Vol. 27 New Series November, 1965 No. 5


It is now more than fifty years since the paper 'Free Moral Agency' first made its appearance in print. This was followed by another in similar vein, viz., 'The Phantom of Free Will.'

In both these publications, the authors sought to trace out the source of human actions to the directing will of God. Man is portrayed as the creature of circumstances over which he has little or no control.

It was Mr. Alexander Thomson who demonstrated the unsoundness of the first of these papers by showing that the Scriptures used in support of the theory advanced, were concerned, not with mankind in general, but with certain chosen members of the race, prominent ones specially used of God in the furtherance of His purposes. The essence of the teaching is to be found in the claim that 'ALL is out of God,' the evil of which has recently been pin-pointed in the open letter by Mr. R. J. Sheffield.

At the turn of this century, there appeared a volume by Professor Momerie, Sometime Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, entitled, 'Character.' This was made up of a series of lectures given by the author some years earlier.

The opening chapter deals with the function of the human will in the formation of character, and the writer makes this arresting remark at the outset: 'Since man is left to choose right or wrong, his character must be created by himself.'

The following extract from the book is presented here in the hope that it will help others to grasp the tremendous importance of our choices, to ourselves, to others and to God.

"What we mean by a man's character is not the temperament he was born with, not the effect produced upon him by education and other external causes, but a certain something which he has made for himself by the general trend of his own actions. Character, if there is such a thing, must be the creation of the individual who possesses it.

"If there is such a thing! At the very outset we are confronted by the question: Is there such a thing? Is character a reality or an illusion? Do we deceive ourselves in supposing that we are endowed with this creative faculty? In other words, are we free agents or are we not?

"Let me speak about the so-called freedom of the will. Oddly enough, human freedom has been denied by very opposite schools of thinkers—viz., by theologians like Calvin and by materialists like Bain. According to the Calvinistic theologians, all our actions are predetermined for us by the Deity. We are no more responsible for them than we are responsible for our own birth.
A human being is but a puppet in the hands of omnipotence,—

"According to the materialists, a man is merely an instrument played upon by physical forces. His body (that is, all there is of him according to the materialists)—his body is made to perform certain actions by means of desires and motives, just as a machine is moved by pulleys or by steam. This is quite a fashionable doctrine in the present day; it has no doubt been supported and still is, by eminent thinkers, who have really had something to say in its favour; but it is adopted by a great many other persons simply because they imagine it to be smart.

"I do not propose to give you any elaborate arguments in favour of human freedom. It is one of the most difficult problems in existence, but I think I can easily show you that the doctrine of necessity has arisen (as false doctrines generally do arise) from AMBIGUITY.

"Let us inquire precisely what it is we mean by the freedom of the will. To begin with, that expression is itself misleading and tautological. Will, if it exists, must be free. A necessitated will is a contradiction in terms. Will means the power of choice; and choice cannot be necessitated, or it would cease to be choice. We cannot be compelled to choose one thing while at the same timewe are free to choose either of two things. The question is, not whether the will is free, but whether we have a will at all. Have we, or have we not, a real power of choice? Those who say we have not are called, as you know, necessitarians. They maintain that all our actions are necessitated; their doctrine has received its chief support from the use, or rather the abuse, of the word 'motive.'

"This is an ambiguous term; it has a literal and a metaphorical signification. In the literal sense it can be applied only to physical objects. I bring a motive to bear upon a book, e.g., when I push it or pull it from one place to another.

"But it is in a metaphorical sense alone that the term can be applied to mind. I may be said to bring motives to bear upon you when I present you with arguments in favour of my own views and against somebody else's. These arguments do not push or pull you as my fingers push or pull a book, though they may, as we say, influence you.

"But the necessitarians always use the term motive as if it were unambiguous, as if it had but one literal, physical meaning. When used in this way, it becomes what logicians call a question begging word. It assumes the very point to be proved—viz., that mind is moved in the same way as matter. A judicious playing with the word motive has made the work of the necessitarians easy. It is a term which should not be used at all in the discussion of mental phenomena; but if it is used, we must always bear in mind that it is being employed in a figurative sense.

"Suppose that a man is in a hurry to keep an engagement, and that a violent wind is blowing dead against him. It seems decidedly inappropriate to apply the same name to the physical wind which drives him back and to the psychical remembrance of his engagement which urges him forward. But if you do apply the same name to both, you must remember that in the one case you are using the word literally, and in the other metaphorically. There is no such analogy as the word motive suggests between the movements of a machine and the actions of a man.

"The necessitarians say that whatever has motives brought to bear upon it must move. Well, that sounds all right. It is the very essence of a motive to make things move; if it did not make them move, it would not be a motive. So at first we do not see any flaw in the argument when the necessitarians mention that whatever has motive brought to bear upon it must move—move in accordance with the strength and direction of the motives. This is true enough in the physical sphere,—in fact, it is a truism; but it is the very point in dispute regarding mind.

"The question at issue is, whether mental motives act in the same way as material. And a little reflection should convince anyone that the supposed analogy completely breaks down. If a number of motives be brought to bear upon a machine, it must at once yield to the resultant of their combined forces. But when a number of motives are presented to me, I need not, I generally do not, yield to them immediately. I can pause, I can reflect; I can call up new and more powerful motives. That is just what a machine cannot do, and that is just what will eternally distinguish me from it.

"There is no parallelogram of forces in the realm of mind. Let me explain. A parallelogram is a figure of which the opposite sides are parallel. Now it is a law of mechanics that if two forces be playing on an object, one tending to draw it along one side at the parallelogram, and the other along the side at right angles, the object will move across the diagonal of the parallelogram, which therefore represents the resultant force—i.e., the force that results from the combination of the other two.

"Now, there is nothing like this in the mental sphere, thank goodness! It would be awkward for us if there were. Human life would soon come to an end.

"Suppose, for instance, there was a motive for me to go to York—say that I had been invited to lecture in that city at a fee of fifty guineas; and suppose there was a motive for me to go to Exeter—say that I had been asked to lecture there at a fee of forty guineas: then if there were a psychological parallelogram of forces, if the mechanical law of motives applied in the sphere of mind, the resultant of the two forces would land me somewhere in the Midland counties, say Gloucester or Worcester, where I had not been invited, where I should not get a fee, and where there was no reason for me to go at all.

"You see now, I hope, that physical and psychical motives have nothing in common. The weight of the latter—of the psychical or mental motives—is imponderable; their force is immaterial; their influence depends not so much on their inherent power, as on the influence which the mind chooses to concede to them. In a word, mental motives are reasons, after reflection on which a man has recourse to self-adjustment, not forces by which he is involuntarily adjusted. Nay, if the word motive must be used in reference to our mental life, I will go so far as to say that we often act in accordance with the weakest motive. When a human being is influenced on the one side by a wild and delirious temptation, and on the other by the still small voice of conscience, it is possible for him to follow the suggestions of the latter; but he who asserts that this is the stronger motive must be willing to admit that the zephyr may be more powerful than the whirlwind. Herbert Spencer has laid it down as a universal law, that a volition is a discharge of nervous energy along the line of least resistance. But it is not always so. The most inveterate habits are not quite irresistible, for they are sometimes resisted. And whenever they are conquered, the nervous energy must have been discharged along the line which experience had rendered the line of greatest resistance.

"If the figurative sense of the word motive be taken into account, it may be said that a man is free because he obeys motives—i.e., because he has reasons presented to him—in accordance with which he is able, if he please, to act. He is moved by the motives only when he allows himself to be moved. He obeys them only when he chooses to obey. I commit an action necessarily, if I am made to commit it by forces which I have no ability to resist; I commit an action freely, if I am endowed with the power of refraining from it, until reflection has convinced me of its desirability. No matter whether, in the end, I act in accordance with motives originally presented to me, or with motives that only arose after I had waited and thought,—if I am convinced of the desirability of the action, and if I could refrain from committing it until I am so convinced, then the action when committed is caused, not by the motives, but by me. The volition which led to it was created by myself. Yes, created. I, like God, am a creator—the creator of my own volitions, and therefore of my character.

"Now this creative faculty, this faculty of choice, is the source of all goodness. Without it, virtue would be impossible, inconceivable. The good man is he who does right, when he might, if he pleased, have done wrong. An action done under compulsion, on the other hand, is devoid of all moral quality; it is neither right nor wrong. There can be no goodness, no virtue, no right-doing, except such as is the outcome of the power of choice. This seems self-evident; yet many eminent thinkers are unable to comprehend it. If a man is to have a character at all, he must make it for himself. God has given us faculties, qualities, characteristics, but character He has never given, and can never give; that is not bestowed from without, it must come from a man's inner self. To ask why God does not make people good, is as absurd as to ask why He does not make triangles with only two sides. A triangle is a figure with three sides,—that is what a triangle means. It follows, therefore, that a triangle with two sides is a contradiction in terms, an impossibility; the words are meaningless; to use them is to talk nonsense, gibberish. Similarly, goodness is that which a man chooses for himself; it is goodness just because he does choose it for himself. Choice is involved in the very meaning of the word. It follows, therefore, that goodness cannot be conferred by another; anything so conferred would not be goodness. Compulsory goodness is a contradiction in terms; there can be no such thing. The very words are nonsense.

"The creative faculty of will, therefore, is the only possible source of goodness; it enables us to produce, by a succession of efforts, what God Himself had no other means of creating. True, we may be creators of evil as well as good. Freedom carries with it inevitably the liability to sin; it lies in the very nature of things that pleasure and duty must sometimes clash, and that we, who are free to choose between them, should sometimes choose amiss. Alas! that we so often do."

We see, from the foregoing therefore, that character is bound up with the general trends of a person's actions—actions which are the expression of the individual's choice or will.

In the light of this, the relevance of requital at the BEMA takes on a significance that it cannot possibly have for anyone caught in the toils of the destructive teaching that 'ALL is actively out of God.'

According to II. Cor. 5:10, each one is to get back (komizo) the things through the body, corresponding to what he puts into practice, whether good or bad. This is most certainly a judgment; a time of pains and penalty, even though the individual is saved as through fire. The 'forfeit' or loss—(zEmiOthEsetai)—that some will suffer (I. Cor. 3:15) must surely be a judgment—if one's work should then be burnt up, would that not be a most severe judgement?

It is only 'if we suffer with Him' that we shall reign (II. Tim. 2:12). Our reigning depends on our present actions. Yes. Our actions, here and now, and not actions predetermined for us ages ago.

We have naught to lose but everything to gain by casting away the fatalistic notions enshrined in the teaching that 'All is out of God.' Far from being the touchstone of truth, this theory stands revealed as an error of the first magnitude, destructive of all spiritual growth.

M. A. Meredith Last updated 9.10.2008