Andrew Fuller Friday: On the Criminality of Mental Error

In proportion, however, as the Scriptures are plain, and easy to be understood, must be our criminality, if we be endowed with common sense, in not understanding them. If the way of salvation is so plain that “a wayfaring man, though a fool, shall not err therein,” then the errors of men concerning it cannot be innocent. And the same is true of the perceptive parts of Scripture. If error arise not from the obscurity of Scripture, from its being beyond the capacity of men in general, it must arise from other causes; and what these can be besides indifference, indolence, carelessness, prejudice, pride, or aversion, I know not.

“Why do ye not understand my speech!” said our Lord to the Jews. Was it because it was not important enough to demand their attention, or because it was not plain enough to meet their capacities?—No. Mark the answer. Why? “Because ye cannot hear my word.” What, then, were they naturally deaf?—No. That had been their felicity. Better have no ears, than ears and hear not. Their deafness was like that of the adder, that “will not hear the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely.” Then would they not listen to his discourses? This does not appear. But they could not receive his doctrine. This is the import of the answer. And why could they not receive it? Evidently because of their pride, prejudice, and love of sin. The pride of their hearts could not bear the doctrine which represented them as slaves to ignorance and sin, and proposed their being made free by the knowledge of the truth. With a haughty, contemptuous air, they spurn the proposal; replying, “We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?” Their prejudice in favour of their old religion hardened them against conviction, and their love of sin set them against that gospel which laid the axe at the root of that evil tree. Our Lord, in effect, told them so. “Ye are of your father, the devil, and the deeds of your father ye will do.” As if he had said, You would rather continue slaves to Satan than that “the Son” should make you free!

There seems to be a beautiful propriety in our Lord’s parable of the sower. It is observable that, of the four sorts of ground, only one received the seed so as to bring forth fruit; and that one is explained of persons who have “good and honest hearts:” plainly implying that, if men’s hearts were but honest, they would be sure to embrace the word of God. Indeed, the nature of Divine revelation is such that its rejection implies a dishonest heart. For instance, does the word of God set forth the rights of Deity, and human obligation? This is what an honest heart loves. That heart cannot be honest which does not rejoice in every one having his due, and consequently in God’s having his. Does it represent man as having forfeited all claim to the goodness of God? An honest heart will acquiesce in this, and be willing to receive all as a free donation. Does it exhibit such a way of salvation as provides for the honour of injured Majesty? This is sure to be embraced by an honest heart: such a mind could not bear the thought of being saved at the expense of righteousness. To desire to receive mercy in any other than an honourable way indicates a dishonest heart. Whoever, therefore, does not cordially approve and embrace the salvation of the gospel, the reason is plain.

Perhaps it will be said these things are spoken of wicked men, and indicate the criminality of their errors. But surely the errors of good men arise from different causes. Surely they may be innocent. It must be allowed that good men have errors in judgment, as well as in practice; but that the former, any more than the latter, are innocent, does not appear. I wish not to think worse of any man’s errors than I do of my own, or of him than of myself, for being in error. No doubt I have mistaken apprehensions of some things, as well as other people; though wherein is unknown to me: but I would abhor the thought of pleading innocence in such affairs. If my mistakes, be they what they may, do not arise from the obscurity of Scripture, they must arise from some other cause. It is vain to allege that our errors arise from weakness; for the Scriptures can be no otherwise plain and easy than as they are level with common capacities. If the Scriptures were written for the bulk of mankind, and yet the generality of men are too weak to understand them, instead of being plain and easy, they must be essentially obscure.

The truth is, our mistakes, as well as the ignorance of wicked men, arise from our criminal dispositions. We are too careless about truth, and so do not search for it “as one searcheth for hid treasure,” Prov. 2:1–9. Or we are self-sufficient, and think ourselves competent to find out the truth by our mere reason; and so neglect to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit Or we are prejudiced in favour of preconceived notions, and so are apt to stifle evidence. The prejudices of mankind, of both bad and good men, are almost infinite. There is not a mind in the world without prejudice, in a greater or less degree. And these are the causes why the truth of God’s word is not believed and obeyed. We might as well plead weakness for not obeying God’s commands as for not believing his declarations. The one, as well as the other, is a moral weakness; and that, strictly speaking, is not weakness, but wickedness. Doubtless, there is such a thing as excusable weakness, both in reference to obeying God’s commands and to believing his sacred truth. If a man be afflicted, so as to be incapable of attending the house of God, or if he be detained by the afflictions of others, the command for publicly worshipping God ceases, at that time, to be binding. The same may be said of mental debility. If a man be in any way deprived of reason, his weakness, in proportion as it prevails, excuses him from blame, in not understanding and believing the truth. Nay, I think persons of extremely weak capacities are comparatively excusable. If they be weak in other things, as well as in religion, we are bound not to impute it to the want of a disposition, any further than their weakness in both may be imputed to the want of diligent application. The same may be said of persons, who never had the means, or the opportunity of knowing the truth. The heathen will not be condemned for rejecting the gospel, unless they have, or might if they would have heard it; but for rejecting the light of nature, Rom. 1:18–25.

But I believe, if we examine, we shall find the far greater part of our ignorance and error to arise from very different causes—causes of which our Lord complains in his own immediate disciples: “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.” Our ignorance and errors, like theirs, are owing in a great degree to that dulness to spiritual things of which the best Christians have sometimes reason to complain. The Lord Jesus, so remarkable for his tenderness, and especially to his disciples, would not have rebuked them so severely for an error wherein they were blameless. Besides, they were prejudiced in favour of another system. They had been long dreaming of an earthly kingdom, and, it is to be feared, of the figure they were to cut in it. Their pride, therefore, and carnal-mindedness, tended greatly to warp their judgments in this matter; so that all Christ had said (and he had said much) about his death and resurrection seemed to stand for nothing. Their foolish minds were so dazzled with the false ideas of a temporal kingdom that they were blinded to the true end of Christ’s coming, and to all that the prophets declared concerning it.

Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions—Miscellaneous. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 3, pp. 592–594). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.

By |December 18th, 2020|Categories: Andrew Fuller Friday, Blog|

About the Author: