Jonathan Edwards & Free Will – Part 2

Posted: May 21, 2011 in edwards, history, philosophy, theology

See Part 1.

Libertarian Free-Will Today

At this point, it would be important to note the connection between the notion of libertarian free-will and modern free-will movements within Protestantism today.  Most notable are the Arminian/Wesleyan and open theist camps, both of which affirm the concept of libertarian freedom.  I would argue, along with many Reformed theologians and even some open theists[1], that open theism is really just the logical extension of Arminianism.  Put another way, if an Arminian consistently follows all of his presuppositions and concepts regarding God, man, freedom, responsibility, etc. to their logical conclusions, he would be forced to go “all the way” to open theism.[2]

Arguments for Libertarian Free-Will

Now we will turn to an examination of the Arminian’s arguments for libertarian freedom.  First, as noted above, Arminians claim that their conception of freedom best accords with common sense.  Upon simple reflection, most people would agree that a person can only be held responsible for what he freely chooses to do.  Additionally, Arminians insist that the term “freedom” itself implies that an act was not caused by anything outside of the person.  Again, they define freedom as the ability to do otherwise.  Arminians often turn to the Bible, citing its many admonitions and commands, arguing that the fact that these are contained in Scripture proves that humans must have freedom in a libertarian sense.  They point to the many examples of real and effective choices of men and women in the Bible, choices that these said men and women were subsequently held responsible for (in receiving either praise or blame).  These facts, Arminians claim, prove that libertarian free-will is biblical and philosophically necessary.

Thomas Hobbes

Arminians also claim that a Calvinistic understanding of the will necessarily leads to fatalism.  This was true in Edwards’ day as well, when his opponents compared him to a fatalist philosopher named Thomas Hobbes.  To their charge, Edwards replied that the similarities were only surface level.[3]  Edwards claimed to have never read Hobbes, pointing to the important concept of God’s use of means to accomplish His sovereign purposes.  Edwards argued that although God does govern some aspects of the universe through mechanistic means (i.e. natural laws), He primarily governs men and women through what he called “moral necessity.”[4]  Thus, real, effective, and individual choices are maintained (at least in how Edwards defines choices), along with responsibility for those choices.  For Edwards, the universe is ultimately directed by a loving, personal, righteous God, who is working all things together according to a definite and predetermined plan.  Fatalism, on the other hand, declares that the universe governed by some “portentous, impersonal [power] that thwarts and overrules human freedom…Fate is impersonal and irrational.”[5]  This is a far cry from Edward’s conception of God’s sovereignty.

Arminians also argue that the Calvinistic understanding of God’s sovereignty (which is partially what leads Calvinists to deny libertarian freedom) inescapably leads to the conclusion that God is the ultimate source and cause of evil.  Just as many Calvinists claim that a consistent Arminian must affirm open theism, likewise many Arminians claim that a consistent Calvinist must affirm that God is the author of sin.  If humans do not have any determining power of their own, but rather all things are ultimately caused by the one uncaused Cause, then sin must have originated in God Himself.  However, since the Bible clearly teaches that God does not sin, nor does He have any sin in His being, the Arminian concludes that God cannot be absolutely sovereign in the Calvinistic sense.  Thus, room for libertarian freedom seems to appear.  This freedom essentially solves the “problem of evil” for the Arminian, getting God off the hook.

Part 3

[1] For an open theist’s perspective on this, see John Sanders article in the Wesleyan Theological Journal entitled “’Open Theism’: A Radical Revision or Miniscule Modification of Arminianism?”  In the article, Sanders argues persuasively that open theism is really just Arminianism, showing that “establishment Arminians” and open theists share many foundational beliefs concerning God and the nature of His sovereignty and omniscience, and that most of the critiques leveled against open theism can also be leveled against Arminianism just as effectively.  Therefore, Sanders concludes that open theism is “a subset of Arminianism rather than a stand-alone theological model…open theism is not a radical revision of establishment Arminianism” (p. 101).
[2] I have more intellectual respect for an open theist than I do for an Arminian, though I do believe that Arminians are more biblical in their conception of God.  However, this adherence to the clear teachings of Scripture regarding God’s omniscience and sovereignty must be held in tension with their understanding of libertarian free-will; they are not logically compatible.  Rather than living in this state of contradiction, I would challenge the Arminian to abandon his unbiblical notions regarding free-will and thus resolve the tension completely, as the Calvinist does with a compatabalist view of freedom.
[3] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, p. 443-44.
[4] I will explain what Edward’s means by this phrase in a following section.
[5] Bloesch, D. G., “Fate, Fatalism.”, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 439.

  1. Matthew says:

    1. I’m loving the layout. Did you buy it? It’s way cooler than the free trash I keep switching to.

    2. I’m teaching theology-bible at a high school. At the beginning of the year, 99% of my student body was Arminian (High percentage of my students come from pentecostal churches that bleed libertarian free will . . It’s funny, whenever I want to get them to agree with me on something, I just say “hey, we have free will, right?” And I get a ton of head-nodding… It’s hilarious) …. And just by accurately and fairly teaching both sides, I’ve seen a 25% increase in Calvinism. I don’t even tell them I’m Calvinist just that they need to read the Bible and examine the evidences for each view.

    • Matt Tully says:

      1. Actually, the skin (layout) was free. It’s called Greyzed (

      2. That’s great! It’s amazing what a simple (yet careful) reading of the Word will do. I think one of the biggest hinderances to embracing the doctrines of grace is arrogant Calvinists who try to push their convictions down people’s throats. It’s just not helpful. I think (in general) we need more patience and grace when engaging in these types of discussions. And then, after we’ve demonstrated our character and earned our right to speak, we can start to deconstruct some of their positions (i.e. libertarian free will).

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