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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Recommended Reading on the Relationship between Divine and Human Freedom

Published Saturday, September 1, 2018 By Noah J. Frens

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

by Richard A. Muller
Baker Academic, 2017
336 pages (hardcover), $45.00

For the past decade, there has been an ongoing debate tucked away in academic journals and monographs concerning how Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries understood human freedom and how that freedom interacted with God’s providential will. A group of scholars, largely based in the Netherlands, argue that the Reformed developed a sophisticated concept of human freedom that has largely been forgotten. These scholars maintain that the Reformed held that all things happen according to God’s will, and that in each mundane act of choice (such as eating an apple) human beings could have refrained from the act, chosen not to eat the apple, or could have chosen an entirely different object, such as eating chocolate instead. Human freedom, they argue, consists in the power to either choose or refrain from choosing an object, termed “liberty of contradiction,” or to choose a completely different object, termed “liberty of contrariety.”

This present book by Richard Muller, the historian of post-Reformation Reformed theology, is a response to the ongoing debate. The opening two chapters present a thorough introduction and summary of the debate. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the development of concepts such as necessity and contingency and their relation to freedom in Aristotle and how he was interpreted on these matters in the Middle Ages, particularly by John Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas. Chapters 5 and 6 trace these views within the Reformed tradition. Muller contends that the Reformed, following the medieval theologians, understood free choice in terms of liberty of contradiction and contrariety. The last two chapters move from the human perspective to the divine: chapter 7 examines the nature of divine power; and chapter 8 looks at divine concurrence, how God’s determination of all things and human freedom coincide. With regard to the latter, the Reformed argued that human freedom can never frustrate the will of God or operate independently of God’s providence. How exactly this occurred was a debated issue. A majority preferred the concept of “physical premotion,” which was borrowed from their Dominican contemporaries. This view held that for all human actions, God moves the human will to act. This divine motion cannot be frustrated, but it also moves things according to their nature. Since the nature of the will is to be free, the will is moved by God in a way that preserves its freedom. One can hear echoes of this view in the Westminster Confession of Faith 3.1.

Though this is a technical and dense academic book, there is much that lay readers can learn from it. First, the discussion of divine and human freedom within the Reformed tradition occurred in deep dialogue with the Christian past and with contemporary Roman Catholic scholars. While the Reformed were in sharp dispute with past and present Roman Catholic teachings on matters of salvation, the sacraments, and the church, they were in deep continuity on other doctrinal points, such as the relation between the divine will and human freedom.

Second, the view of human freedom presented in the book is quite different from some presentations of the Reformed view found elsewhere. As Muller mentions here, and has developed at length elsewhere, there has been a tendency to take Jonathan Edwards’s Freedom of the Will as the benchmark for Reformed understandings of freedom when, in fact, Edwards arguably departed from the Reformed tradition on these matters. Edwards followed a different and contrasting understanding of freedom, developed by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, which defined freedom as doing what one wants to do, termed “liberty of spontaneity,” with the added condition that one is not forcibly coerced (29–30). Readers are likely more familiar with this understanding of freedom than the one expounded in the book.

Third, Muller, along with a number of other scholars, cautions against using modern terms such as “compatibilism” and “libertarianism” or “determinism” and “indeterminism” when discussing these matters. He believes these terms do not do justice to the views of the past and we should instead use the terms they used, such as “liberty of contradiction” and “liberty of contrariety.”

Lastly, it should be noted that Muller is concerned here with the relation between human and divine freedom in providence, and that his discussion is separate and distinct from matters of salvation and predestination. Although for some this book may prove highly technical and complex, for those interested in the topic of human and divine freedom, it is a must-read.

 

Noah J. Frens is a graduate student at Vanderbilt University.

  • Noah J. Frens


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