Edwards, Necessity & Certainty: Part 1

by Ken Hamrick

This will be a series of informal posts chronicling my quest to understand and engage Jonathan Edwards on the ideas of necessity and certainty, and to establish where Andrew Fuller departed from Edwards’ view. In this, I’m seeking to expand the argument made in the paper, “Fuller & Inability: A Centrist Response to Tom Nettles.”

Edwards defines necessity in the following way:

Philosophical Necessity is really nothing else than the FULL AND FIXED CONNECTION BETWEEN THE THINGS SIGNIFIED BY THE SUBJECT AND PREDICATE OF A PROPOSITION, which affirms something to be true. When there is such a connection, then the thing affirmed in the proposition is necessary, in a philosophical sense; whether any opposition or contrary effort be supposed, or no. When the subject and predicate of the proposition, which affirms the existence of any thing, either substance, quality, act, or circumstance, have a full and CERTAIN CONNECTION, then the existence or being of that thing is said to be necessary in a metaphysical sense. [1]

He treats necessity and certainty as the same thing: “Metaphysical or philosophical Necessity is nothing different from their certainty. I speak not now of the certainty of knowledge, but the certainty that is in things themselves, which is the foundation of the certainty of the knowledge, or that wherein lies the ground of the infallibility of the proposition which affirms them.”[2] He is wrong. They are not the same. He fails to distinguish the substance of that connection between subject and predicate, seeing only a perfect or imperfect connection. But of what does that connection consist? Is the certainty, as Edwards says, “in things themselves,” in every case, or can the certainty be in God’s foreknowledge alone? To Edwards, God can only know with certainty those things that are certain in themselves, or otherwise, God would have certain knowledge of what is uncertain—declared to Edwards to be a contradiction.

There must be a certainty in things themselves, before they are certainly known, or which is the same thing, known to be certain. For certainty of knowledge is nothing else but knowing or discerning the certainty there is in the things themselves, which are known. Therefore there must be a certainty in things to be a ground of certainty of knowledge, and to render things capable of being known to be certain. And there is nothing but the necessity of truth known, or its being impossible but that it should be true; or, in other words, the firm and infallible connexion between the subject and predicate of the proposition that contains that truth. All certainty of Knowledge consists in the view of the firmness of that connexion. So God’s certain foreknowledge of the future existence of any event, is his view of the firm and indissoluble connexion of the subject and predicate of the proposition that affirms its future existence. The subject is that possible event; the predicate is its future existence, but if future existence be firmly and indissolubly connected with that event, then the future existence of that event is necessary. If God certainly knows the future existence of an event which is wholly contingent, and may possibly never be, then, he sees a firm connexion between a subject and predicate that are not firmly connected; which is a contradiction.[3]

He contends that God cannot have certain knowledge of a thing without that knowledge proving the certainty of the thing itself. Is the thing certain? Then, it has certainty in itself. Does God know it with certainty? Then the thing is certain. The connection between subject and predicate would be infallible. His logic is challenging, but flawed.

We need to look more closely at the origin of the proposition that contains the subject and predicate, and at the substance of that connection between them. If the connection consists only in the knowledge of God, then it is (I will venture the terms) Epistemic Certainty; but, if that connection consists in more than knowledge, consisting in the laws of cause and effect in the physical universe, then it is Ontic Certainty—a certainty that is built into the very substance of the world and the thing itself.[4] Ontic certainty is true necessity, unlike epistemic certainty, which is certainty without necessity.

Is God’s foreknowledge only an infinite ability to calculate the results of all cause-and-effect chains? In other words, must the certainty of His foreknowledge come from the certainty in the things themselves? Or, can God have certainty of foreknowledge about things which have no certainty in themselves? If God is outside of time, seeing all moments “at once,” then He is able to see with certainty those things that have no certainty in themselves—things that have no ontic certainty. If God’s foreknowledge comes from His transcendence of time, then He would see with certainty even those things that are completely random (if such things exist—and Quantum Physics now suggests that they do), or “contingent,” as Edwards would term them.

This would be a certainty that transcends the thing itself, just as God transcends the substance of the universe (both time and space). Edwards misses this distinction, insisting that any certainty about a thing—even if seemingly only in God’s foreknowledge—is a certainty in the thing itself, if for no other reason than that the thing is certain and cannot but be.

Whether Prescience be the thing that makes event necessary or no, it alters not the case. Infallible Foreknowledge may prove the Necessity of the event foreknown, and yet not be the thing which causes the Necessity. If the foreknowledge be absolute, this proves the event known to be necessary, or proves that it is impossible but that the event should be, by some means or other, either by a decree, or some other way, if there be any other way: because, as was said before, it is absurd to say, that a proposition is known to be certainly and infallibly true, which yet may possibly prove not true.[5]

Edwards’ error here pulls the knowledge of God down into creation itself, blurring the distinction between the created world and that which transcends it. How is it “impossible but that the event should be?” The scope of meaning of the term impossible as used here needs scrutiny. If the impossibility consists only in the impossibility that God’s foreknowledge fail, then it is strictly an epistemic impossibility that transcends the ontic world and the nature of that event. If the impossibility disappears when the scope is limited to the created world, then what we are really looking at is certainty and not impossibility or necessity. Ontically, the nature of that event may be completely contingent—without necessity—and still be certain in the knowledge of God. By losing sight of the transcendence of God’s foreknowledge, Edwards misses the distinction between epistemic certainty and ontic certainty; and so he views certainty as nothing other than necessity.

Possibility and impossibility are terms that only apply to this temporal world. In God’s transcendent foreknowledge, all is immutably known, and so possibility and impossibility are foreign terms improperly applied to that realm. In God’s transcendent foreknowledge, all things are immutably known and are thus certain, even those things for which alternative possibilities exist within this temporal world. Within the scope of the creation, it is not impossible that a foreknown event may fail to be. God merely foreknows with transcendent certainty which of many alternative possibilities will come to pass.

Edwards recognizes the distinction between moral and natural ability, and the need to speak in improper, figurative terms of inability when speaking of moral inability or philosophical necessity. He acknowledges that a man has it within his power to choose one thing or another, and if he would choose the other, nothing would stand in his way. But to Edwards, all this freedom and power are tempered by a necessity that determines the man’s choice as part of the ontic make-up of the universe. The world is made in such a way that the man will choose the left over the right, even though he had the natural ability to choose the other way and nothing (other than the ontic make-up of the universe) constrained him. Edwards acknowledges that a man is free to choose according to his desires, but he views the certainty that a man will in every case choose according to his greatest desire as a “metaphysical” certainty—a blind amalgamation that treats all certainty as if it were the same as ontic certainty. This is the crux of the matter. Are men’s choices necessary (ontically certain), or are they merely certain (epistemically certain)?

The fact that men do not choose against their greatest desire does not establish that they cannot so choose. God, transcending His creation, made man in His image in such a way that man also transcends the creation while simultaneously being a part of it, by making man a spiritual and physical being. The human spirit transcends the physical world in a way similar to the substance of God transcending both the physical and spiritual creation. Even unbelievers universally understand that man is transcendent, seeing humanity as if we were an unnatural element in the world. Why is human abuse of the environment decried rather than seen as the naturally evolved result to be left undisturbed so that it may naturally run its course? Humanity transcends the environment in a way that almost makes us alien to this physical world. We are more than merely physical. We are spiritual. We are transcendent in the image of the transcendent God.

As a transcendent spiritual being, each man in his spirit stands always before God with nothing in between. The relation in which he stands before God is either one of seeking and worshipping God or one of seeking self and hating God—either one of seeking the right or of seeking the wrong. There are no degrees. There are only two positions on the spiritual compass. This is the basis for the conscience in every man, and for the innate knowledge of God.

The certainty of men’s choices comes from God’s foreknowledge alone; therefore, men are rightly accountable for them. This also means that God’s providence has an active role, anticipating how each man (and moral agent) would act in every possible counterfactual, and acting to bring about those events and circumstances that accomplish His plan in a world full of free-willed agents.

Andrew Fuller is believed by most to follow Edwards on every point. However, Fuller explicitly denies what Edwards always affirms, which is necessity. Fuller affirms certainty but denies necessity. In following Edwards, Fuller kept the good and discarded the bad.

[Edited 8/16/2017 to change epistemological and ontological to epistemic and ontic, respectively, and to add footnote 4.]

[1] “On The Freedom of The Will,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, (Hendrickson: Peabody, 2003), Vol. 1, Part I., Sect. III., 5., p. 9. Also accessed electronically at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/will.html
[2] Ibid., p. 8.
[3] Ibid., Part II., Sect. XII., p. 38.
[4] The term ontic is used here with a broader meaning that includes the immaterial substance of the moral and spiritual nature. It still refers to things as they are, but includes things that transcend the material world.
[5] Ibid., p. 37

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