A.A. Hodge


Free-will is a question of great interest. I do not assert, nor is it necessary that I should, what are the essential elements of free agency. Men may differ about that. But we know we have a conscience, and that a person is not a mere machine — for that a machine cannot have an obligation, cannot be subject to command, is certainly proved; but that a person is subject to command, is subject to obligations of conscience, is a matter of universal consciousness. This is very true, more so than any fact of science. The most certain things in the world are not the things you can prove. You say, “I have proved this, and therefore I believe it to be true.” The fact that you have got to prove things shows that there is doubt, for it is only doubtful things you have to prove. The things which you cannot prove are the eternal verities.

How do you prove things? You prove things by deducing the unknown from the known, the uncertain from the certain, by referring particulars to general laws — that is, you prove through a medium. But how do you prove the medium? Now, logic is a great thing. How does logic work? Of course, step by step. You know that in logic you cannot separate the links; if you get hold of one end of the chain, you keep following it up. But what is the force of the chain? You have got a chain of logic hanging down, and you climb up that chain link by link; but what supports the chain at the other end? Logic is like a ladder — by means of it you go up step by step. But how are you going to prove that the bottom of it is all right? The ladder rests on the ground; but what supports the ground? You prove this by that; but what proves that? You must have a starting-point, an ultimate fact, and these ultimate principles are the most sure, because if the ground is not steady the ladder is not steady; the ground must be more steady than the ladder. The things which you start from, which are the means of bringing us results, are more sure than other things which are proved by them. You and I know that we are free. You and I know that we are responsible. You and I have that assurance of knowledge which is before all science.

This matter of free-will underlies everything. If you bring it to question, it is infinitely more than Calvinism. I believe in Calvinism, and I say free-will stands before Calvinism. Everything is gone if free-will is gone; the moral system is gone if free-will is gone; you cannot escape, except by materialism on the one hand or pantheism on the other. Hold hard, therefore, to the doctrine of free-will. What is it? I say to my class, but I do not know whether it will do to say it here, “I have my will, but my will is not free; it is myself that is free.” Now it makes a difference whether you have freedom of will or the freedom of man in willing. I am conscious that my will is free. But am I free when I will? That is what I mean to indicate. Consciousness tells me that I am free, therefore I am responsible. Then I have this freedom. It is not an abstract quality, it is not an abstract faculty; it has a whole meaning, it is the I that is free; the reason is free, as free as the consciousness. It is the I that is free, and has got a will; it is the I that is free, and has got a character.

Now, so understanding this freedom of the I, not of the will, but of the whole soul, what is freedom? I say it is just this, as far as I know anything about it, that it is just the self-originating, self-directing I, and that is the whole that it is. Let me illustrate. Suppose I should put upon your table, or you should see resting there, with nothing to interfere with it, a ball of something. It is a ball of yarn. Now suppose you begin to see the yarn moving; you would be sure to say, “Some one is moving it.” It is yarn; nothing is more certain than that the thing cannot move itself; if it moves, it moves by reason of some life connected with it, and you settle that question right off. You look again, and you say, “It is not a ball of yarn; it is a mouse.” The thing started itself; it could not move unless it had life from within that is self-originating motion. Now, has the mouse free-will? No, because the mouse has not reason and conscience; therefore I would amend my definition. The mouse has self-originated action, the mouse has self-electing action; but it has not reason and conscience. I say it is self-originated, self-elected action, with the illumination of reason and conscience, that makes free-will.

You are sitting in a summer-house; you see something darting about. What is it? It is nothing but a speck of dust. That is not self-directed action; it is governed by the wind. Suppose that you look and see that it is motion directed from within, that this darting and stopping is self-moved. Why, that is not governed by the wind; it is governed by instinct, which is not reason or conscience. Suppose that you or I at sea should observe a great ship at a distance just carried about. We look at it; we take our glasses, and you say, “It has no life about it,” It is moved by the current; and you say that it is an abandoned thing that is carried about and swept along by controlling circumstances and outside causes. But instead of this object floating about, suppose we see a steamship. The steam is on, the wheels are revolving, the action that you see is controlled from within; and you have there self-originated action — the action comes from within the ship. A gale is blowing, and the waves are dashing against the vessel; but you see the royal mail steamship fully manned and equipped; the forces are all at work, and there is a man at the helm; and there you have free-will in its highest form — self-originated force, self-directed force, under the lead of reason and conscience: that I believe to be free-will.

Now, the second question is the influence of character on the will. A great many seem to think free-will a simple matter. I believe it is the greatest mystery of the world. Man has a fixed character which determines all in a certain track, and yet that man is free; whereas, you say a man to be free ought to be perfectly uninfluenced. Suppose I bring up before you to-day in illustration a child. It has no past, no history. It can do what it pleases, of course; and if I say to it, “Will you do this?” it replies, “I will.” The child does just what any one wishes it to do. Now, take a man of education and of character, a man of principle, a man of convictions, a man of purpose, a man of fixed habits, and you cannot make him do this or that. What he does is already determined by the character of the man, habits which have been crystallized into character. The child is unformed — he can do anything; but the character of the man is fixed, and he cannot do what is against his conscience, and he cannot do what is improper in his mind or view. It is uncertain what the child will do, hut it is very certain what the man will do. Now, I ask you, Which is the more free? Is it the child or the man? Is the child free, or is the father free who can stand up in the most trying times, determined from within by the forces of his character and by the good habits of his life? You take a man — take a father and compare him with God: concede the father to be a man of high character, such as General Grant, and sanctified by the Spirit of God, firm as a rock. Yet, after all, the strongest human being may be tempted, may be overcome by seduction. But when you look up at Jehovah, whose character is not uncertain, whose character is eternal, who cannot do that which is foolish and who cannot do that which is wrong, which is the more free? Is Jehovah freer than man? Is the man freer than the child? Therefore, I hold that a man is free just in proportion to his convictions, just in proportion to his capability of determining his action from experience, just from his fixedness and crystallization of character. A man is free in proportion to the direction and development of his character. A holy character is the highest form of freedom.

I believe a sinful character leaves man responsible; for the sinner is just as free as the saint, the devil is just as free as Gabriel. Now, what is freedom? It is self-originated, self-directed action under the law of reason and conscience. But the devil has all that, just as much as Gabriel; the sinful man has all that, just as much as the saint. The difference is here. I have the power of willing as I prefer, but I have no power of creating a holy character for myself. If I have a holy character, my character coincides with my views, my judgment, my reason, my conscience, and my spontaneous affections; they all go in one direction. But if I am a sinner I have no right-directing heart. Reason says go one way, conscience says go the same way, the affections and the dispositions say go another way; and therefore the sinner, according to the language of the Bible, although really free and morally responsible, is in bondage to corruption; the impulses of his heart are in the wrong direction.

Apply that to the fourfold state of man. There are only four states, and there have been only two human beings who occupied all the four states — namely, Adam and Eve. There is the state of innocency, the state of sin, the state of grace, and the state of glory.

Now, we know what it is to be sinners; but can we cease to be sinners, and can we obey the law of holiness? We know what it is to be Christians through divine grace. How was it with Adam? Adam was created, according to the Bible, with a perfectly holy nature, without sin; and yet he was able to sin, and he was able to do right. You have not had that experience. No one but Adam ever had that experience or ever can have it.

If you will read the ninth chapter of our Confession of Faith, on the “Freedom of the Will,” you will find it one of the most wonderful treatises you have ever seen.

You are familiar with the fact that theologians always escape from difficulties by using the word “mystery,” and that the mystery of mysteries is the origin of sin. The great mystery is a theological one. How is it possible that a God of infinite holiness, of infinite compassion, of infinite knowledge, of infinite power, ever allows sin to exist? Why, sin is the very thing he hates. This is an absolutely insoluble mystery. How did sin begin? Why did God permit it? If we are all free, if we are created by God, and there is nothing which exists which God did not create except himself, how did sin come? That is an insoluble mystery. St. Augustine attempted to account for it, and I believe his suggestion is the very nearest to it possible. It is that sin in its origin is not a positive entity, but it is a defect.

Take this for an illustration: Suppose you have a fiddle that has been out of tune: you hang it up on the wall, and a year after you come back and take it down, and the fiddle is all in tune. You know that the fiddle must have been put in tune; it could not have got into tune spontaneously. But suppose your fiddle is perfectly in tune when you hang it up, and you go away, and when you return you find that it is out of tune. It does not follow that somebody did it. You do not say that somebody did it, but that it got out of tune. Now, in the case of Adam I have no doubt sin began in that way — not as sin, but it began to be through inattention, it began to be through defect in love, through defect in faith; it was an omission, and it was thus through a rift in the lute, through a crack here and another there, with a want of harmony. And with this want of harmony came the awful discord that has sent the world into a bedlam, and made a division between God and man. Adam sinned, and then we got into the condition with which we are familiar, with a will to sin, and with a power only to sin. And then, through the cross, we are lifted into a condition of grace, in which we have power to obey; and the power grows stronger and stronger, and the disposition and desire to sin grow weaker and weaker. That is before us. Thank God we shall come at last to the stature of perfect manhood in Christ Jesus, when the character, amplified and regenerated, shall come to its full divine crystalline beauty; and then we shall partake of the divine nature, and have a perfect freedom of will, as free as Adam, yet certain as God.


 A.A. Hodge (1823-1886), Professor in Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary from 1877 until his death in 1886, urged that the aim of every Christian teacher should be to produce a vitalizing impression — giving students ‘theology, exposition, demonstration, orthodoxy, learning, but giving all this to them warm.’ ‘He taught the knowledge of God,’ said one of his hearers, ‘with the learning of a scholar and the enthusiasm of a loving Christian’. These qualities not only crowded his classrooms, they also led to frequent appeals for the delivery of popular lectures.

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