Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought

Written by Richard A. Muller Reviewed By Andrew S. Ballitch

In Divine Will and Human Choice, Richard Muller continues his life-long project of providing a nuanced and contextualized understanding of the post-Reformation Reformed tradition. He looks back to ancient philosophy and medieval scholasticism to demonstrate the continuity and development thesis prevalent throughout his work. As readers have come to expect, Muller’s presentation of the primary sources reveals a variegated, rather than monolithic, group of Reformed Orthodox thinkers. In his own words, his “main thesis” is as follows:

Early modern Reformed theologians and philosophers 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,” and 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, including all events and acts, whether necessary, contingent, or free. (p. 34)

Muller does not address the soteriological issue of monergism versus synergism. Neither does he evaluate whether those he examines solve the perennial problem of divine sovereignty and human freedom. What he does do is articulate a pre-Edwardsian Reformed formulation of the solution. Yet he seeks to accomplish considerably more than this.

The book moves a preexisting debate over freedom and necessity, specifically synchronic contingency, in Reformed thought significantly forward by critiquing the main players on both sides. Part one is devoted to framing the debate, though the critiques are sustained throughout the work.

Part two examines Aristotle, Aquinas, and Duns Scotus, an examination from which Muller concludes that there was not a Scotist revolution in thinking on freedom and necessity that the scholastics of the seventeenth century picked up on. The point that both Aquinas and Scotus fit comfortably within Western Christian Aristotelianism, a stream of thought that included Reformed theologians, is a primary contention over which Muller parts ways with the position represented by Reformed Thought on Freedom. The language of synchronism or simultaneity of potencies represents a meaningful development, but not a break.

The third and final part of the book traces early modern reformed perspectives on contingency, necessity, and freedom. The modern language and dichotomy of compatibilism and libertarianism, which Helm and others adopt, is anachronist and simply does not fit this time period. Muller demonstrates this by presenting the understandings of numerous Reformers and Reformed scholastics, including thinkers like Calvin, Vermigli, Zanchi, Ursinus, Junius, Gomarus, Twisse, Owen, Voetius, and Turretin, among others. He explores the concepts of divine power and concurrence, possibility, actuality, and contingency, noting the fact that the scholastic definitions and distinctions are explanatory tools functioning in a seventeenth-century Reformed context, with a certain understanding of God and the world.

What emerges is a picture of how early modern Reformed thinkers made sense of the divine determination of all things and genuine human freedom, not an Edwardsian freedom from compulsion. In the nearest he comes to a summary statement, Muller writes,

The point is that both God and A, as rational beings, have potencies to more than one effect—and that God, at his primary level of causality, volitionally and ontologically concurs with the willing of A, so that the real or actual order in which A exists is constituted, as future contingencies are actualized, by both divine and human willing. The divine and the human willing are both free and both capable of alternativity; both are necessary and together are sufficient for the act to take place. (p. 308)

Synchronicity or simultaneity of potencies presents “the retention of the alternative or contrary potency as the genuine identifier of freely willed acts” (p. 308). All of this assumes that God alone has the power to actualize possibilities in the ultimate sense and that God is utterly free in his willing. It assumes that the creation of the contingent world order established an ontologically and causally two-tiered universe. It assumes that divine concurrence is necessary to the operation of all secondary causes, and the law of non-contradiction. In other words, concurrent divine willing enables genuine human freedom and “a contingent world order in which choices, events, and all things could be otherwise” (p. 324).

Muller does not disappoint in either the breadth of his research or his insightful analysis. His thesis is bold in its various critiques of established scholarship, yet persuasive. The volume is a scholarly monograph, and one not easily accessible, even by the standards of its genre. It is a wealth of information, though, and essential for specialists to labor through. That said, it will also be of interest to all those considering the question of divine sovereignty and human freedom. The seventeenth century was the capstone to an era that did indeed give way to something new in the eighteenth on this question. The answer represented by Jonathan Edwards will be much more familiar to readers, but part of the inherent importance of this book is the alternative solution it offers.

Andrew S. Ballitch

Andrew S. Ballitch
Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church
Louisville, Kentucky, USA

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