On Freedom of the Will (Part I, Section 1)

In the American theological tradition, there is perhaps no greater mind than that of Jonathan Edwards. Among his many writings, Freedom of the Will is considered to be one of both his best and most important works. The editor of Yale’s collection of the works of Jonathan Edwards wrote that “This book alone is sufficient to establish its author as the greatest philosopher-theologian yet to grace the American scene.” More recently, John Piper has called it “probably the greatest defense and explanation of the Augustinian-Reformed view of the will.”

That it is a work that deserves the attention of serious students of the Bible and Christian theology seems obvious. For many, however, reading it is likely to be a significant undertaking (and I include myself in that number). Aside from the fact that Edwards was a bona fide intellectual giant, the style of writing employed in the 18th century makes parts of the book difficult to follow for today’s readers. Because it is a work that I want to understand and because I think others would benefit from grappling with Edwards’ ideas too, I plan to attempt to summarize, paraphrase, and “translate” his work into a form that might, I hope, prove to be more easily understandable for today’s Christian. There are resources out there for that purpose, but I look forward to the benefit to me, personally, that is sure to come from the exercise of trying to put his ideas into my own words.



I’ll attempt to go through his work one section at a time, keeping his section titles. I don’t intend to make this a word-for-word reworking of his writing, but I will try to follow his structure thought-by-thought as much as possible. I will also try to retain Edwards’ use of personal pronouns and capitalization to the extent that doing so won’t be confusing or obscure the argument. I’ll include an index to all the posts in this series at the end of this post. My hope is that I can summarize Edwards’ thoughts accurately, making them more accessible to my fellow Christians, and in the process come to a deeper understanding of these ideas for myself.



Section 1. Concerning the Nature of the Will

Defining  the Will might seem unnecessary because the Will can be understood just as easily as any other words we could use to explain the concept. On this topic, however, the waters have been muddied, so the rest of the discussion will be much clearer if we start by defining our terms. “The will,” says Edwards, “is that by which the mind chooses anything.” Therefore, to say that something is an act of the will is the same as saying that it is an act of choosing or a choice.

One might think that a more complete definition would be that the Will is how the soul chooses or refuses. I could accept that definition, but I think it is enough to say the Will is how the soul chooses. I say that because in every act of will we choose one thing instead of something else; we choose either something or “not-something.” So by refusing we are actually choosing to have the absence of that same thing. Put differently, a voluntary act of the soul is always an elective act, a choice.

Mr. Locke wrote that while “preferring” is the best way to describe the idea of volition, even that is imprecise, because one might prefer flying to walking , but we would never say that a person wills it. This example, however, fails to show that “preferring” is an incomplete description of willing something. Whether it’s walking or any other external action, we must consider what the present goal of the will is. The goal is not getting from Point A to Point B regardless of whether we do so on the ground or through the air. Those preferences are far removed goals, but the immediate goal or purpose of the will is simply the present physical action. When we choose to walk, our first choice (or preference) is not whether we would rather be at Point B instead of Point A; our first choice is whether to make our legs and feet start moving in the direction we ultimately want to go. Willing the body to move right now is nothing but choosing or preferring that the body move right now, or liking movement better than standing still. Because of the way that God made us, our souls are so united with our bodies that the instant our soul chooses to move or change the position of our bodies, it happens. When we walk, our only conscious act is the choice to walk; we expect that our feet and legs will obey because of our experience. The same cannot be said of flying: someone might say that he chooses to fly, but in reality he cannot choose to actually do the things that would make flight possible. A rational person has no reason to think that he can fly under his own power; he knows from his experience that any attempt to fly under his own power would be useless. Therefore, if we properly distinguish between various objects of the will, it seems clear that there is no distinction between volition and preference.

Locke also says that the Will is completely distinct from desire; in one action his desire might be at odds with what his will directs him toward in that same action. For instance, says Locke, I might feel compelled by someone to try to persuade another person, despite the fact that I do not really want him to be persuaded by my words. In that case, he says, the Will and Desire contradict each other. However, I do not think that Will and Desire are so distinct that they can ever be truly contradictory. No one ever wills what he does not desire or desires something against his will nor does Locke’s example prove otherwise. There is some reason why Locke chooses (wills) to say certain words; that reason (whatever it is) influences him not to desire the contrary. In the end, he chooses to speak  and does not desire not to say those things. So the thing Locke says he desires–that his words will fail to persuade this other person–is not contrary to what he wills. He does not will that his words will be effective, but rather wills that they be ineffective and that is precisely what he says he desires.

To prove that Will and Desire may be contradictory Locke would have to show that they contradict each other in the same object of Will or Desire. However, in his example there are two objects. Looking at each of those objects separately, there is no contradiction between Will and Desire. Of course, they may contradict one another on separate topics (even if the separation is small). The Will might differ from the Will when it comes to different things (and likewise for Desire). This is the case even in Locke’s example: a person might have some reason to desire using words of persuasion at the same time that he desires those words will not succeed in persuading. In that situation, however, no one would say that Desire contradicts Desire nor would anyone count this as proof that Desire is something completely distinct from Desire.

Regardless of whether Desire and Will or Preference and Volition are exactly the same, I hope we can agree that in every act of Will there is an act of choice. Therefore, in every act of the Will, the mind or soul, prefers one thing to another or prefers the presence of something to its absence. In addition, in the complete absence of any choice or preference (in a state of perfect equilibrium) there is no volition.


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