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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature


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in theology, is generally used to denote want of power to do the will of God. It is natural inability when the hindrance is physical; moral inability when the hindrance lies in the will. This distinction has special prominence in American theology, and has been the subject of a great deal of controversy between New-school and Old school Calvinists, and also between Calvinists and Armenians. The New school contend that man is naturally able to obey God, but morally unable. The Old school deny both natural and moral ability. The Armenians deny natural and moral, but assert gracious ability on the part of man to accept Christ, and so to obey God.

The following paragraphs present well the Old school view of the subject. "It has long been a boast, in certain quarters, that it is the glory of American theology that it has enabled us to hold fast to the doctrine of inability, and yet so to explain it as to make the sinner inexcusable, and to prevent him from abusing it to purposes of carnal apathy and desperation. This happy result, which the Bible ascribes to the Holy Ghost, is supposed to be accomplished by showing men that they have full natural ability to fulfill God's requirements; that they have no inability, but simply a want of will, or purpose, or inclination, to obey the Gospel, which they have full power to remove, if they will. While this language is used by many in a sense which, as explained by themselves, at all events coheres with the doctrine that man has lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation, it is used by others to express and vindicate the dogma that men are perfectly able to make themselves Christians at pleasure. This is Pelagialism, without even a decent disguise. Yet it is this very class who make the most of the distinction in question. They think it a convenient and safe shelter for their doctrines that man can make himself a new heart. This class claim that Edwards was the inventor of this distinction; that it is the distinguishing characteristic and special property of his followers; that therefore they are the true Edwardeans, because they are the patrons and inheritors of this his grand discovery in theology. It can easily be shown, however, 1. That whatever of truth is connected with this distinction was familiar to theologians not only before the time of Edwards, but from the time when the heresies of Pelagius first occasioned thorough discussion of the subject of sin and grace.

2. That Edwards did not regard himself as introducing any novel doctrines or discoveries on the subject.

A formerly distinguished champion of New school doctrines recently said in a public speech, with great truth, that the common idea that the power of Edwards's system lies in the distinction of natural and moral ability is a fallacy.' This was well understood before his day. It lies in his views or spiritual light, which constitute the key to his whole treatise on the Religious Affections.' All who have read this treatise, or his sermons on the Natural Blindness of Men in Religion,' and on The Reality of Spiritual Light,' must concede the justness of this statement. The great principle of his work on the Affections is that they arise from divine illumination.' The amount of truth contained in the proposition that man is naturally able, but morally unable, to obey God's commands, may be thus stated:

1. Man is really unable to do things spiritually good without divine grace. But this inability is moral, because it pertains to our moral nature. It does not excuse, because it is our sin; and the greater it is, the greater is our sin.

2. This corruption and inability do not destroy any of the faculties of will, affection, or intelligence, which are essential to humanity, moral agency, or responsibility. They only vitiate the state and action of those faculties with reference to things moral and spiritual. All power remains which would be requisite to the fulfillment of God's commands if we were holy. Any hindrance, or want of power or opportunity, which would prevent us from fulfilling any command of God if we were morally good, excuses the non- performance of it, and this alone. So far, then, as the assertion that we have natural ability is intended to express the fact that we have no disability but our sin, or that is excusable, it expresses an important truth. So far as it is used, or is adapted to convey the idea that we have ability to remove our sinful corruption without the prevenient and efficacious grace of God, or that our inability, though moral, is such that we can resume it by the strength of our own will, or that it is not by nature, it contains a dangerous error. It is not only contrary to Scripture and all Christian experience, but it is inconceivable that any state or act of the unregenerate will of man should make him a holy being. The corrupt tree cannot bring forth such good fruit. Nay, as all Christians find to their sorrow, they cannot, although partially sanctified, by any power of their wills, exclude all corruption from their souls. The flesh lusteth against the spirit, so that they cannot do the things that they would. When they would do good, evil is present with them. Though they love the law of God after the inward man, they have a law in their members warring against the law of their minds. How, then, is this indwelling corruption, having the entire mastery of the sinner, removable by his will? And does the phrase natural ability,' according to its natural import, fairly express, or, rather, does it not express more than the truth, in regard to the power of the sinner? Is it not, unless carefully explained, adapted to mislead him? That cannot properly be called ability to do things spiritually good, to purify our corrupt natures, which is not adequate to produce the result. Man has not such an ability, whatever adjectives we affix to the word. He has only the faculties which would enable him to do his duty if he were holy. Is it not best, in plain terms, to say so? Have we a right to do otherwise than speak the truth in love?" Princeton Review, July, 1854, No. 10:p. 512 sq.

The Armenian doctrine is (1) that the unregenerate have complete ability, through the efficient grace of Christ, to comply with the conditions of justification as offered under the covenant of grace; (2) that the regenerate have ability, through the grace of Christ, to do the will of God, i.e. to avoid voluntary transgression thereof. The following criticism of the Armenian view, by an eminent New-England divine, with a comment on it, is taken from the Christian Advocate, Dec. 15, 1859. The parts in brackets are added by the commentator. "The Armenian theory of man's inability or want of power is the same [as the Calvinistic], excepting a vain attempt to conceal its revolting aspect by the still greater absurdity of what is called a gracious ability. The advocates of this theory plainly subvert and virtually deny the grace of God in their very attempt to magnify it; for if man has not ability or power to obey God without grace [divine operation, or favor to sinners'], then he does not sin in not obeying, since a being who cannot act morally right cannot act morally wrong. Such a being cannot be truly said to receive or to be capable of receiving grace, for grace is favor to sinners. Besides, what does the supposed grace of God [here evidently in the sense of divine efficiency] do? Does it give man power to obey? then man has power to obey, as he must have before he obeys.' But even this is no security that he will obey. [What Armenian ever pretended that it is?] Adam sinned with this power. The grace [exercise of divine efficiency], then, does not meet the exigency of the case. [Is invariable obedience essential, then, to a proper human ability? In that case, what would become of Dr. Taylor's own theory?] Is it said he has power to use the grace [what does the word mean here?] furnished? But what power is this? Until man has power to obey, it is absolutely inconceivable that he should obey, for I the act of obedience is his own act, done in the exercise of his own power to obey. Thus the grace of God [the Holy Ghost], according to this scheme, must, by a direct act of creation, impart some new essential mental faculty or power to the sound of man to qualify it to act morally right or wrong. Without the grace of God man has not a human soul, for he has not the true and essential nature of such a soul-the power requisite to moral action. [We have been wont to think of power' as an attribute, not as a nature.'] He cannot be a sinner, and of course grace to him cannot be grace to a sinner. Grace is no more grace" (Taylor, Lectures on the Moral Government of God, 2, 123).

The comment is as follows: "In the first place, Dr. Taylor falsely represents the Armenian as asserting the gracious ability of man, in general terms, to keep the divine law, whereas we only affirm this of the regenerate. In the second place, he continually shuffles in his use of the term grace, as will be seen by our bracketed insertions of equivalents, wherever the context fixes the sense. In the third place, we see no possible relevancy in his argument against a divinely imparted power to obey,' from the fact that the possession of this power does not insure its invariable exercise any more than it did in Adam's case. If the professor had inferred the impossibility of our theory of ability from the conceded fact that the earth revolves upon its axis, we should not have been more at loss to perceive the. pertinency or logical force of the reasoning. Finally, he forgets that in the economy of redemption, ability to use grace' is an ability to obey.' God's prime requirement of a sinner is repentance and return to service; and in the arrangements of the remedial scheme under which we live, the sinner possesses a complete, though not a constitutional and independent ability to obey' this requirement." For the New-England view, (See NEW ENGLAND THEOLOGY). (See ARMINIANISM); (See PELAGIANISM); (See GRACE). For a full discussion of the New-school theory, see Hodgson, New Divinity Examined (N. Y. 12mo); Princeton Review, July, 1854. See also Amer. Presb. Rev. Jan. 1861; Bib. Sacra, 1863, p. 324 sq., 608 sq.; 1865, p. 503; Meth. Quart. Rev. 49, 263; 1868, p. 610; British Quart. Rev. July, 1867; New Englander, 1868, p. 486, 490, 496-9, 511, 553.

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These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Inability'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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