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Enjoying God Blog

Part of the genius of Jonathan Edwards’s conception of the will and genuine human freedom is the way in which he can affirm how the latter is compatible with necessity. Here’s how he did it.

If a person should choose evil in consequence of that necessity which is external to his will and imposed upon him by constraint of natural forces, he is absolved from moral responsibility. But if he behaves unlawfully because of a necessity that is in his will and consistent with it, he is surely to blame. Far from undermining moral accountability, this is foundational to it, for do we not highly praise that person whose compassion arises from a deep-seated disposition or propensity for the welfare of others, and do we not condemn that person whose cruelty is the fruit of an entrenched and malicious character?

Let me illustrate. If a man confined to a wheelchair by paralysis does not try to deliver a woman from attack, he is not morally culpable. But if he does not care that she is attacked, he is. Or if he is not confined and is physically capable of saving her, but chooses to look the other way, he is deserving of contempt.

An odd incident that illustrates this distinction occurred several years ago in the state of Pennsylvania. A man who robbed a bank by telling an employee that he had a bomb strapped to his body was later apprehended by police. He pleaded with them for help, insisting that the bomb had been placed there by someone else who threatened to detonate it if he did not comply. Sure enough, at the precise moment the “robber” said the bomb would explode, it did, on national television, no less. Assuming this man was in no way inclined to theft, his choice to “rob” the bank was constrained. His will was subject to a natural necessity by factors over which he had no control. Had he survived and his claim substantiated, a court of law would most certainly have declared him not guilty. On the other hand, had it been proven that he lied about the bomb and that his decision to rob the bank was his own, arising from the greed or anger or rebellion of his heart, he would be fully deserving of whatever penal sanctions attach to such a crime.

Edwards’ point is that there is a natural inability, arising from a natural necessity, that exonerates a person from praise or blame. But there is also a moral inability, arising from a moral necessity, that actually establishes culpability. If I fail to save a drowning child because I cannot swim (a natural inability), I am subject to a natural necessity and thus blameless. If I refuse to save a drowning child because I don’t care (a moral inability), I am subject to a moral necessity and deserving of condemnation. When Martin Luther stood before the Diet of Worms in 1521 and declared, “Here I stand. I can do no other,” it wasn’t because his legs were incapable of carrying him out of the presence of his accusers. His “inability” to do anything other was the “necessary” product of a will that “freely” defied the Roman Catholic Church.

This is the same understanding that we find in John Calvin, who chides those who fail to distinguish between necessity and compulsion. He points, as does Edwards, to the necessity that God always does what is good. “But suppose,” says Calvin, “some blasphemer sneers that God deserves little praise for His own goodness, constrained as He is to preserve it. Will this not be a ready answer to him: not from violent impulsion [or what Edwards would call natural necessity], but from His boundless goodness [i.e., moral necessity] comes God’s inability to do evil?” (Institutes, II:3:5).

He concludes that “if the fact that he must do good [emphasis mine] does not hinder God’s free will in doing good; if the devil, who can do only evil, yet sins with his will – who shall say that man therefore sins less willingly because he is subject to the [moral] necessity of sinning?” (ibid.). The point of this distinction between necessity and compulsion, then, is that “man, as he was corrupted by the Fall, sinned willingly, not unwillingly or by compulsion; by the most eager inclination of his heart, not by forced compulsion; by the prompting of his own lust, not by compulsion from without. Yet so depraved is his nature that he can be moved or impelled only to evil. But if this is true, then it is clearly expressed that man is surely subject to the [moral] necessity of sinning” (ibid.).

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