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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.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Biblia Americana, Volume 5: Proverbs – Jeremiah

Cotton Mather, Biblia Americana: America’s First Bible Commentary, a Synoptic Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, Volume 5: Proverbs – Jeremiah, ed. Jan Stievermann (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015)

Mather Vol 5This is the most important volume of Mather’s Biblia to appear since Reiner Smolinski’s volume on Genesis. Its editor, Jan Stievermann, serves as Executive Editor of this groundbreaking project, and has published a major monograph on Mather’s exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures as well, which is hot off the press: Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity.

Those who have not yet heard of this project should be brought up to speed. This is the fourth volume published—though the fifth in the series—of a ten-volume edition of Mather’s most extensive work. Compiled over a span of nearly 35 years (1693-1728) on 4,583 sheets (double-columned, folio), eventually bound in six volumes, Mather’s “Biblia Americana” proved too large, until now, to attract a publisher. Nonetheless, it represents the oldest commentary on all of the Protestant canon in America.

Reiner Smolinski, who teaches at Georgia State University, has given much of his life to poring over this hidden treasure at the Massachusetts Historical Society. With Stievermann, he leads a team of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic committed to realizing Mather’s dream of publishing this summa. Volume one, on Genesis, was published in 2010. Volume three, on Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, appeared in 2013. Volume four, on Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, and the Psalms, appeared in 2014. Now this, the fifth volume, on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, moves us much further still into Mather’s erudition, demonstrating that biblical higher criticism began in North America long before the well-known inroads made by modern German scholars.

This is not a book on Edwards, but is part of the most important scholarly project on early American biblical exegesis ever attempted. Arriving as it does at a time of renewed scholarly interest in the Bible in America, this edition will spark new insights into American religious, cultural, and intellectual history. As noted earlier on this website, it has already led to three important monographs by members of its editorial team: Rick Kennedy, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather, Library of Religious Biography (Eerdmans, 2015); Stievermann’s monograph noted above, Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity: Interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures in Cotton Mather’s “Biblia Americana, Beiträge zur historischen Theologie (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016); and Reiner Smolinski, Cotton Mather and His World: An Intellectual Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, forthcoming). It has also yielded a volume of learned essays on its subject: Reiner Smolinski and Jan Stievermann, eds., Cotton Mather and Biblia Americana–America’s First Bible Commentary: Essays in Reappraisal (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).

Stievermann’s “Editor’s Introduction” (pp. 1-136) to the volume under review is remarkably erudite and exceptionally informative regarding Mather’s place in the history of early modern biblical criticism. “On the most fundamental level,” Stievermann summarizes helpfully, “the commentaries contained in this volume show Cotton Mather’s struggle to read the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture in ways that he thought were intellectually justifiable as a highly educated scholar and which also felt satisfying and nurturing as a devout believer. In Mather’s period, the traditional Christian understandings of the Hebrew Bible, including its prophetic and more broadly prefigurative character, had come under growing pressure from new forms of biblical criticism. These forms were simultaneously informed by and contributing to a rising awareness of what we today would call the historicity of the Scriptures” (p. 9).

Mather engaged these forms carefully, resisted the ones that did the most harm to Christian faith, but also revised his understanding of biblical passages in light of them to an appreciable degree. In another summative statement, Stievermann explains that “Mather belonged to a generation of scholarly theologians who were already confronted with deep-reaching historical challenges to the authority of the Bible, and the Old Testament especially. Some of the uneasy questions about authorship, genre, provenance, or the factual realism of the scriptural narratives that would later be rigorously brought to bear on the Bible as a whole, were already being formulated with regard to the Hebrew Scriptures. Mather did not shy away from these questions but engaged them as fully as his orthodox commitments allowed. Moreover, the basic legitimacy of time-honored modes of interpreting the Old Testament as prophetically, typologically or mystically prefiguring Christ and the gospel could no longer be taken for granted. Although Mather himself had not the slightest doubt about this status, he, like many other theologian-scholars of his generation, felt the need to make new apologetical arguments in support of the traditional view, and to practice the traditional modes of prefigurative interpretation with a new self-conscious attention to the historical dimension of the original texts” (pp. 12-13). Stievermann tracks Mather’s work with these developments like a native, introducing us to a long-lost world of Christian scholarship.

Here is the notice of this volume on the website of Stievermann’s Jonathan Edwards Center in Heidelberg, which includes a (handsome!) picture of the editor.

This is now essential reading for anyone interested in Mather and/or the study of the Bible in the early modern West.