Sweeney’s Booknotes: Divine Will and Human Choice

Richard A. Muller, Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).

MullerThis learned monograph by the world’s leading authority on early modern Reformed scholastic theology adjudicates the debate between the Utrecht school’s view of Reformed thought on freedom (represented on this blog back in February by Philip Fisk) and Paul Helm’s longstanding criticism of it.

Inasmuch as this debate has been developed in a couple of the lectures we have hosted (listen to Muller’s lecture and Helm’s lecture), a notice of its most recent installment is in order. (N.B. This is pretty heady stuff, and will prove most interesting and intelligible to those with an interest in the defense of Reformed views of the sovereignty of God over history.)

In more than 300 pages of densely written review and analysis, Muller makes several claims regarding the issues at stake, contextualizing/correcting the excesses of some of those within the Utrecht camp and thus taking a middle position between Utrecht and Helm.

With the Utrecht school, Muller argues that his subjects “developed a robust doctrine of creaturely contingency and human freedom built on a series of traditional scholastic distinctions, including those associated with what has come to be called ‘synchronic contingency’” (p. 34). But with Helm and other critics of the Utrecht school, he reminds us that these theologians “did so for the sake of respecting the underlying premise of Reformed thought that God eternally and freely decrees the entire order of the universe, past, present, and future.” Further, Muller points out that “synchronic contingency,” the keystone of Utrecht’s approach to the issues, “is not by itself an ontology but rather serves as an explanatory language, used in conjunction with a series of related scholastic distinctions, that is supportive of the ontological assumptions belonging to the Reformed . . . doctrine of providence” (p. 34). It did not undermine early Reformed views of sovereignty, but enabled the Reformed to explain divine rule in a way that undergirded and supported human freedom.

Most importantly of all for historiographical purposes, Muller shows that late modern usages of terms such as “libertarianism,” “synchronic contingency,” and “compatibilism” do not fit the early modern theological sources and, thus, should usually be avoided in descriptions of their contents–which were shaped most profoundly by ancient Greek and medieval appropriations of Aristotle, especially by the Thomists, and not by a proto-modern Scotist view of freedom untethered from the mainstream classical tradition (as the least cautious writers in the Utrecht school suggest).

Muller’s treatment of these issues is, as usual, excellent. But his treatment of Edwards’ views and Edwards’ place in the tradition of Reformed thought on freedom leaves something to be desired. He depicts Edwards in passing (in several places, never at length) as the most important symbol of what he thinks went wrong with modern Protestant thought on freedom–as a much less nuanced (read less Aristotelian) and more deterministic Calvinist than those who went before. In short, Muller hints that Edwards worked “without a significant distinction of primary and secondary causality, without a clear understanding of divine concurrence, and without the assumption, intrinsic to the notion of an ontologically and causally two-tiered universe [maintained by the scholastics], that divine and human causality are, taken together, the necessary and sufficient conditions for free acts of the human will” (p. 324).

These suggestions are misleading. It is true that Edwards moved past many of the distinctions used by earlier scholastics. But as we said in our review of Philip Fisk’s recent book, he did so to defend Reformed theology from critics who deemed it too deterministic. By Edwards’ day, critics saw through what they claimed was the verbal smoke and mirrors of scholastic theologians, and thus Edwards felt obliged to adopt a new approach–one that was more transparent about Calvinist views of God’s sovereign rule over history, and more forthright in its argument for freedom of the will undergirded by the sovereignty of God (concurrence). He wound up teaching something very much like the older doctrine, in spite of his modern framework for interpreting the issues: that God has predestined all the things that matter most in the history of the world, but that humans also choose freely everything they do (except in cases of external compulsion, in which they are not morally culpable).

Edwards affirmed, that is to say, much of what Muller says he denied: the distinction between primary and secondary causes and a doctrine of concurrence in which divine and human effort function together as the necessary and sufficient conditions for free acts of the human will.

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