Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will: Introducing the Controversy

Thomas Ralston was an early Methodist theologian.  The following is taken from his Elements of Divinity (Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD):

“The great question in this controversy is not whether a man can will “as he pleases,” for that is the same as to ask whether he can will as he does will. But the question is, Can a man will, without being constrained to will as he does, by something extrinsic to himself acting efficiently upon him? This is the real question on which depends the freedom of the mind in willing.”

“Again: when we speak of a self-active power of man in willing, we are not to understand that this is a lawless exercise of power. The mind is the efficient agent that wills, but this act is performed according to the laws properly belonging to a self-moving, accountable agent. Motives and external circumstances, although they can exercise no active or efficient agency in reference to the will, yet, speaking figuratively, they are properly said to exercise an influence over the mind – that is, they are the conditions or occasions of the mind’s action in willing. In this sense, they may be said to influence the will; but this is so far from being an absolute and irresistibly controlling influence, that it is really no proper or efficient influence at all.” (pg. 184)

Ralston hits the nail on the head and rightly points out that while the mind does not act without respect to motives and circumstances, these motives and circumstances do not exercise irresistible control over the mind.  Earlier Ralston defined the will as the action of the mind and was careful to distinguish the mind itself from said action or will:

“The mind, or soul, of man is the active, intelligent agent to whom pertain the powers or qualities of freedom and volition; and the will is only the mind acting in a specific way, or it is the power of the mind to act, or not to act, in a specific way.”

“On this point the writers generally, on both sides in the controversy, have been agreed. President Day says: “It is the man that perceives, and loves, and hates, and acts; not his understanding, or his heart, or his will, distinct from himself.”

“Professor Upham defines the will to be “the mental power or susceptibility by which we put forth volitions.” He also says: “The term will is not meant to express any thing separate from the mind; but merely embodies and expresses the fact of the mind’s operating in a particular way.” Stewart defines the will to be “that power of the mind of which volition is the act.” (pg. 183)

He continues:

“The advocates of necessity, in their arguments upon this subject, have generally either not understood, or they have willfully misstated, the ground assumed by their opponents. They have generally reasoned upon the assumption that there is no medium between absolute necessity and perfect independency. Whereas the true doctrine in reference to the freedom of the will, and that assumed by the proper defenders of free agency, is equally aloof from both these extremes. By moral liberty, we neither understand, on the one hand, that the actions of man are so determined by things external to him, as to be bound fast with the cords of necessity; nor, on the other hand, so disconnected with surrounding circumstances, and every thing external, as to be entirely uninfluenced thereby.”

“The controversy, therefore, between the advocates of necessity and Arminians, or the defenders of free agency, is not whether man is influenced in his will, to any extent, by circumstances, motives, etc., or not; but whether his will is thus absolutely and necessarily controlled, so that it could not possibly be otherwise.” (pg. 184)

An important observation, the truth of which continues to this present day.  We have seen in recent discussions that advocates of determinism continue to misunderstand and misrepresent the Arminian position.  While Arminians hold that the mind does not act of necessity it does not act in a vacuum either.  This is an important point which cannot be emphasized enough.

“If the will of man be absolutely and unconditionally fixed by motives and external causes, so that it is obliged to be as it is, then is the doctrine of necessity, as contended for by Edwards and others, true; but if the will might, in any case, be different from what it is, or if it is to any extent dependent on the self-controlling power with which man is endued, then is the free moral agency of man established, and the whole system of philosophical necessity falls to the ground.” (184, 185)

In our next post Thomas Ralston will begin the task of demonstrating the incoherency of the “necessitarian” position.  Stay tuned, it’s just starting to get good.

Advertisements

2 Responses

  1. Ben thanks for sharing the quotes from Thomas Ralston. It is very encouraging seeing someone make the same points that proponents of LFW make today against calvinists and their false theology. I want to comment on some of his statements:

    “The advocates of necessity, in their arguments upon this subject, have generally either not understood, or they have willfully misstated, the ground assumed by their opponents. They have generally reasoned upon the assumption that there is no medium between absolute necessity and perfect independency. Whereas the true doctrine in reference to the freedom of the will, and that assumed by the proper defenders of free agency, is equally aloof from both these extremes. By moral liberty, we neither understand, on the one hand, that the actions of man are so determined by things external to him, as to be bound fast with the cords of necessity; nor, on the other hand, so disconnected with surrounding circumstances, and every thing external, as to be entirely uninfluenced thereby.”

    Note that first line, that “necessitarians” (perhaps that is what we should call calvinists to make their way of thinking clear as they believe that all events are predetermined by God and so all events must happen the way they do and it is impossible for them ever to be otherwise), they “generally either not understood or they have willfully misstated, the ground of their opponents.” If someone repeatedly creates and then attacks caricatures, straw men of your view, does so intentionally and does not stop even when shown that they are creating false representations. That **is** being dishonest. And the dishonesty is motivated by their desire to promote and defend their necessatarian system.

    I make a distinction between those who honestly want to dialogue and learn about what we believe (I always have time for such a person and will always answer their questions), versus someone who is a necessatarian, and intentionally and thus dishonestly repeatedly creating caricatures even when repeatedly corrected. Sadly, and apparently, Ralston dealt with this same exact thing from the necessitarians in his time. Apparently, some things never change.

    The other thing to notice is that Ralston says they were into committing the false dilemma fallacy back then as well. The modern calvinist will often claim that the only two options are either that all events are necessitated (his view) or events that are not necessitated are random, chance events, completely independent of reason. Ralston says the false dilemma they presented back then was between necessitated actions and actions done completely independently of all influences (an actions that is completely independent of all influences including motives, beliefs, reasons, values, would be a random event). The option intentionally left out, ignored by the necessitarian is the idea of self determined actions. These are actions that are neither necessitated nor random but done for reasons. As I have said repeatedly, God is the best example of this as his actions are most definitely not necessitated nor are they random, but they are done for reasons.

    “The controversy, therefore, between the advocates of necessity and Arminians, or the defenders of free agency, is not whether man is influenced in his will, to any extent, by circumstances, motives, etc., or not; but whether his will is thus absolutely and necessarily controlled, so that it could not possibly be otherwise.” (pg. 184)

    Ralston saw the same thing that I see: the issue is not whether or not the will is influenced, but are our actions completely necessitated or do we have choices (i.e., we can do otherwise). Check out any definition of free will and you will find this element of the person could have done otherwise. Well the phrase they could have done otherwise is synonymous with HAVING A CHOICE (which I explained in another post recently and will not repeat here). If every event is predetermined then all of our actions are necessitated and we never ever have a choice. On the other hand, if even some events involve us having choices, then everything is not necessitated, everything is not predetermined. These are mutually exclusive ideas. Since the claim of all events being necessitated involves the universal negative that we never have any choices. Any evidence both from scripture or our own daily experience is sufficient to refute the necessatarian claim.

    “If the will of man be absolutely and unconditionally fixed by motives and external causes, so that it is obliged to be as it is, then is the doctrine of necessity, as contended for by Edwards and others, true; but if the will might, in any case, be different from what it is, or if it is to any extent dependent on the self-controlling power with which man is endued, then is the free moral agency of man established, and the whole system of philosophical necessity falls to the ground.” (184, 185)

    Again, Ralston “got it”, he understood that if we have free will in the libertarian sense, if we exercise self-determinism over some of our actions, IF WE EVER ***HAVE*** CHOICES AS ORDINARILY UNDERSTOOD, then the necessitarian scheme of Jonathan Edwards and all of the rest of them “falls to the ground.” So I say again, want to disprove this necessitarian view? Establish the reality of us **having** choices. Do that and the whole unbiblical and false system collapses. And the necessitarians wonder why I press them on the reality of us ***having choices***! 🙂

    Robert

  2. […] be one way or another except the person’s own will. While free will certainly is subject to influence, if some external principle coerced, impelled, or simply necessitated a specific decision, then the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: