Free Will– As Percieved in the 18th Century

The concept of free will, as it was understood in eighteenth century British America, can be a very difficult concept for contemporary students of the subject to grasp at first. Indeed, it is a very foreign-sounding concept given what we think of as free will today (which, arguably, is the result of the historical victory of Arminianism over orthodox Calvinism).

The thing to remember is that free will is not the same thing as “doing whatever you want.” For the Orthodox eighteenth-century Calvinist, free will is the tendency of the Will to do, at any given moment, that which is the greatest apparent good. As Jonathan Edwards puts it, “The Will always is as the greatest apparent good.”

Choice is nominally at issue, because no sane person would willingly choose that which was the greatest apparent wrong. While a wrong effect might end up being the action of an individual Will, it is only because in the immediate moment that wrong _seemed_ the best apparent good at the time. So situation and state of mind also play a role in the operation of the will. That is, a sinful mind (which all humans inherently possess) is the precondition for the choices of the will prior to conversion.

As Jonathan Edwards further said, “…it must be carefully observed…that I speak of the _direct_ and _immediate_ object of the act of volition; and not some object to which the act of will has only an indirect and remote aspect.”

So when it comes to the conversion experience, the concept of irresistible grace is justified for a Free Agent through this theory of free will. The thinking goes like this:

1) God is the greatest possible good.
2) No human is capable of attaining, on his or her own, the goodness of God or even comprehending it intellectually.
3) The presence of God is, therefore, necessary to the initiation of conversion.
4) Once the human will is confronted with the presence of God, the Will, by necessity, will chose to abandon sin and embrace the greatest possible good–i.e. God.

** How might we apply these concepts, as they were understood in the 18th and 19th century, to the literature we have been reading this semester?