Freedom of the Will: Synopsis

Attempting to reduce Jonathan Edwards’s masterpiece The Freedom of the Will down to one thousand words is a fool’s errand. But being a great fool myself, I thought I would give it the old “college try.”

Surely this is a difficult task. Not only is this work one of the true classics of American Reformed theology, but it is also an intellectual tour de force, and very difficult to read smoothly. Here, Edwards engages the longtime debate between Calvinism and Arminianism right where the primary trenches have been dug – by examining how the human (free?) will engages with God’s sovereignty.

R.C. Sproul one time said “I believe this is the most important theological work ever produced in America.” Whether or not you agree with this statement, there is no denying that Jonathan Edwards has produced a true title-contender for the best attempt at answering one of theology and philosophy’s most ancient questions: do we truly have freedom to decide our destiny, or is it somehow determined for us?

Forthwith, I make my attempt to reduce this incomparable volume down to a mere thousand words.

***

The book begins in the author’s preface with an acknowledgement by Edwards that using nicknames like “Calvinism” and “Arminianism” has its downfalls. On the same token, though, sometimes they are necessary to delineate – in the broadest strokes possible – what are the sides and terms of the debate. He admits that he is a Calvinist and will defend this position.

The book then divides into four major parts. In part one, Edwards lays the groundwork for the rest of the book.  He defines philosophical concepts and terms like “necessity,” “contingency,” and “ability” that will be used incessantly throughout. Readers had better pay attention here or be lost forever!

Of particular importance, Edwards makes a distinction between what he calls “moral ability” and “natural ability.” Natural ability (or inability, as the case may be) has to do with what a man is physically capable of doing. He can walk; but he cannot fly. Moral ability (or conversely, inability) has to do with what a person can or cannot do of their own volition. A drunkard may not be able to stop drinking, for instance, just as a wife of noble character simply cannot cheat on her husband (his examples).

Edwards then says something that will become the foundation for his entire treatise. Human beings, as responsible moral agents, ALWAYS (without any exception) choose to do what they are most strongly inclined to do at that time. In fact, it is impossible for them NOT to do what they are most inclined or disposed to do. In this way, he will argue throughout, our “volition will be determined.” But lest we think that Edwards is a mere fatalist, he will also argue that because this choosing is according to our own strongest inclinations, it is also completely consistent with liberty. We freely choose what we want most. For this reason, Edwards has been called a “compatibilist” (i.e. that human liberty is logically compatible with divine sovereignty).

Part two, quite honestly, is pretty boring in some respects. Over and over Edwards will repeat the same argument from every possible angle. Here, he will show how it is impossible to make any choice whatsoever from a completely neutral perspective (as his opponents suggest). Every decision, he says, is made for a reason that springs from one’s already determined inclinations. His opponents (both named and theoretical) will suggest that to be truly free, one must be able to make a decision from a completely neutral, unbiased, blank-slate, position of “liberty.” Edwards says this cannot be so.

For example, suppose we are choosing between two paths home (my analogy, not Edwards’s). One is shorter and quicker, the other is longer and more dangerous. Whenever we choose a path, we do so for some reason. We are never neutral. Perhaps we want to get home sooner. Perhaps we want the scenic view. But always something determines the choice. Even if we were to choose for no consciously known reason, there must be some reason we prefer the one path over the other.

Part two does heat up however, towards the later stages of the section, where Edwards begins to talk about God’s foreknowledge and employs a flurry of Scriptural citations. Biblicists will love this part! Here, he argues that all human choices in time are already known by God (which the Arminians also admit). But if they are known to God beforehand, they are also as sure to come to pass in the future as if God were seeing them from the perspective of the past. With God, there is no difference between seeing a future event and a past one. Both are certain in his all-knowing mind.

In part three, Edwards then attempts to answer an important question: if we are already predisposed to either good or evil (remember, we always choose according to our inclinations) what is the point of calling a choice morally “good” or “bad”? Besides, how can helping an old woman across the street be praise-worthy, if it has already been determined that I must do so? Should I get any credit for that? On the same token, how can we blame a thief for doing exactly what his constitution requires him to do? If he must steal, how is it his fault?

Edwards answers this by replying that one’s disposition is exactly what makes a person’s actions worthy of praise (or blame) in the first place. Suppose the Good Samaritan helped the poor mangled traveler in Luke 10 from a completely neutral heart. He felt nothing in his heart either way about the helpless man’s condition. He tosses a coin and it comes up “help him” rather than “leave him.” Would this be more praiseworthy than if his disposition cared deeply? Of course not! His concerned disposition is exactly what prompts him to help, and the reason why his action is worthy of commendation. Besides, Edwards argues, God Himself is completely and absolutely disposed to holy action and cannot do otherwise, and He is the most praiseworthy being in the universe! Surely we do not find fault in Him for acting righteously from a determined, necessary inclination to do what is good, do we?

In the last part, part four, Edwards considers a host of objections against his position that are still made to this day. For instance: doesn’t moral necessity (that we must do what we are inclined to do) make human beings mere machines? Isn’t this another restatement of the Greek concept of fate? Doesn’t this make God the author of sin by creating us with sinful dispositions?

Whether or not we view Edwards’s answers to these questions as satisfying will in large part be determined (no pun intended!) by whether we’ve found his prior arguments about moral and natural necessity coherent and convincing.

Of particular help to many will be Edwards’s formal conclusion itself. In this last flurry, Edwards works through each of the primary doctrinal pieces of the famous Reformed acronym TULIP in turn. With a winsome defense of Calvinism, Edwards arrives at his argument’s denouement – God’s grace is absolutely necessary to overturn the sinful heart of the rebellious person and turn them to Jesus. But in doing so, God also graciously “rewires” our predispositions so that we freely and willingly choose to savor Christ and follow Him by faith.

***

Well there you have it. The Freedom of the Will in just under about a thousand words. Now go get yourself a copy so you can work through it yourself. Happy reading!

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