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“Grace and Freedom: William Perkins and the Early Modern Reformed Understanding of Free Choice and Divine Grace,” by Richard A Muller

This latest work of Richard Muller, Grace and Freedom: William Perkins and the Early Modern Reformed Understanding of Free Choice and Divine Grace [1], is yet another title added to the very long list of his historical studies on early Modern Reformed Orthodoxy. As often noted by those who have engaged his research over the years, the extent and scope of his reassessment of the Reformed Orthodox is remarkable enough. Perhaps even more remarkable, while writing on a figure he has written about priorly, and on a topic he’s written about elsewhere extensively, this work is by no means redundant. That is in part due to the fact that this particular topic—the relation of divine freedom, sovereignty, and grace to human freedom and responsibility in the thought of the early Modern Reformed orthodox—is complex and continues to advance. But it also due to Muller’s ability to order his research and writings well, so that they compliment, expand, focus, and augment without being overly repetitious.

This work focuses on the relation of divine grace and human freedom in the thought of the English Reformed theologian, William Perkins (1558-1602). Having recently published his Divine Will and Human Choice [2], the risk of being redundant, one might think, runs high. But Muller takes the opportunity to pose a different, though supplemental and augmentative, set of questions to explore.  His Divine Will and Human Freedom was concerned primarily with the historical claims of Antonie Vos and the Utrecht school and their use of the notion of synchronic contingency. Contra Vos, et al., Muller maintained, the language of synchronic contingency “did not…rather suddenly enable Christian theologians and philosophers, whether of the fourteenth or of the seventeenth century, to resolve the debate over necessity and contingency; rather it provided a logical tool, specifically, a pair of distinctions, that could be adapted to the expression of already-extant understandings of the interrelationship of divine and human willing…” (312). In other words, the distinctions of the divided/composite senses and the simultaneity of potencies/potency of simultaneities did not imply an ontology, but presupposed and clarified one. This is where Muller picks up in Grace and Freedom. Divine Will and Human Choice, He says, “did not elaborate on the faculty psychology as such but only addressed it in relation to the issue of free choice. It also explicitly excluded the attendant theological issues of grace and predestination…[and] did not address the question of how a creature, corrupted by sin but still endowed with free choice could be understood as predestined by God and saved solely by grace” (2). These attendant theological questions allow for an exploration of that presupposed ontology, namely, in terms of a “largely Peripatetic faculty psychology” (7).

Much could be said for the historical contextualization of Perkins. Muller, always careful in his historical method, builds his case by way of analysis not only of Perkins’ writings but also those of his Reformed predecessors and immediate contemporaries, especially English (including a number of less well known late-sixteenth century English theologians). For the purposes of this brief review, I leave those details off in order to attend to Muller’s exposition of Perkins thought.

In the debate over grace and human freedom, Perkins’s primary opponents were Roman Catholics, and primarily the Jesuits. The point at dispute, however, was far more precise than has often been recognized, and this has led to misunderstandings not only of Perkins, but of the Reformed more generally. For Perkins, human freedom consists most basically in a three-fold manner. “There is a liberty in the human subject, both in mind and will, which operate according to their natural inward principle of action” (62). On the interrelation of intellect and will—traditional to the scholastic discussion of the liberum arbitrium—Muller argues that Perkins’ Reformed contemporaries advocated for positions between a moderate intellectualism, associated with the Thomistic Dominicans, and a moderate voluntarism, associated with the Franciscans. Perkins himself leaned in the Franciscan and voluntarist direction, allowing that the will maintained a freedom of determination even with respect to the last dictate of the practical intellect, whereas the more Dominican and intellectualist line would place the freedom of determination in the intellective judgement rather than in the will. However this leaning, as to the basics Perkins was in agreement with both moderate intellectualists and moderate voluntarists in maintaining what the scholastics called the freedom of contradiction. The person, when making a determination, maintains the ability and aptness not to make the determination. This freedom of contradiction, it is important to note, refers to the potency of the will either to choose or refuse. It does not refer to the object of the intellect and will.

Secondly, human freedom consists not simply in a freedom of intellect and will to act in accordance with their own inward principle, but also “toward the object” of the intellect and will. That is, human freedom consists in the “ability, when multiple objects are proposed, to reduce the choice to one object to be either chosen or rejected” (62-63). This in scholastic parlance is  called the freedom of contrariety.

Finally, human freedom consists in “liberty from impediment, namely from coaction or constraint” (63). Humans can be impeded or coerced in their choosing or refusing, and in such cases are either not acting in the fullness of their freedom or not acting freely at all. This three-fold understanding of human freedom, of contradiction, contrariety, and from coercion, is “presented by Perkins as the basic definition of human freedom (76). On this basic definition of human freedom, Perkins and the Reformed were in agreement with Rome—even the Jesuits.

But this basic definition of human freedom does not give the whole picture. It needs supplementation by an analysis of the human person as he or she exists in one of four possible “estates,” which can be mapped onto the historical economy of God’s creation and redemption (it also, I add, maps onto Aristotle’s discussion of the virtuous person). Following the fairly standard Augustinian framework, Perkins catalogued the four states as a “freedom only to evil,” a “freedom only to good,” a “freedom to good in part,” and, finally, a “freedom either to good or to evil indifferently” (65). The freedom of indifference to good or evil belonged to Adam and Eve pre-fall, what Perkins refers to as the first estate. In the fourth estate, humanity is glorified and enjoys the freedom only to good. In the third estate, post-fall but regenerate, human freedom is characterized by the freedom to good in part, inasmuch God works by grace in humans both to will and to do according to his good pleasure. Again, concerning these three estates and the freedom characteristic of them, there was no major dispute between the Reformed and Catholics.

It is the second estate, Perkins noted, the state of being fallen and unregenerate, about which the Reformed and Catholics, particularly the Jesuits, disputed. And here we need caution. Perkins, and the Reformed, understood the second estate as being characterized by a “freedom only to evil.” So put, the emphasis is on both freedom and a lack of freedom. Perkins maintains, in concord with the Catholics, that even in the second estate humans remain free with respect to natural and human acts; that is, they do not lose the freedom of contradiction, contrariety, or from compulsion with respect to their acts considered as human acts. Perkins even agrees that humans in the second estate can outwardly do both “civil and ecclesiastical actions” that, with respect to the action itself, are good (116, 118).  But considered as spiritual human acts— i.e. whether good such that one is by it rendered acceptable to God—there is in the second estate a certain lack of freedom. Humans in the second estate “are unable to do the good that would render them acceptable to God” (111). As Muller, quoting Zanchi quoting Augustine, put it: “free-will is alwaies free (namely from constraint) but it is not alwaies good” (114).

It is precisely at this point that the Reformed differed from the Council of Trent and its Jesuit defenders. Whereas the Jesuits maintained that even in the fallen and unregenerate state the human will maintains not only a passive potency for regeneration, but also an active potency to bring it about, the Reformed resolutely denied this (118-119). Performing outwardly civil or ecclesiastical good works does not even dispose one toward a regenerated good will, let alone bring it about. For Perkins and the Reformed, God must preveniently act upon the human will, and only then can the will cooperate, aided by divine grace (126-127). This was the dispute between Rome and the Reformed orthodox of the late-sixteenth and early- to mid-seventeenth centuries.

Much more could be said about this and related points; and, indeed, Muller says much more. I leave that for the reader to explore further. Let me briefly bring attention back to the main thrust of Muller’s exposition. According to Perkins, the human will remains free in all four estates—albeit in some more than others, but all characterized by a basic human freedom. This is the basic ontology that Muller had promised to explore in Perkin’s thought, a largely Peripatetic faculty psychology worked through the four-fold grid of historical estates.

How is it then, that working with that ontology one can maintain both God’s predestinating grace and human freedom? First, it is imperative to understand the divine willing as the “archetype or paradigm and basis of human freedom” (70). If God had not willed creatures to be, they would not be; If God had not willed rational creatures to be, they would not be free. This analysis is built upon the fundamental distinction between primary and secondary causality (and raises a host of further issues that Muller explores in more detail, including the Thomistic notions of concurrence and praemotio physica). In brief, God’s will upholds human freedom insofar as by God’s will the human creature exists, exists as rational and wills freely.

Secondly, divine willing and operation is not within the temporal and finite horizon of creaturely causality, and so not opposed to or in competition with creaturely causality. Perkins maintains that “The decree does not impose necessity on the human will” (72). He denies, in another instance, that God’s decree of the permission of sin is either the efficient, material, formal, or final cause of humanity’s fall (106). Further, God’s prevenient grace in the conversion of the sinner does not preclude the human concurrence with that grace in the freedom of his will (126-127). God, indeed, must regenerate first in the order of nature, which is passively received by the convert (133). But the human will “freely, of itself, albeit aided by grace, responds to God” (127). Again, God’s will and external operations do not preclude human freedom or impose necessity upon it; rather his will and operations open that freedom up.

In summary, then, “On the divine side [Perkins] identified an ultimate divine decree that necessitates the existence of all things and events and that determines the ultimate end of all things. On the human side he had defined human free choice by an absence of physical necessity and coercion and by the capacity of the will to elect or reject objects provided by the intellect.” Rather than these two “causal poles” being in competition with one another, or one of them winning out over the other, Perkins maintains that there is harmony between them. The divine side, operative at a “higher” level of causality, creates, sustains, and governs the human side, which is operative at a secondary level.

Though not the whole truth, I don’t think it unfair to say that if Muller’s Divine Will and Human Freedom was directed primarily to engaging the historical reassessment of the Reformed orthodox offered by Anonie Vos and the Utrecht School, then Grace and Freedom seems primarily directed at the historical claims of Reformed compatibilism offered by Paul Helm and others.

Whatever the case, both ought to be read, and read with patience and care. Like all of Muller’s works, Grace and Freedom repays such patience and care. I hope that beyond its contribution to Perkins studies and the historiographical debates with the Utrecht School, Helm, and others, this work will also signal the need, especially among the young, restless and reformed or new Calvinist types, for care and detailed attention to the Reformed tradition’s understanding of nature and grace. Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.  

Joshua Schendel is the executive editor of Modern Reformation [3] magazine and an author at Conciliar Post [4]. He lives with his beloved wife, Bethanne, and three children in Southern California.