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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


The consideration of the place of the will in the teaching of the apostolic writings must be carefully distinguished from the question of free will (see art. Freedom of the will). The line between them is not easy to draw in all cases; but the aim of this article is to consider the conception or conceptions of the will implied in the Acts and Epistles, and its relation to views current in modern psychological writings. At the present time there is a strong tendency to throw commanding emphasis on the will. All consciousness, it is agreed, implies the three factors, volition or conation, cognition, and sensation or feeling; but, if any one of these can be said to be primary, it is volition. Consciousness grows by functioning; and, except in its rudimentary stages, functioning is impossible apart from volition. Much attention has naturally been given to the relations between will on the one hand and wish and desire on the other, to the connexion between will and attention and habit, and also to the possibility of action against the will. Is the will a matter of detached impulses or is it properly the expression of the personality, the self? These questions are of great importance to the student of the NT. Schopenhauer, and later Nietzsche, raised the subject of the will to a new importance in philosophic discussion; and the questions mentioned above have been recently emphasized by the various writings of William James, and the important and far-reaching contentions of Eucken and of Bergson. The theist has a further set of questions to answer: What is the relation of the will of man to the will of God? Does the latter compel the former? And is it similar in kind? What is the real meaning of the ‘surrender of the will’ so often demanded in religious writings? Which should be placed highest in religion, the active and conative, the intellectual, or the emotional element?

All these questions, more or less connected with one another, occur at once to the mind; but in the NT no direct answer to them is to be found. The NT writers were not in any sense psychological analysts; their object was to describe their religious experiences and to induce them in others. Their psychological equipment for doing this-if the adjective can be used at all-was the language of the OT and the simple categories common to the conversation of plain but thoughtful men. In their psychology the Rabbis themselves were no more than thoughtful amateurs-perhaps the world has gained rather than lost thereby. On the other hand, the language of the NT writers on this subject-like their use, e.g., of the Greek prepositions-though simple, is surprisingly careful. They did not work out their theology; but a theology was implicit in all that they wrote; and, without being conscious of doing so, they have given us materials for a reasoned conception of the will, as it may be predicated of both God and man.

To understand this, we must first pay attention to the writers’ vocabulary. The choice of words is determined as much on subconscious as on conscious levels; we employ one expression and reject another instinctively; and in cases like the present, where a system or a belief is implicit rather than explicit, language yields some of our best evidence. The language of the OT suggests three manifestations of will: (a) desire and aversion-the latter perhaps more often actually expressed terms which can all be applied either to man or to God; (b) satisfaction in a certain state of things, real or contemplated-, with the cognate noun, a; these again are equally applicable to man and to God; (c) a continued and persistent purpose, or the phrase -; the former is more commonly used of man; the latter suggests the familiar connexion between will and attention, -being always regarded by the Hebrews as the seat of thoughts rather than of emotions. The NT writers start from the same circle of ideas. From the undifferentiated material of likes and dislikes are developed deep mental and moral satisfactions, and acute physical desires or loathings. Will, for or against, is the natural precursor of action. Two wills may clash-those of man and man or of man and God. And out of will may grow a steadfast purpose, good or evil, which may fix the destiny of the whole life. When we examine the NT vocabulary more closely, a further distinction emerges. ‘Will’ is expressed by both θέλω and βούλομαι and their cognate nouns, as well as by a further little group of words which must also be noticed.

θέλω is nearly always used of man. There are exceptions in Acts 18:21, Romans 9:18; Romans 9:22, 1 Corinthians 4:19; 1 Corinthians 12:18; 1 Corinthians 15:38, Philippians 2:13 (the only occurrence of the word in this Epistle), Colossians 1:27, and James 4:15. In the Gospels, the word in very commonly used of man in general, and of Jesus; rarely of God, outside the quotations from the OT- Hosea 6:8 in Matthew 9:13 and parallels, and Psalms 22:8 in Matthew 27:43. The non-classical cognate noun, θέλημα, however, is almost entirely used of God. There are exceptions in Ephesians 2:3 (cf. Ephesians 1:11) and 2 Peter 1:21. The word is generally singular, but the plur. occurs in Acts 13:22 and Ephesians 2:3. In Hebrews 2:4 θέλησις is found, also of God. The same usage is found in the Gospels, especially in the Fourth Gospel (‘the will of my Father,’ ‘of him that sent me’); the exceptions really prove the principle (John 1:13, John 5:30, John 6:38).

The above makes it clear that the verb is used quite generally for ‘wish,’ ‘desire,’ and ‘want.’ The distinction common in English psychology since T. H. Green, between more and less conscious self-presentation in the act of will, is absent from the NT. But the verb covers a range wide enough to stretch from St. Paul’s favourite phrase, οὐ θέλω ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν, to the baffling experiences hinted at in Romans 7. It can thus be used of both man and God. On the other hand, the noun is practically confined to the idea of a solemn Divine purpose; hence its inapplicability to human desires.

When we turn to βούλομαι we find that the verb is always used of man, except in Luke 22:42, Hebrews 6:17 (the only case where the word occurs in Heb.), 2 Peter 3:9, and James 1:18 (cf. Matthew 11:27, 1 Corinthians 12:11). The nouns βουλή and βούλημα are rare; βουλή is used about equally of God and of man (for the latter use see Acts 5:38; Acts 19:1; Acts 27:12; Acts 27:42; for the former Ephesians 1:11 and Hebrews 6:17; note also 1 Corinthians 4:5, βουλὰς τῶν καρδιῶν). In the Gospels it occurs only twice-in Luke 7:30 of God, and in Luke 23:51 of man. βούλημα is used once of man (Acts 27:43), once of God (Romans 9:19), and once of the ‘nations’ (1 Peter 4:3).

The verb thus denotes plan and settled deliberate purpose, rising, however, out of uncertainty, needing effort for its realization, and liable to frustration; hence it is unsuitable for application to God. The noun denotes a deliberate and settled choice, which is more appropriate to the calm omnipotence of God (cf. Acts 2:23) than the ignorant strivings of man; it may, of course, imply a choice of alternatives, though not necessarily a long balancing between them. βούλευμα does not occur; βουλεύομαι is not used of God. βουλή, indeed, would seem to correspond somewhat nearly to the Aristotelian προαίρεσις (Eth. Nic. iii.). εὐδοκία denotes a choice in which satisfaction is found; it is used of both God and man; like the cognate verb, however, it is comparatively rare (cf. Romans 10:1, Philippians 1:15, 2 Thessalonians 1:11). In Luke 2:14 εὐδοκία corresponds to the Hebrew øÈöåÉï, and the whole phrase most naturally means ‘men in whom God feels satisfaction,’ not ‘good-will’ in the sense of the AV .

ἐπιθυμία, on the other hand, denotes an eager longing or craving, which may pass out of control and become πάθος, an overmastering passion. The verb ἐπιθυμέω is used only of man. It occurs outside the Gospels six times in a bad sense, twice in a good sense, and twice neutral; in the Gospels, however, out of six instances only one is bad. The noun is generally used in a bad sense, often with reference to bodily desires (note John 8:44). Like the verb, it is never used of God. πάθος suggests an ungovernable passion in the three places where it occurs (Romans 1:26, Colossians 3:5, 1 Thessalonians 4:5). A deep and overmastering longing for a good object is expressed by ἐπιποθέω (e.g. Romans 1:11, 2 Corinthians 9:14, Philippians 1:6, 1 Peter 2:2; it also meets us in the obscure passage in James 4:5).

Hence, out of the simple material of desires and aversions are developed overpowering cravings or settled purposes; when the latter become thought of as entirely fixed, they are connected exclusively with God. At the same time, NT language shrinks from the idea that God could actually deliberate. Thus the main distinction recognized by the language is religious rather than psychological; it is drawn between the will as manifested in man and in God rather than between the greater and less identification with the self.

But further questions arise at once. (1) What is the relation of a man’s will to God? Is a clash, as of two independent wills, really possible, until a point is reached where man says ‘Not as I will but as thou wilt’? (2) Is man’s will equally independent as regards evil? Here too we shall find no system; but we must ask whether by anything in the apostolic expressions an intelligible system is implied. We shall begin with the second point. Several expressions imply an influence exercised by evil, as itself an independent power, over the will-e.g. Acts 5:3 : ‘Why hath Satan filled thy heart?’ (but note v. 9: ‘How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord?’); 2 Corinthians 2:11 : ‘that no advantage may be gained over us by Satan’; 2 Corinthians 4:4; James 1:14 : ‘Each man is tempted, when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed’ (the words used suggest the metaphor of an angler). Acts 8:23; Acts 13:10 hint at the same idea, and perhaps Galatians 3:1; cf. also Romans 7:11; Romans 7:20, where sin itself is spoken of as the agent of deception and death (cf. Romans 8:20). This does not, however, destroy the responsibility of the sinner (Romans 1:24; Romans 1:26; Romans 2:1; Romans 2:5-6, and Acts 28:25 ff. quoted from Isaiah 6:9-10). The last passages imply a state; the evil will is a matter not of acts but of habits, or, as Aristotle would call them, ἕξεις (cf. Nic. Eth. iv. 2, 1122b 1). This state is called death, the absence of all will, or power, i.e. of all will to do good (Ephesians 2:1, 2 Corinthians 4:3). Very similar language is used by St. Paul about the race as a whole-‘death passed unto all men, for that all sinned’ (Romans 5:12). On the other hand, a man so dead can be made alive (Ephesians 2:5, Colossians 2:13); cf. also 1 John 3:14 : ‘We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren.’ Life, however, means death to sin and to the Law which enslaved to sin (Romans 7:6, Colossians 2:20; Colossians 3:3-4 : ‘Ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God … Christ, who is our life’). To this state the term death (to sin) is applied, since here the will is regarded, at least by implication, as being ‘dead’ to evil impulses, as before to good ones. Yet it is note-worthy that the activity of the will is still called for-‘Let not sin reign in your mortal body’ (Romans 6:11-12; Romans 6:15); and that this activity is essential is shown very clearly by the appeals to moral conduct which occur regularly at the close of St. Paul’s Epistles, as well as elsewhere in the NT.

A definite cycle seems thus to be contemplated, whether as regards the race, the ‘heathen’ (Romans 1), or individuals: first, there is the active will to evil; then, evil becomes inevitable; the agent is practically powerless, ‘sold under sin’ (Romans 7:14); then, after his rescue from this state, the will is again called for, but this time it points habitually in the opposite direction. That is to say, choice is a real thing, but it exists in a world which contains both certain definite uniform sequences and an enticing and enslaving power of sin and ‘lusts’ (James 1:14). This is sometimes but not always connected with the discarnate personality called Satan (see artt. Devil, Sin).

But what of the rescue itself? Is it independent of man’s will? Does it simply depend on God’s decision to effect it, in some cases, but evidently not in others? Man’s will appears to be clearly called for in such passages as 2 Corinthians 5:20, ‘Be ye reconciled to God,’ but against them Romans 9:18 may be quoted, and perhaps, though it is not dogmatic or doctrinal in tone, Acts 2:21 (see Conversion, Freedom of the Will). However this antinomy is reconciled, there is no doubt that St. Paul regards grace and faith as vital to the change (Ephesians 2:4; Ephesians 2:8 : ‘God … quickened us together with Christ-by grace have ye been saved-… for by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God’; cf. also Romans 4:5, Galatians 1:15). By itself the reference to grace might imply that man was merely passive; but the call for faith (as we shall see below, faith is an act of the will) shows that this is very far from being the case; indeed, faith is in general emphasized considerably more than grace as the agent in conversion. A still more fundamental connexion between the activities of God and man is expressed in what at first seem wilful contradictions in terms, in Philippians 2:12-13 and Galatians 2:20 (‘Work out your own salvation … for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to work’; and ‘I live; and yet no longer I, but Christ liveth in me’). In Galatians 3:25 we read of faith as ‘coming,’ with the result that we are ‘no longer under a tutor,’ but ‘sons of God through faith’ (cf. 1 Peter 1:13, ‘the grace that is being brought unto you,’ RVm ). But even in this new sphere of life through faith the will reappears, as a persistent endeavour after progress (Philippians 3:12, 2 Peter 1:10). The new life is marked by special gifts-χαρίσματα-but they must be strenuously cultivated (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12). The whole Church may receive an illumination from the Holy Spirit, yet it will use language that implies co-operation rather than passivity (Acts 15:28). The new condition can therefore be rightly called one of freedom (cf. Galatians 5:13), and as such it is characterized by the confidence of open speech, as of equal with equal (παρρησία, Ephesians 3:12, Hebrews 3:6, 1 John 3:21).

It is thus quite clearly, though perhaps even yet not explicitly, recognized that will is something more than an impulse or a series of impulses, good or bad. It is the expression of the self, which, when bad, needs to be changed by an operation which has an external origin. Yet it is manifested in constant choices and struggles. The Christian is conscious of a new power in him (Galatians 2:20), seizing him (Philippians 3:12); yet the result is to produce in him for the first time the true activity. Transformed conation becomes the central thing in his life.

There is another aspect of the subject which is familiar to modern psychologists, and is not as entirely neglected in the NT as might at first appear. Conation is often represented as being almost identical with deliberate attention. Fully developed conation demands that prolonged presentation of on object to consciousness whose basis is voluntary attention. For the cultivation of self-control and the building up of character this truth is of the greatest importance. In the NT the chief elements in the growth of the Christian character are faith, hope, and love. To the new life, and therefore to the new will, these are vital. They have been regarded as being mainly emotional qualities. But this is a mistake. Each involves a trained and cultivated attention. This is clearly the case with Hebrews 11. The psychologist might well describe the conception of faith worked out in that famous chapter as the concentration of attention on what would otherwise be forced up to, or beyond, the margin of consciousness (esp. Hebrews 11:6; Hebrews 11:13-16; Hebrews 11:27; Hebrews 12:1). A wider rôle is assigned to faith in the Pauline Epistles, but the element of unswerving attention therein is clear from Romans 4:20 and Galatians 3, (passim). This is even more marked in the Epistles of St. John. There faith is spoken of as the weapon by which the world is overcome (1 John 5:4-5). But the nerve of this faith is the conviction that Jesus is the Son of God; in other words, if the attention is concentrated on this object, the universe of evil around him is powerless to harm the Christian. In the Synoptic Gospels faith means confidence in the power of Jesus to do what He offers or is asked to do; but the demand for faith thus made involves the securing of attention by means of a strong suggestion. In Philippians 4:8, St. Paul appears to recognize the value of wisely directed attention still more clearly.

It is not always easy to distinguish between faith and hope in the apostolic writings; hope, like faith, is directed on the unseen, and it demands endurance (Romans 8:24-25), i.e. the deliberate holding of an idea before the mind; indeed, the connexion of hope with endurance rather suggests that it is the part of faith to set the object before the attention, and of hope to keep it there. Love, as St. Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 13, is very much more than an emotion; it is distinctly an attitude; the qualities mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13:4-6 all point to attention directed to objects which most of us, especially under provocation, find it very hard to bear in mind. In the Epistles of St. John, faith, love, and obedience form an inseparable triad; the Christian character is secured, and fulfilled, by fixing the mind on Christ’s precepts and carrying them out. Of this process, love is both the pre-requisite and the end; and, if this seems a contradiction, we must remember that to the psychologist, as to the theologian, analysis is but a makeshift; everything that appears in the course of the development of a conscious state was there at the beginning, or it could not have come into existence at all. Love is the going out of the whole soul to God, or to men in eager desire for their highest bliss; but this is impossible apart from definite mental concentration. The three Christian graces thus imply attention, and are all conative.

It is strange that all this was not analyzed further in the NT. But the main interest of the writers, after all, lay in God’s will, not in man’s. The patience needed by the descriptive psychologist was impossible for men whose one desire was to express the highest rapture of their lives, the sense of the redeeming and sanctifying will of God surging through every part of their being. And this constant turning of the attention to God led them to emphasize aspects of God’s will which might seem to come near to fatalism, were it not that God’s will is always thought of as acting through the good man, not outside of him. These aspects are four: a certain irresistible compulsion experienced by the Apostles, reminding one of Socrates’ daimon, but going far beyond it (Acts 16:6-7; Acts 18:5); a curious sense of the ‘fated,’ or πεπρωμένον, as a classical Greek might have called it, which especially pervades Acts 20, 21, 27; the eschatological expectation, prominent in the earlier Epistles of St. Paul and in Rev.; and, side by side with this cosmical aspect of the sovereign will of God, the recognition of a moral necessity, especially in the sufferings of the Messiah, which formed the great fulfilment of prophecy (Acts 3:18; Acts 3:21, Hebrews 2:10; Hebrews 7:26). In fact, we may almost think of God’s will as a kind of primum mobile, the all-embracing sphere by which the other spheres are controlled and set and kept in motion. The maturity of man’s will is thus an attainment, not an endowment. It acts properly only when it is roused and directed by Divine grace. The necessity for its exercise will never be superseded; but the more it is exercised under Divine control, the more it becomes God’s will in man, and the more it becomes man’s own will, acting at last in complete freedom. St. Paul’s metaphors of the soldier and the athlete are quite natural and harmonious. They provide room for the sternest endurance and struggle, and yet they point to the perfect precision and joy of well-disciplined activity. And this perfect precision is not simply in obedience to God’s will; it becomes the actual manifestation of God’s will. So experienced, God’s will is identical with His love. It ‘moves the sun and the other stars’; it is the πρῶτον κινοῦν.

We are now in a position to sum up briefly the relation of the NT conception of the will to modern psychological discussions. Cognition, conation, and feeling are all recognized; activity is central and is something more than response to impulse; it is self-expression as opposed to wish or desire. Action against the will is possible, but only when the will is itself imperfect. Surrender of the will is really re-affirmation of the will in a new direction. The conceptions of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, however, the ‘will to life’ or ‘to power,’ constitute a perilous self-assertion which can only lead to death. There is much in the thought of St. Paul that recalls Eucken. The controlling force of the world is spiritual; and into the little land-locked pools of our own individuality, soon becoming stagnant if left to themselves, must flow the great tides of the Divine will. But that will is personal and redemptive; it is not a mere force, however exalted; it is the loving activity of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Paul has less in common with Bergson. The principle of life is not merely change; nor is its action experimental and uncertain. It moves onward through all time with a directness which can also communicate itself to our own wills. Finally, we may refer to the well-known phrase of the pragmatist William James, the ‘will to believe.’ The expression is not meant to state a relation between will and belief, but is used to suggest that belief (whatever its psychological analysis) is founded only on a subjective and individual choice, not on truth or fact. Mathematical formulae and scientific ‘laws’ are accepted by us because they ‘work’; God’s love and man’s immortality are accepted for the same reason. To St. Paul the principle, so stated, would have been incomprehensible or impious. Love and immortality are true because they are ‘revealed,’ brought to light; it is the function of will to fix the mind on them, and act in accord with them. W. James’s view is a simple case of ὕστερον πρότεον. As a psychological or philosophical basis for belief, its correctness is not here in point; what is significant to the student of NT thought is that the great doctrines of Christianity are there felt to become more and more clear as the will accepts and obeys them. The will does not create truth; but there is not a truth which the will does not illumine and test (John 7:17, 1 John 2:20; 1 John 2:27; 1 John 5:20).

Literature.-For representative modern discussions of the question of the will in general see J. Martineau, Study of Religion2, 2 vols., Oxford, 1889, vol. ii. bk. iii. ch. ii.; H.Lotze, Microcosmus, Eng. tr. , 2 vols., Edinburgh, 1885, vol. i. p. 256 ff.; J. Ward, Naturalism and Agnosticism, London, 1899; G. F. Stout, Analytic Psychology2, 2 vols., do., 1902, vol. ii. chs. ii., iii., xi.; W. James, Varieties of Religious Experience, do., 1902, lectures ix., x., Will to Believe, do., 1902, pp. 1 ff., 145, ff.; H. Bergson, Time and Free Will, do., 1910, ch. iii. For discussions of the subject from a theistic point of view see T. B. Strong, Christian Ethics, do., 1896, chs. i., ii; W. L. Walker, Christian Theism and a Spiritual Monism, Edinburgh, 1906, pt. ii.; W. R. Inge, Faith and its Psychology, London, 1909; G. Galloway, Philosophy of Religion, Edinburgh, 1914. For the psychology of religion see E. D. Starbuck, Psychology of Religion, London, 1899, chs. xxv.-xxvii.; J. B. Pratt, Psychology of Religious Belief, New York and London, 1907; G. B. Cutten, Psychological Phenomena of Christianity, London, 1909, ch. xxv. For the biblical conceptions of the will see H. Wheeler Robinson, Christian Doctrine of Man, Edinburgh, 1911, ‘Hebrew Psychology in Relation to Pauline Anthropology,’ in Mansfield College Essays, London, 1909; H. Weinel, St. Paul, the Man and his Work, Eng. tr. , do., 1906; W. P. DuBose, The Gospel according to St. Paul, do., 1907. See also Literature under art. Freedom of the Will.

W. F. Lofthouse.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Will'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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