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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Necessitarians

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The doctrine of necessity regards the origin of human actions, and the specific mode of the divine government; and it seems to be the immediate result of the materiality of man; for mechanism is the undoubted consequence of materialism. Hence all materialists are of course necessitarians; but it does not follow that all necessitarians are or must be materialists. Whatever is done by a cause or power that is irresistible, is by necessity; in which sense this term is opposed to freedom. Man is, therefore, a necessary agent, if all his actions be so determined by the causes preceding each action, that not one past action could possibly not have come to pass, or have been otherwise than it hath been; and not one future action can possibly not come to pass, or be otherwise than it shall be. But man is a free agent, if he be able at any time, in the circumstances in which he is placed, to do different things; or, in other words, if he be not unavoidably determined in every point of time by the circumstances he is in, and the causes he is under, to do that one thing he does, and not possibly to do any other thing. This abstruse subject has occasioned much controversy, and has been debated by writers of the first eminence, from Hobbes and Clarke, to Priestly and Gregory. The anti- necessitarians allege, that the doctrine of necessity charges God as the author of sin; that it takes away the freedom of the will; renders man unaccountable to his Maker; makes sin to be no evil, and morality or virtue to be no good; and that it precludes the use of means, and is of the most gloomy tendency. The necessitarians, on the other hand, deny these to be legitimate consequences of their doctrine, which they declare to be the most consistent mode of explaining the divine government; and they observe, that the Deity acts no more immorally in decreeing vicious actions, than in permitting all those irregularities which he could so easily have prevented. All necessity, say they, doth not take away freedom. The actions of a man may be at one and the same time both free and necessary. Thus, it was infallibly certain that Judas would betray Christ, yet he did it voluntarily; Jesus Christ necessarily became man, and died, yet he acted freely. A good man doth naturally and necessarily love his children, yet voluntarily. They insist that necessity doth not render actions less morally good; for, if necessary virtue be neither moral nor praiseworthy, it will follow that God himself is not a moral being, because he is a necessary one; and the obedience of Christ cannot be good, because it was necessary. Farther, say they, necessity does not preclude the use of means; for means are no less appointed than the end. It was ordained that Christ should be delivered up to death; but he could not have been betrayed without a betrayer, nor crucified without crucifiers. That it is not a gloomy doctrine they allege, because nothing can be more consolatory than to believe, that all things are under the direction of an all-wise Being, that his kingdom ruleth over all, and that he doeth all things well. They also urge, that to deny necessity, is to deny the foreknowledge of God, and to wrest the sceptre from the hand of the Creator, and to place that capricious and undefinable principle, the self-determining power of man, upon the throne of the universe. In these statements there is obviously a confused use of terms in different meanings, so as to mislead the unwary. For instance: necessity is confounded with certainty; but an action may be certain, though free; that is to say, certain to an omniscient Being, who knows how a free agent will finally resolve; but this certainty is, in fact, a quality of the prescient Being, not that of the action, to which, however, men delusively transfer it. Again: God is called a necessary Being, which, if it mean any thing, signifies, as to his moral acts, that he can only act right. But then this is a wrong application of the term necessity, which properly implies such a constraint upon actions, exercised ab extra, as renders choice or will impossible. But such necessity cannot exist as to the supreme Being. Again: the obedience of Christ unto death was necessary, that is to say, unless he had died, guilty man could not have been forgiven; but this could not make the act of the Jews who put him to death a necessary act, that is to say, a forced and constrained one; nor did this necessity affect the act of Christ himself, who acted voluntarily, and might have left man without salvation. That the Jews acted freely, is evident from their being held liable to punishment, although unconsciously they accomplished the great designs of Heaven, which, however, was no excuse for their crime. Finally: as to the allegation, that the doctrine of free agency puts man's self-determining power upon the throne of the universe, that view proceeds upon notions unworthy of God, as though he could not accomplish his plans without compelling and controlling all things by a fixed fate; whereas it is both more glorious to him, and certainly more in accordance with the Scriptures, to say that he has a perfect foresight of the manner in which all creatures will act, and that he, by a profound and infinite wisdom, subordinates every thing without violence to the evolution and accomplishment of his own glorious purposes.

The doctrine of necessity is nearly connected with that of predestination, which, of late years, has assumed a form very different from that which it formerly possessed: for, instead of being considered as a point to be determined almost entirely by the sacred writings, it has, in the hands of a number of able writers, in a great measure resolved itself into a question of natural religion, under the head of the philosophical liberty or necessity of the will; or, whether all human actions are, or are not, necessarily determined by motives arising from the character which God has impressed on our minds, and the train of circumstances amidst which his providence has placed us? The Calvinistic doctrine of predestination is, that "God, for his own glory, hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass." The scheme of philosophical necessity, as stated by the most celebrated necessitarian of the age, is, "that every thing is predetermined by the divine Being; that whatever has been, must have been; and that whatever will be, must be; that all events are preordained by infinite wisdom and unlimited goodness; that the will, in all its determinations, is governed by the state of mind; that the state of mind is, in every instance, determined by the Deity; and that there is a continued chain of causes and effects, of motives and actions, inseparably connected, and originating from the condition in which we are brought into existence by the Author of our being." On the other hand, it is justly remarked, that "those who believe the being and perfections of God, and a state of retribution, in which he will reward and punish mankind according to the diversity of their actions, will find it difficult to reconcile the justice of punishment with the necessity of crimes punished. And they that believe all that the Scripture says on the one hand, of the eternity of future punishments, and on the other, of God's compassion to sinners, and his solemn assurance that he desires not their death, will find the difficulty greatly increased." It is doubtless an article of the Christian faith, that God will reward or punish every man hereafter according to his actions in this life. But we cannot maintain his justice in this particular, if men's actions be necessary either in their own nature, or by the divine decrees. Activity and self-determining powers are the foundation of all morality; and to prove that such powers belong to man, it is urged that we ourselves are conscious of possessing them. We blame and condemn ourselves when we do amiss; but guilt, and inward sense of shame, and remorse of conscience, are feelings which are inconsistent with the scheme of necessity. It is also agreed that some actions deserve praise, and afford an inward satisfaction; but for this, there would be no foundation, if we were invincibly determined in every volition: so that approbation and blame are consequent on free actions only. Nor is the matter at all relieved by bringing in a chain of circumstances as motives necessarily to determine the will. This comes to the same result in sound argument, as though there was an immediate coaction of omnipotent power compelling one kind of volitions only; which is utterly irreconcilable to all just notions of the nature and operations of will, and to all accountability. Necessity, in the sense of irresistible control, and the doctrine of Scripture, cannot coexist.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Necessitarians'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/n/necessitarians.html. 1831-2.

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