Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) was a major 18th century theologian who, though rooted in Reformed theology, innovated in some important ways. According to J. V. Fesko, in The Theology of the Westminster Standards (chapter 4), one of these areas was Edwards's belief in philosophical necessity, which Fesko explains:

Nothing, according to Edwards, can occur without a cause, and there is a "fixed connection" between cause and effect. For Edwards, if everything has a cause, there can be no contingency in the world. For him, contingency means that something has no cause.

Thus, says Fesko, Edwards denies the idea of contingency. But this seems to deviate from the Westminster Confession of Faith, 3.1:

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Fesko mentions one author, William Cunningham, who "argued that Edwards's views were compatible with the teaching of the Reformers and the Westminster Standards." But Fesko lays out the case against compatibility in more detail, and concludes that "the Confession does not teach philosophical determinism (or necessity) and does affirm contingency."

I don't believe that Edwards subscribed to the Westminster Confession, so a lack of compatibility isn't necessarily surprising. But I'd like to better understand how Edwards's view differs from that of the Westminster Confession, and how, in the eyes of some, they can be reconciled.

1 Answer 1


A refutation of Dr. Whitby's: Discourses on the 5 Points (1710). Calvinist/Arminian Debate:

"Dr. Whitby asserts freedom, not only from coaction, but Necessity, to be essential to any thing deserving the name of sin, and to an action being culpable; in these words, (Discourse on Five Points, edit. 3. p. 348.) “If they be thus necessitated, then neither their sins of omission or commission could deserve that name: it being essential to the nature of sin, according to St. Austin’s definition, that it be an action a quo liberum est abstinere. Three things seem plainly necessary to make an action or omission culpable; 1. That it be in our power to perform or forbear it: for, as Origen, and all the fathers, say, no man is blameworthy for not doing what he could not do.” And elsewhere the Doctor insists, that “when any do evil of Necessity, what they do is no vice, that they are guilty of no fault, are worthy of no blame, dispraise, or dishonour, but are unblamable.”

Edwards, Johnathan. Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume One (Kindle Locations 16144-16149). Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition.

It is as important to understand the purpose of Johnathan Edwards' discovery of his own philosophy on this matter; as it is to attempt to interpret what he was actually saying.

In his apology of causation, divine providence, free will, the fall of man, and God's foreknowledge and purpose in regard to these things; it is important to remember that these were the central points of a debate, which was instigated by Whitby's own proclamations; with respect to these same points from the Arminian (Pelagian) viewpoint.

The thrust of Edwards' most perspicuous writings on this topic, sprang from this one instance; in an attempt to defend the prevailing, Calvinist position of God's impunity in the sovereign predetermination of the 'First, and Second Causes', of His own creation. Thus the debate has always been central to this mystery:

'If God has predetermined all courses of events, from a position of omniscience, infinite wisdom, and purpose; known only to himself, and for His own intent; how is it then possible, at the same time, for man to truly possess a free will (every single person, who has ever taken the time to think about this. pg 1.)'

Articles of The Westminster Confession, bearing the most direct relevance to this question:

3.1) God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

3.2) Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.

3.5[i] ...out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto...

4.2) After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after his own image; having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfill it: and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change (continues).

5.1-2) God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.
2. Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the First Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

6.1) Although God created man upright and perfect, and gave him a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it, and threatened death upon the breach thereof, yet he did not long abide in this honour; Satan using the subtlety of the serpent to subdue Eve, then by her seducing Adam, who, without any compulsion, did willfully transgress the law of their creation, and the command given unto them, in eating the forbidden fruit, which God was pleased, according to his wise and holy counsel to permit, having purposed to order it to his own glory.

9.1-2) Of Free Will God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.
2. Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably, so that he might fall from it.

The entire body of articles, which make up The Westminster Confession, is replete with this. I only chose the most salient, though certainly not all.

These terms: 'Moral Necessity' and 'Natural Necessity'; are the pivotal elaborations which Edwards uses and the only segues he ventures; with the supposed intention of squaring with this natural difficulty; and that might possibly beg the question, of whether or not they also square with The Westminster Confession.

Do they? This is the question

If I had to choose only two, of a hundred intricately structured arguments, it would be these (especially the second).

'And if the case of moral impossibility or Necessity, be just the same with natural Necessity or coaction, as to its influence to excuse a neglect, then also, for the same reason, the case of natural difficulty does not differ in influence, to excuse a neglect, from moral difficulty, arising from a strong bias or bent to evil, such as Dr. Whitby owns in the case of those that are given up to their own hearts’ lusts. So that the fault of such persons must be lessened, in proportion to the difficulty, and approach to impossibility. If ten degrees of moral difficulty make the action quite impossible, and so wholly excuse, then if there be nine degrees of difficulty, the person is in great part excused, and is nine degrees in ten less blameworthy, than if there had been no difficulty at all; and he has but one degree of blameworthiness. The reason is plain, on Arminian principles; viz. because as difficulty, by antecedent bent and bias on the Will, is increased, liberty of indifference, and self-determination in the Will, is diminished; so much hindrance, impediment is there, in the way of the Will acting freely, by mere self-determination. And if ten degrees of such hindrance take away all such liberty, then nine degrees take away nine parts in ten, and leave but one degree of liberty. And therefore there is but one degree of blameableness, cateris paribus, in the neglect; the man being no further blamable in what he does, or neglects, than he has liberty in that affair: for blame or praise (say they) arises wholly from a good use or abuse of liberty. From all which it follows, that a strong bent and bias one way, and difficulty of going the contrary, never causes a person to be at all more exposed to sin, or any thing blamable: because, as the difficulty is increased, so much the less is required and expected. Though in one respect, exposedness to sin is increased, viz. by an increase of exposedness to the evil action or omission; yet it is diminished in another respect, to balance it; namely, as the sinfulness or blamableness of the action or omission is diminished in the same proportion. So that, on the whole, the affair, as to exposedness to guilt or blame, is left just as it was.'

Edwards, Johnathan. Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume One (Kindle Locations 16196-16207). Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition.


—If the Will be not free in the first act, which causes the next, then neither is it free in the next, which is caused by that first act; for though indeed the Will caused it, yet it did not cause it freely; because the preceding act, by which it was caused, was not free. And again, if the Will be not free in the second act, so neither can it be in the third, which is caused by that; because in like manner, that third was determined by an act of the Will that was not free. And so we may go on to the next act, and from that to the next; and how long soever the succession of acts is, it is all one: if the first on which the whole chain depends, and which determines all the rest, be not a free act, the Will is not free in causing or determining any one of those acts; because the act by which it determines them all is not a free act; and therefore the Will is no more free in determining them, than if it did not cause them at all.—Thus, this Arminian notion of Liberty of the Will, consisting in the will’s Self-determination, is repugnant to itself, and shuts itself wholly out of the world.

Edwards, Johnathan. Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume One (Kindle Locations 13780-13788). Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition.

I am at a loss, with regard to the scope, with which this question could be exhausted; aside from writing a Doctoral Thesis. Even so, the debate would not end. After having read the entire first third of The Works of Johnathon Edwards Vol I, which is completely devoted to the core, and fringes of this debate, in myopic detail; I have given up. Though it would be extremely difficult to find a single leak, in what seems to me, to be an airtight obsession on the part of Edwards regarding this subject.

I do not see where he deviates. In fact, he may just be the champion (Aside from John Gill's: The Cause of God and Truth.)

Yes, it is compatible.

P.S. I had intended to comment on WMC 3.1
The first clause is imperative.

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass:

The bridge to the second clause is the epicenter of this debate, starting with:

yet so:

And I think this next part is the part that you would see reconciled.
God established second causes, upholding the free will of man, and despite
ordaining whatever comes to pass, sin was never His design.

Edit: by request from anonymouswho

"Do not follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought." -Franz Wollang

This is the only premise on which I was able to proceed.

First allow me to clarify my position.

"...how Edwards' view differs from that of The Westminster Confession..."

I do not see that it does, which voids the necessity to reconcile anything.

I admit that the answer I provide here is wanting, in terms of discovery. The challenge I anticipated was, in fact, this: I had no possible way of knowing, on which front, the first inquiries would arise. I have been watching this question for quite some time. I had thought about attempting to answer it on several different occasions, however, I noticed the quicksand bunkers that surround it. The largest and most obvious to me was this.

Does The Westminster Confession uphold the idea of Determinism. If so, which brand? Is it Logical Determinism, Nomological Determinism, Strict Divine Determinism, Nomological Divine Determinism? The last thing I wanted to do was spark this debate.

The actual question, as I perceive it, is simply this:

“I'd like to better understand how Edwards’ view differs from that of The Westminster Confession, and how, in the eyes of some, they can be reconciled.”

However, ‘simple’ is an absurd estimation of ANY question touching the philosophy of Free Will, and Determinism.

Did I intentionally duck this altogether? You bet I did.

The reason that these two arguments from Edwards seem to reinforce the idea that Edwards' view is consistent with logical determinism, is because it is.

The real question is whether, or not, it is compatible with the Westminster Standards. Do the articles of The Westminster Confession uphold the idea of determinism? I can not imagine how anyone could read them and come away with the idea that they do not.

This leaves us at the edge of an ensuing debate, about which philosophical view of determinism they do uphold.

This question would be primarily opinion based, and could not be answered on this site.

Compatiblism is transient by its own definition, and is wholly dependent upon any definition of determinism and its relation to Free Will. In fact, Compatiblism is a form of determinism most commonly associated with Nomological (Soft) determinism. This also would lead to the same debate.

My answer, while withholding any consent to engage these pitfalls, has its own implications with respect to The Westminster Confession, and Determinism. Primarily this one: I see no inconsistency with Edwards’ views and what I read in The Westminster Confession regarding causation, and therefore I have nothing to reconcile. Do I fully understand the nature of Necessity vs Contingency, and Free Will? Not even close.

This is my contest.

WMC 5.2 Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the First Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

Edwards does link all second causes to the First Cause; being God. This does not mean that he makes no allowance for contingency, it just means that he must also agree, as it follows, that the First Cause must, of necessity, order all second causes to fall out according to His infallible, unchangeable and predetermined Will.

I apologize if anyone read this answer with a preconceived notion that it was going to attempt to prove anything. I did not even try, but rather chose the loophole provided in this "...how, in the eyes of some, they can be reconciled."

  • Thanks for the answer. I've read this several times, and I may be misunderstanding your answer. I believe the question is asking how Edward's view of necessity is compatible with Compatibilism, rather than the strict and very hard determinism that Edward's seems to support. I'm having trouble seeing this in what you've quoted from him, as it seems to just confirm that Edward's believed in determinism rather than any sort of free will. Perhaps if you could give an overview of what Edward's is saying in these quotes. Thank you.
    – Cannabijoy
    Aug 4, 2017 at 19:19
  • @anonymouswho Ok, will do. I will try to find some time this evening. Thanks Aug 4, 2017 at 19:25
  • @anonymouswho I recognize that I have not provided summaries of the two Edwards quotes. I felt that the confusion might possibly be related to a misunderstanding of whether or not Fesco's assessment of Edwards was valid. I did not make the assumption that it was, so I checked it out. I see what he is saying, though I think that the issue that he brings up with Edwards is more entailed. The core issue to me, is this: what exactly is the meaning of the WMC on this very subject. It is dependent on much interpretation. Too much to synthesize in any one answer. I will continue to edit if you wish. Aug 5, 2017 at 4:27

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