Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 1: Introducing the Controversy

, posted by Ben Henshaw

Thomas Ralston was an early Methodist theologian. The following is taken from his Elements of Divinity (Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD). My comments will be in bold print.

The great question in this controversy is not whether a man can will “as he pleases,” for that is the same as to ask whether he can will as he does will. But the question is, Can a man will, without being constrained to will as he does, by something extrinsic to himself acting efficiently upon him? This is the real question on which depends the freedom of the mind in willing.

Again: when we speak of a self-active power of man in willing, we are not to understand that this is a lawless exercise of power. The mind is the efficient agent that wills, but this act is performed according to the laws properly belonging to a self-moving, accountable agent. Motives and external circumstances, although they can exercise no active or efficient agency in reference to the will, yet, speaking figuratively, they are properly said to exercise an influence over the mind – that is, they are the conditions or occasions of the mind’s action in willing. In this sense, they may be said to influence the will; but this is so far from being an absolute and irresistibly controlling influence, that it is really no proper or efficient influence at all. (pg. 184)

Ralston hits the nail on the head and rightly points out that while the mind does not act without respect to motives and circumstances, these motives and circumstances do not exercise irresistible control over the mind. Earlier Ralston defined the will as the action of the mind and was careful to distinguish the mind itself from said action or will:

The mind, or soul, of man is the active, intelligent agent to whom pertain the powers or qualities of freedom and volition; and the will is only the mind acting in a specific way, or it is the power of the mind to act, or not to act, in a specific way.
On this point the writers generally, on both sides in the controversy, have been agreed. President Day says: “It is the man that perceives, and loves, and hates, and acts; not his understanding, or his heart, or his will, distinct from himself.

Professor Upham defines the will to be “the mental power or susceptibility by which we put forth volitions.” He also says: “The term will is not meant to express any thing separate from the mind; but merely embodies and expresses the fact of the mind’s operating in a particular way.” Stewart defines the will to be “that power of the mind of which volition is the act. (pg. 183)

He continues:

The advocates of necessity, in their arguments upon this subject, have generally either not understood, or they have willfully misstated, the ground assumed by their opponents. They have generally reasoned upon the assumption that there is no medium between absolute necessity and perfect independency. Whereas the true doctrine in reference to the freedom of the will, and that assumed by the proper defenders of free agency, is equally aloof from both these extremes. By moral liberty, we neither understand, on the one hand, that the actions of man are so determined by things external to him, as to be bound fast with the cords of necessity; nor, on the other hand, so disconnected with surrounding circumstances, and every thing external, as to be entirely uninfluenced thereby.

The controversy, therefore, between the advocates of necessity and Arminians, or the defenders of free agency, is not whether man is influenced in his will, to any extent, by circumstances, motives, etc., or not; but whether his will is thus absolutely and necessarily controlled, so that it could not possibly be otherwise. (pg. 184)

An important observation, the truth of which continues to this present day. We have seen in recent discussions that advocates of determinism continue to misunderstand and misrepresent the Arminian position. While Arminians hold that the mind does not act of necessity it does not act in a vacuum either. This is an important point which cannot be emphasized enough.

If the will of man be absolutely and unconditionally fixed by motives and external causes, so that it is obliged to be as it is, then is the doctrine of necessity, as contended for by Edwards and others, true; but if the will might, in any case, be different from what it is, or if it is to any extent dependent on the self-controlling power with which man is endued, then is the free moral agency of man established, and the whole system of philosophical necessity falls to the ground. (184, 185)

In our next post Thomas Ralston will begin the task of demonstrating the incoherency of the “necessitarian” position. Stay tuned, it’s just starting to get good.

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