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John Locke and Jonathan Edwards: A Reconsideration
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John Locke and Jonathan Edwards:
A Reconsideration

There is no doubt that Locke's Essay was a major factor in the philosophical development of Jonathan Edwards. In the Freedom of the Will he freely uses material from Locke's chapter "Of the Idea of Power" (Book II, Ch. 21), though he amends Locke's doctrine where he sees fit; in the Religious Affections he equally freely used Lockean notions while never explicitly quoting or referring to Locke. In this paper I want to argue, on philosophical grounds, that this undoubted influence is subject to important qualifications.1 Edwards was not an empiricist, and it is too much to say that his philosophy was Locke-inspired; he draws on arguments from "the new way of ideas" only when these serve his wider aims.


In the Freedom of the Will Edwards was engaged in open polemic. He wanted to rebut the then-fashionable Arminian view that a man's will was self-determined. Current interpretation of Edwards claims that in order to do this Edwards argued on two fronts: (1) He employed Lockean psychology (somewhat modified), arguing that the will must follow the greatest desire, that volitions were the causal outcome of the greatest motive. (2) He used logic, particularly the infinite regress argument showing that "if the will determines its own first act, then there must be an act of the will before that first act (for the determining is acting), which is a contradiction."2 I want to argue that the overall effectiveness of Edwards' argument cannot be appreciated without taking account of another factor, the "theistic paradigms"3 of virtue that Edwards finds in the moral necessity of God's will and of Christ's.

The references to these matters in the Freedom of the Will cannot be dismissed as dated biblical intrusions, where Edwards the philosopher lapses into Edwards the revivalist; they are essential to his argument in the book. I want now to give [End Page 51] an account of these paradigms, and to show how they figure in Edwards' overall case.


Edwards' exposition of what I have called the paradigms occurs in two main contexts in the Freedom of the Will, in Sections 1, 2, and 3 of Part III, and Sections 7 and 8 of Part IV, though a case could be made out for also including Sections 11 and 12 of Part II. The sections in Part III contribute to Edwards' enquiry as to whether "Any Such Liberty of Will as Arminians Hold, be Necessary to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Praise and Dispraise, etc." That is, they form part of a quite general argument, part of Edwards' overall polemic, and are not merely incidental illustrations. For if Edwards cannot show that Arminian liberty is not necessary to moral agency, then his argument, whatever his earlier Lockean triumphs, will fail to impress his Arminian readership, and he will be open to the charge of not making out his own case while at the same time having shown the Arminian view of the will to be incoherent. (The full title of Edwards' Freedom of the Will must be constantly borne in mind—... that Freedom of Will which is supposed to be essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice. . . ." Hence it is incumbent on Edwards to show the compatibility of determinism and "Moral Agency," not just the logical incoherence of self-determination.)

So Edwards shows (1) that God is morally excellent yet that that excellence is necessary. By "necessary" Edwards does not mean logically necessary but morally necessary, i.e., God "can't avoid being holy and good as he is"4 in the same way that the virtuous woman cannot avoid refraining from committing adultery.5 By this Edwards appears to mean that a morally virtuous person cannot voluntarily will to be vicious, he is morally unable to be vicious. This is not the place to question Edwards' use of "necessary" in this connection, only to note it. God's character is of such a sort that he cannot will to be unholy yet he is "the most perfect pattern of virtue."6

By this appeal Edwards hopes to be able...