Jonathan Edwards & Free Will – Part 1

Posted: May 20, 2011 in edwards, history, philosophy, theology

Few people in the history of the Christian church have been as influential as Jonathan Edwards.  In his highly acclaimed biography of Edwards, George Marsden agrees, noting that “by many estimates, he was the most acute early American philosopher and the most brilliant of all American theologians.” [1]  Marsden even calls Edwards’ three most famous works – Religious Affections (1746), Freedom of the Will (1754), and The Nature of True Virtue (published posthumously) – “masterpieces” of Christian literature.[2]

Freedom of the Will

But one piece clearly stands out as the chief demonstration of Edwards’ theological prowess and intellectual ability.  Edwards’ discussion of the human will and the nature of true freedom in Freedom of the Will remains, even to this day, an almost impenetrable fortress against that “almost inconceivable pernicious” doctrine of libertarian free-will, so rampant both in Edwards’ and our day alike.[3]  This fundamental assumption regarding the nature of true freedom and the legitimate grounds for responsibility was incredibly dangerous in Edwards’ mind, for if it was correct, then the whole of Calvinistic soteriology must fall to the ground.  He writes,

I stand ready to confess to the forementioned modern divines [Arminians], if they can maintain their peculiar notion of freedom, consisting in the self-determining power of the will, as necessary to moral agency, and can thoroughly establish it in opposition to the arguments lying against it, then they have an impregnable castle, to which they may repair, and remain invincible, in all the controversies they have with the reformed divines, concerning original sin, the sovereignty of grace, election, redemption, conversion, the efficacious operation of the Holy Spirit, the nature of saving faith, perseverance of the saints, and other principles of the like kind.[4]

Edwards called the Calvinistic understanding of true freedom, “one of the most important truths of moral philosophy that was ever discussed, and most necessary to be known.”[5]  Thus, he named his treatise accordingly: A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of That Freedom of the Will, Which Is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame.  In this book, and a few of his other works, Edwards proves, most convincingly, that the widespread notion of libertarian freedom is not only unbiblical, but philosophically incoherent.[6]

Clark Pinnock

What Is Libertarian Free-Will Anyway?

Before considering Edward’s argument against such a “pernicious” doctrine, it will be necessary to define what he meant by the phrase “libertarian free-will”.  Those who advocate this type of freedom, known as libertarians to Edwards, insist that in order for an action to be considered free in any meaningful sense, a person’s will must exercise a certain sovereignty over itself.  That sovereignty is the ability to determine or cause one’s own will and/or choices.  Stated another way, the will must always have the ability to choose otherwise.  Thus, the will must be free from any influences or causes that would necessitate a certain response.  The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology uses the term indeterminism to describe this view, defining is as a position that, “contends that human behavior is totally uncaused.  There are no antecedent or simultaneous causes of man’s actions.  Hence, all of man’s acts are uncaused; any given human act could have been otherwise.”[7]  This definition would seem to be generally correct, although a libertarian would probably maintain that a more precise definition would note that all of man’s acts are self-caused, not uncaused.[8]  Clark Pinnock, a modern-day proponent of libertarian freedom, uses the term “contra-causal freedom” to describe this view, saying that libertarian freedom “recognizes the power of contrary choice.”[9]

Responsibility Necessitates Free-Will

Libertarians would insist on this definition of free-will in order to preserve what they believe to be the necessary conditions for responsibility, including blame and praise.  For a libertarian, an act that is ultimately not self-caused cannot be rightly attributed to a person, for they claim that it was not ultimately his act.  They would point to common sense to support their argument.  Consider the example of a man taken to court for murdering his neighbor.  If, after the charge was read, the defendant proceeded to explain how a stranger had broken into his house, physically overpowered him, made him hold a gun, and then forced him to shoot his neighbor, undoubtedly the court would find the man not guilty of murder owing to the forced nature of his act.  This common sense, libertarians argue, is what their conception of free-will upholds.  Man can only be responsible for the actions that he freely (and by freely, they mean that the acts were self-determined) chooses to commit.  If there are any influences or pressures that necessarily cause a person to act in a certain way, then that person is not free in that act and therefore not responsible for it.

Part 2

[1] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, p. 1
[2] Sweeney, “Edwards, Jonathan”, Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, p. 397.
[3] Marsden writes in his biography of Edwards that Calvinism had all but been completely dismissed by the intellectual elites in his day.  Calvinism was viewed as old and unfashionable by many of the great minds of the age.  Thus, Marsden argues that one of Edwards’ main goals in writing Freedom of the Will was to “reestablish Calvinism’s international intellectual respectability.”  See Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, p. 436.
[4] The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 3, Original Sin, p. 376, emphasis mine.  Also, see Sam Storms chapter entitled “The Will: Fettered Yet Free” in A God Entranced Vision of all Things, ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor, p. 218.
[5] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, p. 466.
[6] I like the way Stephen Holmes puts it in his book Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology: “[The concept of libertarian freedom] is now so pervasive as to be axiomatic everywhere except amongst philosophers, who are aware there is an argument to be had…” as quoted in Sam Storms chapter entitled “The Will: Fettered Yet Free” in A God Entranced Vision of all Things, ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor, p. 202.
[7] Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 469.
[8] Though, as we will see later, Edward’s raises a strong argument against this assertion.  In my opinion, he proves that libertarians must logically admit that eventually they must affirm an uncaused will.
[9] Clark Pinnock as cited in Sam Storms’ chapter entitled “The Will: Fettered Yet Free” in A God Entranced Vision of All Things by John Piper and Justin Taylor, p. 202.


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