What Do We Mean by Necessity? (On Freedom of the Will: Part I, Section 3a)

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Section III.

Concerning the meaning of the terms, Necessity, Impossibility, Inability, &c. and of Contingence.

When discussing free will, words such as “necessary” and “impossible” are used frequently. Therefore, we must understand exactly how they are used.

We could say that something is necessary if “it must be and cannot be otherwise.” But unless we also explain the word “must” with something other than the phrase “there being Necessity” the phrase above is not a proper definition of Necessity. Words such as “must,” “can,” or “cannot” need to be analyzed just as much as “necessary” and “impossible.”

In everyday use, the word “necessary” is a relative term. To say that something is necessary is to say that it is (or will be) regardless of any supposed opposition to its existence. This is the same as saying that it is impossible for the thing not to exist. But the word “impossible” is also a relative term, referring to an effort to make something happen which turns out to be insufficient to bring it to pass. “Irresistible” is another relative term referring to a resistance made against some force or power which is insufficient to withstand the power or hinder its effect. Necessity and Impossibility imply something that frustrates endeavor or desire. Note the following.

1. Things are necessary in general if they exist or will come to pass regardless of any opposition. A thing is necessary to us if it exists or will come to pass regardless of any opposition from us.

2. Terms such as “necessary,” “impossible,” etc. are most appropriate to discussion about liberty and moral agency (in the sense just described of a thing being necessary/impossible to us regardless of any possible opposition by us).


Impossible triangle

3. In common usage, “necessity” is a relative term that always supposes some sort of opposition. So when we say something is necessary to us, we mean in relation to some opposition of our Wills, or some effort of ours to the contrary. The only sense in which we can say we make opposition to an event is in our voluntary opposition to it. Something is necessary as to us when, even if we do not want it or do not act to prevent it, the thing is or will be anyway. Our opposition is the opposition our wills (or implies as much).

It is plain that other similar words and phrases are commonly understood the same way. We say that something is impossible for us if we want it or try to make it happen, but our desires and efforts are or would be to no avail. We call something irresistible when all our opposition or efforts to the contrary are overcome. We say we are unable to do something when “our supposable desires and endeavors are insufficient.”

We grow up having learned to understand all of these terms as having a strong connection “to a supposed will, desire, and endeavor of ours.” The connection is so strong that they can never be separated. Certainly, all of these words can be used as terms of art, but unless we are very careful we will unconsciously slide back into the common usage of these words and we will apply them inconsistently in our line of reasoning, “even when we pretend to use them as terms of art.”

4. Therefore, when words such as “necessary,” “impossible,” “irresistible,” etc. are used in cases that do not suppose an insufficient will, they are not being used according to their proper meaning. To use them in such cases is to use them nonsensically. An example of this misuse would be as follows: it is necessary for a man to choose virtue rather than vice during the time that he prefers virtue to vice; and it is impossible for him not to have this choice “so long as this choice continues.” In this example, the words “necessary,” “impossible,” etc. are used either with insignificance or outside their usual sense. Their common meaning (as discussed above) refers to some kind of unwillingness or resistance, but here those things are excluded, “for the case supposed is that of being willing, and choosing.”

5. Thus, it appears that philosophers use words like “necessary” or “impossible” differently from the way they are used in everyday speech, by applying them to cases in which there is no supposable opposition. They use them “with respect to God’s existence before the creation of the world, when there was no other being.” They use them in the context of God’s loving himself, his loving righteousness, or his hating sin. They apply them to the actions of “created intelligent beings,” even in cases where it is supposed that “all opposition of the Will is excluded.”

“Metaphysical or philosophical Necessity is nothing different from their certainty.” By “certainty” I refer to “the certainty that is in things themselves” rather than to a “certainty of knowledge.” It is the former that provides the foundation for the latter.

Philosophical necessity is sometimes defined as “where by it cannot be otherwise.” This is a faulty definition for two reasons. First, the words “can” and “cannot” need just as much explanation as the word “necessity.” So if someone asks us what we mean by saying “it cannot be otherwise,” we might explain by saying “it must necessarily be so.” Second, “this definition is liable to the fore-mentioned great inconvenience.” The words “cannot” or “unable” are relative–they are connected to a power that is or may be exerted “in order to the thing spoken of.” But as already noted, philosophers do not use the word “necessity” in that way.


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What Influences the Mind to Choose? (On Freedom of the Will: Part I, Section 2c)

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The previous post in this series ended as follows: “Listing everything that influences the mind in its perception of something as pleasing would probably require its own book. Rather than do that, I will outline some general ideas.”

I. The nature and circumstances of the object. This may be whether the object, viewing it as it is in itself, appears beautiful and pleasant or deformed and irksome to the mind. It includes the apparent degree of pleasure or trouble resulting from the object (or its consequences). These must be viewed as parts of the object as it appears to the mind’s view of a proposed choice. Lastly, with respect to the nature and circumstances of the object, are the apparent state of pleasure or trouble as they appear across a span of time. All things being equal, the mind will choose a present pleasure rather than one at some point in the future. The nearness in time is a circumstance of the object by which it appears more pleasing than the alternative.

II. The manner of view. The degree of apparent pleasure is an influence, but so is the manner of view. Consider two ways that this bears on an object that is connected with future pleasure. First, think about the degree to which the mind believes the pleasure to be in the future. Certain happiness is more pleasing than uncertain. All things being equal, a mere probable pleasure will be chosen over a less probable one. Second, consider how well the mind grasps a future pleasure. We have a clearer understanding of some things rather than others. For instance, the things we can immediately sense are usually more lively in our minds that things we can only imagine. “My idea of the sun when I look upon it is more vivid, than when I only think of it.” Our idea of the sweetness of a fruit tends to be stronger when eating it than when we only imagine it. Still, sometimes our ideas of things that we can only think about are stronger than at others times. This strength of an idea is one thing that greatly affects the mind in acts of volition. When one must choose between two future pleasures, the one that is more vivid to the mind will be chosen even if both options are otherwise considered the same and equally certain. Therefore, if one is presented with several future enjoyments, each with varying degrees of apparent enjoyment and probability then, all things being equal, the agreeableness of a particular option will be a combination of all those factors along with the strength of the idea of that thing to the mind.

In addition, one’s state of mind in viewing a choice contributes to the agreeableness or disagreeableness of that choice. This includes the mind’s natural temper as well as modes of thinking developed by education, custom, or some other means. A choice may seem less pleasing to one person, but not to another. Similarly, the same choice might not always appear agreeable even to the same person. Some find satisfaction in following reason, while others follow their appetites or passions. Some find it more pleasing to “deny avaricious inclination than to gratify it,” but others prefer “to gratify the vilest appetites.” These are just a few examples, among many possible others, of how different things will be most pleasing not only to different people, but also to the same people at different times.

Perhaps, however, we do not really need to distinguish between the “state of mind” and the apparent nature and circumstances of the object or the manner of view. Strictly speaking, we might say that a different state of mind only alters the agreeableness of a choice by altering how the nature and circumstances of the object appear or by changing the manner of view of an object to be stronger or weaker. However, I think it is safe to say that volition always consists of the greatest apparent good (as already explained). All things considered, the mind will always choose the thing that appears most pleasing, given the direct and immediate object of decision. If the immediate object of one’s will is his own actions, then he wills the actions that appear most agreeable to him. If, at this moment, it is most pleasing to him to walk (or speak or remain silent) then he now will to walk (or speak or remain silent). If the experience of humanity has shown us anything that is obvious and universal, it is certainly that “when men act voluntarily, and do what they please, then they do what suits them best, or what is most agreeable to them. To say, that they do what pleases them, but yet not what is agreeable to them, is the same thing as to say, they do what they please, but do not act their pleasure; and that is to say, that they do what they please and yet do not what they please.”


Thus, in a sense it appears that “the will always follows the last dictate of the understanding.” “Understanding” must be defined broadly: it includes not simply reason or judgment, but rather “the whole faculty of perception or apprehension.” It would not be true to say that the Will always follows the last dictate of understanding, if we define the understanding to include only “what reason declares to be best.” This is a different matter from the thing that now appears most agreeable in light of all the factors that combine to form the mind’s present perception of a thing. The dictate of reason certainly plays a role in the combination of influences which move the Will. Indeed, reason ought to be taken into account “in estimating the degree the degree of that appearance of good which the Will always follows.” Reason may be consistent with other factors or it may fall on the other side of the scale, “resisting the influence of other things.” However, reason may sometimes be overcome by the greater weight of other factors, resulting in an act of the Will that “is determined in opposition to it.”

I hope the preceding discussion has illustrated and confirmed the assertion  I made at the beginning of this section [i.e., Section 2): the Will is always determined by the strongest motive. This is a crucial point to establish as the basis for the rest of the discussion. I hope the truth of it will be clear “before I have finished what I have to say on the subject of human liberty.”

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We Choose According to the Greatest Apparent Good (On Freedom of the Will: Part I, Section 2b)

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We must take note of two things to get a good grasp on the idea that the will and the apparent greatest good always coincide.

1. First, in saying “good” I mean “agreeable. What I call “appearing good to the mind” is that which seems pleasing to the mind. Certainly, if something appears disagreeable or even bad, it would not tend to engage the mind’s inclination or choice (and so also with something that appears indifferent, i.e., neither agreeable no disagreeable). If anything tends to move the Will it can only be because that thing appears to suit the mind. To say otherwise would be a direct and plain contradiction.

“Good” also means avoiding or removing things that are disagreeable, uneasy or evil. The removal of uneasiness is in itself please and agreeable. This is what Mr. Locke believes to determine the will. When he says that “uneasiness” determine the will, this can only mean that the aim that controls that act or preference is the avoidance or removal of uneasiness. That would be the same as choosing what is easier.


2. When I say that the will and the greatest apparent good always coincide, I am talking only about the immediate object of the act of volition, rather than some object that is only indirectly or remotely related to that act. Many volitional acts bear some remote connection to a goal or object that is different from the thing presently chosen. For example when a “drunkard” has a drink in front of him, the immediate objects are simply whether to drink it or leave it alone. If he chooses to drink it then that choice was more pleasing to him than to leave it alone.

There are, of course, objects to which that drunkard’s action are connected more indirectly and remotely: the present enjoyment he believes he will get from taking a drink and the future misery he believes will result from his drinking. He might decide that the future misery will be more unpleasant than it would be, at the moment, to abstain from drinking. However, neither of those two things is the object about which this discussion is concerned. The act of Will I am referring to concerns only present drinking or refusing to drink. Whether he choose to drink or abstain, that choice is the immediate object of his Will. If he chooses a present pleasure rather than a future advantage (to drink rather than avoid future misery), then we can say that that less present pleasure appears more pleasing to him than a future advantage at a distance. On the contrary, if he chooses a future advantage, then that is what suits him best. In either case, the present volition and the greatest apparent good coincide.

I have chosen to say that “the Will always is as the greatest apparent good” rather than “the Will is determined by the greatest apparent good” because I see very little distinction between the mind’s preferring and the appearance of being most agreeable to the mind. Strictly speaking it may be more precise to say that the voluntary action produced by the mind’s choice is determined by whatever appears most agreeable rather than the choice itself. But volition is always determined by those influences on the mind that cause it to appear most agreeable. Those influences include not merely the object itself, but also the manner in which it is viewed as well as the state and circumstances of the mind viewing it. Listing everything that influences the mind in its perception of something as pleasing would probably require its own book. Rather than do that, I will outline some general ideas [N.B.: in the next post].

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What Determines the Will? (On Freedom of the Will: Part I, Section 2a)

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Section II.

Concerning the Determination of the Will.

The phrase “determining the will” means making a choice regarding a particular thing. This is in the same sense as the phrase”determination of motion” which means causing motion in a particular direction instead of another. For the Will to be determined there must be a Determiner. In other words, the Will is an effect that must have a cause.

Two questions then arise: what determines the Will and does the Will always follow the last order/command of the understanding? Rather than delve into all the various answers to those questions, I think it is sufficient to say that the will is determined by the strongest motive of the mind. Allow me to explain what I mean.

Domino efect rendered on white isolated

Motive is whatever moves or invites the mind to volition. It could be one thing or several things working together. By “the strongest motive” I am referring to whatever it is, whether one thing or many, that induces a particular act of volitions.

For something to be a motive in the way I use the term, it must be something that can actually be perceived. In other words, only those things that are in the mind’s view in some way are things that can induce the mind to will or to act. Anything outside the mind’s perception could not possible affect the mind at all.

I think most would agree that any true motive to a perceiving, willing agent has at least some tendency to move the Will prior to the act of the will itself. This prior tendency of the motive is what I call the strength of the motive (a motive with less tendency to move the Will would be a weaker motive). Whatever is most appealing to the mind and has the strongest prior tendency to induce the choice is what I call the strongest motive. It is in that sense that I say that the will is always determined by the strongest motive.

A thing may draw its tendency to move the Will from many different sources (the nature of the thing itself or the nature of the mind that views it). Listing all the possible sources would be difficult if not impossible. However, I do not think it would be controversial to say that in general whatever moves the will of a person (“an intelligent and voluntary agent”) is seen by that person as good; it moves a person to act only to the extent that it is viewed favorably. To say otherwise, would be to claim that things move the will by some means other “than by their appearing eligible to it.” That would be absurd. Therefore, in some sense it must always be the case that the will and the apparent greatest good coincide.

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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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The Bible, immigration, and private property (Part 3)

In my previous post on the topic of immigration, I ended by pointing out that the state’s mandates regarding which individuals may pass from one plot of land to another (and under what conditions) are, in fact, encroachments on the property rights of the person who owns the land. Only the rightful owner of the land can impose such restrictions; the state, as pointed out before, cannot be the rightful owner of the land according to biblical principles.

I want to wrap up this series of posts by briefly answering the following question. In the absence of state-imposed restrictions on immigration, must Christians fall in line with those calling for “open borders”? In short, no. Although there is a tendency to set the immigration issue up as a choice between sealing off the borders with a wall (and making Mexico pay for it?) and having a free-for-all with no rules whatsoever, those are not the only choices. In two excellent posts first published at libertychat.com in 2014, author and economist Robert P. Murphy succinctly and effectively laid out the alternative: privatize the borders.

Given what I’ve already discussed regarding property rights, privatizing the borders is the only solution to the immigration question. If a particular individual owning the land along a border with another nation-state does not want people to cross into his land then he can rightfully forbid them from doing so. Anyone who violated his exertion of control over his property would be considered a trespasser and could be dealt with accordingly. On the contrary, if he wishes to permit people from another country to come onto his land he can do so.

Murphy, at this point, anticipates an objection:

Now if they saw this particular map, the critics to my original post would say something like, “Murphy you idiot! Your proposal is tantamount to NO BORDER AT ALL! I mean, suppose Jim, Sue, Bob, et al. are generally wise and have a smart enforcement policy, but that Pam is unaware of the risks of ebola and just lets anybody onto her property! Then the whole country would be vulnerable because of that one weak link in the chain. Man you libertarians are dumb.”

Given what I’ve already discussed in this series, however, I hope that the rebuttal is obvious. Here, again, is Murphy:

You see, it’s not simply the border real estate that would be privatized; the entire country would be divided into plots and held privately. So if Pam really did have some “nutjob” policy, letting ISIS fighters or lepers or mass-murdering cocaine kingpins roam around her land freely, then Meg, Ed, Bo, Mark, and Eve could contain the problem with their own border policies. It would be as if Mexico simply had a “peninsula” that extended upward into current U.S. territory

Thus, when property rights are respected, there may be instances in which those who own property on the border with another country might exercise their rights in ways that, although others might not approve, are not themselves inherently wrong. Of course, because they are the rightful owners of the property, such approval is irrelevant in any event. For those “disapprovers” (or busybodies, if we want to use a more biblical term), the relief for their worries is found in the very same property rights: if they despise the “immigration” policy of their neighbors they may exercise their property rights accordingly by shutting off “immigration” with whomever they please.

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The Bible, immigration, and private property (Part 2)

I ended the previous post on this topic by asking whether the state’s claim to own all the land within its borders is a legitimate claim (given that the state must make such a claim as a prerequisite to imposing immigration controls). How, then, does one legitimately and biblically acquire an ownership right in property? In his Second Treatise on Government, John Locke made the following observation:

 [I]t seems to some a very great difficulty, how any one should ever come to have a property in any thing: I will not content myself to answer, that if it be difficult to make out property, upon a supposition that God gave the world to Adam, and his posterity in common, it is impossible that any man, but one universal monarch, should have any property upon a supposition, that God gave the world to Adam, and his heirs in succession, exclusive of all the rest of his posterity.

In other words, if God’s commandment to exercise dominion over the earth was one that is common to all people, how can any individual claim that he has the right to exclusive dominion over any particular part of creation?

The perceived problem did not prove to be intractable for Locke:

And tho’ all the fruits it [the world] naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common . . . yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man.

This, of course, is the beginning of Locke’s famous labor theory of property (not to be confused with the labor theory of value). Locke concluded that a person may acquire property (to the exclusion of other men), by mixing his labor with it. The question remains, however, whether such a theory of property rights is consistent with the Bible.

God’s sovereignty over all creation is fundamental to Christianity.  It follows that, as Locke acknowledged, “God gave the world to Adam” because “The earth is the Lord‘s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” (Psalm 24:1) In a sense then, the universe is God’s property because it is His creation. God, therefore, has the right to use creation as He pleases and that can include delegating authority over portions of it to others, including human beings who are themselves part of creation.

Although God’s grant of dominion to Adam as representative of the human race was a general one, we also see that God granted more specific property rights to specific groups of people. For instance, God granted the Promised Land, a specific geographic area with defined borders, to his chosen people, Israel. Within that area, the land was divided among the tribes of Israel, a task we read about in the latter half of the book of Joshua. Within those tribal allotments land was further divided among families. All the while, the people were reminded that the land, ultimately, was God’s. Although they were free to sell the land, God made clear that he retained ultimate ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine.” (Leviticus 25:23). With that and others caveats in Leviticus 25, individuals had certain property rights as against other individuals. Clearly, the command “Do not steal” would have little meaning in practice if there was no such thing as private property. God went further, of course, forbidding covetousness in addition to outright theft.

In an essay for the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Dr. Art Lindsley draws attention to the story of Naboth’s vineyard:

The story of the prophet Elijah’s rebuke of Ahab and Jezebel for the murder of Naboth and their acquisition of his vineyard is a classic biblical story of theft in 1 Kings 21. King Ahab saw Naboth’s vineyard, which was close to his own, and coveted it. Ahab offered either to exchange another vineyard for Naboth’s or to buy it from him. Naboth firmly refused, saying, “The Lord forbid me that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.”

Jezebel found Ahab sulking on his bed and devised a plan to kill Naboth and steal his land. She proposed a feast with Naboth as the guest of honor, “at the head of the people.” During the feast, “worthless men” would be seated around him to accuse him of cursing God and the king. The plan was executed and it succeeded. Naboth was stoned, and Ahab acquired his coveted vineyard. Elijah, however, pronounced severe judgment on Ahab and Jezebel for this wicked deed.

Naboth’s concern to preserve the inheritance of his fathers is underlined again in Leviticus 25:23: “The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine.” In the broader biblical picture, God is, strictly speaking, the owner of all of the land. He appoints believers as his stewards and expects them to exercise creative rulership or dominion with the land they are given.

Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth’s Vineyard. Print by Sir Frank Dicksee.

I think the story tells us something about the biblically legitimate means of acquiring property. Obviously, taking land by force (deadly force in Ahab’s case) is forbidden; the command “Do not kill” makes no exceptions for “Do not kill unless there’s no other way to acquire that property you want” (which would violate the commandment against coveting in any event). Early in the story, Ahab himself seemed to acknowledge that he could rightfully acquire Naboth’s vineyard only through voluntary exchange: “Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house, and I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” (I Kings 21:2). Those efforts failed and, as Dr. Lindsley points out, should never have been made in the first place, given the restrictions God had placed on otherwise voluntary land transfers. Notice, also, that Ahab did not merely declare the vineyard to be his property. At least as far as I can find, there was nothing resembling the modern idea of eminent domain in ancient Israel.

On the question of the acquisition of property in the Bible, Dr. Walter Kaiser, writing in the Spring 2012 volume of the Journal of Markets & Morality, argues that the Bible provides for the acquisition of property by way of reward for one’s labor, through inheritance, “by industriousness (Prov. 10:4; 13:4; 14:23), wisdom (Prov. 3:16; 24:3), or by the development of insight (Prov. 14:15).” The passages in Proverbs, I think, lend some of the best biblical support to Locke’s labor theory of property. Industriousness, wisdom, and insight are all things that can be “mixed” with land or natural resources in order to create a property right. By contrast, Kaiser regards the concept of eminent domain (which is merely acquiring property by declaration), as lacking in any biblical authority. He concludes that section of his article with this: “If it is asked, ‘Then how can roads and buildings be built by the state without the tool of eminent domain?’ the answer is to use procedures that come from other areas of authority rather than from a statist doctrine of sovereignty.”

When it comes to land, the state fails to show that the property it claims to own was acquired by any one of those legitimate means. The state is not God and therefore cannot create its own property rights by mere declaration. Likewise land acquired by killing or other violent force has not been rightfully acquired. If we were to restrict any given state to only such lands as it had legitimately purchased from previous owners or “homesteaded,” I daresay the maps would look radically different. Granted, there are many other issues related to property ownership, especially in countries where land might not currently be occupied by people having the best ownership claim (but I think that’s straying a bit too far afield for our purposes). I think we can say with confidence, however, that no matter how the ownership claims between two given individuals might be resolved, the state’s claim is virtually certain, in almost every case, to be at the back of the line in terms of legitimacy.

I asked in the previous post: “Upon what Biblical basis do we conclude that ‘it is within the rights of the government to determine’ conditions for immigration?” I hope I have made a clear case that the Biblical basis for such a claim is lacking. The state cannot be the legitimate owner of all the land over which it claims the right to grant rights of ingress and egress. In the absence of such rightful ownership, the state’s dictates regarding immigration are more like encroachments on the rights of the true property owners.


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