Jonathan Edwards & Free Will – Part 3

Posted: May 22, 2011 in edwards, history, philosophy, theology

See Part 1 and Part 2.

Edwards’ Response

Edward’s critique of the Arminian position was devastating in his day and remains largely unanswered today.  In response to the first Arminian argument presented above, Edwards simply denied the claim that libertarian free-will is the common sense understanding of real freedom.  Rather, Edwards affirmed that the common sense understanding of true freedom is simply the ability to do what one wants to do.  As he writes in Freedom of the Will,

“The plain and obvious meaning of the words “freedom” and “liberty,” in common speech, is power, opportunity, or advantage, that anyone has, to do as he pleases. Or in other words, his being free from hindrance or impediment in the way of doing, or conducting in any respect, as he wills.  And the contrary to liberty, whatever name we call that by, is a person’s being hindered or unable to conduct as he will, or being necessitated to do otherwise.”[1]

Self-determining power is nowhere present.  For Edwards, being free is simply doing what one wants to do.  It is following one’s strongest inclination, without external compulsion.

A Self-Determined Will?

In response to the Arminian belief in a self-determined will, Edwards points out the inherent absurdity of this claim.  Arminians claim that the will has the power to cause itself to act or choose in a certain way.  Although they would not deny the real role of outside influences, Arminians still affirm that the will itself is the final and effective cause of itself.  However, Edwards points out that in deciding what the will chooses, the will is willing something.  Therefore, one would have to go back one more step to explain why it was that the will willed to will in that way.  Thus, the Arminian is forced to continue going back, ad infinitum, with each act of will being preceded by a previous act of will.  If the Arminian wishes to escape this infinite regress, he must finally assert that there was a first act of will, which in turn determined all subsequent acts of his will.  However, if there was a first act of will, then that means it was uncaused.[2]

This, in and of itself, poses a problem for the Arminian.  There can be no such thing as an uncaused will.  A will is a cause, and there is only one uncaused cause: God.  Put in philosophical terms, God is the only unmoved mover.  No created being, much less its will, can be uncaused, for created beings are contingent by definition.  Created beings had a beginning – they had a cause.  To claim that something within a person is ultimately uncaused is, in a very real sense, tantamount to claiming that that part of the person is God, for God is the only uncaused thing.[3]  As Marsden writes, “It does not make sense to suppose that at every moment in the universe there are millions of uncaused free acts of will that are not the subject of God’s will, either positive or negative.”[4]  Additionally, how could someone be praised or blamed for something that they ultimately had nothing to do with?  The initial and foundational disposition of their will, which gave rise to all other subsequent acts of their will, was uncaused.  It just appeared, for no reason whatsoever.  It certainly didn’t come from them!  So, how can they be responsible for the final outcome of that disposition?

Edwards’ logic, however, defeats the Arminian at yet another point.  Assuming that the will could possibly be uncaused, the Arminian still has a serious problem.  An uncaused will is no longer a self-determined will.  However, ultimate self-determination is what is necessary for true freedom according to one who advocates the need for libertarian freedom.  Thus, the Arminian must admit that people are ultimately not free, by his definition of true freedom.  By asserting that the will is self-caused, the Arminian is forced to either acknowledge an infinite regress of acts of the will, or else deny their own definition of freedom altogether.  Edwards claimed that the Arminian view of the will as self-determining was thus ridiculous.  He writes,

“For the will itself is not an agent that has a will: the power of choosing, itself, has not a power of choosing. That which has the power of volition or choice is the man or the soul, and not the power of volition itself. And he that has the liberty of doing according to his will, is the agent or doer who is possessed of the will; and not the will which he is possessed of. We say with propriety, that a bird let loose has power and liberty to fly; but not that the bird’s power of flying has a power and liberty of flying.”[5]

Thus, man has a will; his will does not.  A man’s will is not uncaused.  It is determined, but not by itself.  Edwards’ position avoids the necessity of an infinite regress or an uncaused will.

Responsibility Necessitates Libertarian Free-Will?  Since When?

To the charge that the Calvinist notion of free-will destroys the only basis one has for assigning blame or praise, Edwards again simply claims that this is not true.  However, before we can examine why he can say this, we must first take a closer look at Edwards’ conception of the will and freedom.  The will, according to Edwards, is the choosing power within a person.  In more simple terms, it is a person’s “wanter”.[6]  As such, the will is based on one’s strongest inclinations or motives.  For Edwards, man is only free in the sense that he is able to do what he wants to do.  Thus, we see that Edwards places the freedom on the level of action in accordance with one’s will, not in some determining power over the will as the Arminian does.[7]  This is a key distinction.  The Arminian claims that a person has the power to choose what it  decides to “will”.  In other words, by an act of will, a person can determine his will.  As we have already demonstrated, this understanding of the will leads to either an infinite regress of willing, or to an uncaused will, both of which are impossible.  Therefore, Edwards understands the will as originating in one’s inclinations – whatever they see as the greatest good at that time.  It would be beneficial to quote Edwards at length here, as his explanation is exceedingly helpful:

“The choice of the mind [i.e. the will] never departs from that which, at that time, and with respect to the direct and immediate objects of that decision of the mind, appears most agreeable and pleasing, all things considered [i.e. inclinations]. If the immediate objects of the will are a man’s own actions, then those actions which appear most agreeable to him he wills. If it be now most agreeable to him, all things considered, to walk, then he now wills to walk. If it be now, upon the whole of what at present appears to him, most agreeable to speak, then he chooses to speak: if it suits him best to keep silence, then he chooses to keep silence. There is scarcely a plainer and more universal dictate of the sense and experience of mankind, than that, when men act voluntarily, and do what they please, then they do what suits them best, or what is most agreeable to them.”[8]

Here we see that the will is based on one’s inclinations.  These inclinations are not the will itself, however.  Inclinations do not direct actions; only the will does.  Rather, what a person considers “most agreeable” leads to him making a decision with his will.  Thus, the will proceeds from and in accordance with one’s inclinations.  Then, according to Edwards, a person is free to act in accordance with that decision (his will).  A person has no power to determine what things seem “most agreeable” to him; this is based on his inherent disposition and is beyond his control.

Part 4

[1] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, p. 163.
[2] The other option here is that this first act of the will was externally caused, but the Arminian has already rejected this possibility.  Thus, the Arminian is forced to affirm an uncaused will.
[3] I would say “being” here instead of “thing”, but I want to emphasize the fact that this fact about God being the only uncaused cause applies not only to sentient “beings” but also literally to all things.
[4] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, p. 443.
[5] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, p. 163.
[6] Byrd, Jonathan Edwards for Armchair Theologians, p. 85.
[7] It would seem to me that it would help clarify the issue if Edwards would have gotten rid of the term “free-will” and instead used something like “free-act”.  For Edwards, all acts are free in that they accord with whatever a person wills.  This is how Edwards defines true and real freedom.  However, Edwards does not see the will as being “free” in any self-determining sense, so why not stop referring to the will as free?  The will is not free; it is determined by God.  Man’s choices and actions are free; they are determined by his/her will.  Edwards seems to be implying this when he writes, “And therefore to talk of liberty, or the contrary, as belonging to the very will itself, is not to speak good sense; if we judge of sense, and nonsense, by the original and proper signification of words. For the will itself is not an agent that has a will: the power of choosing, itself, has not a power of choosing.” Freedom of the Will, p. 163.
[8] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, p. 147.  See also Sam Storms chapter “The Will: Fettered Yet Free” in A God Entranced Vision of All Thing, p. 206-07.


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