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Shedd:

1) In the Westminster statement, the disability or inability is connected with the disposition and inclination of the will. Man is “indisposed to all spiritual good, and inclined to all [spiritual] evil.” It follows from this, that the cause and seat of the inability in question is in the action and state of the voluntary faculty. It is moral or willing inability.

Nam servit voluntas peccato, non nolens sed volens. Etenim voluntas non noluntas dicitur. Second Helvetic Confession, IX.

In denominating it “moral” inability, it is not meant that it arises merely from habit, or that it is not “natural” in any sense of the word nature. A man is sometimes said to be morally unable to do a thing, when it is very difficult for him to do it by reason of an acquired habit, but not really impossible. This is not the sense of the word “moral” when applied to the sinner’s inability to holiness. He is really and in the full sense of the word impotent. And the cause of this impotence is not a habit of doing evil which he has formed in his individual life, but a natural disposition which he has inherited from Adam. The term “moral,” therefore, when applied to human inability denotes that it is voluntary, in distinction from created. Man’s impotence to good does not arise from the agency of God in creation, but from the agency of man in apostasy.

Whether, therefore, it can ever be called “natural” inability, will depend upon the meaning given to the term “nature.”

(a) If “nature” means that which is created by God, there is no natural inability to good in fallen man. But if “nature” means “natural disposition,” or “natural inclination,” there is a “natural” inability to good in fallen man.

(b) Again, “natural” sometimes means something which is born with man, in distinction from that which he acquires after birth; something in man at birth, yet not caused by birth. In this sense, man’s inability to good is “natural.” It is innate inability. The Scriptures sometimes employ the word in this sense. 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God, neither can he know them.” Ephesians 2:3, “And were by nature (phusei, by birth) children of wrath.” Psalm 51:5, “Conceived in sin and shapen in iniquity.” In this last passage, “conceived” is not synonymous with “created,” and must be carefully distinguished from it. So, also, in Romans 9:11, “The children being not yet born,” does not mean, “The children being not yet created.” As opposed, therefore, to what is natural in the sense of created by God, man’s inability is moral, not natural; but as opposed to what is moral in the sense of acquired by habit, man’s inability is natural. When “natural” means “innate,” we assert that inability is “natural.” When “natural” means “created,” we assert that inability is “moral,” that is, voluntary.

Owing to this ambiguity in the signification of the terms “natural” and “moral,” the elder Calvinistic theologians did not use either term exclusively, to denote the sinner’s inability to good. Sometimes they employ one and sometimes the other, and explain their meaning. The symbols of the Lutheran and Calvinistic churches frequently use the word “natural,” and assert entire inability with great decision and unanimity. “When God converts a sinner, he frees him from his natural bondage under sin.” Westminster Confession, IX. iv.

The elder Edwards differs from the old Calvinists in two particulars.

1. In refusing to denominate the bondage of the human will “natural inability;”

2. In denying that “moral inability,” by which term exclusively he designates the sinner’s bondage, is “inability proper.”

As these positions bring Edwards into contradiction with himself, and open the way for a different anthropology from that contained in his writings generally, and particularly in his treatise on Original Sin, we direct attention to them. His view is contained in the following statements: “Natural inability alone is properly called inability.” Will, Works, II. 104. “No inability which is merely moral is properly called by the name inability.” Will, Works, II. 103.

In his treatise on the Will (Works, II. 104), Edwards defines “natural inability” as the want of the requisite mental faculties. Consequently “natural ability,” for him, is the possession of the requisite mental faculties viewed apart from their moral state and condition. In so viewing them, he differs from the elder Calvinists, who regarded a mental faculty and its moral condition as inseparable. Edwards conceives of the will abstractly and separate from its inclination, and as so conceived contends that it is “naturally able” to obey the law of God. The elder Calvinists denied that the will can be so conceived of.

Natural inability,” says Edwards, “arises from the want of natural capacity, or from external hindrance.” A man would be naturally unable to obey the divine law, if he were destitute of any of the faculties of the human soul, or if he were prevented from obeying the divine law by external force. Now, argues Edwards, inasmuch as man is not destitute of either understanding or will, and is not compelled to sin by outward circumstances or by another being, it cannot be said that man is naturally unable to obey the divine law. This is true of the fallen man as well as of the unfallen.

Again, Edwards defines “natural inability” with reference to inclination or disposition. If a man is inclined to do a thing and is prevented, he is naturally unable.

We are said,” he remarks (Will, Works, II. 15), “to be naturally unable to do a thing when we cannot do it if we will [i.e., are inclined, because what is most commonly called nature does not allow of it, or because of some impeding defect or obstacle that is extrinsic to the will, either in the faculty of understanding, constitution of body, or external objects.”

There are two criticisms to be made upon this statement.

1. In the first place, ifthe impeding defect or obstacle in the faculty of understanding” should amount to the total absence of reason, it would not be possible for a man to have an inclination to obey. An idiot or an insane person is not a moral agent, and is incapable of moral inclination. If, however, Edwards means only a deficiency in intelligence that hinders the man in acting out his inclination–as when a man, though inclined to a right course, does not know what is the best means of accomplishing it–then, in this case, the will or inclination would be taken for the deed, and this would not be an instance of inability.

2. In the second place, if a man is inclined to obey God, but is prevented in a particular instance from performing the outward service, by sickness, or by imprisonment–by “constitution of body,” or by “external objects”–he is regarded by God, who always looks upon the truth or reality of things, as an obedient servant. “If there be a willing mind (prothumia), it is accepted according to what a man has, and not according to what he hath not,” 2 Corinthians 8:12. The inclination is the obedience; and Edwards supposes the inclination. This case, also, is not an instance of inability to obey the divine law. “The very willing is the doing,” says Edwards himself. Will, Works, II. 17.

Edwards’s denial of “natural inability” is equivalent inferentially and indirectly to the assertion of “natural ability.” But he nowhere formally and directly asserts “natural ability,” and in one instance directly and explicitly denies and combats it. “It will follow,” he remarks (Original Sin, Works, II. 464), “on our author’s principles, that redemption is needless, and Christ is dead in vain. For God [according to him] has given a sufficient power and ability, in all mankind, to do all their duty and wholly to avoid sin. Yea, this author insists upon it that when men have not sufficient power to do their duty, they have no duty to do. These things fairly imply that men have in their own natural ability sufficient means to avoid sin, and to be perfectly free from it; and so from all the bad consequences of it. And if the means are, sufficient, then there is no need of more; and therefore there is no need of Christ’s dying, in order to it.”

The explanation is this. Edwards was combating the doctrine of Whitby and Taylor, that apostate man has plenary power to keep the divine law. Consequently, he had no motive to advocate the doctrine of ability in any form. His great object in the controversy was to establish the doctrine of inability. When, however, he is pushed by his opponents with the objection, that if there be no power in fallen man to keep the divine law there is no obligation to keep it, instead of recurring, as the elder Calvinists did, to the fall in Adam and the loss of ability by a free act of will, Edwards meets the objection by asserting that fallen man is under no “natural inability” to keep the divine law, and in this way implies that he has a “natural ability” to keep it. But when his definition of the “natural ability” thus indirectly attributed to fallen man is examined, it proves not to be efficient and real power, but only a quasi-ability that is incapable of producing the effect required in the objection, namely, perfect obedience. In this way, he evades the objection of his opponent, rather than answers it.

It is easy,” he says (Will, Works, II. 17), “for a man to do the thing if he will [is inclined], but the very willing [inclining] is the doing. Therefore, in these things to ascribe a non-performance to the want of power or ability, is not just; because the thing wanting is not a being able, but a being willing. There are faculties of mind, and capacity of nature, and everything sufficient but a disposition; nothing is wanting but a will [inclination].

But this amounts only to the truism that the sinner is able to obey the law of God, if he is inclined to obey it, and avoids the point in dispute. For the real question is, whether the sinner can originate the “thing that is wanting” in order to obedience: namely, “a being willing,” or a disposition to obey. Edwards always and everywhere asserts that he cannot; but for the purpose of meeting the objection that if the sinner is unable to obey he is not obligated to obey, he contends that it is improper to call the inability to “be willing” or inclined, an inability, because the mere existence of the faculty of will without the power to change its disposition constitutes ability.

To ascribe a non-performance,” says Edwards, “in these things, to the want of power is not just; because the thing wanting is not a being able, but a being willing. There are faculties of mind, and a capacity of nature, and everything sufficient but a disposition.

But the absence of a disposition to obey is fatal. The presence of a disposition to obey is necessary in order to obedience. No man can obey the divine law without being willing or inclined to obey it; and Edwards asserts over and over again that the sinner is unable to incline himself to obedience. A man destitute of an, inclination to obey the divine law, cannot obey it merely because he has the abstract faculty of will. Volitionary acts can be performed, but since they do not proceed from a right inclination, they are not obedience.. The sinner’s so-called “natural ability,” consisting of everything except a “disposition” to obey, consists of everything necessary to efficient power except efficiency itself. The ability to obey is an ability to incline, because it is the inclination of the will that constitutes true obedience. Consequently, if inclining to good is not within the competence of the sinner, he is unable to obey.

In order, therefore, that a man destitute of an inclination to obey the divine law may be said without any equivocation to be “able” to obey, he must be able to originate such an inclination. The question that settles the question respecting “ability,” and precludes all evasion, is this: Has fallen man the ability to start and begin that right inclination of will which is the essence of obedience, and without which it is impossible to obey the law of God? If so, he has without any ambiguity the “ability” to perfectly obey the divine law. But if not, he is unable to obey it, and this impotence is properly called inability. In answering this question, Edwards is explicit in the negative, and stands upon the position of Augustine and Calvin, in respect to the bondage and helplessness of the apostate will. See Edwards, Will, Works, II. 101; Endless Punishment, Works, I. 615, 616, et alia.

Pascal (Provincial Letters, II.) illustrates this equivocation respecting “natural ability” (a distinction employed by the Jesuits) in the following manner:

A man setting out on a journey is encountered by robbers who wound him, and leave him half dead, he sends for aid from three neighboring surgeons. The first on examining his wounds pronounces them mortal, and tells him that God alone can restore him. The second tells him that he has strength enough to carry him back to his dwelling, and that he will recover by the force of his system. The patient, perplexed between the two, calls upon the third surgeon. This latter after examination sides with the second surgeon, and ridicules the opinion of the first. The patient naturally supposes that the third surgeon agrees with the second; and in fact receives in reply to his inquiries an assurance that he has strength sufficient to prosecute his journey. The poor man, however, conscious of his weakness, asks on what his conclusions are founded? ‘Because,’ said he, ‘you still have your legs, and the legs are the natural organs for walking.’ ‘But,’ says the sick man, ‘have I strength to make use of them; for they seem to me useless, in my state of weakness?’ ‘Certainly not,’ replied the doctor; ‘and in reality you never will walk, unless God shall send you supernatural aid to sustain and lead you.’ ‘What!’ cries the patient, ‘have I not then in myself sufficient strength for walking?’ ‘Very far from it,’ replied the surgeon. ‘Your opinion then is entirely opposed to the second surgeon respecting my state?’ ‘I confess it is,’ he replied.

When “ability” is attributed to the human will, it is naturally understood to mean the power to use and control the energetic force of the faculty. Inclining to an ultimate end is the energy of the will, and its most important activity. But if the sinful will is unable to incline to God as the supreme end and good, it is improper to say that it has a “natural abilityto do this. Because, “ability” properly denotes efficient power. The man, in Pascal’s illustration, who “still had his legs,” but had lost the power to use them, could not properly be said to be able to walk; and the man who “still has a will,” but is unable to incline it to good, cannot properly be said to be able to obey. If when Edwards replied to his opponent that “it is easy for a man to do the thing if he will,” he had added that “it is easy for a man to will,” this would have been an unequivocal assertion of ability. But Edwards not only denied that it is easy for the sinner to will rightly, but asserted that it is impossible.

Ability must not be confounded with capability, or power with capacity. The sinner is capable of loving God supremely, but not able to love him supremely; and probably this is all that is intended by many who assert “natural ability.” Capacity implies possibility only; as when it is said that man has the capacity for all the diseases to which flesh is heir. But something more than capacity is requisite to warrant the assertion that he is able to have them all. The ability to have all the diseases of the human body would require the germ of them all. A man is not able to have the small-pox, unless he has the contagion, or been inoculated with it. But he is capable of having the smallpox, without either contagion or inoculation.

Adam before the fall had the capacity to sin, rather than the ability; the possibility, not the propensity. It is, therefore, more strictly proper to say that it was possible for holy Adam to sin, than to say that he had the ability to sin. Accurately speaking, the ability to sin, is inward sin itself; and the ability to be holy, is inward holiness itself. Hence Augustine attributed to the unfallen Adam the posibilitas peccandi, and denied the potestas. In moral things, the ability implies the inclination and tendency.

Consequently, in ethics and religion, moral ability is the only kind of power that is properly designated by the term “ability.” In reference to obedience and disobedience, holiness and sin, if there is not moral or voluntary ability, there is no ability at all. And moral or voluntary ability cannot be separated from inclination. No inclination, no ability. If inclination, then ability. A man who is able to love God supremely, is inclined to love Him. A man who is able to steal, is inclined in his heart to theft. In common parlance we say of a bad man: “He can do anything; he can lie, he can steal.” This is the same as saying: “He is a thief, he is a liar.” If we say that he is capable of lying, we do not say so much, as when we say he is able to lie.

Natural ability” is, properly, only physical force. It is the power of matter, not of mind. A man has the natural ability to lift one hundred pounds. This is the power of matter; of his body. But we can think of this kind of power as not exerted, and as never exerted. The man may have this species of ability, and yet never lift a hundred pounds weight. In the case of natural ability, we can abstract and separate the faculty from its exercise and use. The faculty, in the instance of natural ability, is the body of the man. We say that there is in this body the ability or power to lift one hundred pounds weight. Whether this ability shall be exerted or not, depends not upon the body but upon the man’s will. But the man’s body and the man’s will are distinct and separate substances and faculties. We can therefore conceive of this natural or physical ability as inactive, and doing nothing, until a volition employs it. We can conceive of natural power or ability without any effect produced by it.

But in the instance of moral or voluntary power or ability, we cannot thus abstract and separate the faculty from its use and exercise, and conceive of it as inert and producing no effect. The faculty in this case is not the body, but the will itself. But the will cannot be inactive and inert, as matter may be. It is inclined and active by its very idea and definition. There is no conceivable separation, therefore, in this instance, between the faculty and its use and exercise, as there is in the instance of the body and the volition that uses the body. Moral or voluntary power is necessarily in exercise. A man may be naturally able to lift a hundred pounds, and yet not do it. But a man may not be morally able to love God, and yet not do it. The ability to an act in this latter case, is one with the act itself. Ability to incline, is inclination itself. Ability to love, is love itself. Ability to hate, is hatred itself. In the instance of natural ability or physical power, the ability is in one subject, and the use or exercise of it in another subject. The natural force is in the bodily limbs, and the moral force that exerts and uses it is in the will. But in the instance of moral ability or voluntary power, there is only one subject, namely, the human will. The will is the faculty, and the inclining of the will is the use and exercise of the faculty. We cannot, therefore, conceive of the will as being inert and inactive until another agent makes it active. Neither can we conceive of the will as inactive until some act of its own makes it active. Edwards was unquestionably correct, in denying that the will can be started out of indifference and inaction by its own antecedent volition. But we can conceive of this, in the instance of natural or physical power. We can conceive of the body as inert and inactive until another agent than itself, namely the soul, makes it active by an antecedent volition. In the instance of moral ability, the faculty of will and its use and exercise are inseparable. If there be a will, it is necessarily in action; it is necessarily inclined. We cannot say that it is able to incline, not yet having inclined. It can pass from one inclination to another; but it cannot exist an instant with no inclination at all. Consequently, if the will is able to do a thing, it is doing it. But in the instance of natural ability, the faculty and its exercise are separable. If there be a body, it is not necessarily exerting its physical force. In this case, we can say that it is able to do a thing, and yet is not doing it.

It is ambiguous and misleading, therefore, to apply the term “natural ability” to a moral faculty like the will; as it confessedly would be to apply the term “moral ability” to a physical faculty like the human body. No one would attribute to the human body a moral ability to swim; and no one should attribute to the human will a natural ability to love or obey, because a natural ability may not be in use and exercise. Andrew Fuller (Memoir, 15, Bohn’s Ed.) quotes from Gill the distinction between a thing “being in the power of our hand, and in the power of our heart.” Natural ability is the power of the hand; moral ability is the power of the heart. Referring to Des Cartes’ distinction between the act of the will that terminates on the will itself, and the act of the will that terminates on the body, natural ability would designate the latter, and moral ability the former. Obedience of the divine command, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,” is the product of moral, not of natural ability.

Edwards asserts “moral inability,” and defines it to be either the absence of right inclination, or the presence of wrong inclination.

A man may be said to be morally unable to do a thing; when he is under the influence or prevalence of a contrary inclination, or has a want of inclination. Moral inability consists either in want of inclination, or the strength of a contrary inclination. It may be said, in one word, that moral inability consists in the opposition or want of inclination. A man is truly morally unable to choosef56 contrary to a present inclination. A child of great love to his parents may be unable to be willing to kill his father.” Will, Works, II. 15, 16, 101, 102.

This is the inability that is meant in the Westminster statement, that “man is utterly indisposed and disabled to all that is spiritually good.” And this species of inability is real inability. It is not a figure of speech, but an impotence as helpless and insuperable by the subject of it, as natural inability. The substantive “inability” has its full and strict meaning. The adjective “moral” does not convert the notion of impotence into that of power, but only denotes the species of impotence. It is true that the “cannot” is a “will not,” but it is equally true that the “will not” is a “cannot.” The sinful will is literally unable to incline to good, apart from grace.

Notwithstanding his assertion that moral inability is improperly called inability, Edwards strenuously maintains that moral inability is utter and helpless impotence. This is the self-contradiction in his theory.

By reason of the total depravity and corruption of man’s nature, he is utterly unable, without divine grace, savingly to love God, believe in Christ, or do anything truly good. Works, II. 177.

He also asserts the same thing in his doctrine of moral necessity.

Moral necessity,” he says, “may be as absolute as natural necessity– that is, the [moral] effect may be as perfectly connected with its moral cause, as a natural necessary effect is with its natural cause. When I use this distinction of moral and natural necessity, I would not be understood to suppose, that if anything comes to pass by the former kind of necessity, the nature of things is not concerned in it, as well as in the latter. Will, I. iv.

Edwards means that the connection between the volition and the inclination is as necessary, or as much founded in the nature of things, as that between a physical effect and its physical cause. Given a wrong inclination, and wrong volitions must follow. If the disposition of the will be vicious, the volitions of the will cannot be virtuous, any more than the fruit can be grapes if the root is that of the thistle.

Now in thus asserting that moral necessity is properly called necessity, Edwards is inconsistent in denying that moral inability is properly called inability. For the sinner’s moral necessity of sinning is the very same thing as his moral inability to obedience. If, therefore, Edwards was willing to say that moral necessity is as real and absolute as natural necessity, he should have been willing to say that moral inability is as real and absolute as natural inability. If the term “necessity” is properly applicable to moral necessity, the term “inability” is properly applicable to moral inability. Necessity is a stronger term than inability, and it is singular that while Edwards was not afraid to employ the former in connection with voluntary action, he should have shrunk from the latter. The same general argument that proves that moral necessity, taken in its full unambiguous sense, is consistent with the freedom of the will, would prove that moral inability, taken in its full unambiguous sense, is likewise consistent with it. The nature of Edwards’s answer to the Arminian objection that if there is not ability in the sinful will there is no obligation resting upon it, explains the inconsistency. Instead of denying, with the Calvinistic creeds generally, the Arminian premiss that all inability however brought about is inconsistent with obligation, he concedes it, and endeavors to show that there is ability.

Moral necessity is asserted by Augustine and Calvin. It means that necessity in the moral character of the volitions which arises from a habitus of the will; from a bias or disposition of the voluntary faculty. A holy will has a holy habitus, and is thereby under a moral necessity of exerting holy volitions. “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit.” Hence St. Paul denominates the spiritual man “a servant (slave) of righteousness,” Romans 6:18. St. John asserts that “whosoever is born of God cannot sin,” 1 John 3:9. A sinful will has a sinful habitus, and is thereby under a moral necessity of exerting sinful volitions. “Ye were servants (slaves) of sin,” Romans 6:17. “Whosoever commits sin is the servant (slave) of sin,” John 8:34. A holy will is unable to disobey; and a sinful will is unable to obey.

Fatalism has been charged upon this doctrine of moral necessity, but erroneously. Were the sinful disposition of the will itself necessitated, the charge would be well founded. Were the sinful inclination the necessary effect of some antecedent act or arrangement of God, as the volition is the necessary effect of the antecedent inclination, man would not be responsible for sin. But it is not. The sinful inclination is the abiding self-determination of the human will. Its origin is due to an act of freedom in Adam; and its continuance is due to the unceasing self-determination of every individual of the posterity. Each individual man prolongs and perpetuates in himself the evil inclination of will that was started in Adam. Sinful inclination began freely in the one sin of the whole race, and is continued freely in the millions of individual inclinations in the millions of individuals of the race. Had sinful inclination been created and infused by God, then as the sinful volitions are referred to the inclination as their cause, the sinful inclination must have been referred to God as its cause. The doctrine of moral necessity means only that the volitions must necessarily be like the inclination. It does not mean that the inclination itself is originated and necessitated by God.

A habitus or disposition in the will intensifies and confirms free voluntary action, instead of weakening or destroying it. For a habitus is a vehement and total self-determination. But that which promotes determination by the self, of course precludes compulsion by that which is not self. Hence the bondage of the will to sinful inclination does not destroy either the voluntariness, or the responsibility of the will. The enslaved will is still a self-determining faculty; the bondage of sin is a responsible and guilty bondage, because proceeding from the ego, not from God. Calvin (Institutes, II. ii. 5) maintains this in the following manner:

Bernard subscribing to what is said by Augustine, thus expresses himself: ‘Among all the animals, man alone is free; and yet by the intervention of sin, he also suffers a species of violence; but from the will, not from nature, so that he is not thereby deprived of his innate liberty.’ For what is voluntary is also free. And a little after, Bernard says, ‘The will being, by I know not what corrupt and surprising means, changed for the worse, is itself the author of the necessity to which it is subject; so that neither necessity, being voluntary, can excuse the will, nor the will, being fascinated (illecta), can exclude necessity.’ For this necessity is in some measure voluntary. Afterwards he says, that we are oppressed with a yoke, but no other than that of a voluntary servitude; that therefore our servitude renders us miserable, and our will renders us inexcusable; because the will, when it was free, made itself the slave of sin. At length he concludes, ‘Thus the soul, in a certain strange and evil manner, under this kind of voluntary and free yet pernicious necessity, is both enslaved and free; enslaved by necessity, free by its will [inclination]; and, what is more wonderful and more miserable, it is guilty because free; and enslaved wherein it is guilty; and so therein enslaved wherein it is free.’ From these passages, the reader clearly perceives that I am teaching no novel doctrine, but what was long ago advanced by Augustine, with the universal consent of pious men, and which for nearly a thousand years after was confined to the cloisters of monks. But Lombard, for want of knowing how to distinguish necessity from coercion, gave rise to a pernicious error.

The moral inability of the sinner, then, is the inability to incline rightly from a wrong state of the will; to convert sinful into holy inclination. He is already sinfully inclined. This sinful inclination is moral spontaneity, or self-determination to an ultimate end. From the standpoint and starting-point of evil, it is impossible to incline or self-determine to God. The sinner may exert volitions, and make resolutions, in hope of producing another inclination, but they are failures. A holy inclination cannot be originated by this method. This is moral inability. What are the grounds of it? William G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1971), 2:218-233. [Some reformatting; some spelling modernized; and italics original.]

2) VOL. 2., p. 224. The equivocation and self-contradiction in Edwards’s doctrine of “natural ability and inability” are seen by analyzing the following extract from his work on the Will given in “Dogmatic Theology,” II., 249

If the will [i.e., the inclination] fully complies, and the proposed effect does not prove, according to the laws of nature, to be connected with his [excutive] volition, the man is perfectly excused; he has a natural inability to the thing required. For the will [inclination] itself, as has been observed, is all that can be directly and immediately required by command; and other things only indirectly as connected with the will. If therefore there be a full compliance of will [inclination], the person has done his duty.

Edwards here declares that the person who “has a natural inability to the thing required” because he is prevented by the “laws of nature” from executing his inclination by volitions, has nevertheless “done his duty” by the inward inclining and “complying” of his will. This shows that “natural inability,” as Edwards defines it, does not prevent the performance of man’s duty to God. If this be so, then “natural inability” is of little consequence. It may exist, and yet the whole duty of man be performed notwithstanding. And on the other hand, if “natural ability” be as Edwards conceives of it, the mere possession of a will apart from its hostile inclination towards God, such an ability is not adequate to the performance of the duty of loving God supremely. In this case, also, “natural ability” is valueless, because the duty of man cannot be performed by it. This shows that Edwards, in order to meet the exigencies of his argument with his Arminian opponents, employs the term “ability” in a false sense, and not in its true and common signification of real efficient power.

Anselm (Cur Deus Homo, II., xvii.) directs attention to the two meanings of “power,” according as reference is had to inclination or to volition.

We found when considering the question whether Christ could lie, that there are two senses of the word ‘power’ in regard to it: the one referring to his disposition, the other to the outward act; and that though he had the power to lie externally and verbally, he was so disposed (a seipso habuit) that he could not lie inwardly and from inclination.

But in this instance there is no equivocal use of “ability,” in the sense of quasi-power. The ability of Christ to vocalize the words of a lie was real ability; and his inability to incline to lie was real inability. William G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1971), 3:367. [Some reformatting; some spelling modernized; and italics original.]

[Notes: While I think Shedd makes some valuable points on this subject, his treatment is also inadequate at key points.

1) What is driving Shedd is the concern that innate depravity must be seen as a necessary yet free propensity to sin. In his mind, Edwards undercuts this truth with his natural ability vs moral ability distinction. In Shedd’s thinking, this distinction entails a self-contradiction, Shedd: “Edwards strenuously maintains that moral inability is utter and helpless impotence. This is the self-contradiction in his theory.” However, even given all that Shedd chides Edwards for, he admits that Edwards would concur with the doctrine of man’s free yet necessary propensity to sin.

2) The problem is, Shedd has pressed Edwards too far. For example, take this line from Shedd, “Instead of denying, with the Calvinistic creeds generally, the Arminian premiss that all inability however brought about is inconsistent with obligation, he [Edwards] concedes it, and endeavors to show that there is ability,” [bold mine]. It is not the case, however, that Edwards concedes that inability “however brought about” is inconsistent with “obligation.” For Edwards, it is only that inability which is brought about by a natural impairment that is inconsistent with obligation. At times, Shedd demonstrates that he understands exactly what Edwards means to speak to. For example he concedes: “An idiot or an insane person is not a moral agent.” And:

Ability must not be confounded with capability, or power with capacity. The sinner is capable of loving God supremely, but not able to love him supremely; and probably this is all that is intended by many who assert “natural ability.”

In reality, this is the touchstone of the natural ability vs moral ability distinction. For example, if God were to command a man to flap his arms and by his own ability, unaided by other persons or devices, to fly to the moon as a necessary precondition to salvation, such an obligation would be–all things being equal–an unjust and irrational obligation. As Calvinists, we must be sensitive to this problem and respect the Arminian counter as true as far as it goes. The Arminian seeks to establish a direct logical contradiction between human inability as understood by Calvinists, and divine obligation to repent and believe as taught in Scripture. Edwards, for his part, is only seeking to demonstrate that there is no formal contradiction, by the fact that there is no natural impediment, and/or no physical barrier preventing belief (comparable to the analogy I have presented).

3) Shedd’s use of Pacscal there is disanalogous, as the inability respects different things. Having actual “legs” to walk, as opposed to their absence, is not analogous to having in natural and physical inability to operate or move one’s legs. If the nerves have been severed, say in the spine, then saying of a man, ‘he has legs enough to walk home, therefore sufficient physical ability’ is to mock that man. Shedd should have known better. In the same vein, Shedd is on questionable grounds, in my estimation, when he suggests that the human inclination sin is a natural [though not created] disposition.

4) It seems to me that Shedd is on shaky ground when he insists that to be able to do an action, itself, immediately implies an inclination to do an action. Shedd: “And moral or voluntary ability cannot be separated from inclination. No inclination, no ability. If inclination, then ability. A man who is able to love God supremely, is inclined to love Him.” This just strikes me as an odd thing to insist upon. If we say, “John is able to love Mary, therefore, John is inclined to love Mary,” I do not think many would find such a statement credible. In some ways, we are able, contrary to Shedd, to conceive of ability apart from inclination. What is more, Shedd later says the very opposite when he asserts: “The ability of Christ to vocalize the words of a lie was real ability; and his inability to incline to lie was real inability.” Given Shedd’s prior statement, however, if Christ has the ability to to vocalize a lie, then surely he has the inclination to to vocalize a lie, but clearly that will not follow, exactly because we can distinguish or abstract ability from inclination.

5) Shedd is on better ground when he focuses on the real problem, Shedd: “For the real question is, whether the sinner can originate the “thing that is wanting” in order to obedience.” Here Shedd, I think, would have served us all better had he granted the basic answer provided by Edwards in his Philosophical work (The Freedom of Will), but sought to build upon it by supplementing it with an exegetical and theological case for man’s necessary yet free innate propensity to sin; which he does in a credible manner.

6) Lastly, I have underlined in the above piece a few lines of thought which highlight an important component in any answer to the Arminian, or anyone else for that matter–an answer given after one should make the very qualifications both Edwards and Shedd presents. Calvin, with approval, cites Bernard as saying: “Thus the soul, in a certain strange and evil manner, under this kind of voluntary and free yet pernicious necessity, is both enslaved and free.” The Calvinist, as a Christian, must accept the element of the mysterious as a presupposition to his commitment to Scripture’s own self-revelation about the state of fallen man. And so to come back to Shedd’s question (as noted in #5 above), any Christian answer must start with, or critically include, the categorical rejection the rationalist’s charge that God obligates a person to perform that which is physically or naturally impossible for him to do, yet also end with the reality of the mysterious. Thus, I think Edwards’ distinction, building upon many elder Calvinists (contrary to Shedd’s understanding on this point), is valid, useful, and necessary.]

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3 comments so far

 1 

I’ve occasionally wondered if we would be better off referring to “moral inability” simply as “culpable inability.” While the moral/natural distinction is valuable, it is still often misunderstood by Arminians. I don’t think it’s any less tendentious than our definition of “moral inability,” but has the benefit of being up front about the issue.

We are asserting that they humanity is morally culpable for a moral inability – and this discussion usually digresses rapidly into analogies to natural inability (from both sides). I think it better to assert the culpability (which implies morality), then have to defend that assertion, rather than defending the distinction and the assertion.

What do you think?

March 9th, 2012 at 1:20 pm
CalvinandCalvinism
 2 

Hey BC,

You say: I’ve occasionally wondered if we would be better off referring to “moral inability” simply as “culpable inability.” While the moral/natural distinction is valuable, it is still often misunderstood by Arminians. I don’t think it’s any less tendentious than our definition of “moral inability,” but has the benefit of being up front about the issue.

David: I am not sure that culpable inability will mean much either to the Arminian. I think it will just to taken to mean: inculpability, ie non-culpability. I think Weeks’ terms are the best and clearest: http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?p=7397. I dont know if you read that.

You say: We are asserting that they humanity is morally culpable for a moral inability – and this discussion usually digresses rapidly into analogies to natural inability (from both sides). I think it better to assert the culpability (which implies morality), then have to defend that assertion, rather than defending the distinction and the assertion.

David: Sure, but either way, you will have to do some explaining. :-) At the end of the day, it is sort of ironic because the true Arminian admits, just as with us, that the natural man, without the aid of prevenient grace or intervening grace is 1) morally unable to seek and do that which is truly good, and 2)this same man is all the while morally culpable before God. I cant imagine any evangelical Arminian (True Wesleyan etc) suggesting that before the operation of prevenient grace, the sinner is not culpable for sinful actions. For sure, the true Wesleyan will say that this moral inability is a sort of spiritual sickness, but that does not avert the issue: they would not seriously assert that the sinner, apart from the work of prevenient grace is without moral culpability.

That being so, the opponent to innate depravity or inability has to be someone other than a true Arminian, ie, Pelagian, semi-Pelagian, or some such thing. That being the case, the conversation is really about something entirely different, eg, are men born sinners or sinful in the first place.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
David

March 9th, 2012 at 2:44 pm
 3 

In the new edition of Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology, your first quote appears on pp. 577-588 (Dogmatic Theology, [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003]). The Supplement 4.5.12 (your second quote) appears on page 607 in the new edition.

March 10th, 2012 at 4:28 am

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