Great Quotes: Thomas Ralston on Calvinist Arguments Against Free Will Based on Greatest Motive Force

Let us now contemplate these motives which are said to act upon the mind so as necessarily to influence the will. Let us look them full in the face, and ask the question, What are they? Are they intelligent beings, capable of locomotion? Are they endued with a self-moving energy? Yea, more: Are they capable of not only moving themselves, but also of imparting their force to something external to themselves, so as to coerce action in that which could not act without them? If these questions be answered in the negative, then it will follow that motives, considered in themselves, can no more act on the mind so as necessarily to determine the will, than a world can be created by something without existence. If these questions be answered in the affirmative, then it will follow that motives at least are free agents – capable of acting without being acted upon, and endued with self-controlling and self-determining energy. Necessitarians may fall upon either horn of the dilemma; but upon which horn soever they fall, their system must perish.

If the attempt be made to evade this by saying that motives do not act themselves, but God is the agent acting upon man, and determining his will through the instrumentality of motives – if this be the meaning, then I demand, why not call things by their right names? Why attribute the determination of the will to the influence of motives, and at the same time declare that motives are perfectly inefficient, capable of exercising no influence whatever? Is not this fairly giving up the question, and casting “to the moles and to the bats” the revered argument for necessity, founded upon the influence of motives?

Again, to say that motives exercise no active influence, but are only passive instruments in the hands of God by which he determines the will by an immediate energy exerted at the time, is the same as to say that God is the only agent in the universe; that he wills and acts for man; and, by his own direct energy, performs every physical and moral act in the universe, as really and properly as he created the worlds; and then that he will condemn and punish men everlastingly for his own proper acts! Is this the doctrine of philosophical necessity? Truly it is. And well may we say this is fatalism! This is absurdity!

From: Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 9: The Doctrine of Motives

For the beginning of the series, see here.

Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 9: The Doctrine of Motives

This post completes our series on Ralston’s defense of the Arminian belief in self-determinism.  This is the grand finale where Ralston tackles the favorite argument against free-will, the doctrine of motives as presented primarily by Jonathan Edwards.  This is especially relevant since Calvinists continue to argue along these same lines today and often hold up Mr. Edwards’ work as un-refuted and irrefutable.  The following treatment by Thomas Ralston would suggest otherwise. I will not be interrupting his treatment with my comments so as to preserve the flow of his thought in this important critique.  Enjoy.  

III. We will now consider the objection to the view taken of free agency, which is founded upon the doctrine of motives.

Necessitarians have relied with great confidence on their arguments from this source. In illustrating their views of the doctrine of motives, they have chosen different figures, all amounting substantially to the same thing -leading necessarily to the same conclusion.

Dr. Hartley has represented the thoughts and feelings of the soul as resulting from the various vibrations of the brain, produced by the influence of motives, or surrounding circumstances. He admits frankly that his scheme implies “the necessity of human actions;” but he says, “I am sorry for it, but I cannot help it.”

Lord Kames represents the universe as “one vast machine composed of innumerable wheels, all closely linked together, and moving as they are moved.” Man he considers as “one wheel fixed in the middle of the vast automaton, moving just as necessarily as the sun, moon, or earth.”

President Edwards has represented “motives and surrounding objects as reaching through the senses to a finely-wrought nervous system, and, by the impressions made there, necessarily producing thought, volition, and action, according to the fixed laws of cause and effect.”

According to all these three general systems, the conclusion in reference to the influence of motives, etc., is the same – that is, it appears that the mind is like a machine or a pair of scales, only a passive substance, moving as it is acted upon by force applied to the wheel, or weight to the scale. Here is the leading principle in the systems of all the advocates of philosophical necessity; and upon this grand point the advocates of free agency join issue.

That we may see distinctly the point upon which the issue is made, we may here observe that advocates on both sides have very frequently mistaken or misrepresented the views of their opponents. First, then, let it be understood that necessitarians, by motives as influencing the will, do not maintain that the strongest motive, considered in reference to its real and proper weight, always prevails; but, by the strongest motive they understand the motive having the greatest influence over the individual at the time, and under all the circumstances of the case. This is the same as saying that the prevailing motive always prevails; which is only the assertion of a simple truism, which no one can dispute.

The point, therefore, in which the matter of controversy is involved, is not whether the strongest motive, considered in reference to its real weight, always prevails. This, necessitarians are misrepresented, if they are charged with holding. Nor is it in dispute whether the strongest motive, considered in reference to its influence over the individual at the time and under the circumstances, always prevails. This the advocates of free agency do not deny, for that would be the same as to deny that the prevailing motive is the prevailing motive. Nor is it a matter of dispute whether motives and surrounding circumstances have any influence in determining the will. That they do have a powerful influence, metaphorically speaking, none can deny.

What, then, we ask, is the real point of dispute? It is simply this: Do motives presented to the mind, and surrounding circumstances, have an efficient, absolute, and irresistible influence over the will, so as in all cases to make it necessarily what it is? This is the real and the only point in the doctrine of motives on which the controversy turns. Necessitarians affirm on this question, and the advocates of free agency deny. We will endeavor impartially to examine the question.

That we may understand the true doctrine concerning the influence of motives on the will, we observe,

1. God the Creator must have possessed within himself the power of action, otherwise creation never could have taken place; for, previous to creation, nothing existed but God, and consequently if he could only act as acted upon by something external to himself, as there was nothing in the universe but himself, he must have remained forever in a state of inaction, and creation could not have originated. Now it must be admitted, either that God has created beings capable of acting without being necessarily acted upon by something external to themselves, or he has not. If he has not, then it will follow that there is but one agent in the universe, and that is God; and angels and men are only patients, no more capable of self-motion than a clod or a stone. This theory at once destroys the distinction between matter and mind, is directly repugnant to the whole tenor of Scripture, and most recklessly subversive of the plainest dictates of common sense! And yet it will appear that it is the only theory consistent with the views of necessitarians on the subject of motives.

Now let us take the opposite position, and suppose, according to common sense and Scripture, that two distinct classes of substances have been created – material and immaterial. In other words, that God has not only created dead, inanimate matter, capable only of moving as it is moved, but that he has also created intelligent beings, endued with self-moving energy, capable, not of themselves, but in the exercise of their derived powers, of voluntary action, independent of external and necessary force, and it will be at once apparent that there is a radical and essential distinction in nature between lifeless matter and these intelligent beings. If this distinction be admitted, which cannot possibly be denied while the voice of common sense or Scripture is allowed to be heard, then it will follow that lifeless matter and intelligent beings are regulated by laws as different as are their essential natures.

Here we find the origin of the grand metaphysical blunder of necessitarians of every school, and of every age. They have made no distinction between matter and mind. The ancient Manichees, the Stoics, the atheistic and deistic philosophers, Spinoza, Hobbes, Voltaire, Hume, and others, have been followed, in this confounding of matter and mind, by many learned and excellent men, such as President Edwards of Princeton, and President Day of Yale College.

Indeed, the whole treatise of Edwards, in which he has written three hundred pages on the human will, is based upon this blunder. His almost interminable chain of metaphysical lore, when clearly seen in all its links, is most palpably an argument in a circle. He assumes that the mind is similar to matter, in order to prove that it can only act as acted upon; and then, because it can only act as acted upon, he infers that, in this respect, the mind, like matter, is governed by necessity. Although he turns the subject over and over, and presents it in an almost endless variety of shape, it all, so far as we can see, amounts to this: The mind, in its volitions, can only act as it is acted upon; therefore the will is necessarily determined. And what is this but to say that the will is necessarily determined, because it is necessarily determined? Can any real distinction be pointed out between the labored argument of Edwards and this proposition? But we shall soon see that this assumed position – that the mind can only act as it is acted upon – is philosophically false, This grand pillar upon which the huge metaphysical edifice has been reared, may be shown to be rotten throughout, yea, it may be snapped asunder by a gentle stroke from the hammer of reason and common sense; and then the edifice, left without foundation, must fall to the ground.

Let us now contemplate these motives which are said to act upon the mind so as necessarily to influence the will. Let us look them full in the face, and ask the question, What are they? Are they intelligent beings, capable of locomotion? Are they endued with a self-moving energy? Yea, more: Are they capable of not only moving themselves, but also of imparting their force to something external to themselves, so as to coerce action in that which could not act without them? If these questions be answered in the negative, then it will follow that motives, considered in themselves, can no more act on the mind so as necessarily to determine the will, than a world can be created by something without existence. If these questions be answered in the affirmative, then it will follow that motives at least are free agents – capable of acting without being acted upon, and endued with self-controlling and self-determining energy. Necessitarians may fall upon either horn of the dilemma; but upon which horn soever they fall, their system must perish.

If the attempt be made to evade this by saying that motives do not act themselves, but God is the agent acting upon man, and determining his will through the instrumentality of motives – if this be the meaning, then I demand, why not call things by their right names? Why attribute the determination of the will to the influence of motives, and at the same time declare that motives are perfectly inefficient, capable of exercising no influence whatever? Is not this fairly giving up the question, and casting “to the moles and to the bats” the revered argument for necessity, founded upon the influence of motives?

Again, to say that motives exercise no active influence, but are only passive instruments in the hands of God by which he determines the will by an immediate energy exerted at the time, is the same as to say that God is the only agent in the universe; that he wills and acts for man; and, by his own direct energy, performs every physical and moral act in the universe, as really and properly as he created the worlds; and then that he will condemn and punish men everlastingly for his own proper acts! Is this the doctrine of philosophical necessity? Truly it is. And well may we say this is fatalism! This is absurdity!

Now, let us turn from the absurdities of the necessitarian scheme, and see if we can perceive the true doctrine on the subject of motives. Suppose, as I pass the street, I perceive in the shop on my right the choicest liquors most invitingly displayed. I am tempted to drink to excess. I parley with the temptation. I long for the delicious wines. I think of the dreadful consequences of inebriety; but then returns my love of strong drink, and I determine in my will to yield myself up to intoxication. Here we perceive an act has been performed by which the will is fixed in a particular way; but the question is, Who is the agent in this act? Necessitarians would say the motive to intoxication has been the active agent, and man has been the passive instrument. But we ask, What motive, or what surrounding circumstance, in this case, has put forth active energy, so as not only to move itself without being acted upon, but also to communicate an irresistible impulse to something external to itself? Can the wines in the bottles exhibit their eloquent tongues, and plead with the passer-by to quaff them? Surely not. They are themselves as passive as the bricks in the wall. Can the love for strong drink assert a separate and independent existence, and rise up as an active agent, independent of the man, and use arguments with the understanding, and coercively determine the will? This is so far from being the case, that these motives have no existence itself, independent of the man. They only derive their existence through the exercise of the active powers of man; and shall it be said that they necessarily control those powers, and even that those powers cannot be exerted except as they are necessarily impelled by motives? Can motives be the cause and the effect in the same sense, at the same time?

The plain truth is, motives do not act themselves at all. It is the mind that acts upon them. They are passive, and only move as they are moved. The mind of man is the active agent that picks the motive up, turns it about, and estimates its weight. This will be rendered somewhat plainer when we reflect that two objects both passive can never act upon each other: some active power must first move the one, or it can never move the other.

Suppose two blocks of marble placed near together in the same room: can the one arise up and impart a direct and resistless influence to the other, so as to cause it necessarily to change its place? Certainly not. And why? Simply because they are both passive. Now, as motives, arguments, and surrounding circumstances, are obviously passive in their nature, incapable of moving themselves, it necessarily follows that if the mind is also passive, the one cannot act upon the other – neither motives upon the mind, nor the mind upon motives. Hence, agreeably to the assertion of necessitarians, that the mind is passive, the will cannot be influenced by motives at all.

The fallacy of the reasoning of Edwards and others on this subject consists in their considering the influence attributed to motives as an independent and active influence, whereas motives are all the time passive, and are really acted upon by the mind, soul, or feelings of man. So far from motives actively determining the will, through the mind or soul, it is the mind or soul that determines the will, and, by its own active energy, gives to motives all the influence they possess.

This is evident from the very nature of motives. What are they? Are they not arguments, reasons, or persuasions? Now, if the mind can exercise no free agency of its own, in attending to arguments, examining reasons, or yielding to persuasions, why address them to man, and exhort him to give them their due weight? The very fact that they are motives, arguments, reasons, or persuasions, is proof sufficient that they are designed to influence the will, not necessarily and irresistibly, but only through the agency of man. So that when we admit that the motive having the greatest influence, at the time and under the circumstances, always prevails – or, in other words, that the prevailing motive always prevails – the question is still before us, Why does it prevail? What gives it the greatest influence? Does it exercise this influence of itself independently? We have already shown that it cannot. What, then, gives it this prevailing influence? It is the free and uncoerced agency of the man himself which determines the influence of the motive, which gives it that influence, and thereby determines the will.

If it still be asked why the mind determines to give to a particular motive a certain influence, and to fix the will accordingly, we reply, the reason is in the mind itself. God has endued us with this power. Without it we could not be moral agents; we could not be accountable; we could no more be rewarded or punished than the earth on which we tread.

We think we have said enough to show that the argument against free agency from the doctrine of motives is fallacious, and alike repugnant to reason, common sense, and Scripture. And whether, in this chapter, we have successfully vindicated the doctrine of free agency from the objections that it is absurd in itself, and inconsistent with the divine prescience, and with the doctrine of motives, we submit to the decision of the reader. (Elements of Divinity, pp. 203-209, Wesleyan Heritage Collection)

Go to Part 1 of This Series


Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 8: Can Free Agency be Harmonized With Divine Foreknowledge?

Thomas Ralston now tackles the necessitarian objection that God’s foreknowledge of our actions renders the power of self-determination impossible.

II. The next grand objection to the doctrine of free agency is, that it is supposed to be irreconcilable with the Scripture account of the divine prescience.

Necessitarians argue that free agency, in the proper sense, implies contingency; and that contingency cannot be reconciled with the divine foreknowledge. It is admitted by Arminians, and the advocates of free agency generally, that the foreknowledge of God extends to all things great and small, whether necessary or contingent – that it is perfect and certain.

The only question is, whether this foreknowledge implies necessity. That whatever God foreknows certainly will take place, we are free to acknowledge; but that this certain foreknowledge implies absolute necessity, is what we deny, and what, we believe, cannot be proved. All the arguments we have seen adduced for that purpose are based upon the supposition that certainty and necessity are synonymous. Now, if we can show that they are separate and distinct things, and that certainty does not imply necessity, the objection under consideration must fall to the ground.

The burden of proof really lies with the one who wants to claim that certainty and necessity amount to the same thing.  It simply cannot be proven as Ralston demonstrates below. Though our minds might have trouble understanding how something can be foreknown and contingent, it is not illogical.  In fact, when knowledge is properly defined and the distinction between certainty and necessity are properly made, it is not even that hard to understand.  All that cannot be fully understood is how exactly God can possess such an ability (to perfectly foreknow the future).  But this is hardly an objection since there is much about God’s power and ability that is far beyond our comprehension, and this is acknowledged by all Christians, whether they be Arminian or Calvinist in theology.

We remark, in the first place, that this objection labors under the serious difficulty that, while it aims to destroy the free agency of man, it really would destroy the free agency of God. For, if whatever is foreknown as certain must also be necessary, and cannot possibly be otherwise, then, as God foreknew from eternity every act that he would perform throughout all duration, he has, all the while, instead of being a free agent, acting after the “counsel of his own will,” been nothing more than a passive machine, acting as acted upon by stern necessity. This conclusion is most horribly revolting; but, according to the argument of necessitarians, it cannot possibly be avoided. And if we are forced to the conclusion that God only acts as impelled by necessity, and can in no case act differently from what he does, then it must follow that necessity or fate made and preserves all things; but is it not obvious that this doctrine of necessity, as applied to the Deity, is most glaringly absurd? To suppose that the great Jehovah, in all his acts, has been impelled by necessity, or, which is the same thing, that he has only moved as he was acted upon, is to suppose the eternal existence of some moving power separate and distinct from the Deity, and superior to him; which would be at once to deny his independence and supremacy. We cannot, then, without the most consummate arrogance and absurdity, admit the position that all the acts of the Deity are brought about by necessity. Yet they are foreknown; and if, as we have seen, God’s foreknowledge of his own acts does not render them necessary, and destroy his free agency, how can it be consistently argued that God’s foreknowledge of the acts of men renders them necessary, and destroys their free agency?

Again, let us contemplate the subject of foreknowledge in relation to the actions of men, and see what evidence we can find that it implies necessity. It has been contended that God cannot foreknow that a future event certainly will take place, unless that event necessarily depends upon something by which it is known. “The only way,” says President Edwards, “by which any thing can be known, is for it to be evident; and if there be any evidence of it, it must be one of these two sorts, either self-evidence or proof: an evident thing must be either evident in itself, or evident in something else.” This he lays down as his premises, from which he proceeds to argue that God cannot foreknow future events, unless they are rendered absolutely necessary. That his premises, and the reasoning based upon them, may hold good in reference to the knowledge of man, we do not question; but that they apply to the foreknowledge of the Deity, cannot be shown.

If man foreknows any thing, that foreknowledge must result from a knowledge of something now existing, between which and the event foreknown there is a necessary connection. But is it legitimate to infer that because this is the case with man, it must also be the case with God? Have we a right to measure the Holy One by ourselves? Indeed, to infer the necessity of all things from the divine prescience, is to limit the perfections of Jehovah. It is to say either that God could not constitute any thing contingent, or that, after having so constituted it, he cannot foreknow it.  Either hypothesis would argue a limitation to the perfections of God.

This subject, we think, may be rendered plain by a careful reflection on the nature of knowledge. What is it? Is it an active power, possessing a distinct independent existence? We answer, No. It is passive in its nature, and possesses only a dependent and relative existence. It can exist only in the mind of an intelligent being. Knowledge, as such, can exert no immediate and active influence on any thing whatever.

It has been said that “knowledge is power;” but it is not implied by that expression that it is a power capable of exerting itself. All that is implied is, that it directs an active agent in the manner of exerting his power. What effect, I would ask, can my knowledge of a past event have upon that event? Surely none at all. What effect can my knowledge of a future event have upon it? Considered in itself, it can have no influence at all. Is there any event, whether past, present, or future, on which the mere knowledge of man can have any influence? Certainly there is none. Knowledge is something existing in the mind. It has its seat there, and of itself it is incapable of walking abroad to act upon extraneous objects. I would therefore ask, What effect can the divine knowledge have on a past or present event? Is it not obvious that it can have none? The knowledge of God does not affect the faithfulness of Abraham, or the treachery of Judas, in the least. Those events would still continue to have occurred precisely as they did, if we could suppose all trace of them to be erased from the divine mind. And if we could suppose that God was not now looking down upon me, could any one believe that I would write with any more or less freedom on that account? Surely not. If, then, knowledge, considered in all these different aspects, is passive in its nature, how can we rationally infer that its passivity is converted into activity so soon as we view it in the aspect of the divine prescience?

But it will doubtless be argued that although the foreknowledge of God may not render future events necessary, yet it proves that they are so. To this we reply, that it proves that they are certain, but cannot prove that they are necessary. But still, it will be asked, where is the difference? If they are certain, must they not therefore be necessary?

That we may illustrate the distinction between certainty and necessity, we will refer to the crime of Judas in betraying the Saviour. Here we would say it was a matter certain in the divine mind, from all eternity, that Judas would commit this crime. God foreknew it. Although it was also foretold, yet it was not rendered any the more certain by that circumstance; for prediction is only knowledge recorded or made manifest; but knowledge is equally certain, whether secret or revealed. The pointed question now is, Could Judas possibly have avoided that crime? Was he still a free agent? and might he have acted differently? or was he impelled by absolute necessity? We answer, he could have avoided the crime. He was still a free agent, and might have acted differently.

Here it will no doubt be argued that if he had avoided the crime, the foreknowledge of God would have been defeated, and the Scriptures broken. To fairly solve this difficulty, and draw the line between certainty and necessity, we answer, that if Judas, in the exercise of the power of free agency with which he was endued, had proved faithful, and avoided the crime in question, neither would the foreknowledge of God have been frustrated, nor the Scriptures broken. In that case, the foreknowledge of God would have been different, accordingly as the subject varied upon which it was exercised. God could not then have foreknown his treachery; and had it not been foreknown, it never could have been predicted. A free agent may falsify a proposition supposed to announce foreknowledge, but cannot falsify foreknowledge; for if the agent should falsify the proposition, that proposition never could have been the announcement of foreknowledge.

The truth is, the prediction depends on the foreknowledge, and the foreknowledge on the event itself. The error of the necessitarians on this subject is, they put the effect for the cause, and the cause for the effect. They make the foreknowledge the cause of the event, whereas the event is the cause of the foreknowledge. No event ever took place merely because God foreknew it; on the contrary, the taking place of the event is the cause of his having foreknown it. Let this distinction be kept in mind, that, in the order of nature, the event does not depend on the knowledge of it, but the knowledge on the event, and we may readily see a distinction between certainty and necessity. It is certain with God who will be saved, and who will not; yet it is likewise certain that salvation is made possible to many who, according to the certain prescience of God, never will embrace it. God has made some things necessary, and some things contingent. Necessary events he foreknew as necessary – that is, he foreknew that they could not possibly take place otherwise. Contingent events he foreknew as contingent – that is, he foreknew that they might take place otherwise. And thus, we think, foreknowledge and free agency may be harmonized, human responsibility maintained, and the divine government successfully vindicated. (Elements of Divinity, pp. 199-203, Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD)

Ralston’s observations on this subject are excellent.  Necessitarians must deny that God can know true contingencies without any Biblical warrant.  They base their arguments on the unfounded philosophical assumption that what is certain must also be necessary.  Ralston proves that this is baseless assertion and to claim otherwise is to make knowledge causative (which can never be proved and is contrary to our own experience of knowledge), make God’s own actions necessitated rather than free, and to reverse the natural order of cause and effect with regards to the event and the knowledge of that event.  Ralston well points out that the event is the basis of knowledge and knowledge is not the basis (and certainly not the cause) of the event.  While God’s knowledge is dependent on the thing known, God is not dependant on the thing known, nor does such knowledge suggest that God then “learns,” for there was never a “time” (so to speak) when God did not fully and perfectly know all things, contingent or otherwise.

In our final post Ralston will deal with the objection to self-determinism on the grounds of motives controlling and thereby necessitating our actions.  The best is yet to come.  

Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 7: Is the Doctrine of Free Agency Absurd?

Thomas Ralston now begins to examine and respond to various objections posed by “necessitarians” against the Arminian view of self-determinism.  

WE propose in this chapter, to examine some of the principal objections which have been urged against the view taken in the preceding chapter of the freedom of the will. Those most worthy of notice are the following, viz.:

I. It is said to be absurd in itself.

II. It is said to be irreconcilable with the Scripture account of the divine prescience.

III. It is said to conflict with the doctrine of motives.

We propose a respectful attention to each of these grand objections.

I. It is alleged that the view we have taken of the proper freedom of the will is absurd in itself.

President Edwards has argued at great length, that the self-active power of the mind in the determination of the will, as contended for by Arminians, is absurd in itself, because it implies a preceding determination of the will to fix each free volition, and that this would imply an infinite series of volitions, which is absurd.

President Day, of Yale College, who seems to be an apt disciple of Edwards, has, in a late work on the Will, highly complimented the treatise of Edwards, as having furnished in this argument an unanswerable refutation of the Arminian notion of freedom. And truly we must say that the position, “that if each active volition is necessarily preceded by another, this would imply an infinite series, and consequently be absurd,” is a matter so obvious, that the numerous pages devoted by the learned author to this subject might have been spared. Indeed, he seems to have labored and proved, to an extent almost beyond endurance, a position which no intelligent mind can dispute. Had he shown the same solicitude for the establishment of his premises, and been equally successful in that particular, there could be no objection to his conclusion.

“…beyond endurance.”  Couldn’t help but chuckle a little at that one.

That the Arminian notion of the self-active power of the mind in determining the will, implies that each volition must be preceded by another volition, is what has been asserted, but has never yet been proved. The advocates of necessity, although they admit that by the self-determining power of the will is meant “the soul in the exercise of a power of willing,” yet, when they engage in argument, appear to forget this admission, and proceed as though the will were supposed to be an agent separate and distinct from the mind or soul in the act of willing. Hence they involve the discussion in confusion, and bewilder the mind in a maze of verbal contradiction and absurdity. In every act of the will, let it be distinctly understood that the mind or soul is the agent, and the will is only expressive of the act or state of the mind or soul at the time and under the condition, of willing.

Now let us inquire if every act of the soul in willing must, according to the Arminian notion of freedom, be preceded by another act of the soul in willing. Why is it that there can be no choice or act of willing performed by the mind itself, unless it is preceded by another act that determines it? Surely a choice preceded by another choice which determines it, is no choice at all; and to say that every free act, or self-determined act, must be preceded by another, by which it is determined, is the same as to say that there can be no free, or self-determined act. And this is the very point in dispute that ought to be proved, and not taken for granted. Indeed, we may directly deny it, and make our appeal to common sense to sustain us in the position.

For illustration, we refer to the first vicious choice ever made by man. Now, let us contemplate the history of this matter as it really transpired. The tempter came to man for the first time, and presented the seducing bait. Man willed to disobey. Here we see but one act of the mind. There is not an act determining to choose the evil, and then another consequent act choosing the evil. The act determining to choose is really choosing. Determining to choose in a certain way, and choosing in that way, [is] the same thing. Now to say that Adam could not, in the exercise of his own powers, independent of a predetermining cause operating upon him, choose between the evil and the good, is the same as to say that God could not make a free agent.

Indeed to say that a choice free from the necessary determination of a preexisting cause cannot exist, is the same as to say that there is not a free agent in the universe, and that the Deity himself cannot possess self-determining power, but is only acted upon by the impulse of fatality. If the Deity cannot choose or will without something external to himself determining his will, where are his self-existence and independence? For, if the divine will is always determined by something external to the divine mind that wills, then there must be something existing prior to all the divine volitions, separate and distinct from the Deity himself.

Again: if it be admitted that the divine mind can will or choose freely without being acted upon by a preceding choice, then it follows that it is not absurd in itself for the mind to determine its own acts, independent of necessary preceding causes. If it be admitted that the Deity can will by the free exercise of his own powers, then the only question will be, Can he confer this exalted power upon a creature? If we deny that he possesses it himself, we destroy his self-existence and independence. If we deny his ability to confer this power upon a creature, we deny his omnipotence.

Then the whole question concerning the absurdity of the Arminian doctrine of the self-determining power of the will, resolves itself into a question concerning the divine power. Necessitarians contend that God cannot create a free, self-determining agent; and Arminians deny the assertion, and appeal to the self-existence and independence of the Deity to disprove the absurdity in the case; and rely upon the omnipotence of God to prove that the creation of moral agents in the divine image, so far as the self-determining power of the mind is concerned, is not impossible. To say that God cannot make a free agent capable of determining within himself his own volitions, is to limit the divine power.

This is a very strong point against anyone who objects to LFW on logical grounds.  The only way to sustain the objection is to say that God can do what is incoherent, or that God cannot possess LFW which would make God’s actions necessitated in the same way that ours are.  If it is admitted that God can act freely without being necessitated, then there is no reason to believe that God cannot create mankind with the same ability.  If God can act freely then it is not illogical to think that we can as well.  There is no reason to assume that God’s free will is a part of the divine character that cannot be passed on to His creation, and there is certainly no Biblical evidence against God being able to endow His creatures with a measure of free will.

But Edwards again contends that “this self-determining power of the will implies the absurdity of an effect without a cause.” We deny the charge. We are not obliged to admit that because the will is not determined in every case by a preceding act of the will, or some previous cause external to the mind itself, that therefore there is no cause in the case. By no means. If the mind wills one way instead of another, there must be a cause for it; but that cause must not necessarily be either preceding or external, as necessitarians contend. It may be both simultaneous and internal – that is, it may originate in the mind itself at the time of willing.

If it be said that “then the mind itself must be the cause of its own volitions, and if so, there must always be a previous something in the mind to determine it to will in one way instead of another,” we reply, truly the mind is the cause of its own volitions, to such extent that they are not necessarily determined independently of its own action; but it does not follow that there must be something previously existing in the mind, necessarily determining it to choose as it does. All the previously existing cause essential in the case is, the capacity of the mind, in the exercise of its powers, to will at the time, either the one way or the other. If the causative power exists in the agent or mind to effectuate either one of two or more events or volitions, it matters not which one of these events or volitions may be produced, it will be as truly the resultant of an adequate cause as if the agent or mind had possessed no alternative power for producing another event or volition, instead of the one it did produce. Hence it is unphilosophical to say that a volition is uncaused, because the agent causing it had power to have caused another volition instead thereof. Our own consciousness testifies that we have the alternative power of willing or doing right or wrong; and our willing or doing either way does not prove that we might not have willed or done otherwise. In the exercise of this capacity, upon the principles of free agency, and not impelled by stern necessity, the particular will in a given case originates; and thus we see how it was in the case given of the first transgression.

Man had been endued with the power to choose, or to control, his own will. The tempter came: in the exercise of that power, man chose the evil. Here the cause was in himself, and originated in, and flowed from, the manner in which he exercised his powers. This manner of exercising his powers resulted, not necessarily, but contingently, from the nature of the powers themselves. He might have exercised them differently. The cause, or the determining power, was in himself. God placed it there; and for God to place it there to be exercised contingently for good or evil, implies no more absurdity, so far as we can see, than for God to have placed the cause in something preceding, external, and necessary. And thus we think the doctrine of free agency is successfully vindicated from the charge of absurdity and self-contradiction. So far from being absurd in itself, it presents the only consistent illustration of the divine attributes, and the only satisfactory comment upon the divine administration. (Elements of Divinity, pp. 196-199  Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD)

In our next post Ralston will tackle the objection that self-determinism is incompatible with exhaustive foreknowledge.

Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 6: Conclusions to the Positive Argument

Thomas Ralston now concludes his positive arguments in favor of self-determinism:

(4) In conclusion, upon this part of the subject, we think it proper briefly to notice the absurdity of attempting to reconcile the doctrines of necessity with the proper freedom and accountability of man.

This, President Edwards and many others have labored hard to accomplish. They have contended that, although the will is irresistibly fixed by necessity, yet man is properly a free and accountable moral agent, merely because he has a will, acts voluntarily, and is not, by natural force, constrained to go contrary to his will. The names by which things are called cannot, in the least, alter their nature. Hence, to load man with the ennobling epithets of moral agency, freedom, liberty, accountability, etc., while we bind him fast with the cords of necessity, can never tend in the least to slacken those cords, or to mend his condition.

To say that a man enjoys freedom merely because he has liberty to obey his will, when that will is fixed by necessity, is as absurd as to contend that a man enjoys freedom in a civil sense merely because he is at liberty to obey the laws under which he is placed, when those laws are enacted by a cruel tyrant over whom he has no control, and are only a collection of bloody edicts. Would any man contend that because he had the privilege of acting according to such a system of laws, thus arbitrarily imposed upon him, he was therefore in the enjoyment of freedom in the most rational sense? Far from it. And why? Simply because the oppressed subject would require an agency in making those laws. So long as this is denied him, and he feels upon his neck the galling yoke of tyranny, in vain might you endeavor to solace him by enlarging upon his exalted privilege of obeying the law. You might assure him that no natural force could constrain him to go contrary to the law, and that consequently he is possessed of freedom in the proper sense, but all would be in vain. He would only feel that you were mocking at his chains!

We now appeal to the candid mind to determine if this is not precisely the kind of moral freedom which President Edwards allows to man, on account of which he strongly pleads that he is properly a free agent and justly accountable. Most unquestionably it is. He contends that man is a free moral agent because he may do as he wills, when his will is as unalterably fixed by necessity as the pillars of heaven. Such liberty as the above can no more render its possessor a free, accountable moral agent, than that possessed by a block or a stone.

Indeed, there is no difference between the liberty attributed to man by the learned President of Princeton College, and that possessed by a block of marble as it falls to the earth when let loose from the top of a tower. We may call the man free because he may act according to his will or inclination, while that will is determined by necessity; but has not the marble precisely the same freedom? It has perfect liberty to fall; it is not constrained by natural force to move in any other direction. If it falls necessarily, even so, on the principle of Edwards, man acts necessarily. If it be said that the marble cannot avoid falling as it does, even so man cannot avoid acting according to his will, just as he does. If it be said that he has no disposition, and makes no effort, to act contrary to his will, even so the marble has no inclination to fall in any other direction than it does. The marble moves freely, because it has no inclination to move otherwise; but it moves necessarily, because irresistibly impelled by the law of gravitation.  Just so man acts freely, because he acts according to his will; but he acts necessarily, because he can no more change his will than he can make a world.

And thus it is plain that, although necessitarians may say they believe in free agency and man’s accountability, it is a freedom just such as pertains to lifeless matter. If, according to Edwards, man is free, and justly accountable for his actions merely because he acts according to his own will, when he has no control over that will, upon the same principle the maniac would be a free, accountable agent. If, in a paroxysm of madness, he murders his father, he acts according to his will. It is a voluntary act, and necessitarians cannot excuse him because his will was not under his own control; for, in the view of their system, it was as much so as the will of any man in any case possibly can be. The truth is, it is an abuse of language to call that freedom which binds fast in the chains of necessity. Acting voluntarily amounts to no liberty at all, if I cannot possibly act otherwise than I do.

The question is, not whether I have a will, nor whether I may act according to my will, but What determines the will? This is the point to be settled in the question of free agency. It is admitted that the will controls the actions; but who controls the will? As the will controls the actions, it necessarily follows that whoever controls the will must be accountable for the actions.  Whoever controls the will must be the proper author of all that necessarily results from it, and consequently should be held accountable for the same. But man, say necessitarians, has no control whatever over his will. It is fixed by necessity just as it is, so that it could no more be otherwise than the effect could cease to result from the cause.

According to this, we may talk as we may about free agency, the liberty of the will, accountability, etc., but man, after all the embellishment we can impart, is a free, accountable agent, just in the same sense as the most insignificant particle of lifeless matter. Here we will close the present chapter by calling to mind what we have endeavored to exhibit.

1. We have endeavored to explain what is implied in the proper free moral agency of man.

2. We have endeavored to establish that doctrine by the evidence of consciousness; by an observation of the history of the world; and by an appeal to the divine administration as set forth in the Scriptures. Let the reader decide. (Weslyan Heritage Collection CD, Elements of Divinity,  pp. 193-194)

It is hard to improve on Ralston’s critique.  He has effectively pushed back the curtain and revealed that the “wizard” is nothing more than illusion and clever sophistry.  It is one thing to deny genuine free agency and embrace determinism, but it is an abuse of language and an insult to human intelligence to pretend that determinism is compatible with responsibility and accountability.  Having concluded his positive argument for self-determinism, Ralston will now focus on tackling the objections and arguments put forth by the necessetarians against the reasonableness of man’s free agency as Ralston has defined and defended it.  Stay tuned because Thomas Ralston is really just getting started and the best is yet to come…

Go to Part 7



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.

Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 4: God’s Divine Administration

Thomas Ralston begins his appeal to Scripture with his third evidence for self-determinism in his Elements of Divinity:

3. Our third evidence of man’s proper free agency is founded upon the divine administration toward him, as exhibited in the Holy Scriptures.

Here we shall perceive that revelation beautifully harmonizes with nature; and those clear and decisive evidences of our free agency, which, as we have seen, are derived from experience and observation, are abundantly confirmed by the book of God.

(1) We see this, first, in contemplation of the condition in which man was placed immediately after his creation. A moral law was given him to keep, and a severe penalty annexed to its transgression. Upon the supposition that man was not made a free agent, God must have known it; and if so, under these circumstances to have given him a moral law for the government of his actions, would have been inconsistent with the divine wisdom; for a moral law, commanding what is right and prohibiting what is wrong, can only be adapted to beings capable of doing both right and wrong.

Suppose, when the Almighty created man capable of walking erect upon the earth, but incapable of flying in the air like the fowls of heaven, he had given him a law forbidding him to walk, and commanding him to fly, every intelligent being would at once perceive the folly of such a statute. And wherefore? Simply because man has no power to fly, and therefore to command him to do so must be perfectly useless. But suppose, in addition to the command requiring an impossibility, the severest penalty had been annexed to its violation, the administration would not only be charged with folly, but it would be stamped with cruelty of the deepest dye. Suppose again, that, circumstanced as man was in his creation, the law of God had commanded him to breathe the surrounding atmosphere, and to permit the blood to circulate in his veins, and a glorious promise of reward had been annexed to obedience. In this case, also, the law would universally be pronounced an evidence of folly in the Lawgiver; and why so? Because obedience flows naturally from the constitution of man. He can no more avoid it than a leaden ball let loose from the hand can avoid the influence of gravitation. In the former supposition, obedience was impossible, for man can no more fly than he can create a world; in the latter, disobedience is impossible, for man can no more prevent the circulation of his blood than he can stop the sun in his course. But in both cases the administration is marked with folly. Thus it is seen that a moral law can only be given to a being capable of both right and wrong. Hence, as God gave man a moral law for the government of his actions, he must have been a free moral agent, capable alike of obedience and of disobedience.

We think it impossible for the unbiased mind to read the history of the creation and fall of man, and not feel that in that case God treated him as a free moral agent. Upon the supposition that the will, and all the actions of man, are necessarily determined by the operation of causes over which he has no control, (according to the principles of necessity,) the administration of God, in the history of the fall of man, is represented as more silly and cruel than ever disgraced the reign of the meanest earthly tyrant! Against the administration of the righteous Governor of the universe, shall such foul charges be brought? Forbid it, reason! Forbid it, truth! Forbid it, Scripture!

Can a rational man believe that God would so constitute Adam in paradise as to make his eating of the forbidden fruit result as necessarily from his unavoidable condition as any effect from its cause, and then, with a pretense of justice, and a claim to goodness, say, “In the day thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die”? Surely, most surely, not. The whole history of the Fall, in the light of reason, of common sense, and in view of all that we know of the divine character and government, proclaims, in language clear and forcible, the doctrine of man’s free moral agency. (pp. 188-189)

In fact, the only way for determinism to remain consistent is to admit that God caused Adam to sin and then visited punishment on him and all creation for doing the very thing that God ordained him to do.  Some Calvinists will say that Adam had the power of self-determination while his posterity lost that constitution in the fall, but this destroys other cherished Calvinist doctrines.  If this were the case then the Calvinist must admit that God could foreknow Adam’s free choice without rendering it necessary by way of divine decree which would land them squarely in the Arminian camp with regards to God’s ability to foreknow true contingencies.

If Calvinists want to deny that God can know anything that He did not Himself ordain and therefore render necessary, then the blame for Adam’s transgression must rest squarely on God.  God did not “permit” the fall in Calvinism because permission is the language of libertarian freedom.  If God did not permit the fall then only one thing remains: He caused it and is therefore the author of sin.  More than that he is the only sinner since He is the only true actor in the universe if the power of self-determination is completely denied.  He then punishes His creatures with eternal torments for doing the very thing that God ordained for them to do.  Ralston well said: “Forbid it, reason! Forbid it, truth! Forbid it, Scripture!”

Go to Part 5