Summary: Freedom of the Will

According to George Marsden, “To fully appreciate Freedom of the Will one needs to view it not just as another piece of modern philosophy. More fundamentally, it is a philosophical tour de force by someone who was first of all a theologian.” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 446) Although it was not as widely read as his David Brainerd nor as appealing to evangelicals as Religious Affections, Freedom of the Will would become a staple of orthodoxy theology for generations to come.

Edwards begins the book by defining the will as “that by which the mind chooses anything.” Therefore an act of the will is also an act of choice. To act voluntarily is to act electively. Edwards concludes that “a man doing as he wills, and doing as he pleases, are the same thing in common speech.” The will’s motivation is that motive which, as it stands in the mind, is the strongest. Hence, “the will always is as the greatest apparent good is.” It always follows the last dictate of the understanding. By understanding, Edwards intends the whole faculty of perception, not merely reason or judgment. Edwards reconciles two seemingly contradictory concepts: necessity and liberty. “Necessity,” as he defines it, occurs when we cannot help it; it is impossible that it should not be. This is again not inconsistent with liberty. Edwards distinguishes between natural and moral inability – the former is when we cannot do it even if we will. The latter consists in the lack of inclination or motive to induce/excite the will.


Edwards defines “liberty” as the “power, opportunity, or advantage, that any one has to do as he pleases,” or “his being free from hindrance or impediment in the way of doing.” An essential part of this thesis is the fact that the will itself is not an agent that has a will. Rather, that which has the power of volition is the man or the soul…not the power of volition itself. Contrary to liberty is force, compulsion, or someone being necessitated to do something contrary to their will. On the other hand, germane to the Arminian definition of “liberty” is a self-determining power of the will, indifference previous to volition, and contingence. Edwards qualifies man as a “moral agent.”

For Edwards, it is “plainly absurd” that the will itself determines all the free acts of the will. This of course would produce an endless stream of antecedent volitional choices…none of which are free. If the will determines all its free acts, every free act of choice would then be determined by a preceding one. It’s a circular impossibility. An act of the will must precede any act of volition. The soul is that cause. Edwards defines a cause as the influence to produce a thing. Nothing ever comes to pass without a cause. Therefore “what is self-existent, must be from eternity, and must be unchangeable.” We argue God’s being from our own being.

According to Edwards, the mind is a signing cause, an elective cause, and an active cause. The Arminian notion of liberty “destroys itself” precisely because it undercuts the idea of a soul’s choice. Willing as we please is thus willing without a contrary necessity. For Edwards, “a liberty for the soul” is its “willing to act according to its own choice.” On the contrary, an antecedent act of the will which chose a consequent act is no liberty at all. Choice is therefore not the foundation for choice. Edwards also states, “the will does not act at all in indifference.” The will cannot act or choose contrary to a prevailing inclination of the will. This is moral necessity. That which the will chooses, it “preponderates and inclines to.” Edwards declares that the will is not its own master.

A free act of the will implies preference, not indifference. Choice or determination is an act of the will. Edwards points out that if there are some events which do not have causes, then some things would come to pass without causes in our universe! Instead, he affirms, “ever effect has a necessary connection with its cause.” Every act of the will is some way connected with the understanding, and is as the greatest apparent good is.

The will follows two things in the understanding: (1) the degree of good and (2) the degree of understanding’s view. Due to the natural “aversion” to the truths of the Gospel, the Spirit (1) illuminates our understanding and (2) presents the Gospel as our chief good. Every act of the will is excited by a motive. The way in which the motives operates is by biasing the will. Hence an act of choice or preference is a “comparative act.” Edwards even remarks, “If the mind in its volition can go beyond motive, then it can go without motive.” Motives are the previous ground and reason of the acts of the will. Without them, the motive would not be exerted.

According to Edwards, “God has an absolute and certain foreknowledge of the free actions of moral agents.” Unless the volitions of moral agents are foreseen, all of the prophecies of the Bible are uttered without knowing the things foretold! God has an infallible prescience of the act of the will of moral agents. Edwards states, “no future event can be certainly foreknown, whose existence is contingent, and without all necessity.” Therefore all certain knowledge proves the thing known now to be necessary. Certainty of knowledge, after all, is nothing else but knowing or discerning the certainty there is in the things themselves, which are known. If there is no “foreknowledge” in God, it is because those things which are future to us, are actually present to God as if they already had existence. Future events are always in His view. There is always a “necessary connection” between God’s knowledge and the event known.

In response to Dr. Whitby, Edwards contends that the incarnate Christ’s holy behavior was necessary; it was impossible that it should be otherwise. In this sense, even Jesus did not fit the Arminian model of freedom! The Father had promised to preserve and uphold His Christ by His Spirit (under all temptations), that Jesus could not fail of reaching the end. After all, his success was promised before the ages. Yet it would be nonsense to assert that the Lord Jesus was not praiseworthy. The Father was well pleased in the Son! According to Edwards, Arminians also prove inconsistent in the way they speak of human ability. On one hand they maintain that it would be unjust in God to require anything of us beyond our power; on the other hand they hold that we are unable to perform perfect obedience. Edwards defines obedience as “the submitting and yielding of the will of one to the will of another.” The author clarifies the difference between goodness and sincerity, insisting that the latter can be witnessed among thieves or robbers. Edwards states, “there is no more positive moral goodness in a man’s doing what he can, than in the wind-mill’s doing what it can; because the action does no more proceed from virtue.”

Edwards asserts that liberty of indifference is not necessary to virtue: “To have a virtuous heart, is to have a heart that favors virtue, and is friendly to it, and not one perfectly cold and indifferent about it.” From the Arminian principles of freedom, it follows that God has no hand in any man’s virtue. As Edwards observes, fault and praise cannot lie simply in the cause and not in the nature of a thing. This is a contradiction. On the contrary, “that which makes vice hateful, is its hateful nature; and that which renders virtue lovely, is its amiable nature.” Moreover, moral necessity is absolutely consistent with praise and blame, reward and punishment. In fact, Edwards contends that the stronger the inclination to good, the more virtuous and worthy of commendation someone is. However, according to the Arminian scheme, “the will of man is left to the guidance of nothing but absolute blind contingence.”

According to Edwards, Arminians align themselves with Stoic doctrine when they deny an “original, innate, total corruption and depravity of heart” and when they glorify man’s ability to make himself virtuous apart from God. Conversely, it is the will of God himself that is necessary in all its determinations. We conceive of the knowledge and holiness of God as prior, in the order of nature, to his happiness. The perfection of his understanding is the foundation for his wise purposes and decrees. Edwards defines the sovereignty of God as “his ability and authority to do whatever pleases him.” In this way, the doctrine is essential to understanding Edwards’ view of freedom. His will and wisdom are supreme. Therefore God’s will is “in every thing necessarily determined” by that which is most wise. Even God is determined in some sense! To Edwards, this does not imply a dependence of His Being.

There is thus a moral necessity to the acts of God. This does not reveal an inferiority or servitude in God, as some have suggested. An infinitely wise Being always chooses what is best and therefore must choose there should be such a thing. This brings Edwards to defend the notions of God’s “secret” will vs. His “revealed” will. God knew that the presence of moral evil in the world would be best and consonant with His wisdom and goodness. He thus chose it do be so. Hence Christ’s own crucifixion, Edwards says, though a “most horrid fact in them that perpetrated it,” was most glorious in the eternal decree of God. In the end, the doctrine of necessity is the “only medium” we have to prove the being of God, as it supposes a necessary connection of events and an antecedent ground for their existence. According to Edwards, every event which is the consequence of an antecedent event “must be ordered by God.” God’s proper design in everything He does in the world is aimed toward the salvation of men. Therefore ultimately Edwards establishes the premise that, “The conversion of a sinner being now owing to a man’s self-determination, but of God’s determination, and eternal election, which is absolute, and depending on the sovereign will of God, and not on the free will of man.”


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