Jonathan Edwards & Free Will – Part 5

Posted: May 24, 2011 in edwards, history, philosophy, theology

See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.


Now that we have examined the Arminian understanding of libertarian freedom and Edwards’ critique of it, I will now turn to my own analysis of Edwards.  Logically, one must admit that Edwards’ reasoning seems unassailable.  Philosophically, I agree with Edwards that the Arminian runs into some serious problems when he follows his view through to its logical conclusion.  Along with all the problems proposed by Edwards, libertarian freewill poses a dilemma for divine omniscience.  If God truly and completely knows all things, past, present, and future, then those things are certain to happen.  However, if those things are certain to happen, then that certainty precludes the possibility for libertarian freedom, which is the ability (or possibility) to do otherwise.  This possibility simply does not exist if God infallibly knows all things.  As Francis Beckwith, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, writes:

“Philosophers and theologians in the Christian tradition as well as those in other traditions have wrestled with the problem of omniscience and free will for as long as people have believed that their Scriptures teach both that God knows everything in the past, present and future and that human beings are free moral agents with the ability to make libertarian choices.  Such belief, however, poses a well-known problem.  If God has perfect knowledge of future events including human actions, and if God cannot be wrong about what he knows, then all human actions will turn out only one way.  But if individuals can make libertarian choices that entail the ability to do otherwise, how can the Christian at the same time affirm that the future will turn out only one way?”[1]

Calvinism & Open Theism

Arminians in Edwards’ day, as well as in our day, have yet to come up with an adequate solution that preserves both God’s omniscience and man’s libertarian freedom.  Edwards, along with most Calvinists, could not live with this massive theological and philosophical contradiction.  Thus, they utterly denied libertarian freedom.  However, most Arminians could live with it, viewing libertarian free-will as too crucial to forsake.  Eventually, some Arminians began to assert that perhaps the classical understanding of God’s omniscience was the problem.[2]  Though this view, later termed “open-theism”, had its roots in the 19th century, it did not gain significant mainstream recognition or acceptance until recently.  Theologians such as Gregory Boyd, John Sanders, Thomas Oord, and the recently deceased Clark Pinnock are the main proponents of open-theism today.  These men, and others like them, have done much to give theological and intellectual credence to the claims of open-theists.

Numerous books and articles for and against open-theism have been written in the last two decades, so I will not delve into a detailed discussion of the topic here.  However, just to illustrate the way in which open-theism is intricately tied to the Arminian notion of libertarian free-will, I will quote John Piper, from his book Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity:

“The heart of open theism is the conviction that humans and angels can be morally responsible only if they have ultimate self-determination – and have it to the degree that their self-determination rules out God’s ability to render or see any of their future free acts as certain.  Therefore, open theism’s most obvious departure from historic Christianity is its denial of the exhaustive, definite foreknowledge of God. This departure is obscured by the protest of open theists that they do affirm the omniscience of God. They argue that self-determining free will creates choices that have no reality before they are created and therefore are not possible objects of knowledge—even to God. They would say that not to know a no-thing does not undermine omniscience. And, they add, truly free choices are no-thing before they are made.[3]

Commenting on the serious threat of open-theism, Piper writes, “The stunning thing about open theism in American Christianity is how many leaders do not act as though it is a departure from historic Christianity and therefore a dishonor to Christ and pastorally damaging. Some have seen the departure clearly and said so.”[4]  I could not agree more.

What Does the Bible Teach?

Turning to the Bible, it seems clear that the God’s Word does not support a libertarian notion of freedom.  As Wayne Grudem notes, “Scripture nowhere says that we are ‘free’ in the sense of being outside of God’s control or of being able to make decisions that are not caused by anything.”[5]  Rather, over and over again the Bible declares that God is sovereign over all things, including the wills and actions of men and women.[6]  Equally true is the fact that God still holds all people responsible for their actions.[7]  Thus, the Arminian assertion that responsibility necessitates contra-causal ability (“I could have done otherwise.”) falls flat.[8]

In conclusion, through his passionate zeal to denounce and lay waste to that “pernicious doctrine” of libertarian free-will, combined with his “entire consecration of genius and greatness,”[9]  Edwards produced a work that still awes theologians and philosophers alike today.  His arguments against Arminianism in general, and libertarian freedom specifically, still hold fast, despite continued attacks by opponents.  By allowing his theology to shape his philosophy, Edwards was able to produce a biblical refutation of what he considered to be a dangerous heresy threatening to do great harm to the church of Jesus Christ.

Delving Too Deep

However, despite the many strengths of his viewpoint, Edwards’ treatise on the will did have one weakness: he failed to explain the fall of Adam.  Edwards did not (perhaps, could not) answer the question, “Why did Adam choose to eat the fruit?”  Edwards would affirm that Adam was just like all other humans: he could do what he wanted to do.  And just like everyone else, Adam’s will was determined by his inclinations, motives, disposition, etc.  This explains fallen man’s sin easily enough: he naturally prefers sin rather than God; thus, he wills sin and then acts according to his will.  However, unlike all who followed him, Adam’s inclinations and motives were perfectly good, being wholly directed toward God.  So whence came the desire to sin?

Edwards’ answer is confusing.  In one of his Miscellanies, he writes about Adam’s need for God’s “confirming grace”, which would have enabled Adam to resist the devil’s temptation.  He writes,

“If it be inquired how man came to sin, seeing he had no sinful inclinations in him, except God took away his grace from him that he had been wont to give him and so let him fall, I answer, there was no need of that; there was no need of taking away any that had been given him, but he sinned under that temptation because God did not give him more. He did not take away that grace from him while he was perfectly innocent, which grace was his original righteousness; but he only withheld his confirming grace, that grace which is given now in heaven, such grace as shall fit the soul to surmount every temptation.”[10]

However, the problem with this understanding is that it fails to explain how Adam could even have been tempted in the first place!  If Adam’s motives and inclinations were perfectly good, righteous, holy, and godward, what in his character could Satan’s temptation have latched-on to?  Sam Storms writes, “Once Edwards has exempted God from any direct causal influence in the initial transgression of Adam, he simply had no way of explaining how the first man, being righteous, could generate an act of rebellion, and this notwithstanding the positive presence and sustaining influence of divine grace!”[11]

It seems that Edwards is left with two unacceptable explanations.  Either Adam’s will was ultimately self-determined (which Edwards says is impossible), or else it ultimately found its root in God (which he, along with most Calvinists, would also say is impossible).  Thus, he found himself backed into a corner, unable to escape (though he did try).  John Gerstner writes, “As did Noah, Edwards became ‘drunk’ on one occasion in spite of a life of exceptional holiness.  And just as in the case of Noah, there was undoubtedly powerful temptation; so here the great intellectual theologian became intoxicated with the greatest theological problem in the entire Word of God.”[12]  In an email conversation, Dr. Sam Storms noted that “this is a mystery which Scripture does not attempt to resolve.”[13]  We would do well to acknowledge this truth and refrain from delving too deeply into things that are truly incomprehensible.[14]

[1] Francis Beckwith as cited in Robert Picirilli’s article entitled “Foreknowledge, Freedom, and the Future.”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 3 no 2 Je 2000, p 259-271.
[2] See John Sanders helpful article entitled “’Open Theism’: A Radical Revision or Miniscule Modification of Arminianism?” in which he explains the rise of open-theism, helping to highlight the key foundational differences relating to “classical theism” versus “freewill theism.”  Sanders argues that open-theism is merely Arminianism followed to its logical end.
[3] Piper, Beyond the Bound: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, p. 9.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 331.
[6] Ephesians 1:11; Romans 11:36; Exodus 4:21; 2 Samuel 24:1; Job 12:23; Proverbs 16:1; 20:24; Isaiah 45; Acts 2:23; 4:27
[7] Isaiah 66:3-4; Ecclesiastes 7:29; Romans 9:19-20
[8] See Vincent Cheung’s book The Author of Sin, p. 15-17, 66-67. See also Bruce Ware’s chapter in Still Sovereign entitled “Effectual Calling and Grace,” p. 212-213.
[9] Egbert Smyth, as quoted in Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, by Iain H. Murray, p. xvi.
[10] Edwards, Miscellanies 290, emphasis mine.
[11] Storms, “The Will: Fettered Yet Free” in A God Entranced Vision of All Things, p. 214.
[12] Gerstner, Jonathan Edwards: A Mini-Theology, p. 39.
[13] Personal email conversation, November 18th, 2008.
[14] I do not say this lightly.  I do not think that many people struggle, as Edwards did, with delving “too deeply” into the hidden things of God.  Rather, I would say that the main problem for Christians today is the tendency to not go deep enough.  Most people seem content with a surface level understanding of God’s truth.  Terms like “mystery” and “paradox” are used far too often, in my opinion.  So, there is danger on both sides.


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