Andrew Fuller on Natural and Moral Inability

The tenets of both Hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism maintain that unregenerate sinners ought not to be required to perform that which they are incapable of doing. Therefore, from the Hyper-Calvinist perspective, preachers must not offer the gospel indiscriminately. They need to first look for those who have the inner warrant to come to Christ for their salvation and then preach to them exclusively, whereas the Arminians maintains that sinners ought not to be required to respond positively to the gospel unless they have the ability to do so.

However, for Fuller this dilemma existed because they did not differentiate the distinctions between natural and moral ability. The natural ability was the basis upon which “heathens” have a duty to respond in faith and repentance. The fact that they have moral inability to do so does not in any way invalidate this duty. If the unregenerate “heathens” rejected the message of the gospel, they would be choosing to do so in accordance with their own desires. Their volition simply reveals who they are, as individuals—whether or not they are reprobate or elect—should they respond positively. In either case, the unregenerate are making choices without outside constraints other than those they themselves impose; that is, their own moral inability. Fuller therefore states, “No man in the world, in his right senses, ever thought of excusing another in unreasonable hatred towards him, merely because his propensities that way were so strong that he could not overcome them. And why should we think of excusing ourselves in our unreasonable and abominable enmity to God”?

Moreover, since God used the preaching of missionaries to the unregenerate as his means of salvation, in Fuller’s thought, he was both logical and coherent in illuminating Carey to thus ensure the obligation of missionaries to offer the gospel to all.

As its secretary, Fuller’s contribution to the formation of the BMS was pre-eminent. The perception of him as “the Rope Holder” of Carey’s ministry in India is also an accurate portrait, but perhaps it was in his capacities as theologian and apologist that Fuller made his most vital contribution to the Protestant missionary movement.

[Excerpt from “A Mainspring of Missionary Thought: Andrew Fuller on Natural and Moral Inability,” American Baptist Quarterly 25, no. 4 (winter, 2006): 348-349.]


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7 responses to “Andrew Fuller on Natural and Moral Inability

  1. Allen R. Mickle, Jr.


    Have you read Gerald Priest’s article “Andrew Fuller’s Response to the ‘Modern Question’–A Reappraisal of The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation” (first appeared in Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal [2001] and then appeared in At the Pure Fountain of Thy Word: Andrew Fuller as an Apologist)?

    In it, Priest treats Edwards’ and Fuller’s views of natural and moral inability. He finds this dichotomy unnecessary and incorrect. What do you think of Priest’s arguments?

  2. Chris Chun

    With all do respect to Dr. Priest, while the article was helpful, his strong dichotomy between Edwards and Fuller on the issue of the noetic influence of sin upon an unregenerate person may be misreading of Fuller (I think). Although Priest depicts that the imago dei was “preserved intact” but in Edwards’ view it is because the sin is so “pervasive and pernicious” that “man is naturally a sinner” whereas Fuller’s words do not lead to such an implication. See Priest, “Andrew Fuller, Hyper-Calvinism, and the ‘Modern Question,’”, p. 67. However, it seems Priest has misinterpreted Fuller on this point because he fails to read Fuller in his own terms. When Priest accuses Fuller of believing in natural human ability to the extent of denying the man as a natural sinner, he equivocates on the use of the term “natural.” Then again, a historical precedent suggests he was not the first one to misunderstand Fuller on this issue. Dan Taylor also raised a similar concern, but from an Arminian perspective. Fuller therefore responded to Taylor’s objection by arguing about sinful nature mixed up with the notion of natural inability. According to Taylor, if humanity does not possess the natural ability to avoid sinful nature (since humanity does not have the “option to be born pure or impure”), then humanity must be innocent of sinning. To illustrate this point, Taylor alludes to the perception that no one blames a lion for having a natural disposition to eat a lamb. However, Fuller clarifies his equivocation in labeling “such an inability as this natural…I apprehend, to apply the term in such a manner as tends to produce a confusion of ideas.” Fuller suggests, “When we speak of it as being the sin of our nature, we use the term in a very different sense from what we do when speaking of natural inability.” He adds, “By the sin of our nature, we mean not any thing which belongs to our nature as human, but what is, by the fall, so interwoven with it as it were, though in fact it is not, a part of it; and so deeply rooted in our souls as to become natural, as it were, us.” In other words, for Fuller, the fall did not have a direct physical impact upon human nature; nevertheless, it still had extremely significant impact given that the sinful propensities are interwoven within the moral fabric of the human soul. Although we are still left with a question of how sin is “so interwoven” and becomes “natural,” yet according to Fuller, the sinful nature is quite distinct from natural inability, since sin in itself does not constitute the physical nature as a human. Fuller therefore argues, “When terms [such as] cannot, inability, &c. are used in these connexions, they are used not in a proper, but in a figurative sense…” Hence, the “depravity is not natural to us, in the same sense as ferocity is to a lion” because the depravity do not lie at physical faculty but moral constitution. Insofar as objection of “not having the option” to be born without such depravity is concerned, Fuller wisely clarifies this equivocation by noting that the theological issue does not belong in the “doctrine of natural and moral inability, but to that of original sin.” See Fuller, Philanthropos, II, pp. 475-76. By similar reasoning, it can be deduced that this is where Priest’s misreading of Fuller originated—by doing the very thing that Fuller specifically said not to do; namely, merging the differentiation between natural inability and that of sinful nature/original sin. Hence, in order to avoid such confusion, it is prudent not to discuss natural inability in the context of a discourse on original sin.

  3. YnottonY

    Hi Chris,

    Do you think it would be better to speak of “constitutional” ability instead of “natural” ability? The term “nature” is notoriously vague, particularly in Christological discussions. I think Fuller is on target in his distinction, but sometimes I use different terminology so that confusion may be minimized.

    Also, have you read A. A. Hodge’s treatment of the natural/moral ability distinction [see Outlines of Theology (Banner of Truth, 1999,) p. 341-342]? He argues against it, unsuccessfully, I think. Anyway, it is a section in his Outlines that you might want to note.

    The distinction itself is older than Edwards. It’s found in John Cameron and the other Saumur theologians [see Brian Armstrong’s Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy (Wipf & Stock, 2004), p. 65, , 86 [on p. 86, it is noted that Du Moulin, who was very hostile to Amyraldism, called the distinction novel in Reformed theology], 94, 215-216; and G. M. Thomas’ The Extent of the Atonement (Paternoster, 1997), p. 197-198], with whom Stephen Charnock was very familiar [he cites the Saumur theologians frequently in his Works]. Awhile back, I posted a quote by Charnock on the subject: On Natural and Moral Inability.

    Grace to you,

  4. YnottonY

    Incidentally, the A. A. Hodge material I cited above may be read and downloaded for free HERE.

  5. Chris Chun


    Perhaps, “constitutional” or even “physical” ability instead of “natural” ability could work better in some sense. I am more concerned with the ideas rather than vocabulary (as long as we are talking about the same thing). That said, I still prefer “natural” because of its historical significance in connection to the BMS and the transatlantic Edwardsean legacy. Hence rather than abandoning the term, I’ve attempted to avoid this potential confusion by a careful qualification what Edwards and Fuller meant by “natural” ability in my article.
    You are correct when you said, “The distinction itself is older than Edwards.” In fact, general habits of making distinction between physical and moral causes came from Jesuit theologian Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) but the language of natural and moral inability first gained currency though the Scottish theologian, John Cameron, during the seventeenth century. More prominently, it was Cameron’s pupil, Moise Amyraut (1596-1664), who put the categories of natural and moral on the theological map. Moreover, Joseph Truman (1631-1671) also made similar distinctions in “A Discourse of Natural and Moral Impotency.” Yet, as Paul Ramsey rightly argued, Edwards was the “first to formulate fully adequately this distinction.”


  6. Chris Chun

    Thanks, Tony for the resources!

  7. Pingback: A Perspective on Perspectives «

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