Edwards on Freedom

Review of Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards

This post is part of the Patheos “What Do I Really Believe?” series under the subject: Does Free Will Really Exist? 

Who could possibly deny the existence of free will, especially in America? After all, this is the land of choices—and if you don’t believe  just walk into your local supermarket sometime and try to count how many soda, chip, or cookie options there are on the shelves. And while you’re there, you should also notice that there is (probably) not a stock clerk at the end of the aisle with a rifle watching to make sure you pick the right brand. In a nation functionally defined by choice, how could we ever claim that the will is bound by anything?

If we carry our reflection on freedom out of the supermarket and into our own lives, the freedom of the will seems even more real. I choose what time to set my alarm in the morning, what I’ll have for breakfast, and what sort of book I’ll read while eating. True, there are broad limits set on these choices (I may only have two or three breakfast items in the cabinet), but I even have some degree of control when it comes to determining these (I have a say in stocking the cabinet in the first place). Isn’t it patently silly to argue against the freedom of the will?

And we can even up the ante on the argument a bit: we assume that if we don’t have free will in these circumstances, then we have no way to be moral. It may not matter so much whether we choose Coke or Pepsi, eggs or cereal, but if we are not free to choose good or evil then we cannot reasonably be held responsible for our decisions. If we are not free to choose good, then surely we cannot be punished for doing evil; and if we are not free to choose evil, then surely we cannot be rewarded for doing good. It would seem that not only does free will exist in day-to-day life, but that it is necessary for morality itself.

And yet, some of the greatest philosophers and theologians in history have argued that free will does not exist. Of all of these writers who have taken up the subject, the most thorough, thoughtful, and complete treatment has been given by Jonathan Edwards in his book Freedom of the Will. In fact, I will go so far as to say that anyone who tries to engage the question of free will—whether for or against—without reading and considering Edwards’ book on this subject is being irresponsible and only giving a partial answer at best.

With that said, I understand that Freedom of the Will is a hard read. Consider even the full title of the book:

A careful and strict ENQUIRY into the modern prevailing Notions of that FREEDOM of WILL, which is supposed to be essential to Moral Agency, Vertue, and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame (this title is usually shortened to Freedom of the Will).

If you’ve made it all the way through the title, you’ve done better than I did my first time around. At the end of this review, I’ll include a couple of alternative reading options that will give you a sense of Edwards’ views on the will, without having to actually force yourself through Edwards’ prose.

So, what does Edwards say about the freedom of the will? (Please realize that this will only be a rough gloss—I can’t do justice to a 400-page book in a 2500-word review.) First, he draws a distinction between two sorts of freedom, which for our purposes I’ll call “physical freedom” and “moral freedom.” Under normal circumstances, we are largely physically free. There is no one and nothing stopping us from choosing vanilla ice cream over chocolate. The prisoner in his cell, on the other hand, is not physically free. There are barriers and limitations placed on him at all times. Edwards argues that in this sense and only in this sense do we have freedom of the will—so long as there are no physical limitations placed on us, we are free to will whatever we want whenever we want to.

But that is not really what we mean when we talk about freedom. (So from here on out we are assuming that we have some degree of physical freedom.) We have to consider the question in terms of moral freedom. When it comes to deciding between good and evil, are we free to choose what we want? In a sense, when we ask this sort of question, Edwards thinks that we’ve failed to understand even what the human will really is. According to Edwards, the will is the part of a person by which our inmost desires and inclinations are transformed into real-world action. When we perform an act of the will, we are exercising that aspect of the human being which works as a conduit between who we are internally and what we say and do externally. In a sense, the will is a tool of the mind that converts our “wants” into “actions.”

With this definition, hopefully we can see how asking “is the will free?” is in some sense an empty question. It is as if we were to ask someone using a hammer whether or not the hammer is free—it is simply a meaningless question that fails to understand both the nature and the function of the hammer. In the same way, when we ask about the freedom of the will, we’ve failed to understand both what the will is and what it does as a component of the human being.

Edwards, however, goes even a bit beyond this. He argues that it’s not only incoherent to treat the will as if it were “free” (just as it would be to treat a hammer as if it were free), but that doing so actually destroys our ability to function as moral creatures. This seems to run counter to all of our cultural assumptions about freedom, but Edwards makes a pretty solid case for it.

Again, the assumption is that in order for human beings to be morally accountable, the will must be free when it comes to choosing good or evil. But, Edwards points out that being “free” in the context of choosing good and evil actually removes accountability. Edwards notes that if the proponents of free will are correct, one of two things happens when someone exercises their will in a moral situation:

  1. The will is “free” in that it is undetermined. That is, there is a moment prior to the moment of willing when the will is undecided and undriven by any other aspect of human nature. Even if that moment is only a second, for that moment the person is “neutral” prior to the act of will.
  2. The will is determined by a previous act of the will.

In response to 2), Edwards points out that if the will is determined by a previous act of the will, then we can hardly call it “free” (since it is determined). Besides, all that does is push the whole problem back on the previous act of will—we then have to ask what determined that act of the will? Either we end up with an infinite regression of willing (impossible, since human beings are not eternal creatures), or we end up having to ask what determined the first act of will that set the whole chain of willing in motion. If the answer is “nothing,” then Edwards’ response to 1) comes in to play. If the answer is “something other than the will,” the freedom is lost because the will is determined.

In response to 1), Edwards argues that in the real-world context of the act of willing, neutrality destroys morality. That is, if we are neutral prior to the act of making a decision regarding good and evil, then we cannot be praised for our choice of the former or blamed for our choice of the latter. Imagine for a second that John is given the choice between donating a million dollars to charity and burning down an orphanage. If John is truly “free,” if there is nothing in him that drives him (we can even say “forces” him) to set his will on one option rather than the other and if his will is in every sense undetermined, then we can neither blame him for choosing to torch the children nor praise him for choosing to fund the charity. One option is exactly the same as the other, so far as John is concerned when actually making the decision.

What we find in reality is that we can only praise John if he chooses good because if he has an inclination towards choosing good—if he is actually biased in its favor. In the same way we can only blame him if he chooses evil if he has a preference for it and is biased in favor of vice. If he has no opinion or no inclination in one direction or the other—if he is “free”—before he acts, he can’t be rewarded or punished and any grounds for making moral conclusions about his actions are removed. Morality is thus destroyed by freedom.

How then, do we choose? What makes us set our will on one decision rather than another, or pursue one option out of many possible ones? Edwards claims that we always will the greatest apparent good in any given situation. We always make what seems to be the best decision at that time. We might be wrong, we might not have enough information, but neither of those facts are relevant to the act of willing. Given the information at our disposal, we make what we believe to be the best decision. What, in turn, determines what we believe to be the best decision? What shapes our idea of the “greatest apparent good?” The greatest apparent good is determined by what we love in the very depth of our soul. If John chooses to burn the orphanage, it is because his character is such that he loves and desires to do that more than any thing else at the time and given the circumstances as he understands them. The same remains true if he chooses to give money to charity.

What should be apparent here is that Edwards is suggesting that when we talk about the will, we cannot separate it from the rest of the human being. Those who believe in free will try to separate it from our thoughts and desires and human inclinations, rather than treating us like the whole and responsible beings that we are. In a sense, they are trying to cut the will off from the person so that we can blame the will when it does evil and protect the individual from the consequences of his actions. Edwards will have none of that; instead he is quite clear that a person who does good is truly praiseworthy not just in their external actions, but in their very natures. A person who does evil is likewise blameworthy not merely because of what they choose on the outside, but because of who they are on the inside.

Whether good or evil, the choices we make with our wills are not somehow separate and “free” from the rest of us, but rather are reflections of our nature. If we choose Coke over Pepsi, it is because Coke is a greater apparent good to us than Pepsi. And that, in turn, reveals something about our character. Perhaps this argument seems less relevant when the question concerns soda, but when virtue and vice are in question it is absolutely central. Every time we sin we are showing the world that our inherent nature loves sin more than God—the sinful action is, in that moment, the greatest apparent good to our wicked natures. Likewise when we obey, we are declaring that by nature we prefer to obey God rather than to rebel against Him.

Which leads to one final question: can we change our nature? If our will is determined by what we believe to be the greatest apparent good, and if that in turn is determined by our human nature, can we adjust our nature so that our perceptions accurately match the real world and the moral code given by God? If we find ourselves in the position of believing that sin is the greatest apparent good, is there anything that we can do to rescue ourselves? Edwards’ answer here is a resounding “no.” We cannot change our loves or inmost desires—changing our own nature is beyond our power and ability. If you think about it for a second, you can see that we don’t really want to in the first place. If we love sin above all other things (and the Bible is pretty clear that people, in their natural state, do indeed love sin above all other things), then in order to change we would have to love something else more than sin. This is impossible, since we’ve already established that we love sin most. Telling someone who inherently loves sin to “just love something else” is an exercise in futility.

Of course, this isn’t to say that life is hopeless. Where we are powerless to change our own natures, God is gracious and good. By grace he reaches into our lives and changes the fundamental nature of those whom He saves. When we hear the Gospel proclaimed to us, the Holy Spirit works on our lives and the born-again believer begins to delight in the glory of God as his highest love. But that gets us beyond the discussion of the will and into the nature of salvation, which is not the subject either of this post or of Freedom of the Will. (Though if you want to read some of Edwards’ greatest writings, his works on the glory of God are a great place to start—I’ll include some links below.)

To sum up, Edwards’ train of arguments go something like this:

  1. The “will” is not something separate from other parts of the human being;
  2. Rather, the will is the means by which whatever we believe to be the greatest apparent good is turned into action.
  3. The greatest apparent good is determined by our human nature.
  4. We cannot change our own nature (though God can, by grace).
  5. Therefore, the will is not free.

Of course, as I pointed out above, in a sense we can always say that the will is free so long as no one is physically restraining us—we by and large have a great deal of physical freedom. The prisoner in his cell is not physically free to exit until someone opens the door. And yet, even if someone opens the door, if he doesn’t want to leave he is still as much a prisoner as when the door was shut. What the prisoner needs is not just an open door, but also a new set of desires. This can come only from God Himself. In that sense, our wills are bound completely and are beyond hope outside of the grace that comes through Jesus Christ.

For more on Edwards’ views on the will, these are good places to start:

Jonathan Edwards for Armchair Theologians, by James Byrd

Jonathan Edwards: A Life, by George Marsden

Edwards on the Will: A Century of American Theological Debate, by Allen Guelzo

Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought, by Stephen Nichols

For a couple of good places to start reading Edwards himself:

Praise, One of the Chief Employments of Heaven

God Glorified in Man’s Dependence

Heaven a World of Love” (Available for free here)

The Religious Affections (Available for free here)

Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University. He regularly chooses RC Cola over Coke and Pepsi.


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