Lyman Atwater on Natural vs. Moral Ability


Atwater was an Old School Calvinist who was a professor at Princeton University and served for a time as the Vice President of the Board of Trustees for Princeton Theological Seminary.



‘The Power of Contrary Choice’  in Princeton Theological Essays, pp. 250-251

“2. The [theological] question [of the inability of the power of contrary choice] is not whether there is a mere natural power of contrary choice, as the phrase ‘natural power’ has been understood by the best theologians.  By this is meant that such a contrary choice would not be extrinsic or contradictory to its nature as will.

Such a choice, supposing the requisite influence for its production, would be a proper act of will, germane to its nature, and involving no inherent absurdity or self-contradiction.  It would involve no increase of its faculties or powers, no change in its organic structure, or appropriate nature as will.

Had it chosen the contrary, this would not have proved or implied it to be a larger, stronger, or constitutionally different faculty.  When men turn to the love of God, they do it with the same faculties which were employed in hating him, both as to extent and nature.  

The state and action of these faculties towards moral objects alone are changed.  The question is not whether, in this sense, the human will is endowed with the power of contrary choice.”

‘Witherspoon’s Theology’, The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, 1863

Atwater’s purpose in this article is to demonstrate that John Witherspoon (†1794) was an Old School (orthodox) Calvinist and not a New School Calvinist.

pp. 598-599

2. Inability

It is not denied nor questioned, that our New-school theologians have found most formidable difficulties in accepting the doctrine of inability, in the sense of a real inability, irremovable by the sinner’s own powers.  This is the real issue.  Does the sinner labor under an inability to do works spiritually good, which divine power only can remove? [which Old School Calvinism has always maintained] 

Holding the distinction of natural and moral ability and inability, decides nothing in this behalf, because these terms are used by different men in different senses.  Some mean by natural ability, plenary [complete] ability, in the full Pelagian sense; others mean, a partial, or gracious; an Arminian, or Semi-Pelagian ability.  The orthodox, however, use it, if at all, simply to denote the natural faculties of understanding, desire, and will, which are essential to moral agency and responsibility, and belong to man, as such, whether unfallen, fallen, or renewed by grace.  So, by moral inability, the former class [of Pelagians and Arminians] mean merely an aversion or unwillingness which the sinner can remove by his own will.  The old Calvinists mean by moral inability, that indeed which characterizes fallen man; but still that which is real, which the subject of it cannot, while the Almighty power of God can, remove. 

The question is not, then, whether Witherspoon held to this distinction of natural and moral inability.  Turretin recognized it also, so far as there is truth in it So far as Old-school Presbyterians have objected to it, they have been influenced by the convenient ambiguity of these terms, under which plenary [complete] Pelagian ability has so often disguised itself as a phase of inability.  But what did Witherspoon hold? [regarding moral-spiritual inability.  Was he Old-School or New-School?]?  He says:

“From this metaphor, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God,’ and other parallel expressions in the holy Scriptures, we may learn that the change here intended is supernatural.  When I say it is a supernatural change, I mean that it is what man cannot by his own power effect without superior or divine aid.  As we are ‘by nature’ in a state of enmity or opposition to God, so this is what we cannot, of ourselves, overcome or remove.  The exercise of our own rational powers, the persuasion of others, the application of all moral motives of every kind will be ineffectual, without the special operation of the Spirit and grace of God.”  Vol. 1, p. 126.

[Two more paragraph long quotes from Witherspoon follow affirming complete moral inability, from his Works, vol. 1, pp. 127-8, 134]

p. 600-1

What says Witherspoon “on the subject?” [of Regeneration]

“…Regeneration does not consist in giving us new souls, new faculties, new affections, but in giving a new tendency and effect to those we had before.  There are many persons to whom we bear naturally an affection, and it is far from being the design of religion to destroy this affection; but to regulate it in its measure, to keep it in its proper channel, and direct it to its proper end.”  P. 159

Related Pages

John Witherspoon on Natural vs. Moral Ability

Ashbel Green on Witherspoon’s Natural Ability Distinction

Natural vs. Moral Inability Mainpage