Divine Will and Human Freedom by Richard Muller (A Review)


Richard A. Muller is (rightly) one of the dominant names in the field of Reformation and Post-Reformation scholarship. His studies on Calvin as well as the broader Reformed tradition—especially his magisterial, 4-volume, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (PRRD)have irrevocably changed the contemporary conversations surrounding these figures.

One of the aims of his studies is to resituate figures like Calvin and the later generations of Reformed Scholastic theologians in their contemporary and historical context, in order to correct anachronistic judgments surrounding their thought. Calvin is no longer simply a remarkable, lone genius, but one of a company of 2nd Generation Reformers who learned from and in conversation with others (even if his genius was still prodigious). The Reformed Scholastics who followed weren’t simply arid logicians, taking Calvin’s biblical Spirit and locking it up in the chains of Aristotelian syllogisms and Greek metaphysics. They were scholars, teachers, and preachers in their own right, who exhibit both continuity and discontinuity with Calvin, while codifying and nuancing their Reformation inheritance in conversation with the Patristic and Medieval traditions that came before it. And so on.

That same aim animates his most recent offering Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought. As the subtitle indicates, Muller is taking up the perennially thorny issue of divine sovereignty and human freedom in light of the issues of possibility, contingency and necessity. More specifically, he has an eye on the issue in the theology of the 17th Century Reformed Scholastics who formed the focus of the PRRD. 

(For those interested, I’ll just be blunt and say this can be some tough sledding. I’ve read the four volumes of Muller’s PRRD cover to cover and I found this to be more difficult than any of them. I think that’s largely a feature of the difficulty of the subject material, not Muller’s writing, but I thought it worth mentioning.)

Correcting the Historical Narrative

To clarify the issues involved, Muller has to keep more than a few conversations straight. In the first place, he wants to make it clear that when we talk about the issue of necessity, contingency, and freedom in the Reformed Scholastics, their categories and positions don’t just map neatly onto contemporary arguments surrounding libertarianism or compatibilism in post-Kantian or even contemporary analytic philosophy and theology. You can’t just say “Francis Turretin was a compatibilist” and have it mean the same thing as “Daniel Dennett is a compatibilist” or even “Jonathan Edwards was a compatibilist” (on which, below).

Second—and this takes up a much larger and central portion of the book—Muller aims to engage with a couple of recent historical interpretations of both the Scholastics and their relationship to the tradition that preceded them. The first comes from the scholars such as Arvin Vos, Martin Bac, Roelf Te Velde, and others associated with the volume Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Modern Thought (a helpful volume of the translated primary sources definitely worth consulting). To give a very bad summary, they have put forward a narrative that goes something like this:

Ever since Aristotle, the Western tradition has struggled with a latent determinism in its view of human freedom. This was passed on in the Christian tradition as exemplified by Aquinas. But it’s only with the arguments of Duns Scotus that we get the revolutionary breakthrough in logic and ontology connected to the associated with the idea of “synchronic contingency”, which allows for a more robust sense of creaturely freedom, ontological indeterminacy, and so forth. Unfortunately, Calvin managed to get stuck in a more Thomistic determinism again. After him, though, the later Post-Reformation Scholastics took a more Scotist turn and recovered some of the Scotus revolution regarding contingency and freedom. We need to understand this if we’re to grasp the way their view of dependent freedom doesn’t fit the libertarian/compatibilist binary of modern thought.

This construct has been subject to important criticism by Paul Helm from more than a few angles. Helm is unconvinced there really is a large structural difference between Calvin and the later Calvinists, that the concept of “synchronic contingency” does what the RTF group thinks it does, or that it really solves any of the dilemmas around contemporary notions of compatibilism and libertarianism.

Muller wants to triangulate a position somewhere between the two of them, but that takes making an argument in three stages which comprises the three sections of the book.

First, he spends about 60 pages giving you the nuanced version of the “state of the question” in contemporary historiography that I just gave you two paragraphs on.

In the second section, about 90 pages, Muller jumps back to the early sources and tackles the question of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Scotus. Essentially, he argues (and I think shows) that reading Aristotle as a hard determinist is a mistake. Second, in any case, the Christian tradition after him didn’t read him that way, especially Aquinas. In which case, unsurprisingly, Muller finds Aquinas isn’t the metaphysical determinist the RTF group reads him to be. Third, Scotus did introduce some changes in understanding the relationship between the will and the intellect, God’s relationship to time, and the language of “synchronic contingency”, which are significant to the question. That said, the daylight between Scotus and Aquinas on this question isn’t as radical as all that. Nor does synchronic contingency get you as much by way of a different ontology of possibility as you might think. In fact, we need to understand it less as a different ontology, and more as a specific set of logical distinctions which help us think through whatever ontology we’re already working with.

Finally, he turns to the period of the Reformed Scholastics themselves (Twisse, Rutherford, Turretin, Voetius, Gomarus, etc.) in order to analyse their thought. Roughly, he shows that while there is an increased nuance and sophistication terminologically between Calvin and the Scholastics, it’s not as radical a difference between them as all that. What’s more, the Scholastics shouldn’t primarily be thought of as Scotistic in theological orientation on this issue (or others such as the univocity of being, etc.). Instead, while the Reformed had a fairly consistent and coherent picture of dependent freedom, their philosophical orientation was eclectic. They could use some of the distinctions of the Scotists even while many maintained something close to a Thomistic orientation. (Also, go look up his excellent article, “Not Scotist.”)

One further historiographical wrinkle to which I alluded before. For Muller, all of this goes to showing the fact that there has been a break, not only in modern thought on free will, but within the Reformed tradition itself. He has elsewhere argued that the sort of dependent freedom of the Reformed Scholastics is structurally different than the “compatiblism” of Jonathan Edwards, whom he takes to have altered the Reformed consensus in his translation of Reformed theology into a different, Idealist metaphysics. (On which, you can read his debate with Paul Helm here.) This “parting of the ways” in the 18th Century is fairly important given how many American Calvinists essentially read the tradition—especially on this issue—through the lens of Edwards’ works.

I hope you can sense that I’m condensing a very complex, careful argument that’s caught up in parsing a number of very fine distinctions. Now, without noting all the variations between individual Scholastic thinkers, I’ll try to lay out a slim outline of a composite “Reformed Scholastic” approach.

Clarifying the Reformed View

Muller’s view, insofar as I have it, is that when it comes to the Reformed Orthodox view of human freedom we have to speak of something like a “dependent freedom.” But we can only do this once we set it in light of basic theological convictions regarding God’s sovereignty, concurrence, causality, and relation to the temporal order he has made. For the Reformed there are various layers of necessity and contingency that you have to keep clear.

There is the first layer where we speak of the power of God. Here we speak of the distinction between absolute and ordained power. God’s absolute power is his infinite potency to do whatever is logically possible (ie. anything besides making a married bachelor, etc.). His ordained power is a way of talking about the power he has decided to exercise in doing whatever he has chosen to do. Note, though, God’s ordained power does not exhaust the limits of what he could do according to his absolute, or infinite power, if he so chose.

Connected to this is the freedom of God to either create or not create (freedom of contradiction, or the freedom to do or not do something), and once he’s decided to create, the matter of what he creates (freedom of contrariety, or the freedom to choose between options). God is free in both regards and so there is an initial layer of contingency, non-necessity involved in the whole order since God could have done otherwise. Nothing except God must be what it is. The world order is radically contingent in that sense.

Second, and this is where the idea of synchronic contingency at the divine level comes in, even having chosen to create this particular world, God remains the sort of being who could choose (or could have chosen) otherwise. He still has that potency or power. Now, once God decides to create Jones as a 5’2″ Norwegian, Jones will be a 5’2″ Norwegian. But Jones could have been and in a (non-temporal) sense still could be otherwise, when we consider God’s current potency or power.

Next, we drop this down to the human level, or the level of secondary causality, and the Reformed want to affirm a few things. First, humans have a faculty of choice involving the deliberation of the intellect and the will’s acceptance of that judgment. Different Reformed are more or less Thomist at this point, but freedom involves a rational choice, even an element of spontaneity. Human choices don’t simply follow from previous events like natural causes (rocks falling according to gravity, etc.). There is no physicalist, mechanical, fatalistic determinism at the level of the world-system you find in the later modern period or down on into today’s genetic determinism. Rational freedom, then, is a unique sort of cause within the contingent order God has made.

Second, at the level of secondary causality, humans also have both the freedom of contradiction and contrariety–they have the power to do or not do, as well as choose between options. Jones can choose to eat ice cream, and choose between Rocky Road or Cookies & Cream. And once he has chosen Rocky Road he still has the unrealized potency to choose Cookies & Cream. This is not to say he could choose them both at the same time, or somehow metaphysically switch his choice. It’s to say something closer to the idea that if you put Jones in the exact same situation, bracketing the divine decree and just looking at the human level, he might choose Cookies & Cream. It’s not that for any choice, if you drop him into it and squeeze him, so to speak, there’s a mathematically guaranteed outcome.

Now, that said, when we connect the two levels we need to keep in mind a couple of things. First, God created all things ex nihilo and sustains them in being at each moment. The world and the humans in it have their own reality, but not in such a way that God creates the world, sets it spinning and it runs on its own steam. In which case, for there to be such a thing as human freedom, it is created, sustained, and in at least that sense, dependent freedom. God must exercise his freedom at all moments to enable, approved, and “concur” with our freedom. This is why the idea of some absolutely independent indifference makes no sense on a Reformed understanding. It is also a key part of the metaphysical machinery we need to consider when putting divine choice and human choice together.

This brings us to the distinction often invoked between the “composite” sense or the “divided sense” of a statement to clarify the levels of contingency, necessity, and freedom attributed to it. Take Jones choosing Rocky Road. In the “divided” sense, (ie. bracketing out the divine decree), we can see it is a free, contingent choice at the level of human potency. But when you add the fact that God decreed that Jones choose Rocky Road (hence “composite”), and upholds his will at every moment, then we have to say that Jones choosing Rocky Road is also necessary. It’s not absolutely divinely necessary. But it is now necessary since it is also an act that God has chosen it.

From a different angle, it’s the difference between the necessity of the consequent and the necessity of the consequence. Necessarily, if God decrees something, it’s going to happen. But not everything that God decrees is thereby absolutely necessary. And for the Reformed, this is true in some sense at both the divine and human level. The claim is that God’s decree does not erase the nature of Jones choice as the result of a rational deliberation at the level of secondary causality, even if it will necessarily occur.

Someone like Turretin could say that God can freely choose for Jones to freely choose Rocky Road on Tuesday. And so, it is a contingently necessary free choice. It is contingent in that God could will otherwise–there is nothing necessary about God’s choice that Jones choose Rocky road. Also, insofar as God chooses that Jones freely choose Rocky Road, God does not remove Jones’ rational faculties or his internal power or potency to choose Cookies & Cream. He chooses for the event to proceed as a free one.

As long as this section is, I could keep going as I’m trimming a lot of nuance here. Still, I think you start to get the picture.

Wrapping Up

At this point I’ll just offer a few evaluative comments and wrap it up.

First, on the historical portrait, I’ll be curious to see responses, but given the documentation and the argument, I think it will be hard to dispute the historical clarification he’s given to the issue in responding to the RTF group (as well as Helm). Muller’s command of the primary and secondary literature for the classical, Medieval, and modern periods is on full display.

Second, I will say that the only point I really have critical questions about is how much he has actually distinguished the Reformed Orthodox materially from contemporary articulations of compatibilism and libertarianism. I’m not actually saying he’s wrong. I’m sure he’s probably right. But insofar as his engagement with contemporary, analytic philosophers is materially slim, I was left curious how these distinctions would be set in dialogue with the discussion of necessity, freedom, and so forth in a contemporary text like Alvin Plantinga’s The Nature of Necessity, or Kevin Timpe’s recent, widely-lauded text on Free Will.

Also, though he has written the previous articles (linked above) on Edwards’ divergence, a small section on Edwards might have been helpful to illustrate the difference as well. (Also, a small corrective note here: the one material error I saw was in his engagement with Oliver Crisp in Deviant Calvinism. Whatever you make of Crisp’s proposal on libertarian Calvinism, while Crisp does call Turretin a compatibilist he never dubs either Turretin or Edwards [77] a hard determinist as Muller asserts.)

Finally, if you’re curious about the issue of the divine will and human freedom and you want to take a deep, historical dive, this is a book for you. If you’re interested specifically in the discussion surrounding these issues in the Early Modern period, well, you’re probably an academic or a nerd, so this is a no-brainer. When Muller writes, you buy Muller. This work is no different.

As you can probably tell, this isn’t necessarily going to square the circle of reconciling divine foreknowledge or the decree with human freedom. Nor would I expect it to. The causal joint between the two layers, divine and created, is one of those places I am comfortable admitting mystery. Still, I found it immensely helpful for situating myself in the historical discussion, as well as gaining a better grasp of the issues in the Reformed tradition.

Soli Deo Gloria