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Andrew Fuller on Theological Education

As far as I'm concerned, it would be nearly impossible for someone to be a Baptist historian and not have a favorite historical Baptist. I actually have a handful of favorites. As far as American Baptists go, I have a soft spot for Jesse Mercer because of the scope of his influence and our common Georgia Baptist roots. I also am continually inspired by the examples of missionary pioneers William Carey and Adoniram Judson. But my all-time favorite Baptist is probably Andrew Fuller (1754-1815), the famed pastor, theologian and missions advocate.

I resonate with Fuller on many levels, especially theologically, and I am thrilled that there has been a revival of scholarly interest in Fuller in recent years. That scholarly interest is culminating in a forthcoming multi-volume Works of Fuller, to be published by Paternoster Press. Michael Haykin will be the series editor, and a cadre of scholars will edit the individual volumes. I look forward to the various volumes and the chance to delve deeper into Fuller's thought.

But the real point of this post is to share this gem from one of Fuller's letters. Fuller is addressing theological education, and I find it interesting how similar his context was to contemporary Southern Baptist life:

As to academic education, the far greater part of our ministers have it not. Carey was a shoemaker years after he engaged in the ministry and I was a farmer. I have sometimes, however, regretted my want of learning. On the other hand, brother Sutcliff and brother Pearce have both been at Bristol Academy]. We all live in love without any distinctions in those matters. We do no consider an Academy as any qualification for membership or preaching, any farther than as a person may there improve his talents. Those who go to ours [academies] must be members of a church and recommended by them as possessing gifts adapted to the ministry (Fuller letter to Mr. McLean, 20 April 1796, in Michael A. G. Haykin, The Armies of the Lamb: The Spirituality of Andrew Fuller, 151-52).

It is remarkable how these circumstances speak to our present context. Most Southern Baptist pastors do not have seminary training, including many of our most effective men. Bivocational pastors are still quite common, and often unrecognized for their faithful gospel labors. It is still the case that a theological education, though useful and even preferrable, is not necessary for one to be a pastor; what ultimately matters is God's call on a man's life. At every Southern Baptist seminary, it is necessary for a potential student to receive an endorsement from their local church that includes a recognition and affirmation of the prospective student's call to and giftedness for the work of the ministry.

As someone who is in the "culture" of theological education, I am thankful for seminaries (and colleges) that better equip men and women for ministry. But as a Baptist, I am also thankful that God's call is not limited to the educated alone. Andrew Fuller did not have the benefit of a college or seminary education, and he did just fine in his ministry. And praise God, so do many among us now.