A Brief Introduction: Jonathan Edwards: Freedom of the Will

 A Brief Introduction: Jonathan Edwards: Freedom of the Will


 “Free will” is a buzz word used by many in our present-day society, especially by some of the most influential Christian theologians and philosophers of religion.[1] Some use it to champion the supposed “self-evident” truths about the libertarian nature of free will recognizable to anyone willing to approach the subject rationally and judicially. Others use it to provide a coherent defense of the problem of evil and theodicy.[2] For our purposes, however, this paper will not attempt to retrace the entire history of that debate; though, it will present a defense of Jonathan Edwards’ treatise, Freedom of the Will, arguing that it provides a comprehensive defense of the biblical and Reformed view of the will and offers an antidote to libertarian freedom.[3] To achieve this task the paper will investigate the following things: (1) Historical Background and Context; (2) Main Arguments, Sub-Points, and Objections; and (3) Evaluation and Modern Applications.[4]

Historical Background and Context

 George Marsden describes the historical background of Edwards’ treatise, Freedom of the Will, by placing it against the backdrop of modernity and describes Edwards’ primary interlocutors as those influenced by “Enlightenment thought.”[5] The notion of libertarian freedom did not arise from modernity, however, modernity provided the environment for it to flourish because of its emphasis upon philosophical and theological autonomy.[6] For example, Pelagius and Erasmus both affirmed a similar view of freedom. Pelagius’ views arose during the fourth century, whereas, Erasmus’ views arose during the sixteenth century. Erasmus represents the height of Enlightenment thought; however, his view of freewill mirrors that of Pelagius. That being said, when Marsden uses the term “Enlightenment thought” in this context he uses it in such a way so as to capture the historic libertarian notion that “pure freedom of choice was essential to moral agency to which we might assign praise or blame.”[7]

In the introduction to the treatise, Paul Ramsey describes three of Edwards’ actual historical interlocutors labeling them as “his antagonists.”[8] These three antagonists were: Thomas Chubb (1679—1747); Daniel Whitby (1638—1726); and Isaac Watts (1674—1748).[9] Chubb held a variety of views ranging from Arminianism to deism, and at times advocating forms of Arianism;[10] Whitby was a minister of the Church of England; and Watts the famous hymn writer, was a dissenting minister and theologian, and according to Ramsey, he represented “Edwards own tradition in theology which serious breach was being made.”[11] Ramsey notes that, “It is wrong to suggest that he [Edwards] chose only spokesman of an extreme type of Arminianism upon whom, by exposing their absurdities, he could bring a more devastating defeat.”[12] In short, Edwards chose mainline Arminian authors and prevailing concepts of freedom, not secondary sources or individuals.

Sam Storms suggests that the possible motive for Edwards to write the treatise was to defend historic Calvinism. Storms writes, “If the concept of libertarian freedom can be established, Calvinist theologians (he [Edwards] called them ‘reformed divines’) will have lost all hope of defending their view of ‘original sin, the sovereignty of grace, election, redemption, conversion, the efficacious operations of the Holy Spirit, the nature of saving faith, perseverance of the saints, and the other principles of . . . like kind.’”[13] Clearly, according to Storms, Edwards’s believed the whole Calvinist system of theology was at stake in this debate over the freedom of the will. R.C. Sproul notes that the Reformers taught that not only does regeneration precede faith but also it must precede faith.[14] Edwards like Augustine, Luther, and Calvin believed; the concept of sola fide was rooted in sola gratia. Therefore, Sproul suggests the overall motive in this debate (whether it be found in Augustine, Luther, Calvin, or Edwards) was to defend not only a monergistic view of the will and salvation, but the solas of the Reformation as well.[15]

Main Arguments, Sub-Points, and Objections

With this historical overview in place, one can recognize that many philosophers, Pelagains, Semi-Pelagians, Arminians, and so forth, affirm a “libertarian” concept of freedom or what they consider “true freedom.”[16] However, one is also left wondering: What does Jonathan Edwards mean by freedom? Are human actions necessary or by compulsion? Do I not have “free will”?[17] In order to answer these types of questions the following section will focus upon: (1) Key definitions and distinctions; and (2) Briefly explain two of Edward’s philosophical critiques of libertarian freedom.

Key Definitions: Will; Determination of the Will; Nature of Motive; Volition

The first issue Edwards addresses is definitions of terms. The reason for this painstaking, yet necessary step in the process is because terms define the matters of inquiry. In many respects, this is a scientific approach to the subject matter. The primary reason Edwards is concerned with the definition of terms is because the word “will” being “generally as well understood as any other words can be used to explain it; and so perhaps it would be, had not philosophers, metaphysicians and polemical divines brought the matter into obscurity by the things they have said of it.”[18] In other words, if it were not for the vain speculations of philosophers under the pretense of metaphysics or polemical theologians, the concept of the will would be clear and precise, not confused and muddled.

Edwards begins with a simple definition of the will. He states, “. . . the will (without any metaphysical refining) is plainly, that by which the mind chooses anything. The faculty of the will is that faculty or power or principle of mind by which it is capable of choosing: an act of the will is the same as an act of choosing or choice.”[19] Agreeing with John Locke, Edwards states, “A man never, in any instance, wills anything contrary to his desires, or desires anything contrary to his will.”[20] Edwards goes on to discuss the determination of the will and the nature of motive in these terms, which is of the most importance to his argument:

To talk of the determination of the will, supposes an effect, which must have a cause. If the will be determined, there is a determiner. This must be supposed to be intended even by them that say, the will determines itself. If it be so, the will is both determiner and determined; it is a cause that acts and produces effects upon itself, and is the objects of its own influence and action. . . . By ‘motive,’ I mean the whole of that which moves, excites or invites the mind to volition, whether that be one thing singly, or many things conjunctly. Many particular things may concur and unite their strength to induce the mind; and when it is so, all together are as it were one complex motive. And when I speak of the ‘strongest motive,’ I have respect to the strength of the whole that operates to induct to a particular action of volition, whether that strength be one thing, or of many together.[21]

With these definitions in place, Edwards offers in clear terms his definition of volition or choice. He states, “The things which I have said may, I hope, serve, in some measure, to illustrate and confirm the position I laid down at the beginning of this section, viz. that the will is always determined by the strongest motive, or by that view of the mind which has the greatest degree of previous tendency to excite volition.”[22] In other words, according to Edwards, true liberty insists that a man is free to do as he wills, but not to do what he does not will.[23]

Key Distinctions in Edwards: Necessity vs. Compulsion; Natural vs. Moral Necessity; Inability

Edwards proceeds to discuss the term “necessity.” This term used in common speech is typically confused and misrepresented.[24] Stereotypically most view necessity as compulsion, however, Edwards states, “That necessity which has been explained, consisting in an infallible connection of the things signified by the subject and predicate of a proposition, as intelligent beings are the subject of it, is distinguished into moral and natural necessity.”[25] Many Arminians charge Edwards of denying any true sense of freedom by claiming he is affirming a compulsion of the will. But this is a complete misrepresentation of Edwards. On the one hand, according to Edwards, a compulsion of the will would be to force the will to act contrary to its desires. On the other hand, a necessity of the will it not a compulsion of the will because the will is acting according to its own desires. Here Arminians err by confusing internal and external necessity insisting that internal necessity is actually internal compulsion. External necessity would involve a connection between two events, one in which the subject and the predicate had no volition in the matter (e.g., someone put a gun in your hand and they forced your finger to pull the trigger). Whereas internal necessity, one in which the subject and predicate do have a volition in the matter, indicates the will is active in the endeavor (e.g., you put the gun in your hand and desired to pull the trigger). One would fall prey to a necessary of compulsion if the will were being forced contrary to its desires to sin (e.g., namely, you pulled the trigger, but it was contrary to your desires).[26]

In order to not fall prey to misrepresentation or a compulsory notion of the will, Edwards asks his readers to understand the distinction between natural and moral necessity. Edwards claims, “By ‘natural necessity,’ as applied to men, I mean such a necessity as men are under through the force of natural causes; as distinguished from what are called moral causes, such as habits and dispositions of the heart, and moral motives and inducements.”[27] Edwards applies this distinction between natural and moral necessity, or those occurring from natural force versus those occurring from causes pertaining to inclinations and motions, and makes a further distinction between natural and moral inability. Concerning natural inability he writes, “We are said to be naturally unable to do a thing, when we can’t do it if we will, because what is commonly called nature don’t allow for it, or because of some impeding defect or obstacle that is extrinsic to the will; either in the faculty of understanding, constitution of body, or external objects.”[28] On the other hand, “Moral inability consists not in any of the things; but either in the want of inclination; or the strength of a contrary inclination; or the want of sufficient motives in view, to induce and excite the act of the will, or strength of apparent motives to the contrary.”[29] Given this definition of ability and freedom, the will cannot not be free or choose according to its strongest desire. Edwards then proceeds to offer the following philosophical arguments to prove why Arminian and Pelagian views of the will are irrational and incoherent.

Edwards Philosophical Arguments.

Edwards arguments defend theological and philosophical determinism. Edwards offers a variety of arguments and responds to objections biblically, philosophically, and theologically. However, since Edwards main contribution was a philosophical defense of the biblical doctrine, two of his strongest philosophical arguments will be explained: (1) Infinite regress and Moral Agency; and (2) No Event Without a Cause.

Infinite Regress and Moral Agency[30]

Edwards presents the following argument against the Arminian notion of freedom to show that it either leads to an infinite regress or a lack of moral agency.[31] According to Edwards, “If the will determines itself, then either the will is active in determining its volitions or not.”[32] He goes on to say, “If it be active in it, then the determination is an act of the will; and so there is one act of the will determining another act.”[33] Continuing, “But if the will is not active in the determination, then how does it exercise any liberty in it?.”[34] Edwards concludes with the following comment:

These gentlemen suppose that the thing wherein the will exercises liberty, is in its determining its own acts. But how can this be, if it ben’t active determining? Certainly the will, or the soul, can’t exercise any liberty in that wherein it don’t act, or wherein it don’t exercise itself. So that if either part of this dilemma be taken, this scheme of liberty, consisting in self-determining power, is over throne. If there be an act of the will in determining all its own free acts, then one free act of the will is determined by another; and so we have the absurdity of every free act, even the very first, determined by a foregoing free act. But if there be no act or exercise of the will determining its own acts, then no liberty is exercised in determining them. From whence it follows, that no liberty consists in the will’s power to determine its own choices; or, which is the same thing, that there is no such thing as liberty consisting in a self-determining power of the will.[35]

The predicament facing the Arminian view of the will is this: either the libertarian is left affirming the conundrum of an infinite regress or their actions lack true freedom or moral praise or shame. Edwards believes the Arminian does not want to affirm either of these options neither do they want to give up their notion of libertarian freedom; however, unless they opt for the internally incoherent position or give up their notion of libertarian freedom, they will not be able to overcome this conundrum. Edwards forces them to ask: Which one will we choose?!

No Event Without A Cause

Edwards presents the following argument from his chapter on whether acts of volition arise from a cause or without a cause.[36] Prior to his argument, Edwards defines a cause as any antecedent, that serves the consequents ground, reason, or connection.[37] Here is Edwards argument in propositional form:

  1. All effects have a cause or they are necessary.
  2. Effects by definition are not necessary.
  3. Therefore, all effects have a cause.
  4. An act of the will is an effect.
  5. Therefore, acts of the will have a cause.

Edwards utilizes an effect to cause type of reasoning in this second argument. To prove the rationale of the first premise, Edwards appeals to the cosmological argument.[38] He asserts, “What is self-existent must be from eternity, and must be unchangeable: but as to all things that begin to be, they are not self-existent, and therefore must have some foundation of their existence without themselves.”[39] Edwards takes premises two and three as already established, so he spends the rest of his time arguing for premise four. In particular, he addresses what he considers to be the logical absurdity of claiming an act of the will is an effect without a cause. Edwards believes this view is absurd because there would be millions of events (e.g., acts of the will) occurring daily without a cause.[40] He concludes this argument by claiming:

So that if it is indeed as repugnant to reason, to suppose that an act of the will should come into existence without a cause, as to suppose the human soul, or an angle, or the globe of the earth, or the whole universe, should come into existence without a cause. and if once we allow, that such a sort of effect as a volition may come to pass without a cause, how do we know but that many other sorts of effects may do so too? ‘Tis not the particular kind of effect that makes the absurdity of supposing it has being without a cause, but something which is common to all thing that ever begin to be, viz. that they are not self-existent, or necessary in the nature of things.[41]

And if the premises be true, which Edwards believes they are, then the conclusion necessarily follows. Therefore, it is true that each act of the will has a cause. Edwards offers this argument in conjunction with a host of biblical arguments to prove the same conclusion. Since space does not permit a full complete explanation of Edwards’ biblical argument, the following section will briefly evaluate his arguments and offer some modern applications of the view.

Evaluation and Modern Applications

The thesis of this paper claims that Jonathan Edward’s treatise Freedom of the Will, provides a comprehensive defense of the biblical and Reformed view of the will and offers an antidote to libertarian freedom. This final section will offer some brief evaluation and modern applications to conclude the point of my thesis.

First of all, Edwards provides a comprehensive defense of the Reformed view. For example, throughout the work he regularly appeals to Scripture, historical theology, church history, philosophy, the contemporary theologians and influential thinkers of his day. In addition, Edwards attempted to uphold not only the biblical standards, but in many respects, he defended the Westminster Standards and its view of the will. The application for this section is that theologians and pastors need to be comprehensive in their approach. They should not just stick to one line of defense; instead, they should employ a variety of arguments. That being said, unlike Luther and Calvin, who spent most of their time arguing from the Scriptural evidence alone, Edwards stood upon the work of these men and provided the best philosophical defense of the biblical doctrine (and he utilized Scripture when necessary).[42] The point being, like Edwards, we do not need to reinvent the wheel, and we ought to look to the historical figures who went before us and bring their works into the current conversation.

Second, Edwards provided a comprehensive methodological approach to the topic at hand. While it might seem belaboring and monotonous to some that Edwards spends the entirety of the first section on definitions, this is probably the most important section of the book (hence, why it was such a major portion of this paper). Within any discipline, dispute, or discussion; how someone uses and defines their terms can determine the outcome of the discussion. This is clearly the case when evangelicals discuss Scripture and doctrine with the cults, and it is also the case when we discuss theology with other theologians. For as Edwards stressed throughout his book, many times philosophers or metaphysicians as he likes calls them, prefer to redefine the terms to prove their points. Similarly, present-day theologians ought to carefully delineate theirs terms, for words have meaning and have the potential to frame not only the conversation, but the conclusion of the argument.

Third, Edwards provided both valid and sound arguments to defend the Reformed doctrine of the will. R.C. Sproul was correct when he discussed that during Luther’s day the main issue was the Babylonian captivity of the church, and how that mirrors the similar issue in our day, which is the Babylonian captivity of the will.[43] The importance of Edwards is that coupled with Augustine, Luther, and Calvin; he provides an antidote to the prevailing insistence upon libertarian freedom coming from both inside and outside the church. For example, during the twentieth-century a debate arose amongst evangelical scholars over whether or not God could have exhaustive foreknowledge (e.g., open theism). Their primary concern was to defend the libertarian freedom of man and protect God from being the author of sin.[44] The effects of this Babylonian captivity are clear and evident. Unless evangelicals return to their theological heritage on the issue of the will, which means they embrace the conclusions reached by individuals such as Edwards, we will not be able to forego the prevailing notions and conclusions reached by open theists and the like. Truly, it is time to return from captivity—Babylon has kept us too long—let us return to Jerusalem.[45]

[1] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil (New York: Harper & Row, 1970); Norman L. Geisler, Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election (Bloomington: Bethany House, 2001); William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God—The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987); Kenneth Keathly, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010).

[2] Melville Y. Stewart, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology of Contemporary Views (Sudbury: Jones and Barlett Publishers, 1996), 330–465.

[3] R.C. Sproul has written a wonderful and brief history of the controversy over free will, see: R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997). In addition, all citations from Jonathan Edwards treatise will come from: Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970).

[4] Note: In the syllabus for this class there were seven different criteria listed for us to assess Edwards. For the sake of clarity, flow, and argumentation; I have combined some of these categories. I have also not present Edwards biblical arguments because it was beyond the scope and nature of this paper which focuses upon his philosophical argument against libertarian freedom and defense of compatiblism.

[5] George M. Marsden, A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 127.

[6] Leon Chai, Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 94–113; and The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards, ed. Stephen J. Stein (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 80–102.

[7] Marsden, A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards, 127.

[8] Paul Ramsey, “Editorial Introduction,” in Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 65.

[9] Ibid., 65–118.

[10] Ramsey speaks about Chubb in these words, “Beginning as an Arian and disciple of William Whiston and Samuel Clarke, Chubb thereafter moved rapidly onto a variant of deism, and wrote a number of works in this vain.” Ibid., 67.

[11] Ibid., 66.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Sam Storms, “The Will: Fettered Yet Free (Freedom of the Will),” in John Piper and Justin Taylor, eds., A God Entranced Vision of All things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 201.

[14] Sproul, Willing to Believe, 23.

[15] Ibid., 23–29.

[16] Edwards contrasts his view by showing how it differs from Arminian and Pelagian notions of libertarian freedom. Edwards lists the following things to describe an Arminian view of the will: “(1)That it [libertarian freedom] consists in a self-determining power in the will, or a certain sovereignty the will has over itself, and its own acts, whereby it determines its own volitions; so not to be dependent in its determinations, on any cause without itself, not determined by anything prior to its own acts. (2) Indifference belongs to liberty in their notion of it, or that the mind, previous to the act of volition be, in equilibrio. (3) Contingence is another thing that belongs and is essential to it; not in the common acceptation of the word, as that has already been explained, but as opposed to all necessity, or any fixed and certain connection with some previous ground or reason of its existence.” Ibid., 164–165., Italics in original. Edwards claims, “They suppose the essence of liberty so much to consist in these things, that unless the will of man be free in this sense, he has no real freedom, how much soever he may be at liberty to act according to his will.” Ibid., 165.

[17] For a complete understanding of Edwards’ view, see: Hugh J. McCain, “Edwards on Free Will,” in Paul Helm and Oliver D. Crisp, Jonathan Edwards: Philosophical Theologian (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003), 27–44.

[18] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 137.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 139.

[21] Ibid., 141.

[22] Ibid., 148. Edwards also claims, “If strict propriety of speech be insisted on, it may more properly be said, that the voluntary action which is the immediate consequence and fruit of the mind’s volition or choice, is determined by that which appears most agreeable, than the preference or choice itself; but that the act of volition itself is always determined by that in or about the mind’s view of the object, which causes it to appear most agreeable.” Ibid., 144.

[23] This final point and line was obtained from Paul Ramsey, who later went on to state, “This definition of liberty as the freedom to do what we will was imbedded in Aristotle’s distinction between voluntary and involuntary acts. Calvin also thought of it, but refused ‘to decorate a thing so diminutive with a tile so superb,’ and so threatening to divine sovereignty, as ‘freedom.’” Ibid., 13.

[24] Edwards writes, “It appears from what has been said, that these terms ‘necessary,’ ‘impossible,’ etc. are often used by philosophers and metaphysicians in a sense quite diverse from their common use and original signification: for they apply them to cases in which no opposition is supposed or supposable. Thus they use them with respect to God’s existence before the creation of the world, when there was no other being but he: so with regard to many of the dispositions and acts of divine Being, such as his love of himself, his loving righteousness, hating sin, etc. so they apply these terms to many cases of the inclinations and actions of created intelligent beings, angels and men; wherein all opposition of the will is shut out and denied, in the very supposition of the case.” Ibid., 151.

[25] Ibid., 156. Edwards also states, “Philosophical necessity is really nothing else than the full and fixed connection between the things signified by the subject and predicate of a proposition, which affirms something to be true. When there is such a connection, then the thing affirmed in the proposition is necessary, in a philosophical sense; whether any opposition, or contrary effort be supposed, or supposable in the case, or no. When the subject and predicate of a proposition, which affirms the existence of anything, either substance, quality, act or circumstance, have a full and certain connection, then the existence or being that thing is said to be necessary in a metaphysical sense. And in this sense I use the word ‘necessity,’ in the following discourse, when I endeavor to prove that necessity is not inconsistent with liberty.” Ibid., 152.

[26] Both Augustine and Luther received similar criticisms. But both of them like Edwards, make a distinction between natural and moral necessity.

[27] Ibid., 156–157., Emphasis added.

[28] Ibid., 159.

[29] Ibid., Italics in original, bold added.


[31] Ibid., 176. Historically an infinite regress can be traced back to Aristotle’s third man critique raised against Plato’s doctrine of the forms. In simple terms, suggests that if the present cause needs a preceding cause, then that preceding cause needs a cause, which in turn, the that cause requires a preceding cause—unto infinity. Moral agency in this context refers to the ability to assign moral praise or blame.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., 180–185. Oliver Crisp critiques Edwards view of causality claiming it is a form of occasionalism. However, Edwards does not claim to affirm this view of causality. For Crisp’s critique see: Oliver Crisp, Jonathan Edwards and the Metaphysics of Sin (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005).

[37] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 180. The full definition is as follows, “Therefore I sometimes use the word ‘cause,’ in this inquiry, to signify any antecedent, either natural or moral, positive or negative, on which an event, either a thing, or the manner and circumstance of a thing, so depends, that it is the ground and reason, either in whole, or in part, why it is, rather than not; or why it is as it is, rather than otherwise; or, in the words, any antecedent with which a consequent event is so connected, that it truly belongs to the reason why the proposition affirms that event, is true; whether it has any positive influence, or not.” Ibid., 180–181.

[38] For an explanation of Edwards’ view of the traditional theistic proofs, see: Sang Hyun Lee, The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

[39] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 181, Italics in original.

[40] Ibid., 184.

[41] Ibid., 185.

[42] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Lexington: Feather Trail Press, 2009); John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989). Note: This point should not be taken in such a way so as to communicate that Luther and Edwards did not employ theological or philosophical arguments. Instead, unlike Edwards, their primary interest was exegetical and historical. Edwards did employ these types of argumentation, however, when compared against the backdrop of Luther and Calvin’s work, Freedom of the Will, contains substantially more philosophical argumentation.

[43] Sproul, Willing to Believe, 15–29.

[44] Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001).

[45] Two books that present a good modern-day defense of the Reformed position are: Paul Helm, Eternal God: A Study of God without Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware, eds., Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000).

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