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Jonathan Edwards on the Freedom of the Will

Why did I choose to follow Jesus? Did God reach out and cause me to want to follow Jesus? Or, did I weigh the various options and choose to follow Jesus as one choice among many?

Why did I pick up my coffee cup and drink just now? Did something cause me to drink? Or, was it a relatively arbitrary expression of my own free choice?

Is there a difference between these two scenarios?

According to Paul Helm, Jonathan Edward viewed both of these from basically the same perspective. And, in the process, he departed from earlier Reformed theologians in significant ways.

As I’m getting prepared for my seminar on Jonathan Edwards this summer, I’m going to blog occasionally on any interesting resources that I’ve run across. Today, I read Paul Helm’s post on “Jonathan Edwards and the Freedom of the Will.” According to Helm, Edwards’ understanding of free will was driven by the “all-encompassing metaphysical principle” that nothing happens without a cause. So, if I make a choice, that choice must have a cause. And, for Edwards, the cause in that case would be my desires. I chose X because I wanted X. And, this same basic framework holds no matter if we’re talking about choosing God or choosing coffee.

For Edwards, operating in a world increasingly influenced by the emerging natural science, and by the empiricist philosophy of John Locke, human action is the result of one sort of cause, a ’volition’, which is in turn the outcome of certain beliefs and desires. Such causal links, of different kinds, necessarily pervade the entire creation. Edwards’s stress is on this all-encompassing metaphysical principle.

All events must have causes.

Helm argues that this is a very different argument from that offered by earlier Reformed theologians. Looking specifically at Calvin, Helm contends that earlier theologians in the Reformed tradition focused more narrowly on “the loss of moral and spiritual freedom as a result of the Fall.” This isn’t because Calvin disagreed with Edwards (which would be hard to do, since Edwards wasn’t alive at the time), but because the nature of the free will debate was different in Calvin’s day. They weren’t concerned with the broader issue of whether every particular event must have a cause, but on the narrower question of whether the human person is free to choose God.

The difference between Edwards and Calvin, according to Helm’s argument, is really the scientific/philosophical context that Edwards operated in. With the rise of modern science and the philosophical turn that took place with John Locke, the issue of causation took a much more prominent place in discussions of free will. So, it’s not that Edwards and Calvin necessarily disagreed on the free will. Helm actually argues that one can find ” clear evidence for what later came to be called a compatibilistic outlook” in Calvin’s theology. But, it does mean that they addressed the issue from very different cultural contexts, and that we need to understand these historical/cultural differences if we are really to appreciate what they were saying.

For more resources on the subject of free will see:

Contemplating Classical Compatabilism and Where Desires Come FromContemplating Classical Compatabilism and Where Desires Come From

Flotsam and jetsam (2/1)

Why were so many churches “requiring” a pastor to be married? Jesus wasn’t. Paul wasn’t. Almost all pastors were single until the time of the Reformation. Is it wise to “require” that our Evangelical pastors be married? Is it biblical?

We must teach [Baptist] views in order to be consistent in holding them. Because of these we stand apart from other Christians. We have no right thus to stand apart unless the matters of difference have real importance; and if they are really important, we certainly ought to teach them.

Any number of political and social factors underpins the current unrest in Egypt—and as always, economics figures in. The upheaval has shined a light on two serious problems facing the country: Most jobs pay too little, and most food costs too much.

What would your church history family reunion look like?

If your family was made up of famous people from church history, what would your family reunion look like? For a recent church history project, one of my students used the metaphor of a family to explain what he thought about various figures in church history. He gave me permission to pass it along, so here’s what he came up with:

  • The family members he gets along with the best: Jerome, Wycliffe, Susanna Wesley, Finney, Spurgeon, Chesterton, William Seymour, Dostoyevsky, Jim Elliot, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Family members that just rub him the wrong way: John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards
  • Family members that he just flat doesn’t like: The Crusaders
  • The embarrassing uncle of the family: the snake-handling preacher

I liked the idea, so I thought I’d put together my own family:

  • Parents (formative early, even if we may not get along now): C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Frank Peretti, Charles Sheldon
  • Wise uncles (mentored me as I got older): Augustine, Maximus, Luther, Calvin, Dostoyevsky, Barth
  • Weird uncles (part of the family, but embarrassing): televangelists (e.g. Jim and Tammy Faye Baker), many Christian “artists” (e.g., Kinkade), TBN
  • Siblings (closely related, but we fight a lot): Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur
  • Cousins (related to me, but I don’t know them very well): Isaac Backus, Walter Rauschenbusch, A.H. Strong,
  • Bob (that one family member you wish would stop coming to the reunions): Joel Osteen

And, if that’s my family, I can only imagine what the family reunion would look like:

C.S. Lewis and Tolkien are outside smoking their pipes and drinking a couple of beers. Peretti is standing a few yards away, desperately wanting to join in but afraid that they’ll make fun of his books again. Augustine is out back sneaking peaches from the peach tree. Meanwhile, Luther is busy spiking the bunch bowl to see if he can get the folks from TBN drunk, and Thomas Kinkade is waiting for him to finish because he’s thirsty again. Barth’s off in the corner discussing socialism with Sheldon and Rauschenbusch, while trying to explain the inadequacies of the social Gospel. Osteen’s there too, nodding his head regularly, though he has no idea what they’re talking about.  Warren, Driscoll, and MacArthur tried to ignore each other for a while, but accidentally ended up going for food at the same time. Now they’re standing around the food table having a loud argument about whether it’s okay to put mustard on hot dogs. In a little while, they’ll probably end up wrestling on the floor and knocking several lamps over. Isaac Backus and A.H. Strong are sitting on the couch listened in horrified fascination as Jim and Tammy Faye Baker tearfully explain why God really wanted them to have all that money for their ministry. And, Maximus and Dostoyevsky are watching the whole thing from the kitchen while having the most fascinating discussion about what all of this means for understanding human nature.

One of the things that I appreciated about this whole exercise was the reminder that we are all part of the same family (though I’m pretty sure Osteen is actually an alien impostor switched at birth with a real family member). Although we might be distantly related in places, we certainly don’t get along all the time, and I may not have gotten to know all of them very well yet, we’re still part of the same, big, messy, obnoxious, often embarrassing family – united to the same Christ, empowered by the same Spirit, glorifying the same Father.

I won’t try to turn this into a meme, but I would be curious to know about your family. Feel free to comment on what your family looks like. Or, if you choose to blog about it, drop us a link so we can follow along.

Slides 10 & 11 introduces ten of my personal best friends from Church History.

Jerome, John Wycliffe, Susanna Wesley, Charles Finney, Charles Spurgeon, G.K. Chesteron, William Seymour, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jim Elliot, and Martin Luther King. And I gave the reasons why I like each so much and consider them as my family.

Slide 12 includes two men that particularly rub me the wrong way. Thankful for their contributions, but men I am not drawn to… just like certain members of any family.

John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards

Slide 13 is people that I flat out disagree with

The Crusaders

Slide 14 is the embarrassing uncle of the family.

Snake-handling preacher.