Freedom of the Will: Understanding Jonathan Edwards’s Most Difficult Treatise

R.C. Sproul one time said this of Jonathan Edwards’s 1754 book, the Freedom of the Will:

“I believe this is the most important theological work ever published in America.”

Whether or not you agree with Sproul’s assessment, there is no denying that Jonathan Edwards has produced a true title-contender for the best attempt at answering one of the most ancient questions: Do we truly have freedom to decide our destiny, or is it somehow determined for us by God?

Not only is this work one of the true classics of American Reformed theology, but it is also an intellectual tour de force, nearly impossible to refute by those holding competing positions. Here, Edwards engages in the longtime debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, right where the primary trenches have been dug – by examining how the human freewill engages with God’s sovereignty.

Personally, I would not recommend new readers of Jonathan Edwards to begin with The Freedom of the Will, even though understanding it is crucial to comprehending Edwards’s thought. Although I have personally combed through almost all of Edwards’s important works, I will be the first to admit that I enjoyed reading Freedom the least. It is not as though I find the subject matter uninteresting. I do. The intersection between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility is relentlessly fascinating. It is not as though the book is unimportant; on the contrary it is one of Edwards’s most well known writings, and surely among his most necessary to digest.

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Yet because the treatise is among the most complicated of Edwards’s writings, requiring of the reader an understanding of both philosophy and theology (as well as some technical jargon belonging to both disciplines), it is difficult to easily navigate. More than that, Edwards writes in a somewhat repetitive style, attacking his interlocutors from every imaginable angle in his major points. For this reason, attempting to reduce Jonathan Edwards’s masterpiece The Freedom of the Will down to just a few pages of summation is a fool’s errand. But being a great fool myself, I thought I would give it the old “college try” anyways!

Forthwith, I make my attempt to summarize this important work.

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To begin with, we need to have a basic understanding of the era in which Edwards wrote this work. The Enlightenment was in full steam. New ideas that challenged the long-held conceptions of how the universe “works” were being tested. Locke and Newton were all the rage. In the Enlightenment, man was at his most optimistic. Advances in science, medicine, and technology were taking place almost daily. And with these advances came the optimism that gave mankind fresh reasons to feel significant and meaningful in his existence.

In this way, humankind was beginning to push God out of the center of the universe, and off of His throne, so to speak. Theological convictions that had been long held in the Reformation era were crumbling. Puritan foundations were being challenged. Man began to see himself in a more central position of importance in the universe. If God created the universe at all, they conjectured, He surely created it for the benefit of man, His prized possession. If God could still be thought of as a sovereign Lord (and that too was up for debate), the notion that He actually “controls” all things would have to be modified significantly. Down came the scaffolding of the Biblical, Reformed, and Puritan worldview. Up went the new construction of man controlling his own destiny in history. Deism – the view that God was an original clock-maker who wound up the world and then stepped away – was gaining prominence in many corners.

At the center of the new conception was the idea that mankind is free to pursue his own agenda: to forge his own way and follow his own path. Each man, it was suggested, should recognize his own freedom to choose his path. The “will,” it became popular to believe, was like the objective, neutral control center of the human mind from which each man has the freedom to determine his own course. He can choose his own way without compulsion. For man to be truly free, he had to be in a position of complete neutrality as regards his personal decision making capacity. If a decision or choice was forced upon him by any external factor (such as the older, Puritan understanding of God’s divine decrees) that would render his choices meaningless.

It is into this milieu that Edwards wrote.  Freedom of the Will is a “shot across the bow” to challenge this newer, more enlightened, and independent way of thinking about one’s self-destiny. Above all else, Freedom was an attempt to defend (1) the traditional view that God is indeed absolutely sovereign and (2) that man’s own responsible will determines his course (with some significant qualifications and delimitations).  In this way, Edwards sought to defend the traditional Reformed position that God is actively, sovereignly, reigning over the universe, while mankind is truly responsible for his moral and ethical actions. Edwards argues that mankind has a will, no doubt. Whether or not it is truly “free” as the Enlightenment suggested, would have to be debated.

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, even though he denies copy-and-pasting Calvin’s own thoughts into his own work. This project will be Edwards’s own unique attempt to defend Calvinistic convictions without borrowing them wholesale from others. As it turns out, Edwards does just that: defend the tradition, but in new and innovative ways.

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 for the rest of the work! This would be one of those places where Edwards is tapping into terms and concepts that are drawn from philosophy, but giving them his own distinctive definitions.

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. No matter what he desires to do, natural ability limits man in some ways. He cannot “will” to do the physically impossible. He can walk; but he cannot fly. On the other hand, moral ability (or conversely, inability) has to do with what a person can or cannot do of their own volition. He can or cannot perform the action, not because of some physical limitation, but because it violates his inward inclinations.

Edwards gives several examples that are quite helpful to understand this distinction. A drunkard is perfectly capable of putting down the bottle in his hand and never picking it up again. There is no physical limitation to stop him from doing so. Certainly, he “can.” And yet it is not his natural inability that prevents him from becoming a teetotaler. The reason why he is so dependent on alcohol comes from a desire resident in his being to do what he truly wants most: take another drink. In the same way, a beautiful woman may be perfectly able to commit adultery against her husband. There is no physical or natural limitation to her being able to “cheat.” But it is her conscience within her, her moral character and ethical fortitude, that prevents her from doing so. She is a dutiful and faithful woman and “cannot” commit adultery because of her heart’s inclination toward fidelity. So she is morally unable to cheat.

If we remember what Edwards wrote in the Religious Affections, he told us that each of us has strong “affections” or inclinations that draw us to certain things and repel us from others. The affections are a pretty important component to human existence, in Edwards’s view, because they are what cause us to love some things and hate others. Here too in Freedom of the Will, the inclinations of the soul are very important because they are for Edwards what drives us to or from the choices that we make. In this way, Edwards refuses to accept the more modern Enlightenment notion that the will is “neutral.”

It is not!

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 beautiful. 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 there is always something that 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”? How can we place any blame if we are only doing what we are inclined to do? Besides, how can helping an old woman across the street be praiseworthy, 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 casts a lot 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?

I think his argument comes across strongly in this line of reasoning. Remember, the Enlightened opponents that Edwards is confronting here are arguing the opposite. They held (contrary to Edwards) that the will is the most free when it is the most neutral. In fact, it is the lack of any disposition in the will – complete and utter neutrality – that they argue is exactly what makes it “free.” From their perspective, if the will has a preconceived inclination, it is not truly at a state of liberty.

But suppose the Enlightenment view is correct. Suppose that a particular woman is considering whether or not she should cheat on her husband. She has no predilection towards either faithfulness or adultery. She can go either way without any external compulsion. Arbitrarily, and without compulsion from any factor internal or external, she chooses fidelity — at least for today. Is this really praiseworthy? Does this seem like a laudable situation? Edwards would say absolutely not!

In the fourth and final section, Edwards makes one of his most famous analogies. He returns again to the idea of natural ability and moral ability. Suppose, he says, that there were two prisoners. Both were granted an opportunity to receive clemency by a King if only they would but kiss his ring, fall before him, and confess their sins. The first prisoner heartily desires to do just that. He is eager to confess his faults and make a full apology to the King. But there is a problem: the bars of his prison have not been opened! He cannot squeeze through the gates! He is locked in. Trapped by stone walls. He is naturally (physically) unable to get out of the prison and to kneel before the King. Edwards believes that this is how the Enlightenment thinkers conceive of Calvinism; that it is patently unfair for God to prevent men from coming to Him by making them unable to do so.

But then Edwards makes his best move of the treatise.

In describing the second prisoner, he pictures another felon who is likewise granted an opportunity to receive clemency. His cell however is unlocked, the gate swings wide open! But this prisoner does not budge. Why not? Isn’t he free? He is in one sense for sure. But this prisoner does not come out to repent because he hates the King. He would rather spit in his face. To repent and confess for this prisoner would be unthinkable. He is morally unable to repent. This man, says Edwards, and not the first released captive, is what Calvinism teaches about the will: it is bound, not by any limitation placed upon it by God, but rather by the hardened disposition of sinful man’s heart. He is his own prison guard.

Finally in 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 rallying 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 a few pages. Now go get yourself a copy so you can work through it yourself. Happy reading!

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