his book Shapers of Baptist Thought (Judson Press, 1972; reprint, Mercer University Press, 1984).

Though he is better known for his tenure as president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Phil Roberts taught evangelism at Southeastern from 1990–1994. During that time, he wrote the chapter on Andrew Fuller in Baptist Theologians (Broadman, 1990), edited by Timothy George and David Dockery. That chapter was reprinted in Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (B&H Academic, 2001), a condensed version of the earlier book also edited by George and Dockery. Fuller also factored heavily into Roberts’s dissertation at the Free University of Amsterdam, which was published as Continuity and Change: London Calvinistic Baptists and the Evangelical Revival, 1760–1820 (Richard Owen Roberts, 1989).

The tradition has been renewed in recent years. In 2007, my friend and sometime doctoral classmate Paul Brewster defended a widely praised dissertation at SEBTS titled “Andrew Fuller (1754-1815): Model Baptist Pastor-Theologian.” Brewster’s thesis was revised into a monograph titled Andrew Fuller: Model Pastor-Theologian (B&H Academic, 2010). You can read my review of Brewster’s excellent book at the Credo Magazine website. Brewster, himself a model pastor-theologian in Indiana, has also published journal articles on village preaching by Fuller and other British Baptists and Fuller’s theological method. He also has written several forthcoming articles and book chapters related to Fuller. In addition to his pastoral duties, Brewster teaches for Liberty University and serves as a Fellow of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, a think-tank affiliated with Southern Seminary.

I’m also excited about current and prospective doctoral students at Southeastern who are interested in Fuller and related topics. One of our current Ph.D. students, who completed his M.Div. at a sister seminary, intends to write a dissertation on Fuller’s understanding of preaching. Two prospective doctoral students, one from SEBTS and one from a sister seminary, are applying into our doctoral program this fall with the intention of studying topics related to Fuller’s thought and legacy. Lord willing, these fellows and others will continue the six-decade tradition of Southeastern Seminary faculty and doctoral students studying the life and thought of Andrew Fuller.