Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards by Daniel D. Whedon (Book Review)

Many thanks to John D. Wagner for the review copy.

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John D. Wagner has edited and republished another classic and yet little known work on the freedom of the will by Methodist Daniel D. Whedon (1808-1885).  It is extremely significant as the discussion over the freedom of the will has intensified greatly with the resurgence of Calvinism in mainstream Christianity.  Many Calvinists today still point to the classic book by Jonathan Edwards (The Freedom of the Will) as an irrefutable work firmly establishing the Calvinist doctrine of necessity and compatibilism.  Whedon brilliantly takes on the arguments of Edwards and his contemporaries in this excellent refutation of the “necessitarian” position.

Whedon covers every significant argument of Edwards and other “necessitarians” in this book and dismantles them piece by piece.  He points out that many of the necessitarian arguments amount to question begging, bare assertions, or intricate sophisms, often riddled with embarrassing contradictions and absurdities.  He explains that there simply aren’t any sufficient arguments against the possibility of a single causative power in the agent capable of producing a variety of effects (volitions).  He refers to this as “alternative power” in the Will and demonstrates that it is itself a full and adequate cause needing nothing else to put forth one effect just as well as another (alternative effect).  In other words, nothing causes the Will to act a certain way since the Will is itself a full and adequate cause.  He would classify Edwards’ view of the Will as “unipotent” while calling his own view “pluripotent” (in contemporary discussions Whedon would be considered a “wide source incompatibilist”) 

He effectively takes on Edwards’ argument from motive force; his argument based on natural versus moral ability; his argument based on foreknowledge; his argument based on a so called infinite series (or infinite regress); his argument based on chance, and numerous others.  It is my opinion that Whedon’s section “Reconciliation of Free Agency and Foreknowledge” definitively demonstrates the compatibility of foreknowledge with libertarian free will.  It should be read and carefully considered by Calvinists and Open Theists alike (who both deny that foreknowledge is compatible with free will).

But Whedon is mostly concerned with the troubling and unavoidable implications of Edwards’ necessitarianism: the impossibility of a just moral government and the damage done to God’s holy character.  It would be as unjust and absurd for God to hold a necessitated being morally responsible for his volitions and actions as it would to hold a clock hammer responsible for its movements.  In the end, Whedon concludes that necessitarianism is in no way compatible with the freedom necessary for upholding a just moral government and providing the conditions for an adequate theodicy:

From all this, there results the conclusion that without free volition there can be no justice, no satisfying the moral sense, no retributive system, no moral Government, of which the creature can be the rightful subject, and no God, the righteous Administrator…If there is a true divine government, man is a non-necessitated moral agent. (352)

At times the book presents very tough reading.  Whedon is a very careful philosopher and takes great pains to develop his arguments and carefully define his terms in order to dispatch with the ambiguity that often clouds the topic and makes debating the subject nearly impossible.  At times a single paragraph may need to be read several times in order to gather its full import, but the patient reader will be richly rewarded.  I intend to read it several times and will no doubt gain valuable insight with each additional reading.  If this is a topic of interest for you or if you have come to believe that Edwards’ work on the Will is irrefutable, then this book is a must read. Read it alongside Edwards’ work and decide for yourself who better makes their case.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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You can purchase the book at Amazon:

Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards

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