«9 12:05 PM Page 201 9 THE WILL: FETTERED YET FREE (FREEDOM OF THE WILL) Sam Storms J onathan Edwards was right. If the concept of libertarian freedom ...»
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THE WILL: FETTERED YET FREE
(FREEDOM OF THE WILL)
J onathan Edwards was right. If the concept of libertarian freedom can
be established, Calvinist theologians (he called them “reformed
divines”) will have lost all hope of defending their view of “original sin, the sovereignty of grace, election, redemption, conversion, the effica- cious operation of the Holy Spirit, the nature of saving faith, persever- ance of the saints, and other principles of... like kind.”1 To understand “libertarian” freedom and the threat it poses to evan- gelical orthodoxy, we must look closely at the title to Edwards’s treatise.
Freedom of the Will is merely shorthand for the more cumbersome, A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of That Freedom of the Will, Which Is Supposed to Be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame.2 Edwards’s purpose was clearly to address a “prevailing” concept of human freedom that was thought to be foundational to moral account- ability. Stephen Holmes is correct in reminding us that “Edwards’ fundamental question in this book is ethical: what conditions must obtain for an action to be worthy of praise or blame?... He is concerned to establish those things that must be the case concerning human deci- sion for such decision to be meaningfully analyzable ethically.”3 In other
The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 3, Original Sin, ed. Clyde A. Holbrook (New Haven, Conn.:
1 Yale University Press, 1970), 376.
2 All citations from Edwards’s treatise will be from Freedom of the Will, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973 [fourth printing]), originally published in 1957 as the first in the projected twenty-seven-volume edition of Edwards’s works, and hereafter cited within the text by page number only. Edwards began the actual drafting of the treatise in August 1752; it was ready for pub- lication in 1753. This is somewhat misleading, however, in that Edwards had written extensively on the will in the Miscellanies, his private theological notebook, beginning as early as 1723.
3 Stephen R. Holmes, “Strange Voices: Edwards on the Will,” in Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2002), 87-88.
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words, it is “that freedom of the will which is supposed to be essential to moral agency,” i.e., libertarian freedom, against which Edwards launches his considerable theological and philosophical skills.4 Sad to say, though, notwithstanding Edwards’s efforts, the understanding of human freedom that he “sought to stop in its tracks is now so pervasive as to be axiomatic everywhere except amongst philosophers, who are aware there is an argument to be had, and those theologians who are prepared to risk incomprehension and dismissal as anachronistic by daring to mention such offensive (but traditional) notions as predestination, special providence and the sovereignty of God.”5 I have made a similar point in an article that addresses the use of libertarian freedom among so-called contemporary “open theists.”6
Clark Pinnock is representative of the latter and defines libertarian freedom or the power of contrary choice as follows:
My purpose in this essay is threefold. First, I will briefly unpack Edwards’s devastating critique of libertarianism,8 one that I am conOne cannot help but think of Paul Ramsey’s comment in his editorial introduction to the volume on 4 freedom of will: “This book alone is sufficient to establish its author as the greatest philosophertheologian yet to grace the American scene” (2).
5 Holmes, “Strange Voices,” 88.
6 C. Samuel Storms, “Prayer and the Power of Contrary Choice: Who Can and Cannot Pray for God to Save the Lost?” Reformation & Revival Journal 12 (Spring 2003): 53-67.
7 Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2001), 127.
8 For a more extensive interaction with Edwards’s arguments against libertarianism, see my Tragedy
vinced has yet to be successfully refuted. Second, I will reconstruct Edwards’s concept of the will. Although some have found it to be intolerably complex,9 it is actually quite simple and forthright once one grasps the meaning of several important terms he employs. Third, and finally, I want to address the most problematic element in Edwards’s theology of the will—the fall of Adam and the entrance of evil into the human race. For all the biblical cogency of his concept of the will, Edwards argues himself into a philosophical predicament that gives all the appearance, his protests notwithstanding, of making God the author of sin. More on this below.
EDWARDS AND LIBERTARIANISMThe libertarians10 whom Edwards encountered insisted that the will must exercise a certain sovereignty over itself whereby it determines or causes itself to act and choose. Whereas the will may be influenced by antecedent impulses or desires, it always retains an independent power to choose contrary to them. The will is free from any necessary causal connection to anything antecedent to the moment of choice.
Edwards finds this argument both incoherent and subject to an infinite regress. He points out that for the will to determine itself is for the will to act. Thus the act of will whereby it determines a subsequent act must itself be determined by a preceding act of will or the will cannot properly be said to be self-determined. If libertarianism is to be maintained, every act of will that determines a consequent act is itself preceded by an act of will, and so on until one comes to a first act of will.
But if this first act is determined by a preceding one, it is not itself the first act. If, on the other hand, this act is not determined by a previous act, it cannot be free since it is not self-determined. If the first act of voliConrad Wright (“Edwards and the Arminians on the Freedom of the Will,” Harvard Theological 9 Review 35 [October 1942]) contends that “whatever else its publication may have done, it produced a state of incredible intellectual confusion. Edwards’s followers part of the time did not understand him;
his opponents often found themselves in a maze of contradictions; and the historian is fortunate if he can finish a reading of the documents with a confident understanding of the arguments and a clear picture of the real issues involved” (241). Mark Twain called Edwards’s treatise an “insane debauch” marked by “the glare of a resplendent intellect gone mad” (Mark Twain’s Letters, ed. A. B. Paine, 2 vols. [New York, 1917], 2:719-720, as cited in Henry F. May, “Jonathan Edwards and America,” in
Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience, ed. Nathan O. Hatch and Harry S. Stout [New York:
Oxford University Press, 1988], 23).
10 Those whom Edwards chose as representative of the libertarian position were Daniel Whitby (1638an Anglican divine; Thomas Chubb (1679-1747), a deist; and Isaac Watts (1674-1748), a hymnwriter who more closely approached Edwards’s general theological position than the other two.
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tion is not itself determined by a preceding act of will, that so-called first act is not determined by the will and is thus not free.
Edwards’s point is that if the will chooses its choice or determines its own acts, it must be supposed to choose to choose this choice, and before that it would have to choose to choose to choose that choice, and so on ad infinitum. Therefore, the concept of freedom as selfdetermination either contradicts itself by positing an unchosen (i.e., non-self-determined) choice or shuts itself wholly out of the world by an infinite regress.
To avoid this conundrum, some libertarians argue that acts of will come to pass of themselves without any cause of any sort. They simply happen, spontaneously and inexplicably. But nothing is causeless, except the uncaused First Cause, God. To argue for volitional spontaneity would render all human choice random and haphazard, with no reason, intent, or motive accounting for its existence. If human acts of will are not causally tethered to human character, on what grounds does one establish their ethical value? How may one be blamed or praised for an act of will in the causation of which neither he nor anything else had a part? Furthermore, how can one explain a diversity of effects from a monolithic no-cause? If there is no ground or cause for the existence of an effect, what accounts for the diversity of one effect from another?
Why is an entity what it is and not otherwise if not because of the specific nature of the cause that produced it?
Yet another option for the libertarian is to argue that one chooses in the absence of a prevailing motive. The will chooses between two or more things that are allegedly perfectly equal as perceived by the mind.
The will is altogether indifferent to either (or any) of the objects of choice, yet determines itself toward one without being moved by any preponderating inducement.
But this is to say that the will chooses something instead of another at the same time it is wholly indifferent to both. But to choose is, by definition, to prefer. Whatever is preferred thus exerts a preponderate influence on the will. How can the will prefer A over B unless A appears
preferable? Says Edwards:
How could a man be praised for preferring charity to stinginess, for example, if both deeds were equally preferable to him, or more accurately, lacking any preferability at all? Do we not praise a man for giving generously to the poor because we assume he is of such an antecedent character that such a deed appears more preferable to him than withholding his money? If there is nothing about the man that inclines him to prefer generosity, if the act of giving money is no more preferable to him than the act of withholding it, is he worthy of praise for giving?
Neither will it do to contend that freedom consists not in the act of the will itself but in a determining so to act. The operative sphere of freedom, on this suggestion, is simply removed one step farther back and is said to consist in causing or determining the change or transition from a state of indifference to a certain preference. “What is asserted,” said Edwards, “is, that the will, while it yet remains in perfect equilibrium, without preference, determines to change itself from that state, and excite in itself a certain choice or preference” (208). But this determination of the will, supposedly indifferent, is open to the same objection noted above. Neither is it feasible to locate the sphere of freedom in a power to suspend the act of will and to keep it in indifference until there has been opportunity for proper deliberation. For is not the suspending of volition itself an act of volition, subject to the same strictures already stated? And if it is not an act of volition, how can liberty of will be present in it? I concur with Edwards that the idea of freedom consisting in indifference is “to the highest degree absurd and contradictory” (208).
Finally, Edwards’s opponents would often assert that all acts of will are contingent events. They are not in any sense necessary. They could as easily not happen as happen. Nothing necessitates their occurrence.
This argument is driven by the belief that if an event is necessary, it is morally vacuous. Only an act of will that could as easily have not occurred as occurred is an act worthy of the predicate “free” and subject to praise or blame. Edwards’s response to this argument is multifaceted and beyond the scope of this essay. Be it noted that I have A GodEntrancedVision.45631.int.qxd 2/27/09 12:05 PM Page 206
elsewhere addressed his argument from divine foreknowledge and the necessity the latter imposes on all events.11 But Edwards’s most important response to the argument from contingency is found in the distinction he makes between natural necessity and moral necessity. More on this below.