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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: Jonathan Edwards’s Turn from the Classic-Reformed Tradition of Freedom of the Will

Philip John Fisk, Jonathan Edwards’s Turn from the Classic-Reformed Tradition of Freedom of the Will, New Directions in Jonathan Edwards Studies (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016).

V&RFiskThis second installment in V & R’s monograph series in Jonathan Edwards studies, which is edited by the staff of the Edwards Center at Yale, has been very well researched. Written by Philip J. Fisk, a Trinity graduate and long-time Free Church missionary, it began as Fisk’s doctoral dissertation for the Evangelical Theological Faculty (ETF) in Leuven, Belgium, where Fisk now teaches. Supervised by Anton Vos and Andreas J. Beck, it exhibits all the hallmarks of their neo-Calvinist rehabilitation of the Scotist line of Reformed thought on freedom, which is summarized well in a book by that name from the late Willem van Asselt and his colleagues in the Netherlands, whom the Leuven scholars follow (https://www.amazon.com/Reformed-Thought-Freedom-Reformation-Post-Reformation/dp/080103521X).

Put briefly, the Scotist line of Reformed thinkers on freedom held a less deterministic way of thinking about volition than that caricatured as “Calvinist” by Socinian, Arminian, and Roman Catholic foes. They allowed for what John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) and his heirs claimed was genuine contingency in human moral action. Using Latinate Aristotelian tools they inherited from medieval scholastic sources, they contended for a strong doctrine of predestination, a robust approach to the sovereignty of God over all of human history, and the freedom of the will via concepts like “concurrence” (of divine and human willing, the latter being truly free but depending on divine cooperation for existence) and what they called “synchronic contingency” (real power one has in the moment of volition to do other than what one chooses, even if/though one’s choice has been predestined by God). To their critics, these doctrines seemed logically inconsistent. But to Fisk’s scholastic Calvinists, they offered a way of eating one’s cake and having it too–of maintaining an apparently high view of God’s providence with a seemingly strong commitment to real freedom and contingency.

The burden of Fisk’s book is to show that Edwards abandoned such scholastic tools of art and thus turned from “the classic-Reformed tradition” on freedom. Or in Fisk’s own words, “our conclusion is that Edwards totally transformed the Reformed tradition from within the tradition, and as such, deviates from it” (p. 418). Edwards claimed to argue for the freedom of the will. But he actually undermined it by denying any contingency in human moral action, and became a rank determinist.

Fisk develops this claim in a two-fold manner. Part One of his book treats “The Harvard and Yale Curricula on Freedom of Will” (pp. 67-231), in which Fisk sketches the history of commencement theses at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton as well on the freedom of the will up to the time when Edwards published his own Freedom of the Will (1754); the work of the Dutch scholastic thinker, Adriaan Heereboord, on the freedom of the will, which was studied at the colleges; and the work of the Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard Presbyterian, Charles Morton, on the will, which was based on Heereboord and Fisk suggests Edwards may have studied in college. Part Two treats “The Position of Jonathan Edwards on Freedom of Will” (pp. 233-408), in which Fisk measures Edwards and his work with other scholars on the freedom of the will (especially Daniel Whitby, an Anglican Arminian) against the gold standard of Reformed Scotists like Heereboord—and finds Edwards wanting.

Inasmuch as Fisk’s Scotist interpretation of what he calls “the main Christian line of thought” as well as “the classic-Reformed line” of thought on the will (pp. 108, 231 and passim) has sparked a bit of controversy, his interpretation of Edwards will prove controversial too. All should grant that Fisk’s scholastics avoided sheer determinism, but many (like me) will argue that Edwards did so too and, in the end, proved no more deterministic than most of his Reformed predecessors. He did leave behind much of the Aristotelian framework for interpreting volition, and thus defended human freedom in a rather different manner than scholastics such as Heereboord. But he did so in order to defend traditional Calvinism from critics who deemed it too deterministic. By Edwards’ day, critics saw through what they claimed was the verbal smoke and mirrors of the Scotists on freedom, 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 human natural freedom (freedom to do whatever one pleases) in the midst of moral necessity (one always/necessarily wills to choose that to which one is most inclined when choosing). He ended up teaching something very much like the older Calvinistic 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 natural/physical compulsion, in which we are not morally culpable for our actions). No matter which philosophical frame of reference he employed, none of the early modern Calvinists taught a view of human freedom that passed muster with their much more libertarian critics.

In the preface to the first edition of Edwards’ Original Sin (1758), the Rev. Samuel Finley (who became Princeton’s president three years after Edwards died) referred to Edwards’ earlier book on the Freedom of the Will (1754) as a volume “that has procured him the Elogy of eminent Divines abroad. Several Professors of Divinity in the Dutch Universities,” Finley specified, “very lately sent him their Thanks, for the Assistance he had given them in their Inquiry into some controverted Points; having carried his own further than any Author they had ever seen” (p. ix). The reception of Edwards’ writings on the freedom of the will has clearly changed since then in the Low Countries!

This book is highly recommended. Careful readers have now seen that it will prove most useful to philosophical theologians, and most interesting to Calvinists seeking the best ways to defend their faith from charges of determinism. But all serious students of early modern Western thought need to come to terms with its contents. And students of Edwards’ thought will want to noodle on its argument regarding Edwards’ place in the history of Calvinism.

For more on the issues handled masterfully by Fisk, consult the debate conducted through the following lectures from Richard Muller and Paul Helm hosted here at the Center.