Thoughts On The Will


J. H. Oliphant



Some recent writers on the will, define the will as the "Self," and maintain that the will is self-determining from this standpoint, but the Bible in many places distinguish between man and his will. "The will of man," these words separate man and his will. Man has power to will or choose, and choosing is an act, not of the will, but of the man. When Gill, Buck, Hussell and others speak of "Liberty of will" they mean that man possesses some kind of liberty in choosing. They do not mean that the will has liberty, but that the man has, and exercises some kind of liberty in his choice and conduct. That man is not like an inanimate object, or an irrational being, but that he, in some sense, chooses his way.

Edwards defines liberty as follows: "The plain and obvious meaning of the words freedom and liberty, in common speech, is the power and opportunity that any one has to do as he pleases, or in other words, his being free from hindrance or impediment in the way of doing as he wills." Now, when one does as he pleases, he has liberty. It seems to me this must be admitted by all. Edwards continues: "And the contrary to liberty, whatever name we call that by, is a person's being hindered or unable to conduct as he will. If this which I have mentioned be the meaning of the word liberty, in the ordinary use of language, as I trust that none that has ever learned to talk and is unprejudiced, will deny, then it will follow that in propriety of speech neither liberty nor its contrary can properly be ascribed to any being or thing but that which has such a faculty, power or property as is called will, for that which has no will can not have any power or opportunity of doing according to its will nor be restrained from acting agreeably to it."

Concerning the above quotation I will observe first, that Edwards, like all other clearminded Calvinists, maintained that Freedom is essential to moral government; without it there could be no such thing as vice or virtue. There could be no such thing as accountability nor future judgment. His definition of liberty cannot be questioned. Where men do as they like, all "who have learned to talk" know this is a good definition of the word liberty. Concerning this question of liberty I will quote Gill, Cause of God and Truth, P. 8, "The will of man thought it is free, yet not independently so, it is dependent on God, both in its being and its acting; it is subject to his authority." * * * * " The will of God is only free in this sense." Gill held that the will is free in the same way that Edwards held it. None held, not even Arminians, that man is free from dependence on God for his being, none held that man is free in the sense, he is not forbidden to do wrong. Arminians and Calvinists have ever agreed about these things. Gill says, " What free will is, or what is the nature of the liberty of the human will, is the question in dispute."

If it be said that we should not speak of the "liberty of the will," because there are so many particulars in which man is not free, and so if we speak of "liberty of will" we would be understood to hold that man is absolutely free. Now in reply to this let it be remembered that the bible often speaks of God's people as being "free " and as having "liberty," &c., and none understand these places as teaching that man is absolutely free, and so why should any understand these men to hold that man is absolutely free because they hold that he is free in the sense that he is not hindered from doing as he pleases, and as Edwards says, "None who have learned to talk" will deny this to be a good definition of the word liberty.

Any thing having no will or choice, or liberty could not be a subject of moral government; as trees and stones, they could not be subject to law, because they can not choose a single action for themselves, nor animals, because they have no understanding or discernment between right and wrong. Now man differs from stones and trees in the fact that he can and does choose his conduct and is subject to law. We must make a difference between men and inanimate objects, or hold that God's government of men is like the boy's government of his marbles. Not one marble is in any sense whatever to blame for being in the wrong place, nor is it entitled to any kind of approval for being in the right place.

Second, the quotation from Edwards also shows that nothing, having no will, could be free or in slavery. We would not speak of a stone as having liberty or as being in bondage. The terms liberty, freedom, bondage, slavery, &c., are only applied to beings having will.

So these terms could not properly be applied to the will. They can be applied to man, for man has a will; but not to the will, for the will is never said to have a will.

We read of the "will of man" but not of the will of the will, nor do we read of the will of the will of man. "We say with propriety that a bird let loose has power and liberty to fly, but not that the bird's power of flying has a power and liberty of flying." "To be free is the property of an agent* * * as much as to be cunning, valiant, beautiful or zealous; but these qualities are the properties of persons and not the property of properties." Arminians so hold the liberty of will as that the will itself is free and can act voluntary, while freedom and voluntariness belong to the agent who has will, and not to the will itself.

The Arminian theory is that the liberty of will lies in the self-determining power of the will, "or a certain sovereignty the will has over itself * * * whereby it determines its own volitions, so as not to be dependent in its determinations on any power outside of itself."

They must hold the will to be poised or balanced and to possess power to determine its own course. Another sentiment belonging to that system is the determinations of the will are not certain or determined by any fixed principle.

A moral agent is one capable of doing right or wrong-virtuous or vicious. Herein is an important distinction between men and animals. Animals are not capable of doing morally right or wrong, and so they are not moral agents. The sun is an agent, and the most powerful agent we have ever seen with our natural eyes, but he is not a moral agent. And so everything that acts is an agent, but only those beings that act from choice and judgment and reason are moral agents. To moral agency belongs a sense of right and wrong, and in this sense I understand the words in Rom. 1:32: "Who, knowing the judgment of God, that they which do such things are worthy of death, not only do them but have pleasure in them that do them." Paul here speaks of bad men as "knowing that they that commit such things are worthy of death." This agrees with my experience in my most sinful days and I think all men have something of this experience, and this is essential to a moral agent.

"That which may be known of God is manifest in (to) them for God hath showed it unto them."Moral law belongs to moral government, and so man, as a moral agent, is susceptible of being addressed by command, exhortation, &c. Herein man differs from stones or animals.

I will quote from Buck on "necessity." "The actions of a man may be at one and the same time free and necessary. It was infallibly certain that Judas would betray Christ, yet he did it voluntarily. Christ necessarily became man and died, yet he acted freely. A good man cloth naturally love his children, yet voluntarily. It is part of the happiness of the blessed to love God unchangeably, yet freely, for it would not be their happiness if done by compulsion, * * * that necessity doth not render actions less morally good is evident, for if necessary virtue be neither moral nor praiseworthy, it will follow that God himself is not a moral being, because he is a necessary one, and the obedience of Christ can not be good because it was necessary; further, it does not preclude the use of means. * * * It was ordained that Christ should be delivered up to death, but he could not have been betrayed without a betrayer, * * * it is not a gloomy doctrine, * * * because nothing can be more consolitary than to believe that all things are under the direction of an all wise being. * * * So far from its being inimical to happiness * * * there can be no solid happiness without it, * * * it inspires gratitude, excites confidence, teaches resignation, produces humility, and draws the soul to God."

These men held that "liberty" is consistent with certainty of events, and chance does not necessarily rule if man possesses freedom of will, but I will refer to this later.

Arminians insist that if the will is not self-determining. then man could not be subject to commands, for they urge that if the will of man be determined by something outside of him, or by his own nature, or by these things together, he could not be a moral agent, nor capable of doing wrong, or right. It is clear that all the freedom necessary to moral agency is had when one is capable of doing as he pleases, and evil men, the worst men, as well as the best of men, possess the capacity of acting as they wish, and this is all the liberty necessary to moral agency, or moral government.

The notion that the will is self determining, supposes the will, itself to have a will. An eminent writer said "A man can choose to serve the Lord if he will.' This is equal to saying a man can choose to serve the Lord if he chooses. It all rests upon the notion that the will itself is under the direction of an antecedent will, which would, as Edwards shows, involve the idea of an endless chain of wills, each will determined by the will going before, and the chain determined by the first will in the infinite series of wills. Let the reader study well the following quotation from Edwards, Vol. I, P. 14: " If the will which we find governs the members of the body and determines their motions, does also govern itself, and determines its own actions, it does so, the same way, even by antecedent volition.

The will determines which way the feet shall move by an act of choice, and there is no other way of the will's determining * * * any thing at all." Whatever the will commands, it commands by act of the will, and if it has itself under its command, and determines itself in its own actions, it does it the same way that it determines other things which are under its commands.

So that if the freedom of will consists in this, that it has itself under its commands, and its own volitions are determined by itself, it will follow that every free volition arises from another antecedent volition directing and commanding that, and if that directing volition be free, in that also, the will is determined; that is, that directing volition is determined by another going before that, and so on till we come to the first volition in the whole series, and if that first volition be free and the will self–determined in it, then that is determined by another volition preceding that, which is a contradiction; because by the supposition it can have none before it to direct or determine it, being the first in the train. But if that first volition is not determined by any preceding act of the will then that act is not determined by the will, and so is not free in the Arminian notion of freedom, which consists in the will's self-determination, and if that first act of the will which fixes the subsequent acts be not free, none of the following acts determined by it can be free."

Edwards shows that the notion that the will is self determining involves the idea that the will itself has a will that determines it, and so, that antecedent will has a will back of it which also determines it and so we would have an infinite series of wills each determined by a will antecedent to it, back to the first will, but if that first will be not self determining, then it would not, in the Arminian notion, be a free will, and so this would destroy the liberty of will in their whole chain.

There could be no such a thing as liberty of will on their plan; how much better to say that will is choice and in every act of choice it is not the will choosing but the man choosing. Let us not refer to the will as an actor but as an act, and this will remove all confusion. Certainly when men choose what is agreeable to them, what they please, this is all the liberty necessary to moral government, and this is essential to moral government.


Thoughts On The Will. J.H. Oliphant. Press of Moore & Langen Printing Co. Terre Haute, IN. 1899. Pages 18-27.