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“Reforming Free Will: A Conversation on the History of Reformed Views,” by Paul Helm

Published Wednesday, February 10, 2021 By Joshua Schendel

There has been no shortage of ink spilled on the relation of Reformed thought—particularly in its discussions of the divine decrees and predestination—and determinism. So, in that respect, the contemporary rendition of the dispute being carried out by Paul Helm, Richard Muller, Antoine Vos, et. al., is not new. And yet, it is recomposed, we might say, and as such very instructive. First, particularly in the scholarship of Muller and Vos, the dispute is being carried out with a more sophisticated historical methodology and with reference to a great many more original sources (in their original languages) than was typically the case in the scholarship of bygone eras. Second, and in part because of the first, Helm, Muller, Vos, et al., have managed to capture the broad swath of argumentation, conceptions, distinctions, and terms at play in the Reformed Orthodox (RO) discussions of God, his decree, his providence, and human freedom.  That is, they offer a thick description of Reformed thought on the matter. Third, this dispute has evidenced the richness and plurality of views that come under the moniker “Reformed.” The Reformed theological tradition, even on this point, is not homogeneous.

In this review of Helm’s latest work, Reforming Free Will, I will focus primarily on the second instructive point. For in my estimation, the most valuable contribution of this work is not Helm’s primary argument—which remains unpersuasive at least on historiographical grounds if not conceptual—but what his primary question brings to clarity. What Helm intends to demonstrate is “that [synchronic contingency’s] implausibility has the consequence of making [Francis] Turretin and his fellow RO theologians into compatibilists, and to make clear that [Jonathan] Edwards is in the same compatibilist anthropological tradition” (20; cf. 31). The question for this review is, then, two-fold: what does Helm take synchronic contingency to be, especially as it is used in the writings of Vos and Muller, and why does he find it implausible?

Commenting on Vos’s definition, Helm says that synchronic contingency is “a choice for A, which could under exactly the same conditions, both for the chooser and for temporal or other conditions in which the choice of A took place, have been equally a choice for not-A or for B” (34). On this theory, “Something can only be freely brought about if at the moment it is chosen, in just the same circumstances, an alternative could have been chosen” (47). Helm calls this a “pure alternativity” as well as “libertarianism,” “indeterminism,” and—somewhat infelicitously, it must be said—“Franciscan freedom.” 

According to Helm, the notion that freedom consists in the ability, or potency, to have done otherwise in an identical set of circumstances suffers at the hands of two primary objections. In the first place, it simply does not account for the real-life experience of human choice making (he makes a great deal about Edwards’s use of the “vulgar language” of common people, which captures this experience, in contrast to the scholastics who get lost in their technical jargon (162-163, 170-173)).  For Helm, once a choice has been made “the will is no longer indifferent, until the occasion of the next choice” (52). Further, the will remains “indifferent”—the experience of vacillating between options—only insofar as the practical intellect has not yet presented the will with a judgement. Once the practical intellect presents the will with a judgement, the will necessarily follows that judgement.

For Helm, herein lies human freedom: the intellectual, or rational, ability of a person to deliberate as to ends and means. Freedom does not lie in the will’s latent potencies to have chosen alternative actions, but in the intellect’s ability to discern and judge between ends and means. Once the intellect forms that judgement, the will of necessity carries it out. And, Helm asks, what exactly would maintaining a “non-actualized potency amount to? Such a potency is one of two potencies, one of which has been exercised, and so is spent, in a choice. And so, is not the remaining potency now unrealizable, because it is already in the past?” (127). For Helm, one can maintain a residual, latent ability to choose alternatively, sure; but it doesn’t seem to help us understand the choice that was in fact made, and, for all we know, it could just as well be an imaginary ability. All we know is the choice that was in fact made. And we want to know about that choice, not about alternate possibilities.

That is Helm’s first objection to his construal of the notion of synchronic contingency. I note here two points in response. First, even if Helm’s argument is successful, the most he has done is shown that the RO (or Turretin, at least, for Helm relies heavily on textual evidence from him) fall more in line with the Dominican and Thomist reasoning on the relation of intellect and will, rather than the Franciscan. But to show this is not incompatible with either Vos’ or Muller’s version of synchronic contingency. Indeed, Muller argues in his Grace and Freedom (see my review here)that RO views generally “fall within the bounds set by a moderate Thomist intellectualism… and a moderate Franciscan voluntarist option” (56). To show that at least some of the RO argued that the will necessarily follows the last judgement of the practical intellect is not an argument against synchronic contingency, nor does it demonstrate that the RO did not hold to a notion of synchronic contingency.

Second, in response to Helm’s first objection, he seems to have missed the somewhat subtle role that synchronic contingency plays in the accounts of both Vos and Muller. He wonders what good it does to hold that once a choice is made, possible alternatives remain. The choice is “spent,” it is in the past, and so carries with it the necessity of the past. It cannot now be changed. But this, it seems to me, is to miss the point. On the accounts of both Muller and Vos, synchronic contingency does not mitigate against a choice being a determination. The question of synchronic contingency is not whether, a choice having been made, it can (now) be otherwise, on account of a latent potency remaining in the agent even after the determination, but whether, a choice having been made, it could have been otherwise, on account of latent potencies to alternate effects that were then, at the moment of the determination, in the agent.

According to Helm, the choice (‘determination’ in its older usage) could have been otherwise, but only if some significant feature of the circumstances surrounding that choice were different (34). According to Vos and Muller, the RO analyzed the question differently. When considered in respect to an agent who has the ability to make alternative determinations, the choice could have been otherwise because the agent has the power (potency) to do otherwise. For example, I have the potency to sit and I have the potency to stand. As I come out to the table on my back patio and choose to sit, it is also true that—even while I am sitting—I could have chosen to stand. And this is true because I have the ability to stand, and that ability does not vanish while I am not using it.

And this brings us to Helm’s second primary objection to the notion of synchronic contingency: it does not square with the Reformed notion of God’s providence. He states: “No one doubts that God can know that the occurrence of physically necessary events will or will not take place. But what of those contingent events in the second sense, the actions of human beings, that possess reason and will? Scripture teaches that God nevertheless has infallible knowledge of contingent effects…” (182-183). Helm’s argument that the notion of synchronic contingency is inconsistent with this affirmation seems to have some weight in light of some of the claims of synchronic contingency’s proponents. For example, J. Martin Bac has argued that the “the Reformed model of divine agency as a contingency model in the sense of synchronic contingency” led them to affirm such statements as “If God wills that Socrates sits, it is possible that he runs.”  (Perfect Will Theology, 23; cf. Reformed Thought on Freedom, 32-33). How, Helm wonders, can God have infallible knowledge of human free acts when even though he, God, wills that they do some act, they maintain the possibility of doing contrariwise?

Instead, Helm argues, following Edwards, that compatibilism makes much better sense of all this. In brief, all events have a full causal account for why they are (177-178; 186). Now, creaturely knowledge cannot access that full account, at least not antecedently. And this is what we mean by contingency in the realm of secondary causality (human agency, say). But God is not finite. He has access to that full account of all creaturely action, including contingent action, and this is particularly true because his decree (as first cause) fills out that causal account (183). This is how God has infallible knowledge of creaturely contingent events; they are not indeterminate to him.

Thus, according to Helm, though our choices are contingent and indeterminate to us because we are finite—we hesitate in response to genuine options, we are ignorant of certain facts, etc.—that does not mean that human actions are indeterminate in themselves. Each and every act of human willing has a cause, or rather, a complex of causes. Each human act of choice is therefore determined to one effect by that complex of causes. The only way the choice could have been different is if the cause(s) were sufficiently different (34). A human choice is free, then, not because indeterminate (or, more technically, a determination to one effect from the possibility of multiple effects), but simply in those cases where the choice is made in “the absence of compulsion.”

There is much in Helm’s second objection that commends careful consideration. Here I offer in brief what seems to me to be the heart of a proper response: Helm’s account of compatibilism seems to conflate primary and secondary causality, at least in a way that the scholastics, both medieval and Reform, would not have. As Thomas puts it: “One action does not proceed from two agents of the same order. But nothing hinders the same action from proceeding from a primary and a secondary agent” (ST, Ia Q 105, a 5, ad 2). God as primary cause does not come alongside of secondary causes, as one more amongst them, filling the gaps left by them in a ‘full account.’ Primary causality is always transcendent to secondary causes and establishes them. God’s decree and infallible knowledge, then, do not take away from the freedom of human choice, as consisting in contrariety, contradiction, and non-compulsion, but establishes that freedom in the realm of secondary causality. A full response would develop this line of thought. Here I can only point to it.

In summary, I take it that what Helm is really arguing for is a developmental thesis. He doesn’t put it this way; rather he calls it an “indirect argument.” Whereas Vos and Muller argue for what the RO meant in their dialogues on human freedom by looking to what preceded and was current to them; Helm looks at developments that postdate the RO, and argues from them back to the RO. He claims that, though wrapped in scholastic verbiage, what the RO basically meant was picked up and refined by the likes of Edwards, who put to use both a common, vulgar language and new philosophical tools in the work. Thus, like Edwards the RO were at least basically compatibilists. This, as I’ve noted above, will not be very persuasive to historians. But that has not been my main concern in this review. I’ve tried to focus more on the conceptual argumentation. It is at this point that Helm proves instructive. For he raise a number of textual and conceptual issues regarding the notion of synchronic contingency that are, when carefully worked through, helpfully clarifying. I have attempted in my brief responses to show why they are clarifying. Namely, they raise significant and precise conceptions and distinctions which lay at the heart of the Christian tradition’s attempt to understand the scriptural presentation of human beings as responsible agents and God as sovereign.

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

  • Joshua Schendel