Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume I

Edited by Paul Ramsey


Thoughts/Review by LJ Frank

This work is steeped in the thought processes of a brilliant and leading 18th century American theologian and philosopher – it’s dense, provocative, brilliant at times, and yet creates a multitude of questions about logic, human volition, and how much our environment affects us individually and as a mass, including definition of will and whether our actions are predetermined.  This is not for one reading or two or three. It’s a reference work filled with a philosophy and theology that requires a meditative effort.That said, in the existential 20th and 21st centuries where fundamentalism appears to be in acute denial, Edwards probing is a vicariously thought-provoking examination of ethics and morality. It’s historically and contemporarily relevant depending on the reader’s perspective.  

Also, admittedly, I never found books and essays about the human will easy reading. Human will, is philosophically and theologically ambiguous. The politics of the moment – power/control and greed appear to be both environmental and inherent in the human gene, one questions the strength of will beyond the context of environmental factors and today’s knowledge of genetics.   Good and evil? Original sin? His theology is rooted in the Christian concept of original sin.

Edward’s work is prescient. He envisions the evolving dilemma in his studies of John Locke and others. He belongs in the emerging Enlightenment. That in itself is provocative.  Still, the environment in which one is raised affects our thinking. Edwards tests the boundaries and, Martin Luther might smile at that testing…regardless of the circular and seemingly post hoc ergo propter hoc formula that his logic appears superficially susceptible to, that is, because if B follows A, A must be the cause of B.  

There are moments Edwards is troubled by his own thoughts. He intellectually experiments. He realizes Man invented the word – God. Still, knowing that he believes in a Creator that Man calls God and Edwards attempts to expose God’s intent. He reasons that that God must have had some reason(s) for creating the world and allowing humans to have a will, as opposed to creating a deterministic world.

As noted, this is a reference tool within the scope of his (Christian) theological and philosophical underpinnings. The reader doesn’t read Edwards just once and depart satisfied, rather one may leave the reading with the attitude of wait a minute and reread.  

Whether you agree with his logic and premise or not he stimulates. The language and theology are that of colonial America but even many a colonials stepped back and asked what the hell is this man trying to say?

We live, we hope we make choices but perhaps that’s an illusion, we then die, we have faith, but oblivion still haunts us. Our minds, and our consciousness dies when the brain dies, but what of the soul? Where is the soul located? In other words, with his pronouncements and questions his thought process stimulates conversation.

Edwards may appear to hide behind language – not unique among philosophers and theologians. He’s a rare intellectual.  He accepts the singular uniqueness of God’s existence and wrestles with the effects of that existence on the life of the individual.

The ethical problem Edwards sees in his inquiry concerning will is the path that one must be careful in taking is the one that leads to anything goes…that is ethics is abandoned as a result of human vanity. Though complex, scholarly, and at times convoluted it speaks to the human quest in defining right and wrong thought and the resulting action from that thought. He seems to lament the condition he finds himself in and suggests a deeper concern for the future when the superficial may be more important than the quest for truth.