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Getting Clear(er) on Reformed Theology, Determinism, and Necessity

Recent conversations have again turned my attention to claims by Muller and the Utrecht school, to the effect that “Classic Reformed theology is not a species of determinism.” I find most of the substantive conclusions they draw perplexing. Aside from the fact that it is a live and open debate whether the intellectual progenitor(s)—whether Aristotle, Aquinas, or Scotus—of putative classic Reformed theologians were compatibilists or not, is that I have a hard time seeing how their conclusions follow even given what they say about the views of the classical Reformed theologians.

One interesting issue is synchronic contingency. I plan to make some comments about that concept in a future post. However, Muller doesn’t hold to the synchronic contingency thesis, and so in this post I want to discuss the senses of ‘determinism’ and ‘necessity’ it is said the classic Reformed theologians denied. It is my judgment that from this sense—even if it is true that the Reformers were not determinists in this sense—it does not follow that Reformed theology isn’t a species of determinism in any sense.

Here’s a statement by Muller: In post-Reformation theology there was “not even a tendency toward metaphysical determinism” (PRRD 1520–1725, 2003, 128). To my mind, this statement is consistent with there being a tendency toward (some form of) determinism. But other don’t see it that way. In conversation, one (non-Reformed) philosophical theologian sympathetic to Muller’s thesis told me that Muller just means by “metaphysical determinism,” determinism simpliciter or, at least, all extant forms of determinism. This pox, by Muller, on determinism per se is affirmed by, e.g., Thomas McCall (p.246), and Kenneth Keathley (S&S, 65–69). I don’t doubt these thinkers have Muller right; but if they do, Muller’s conclusion seems hasty to me.

Whether Muller meant his qualified determinism to stand for the idea of determinism as such is not really my concern. As I say, if he did mean that, then I think he’s fighting a losing battle. Indeed, I will go as far as to state that even if the (some?) classic Reformed theologians took themselves to be denying all extant versions of “determinism,” that won’t be enough to conclude: (a) that their theology didn’t imply determinism (in some sense), and (b), that they would have disagreed with the way a contemporary Reformed theologian, like Paul Helm, might put things. Part of the reason I find Muller and some of his friends to be fighting a losing battle is because, as one scholar sympathetic to Muller’s cause recently put it: “Actually, the term ‘determinism’ did not exist in [John] Edwards’ time and instead of ‘determinism,’ the adversaries of the Reformed often used the term ‘Stoic Fatalism’ to criticize Reformed theology’ (Yoo, John Edwards on Human Free Choice and Divine Necessity, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Mar 13, 2013, p.20). Put another way, I think several concepts were jumbled together back then that are made distinct now. But secondly, several concepts were employed back then that have presently fallen out of favor, and this causes (some) thinkers to miss subtle distinctions that might undermine the wide-scope of their arguments.

It is this latter point that forms the basis of this post. When Muller says things like ‘metaphysical-determinism,’ here’s the idea I have. Suppose S is metaphysically determined to Y. Then, in all worlds containing S, S Ys. That is, if I’m metaphysically determined to play the cello, then every world containing me, I am a cello player in that world. Now, this is clearly an extreme form of determinism, and it is not at all what most philosophers mean today when they talk about determinism. Take a recent statement by Robert Kane: “In more familiar terms, we say that a determined event is inevitable or necessary (it cannot but occur), given the determining conditions. . . .Determinism is thus a kind of necessity, but it is a conditional necessity” (Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, OUP, 2005, p. 6). The former, i.e., metaphysical-determinism, is a much stronger notion than the latter. On the latter, there are worlds where I exist and do not play the cello—like this world! These are not logically equivalent doctrines, and thus rejecting the former does not entail that the latter has been rejected also.

I think by ‘metaphysical determinism,’ Muller should mean something like the way I described it above, and not determinism as such. I believe this is the historically faithful way to understand it. One way to see this point is by noting the way A.J. Beck and A. Vos describe the type of ‘determinism’ the classic Reformed rejected. They write: “[W]e mean by the term ‘determinism’ absolute or hard determinism in the sense of necessitarianism. This is the sense in which determinism has usually been understood in the older research on the Reformed scholastics” (Beck & Vos, “Conceptual Patterns Related to Reformed Scholasticism,” Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschrift vl. 57 (2003),p.225). They go on to claim that this is the sense Muller means it when he writes “metaphysical determinism” (ibid., fn.8), though Muller qualifies it even more here, i.e., “rigid metaphysical determinism.”

This “absolute” determinism (also, “metaphysical” determinism) delivers a kind of necessity, i.e., absolute necessity (cf. Beck & Vos, p. 228; Muller also uses this phrase in various places). As with the above, I say “absolute necessity” is a very strong form of necessity, similar or identical to logical or metaphysical necessity. That is, if it is absolutely necessary that I play the cello, then in every world that I exist, I play the cello—and to say that it’s possible I don’t so strum entails a contradiction. That is, I am necessarily a cello player. Again, this is a very strong form of determinism, and is not at all entailed by affirming forms of determinism where I may be determined in some world to play the cello, but in another world I play the piano instead—sadly, I must report, neither of these worlds is this world! Therefore, from “I am determined to do X” it does not follow that “I am metaphysically determined to do X.” Also, from “It is necessary that I do X,” it does not follow that “It is absolutely necessary that I do X.” The former is a hypothetical or contingent necessity. Given certain conditions that could have been otherwise, I must X. Since those conditions could have been otherwise, then there is some world where I do not do X. Thus, I don’t do X of absolute necessity.

This is a viable form of determinism—indeed, it is the most popular form and is the kind of determinism the overwhelming majority of contemporary scholars have in mind (a) when they talk about determinism and (b) when they call Reformed theology a deterministic system. For example, to cite (ibid.) Kane again: “A determined event does not have to occur, no matter what else happens (it need not be absolutely necessary). . . . .If the decrees of [God] had been different or the past had been different in some way, John may have been determined to go to Damascus rather than to Samarra.”

There’s also historical evidence for the distinction I’m advocating here. Leibniz (17th century) discusses this distinction (cf. Discourse on Metaphysics and Other Essays, Hackett, 1991, pp. 13, 31, etc). However, so you don’t have to search, here’s a quick blurb from the Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy:

For Leibniz , the contrast between absolute necessity and hypothetical necessity is basic. Absolute necessity , also called logical, metaphysical, or mathematical necessity , is necessary in itself. It is the necessity possessed by a truth whose denial would involve a contradiction , as in the case of the truths of arithmetic and geometry. Absolute necessity is universally and unconditionally the case. The truth of such necessity is the truth of reason. Hypothetical necessity , also called moral, consequential, or physical necessity , is necessary, given that such and such antecedents occur. The term “hypothetical necessity ” is derived from Aristotle ‘s Physics 200a13–14. According to Leibniz, the present state of the world is not absolutely necessary, but is only hypothetically necessary. All laws of nature are only hypothetical, for they depend on God’s will to create the best possible world. The distinction between absolute and hypothetical necessity is an attempt to avoid Spinozistic rigid determinism and to establish the possibility of freedom of the will.

This explication by Leibniz, who wrote at the time of the classic Reformers, accords with the way I understood the terms “metaphysical determinism” and “absolute necessity” above.

So what’s the upshot here: I think the current and seemingly growing trend of denying that Reformed theology is a kind of determinism needs to temper itself. For, by my lights, all guys like Muller have shown—at best—is that the Reformers didn’t promote an extremely modally strong form of determinism. It’s simply not enough to note that “metaphysical determinism” or “absolute necessity” was denied, and then you get a determinism-free theology. That’s too quick. There’s a lot more to say on this subject and I will try to say some of it in upcoming posts.

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