Published on July 26, 2018 by Steve West

Baker Academic, 2017 | 336 pages

A Brief Book Summary from Books At a Glance

By Steve West


About the Author

Richard Muller is a renowned expert on Reformed thought and historical theology. He has published highly regarded works in his field and is an emeritus professor.



Divine Will and Human Choice examines the relationship between freedom, contingency, determinism, philosophy, and theology in the thought of the early modern Reformed. It provides an examination of the philosophical traditions (Aristotle, Aquinas, Scotus) that were influential for shaping the thought of the period. Muller engages with contemporary debates about how best to interpret the philosophical traditions, as well as how to most accurately analyze orthodox Reformed thought. He argues that anachronistic applications of contemporary categories (like compatibilism vs. libertarianism) to the historical discussions are misleading. Muller argues that synchronous contingency (or simultaneous potency) was the view that was held most consistently by the early modern Reformed.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Introduction: The Present State of the Question
Chapter 2 Reformed Thought and Synchronous Contingency
Chapter 3 Aristotle and Aquinas on Necessity and Contingency
Chapter 4 Duns Scotus and Late Medieval Perspectives on Freedom
Chapter 5 Necessity, Contingency, and Freedom: Reformed Understandings
Chapter 6 Scholastic Approaches to Necessity, Contingency, and Freedom: Early Modern Reformed Perspectives
Chapter 7 Divine Power, Possibility, and Actuality
Chapter 8 Divine Concurrence and Contingency
Chapter 9 Conclusions



Chapter 1: Introduction: The Present State of the Question

Currently, many theologians assess Reformed theology as being deterministic or compatibilistic, without taking the time to ensure that the application of these labels is fitting. Many have identified deterministic metaphysics and the approach of Jonathan Edwards with Reformed thinking, without noting the diversity in early Reformed thought and the differences between Edwards’ thought and that of earlier Reformers. It is overly simplistic to identify early Reformed thought with scholasticism and the metaphysics of Aristotelianism or Thomism. Today, scholars are debating whether the sixteenth and seventeenth century Reformers held to a view of synchronic contingency (i.e. that God’s sovereignty includes maintaining states of affairs where—at the moment of decision—there is genuine contingency and alternative potencies, even though only one potency can be actualized). The question partly involves whether libertarianism, compatibilism, and hard determinism exhaust the options, or if God can predestine in a matrix where there is contingent agency. There are multiple layers of questions that need to be considered. What is the relationship between the thought of the different generations of the Reformers? How do they relate to Catholic philosophy? How do they relate to the wider history of philosophy? These questions, and more, are all important for understanding the orthodox Reformed view of God’s relationship to the world, the doctrine of concurrence, natural causality, and free choice. Our contemporary philosophical categories can obscure the Reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty extending to a world system in which both deterministic and contingent events are upheld by his will. It is important to maintain the very nuanced distinctions of scholastic philosophical thought to understand the nuances of the discussions. Synchronic contingency holds that an agent has the potential in the present moment to bring about one thing or its opposite. Thus, future conditionals are indeterminate. In diachronic contingency, the present could have been otherwise than what it is given past states of affairs. Diachronic and synchronic contingency are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Some have tried to identify the traditional Reformed view with Scotus, but this neglects some of the eclecticism in the sources relied upon by Reformed thinkers.


Chapter 2: Reformed Thought and Synchronic Contingency

Medievalists debated synchronic contingency, and their discussions should inform our study of the Reformed discussions. Duns Scotus offered the view of synchronic contingency, rather than the diachronic contingency that held that contingency extended through time, yet individual events were determined in the sense of historical necessity. Synchronic contingency, on the other hand, is the position that the historical actuality could have been otherwise, even at the time of its occurrence. This is owing to the fact that although a person doesn’t have the power to actually do two contradictory things simultaneously, they do retain the power of the potential for either act. The idea of possible worlds for medievals would have been ontological possibilities, not merely semantic ones. Paul Helm has argued that the Reformed view is compatibilist and comes through Aquinas rather than Scotus. It is important to recognize that the “possibility” in synchronic contingency is not that of actualizing two contradictory options simultaneously, but rather in retaining the capacity and potency for both options even though only one can be actualized. Helm is right to point out that discussions of synchronic contingency in early modern Reformed thought need to be located in the wider theological and philosophical contexts of God’s decrees and concursus.

Those who oppose the idea that synchronic contingency is compatible with Reformed theology argue that it is logically fallacious, and also that the interpretation of historical sources is flawed. Critics argue that the alleged historical antecedents and trajectory is simply misconstrued. Both the thought of Aquinas and Scotus has been give various interpretations by scholars studying their views on contingency. The organic links in. . .

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Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought, by Richard A. Muller

Baker Academic, 2017 | 336 pages

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