Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 5: The Scriptural Evidence

Ralston continues with his defense of free moral agency from Scripture:

(2) In the next place, the Scriptures everywhere address man as a being capable of choosing; as possessing a control over his own volitions, and as being held responsible for the proper exercise of that control.

In Deuteronomy 30:19, we read: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” And in Joshua 24:15: “Choose you this day whom ye will serve.” Now, to choose is to determine or fix the will; but men are here called upon to choose for themselves, which, upon the supposition that their will is, in all cases, fixed necessarily by antecedent causes beyond their control, is nothing better than solemn mockery.

It is significant that heaven and earth is called as a witness against those who are choosing between life and death, blessings and cursings.  They are being told in no uncertain terms that they will be held accountable for whatever decision they make.  This would seem to presuppose moral free agency.  As Ralston points out, the choice is “theirs” to make.  This would indicate that they are in control of their choice and will be held accountable because of that control.  If their choice is controlled by factors other than the agent himself, then it is senseless to hold the agent accountable for that decision and to call heaven and earth as a witness against that decision (and person) if there was never any real choice in the matter to begin with (i.e., their choice was predetermined and necessary; they could not have chosen other than they did), and would amount to little more than mockery as Ralston well points out.

It is also significant with regards to Deut. 30:19 that just a few verses prior to Moses’ call to make a decision for or against life that he tells the people that they are fully capable of making the right choice, “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach…No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” (30:11-14) This militates strongly against any form of determinism, for according to necessitarian dogma it is quite untrue that it was not too difficult for many of them to obey.  Those who disobeyed (and many surely did) could not possibly have done otherwise than to disobey if determinism is true.  However, Moses made it clear that all who heard his voice were indeed capable of obeying the divine command and firmly rebuked any who might dare to declare otherwise.  For more on this, see this post.

Our Saviour, in Matthew 23:37, complains of the Jews: “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” Again, in John 5:40, our Lord says: “Ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.”

The fault lies with them because they were in full control of their will.  If there decisions were predetermined then the fault does not lie with them for it was not in their control to do other than they did.  Yet the Lord lays the blame on them for not exercising their wills properly.  Matthew 23:37 is especially significant as Christ makes it clear that He desired to gather them but their unwillingness prevented that which He desired for them.  The common Calvinist attempt to make a distinction between the “children” and those who “would not” is desperate and far from convincing.

These, and numerous other passages of a similar import, refer expressly to the will of men as being under their own control. And to put the matter beyond dispute, men are here not only held responsible for the character of their will, but they are actually represented as justly punishable on that account. In the instance of Christ lamenting over Jerusalem, and complaining, “How often would I have gathered,” etc., “and ye would not,” the punishment is announced in the words which immediately follow: “Behold your house is left unto you desolate.” Now, the question is, can the Saviour of the world, in terms of the deepest solemnity, upbraid men for the obstinacy of their wills, and denounce against them the severest punishment for the same, if the whole matter is determined by necessity, and no more under their control than the revolutions of the planets? According to the notion of President Edwards and others; the will is as necessarily fixed by antecedent causes as any effect whatever is by its appropriate cause. If so, the agency of man can have no influence in determining his will, and consequently he cannot in justice be held accountable and punishable for the same. But as we have shown the Scriptures hold man accountable and punishable for his will, consequently it cannot be determined by necessity, but must be, in the true sense, dependent on man’s own proper agency.

(3) In the last place, we argue the proper freedom of the human will from the doctrine of a general judgment, and future rewards and punishments, as set forth in the Scriptures.

Here we need not enlarge. That all men are responsible to God for all the determinations of their will, and that in a future day they will be judged, and rewarded or punished accordingly, are matters expressly taught in the Scriptures. Now, according to the necessitarian scheme, how, we ask, can these things be reconciled with the divine attributes? As well might we suppose that an all-wise and merciful Being would arraign before his bar, and punish, or reward, the water for running downward, or the sparks for flying upward. As well might he punish the foot because it is not the hand, or the hand because it is not the eye. As well might he reward or punish the fish for swimming in the sea, or the birds for flying in the air! If such a procedure would universally be pronounced absurd in the extreme, we ask, upon the supposition that the will of man is determined by antecedent or external causes, as necessarily as the laws of nature, where is the difference? Every argument that would show absurdity in the one case, would, in all fairness, show the same in the other. (Elements of Divinity, pp. 190-192, Weslyan Heritage Collection CD)

In our next post we will examine Ralston’s conclusion to his defense of man’s moral free agency.

2 thoughts on “Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 5: The Scriptural Evidence

  1. The Matthew 23:37 passage of the hen and the people’s unwillingness reminds me of Jeremiah 32:33-35(NASB):

    They have turned their back to Me and not their face; though I taught them, teaching again and again, they would not listen and receive instruction.
    But they put their detestable things in the house which is called by My name, to defile it.
    They built the high places of Baal that are in the valley of Ben-hinnom to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I had not commanded them nor had it entered My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.

  2. Jay,

    That is a great passage and one that I believe is impossible to reconcile with Calvinistic determinism. While God surely foreknew what wicked things His people would do, “it never entered [His] mind” (i.e., it was not planned, intended, or decreed by Him).

    God Bless,

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