Jonathan Edwards & Free Will – Part 4

Posted: May 23, 2011 in edwards, history, philosophy, theology

See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Natural vs. Moral Necessities

At this point, we should turn to a discussion of Edward’s distinction between natural necessities and moral necessities.  Natural necessities, according to Edwards, apply to the natural world, to things outside of us.  These are things that constrain action.  Thus, a person may want to jump off his house and fly but natural necessity prevents him from doing so.  The laws of nature, which are external to him, restrict his actions, despite the fact that he may genuinely will to fly.  To go back to the man who shot his neighbor, Edwards would say that he was not responsible for his actions because he was constrained to commit the crime by natural necessity – he was physically forced to pull the trigger.[1]

This is wholly different than moral necessity, Edwards argues.  Whereas natural necessity is something external, moral necessity is “the constraint we experience when our motives or inclinations are so strong that we can not resist them.”[2]  Thus, moral necessity deals with a person’s motives or inclinations, arising from the disposition of his heart.  In Freedom of the Will, Edwards notes that moral necessity “may be as absolute as natural necessity.”[3]  By this he means that just as it is impossible to overcome many natural necessities (i.e. gravity), it is also sometimes equally impossible to overcome certain moral necessities.  Examples that Edwards gives of moral necessity are a woman of great chastity being morally unable to prostitute herself; a malicious man being unable to show mercy to an enemy; a drunkard being unable to refrain from drinking; etc.[4]

These two concepts – moral necessity and natural necessity – are important because they relate to the grounds for holding people responsible for their actions.  If someone does something by natural necessity, Edwards would argue that he cannot be held responsible for that action.  That person was compelled to do something by external, foreign forces.  However, if a person does something by moral necessity, which as noted earlier is often just as binding as natural necessity, he can, and should, be held responsible for that action.  Edwards argues that this is true because the moral necessity to will (and thus act) in a certain way is within the person  – it is his inclination.  Yes, he is being compelled to do something, but that force is internal.  Put more simply, he is doing what he wants to do, because of who he is.  For Edwards, this is the true meaning of freedom and the only grounds for responsibility.

The Final Proof: God Himself

Thus, Edwards dealt with the Arminian charge that his understanding of the will undercut the only basis for morality.  However, Edwards had one other card up his sleeve regarding this issue, which is perhaps his most impressive argument of all.  In response to the Arminians’ charge concerning morality, Edwards simply pointed to God Himself.  If, as the Arminians contended, the will must be completely neutral and undetermined to be considered free, then God Himself is not free.  His will is determined by His nature, inclinations, disposition, etc.  God does not fit the Arminian concept of a self-determining/uncaused will, for He always acts out of moral necessity.  Consequently, if God is not free, He is not good.  Speaking as an Arminian, and with a rare flare of sarcasm, Edwards writes, “[God] is deserving of no commendation or praise; because he is under necessity, he can’t avoid being holy and good as he is; therefore no thanks to him for it.”[5]  As James Byrd writes, “Edwards delighted in this point because it demonstrated how ludicrous the Arminian position was.  And it supports Edwards’ argument about human freedom: just because choices are determined does not mean they are not free.  We are free if we are able to do what we want, even though our free choices are necessarily determined by our motives.”[6]


Part 5

[1] Natural necessities should not be thought of as merely the laws of nature.  Rather, Edwards uses this term to refer to any external force that necessitates a certain action.  The important factor is that the force is external to the person, not so much the nature of the force itself.
[2] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, p. 442.
[3] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, p. 157.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, p. 279.
[6] Byrd, Jonathan Edwards for Armchair Theologians, p. 97.


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