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Richard Muller’s Divine Will and Human Choice: First Impressions

Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought (Baker: 2017), is Richard Muller’s latest, and most comprehensive, addition to the literature on Reformed thought on freedom. Dr. Muller (Calvin Seminary) is a highly regarded historical theologian, and his influence is strong, especially among younger Reformed academics. Muller is a prolific author and there is no doubt that he has provided the Church in general, and the Reformed church in particular, a great service with his detailed historical work on early Reformed thought on all dogmatic loci. Despite this, his involvement in the debate on early Modern Reformed thought on freedom has always perplexed me. In this area, at least, and in my estimation, his work suffers from several defects, many of which I have discussed on this blog (use the search feature). Unfortunately, his latest book appears to be more of the same. This post will catalog some of my first impressions. These are gleaned from his introductory chapter, and so these criticisms must not be taken to necessarily reflect the overall quality of Divine Will and Human Choice.

1. On p.22 Muller states that some Reformed theology turned “deterministic” in the 16th and 17th century in part because “of the loss of fluency in the scholastic language of the early modern Reformed, particularly the distinctions used to reconcile the divine willing of all things, the sovereignty of grace, and overarching divine providence with the contingency and freedom, not merely epistemically but ontically understood as the possibility for things and effects to be otherwise.”

Comments: It is no thesis of determinism that things can’t “possibly” be otherwise. Suppose S is determined to A in world W. That does not entail that there is no other “possible” world, W*, where S does not-A. If the bar for compatibilism were set at showing that S’s A-ing is free in W just in case S does not-A some other world W*, then there would be no debate about the truth of compatibilism. The problem (1) shows is something I have stressed on this blog before: Muller &co. seem to think that ‘determinism’ entails absolute necessity. But there shouldn’t be a debate about whether the Reformed tradition has, as a whole, denied the absolute necessity of our actions. All contemporary Reformed theological compatibilists, to my knowledge, think that it is possible that we do otherwise than we in fact do.

2. On p.29 Muller summarizes the debate between Paul Helm and the contributors to Reformed Thought on Freedom as boiling down to “a fundamental disagreement over the terms of the debate itself. The assumption of the [contributors] is that the modern categories of libertarianism and compatibilism (with the latter understood in deterministic sense) do not exhaust the field: the older Reformed doctrine, in their view, corresponds neither with libertarianism not compatibilist/determinist definitions. Helm’s arguments, on the other hand, appear to accept the premise that necessity and causal or ontic contingency, understood as the inherent possibility for things and events to be otherwise, are incompatible and that, therefore, there is no third category of explanation between libertarian and compatibilist options.”

Comments: Here I focus on Muller’s description of what Helm thinks necessity or determinism implies. It seems Muller reads Helm, and indeed contemporary theological determinists and compatibilists, as thinking that X’s being necessary or determined means that X does not have an “inherent” possibility/ability to be otherwise. This supports what I said above: Muller et al. seem to think that theological determinism entails absolute necessity, or, stated another way, the necessity of the consequent thing. This is false. Helm has never suggested such, and indeed he has explicitly said otherwise (pun intended)! So Helm, “What God decrees is necessary by a hypothetical or conditional necessity. It is because he has freely decreed that p that p is necessary, not otherwise.” Helm here is stating what he takes to be the classic Reformed view, which he thinks Calvin is representative. He goes on to cite a particularly enlightening passage from Calvin’s Institutes:

We ought undoubtedly to hold that whatever changes are discerned in the world are produced from the secret stirring of God’s hand. But what God has determined must necessarily so take place, even though it is neither unconditionally, nor of its own peculiar nature, necessary….Whence again we see that distinctions concerning relative and absolute necessity, likewise of consequent and consequence, were not recklessly invented in schools, when God subjected the fragility the bones of his Son which he had exempted from being broken, and thus restricted to the necessity of his own plan what could have happened naturally.

As all future events are uncertain to us, so we hold them in suspense, as if they might incline to one side or the other. Yet in our hearts it nonetheless remains fixed that nothing will take place that the Lord has not previously foreseen.

Helm thinks Calvin is a determinist and compatibilist. Yet it is clear that Helm thinks that this does not mean that things “inherently” are as God decrees. He uses the prophecy about Christ’s bones to illustrate this.  Calvin holds that given God’s decree, it’s necessary that Christ’s bones would not break. But, this doesn’t mean that Christ’s bones were “inherently” unbreakable.

3. On p.28 Muller tells us that it “will become clear in what follows, the point made by van Asselt and his associates in Reformed Thought on Freedom that the older Reformed approach is neither a form of compatibilism nor a form of libertarianism, nor, indeed, a kind of deterministic compatibilism, but a theory of ‘dependent freedom,'” and this theory of dependent freedom “itself occupies a significant place in this discussion.”

Commentary: How strange. The early Modern Reformed view is neither compatibilist nor libertarian because it affirms “dependent freedom.” It is not clear why this vague claim should set apart the early Modern view from libertarianism and compatibilism. Take libertarian freedom (LFW). In what sense is LFW not “dependent freedom”? And if it is independent, we can ask: independent of what? Here’s one answer: independent of determining factors. But presumably this is also true of the early Modern Reformed (given Muller’s assessment of that view). Here’s another answer: LFW actions are not indepdent of God’s concursus. I assume the early Modern Reformed agreed. So how does the the early Reformed differ from LFW given that both are dependent and independent depending on what we plug into the argument? Consider now compatibilist freedom (CFW). Surely (theological) CFW affirms ‘dependent freedom’. What we do minimally depends on God’s decree. There’s further questions to ask: does Muller’s “dependent freedom” mean that God’s foreknowledge of what we do depends on God? If so, it’s not clear how Muller can avoid determinism. If not, (a): it’s not clear his view is Reformed (WCF 2.2), and (b): apparently theological compatibilists have a leg up in the dependency department. So are we the ones who really espouse a rich notion of “dependent freedom”?

4, When Muller says the early Modern Reformed deny ‘compatibilism’ and ‘libertarianism’, how does he understand those terms? He tells us in a footnote on pp. 34-35: “By compatibilism, or what has been called ‘classical compatibilism,’ I understand a view of freedom and determinism that identifies freedom as ‘the power or ability to do what we want or desire to do’ paired with ‘an absence of constraints or impediments … preventing us from doing what we want.’ Libertarianism is incompatibilist by definition, assuming that genuine freedom is incompatible with any form of determinism and implies an ability of ‘self formation’ understood as ‘the power to do otherwise here and now.’ He cites  Robert Kane’s, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (New York: OUP 2005, pgs. 13, 32, and 172-173, respectively).

Comments: We’ll see how things unfold, but this is problematic. First, if he only has in mind ‘classical compatibilism’ (CC), then apparently it’s open that the early Modern Reformed would have affirmed a non-classical compatibilism. Second, the sort of CC Muller seems to care about is what we might call naive classical compatibilism. There’s other iterations of CC which do not understand freedom in what I’ve called the “naive” sense (take the ‘new dispositionalism’). What seems to unite all iterations of CC is their affirmation that the ability to do otherwise is necessary for freedom. Fourth, it’s not clear what Muller means when he says the early Modern Reformed would have denied CC. Doesn’t Muller think that the things he listed are necessary for freedom? So it seems that by rejecting CC, he means that the items he lists (plus the one he left off, viz., the ability to do otherwise), are not enough for the sort of freedom needed for moral responsibility, or what we might call “morally significant freedom.” It will be interesting to see if Muller explains what these other things are. It had better not be, “dependent freedom.” Also, “ability to do otherwise,” won’t do, unless he cashes that ability out in incompatibilist terms.

That takes me to ‘libertarianism.’ If Muller cashes out the ability to do otherwise in incompatibilist terms, and he affirms humans are free, isn’t that just to affirm libertarian free will? It is not clear why the items Muller lists from Kane would be rejected by the early Modern Reformed, if they rejected compatibilism. It seems Muller would affirm incompatibilism (if he denies this, then it follows that he’s a compatibilist). So that leaves, ‘the power to do otherwise here and now.’ Does Muller reject this? It doesn’t seem so (there’s complications here that I don’t want to get into, but Kane doesn’t think all free and or responsible actions are one which the agent must have the ‘here and now’ power to do otherwise). But suppose he does, that leaves it open that the early Modern Reformed would have not rejected what has been referred to as “Frankfurt-libertarianism.”  More importantly, however, Muller doesn’t seem to have read Kane all that well. The freedom of “self-formation” is the view that we form our characters—our values, reasons, etc.—from which our actions flow, and as such our characters cannot in turn be “wholly determined by something outside or beyond your own self. You must be in part responsible for being the kind of person you are” (Kane, Introduction, p. 173). Is this what Muller denies when he denies libertarianism? Then why isn’t he a compatibilist?

5. On pgs. 22-23, Muller writes, “In addition, not a few of the proponents  and critics of the Reformed doctrine of free choice and divine willing have confused the specifically soteriological determination of the Reformed doctrine of predestination with a ‘divine determinism of all human actions…”

Comments: Muller’s said such things elsewhere. The idea seems to be that, to his mind, the Reformed affirmed that our coming savingly to Christ is a determined action, and all other (mundane) actions, like buttering one’s toast, are not determined. There’s a lot to say about this, and I’ve written about some of those things in other places on this blog, but here’s one problem I’ll point out: WCF 10.1 says,

All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.

The Confession tells us that our savingly coming to Christ is a free action. If Muller is right that savingly coming to Christ is determined, then the Confession entails compatibilism. It would be strange, to say the least, if Muller’s argument entailed that the WCF isn’t Reformed on this matter. We will see if this is addressed.

6. Commenting on Oliver Crisp’s discussion of freedom in his book, Deviant Calvinism, Muller (pp. 30-31) writes: “[Oliver Crisp] then goes on indicate that ‘much Reformed theology … appears to’ also ‘to be consistent with theological compatibilism,’ at the same time that he identifies both Jonathan Edwards and Francis Turretin as ‘hard determinists.’ despite the argumentation of the authors of Reformed Thought on Freedom concerning Turretin, and despite the scholarship that has indicated significant differences between Turretin and Edwards. The resulting impression is that, at least according to Crisp, variant versions of Reformed thought could be hard determinist, soft determinist or compatibilist, and libertarian.”

Comments: This is cringeworthy. The book at issue is Crisp’s, Devian Calvinism. Here’s what Crisp says in the pages Muller cites and is drawing from:

“A common misconception of Reformed views on human free will is that Reformed theology … implies or even entails hard determinism. (p.75)

“I do not deny that there is much Reformed theology that appears to be consistent with theological compatibilism … A number of noted Reformed theologians have advocated such views, such as Jonathan Edwards and, I think, Francis Turretin. (pp. 76-77)

“However, hard determinism is a species of incompatibilism, because the hard determinist claims that determinism is incompatible with free will. (p.77)

“Thushard determinism] is clearly inconsistent with theological compatibilism.” (p.77)

“So it would seem that the stated view of (at least some of) the Reformed as found in the Confession is contrary to hard determinism…” (p. 77-78)

It’s really quite mind-boggling how bad Muller got all of this, given his (deserved) regard as a careful scholar. According to Muller:

  1. Crisp says that hard determinism is consistent with Reformed theology.
  2. Crisp says Edwards and Turretin are hard determinists.

According to Crisp:

  1. Hard determinism is inconsistent with the confession.
  2. Hard determinism is not compatibilism.
  3. Edwards and Turretin were compatibilists.
  4. So Edwards and Turretin “clearly” were not hard determinists.

So, to put it mildly, the book is not off to a good start.

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2 Comments

  1. I had suspected the release of Muller’s book would raise this blog out of its long slumber of inactivity. I hope you continue posting your comments as you work through the book and this series doesn’t end as abruptly as your articles on conditionalism did!

    I just finished reading the introductory chapter as well so your comments were quite helpful. Side question: In the Preface Muller mentions “that the book and its arguments for use of the language of synchronic contingency among the early modern Reformed have created some stir in the typically uninformed and jejune world of internet bloggers and self-publishers.”

    He couldn’t possibly be referring to any of your blogs or even the primer you wrote on free will for Reformed Dummies where you deal with synchronic contingency……could he?

  2. Paul says:

    Ha! I hadn’t read that! Perhaps he was. However, his reading my blog would explain his recent recognition of Michael Sylwanowicz’s work, work I cite, among other places, in my Intro paper you reference.

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