Don McChesney

18th Century Theology

Prof. Westblade

3 December 2015


Freedom to Pursue


            One of the most hotly contested issues in the modern church is that of free will and predestination.  Whether men have a choice in regard to their salvation has led to some of the largest splits in Church history and, to this day, is not even agreed upon within the Catholic Church.  The incredible difficulty and depth of this conflict has led many theologians, including Martin Luther, to simply hold these two things as divine paradox and content themselves with its mystery.  Others laid out fairly comprehensive theologies to deal with the apparent contradictions.  While only a few have succeeded in producing coherent and cohesive theologies, there have been a couple schools of thought that presented well reasoned arguments for their understanding.  One of those is Jonathan Edwards, who can track his thinking back through Aquinas and even as far back as Augustine.  Edward’s explanation for predestination centers on his definition of the will and its freedom, if one agrees with his definitions the argument follows logically.

            Jonathan Edward’s conception of freedom is a rejection of the mainstream thought of his day which focused on free choice.  Most of his contemporaries argued that freedom is the ability to make an arbitrary choice between two options. Gideon describes this theory saying “you have a free will when you have both the power to choose and the power to refrain from choice.  Just as you are free to, say, leave a room just when you can both leave voluntarily and voluntarily refrain from leaving, you have free will when you are free to will.”[1]  If freedom is the ability to choose between two options, the next step is to consider the implications for the will.  In this understanding, the will is the deciding agent between the two options.  The will must be free and voluntary for the choice to be free.  The person who was free would be at liberty to pursue their own desires because they make their own choices.  This is the freedom that was often spoken of in Edward’s day.  This freedom is extremely difficult to reconcile with predestination.  It seems a logical impossibility to both state that a man’s will is free and that his choices are pre-determined and pre-ordained by God.  A man’s natural desires conflict with God’s desires and so one would be forced to bow to the other. 

            John Locke attempted to resist this view of free will well before Edwards wrote his famous work.  In his paper, Essay concerning Human Understanding, Locke acts on a similar impulse of Edwards in rejecting the widely accepted view of free will, but he raised very different issues with the system.  Locke challenged the system by stating that sometimes the will and desires conflict and it was possible to will something that one did not desire.  Without going too far into detail, it is important to grasp the basic ideals behind this philosophy because as Arthur Murphy writes “The framework for this [Edward’s] analysis is borrowed from Locke’s great chapter on “Power” in the Essay concerning Human Understanding but shrewdly modified to suit his own quite different purposes.”[2]  Locke argued "The will is perfectly distinguished from desire; which in the very same action may have a quite contrary tendency from that which our wills set us upon. A man" (says he) "whom I cannot deny, may oblige me to use persuasions to another, which, at the same time I am speaking, I may wish may not prevail on him. In this case 'tis plain the will and desire run counter."[3]  Here Locke argues that there is a situation in which you can speak to persuade someone and yet desire that he is not persuaded.  It would seem in this case that the will is contrary to desire in this situation. By this proof, Locke is attempting to show that the will cannot simply be arbitrary choice between two things, in which a man’s desire is the determining factor.  If the will and desire can differ than the will is not dictated by desire.  It is directly in response to this argument that Edwards begins the defense of his understanding of the will and freedom. 

            Edwards begins by presenting his definition. Initially, Edwards simply posits his conception of the will and leaves his understanding of freedom for later in the essay.  He defines the will as “that by which the mind chooses anything. The faculty of the will is that faculty or power or principle of mind by which it is capable of choosing: an act of the will is the same as an act of choosing or choice.”[4]  So it would initially appear that Edwards agreed with Locke’s separation of will and desire, however he then goes on to directly attack Locke’s understanding.  Edwards responds “But yet I can't think they are so entirely distinct, that they can ever be properly said to run counter. A man never, in any instance, wills anything contrary to his desires, or desires anything contrary to his will.”[5] In reference to Locke’s example, he continues:

In this instance, it is not carefully observed, what is the thing willed, and what is the thing desired: if it were, it would be found that will and desire don't clash in the least. The thing willed on some consideration, is to utter such words; and certainly, the same consideration so influences him, that he don't desire the contrary; all things considered, he chooses to utter such words, and don't desire not to utter 'em.[6] 

If the man did not want to be saying the words, and was not under compulsion to say them, then he would not say them.  He must have wanted to say them, and so there must be another unstated motive.  There must be an external reason for wanting to speak in such a way besides persuading the listener.  While not the same thing, desire and the will in Edwards understanding are closely bound together. Desires are a primary motivator of the will and so they will not come into conflict.

            Once Edwards has set this basis for his understanding of the will, he goes on to lay the foundation for his conception of freedom by discussing the motivations that rest beneath our choices.  Knowing that will is the faculty by which we make choices, Edwards proposes that there is a “determiner of the will”[7] which is an object on which or toward which a choice is directed to. He explains himself stating “It is sufficient to my present purpose to say, it is that motive, which… is the strongest, that determines the will.”[8] At the most basic level, men act and make decisions because something drives them towards it.  Men do not remain paralyzed by indecision because there is always a strongest motive which drives them to a choice. Murphy explains this saying “Such acts of will… are the effects of antecedent causes and in their turn the causes of those voluntary actions in which a man is properly said to act freely or as he will, or pleases.”[9] Therefore a person’s actions, are the results of decisions which are in turn based on motivations.[10] Edwards lays this out more fully saying “That motive which has a less degree of previous advantage or tendency to move the will… is what I call a ‘weaker motive.’ On the contrary, that which appears most inviting, and has… the greatest degree of previous tendency… I call the ‘strongest motive.’”[11] Each man’s will has natural tendencies.  And diverse motives are received differently by the unique predispositions.  Some men find money the most powerful motivation, while for others fame is far more powerful.  The strength of the motives is determined by the person’s nature.  In the end, whichever motive is stronger will dictate the will.  Despite this, we still believe that actions are free when they are not physically limited by a force that opposes the will.  While actions are free if not physically limited, the will is dictated by the motives.  So, to determine whether the will is truly free, it is necessary to examine the origin of the motivations that dictate the choices.

            When discussing the motivations of men, Edwards finds it necessary to lay out some distinctions between the physical and the moral in order to address the unique problems presented by the will.  The most important point that he presents is that of moral necessity.  Edwards describes moral necessity as “that necessity of connection and consequence, which arises from such moral causes, as the strength of inclination, or motives, and the connection which there is in many cases between these, and such certain volitions and actions.”[12]  By this, he means that moral necessity is the necessity forced by man’s nature through which inclinations and motives are translated into actions.  He illustrates this point saying “A strong habit of virtue and great degree of holiness may cause a moral inability to love wickedness in general, may render a man unable to take complacence in wicked persons or things; or to choose a wicked life, and prefer it to a virtuous life.”[13]  For some people growing in a habit of virtue will cause them to continue and thrive in it, for others it will cause them to rebel and choose wickedness.  The nature of a person promotes a moral necessity to react to a situation in a certain way.  This necessity stems from the innate motives which men posses.  Men’s choices then are free and are made based simply on who they are.  Some would stop here and say that this shows that the will truly is free to choose between arbitrary options.  Edwards, however, takes this a step further and asks where the motivations come from.  As he states “the volition which is caused by previous motive and inducement, is not caused by the will exercising a sovereign power over itself, to determine, cause and excite volitions in itself… for the way in which motives operate, is by biasing the will, and giving it a certain inclination or preponderation one way.”[14]  Here he is saying that the will cannot determine itself and its motives do not naturally rise out of it.  As Murphy describes:

An act of volition or choice cannot choose to come into existence, for until it has been ‘put forth into existence’ by a previous cause it simply is not there to cause or determine anything.  When it does exist it cannot choose but be just the choosing, preferring or ‘liking better’ that it is.  Nor can the agent act voluntarily from any other choice or preference than the one he has.  In acting as he pleases he necessarily does what pleases him, and his being pleased to do so is the effect of previous causes over which, as an effect, it can, of course, have no control… there is indeed no place in it for any self-determining power.[15]


 It is impossible for the will to be self determined and a man’s innate motives cannot have arisen accidentally.  This leaves only one option, there must be a previous cause that determines what makes up a man’s most basic motives and decides what choices he will make over his lifetime.  There is only one possible cause previous to man and that is God.  This means that God determines the moral necessity of each man and that moral necessity dictates how a man will make choices throughout his life.  While his actions are free, and are made without manipulation from God, simply by making a man who he is, God predestines the outcome of his life, and leaves the man completely free and responsible for his own choices.  This makes God the ultimate cause of all things. 

            God is the cause of man’s nature and motives, those motives dictate man’s choices and those choices result in the man’s actions.  Therefore, men’s choices are both free, made of their own choice and volition, and predestined, preordained by God dictating their nature.  By the time Edwards has finished defining his terms the argument is done.  If you accept Edwards’ understanding of the will and freedom, and both are very compelling, then it becomes natural and logical to accept both a complete predestination and a complete free will for humanity.




Yaffe, Gideon "Locke on Refraining, Suspending, and the Freedom to Will." History of      Philosophy Quarterly Vol. 18, no. No. 4 (2001): 373-91. Accessed December 1,            2015.

Murphy, Arthur E. "Jonathan Edwards on Free Will and Moral Agency." The       Philosophical Review Vol. 68, no. No. 2 (1959): 181-202. Accessed December 2,    2015.

Ramsey, I. T., and Paul Ramsey. "The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. I: The     Freedom of the Will." The Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 9, no. No. 37 (1959): 377.

Edwards, Jonathan. "Freedom of the Will." Freedom of the Will (1754). Accessed December 4, 2015.   the-will/.

[1] "Locke on Refraining, Suspending, and the Freedom to Will." History of Philosophy Quarterly Vol. 18, no. No. 4 (2001): 373-91. Accessed December 1, 2015.

[2] Murphy, Arthur E. "Jonathan Edwards on Free Will and Moral Agency." The Philosophical Review Vol. 68, no. No. 2 (1959): 181-202. Accessed December 2, 2015.

[3] 1.139 Freedom of the Will

[4] 1.137 Freedom of the Will

[5] Ibid

[6] 1.139 Freedom of the Will

[7] 2.141 Freedom of the will

[8] 2.141 Freedom of the will

[9] 185 Murphy

[10] 185  Murphy “It should be noted here that this freedom belongs not to the act of will or volition itself, but to the voluntary action which is its effect… how or whether the acts of volition are determined by antecedent causes has nothing to do with the question as to whether or not the actions that are the effects of such coalitions are free.  These latter are free when they are the effects of volitions, when in preforming them a man does as he pleases, and to do as one pleases is to preform an action that is caused by and act of volition, of choice or of will.”  Here Murphy lays out the idea that acts can be free without motives being free.


[11] 2.142 Freedom of the Will

[12] 5.156 Freedom of the Will

[13] 5.160 Freedom of the Will

[14] 10.225-226 Freedom of the Will

[15] 187 Murphy