Jonathan Edwards on Free Will

Friday, April 3, 2009

A wall of separation between Church and State was not what the righteous Presbyterians and Congregationalists of America had gone into the Revolution for. It became a very good question what they would propose to do about it. The first answer came from the disciples of Jonathan Edwards.

Curiously, the intellectual fuel for these answers laid buried in the pages of Edwards’ great treatise on free will. It arose out of an important distinction Edwards wanted to make so that he could demonstrate that all human actions were divinely ordered by God (Calvinism), and yet hold people morally accountable for those actions. When God decreed a certain act, that act became necessary, it had to happen. But acts can become necessary in one of two very different ways.

God could actually arm wrestle someone into doing what he wants. All the while, the person is kicking and screaming in protest because he really wanted something else. That’s one way an act can become necessary. This is mostly the caricature of what people think about Edwards, Calvinism and unconditional election. On the other hand, though, an act can become necessary if you already have a certain psychological inclination toward that act. If you like chocolate, I can pretty well bet money that if I point out just the right chocolate or just the right amount of it, you’ll choose it. There is a certain measure of predictability in human behavior, we don’t live, act or behave randomly. The more intense a person’s inclination toward a certain behavior, the more likely it is that it will be acted upon.

Edwards called the necessity that involves force, the arm twisting version of necessity, natural necessity. He cheerfully admitted that anyone who is compelled to act under the force of natural necessity cannot be held morally accountable for what they do. If you force me at gun point to drive you to or from the scene of crime, I can’t be held as your accomplice, you violated my free will.

The other kind of necessity, which arises from our own inclinations and desires, Edwards called moral necessity. Because nobody is actually forcing us to do things by moral necessity, we can be held liable. In fact, the greater the force of an evil inclination in our actions, the more accountable we are, precisely because we have all the physical power we needed to do otherwise.

With that, Edwards hit everyone’s panic button. As sinners in the hands of an angry God, we possess a nature that inclines us to sin. In fact, it inclines us to sin all the time. We labor day by day under the force of moral necessity. That gives us a moral inability to do anything other that sin. None of this happens because God forces us to sin. That would be a natural necessity, and then we would have an excuse, we could say that we were made to do it that way, you can’t blame us.

The fact is, said Edwards, we actually possess all the natural ability we could ever want not to sin. Translated into practical terms, what this meant was that no one could shelter themselves from the call to repentance and conversion, as they had for generations in New England, behind such pious beliefs as the Half-Way Covenant, or the plead that they were gradually working their way through their depravity (almost like therapy), by using the means of grace, such as prayer or reading the Bible. You were, Edwards taught, deprived totally and there is nothing you could do about it, but you have arms, legs, lips and brains, and you could use them all to bow down in the dust and repent, and you could do it now without waiting for grace to get you around doing it.

So, you were liable. Even if you were totally deprived. If we were to look at this as a modern psychologist would, we would say that Edwards was creating a moment of mental crisis. He was confronting people simultaneously with their depravity, and then he was offering a release, by telling them that they were fully responsible to repent and believe.

Edwards himself did not live long to put this into full play, but his two disciples, Samuel Hopkins from West Springfield, Massachusetts; and Joseph Bellamy of Bethlehem, Connecticut; they did.