Friday, February 11, 2011

Edwards On Free Will and the Fall (Part 2)

Edwards on the Will
Edwards was extraordinary. By many estimates, he was the most acute early American philosopher and the most brilliant of all American theologians. At least three of his many works – Religious Affections, Freedom of the Will, and The Nature of True Virtue – stand as masterpieces in the larger history of Christian literature. The appeal of his thought endures. Every year several books and scores of academic articles, reviews, and dissertations appear about him. [1]
Thus begins George Marsden’s biography of Edwards. It has been said by some that Jonathan Edwards’ book The Freedom of the Will is the greatest philosophical writing in all of American history. Others have declared that this philosophical writing alone prevented the growth of Arminianism in the American colonies by a hundred years. Edwards himself was so confident of the truth and success of his writings that he declared at the end of the book that he had conclusively shown the Arminian position on free will and its necessity for moral agency, virtue and vice, reward and punishment, praise and blame was inconsistent and thus, illogical to hold to.[2] In years following, (to my knowledge) no one was able to successfully refute the arguments contained in Edwards’ treatise.[3] Marsden says "its power…was a significant factor in the intellectual resilience and influence of Calvinism in America well into the nineteenth century."

Paul Helm provides a fine summary of the basic structure of FOTW:
In a way The Freedom of the Will is an exercise in overkill. Establishing the thesis of Part I, that there can be no sense of freedom of the will such as is claimed by Arminians, is logically sufficient to establish Edwards’s position. But with characteristic relentlessness in the next Part Edwards argues that even if there were such a viable concept of freedom, it is not necessary for the ascription of praise and blame; while in Part IV he shows that the arguments used by the Arminians to support their view are insubstantial. So three times over Edwards offers a different, decisive attack on the Arminians, not the Arminians of the era of the Synod of Dordt, but contemporary, up to the minute Arminians, such as Thomas Chubb and Daniel Whitby.[4]
Edwards’ goal in writing the book was to prove that it is inconsistent for free will as the Arminians defined it to be necessary in order for humans to be held responsible for the decisions they make. The Arminian position on the will was that the will is free if it is able to choose A and also B (“A” being to please God; “B” being to please self). In this schema, the desires may be towards sin, but the will is not ruled by the desires, thus, a person, though bent towards sin, may still be able to choose to not sin. The will is seen as neutral or unbiased.[5] Edwards stressed that according to the Arminian scheme this is the only way that a person can be held responsible for their sin or rewarded for their good. Refuting this teaching prompted Edwards to make the complete title of his book A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of Will, Which is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame. In this book, to use the language of the previous statements, Edwards argues that given a choice between A and B, a person is free if he is never prevented from choosing whichever of the two he so desires.

Edwards’ overall position essentially says that even though human beings are necessarily determined towards evil and wickedness (because of the Fall), they are still free to perform those evil actions, which necessarily follow from their evil nature. In fact, Edwards was emphatic to say that man truly is free, for nothing prevents him from doing what he wills to do at any given moment! Whereas Luther’s own treatment of the subject was more negative in nature, bearing the title Bondage of the Will, Edwards chose a positive assertion for his title, Freedom of the Will.

First, Edwards defined the will as "That by which the mind chooses any thing. The faculty of the Will is that power, or principle of mind, by which it is capable of choosing: an act of the Will is the same as an act of choosing or choice."[6]

Second, it is important that we observe Edwards’ definition of necessity. Edwards actually devotes two whole sections of FOTW to the discussion of necessity, impossibility, inability, and contingence. Because of this extensive discussion, and for the sake of the simplicity to which I am aiming here, we will define necessity by Edwards’ simple statement that, "A thing is said to be necessary, when we cannot help it, let us do what we will." [7]

Finally (for the purposes of this writing), Edwards defined determination of the will. He says, "It is that motive, which as it stands in the view of the mind, is the strongest, that determines the Will." [8] He clarifies this further on the next page when he says, "The Will always is, as the greatest apparent good is." Or, as he states elsewhere, "A man never, in any instance, wills any thing contrary to his desires, or desires anything contrary to his will." [9] In other words, man always acts according to his strongest motives or desires. In many respects, this sentence, found in the first section of his book, is the "grand doctrine" of his writing on the will.

The one objection which is commonly raised in discussions on this argument of Edwards’ is the example of a robber. If a robber puts a loaded gun to an individual’s head, it may be argued that that person’s giving his money to the robber is against his desires. This argument is fallible, however, because if the example is considered, the person’s options are limited to two: either (1) surrender his money to the robber, or (2) be shot and killed. Though the person’s options are not desirable, the person will pick whichever of the two options he finds most desirable, from the choices available. This is why Edwards says a person always chooses what he finds most desirable at the given moment.

This argument is also the center of his assertion that man indeed has free will, in that he is never prevented from doing as his desires dictate. Certainly, even God’s own will is a free will in this sense, because, Edwards argued, if God had free will in the sense that Arminians asserted it was necessary for virtue or vice, then it would be possible for God to sin. He argued that God’s will is not "indifferent" or "neutral" as the Arminians argued it must be, but that God’s will is indeed righteous, good, and holy, and that necessarily. Here is the crux of the problem for the Arminians: if the Arminian say, "well God is not necessarily good," then they are no longer speaking of the God of the Bible. On the contrary, they must believe that God is necessarily good. If this is the case that God is necessarily good, then may we even regard Him as righteous and holy, since he has not decided to be so of an indifferent or neutral will? [10] The same question may be leveled at the Arminian with regard to Jesus Christ in his humanity. Since he was necessarily good, ought we to still worship him as perfect Lord and savior since he was (and is) morally unable to be evil? [11] All that Edwards is showing here is that it is totally reasonable to consider a being to be good or evil, even if that being’s desires are of necessity one or the other. Moral inability in a human being does not excuse the human from judgment for his sin. The conclusion of this matter is that human beings are in fact, totally depraved, and yet, they are free to be depraved. They are depraved, and necessarily so, as Edwards previously defined necessity.

These two arguments in and of themselves ought to be enough to show that a necessity of sin does not excuse the sinner in the same way that God’s perfect nature does not prevent us from regarding Him as perfect and holy, even though He is not neutral. Quite effectively, Edwards argues that no one can be neutral, because a neutral will does not make decisions. [12] A car in neutral never moves, and a will in neutral has ceased to make decisions. The other crucial point, which we need to see Edwards is deriving from this, is that no event can happen without a cause. “What is not necessary in itself, must have a Cause.” By Edwards’ estimation, this law must apply just as much to the will as it does to science:
It is indeed repugnant to reason, to suppose that an act of the Will should come into existence without a Cause, as to suppose the human soul, or an angel, or the globe of the earth, or the whole universe, should come into existence without a cause. And if we allow that such a sort of effect as Volition may come to pass without a Cause, how do we know but that many other sorts of effects may do so too?[13]
So now, we see from Edwards’ arguments that everything has a cause, and the will is no different than every other observed thing in the universe in this respect. If we make an exception with the will and maintain that it is unaffected from without, that it is neutral, then we call into question other instances where the law of cause-and-effect is utilized. The importance of cause-and-effect to Edwards’ argument is this: our wills must be moved by something within us, some kind of motivation or desire, which is open to outside influence as well. This is always the case. Since it is a fact that the will cannot make decisions completely free of the desires or motives, then to argue that the will is free in a neutral sense is preposterous. Indeed, the will is always at the mercy of the individual and that individual’s desires. Therefore, free will as the Arminians define it is not necessary to someone being judged virtuous or evil. In fact, Edwards has shown that such a belief is impossible for any being who is to make decisions. Such a view is inconsistent with itself.

My purpose in outlining Edwards’ FOTW is to provide an accurate background for the reader, as Edwards’ view of the Fall - which we will begin to approach in coming posts - is linked very closely with the arguments that have just been spelled out. What I have presented above is not an exhaustive summary of Edwards’ argument, by any means. In fact, I have chosen to omit much of his arguments and also the extensions of his arguments with regard to God’s sovereignty and its relation to the will.

Many in Edwards’ time taught that Original Sin could not be true, because if we inherited the sinful nature, yet had not acted to bring that sinful nature upon ourselves, then humans could not be held responsible for their actions since it was the actions of another, namely Adam, which in actuality have caused us to do as we do.

In a sense, Edwards responded to this objection in two parts. The first part was his Freedom of the Will which was published in 1754. Four years later, he released his next book which was closely tied to this, Original Sin. In this book, Edwards implements the doctrines which he proves in FOTW to show that though God is sovereign, He is not the author of sin. [13] Fascinatingly, Edwards asserts the absolute truth and perfections of his arguments in FOTW to such a degree that he actually said that if the Scriptures did not teach what his book said, he would call their validity into question. [14] This is how convinced he was of the truths of Freedom of the Will. On the other hand, Original Sin was seen on Edwards’ part as a quite humble attempt to offer an explanation of the challenges presented by the doctrine, subject to his readers’ approval. [15]

In the next post, we will consider Edwards' understanding of the original constitution of Adam - and from this crucial topic we will have a framework for understanding Edwards' answer to Sproul's question of how the Fall could have even been possible.

Next Up: Part 3

[1] Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. (Yale University, 2003) Pg. 1
[2] Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Banner of Truth Trust, 1976) Volume 1, Pg. 41
[3]Several years ago here on Bring the Books, I blogged a series of posts where I reviewed and critiqued atheist William Rowe's attempts to discredit Edwards' arguments. Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; and Part 4.
[5] Works Pg. 21
[6] Works Pg. 4
[7] Works Pg. 8
[8] Works Pg. 5
[9] Ibid.
[10] Works Pg. 41
[11] Works Pg. 42
[12] Works Pg. 15
[13] The reader may notice, if he is familiar with Edwards’ writings that I have described Edwards’ goal in Original Sin very acutely when in fact, Edwards had quite obtuse goals in his writing. These other goals included giving an actual defense for the doctrine of original sin, proving how sin can be imputed from Adam to his descendants, and also answering direct objections from Dr. John Taylor, a decidedly anti-Calvinist writer from England.
[14] Works Pg. 89. The historical context of this quote may be needed. Apparently, the Arminian writers of Edwards’ day were fond of speaking very strongly against Calvinism by saying that if the Bible was found to teach such theology, then it would call the power of the scriptures into question. Edwards did not truly call scripture into question, as much as he used a play on words to turn their own statement around on them.
[15] Works Pg. 233

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