Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Edwards’s Puzzle

In the Author’s Preface to his The Freedom of the Will, Jonathan Edwards wrote,

And I desire it may be particularly noted, that though I have occasion  in the following discourse, often to mention the author of the book entitled,  An Essay on the Freedom of the Will, in God and the Creature, as holding that notion of freedom of will, which I oppose; yet I don’t mean to call  him an Arminian: however in that doctrine he agrees with Arminians, and departs from the current and general opinion of  Calvinists. If the author of that essay be the same as it is commonly ascribed to, he doubtless was not one that ought to bear that name. But however good a divine he was in many respects, yet that particular Arminian doctrine which he maintained, is never the better for being held by such an one: nor is there less need of opposing it on that account; but rather is there the more need of it; as it will be likely to have the more pernicious influence,  for being taught by a divine of his name and character; supposing the doctrine to be wrong, and in itself to be of an ill tendency.

These remarks are interesting in several ways.

Who is Edwards referring to?

To Isaac Watts, (1674 – 1745) the composer of wonderful hymns like ‘There is a green hill far away’, and ‘There is a land of pure delight’.  I don’t know if Edwards sang them in his church, or in his home, or when he was out riding. How do we know it was Isaac Watts?

We know because Watts wrote the book, An Essay on the Freedom of the Will, in God and the Creature, which Edwards tells his readers that the view he was to expound in the book, compatibilism, was ‘the current and general opinion of  Calvinists’. It was not a radical innovation, but the standing position of his Calvinist contemporaries and forbears. Of whom? One theologian that Edwards admired was Francis Turretin, and someone he had an even better opinion of was the Dutch Reformed theologian Petrus von Mastricht. In a letter to his friend and former student, Joseph Bellamy, he wrote in 1747, some years before his Freedom of the Will was published, Edwards said ‘But take Mastrict for divinity in general, doctrine, practice and controversy, or as an universal system of divinity, and it is much better than Turretin or any other book in the world, excepting the Bible, in my opinion’. His father Timothy Edwards and grandfather Solomon Stoddard  were pillars of New England congregationalism. He veered from his grandfather’s views on the ‘half way covenant’, but no sign that he changed his grandfather’s views on free will.


It is true that Edwards was somewhat outspoken on the defects of scholasticism, the mode of theologizing of his forbears, and so I guess his relatives were in no doubt implicated. For example he criticized Thomas Chubb who was not a scholastic, but Edwards thought he used language that was ‘void of distinct and consistent meaning in all the writings of Duns Scotus, or Thomas Aquinas’.

And he says this ‘instead of the plain vulgar notion of liberty, which all mankind, in every part of the face of earth and in all ages, have; consisting in opportunity to do as one pleases; they have introduced a new strange liberty, consisting in indifference, contingence and self-determination; by which they involve themselves and others in great obscurity and manifold gross inconsistence’.’

But this affects the form not the matter of the question of free will.  He wrote that he himself adopted the language of ‘the vulgar’, everyday language,  not of the ‘learned’,  in the book. Arminian views of the will depart from ‘the current and general opinion of  Calvinists’, and so in the book he holds that he was not innovating. Nevertheless, he tells his reader in the Preface, a person may subscribe to an Arminian view of the will without being an Arminian.

Watts and Edwards

The second thing we learn from what Edwards writes in his Preface is that he does not regard a doctrine such as the nature of free will to act as a foundation for other doctrines, the necessary and sufficient condition of the doctrines of a system of orthodoxy. He says about Watts,  ‘yet I don’t mean to call him an Arminian: however in that doctrine he agrees with Arminians, and departs from the current and general opinion of Calvinists.’ This implies, I take  it,  to take another view than  ‘the current and general opinion of Calvinists’ on the nature of free will and, Edwards seems to think, they are still entitled to that label, if they subscribe to the remainder.

This opinion I think was similar to the view of William Cunningham who in his laboured, rather tortured article, ‘Calvin, and the Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity’ (in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation). By this (I think) he was to give one in the eye to Sir William Hamilton, the Edinburgh philosopher, who regarded the Confession as entailing  necessitarianism. ‘Necessitarianism’ is how determinism was referred to in the nineteenth century. Using extravagant language, Hamilton believed the Confession held that ‘man has no will, agency, moral personality of his own  so a man has no free will he was able to do an act for which he is responsible.” This is not the language of someone who has developed an appetite for understanding what ‘God works all things after the counsel of his will’ means, or who can write carefully about any view he departs from.  But Cunningham went along with the spirit of this, arguing that a person can consistently be a libertarian as regards free will, claiming that the will has the metaphysical power of alternativity, and still be able to subscribe ex animo to the Westminster Confession.

The basis of doctrine

The ‘Watts position’ as we may call it is the outcome, and a reminder, that the basis of Christian doctrine for a Protestant is not another doctrine or doctrines, but the relevant biblical evidence for that doctrine.  The revealed word is the foundation, not any other doctrine.

Such is an inference of what Edwards says, about Watts. ‘A Harmony A person can have Arminian views about some central matter, but not be an Arminian. (Of course Edwards had no reason to think that Watts’s views would develop,  until he wrote such books as The Harmony of all the Religions Which God Ever Prescribed, the Arian Invited to the Orthodox Faith, and Orthodoxy United in Several Reconciling Essays on the Law and the Gospel, Faith and Works.. The circulation of such titles contributed in England to the Dissenting Academies’ departure from their earlier moorings in Calvinism through the eighteenth century.

A second problem

Edwards did not use the word ‘Watts’ once throughout the book, in which Watts’s book was referred to and argued about often. I wonder why? Watts, who had quite a few American contacts, was involved in receiving Edwards’s account of revival in a letter to England. This was Edwards's first effort in publicity in England, indeed in Europe, a letter to Guyse end Colman,  each prominent English dissenters, on the revival in Northampton, who passed it to Watts, and Guyse’s congregation promised publication. Watts saw it through the press as A Faithful Narrative of The Surprising Work of God, in 1737,  by which time the revival was waning, and Edwards’s  Freedom of the Will was yet to be written, being published in 1754. So plenty of time for festering. But Marsden in Jonathan Edwards, A Life, Yale, 2003, missed the significance of the snub of Edwards's not mentioning Watts by name by anonymising him. in referring to Watts’s book on free will. Was Edwards protecting Watts’s name?  But his name was easy to trace when supplied with the title of his book on free will, and Edwards readily supplied that.  If so, why no 'Watts'?