Book Review: ‘The Freedom of the Will’ by Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards and The Freedom of the Will The Garrett Ashley Mullet Show

Is man free to do whatever he chooses, or are all his paths both foreknown and forechosen, predetermined by the Almighty hand of Providence?

On the one hand Arminian theology says that man possesses free will in that he is able to choose of himself good and evil. More specifically man must be free to choose in order to be held accountable for his choice to accept or reject the gift of salvation. To believe or not to believe? That is the question.

How else could God punish sin unless the sinner were personally able to choose either to sin or to not sin? And how else could man truly be saved except by choosing to accept the gift of salvation in Christ?

On the other hand, Calvinist theology says that the sovereignty of God necessitates a corresponding forechoosing of all events to the foreknowing and foretelling of all events. How else could it be said that God is the one who saves us except that every facet of the offering and receiving of the gift of salvation is attributed solely to God?

When God promises a thing, or tells us that a thing is going to happen well ahead of its time which involves the choices of man – especially what would seem to be a great many choices of man – the fulfillment of the promise or the prophecy necessitates that a purely faithful and powerful God will bring it to pass, even by molding and shaping the will of man to suit the unchangeable character of the Almighty’s purpose.

Into this debate Jonathan Edwards wrote ‘The Freedom of the Will’ in 1754. 

Born in East Windsor, Connecticut in 1703, Edwards is with good reason regarded as the foremost philosopher and theologian at the center of what we now refer to as the ‘First Great Awakening’ of the 1730’s and 1740’s.

I just recently finished Edwards’ 1754 work about election and free will, and I am not embarrassed to admit that it was a challenge for me.

Previously to ‘The Freedom of the Will’ I read Martin Luther’s ‘The Bondage of the Will’ – a much less flattering title, if I may say so. And covering this topic two centuries earlier, I found Luther deserving his reputation as a witty brawler unafraid to throw a jab and taunt and insult at those he disagreed with.

By contrast, Edwards is more disciplined, rigorous, organized, logical, and restrained. But all the more rather than less, what ‘Freedom of the Will’ lays out is more challenging in some ways because of its lack of entertaining barbs and put-downs distracting from the meat of the subject.

Of course I’m not saying Edwards is smarter than Luther, though he may have been. But I am saying that Edwards is far more disciplined and polite. And in the self-discipline and restraint of Edwards I think we find sterner and more sober stuff, and a better example to follow.

Who could argue with the logic of Edwards? They will find themselves hard-pressed, not least because they cannot dismiss him out of hand so easily for having offended them by personal attacks on opponents.

Besides that, Edwards does not leave much daylight between one point and the subsequent counterpoint he presents. But from the standpoint of focusing on ideas and truths he rains down rhetorical blows in the process of elimination until seemingly only one possibility remains – that of the Calvinist view of salvation and grace.

This is simultaneously more helpful and harder to keep up with because the only way you really catch your mental, emotional, and spiritual breath is by taking a break from the book to consider the substance of his claims.

The long and short of it according to Edwards is this, then – the freedom of man is nothing compared to the freedom of God. And both alike are free to do what is in their nature. When we are talking about God, the Almighty is the only entirely and wholly free being who has ever existed, does now exist, or ever will exist. But when we are talking about man, freedom in the abstract is something of a moot point unless we also consider what is in the heart of man that he will freely choose one thing instead of another.

Just who presides over all the factors internal and external which might persuade or influence man toward freedom of one kind or freedom of another, whether free to live or freely choosing to destroy himself? As Edwards explains, only God is sovereign. And therefore only God is free in the purest and fullest sense of what we could possibly mean by ‘freedom.’

But this is just another way of saying that only God is really and truly free. Everyone else is limited to being free on God’s terms. And this itself is just another way of saying that freedom for life and goodness can only be had for those made free by God. Anything outside of freedom on God’s terms is the other side of the coin which Luther titled his work after – what we should more accurately call the bondage of the will.

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