Systematic Theology - Volume II
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§ 2. Definition of Terms.

Before proceeding to give an outline of the usual arguments in support of this doctrine, it is important to state the meaning of the words employed. No one in the least conversant with discussions of this nature can have failed to remark how much difficulty arises from the ambiguity of the terms employed, and how often men appear to differ in doctrine, when in fact they only differ in language.

The Will.

First, the word will itself is one of those ambiguous terms. Ii is sometimes used in a wide sense, so as to include all the desires, affections, and even emotions. It has this comprehensive sense when all the faculties of the soul are said to be included under the two categories of understanding and will. Everything, therefore, pertaining to the soul, that does not belong to the former, is said to belong to the latter. All liking and disliking, all preferring, all inclination and disinclination, are in this sense acts of the will. At other times, the word is used for the power of self-determination, or for that faculty by which we decide on our acts. In this sense only purposes and imperative volitions are acts of the will. It is obvious that if a writer affirms the liberty of the will in the latter sense, and his reader takes the word in the former, the one can never understand the other. Or if the same writer sometimes uses the word in its wide and sometimes in its narrow sense, he will inevitably mislead himself and others. To say that we have power over our volitions, and to say that we have power over our desires are entirely different things. One of these propositions may be affirmed and the other denied; but if will and desire are confounded the distinction between these propositions is obliterated. It has often been remarked that the confusion of these two meanings of the word will is the great defect of President Edwards’s celebrated work. He starts with a definition of the term, which makes it include all preferring, choosing, being pleased or displeased with, liking and disliking, and advocates a theory which is true, and applicable only to the will in the restricted sense of the word.


Secondly, The word motive is often taken in different senses. It is defined to be anything which has a tendency to move the mind. Any object adapted to awaken desire or affection; any truth or conception which is suited to influence a rational and sensitive being to a decision, is said to be a motive. This is what is called the objective sense of the word. In this sense it is very far from being true that the will is always determined by the strongest motive. The most important truths, the most weighty considerations, the most alluring objects, are often powerless, so far as the internal state of the mind is concerned. The word, however, is often used in a subjective sense, for those inward convictions, feelings, inclinations, and principles which are in the mind itself, and which impel or influence the man to decide one way rather than another. It is only in this sense of the term that the will is determined by the strongest motive. But even then it must be admitted, as before remarked, that we have no criterion or standard by which to determine the relative strength of motives, other than their actual effect. So that to say that the will is determined by the strongest motive, only means that it is not self-determined, but that in every rational volition the man is influenced to decide one way rather than another, by something within him, so that the volition is a revelation of what he himself is.


Thirdly, The word cause is no less ambiguous. It sometimes means the mere occasion; sometimes the instrument by which something is accomplished; sometimes the efficiency to which the effect is due; sometimes the end for which a thing is done, as when we speak of final causes; sometimes the ground or reason why the effect or action of the efficient cause is so rather than otherwise. To say that motives are the occasional causes of volition, is consistent with any theory of agency, whether of necessity or indifference; to say that they are efficient causes, is to transfer the efficiency of the agent to the motives; but to say that they are the ground or reason why the volitions are what they are, is only to say that every rational being, in every voluntary act, must have a reason, good or bad, for acting as he does. Most of the arguments against the statement that motives are the cause of volitions, are founded on the assumption that they are affirmed to be producing causes, and that it is intended to deny that the agent is the efficient cause of his own acts; whereas, the meaning simply is that motives are the reasons which determine the agent to assert his efficiency in one way rather than another. They are, however, truly causes, in so far as they determine the effect to be thus, and not otherwise. Parental love may induce a mother to watch by a sick child, and in this sense is the cause of her devotion, but she is none the less the efficient cause of all her acts of tenderness. Reid says, “either the man is the cause of the action. and then it is a free action, and is justly imputed to him, or it must have another cause, and cannot justly be imputed to the man.”262262Active Powers, Essay iv. ch. ix.; Works, Edinburgh, 1849, p. 625. This supposes that the word cause has but one sense. In the case just supposed, the mother is the efficient, her love the rational cause or reason of her acts. Is it a denial of her free agency to say that her love determined her will in favour of attention instead of neglect?


Fourthly, No little ambiguity arises from confounding liberty of the will with liberty of the agent. These forms of expression are often used as equivalent. The same thing is perhaps commonly intended by saying, “The will is free,” and “The agent is free.” It is admitted that the same thought may be properly expressed by these phrases. As we speak of freedom of conscience, when we mean to say that the man is free as to his conscience; so we may speak of freedom of the will, when all we mean is, that the man is free in willing. The usage, however, which makes these expressions synonymous is liable to the following objections: (1.) Predicating liberty of the will is apt to lead to our conceiving of the will as separated from the agent; as a distinct self-acting power in the soul. Or, if this extreme be avoided, which is not always the case, the will is regarded as too much detached from the other faculties of the soul, and as out of sympathy with it in its varying stales. The will is only the soul willing. The soul is of course a unit. A self-determination is a determination of the will, and whatever leads to a self-decision leads to a decision of the will. (2.) A second objection to confounding these expressions is, that they are not really equivalent. The man may be free, when his will is in bondage. It is a correct and established usage of language, expressive of a real fact of consciousness, to speak of an enslaved will in a free agent. This is not a mere metaphor, but a philosophical truth. He that commits sin is the servant of sin. Long-continued mental or bodily habits may bring the will into bondage, while the man continues a free agent. A man who has been for years a miser, has his will in a state of slavery, yet the man is perfectly free. He is self-controlled, self-determined. His avarice is himself. It is his own darling, cherished feeling. (3.) There is no use to have two expressions for the same thing; the one appropriate, the other ambiguous. What we really mean is, that the agent is free. That is the only point to which any interest is attached. The man is the responsible subject. If he be free so as to be justly account able for his character and conduct, it matters not what are the laws which determine the operations of his reason, conscience, or will; or whether liberty can be predicated of either of those faculties separately considered. We maintain that the man is free; but we deny that the will is free in the sense of being independent of reason, conscience, and feeling. In other words, a man cannot be independent of himself, or any one of his faculties independent of all the rest.

Liberty and Ability.

Fifthly, Another fruitful source of confusion on this subject, is confounding liberty with ability. The usage which attaches the same meaning to these terms is very ancient. Augustine denied free will to man since the fall. Pelagius affirmed freedom of will to be essential to our nature. The former intended simply to deny to fallen man the power to turn himself unto God. The latter defined liberty to be the ability at any moment to determine himself either for good or evil. The controversy between Luther and Erasmus was really about ability, nominally it was about free-will. Luther’s book is entitled “De Servo Arbitrio,” that of Erasmus, “De Libero Arbitrio.” This usage pervades all the symbols of the Reformation, and was followed by the theologians of the sixteenth century. They all ascribe free agency to man in the true sense of the words, but deny to him freedom of will. To a great extent this confusion is still kept up. Many of the prevalent definitions of liberty are definitions of liberty are definitions of ability; and much that is commonly advanced to prove the liberty of the will, is really intended, and is of force only as in support of the doctrine of ability. Jacobi denies liberty to be the power to decide in favour of the dictates of reason in opposition to the solicitations of sense. Bretschneider says it is the power to decide according to reason. Augustine, and after him most Augustinians distinguished, (1.) The liberty of man before the fall, which was an ability either to sin or not to sin. (2.) The state of man since the fall, when he has liberty to sin, but not to good. (3.) The state of man in heaven when he has liberty to good, but not to evil. This last is the highest form of liberty, a felix necessitas boni. This is the liberty which belongs to God. In the popular mind perhaps the common idea of liberty is, the power to decide for good or evil, sin or holiness. This idea pervades more or less all the disquisitions in favour of the liberty of indifference, or of power to the contrary. The essence of liberty in a moral accountable being, according to Reid, is the power to do what he is accountable for. So Cousin, Jouffroy, Tappan, and this whole class of writers, make liberty and ability synonymous. The last-mentioned author, when speaking of the distinction between natural and moral inability, says, “when we have denied liberty in denying a self-determining power, these definitions, in order to make out a quasi liberty and ability, are nothing but ingenious folly and plausible deception.”263263Review of Edwards, edit. New York, 1839, pp. 164, 165. Here liberty and ability are avowedly used as convertible terms.

Other writers who do not ignore the distinction between liberty and ability, yet distinguish them only as different forms of liberty. This is the case with many of the German authors. As for example with Müller, who distinguishes the Formale Freiheit, or ability, from the Reale Freiheit, or liberty as it actually exists. The former is only necessary as the condition of the latter. That is, he admits, that if a man’s acts are certainly determined by his character, he is really free. But in order to render him justly responsible for his character, it must be self-acquired.264264“Frei ist ein Wesen inwiefern die innere Mitte seines Lebens aus der heraus es wirkt und thätig ist, durch Selbstbestimmung bedingt ist.” Lehre von der Sünde, vol. ii. p. 72. He elsewhere defines liberty to be the power of self-development. “Freiheit ist Macht aus sich zu werden.” p. 62. This is confounding things which are not only distinct, but which are admitted to be distinct. It is admitted by this class of writers, and, indeed, by the whole Christian world, that men since the fall have not power to make themselves holy; much less to effect this transformation by a volition. It is admitted that saints in glory are infallibly determined by their character to holiness, yet fallen men and saints are admitted to be free. Ability may be lost, yet liberty remain. The former is lost since the fall. Restored by grace, as they say, it is to be again lost in that liberty to good which is identical with necessity. If liberty and ability are thus distinct, why should they be confounded? We are conscious of liberty. We know ourselves to be free in all our volitions. They reveal themselves to our inmost consciousness as acts of self-determination. We cannot disown them, or escape responsibility on account of them, even if we try; and yet no man is conscious of ability to change his own heart. Free agency belongs to God, to angels, to saints in glory, to fallen men, and to Satan; and it is the same in all. Yet in the strictest sense of the words, God cannot do evil; neither can Satan recover, by a volition, his lost inheritance of holiness. It is a great evil thus to confound things essentially distinct. It produces endless confusion. Augustine says, man is not free since the fall, because he cannot but sin; saints are free because they cannot sin. Inability in the one case destroys freedom; inability in the other is the perfection of freedom! Necessity is the very opposite of liberty, and yet they are said to be identical. One man in asserting the freedom of the will, means to assert free agency, while he denies ability; another means by it full ability. It is certainly important that the same words should not be used to express antagonistic ideas.

Confusion of thought and language, however, is not the principal evil which arises from making liberty and ability identical. It necessarily brings us into conflict with the truth, and with the moral judgments of men. There are three truths of which every man is convinced from the very constitution of his nature. (1.) That he is a free agent. (2.) That none but free agents can be accountable for their character or conduct. (3.) That he does not possess ability to change his moral state by an act of the will. Now, if in order to express the fact of his inability, we say, that he is not a free agent, we contradict his consciousness; or, if he believe what we say, we destroy his sense of responsibility. Or it we tell him that because he is a free agent, he has power to change his heart at will, we again bring ourselves into conflict with his convictions. He knows he is a free agent, and yet he knows that he has not the power to make himself holy. Free agency is the power to decide according to our character; ability is the power to change our character by a volition. The former, the Bible and consciousness affirm belongs to man in every condition of his being the latter, the Bible and consciousness teach with equal explicitness does not belong to fallen man. The two things, therefore, ought not to be confounded.

Self-determination and Self-determination of the Will.

Sixthly, Another source of confusion is not discriminating between self-determination and self-determination of the will. Those who use the latter expression, say they intend to deny that the will is determined by the antecedent state of the mind, and to affirm that it has a self-determining power, independent of anything preexisting or coëxisting. They say that those who teach that when the state of the mind is the same, the volition will inevitably be the same, teach necessity and fatalism, and reduce the will to a machine. “I know,” says Reid, “nothing more that can be desired to establish fatalism throughout the universe. When it is proved that, through all nature, the same consequences invariably result from the same circumstances, the doctrine of liberty must be given up.”265265It may be well to remark, in passing, how uniformly writers of the school to which Reid belongs, identify certainty and necessity, so long as they argue against an opponent. In the passage above quoted, it is not that the will is determined by necessity, or by a cause out of the mind, but simply that the same decisions “invariably” occur in the same circumstances, that is declared to be fatalism. The opposite doctrine is, that the will is “self-moved; it makes its nisus of itself, and of itself it forbears to make it, and within the sphere of its activity, and in relation to its objects, it has the power of selecting, by a mere arbitrary act, any particular object. It is a cause all whose acts, as well as any particular act, considered as phenomena demanding a cause, are accounted for in itself alone.”266266Tappan’s Review of Edwards, edit. New York, 1839, p. 223. Thus, if it be asked why the will decides one way rather than another, the reason is to be sought in its self-determining power. It can by an arbitrary act, choose or not choose, choose one way or another, without a motive or with a motive, for or against any or all influences brought to bear upon it. But when these writers come to prove their case, it turns out that this is not at all what they mean. It is not the self-determining power of the will, but the self-determining power of the agent that they are contending for. Reid says that all that is involved in free agency is that man is an agent, the author of his own acts or that we are “efficient causes in our deliberate and voluntary actions.”267267Active Powers, Essay v. ch. 2; Works, Edinburgh, 1849, p. 603. “To say that man is a free agent, is no more than to say that, in some instances, he is truly an agent and a cause, and is not merely acted upon as a passive instrument.”268268Active Powers, Essay iv. ch. 3; Works, p. 607. Dr. Samuel Clarke, in his controversy with Leibnitz, says, “the power of self-motion or action, which, in all animate agents, is spontaneity, is, in moral or rational agents, what we properly call liberty.” Again, he says, “the true definition of liberty is the power to act.” Now, as all the advocates of the doctrine of moral certainty admit self-determination of the agent, and deny the self-determining power of the will, the greatest confusion must follow from confounding these two things; and, besides this, undue advantage is thereby secured for the doctrine of the self-determining power of the will, by arguments which prove only self-determination, which every man admits. On the other hand unfair prejudice is created against the truth by representing it as denying the power of self-determination, when it only denies the self-determining power of the will. Thus President Edwards is constantly represented as denying that volitions are self-determinations, or that the mind is the efficient cause of its own acts, or that man is an agent, because he wrote against the self-determining power of the will as taught by Clarke and Whitby. These two things ought not to be confounded, because they are really distinct. When we say that an agent is self-determined, we say two things. (1.) That he is the author or efficient cause of his own act. (2.) That the grounds or reasons of his determination are within himself. He is determined by what constitutes him at the moment a particular individual, his feelings, principles, character, dispositions; and not by any ab extra or coercive influence. But when we say that the will is self-determined, we separate it from the other constituents of the man, as an independent power, and on the one hand, deny that it is determined by anything in the man; and on the other, affirm that it determines itself by an inherent self-moving, arbitrary power. In this case the volition ceases to be a decision of the agent, for it may be contrary to that agent’s whole character, principles, inclinations, feelings, convictions, or whatever else makes him what he is.

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