For my write-up today on George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life, I'll talk about Marsden's summary on page 442 of Edwards' views regarding moral responsibility.
in his life, Jonathan Edwards wrote works that were defending
Calvinism, in a world that was becoming increasingly hostile towards
it. There were authors in that period who were criticizing the doctrine
that human beings were born with a morally corrupt nature and
desperately needed God's grace in order to become truly righteous.
These authors also combated the notions that humans had inherited this
corrupt nature and guilt from Adam, and that God chose only some people
to be saved and was perfectly just to condemn the rest of humanity to
hell. According to these authors, God gave all humans the natural
capacity to be virtuous and to respond to God, which (if I'm not
mistaken) may imply that a new birth was not necessary, for people got
all that they needed for righteousness at their first birth.
A question that these authors asked was this: How can God condemn people for doing things that they cannot help? If a person is born with a sinful nature, is it his fault if he sins?
If a person is cold to the things of God because God has not shed on
her God's grace, is God justified to condemn her for that? According
to these authors, we are only morally responsible for what we can
help. If we have no real choice to do good, how can God condemn us for
Edwards had a variety of responses to that: that we
still do what we choose, even if there may be causes for our choices
that are outside of our control; that the Bible teaches that we are
guilty on account of original sin and need a new birth; etc. But I'd
like to quote something that Marsden said on page 442:
think of many instances, said Edwards, where people's moral character
make them unable to choose other than they do: '...A child of great duty
and love to his parents, may be unable to be willing to kill his
father. A very lascivious man, in case of certain opportunities and
temptations...may be unable to forbear gratifying his lust...A very
malicious man may be unable to exert benevolent acts to an enemy, or to
desire his prosperity: yea, some may be so under the power of a vile
disposition, that they may be unable to love those who are most worthy
of their esteem and affection.' Now, said Edwards, what indeed does
common sense tell us about praise and blame in such cases? Clearly, we
praise the virtuous woman whose character made her unable even to think
of prostituting herself more highly than the woman who chose correctly
but could hardly make up her mind. Or common sense does not excuse a
man of a very haughty and vicious disposition because of his
character...In fact[,] common sense rightly assigns virtue or vice to a
virtuous or vicious character as well as to the acts that
inevitably arise from that character. The theological counterpart was
that God and Jesus were praiseworthy even though their characters were
such that they could only do what was best."
I think there's
something to what Edwards is saying: If a person is being a jerk towards
me, I don't excuse that person in my mind just because he has a
jerk-ish disposition and is merely acting according to his character.
At the same time, I do try to have compassion towards him because this
disposition may be weighing him down, and he may find it difficult to
act otherwise, due to a traumatic past, or temperament, or perhaps
clinical depression. In my opinion, the latter approach, not
judgmentalism, is the right mindset for me to have.
But do I believe that people cannot help what they do? I
live in the world of psychology, therapy, and medication, so I am
rather optimistic that people can get help to correct wrong behaviors
and to pursue more healthy mindsets. I think that people
should be held responsible for their actions, for there are actions that
are destructive to other people and to society, and society would be
remiss to let that slide. But I maintain that rehabilitation and
treatment, not just punishment, are important. And, if religion can
assist in this, I'm all for it, whether or not I totally agree with its
That evil Bible, again.
9 hours ago