Jonathan Edwards has been called the greatest thinker to grace American soil, period. I’m starting to see why – his writings are veritable works of genius. One of the reasons secular scholarship has taken such an interest in Edwards is his deeply philosophical view of the world. Edwards believed that the mind of man, at its essence, was uncorrupted. Although the soul of man resisted the conclusions of the mind, the truths of scripture could be made evident through logic. This is why Edwards largely writes “Freedom of the Will” on philosophical ground. Here are some interesting points he makes, just to get a taste:
1. The will cannot be separated from the faculties. Edwards did not believe that man was distinct from his faculties. The mind and the emotions, while distinct, were inextricably linked together into a whole person. No one faculty could step outside of the will and take over the decision making process. Rather, the will was the interaction of all the faculties at once. This is an important distinction, and a necessary one before Edwards can conclude the following:
2. The action of the will is in the willing, not the action. Edwards believed that the very act of the will took place separate from the action of the will. The actual acting out of the will couldn’t be the “decision” itself; rather, it was the result of the decision. Instead, Edwards believed, when the soul naturally finds one alternative more glorious than another, this is the willing. What men preferred, he believed, was not in their control. His famous argument against those who proposed that men could control the stage of “willing” was that if it were true, the act of willing to will, then willing to will to will, then willing to will to will to will would go back ad infinitum. This leads him to conclude:
3. The ultimate cause of the will is out of man’s control. Because man’s will cannot go back infinitely, but does not emanate from himself, John Locke – one of Edward’s philosophical mentors – admitted that it is impossible to know where the original “idea” came from. Edwards, however, believed Christianity gave the answer – God is the ultimate “idea”, and so He is ultimately in charge of the will.
4. The will is free to choose what it wills. While many struck back at Edward’s logic by arguing that it is self-evident that man has a real, free choice, Edwards reply was simple: of course he does. But, he argued, this was circular logic. To say that man freely chooses is only to say that man freely chooses what he wills. Edwards’ argument is that the very desire for the action in the first place is out of their control; not that men don’t choose what they desire.
All of this might make your brain bleed, but Jonathon Edwards is a more influential figure in modern times than you might think. The fact that the secular academic world is taking note of these profound philosophical arguments ought to compel us to meet them at the feet of this incredibly wise saint. Even if you’re not into reading philosophy, pick up George Marsden’s biography of Edwards. It’s entertaining, informative, thought provoking and inspiring.