Remembering Donald B. Fullerton

by John M. Frame


I became a Christian around the age of 13, through the youth and music ministries of the Beverly Heights Church of Mt. Lebanon, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh. Beverly Heights was a strongly evangelical church, part of a small Presbyterian denomination called the United Presbyterian Church of North America. In 1958, the UPCNA merged with the larger liberal denomination, the PCUSA.

Almost immediately after conversion, I developed a strong interest in the Bible and theology. But in my senior year of high school, I veered toward what I would later regard as a liberal theological position. Problems in the Bible troubled me, and I thought they could be avoided if we regarded the Bible as a package of flexible symbols rather than of revealed historical narratives and theological truths. Beverly Heights did not warn me of any danger in this development. Still, I always had a strong sense of the importance of the Lordship of Christ, and I trusted him as Lord and Savior.

In 1957, after my high school graduation, I visited national parks with some classmates, and we went to church only about twice that summer. I missed worship and the word, but I never challenged, or even took very seriously, the unbelief of my friends.

In the fall of 1957, I arrived as a freshman on the Princeton campus. I think some Princeton Evangelical Fellowship students visited my dorm; visiting freshman dorms in the fall was a regular PEF practice. But many other groups visited freshman as well, and my usual policy was to brush them off politely.

But I did want to get back to church and to study the Bible. I visited a number of churches and campus groups, but I could never find one that had the vitality, the passionate commitment to Christ, that I saw at Beverly Heights. Eventually I would see that this lack of commitment was the fruit of liberal theology, the same liberal theology that I had toyed with. From time to time I would see announcements of Bible studies and special conferences of the PEF, but it was maybe November or so before I attended my first meeting.

PEF was a Bible teaching ministry, led by Donald B. Fullerton, who graduated from Princeton in the class of 1913. He had some Episcopal background (always revered the work of Bishops J. C. Ryle and Handley Moule), and he spent some time worshiping with the Plymouth Brethren. He went on the mission field for a few years, particularly the part of India now known as Pakistan, along the Afghanistan border, now notorious as the assumed hideaway of Osama Bin Laden. Fullerton’s health, however, deteriorated, and he returned home. He taught Bible at J. Oliver Buswell’s National Bible Institute (later Shelton College) in New York for a time. But a friend of his called to say that his son was having a hard time spiritually at Princeton. He asked Fullerton to go and talk to him. Fullerton did, and he began to teach the Bible there. Eventually these classes became known as PEF. Fullerton never married, and he evidently had independent financial means. So eventually he moved to Princeton and gave the rest of his life to the PEF campus ministry.

At the time (early 1930s), there was no other evangelical Christian group on the campus. A few years later, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship would begin to establish chapters on American campuses. IVCF had a different approach to campus ministry from PEF: not formal Bible teaching, nor a single leader per campus, but rather student-led inductive studies and guest speakers. But Fullerton said that C. Stacey Woods, the first president of IVCF in the USA, agreed that he would not start an IVCF chapter at Princeton as long as PEF was there.

By nature, I probably would have preferred an IVCF type of ministry. I preferred more interactive Bible study, rather than just being lectured to. But I became aware of PEF before I learned of any alternative, and when I did learn of an alternative (see below), by that time I was sold on PEF. The Lord knew best, as always: PEF was exactly what I needed. Contrary to my inflated opinion of myself, I needed solid teaching. Fullerton supplied that need. Besides, the peer pressure within PEF encouraged the students to go deeper and deeper into Scripture, prayer, and evangelism. To discuss theological issues with PEF’ers, you had to know your Bible! Else, you would not be taken seriously. So PEF took me far deeper into Scripture than I had ever gone before, and, I think, much deeper than any IVCF group could have brought me. I memorized a large number of Bible passages during my years at Princeton, and when I am teaching and writing theology even today, those are the passages that spring most readily to mind.

When I arrived in 1957, PEF had two Bible studies a week in Murray-Dodge Hall on campus. One was on Sunday afternoon, the other on either Wednesday or Thursday night, depending on everybody’s schedules. Dr. Fullerton taught both classes. He was around 65, thin, but somehow imposing, with snow-white hair. He usually spoke very softly, but he could rise to a roar when making a major point. He had a puckish, sometimes sarcastic, sense of humor. I remember him being doubled up in laughter when describing pranks played by various undergrads. But when he spoke about God and the Bible he was deadly serious. He commented unfavorably about one talk we heard by Ralph Keiper, Barnhouse’s assistant (on John 17 of all passages), who told too many jokes for Fullerton’s comfort. (I, however, thought that Keiper’s humor actually enhanced the quality of his teaching.)

Fullerton almost never missed a Bible class, though he had a number of ailments. He also attended, with the students, a daily afternoon prayer meeting held in a student dorm room. At those meetings, the group read Scripture, discussed the passage briefly, then knelt and prayed for one another, for students they were seeking to evangelize, and for alumni, especially those laboring in mission fields. A number of PEF men visited a nearby institution, what we used to call “reform school,” for wayward boys, to teach Sunday School. I was a substitute teacher there on a couple occasions. Those boys were another topic of prayer, and God answered, bringing some conversions through this ministry.

Dr. Fullerton was constantly about his Father’s business. When he met a new student, it usually did not take more than thirty seconds for him to get on the subject of Jesus and the gospel. Then Fullerton would talk with the student as long as possible and necessary, to discern his spiritual condition, to present the gospel, to answer questions, to urge a decision. When we students sought to lead others to Christ, our main strategy was usually to maneuver them into a situation where they could have a good talk with Dr. Fullerton. Not every student who talked with him was converted, but many were. It seemed to us that, humanly speaking, if anyone could get the gospel through to a Princeton student, it was Dr. Fullerton.

I can’t recall my own first conversation with him. Most likely, I told him that I was already saved and trying to serve the Lord on the campus. He probably accepted that self-representation, but no doubt he looked at me as very immature spiritually. He made judgments of that sort often, and he was usually right, though occasionally too quick and too condemnatory. He often spoke of students past and present who suffered spiritual shipwreck because of this weakness and that. One didn’t pray enough. Another didn’t attend Bible studies regularly. Another got into a worldly group of friends. Still another started his decline by questioning the Scriptures, and often that questioning began when the student took a religion course. Another student thought he knew a lot, though in fact he knew very little. Often those that suffered shipwreck were Presbyterians of one sort or another.

The net conclusion of this emphasis, and the consensus among PEF members, was that a student could not hope to maintain his spiritual bearings at Princeton without regular attendance at PEF Bible studies and prayer meetings and devotion to campus evangelism. Most of the PEF students, as I myself, also accepted Dr. F’s offer of a personal weekly Bible study at Dr. F’s house on Alexander Street. (During my time at Princeton, he moved from an apartment on University Place, across from the U-Store, to a house on Alexander Street.) I would arrive at his house. He would offer me a banana, or coffee, or a cookie. We’d sit opposite one another at his kitchen table. With me, he started at Genesis and worked through it verse by verse. He was concerned to emphasize the literal truth of the events described there. He had firm views on the controversies over evolution and the age of the earth and could argue them both exegetically and scientifically (according to the creation-science model). He wanted to ensure that I held orthodox positions in these areas.

Fullerton strongly emphasized the inerrancy of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the certainty of the Resurrection, and in general the miraculous character of the Christian worldview. He hated liberalism and neo-orthodoxy. He recommended Van Til’s writings on Barth. Like Van Til, he considered Barth and his followers to be liberals who conceal their liberalism under orthodox terminology. He admired J. Gresham Machen for his stand against the liberal heresy in the Presbyterian Church. I found Fullerton’s critique of liberalism absolutely cogent. Though I had flirted with liberalism in my senior year of high school, I never went back to it, thanks largely to Fullerton’s powerful argument. He simply showed us what Christ himself said about the Scriptures and the testimonies of other prophets and apostles, in other words, the Bible’s witness to itself.

He also showed us—and I had never heard this before—that the Bible contains a very strong polemic against false teachers. Christians are to shun these: “from such turn away” (2 Tim. 3:5).

Fullerton’s theology was also dispensationalist. At first, this teaching appealed to me somewhat. I had listened often on the radio to Donald Grey Barnhouse, who held basically the same position. Like Barnhouse (DGB), Fullerton (DBF) knew dispensational theology thoroughly and had a great gift for expounding it and illustrating it. But when I returned home, my most theologically knowledgeable friends, having imbibed the teaching of John Gerstner, told me that dispensationalism was a heresy. I never actually bought the dispensational system, but I could never bring myself to believe either that it was as serious an error as the Gerstner disciples made it out to be.

On the issues of Calvinism and Arminianism, Fullerton straddled the fence. He loved the old Scottish covenanters. For a time during his youth, he studied the theology of Abraham Kuyper with someone. His mother, however, whom he greatly revered, told him that the Kuyper lessons had dampened his missionary zeal. He recognized that was true, so he left Kuyper behind. Fullerton admired a number of American Presbyterians, like Warfield, Machen and Van Til. He had friends in the movement that had left Princeton Seminary to foundWestminster, especially in the premillennial group that later left Westminster to found Faith. But I think he came to believe that Presbyterian theology, even at its most orthodox, was vulnerable to liberalism. Presbyterians (except for the Faith Seminary group) were a- or post-millennialists, and Fullerton saw those views as “spiritualizing” the Bible rather than taking it literally. Spiritualizing the Bible, in his mind, was the first step toward abandoning biblical authority altogether.

A couple years before I arrived at Princeton, there was a division in PEF when someone began a “Baptist Student Fellowship” on campus. When I arrived, the Baptist group was not actually Baptist. It consisted of students who were mostly from the PCUSA, who wanted to have an Inter-Varsity type group led by Princeton Seminary students. I attended a few meetings of the group and had some casual friends among them. As I mentioned earlier, their approach to Bible study had some appeal to me in my first days at Princeton.  But by that time I was aware of the Baptist group I had determined that I could get better teaching and nurture through PEF.

The Baptist group took a number of students who otherwise would have been in PEF, so that when I arrived, PEF was very small: Sutherland MacLean and Jim Nesbitt were seniors, Mike Rusten and Garry Ellis juniors, Jim Renick, Bob Shade, George Hutchinson, and Ron Fisher sophomores. Jerry Butler, Steve Johnson, and Bruce Higgins attended irregularly. Don Youngren and I were the only freshmen at first, though eventually others came on board, including Dave Burnham, Len Riches, Ray Chiao. The older students were big brother figures to me. I greatly admired their character and witness. Because of the Baptist competition, PEF was small quantitatively, but the character of the guys was qualitatively impressive to this freshman.

Still the Baptist group was a thorn in Dr. Fullerton’s side, and it doubtless made him even more suspicious of people from Presbyterian churches, even conservative ones, and people who leaned toward Reformed theology. He was a separatist: people in liberal denominations, in his view, should leave them immediately (“from such turn away”). Christians studying at Princeton Seminary (or other Presbyterian seminaries) should leave immediately. Fullerton told one Princeton Seminarian that he wanted to see nothing more of him but “a cloud of dust,” as the student left the Seminary at full speed. Anyone who belonged to the PCUSA (even dispensational conservatives like Barnhouse and Keiper) were deeply suspect.

And, in Fullerton’s judgment, people in conservative Presbyterian denominations like the Orthodox Presbyterian and Bible Presbyterian churches could not hope to achieve the spiritual depth of those in Baptist, Plymouth Brethren, or Independent Fundamental (we always called ourselves fundamental, never fundamentalist) churches. He thought that Calvinists in general were like he was when he was studying Kuyper: unevangelistic, without passion for the Lord. The Orthodox Presbyterians, he said once, were “straight as an icicle, and just as cold.”

When Fullerton addressed questions of the sovereignty of God and the free will of man, he typically told us to accept these as simply paradoxical. He was fond of illustrations of two parallel lines that never meet where we can see them, but which meet above the clouds, in Heaven. (Interestingly, Van Til used the same illustration, but for him the two lines were not divine sovereignty and human free will, but divine sovereignty and human responsibility. “Free will” in the Arminian sense received nothing but anathema from Van Til.) Fullertonalso used the illustration of a sinner reading a sign that says “Whosoever will, let him come” and following its direction. After coming to Jesus, he looks back at the other side of the sign, which reads, “Chosen in Christ, before the foundation of the world.” So Fullerton may not have been a Calvinist, but he certainly was not Arminian either. He believed that he had discovered a biblical balance that transcended those historic positions. So he had no particular allegiance to any historic tradition, though he was strongly opposed to the Roman Catholic and liberal Protestant movements. Although dispensationalism itself was a tradition going back to the early 19th century, Fullerton considered himself simply a student of the Bible, and he had a very low view of people who stressed Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, or some other theological or ecclesiastical tradition.

He did have a strong (I am tempted to say Calvinistic) emphasis on the Lordship of Christ, and that had a profound impact on this student who later authored The Theology of Lordship. Though some dispensational fundamentalists argued that you can trust Christ as savior without trusting him as Lord, Fullerton would have none of it. He insisted that if Jesus is not Lord he cannot be savior, and he often quoted Rom. 10:9-10—the confession of Jesus as Lord— as the mark of the Christian.

He held the usual dispensational view of the OT law, that as law it no longer binds the NT believer. He was not Sabbatarian, but he thought it important to attend church and Bible studies on Sunday. But Fullerton had no prejudice against law as such. Commands given by Christ and the apostles are to be obeyed, Fullerton taught, and such obedience is the basic substance of the Christian life.

Some speakers at PEF conferences advocated the “Victorious Life” emphasis of the Keswick movement. PEF had its annual fall retreat at the America’s Keswick conference ground. In this teaching the believer should cultivate passivity: let go and let God, quit striving for holiness. Pastor Howard Burtner gave especially memorable expositions of this view at one PEF conference at Keswick. Fullerton never criticized this approach explicitly, and I think he admired Burtner and others who seemed to have achieved that “Victorious Life.” But I never felt that Fullerton heartily embraced for himself this approach to sanctification. He had a view of spiritual warfare that was actually more typical of Reformed teaching: say no to sin and fight temptation by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. For Fullertonand for PEF, this entailed separation from worldly practices like smoking and drinking. But these prohibitions were not at all central to the PEF ethic. The center, rather, was the Lordship of Jesus. On sanctification, then, Fullerton was not entirely consistent. But the net impact of his teaching, on me at least, was Reformed.

Fullerton and the PEF’ers were somewhat suspicious of me. In several ways I didn’t fit into the group very well. I belonged to a Presbyterian church, was more Calvinistic than dispensational in my theology. I majored in philosophy and took religion courses, strictly against PEF policy. When I was around Fullerton, I felt various barbs—stories about spiritual disasters among people who favored Presbyterianism, had ties to the PCUSA, took religion courses, and majored in philosophy.

But I attended most every PEF meeting and drank in the teaching with enthusiasm, as much of it as I agreed with, and I agreed with far more than I disagreed with. I loved the prayer meetings and tried on a number of occasions to bring non-Christians to the Bible studies (succeeding once or twice, as I recall). Like the other PEF’ers, I attended Westerly Road, an independent fundamental church (with, to be sure, a pastor and some other leaders who were former Presbyterians).

PEF Bible studies began with the singing of a hymn or two, accompanied on the piano by Dr. F. When he found that I played the piano, he asked me to do it, and I became the regular pianist, and later the organist for Westerly Road Church. So to some extent I became accepted in the group. I was even elected Treasurer for my last two years.

PEF’ers called to seminary study were generally expected to go to Dallas or Grace Seminaries. Fullerton preferred Grace, which had conferred his honorary doctorate. He had a very high regard for Alva McLain, President of Grace, and for his theological work, The Greatness of the Kingdom. That book, he said, was the most balanced formulation of biblical theology that he knew. He thought Dallas had become somewhat too intellectualist and proud, but he accepted it as an adequate alternative. Both Dallas and Grace professors spoke at PEF conferences, such as John Whitcomb from Grace (a former PEF’er), S. Lewis Johnson and Charles C. Ryrie from Dallas. John Rea was another PEF alumnus who taught at Grace for some years, though later he “defected” to the charismatic movement. At an earlier time, I gather, Fullerton had encouraged some students to go to Faith Seminary, but during my Princeton years he did not. I think he didn’t appreciate the authoritarianism and political theology of Carl McIntire, who dominated the teaching at Faith for many years.

Well, I came in time to believe that God was calling me to Westminster Seminary. Fullerton, as mentioned, admired Westminster professors Machen and Van Til. And E. J. Young, father of PEF student Davis Young, spoke at PEF to a packed house on the subject of biblical authority. So it was through PEF that I learned of Westminster. Westminster offered me Presbyterian theology in its orthodox form, a challenge to my philosophical interests (Van Til), and excellence in scholarship—something not too common among evangelical seminaries in those days. But Fullerton thought Westminster was, on the whole, too philosophical, too intellectualist, too caught up in Reformed tradition instead of Scripture, and simply wrong in its covenant theology and eschatology. Nevertheless, in the fall of 1961, after my graduation, I went to the PEF fall conference, and then Fullerton and Ed Morgan, pastor of Westerly Road Church, drove me down to Westminster for my first classes there. Despite their reservations about Westminster, these men were encouraging and gracious to me.

I don’t believe I ever visited a PEF meeting again. I was never invited to speak there, even after I became a teacher of theology. I did contribute money at the beginning, but discontinued that after a few years, because I came to disagree with some PEF spending policies and because I developed different ministry interests. I was always happy, however, to receive news and prayer requests from PEF.

I owe much to PEF. When I went to Westminster, I confess I was somewhat apprehensive. Dr. Fullerton and other PEFers had warned me that Reformed theology would destroy my zeal for evangelism, and they told me that Reformed theology was preoccupied with its own tradition rather than Scripture. I was sensitive to those issues as I entered Westminster. If Westminster’s teaching had been focused on confessions or tradition or history of doctrine, I could well have rejected Reformed theology. But John Murray and others derived the Reformed doctrines directly from biblical exegesis and made a powerful and persuasive case. In my own teaching, I have sought to do the same. I am immensely grateful to Dr. Fullerton and the PEF for making me a biblicist in this sense.1

My Reformed friends often disparage and ridicule the “broad evangelical,” “fundamentalist,” and “dispensationalist” traditions. It is typical for these friends to say something like this: “When I was in a fundamentalist church, they taught the Bible superficially, assumed Arminianism, disparaged the Lordship of Christ, saw the Christian life as a series of legalistic prohibitions on trivial issues. But when I heard Reformed teaching, it was the first time for me that the Bible made sense. It was the first time that the Lordship of Christ and the Sovereignty of God made a real impression on me.” I heard testimonies like this over and over again among Westminster students and others in the Reformed movement. Such people often concluded by saying that Reformed people should radically reject anything connected with American evangelicalism and live by the Reformed traditions alone.

Because of PEF, my evaluation of “broad evangelicalism” was very different. I did not think Fullerton’s teaching was superficial at all. There was a great depth to it, underscored by the powerful, godly example of his life. His teaching on the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ were powerful and deeply biblical. He showed a passion for holiness that I rarely saw in Reformed circles, including a passion for prayer and evangelism. Reformed people talked about evangelism and missions, but frankly they did not do it nearly to the extent I had seen in the PEF. Fullerton and PEF cared deeply about people, spending hours in mutual prayer, exhortation, counseling, gospel witness. I never experienced that depth of fellowship in any Reformed church or institution. In fact, the Reformed consensus often seemed to be that such mutual commitment, such perseverance in prayer, such passion for the Lord, should be deprecated as “Pietism.” (Reformed people have a knack for condemning others with the use of historical labels.) I thought Westminster had the doctrines right, and they formulated those doctrines with more rigor than PEF. But the difference in rigor was no more than would be expected: seminaries, after all, are supposed to be more intellectually rigorous than campus ministries.

So I am not much impressed by people who want to set up an adversary relation between “Reformed” and “evangelical.” Today, Reformed writers often disparage evangelical ministries as circuses, as clubs that will do anything at all to gain members, who pander to the basest lusts of modern culture. That was not true of PEF, or of Westerly Road Church. And in my later experience I saw additional reasons for denying this generalization. In many small evangelical churches, and even in the much-disparaged mega-churches (e.g. Chelten Baptist of Philadelphia, Emmanuel Faith Community Church of Escondido, CA, Northland: a Church Distributed, in Longwood, FL) I have seen a great love for God and his word and great power of the Spirit. Evangelicalism has many different forms; Reformed churches also have many different forms. I prefer some types of Reformed churches to some types of Evangelical ones. And I also prefer some types of Evangelical churches to some types of Reformed ones. PEF would never have imagined the effect their ministry had on me: they turned me into a Reformed ecumenist!

And they made me a much better follower of Jesus. I will never regret being part of this semi-Arminian, dispensationalist, separatist, tee-totaling, semi-victorious life, pietistic, biblicistic group called PEF. And the greatest part of that experience was the godly example of Donald B. Fullerton. He was not a perfect man, but I am yet today an imitator of his, since he imitated Jesus.

1 See my article, “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism,” in Westminster Theological Journal  59 (1997), 269-318, also published as an Appendix to my Contemporary Worship Music (Phillipsbur: P&R, 1997), there titled “Sola Scriptura in Theological Method.”


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