Jonathan Edwards On Why Free Will Is Not Virtuous

shop_Freedom-of-the-WillNext week I’m teaching some A-level RE & Philosophy students on free will and theological determinism. Some of the best stuff I’ve read on this comes from 18th c. New England Puritan, Jonathan Edwards. His book, Freedom of the Will, addresses the Arminian position that claims that for a choice to be meaningful it must be free. They argued that the will must be ‘indifferent’ – i.e. free from any prepossessed bias if the will was to be truly self-determining. Edwards ruthlessly prosecutes this line of thinking and demonstrates that no decision is perfectly ‘free’; what’s more, if it were it would not be a virtuous thing. Here he is in his own words (taken from Part 3, section 6):

“If indifference belongs to liberty of will, as Arminians suppose, and it be essential to a virtuous action that it be performed in a state of liberty, as they also suppose, it will follow, that it is essential to a virtuous action that it be performed in a state of indifference.”

“If the action [argues the Arminian] be determined by a preceding act of choice, it cannot be virtuous; because the action is not done in a state of indifference.”

“But, if there be any acts which . . . spring immediately from perfect indifference and coldness of heart, they cannot arise from any good principle or disposition in the heart; and consequently, according to common sense, have no sincere goodness in them, having no virtue of heart in them.”

“the Arminian scheme of liberty is utterly inconsistent with the being of any such things as either virtuous or vicious habits or dispositions. If liberty of indifference be essential to moral agency, then there can be no virtue in any habitual inclinations of the heart.”

“But how plainly contrary is this to the universal sense of mankind, and to the notion they have of sincerely virtuous actions, which is, that they are actions which proceed from a heart well disposed and inclined; and the stronger and the more fixed and determined the good disposition of the heart, the greater the sincerity of virtue, and so the more of the truth and reality of it.

In sum Edwards is saying that if you want free will in its purest form then that will must be at total liberty – utterly indifferent to prior influence or disposition. And if this is the case then at any point we are ‘as near to choosing as refusing’ with each possibility equal in likelihood. So to choose repentance and faith is not virtuous as you could as likely have chosen the contrary. Edwards does believe in a type of liberty – not the liberty of indifference, but what has sometimes been termed the ‘liberty of spontaneity’. In other words, the liberty to act in accordance with your disposition and prepossessed bias. Original sin means our bias is away from God and toward sin which is why we need his grace to restrain and transform. When we have been regenerated our wills are now inclined toward obedience, and our works, performed in union with Christ, the power of the Spirit, and to a God glorifying end are truly virtuous.


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