Andrew Fuller Friday: On Agreement and Christian Union

I have no partiality, certainly, for the Established Church. I believe it will come down, because it is inimical to the kingdom of Christ; yet I respect many Churchmen, and shall not refuse preaching in their pulpits, provided I may go on in my own way. Mr. Eyre pressed me to preach for him; and, by complying with his request, I materially served the mission.

As to Dissenters, I consider a dissent from the Church of England, or any other church, as affording no proper ground of religious union. The thing itself is merely negative. As Dissenters we are not necessarily united in any thing, except that we do not approve of the Church Establishment. We may be enemies to the government of God, and the gospel of Christ; yea, we may be avowed infidels; and yet hold this. I therefore have no notion of throwing what little weight I may possess into the dissenting scale, merely as such; though, if other things were equal, I should certainly do so. These remarks have no respect to my conduct at Hackney, but are in answer to what you say on that subject in general.

The doubts which I expressed respecting your sentiments arose from no one’s insinuations, but from reading a pamphlet which you published some years ago. It may now be fourteen years since I read it; but I then thought it too much in favour of indifference to what I esteemed important truth Since then, you know, we have conversed together; and, from the whole, I was inclined to hope that your regard to what I accounted evangelical sentiments was greater than I had supposed it to be. And the general approbation which you have since bestowed upon my Letters on Socinianism left me no reason to doubt that, whatever might be your speculations on the modus of the Divine subsistence, you did not reject either the atonement of Christ or his proper Divinity. If I had reason to believe of any man that he did not call upon the name of the Lord Jesus, or rely upon his atoning sacrifice for acceptance with God, I could not acknowledge him as a Christian brother, or pay him any respect in a religious way. But, by whomsoever these great truths are cordially admitted, I trust it will ever be the desire of my heart to pray on their behalf with the apostle, Grace and peace be with them!

Now, however, you inform me that you “reject no doctrine from any dislike to it.” But if I were satisfied that the worship of Christ is idolatry, I think I ought to reject it with abhorrence. I imagine however you mean that, supposing you are mistaken in any of these matters, it is not from any bias of heart, but from mere mistake. I own that I dare not say so respecting any mistakes of which I may be the subject. I reckon that such is the perspicuity of God’s word, that if I err on any important truth or precept, it must be owing to some evil bias to which I am subject, though I am unhappily blinded to it.

You have “no precise ideas of the person of Christ, and you suppose that I have none.” We may neither of us fully comprehend that mysterious subject; yet you will admit that there is a material difference between the ideas of one who calls upon the name of the Lord Jesus and one who does not, but considers him as merely a fellow creature.

You “despise the man who cannot maintain a brotherly connexion with another, because he thinks for himself.” I wish every man to think for himself, and also to act for himself; but if in the exercise of this right he thinks the Son of God an impostor, and his doctrine a lie, or lives in the violation of his commands, I think myself not only entitled, but bound, to withhold all brotherly connexion with him of a religious nature; not because he thinks or acts for himself, but because in my judgment (and my judgment must be the rule of my conduct) he thinks and acts wrong. We may think and act for ourselves, and yet do both in such a way as shall subject us to the just abhorrence of every friend of truth and righteousness. The worst of beings thinks for himself: “when he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own.”

You “do not desire the friendship of any one who makes a similarity of opinion the condition of it.” I am not fond of calling the great articles of my faith “opinions.” Faith and opinion are different things. If you mean sentiment, I acknowledge I do desire the friendship of many who make a similarity in the one the condition of the other, and am willing they should ask me any question they think proper concerning my faith. Nay, I may say further, I wish to be on terms of religious friendship with no man, unless he be a friend to what I consider the first principles of the oracles of God. Nor can I persuade myself that you, notwithstanding your strong language, will “despise” me on that account. If it be so, however, I must bear it as well as I can.

Christian love appears to me to be, “for the truth’s sake that dwelleth in us.” Every kind of union that has not truth for its bond is of no value in the sight of God, and ought to be of none in ours.

You tell me there are “those who consider me as unsound in other doctrines, but this does not diminish your regard for me.” Perhaps not: it were rather singular to suppose it should. You have too much good sense, sir, to disregard me for what other people think of me. But if you yourself thought me unsound, you would; or at least, I should say, you ought; and perhaps it may make you smile if I add, I should think the worse of you if you did not. As to others, who may think me unsound, I imagine they do not as such regard me; nay, I hope for their sakes that so far they disregard me. I may think they misjudge me, and may wish to set them right. I may think ill of their sentiments, as they do of mine; but, while they judge me unsound, I neither expect nor desire their approbation. I had rather they should disesteem me than pretend to esteem me in a religious way, irrespective of my religious principles. All the esteem that I desire of you, sir, or of any man, towards me, is for the truth that in your judgment dwelleth in me, and operateth in a way of righteousness.

I have heard a great deal of union without sentiment; but I can neither feel nor perceive any such thing, either in myself or others. All the union that I can feel or perceive arises from a similarity of views and pursuits. No two persons may think exactly alike; but so far as they are unlike, so far there is a want of union. We are united to God himself by becoming of one mind and one heart with him. Consider the force and design of Amos 3:3, “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” You might live neighbourly with Dr. Priestley, but you would not feel so united with him in heart as if he had been of your sentiments, nor he with you as if you had been of his. You may esteem a Churchman, if he agree with you in doctrine, and be of an amiable disposition; but you would feel much more united with him if in addition to this he were a Dissenter. You may regard some men who are rigid Calvinists, on some considerations; but you would regard them more if they were what you account more liberal in their views, and more moderate towards others who differ from them; that is, if they were of your mind upon the doctrine of Christian forbearance.

Men of one age may have quarrelled about religious differences and have persecuted one another, as papists and protestants have done in France; and the same descriptions of men in another age may despise these litigations, as the French have lately done, and not care at all whether a man be papist or protestant, provided he enters heartily into revolutionary principles. But all this arises from their having substituted the importance of an agreement in a political creed in the place of one that is religious. Agreement in sentiment and pursuit is still the bond of union.—Even those who unite in church fellowship upon the principle of what they term free inquiry, or universal toleration, are in that principle agreed; and this, is the bond of their union. They consider this as the all in all, and consent to exercise forbearance towards each other in every thing else. Such a communion, I confess, appears to me just as scriptural and as rational as if a number of persons should agree to worship together, but consent that every one should be at liberty to act as he thought proper, and so admit the universal toleration of every species of immorality. Nevertheless, even here, a similarity of sentiments would be the bond of union.

You can unite with men “who are not exactly of your sentiments.”—So can I.—But that in which I unite with them is not any thing in which sentiment has no concern. It is that wherein we are agreed that is the bond of our union; and those things wherein we differ are considered as objects of forbearance, on account of human imperfection. Such forbearance ought undoubtedly to be exercised in a degree, especially in things which both sides must admit to be not clearly revealed, which are properly called opinions, and are little other than mere speculations. And even in things which in our judgment are clearly revealed, there ought to be a degree of forbearance; much in the same way as we forbear with each other’s imperfections of a practical nature, where the essential principles of morality are not affected.

You are “not a party man, and hope you never shall be, to please any set of people whatever.” I hope so too; but I wish inflexibly to adhere to the side of truth and righteousness, so far as I understand them, in every punctilio, in order to please God.

“A decided judgment on some points,” you consider as “unimportant, and think there is room for mutual candour.” If those points are unrevealed, I say so too; but I do not consider either the Deity or the atonement of Christ as coming under this description, and I hope you think the same. Without the former, we cannot with any consistency call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, which is the characteristic of a primitive believer; and without the latter, I need not say to you, sir, that the gospel is rendered of none effect. As to “candour,” it is due to all men, even infidels and atheists; but candour will not lead me to treat them as objects of Divine favour, but to speak the truth to them in love.

Possibly you may think it unfair to reason as I have done from practices to principles, and that we ought to make a wide difference between the one and the other. But the difference, as it appears to me, is only as the difference between root and branch. Faith is not a mere speculation of the understanding, nor unbelief a mere mistake in judgment. They are both of a moral nature, or salvation would not be connected with the former, and final condemnation with the latter.

I ought perhaps to apologize for having written so much, in the manner I have done; but I think you will not take it amiss. The collision of thoughts from persons who have been in different habits and connexions is sometimes of mutual advantage. If you should disapprove of my remarks, try and set me right, and you will be entitled to my grateful acknowledgments.

Fuller, A. G. “Agreement in Sentiment the Bond of Christian Union,” Essays and Letters. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions—Miscellaneous (J. Belcher, Ed.; Vol. 3, pp. 489–492). Sprinkle Publications.

By |May 26th, 2023|Categories: Andrew Fuller Friday, Blog|

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