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The Necessity of Contingency, Part 2: Human Freedom

Last month I wrote a post called the “The Necessity of Contingency.” It was largely a response to an earlier post by AJ, though I also addressed some other issues surrounding the label of “Calvinism.” My basic argument, however, was that Reformed theology, properly understood, does not espouse determinism, and that the idea of real contingencies are essential to the Reformed conception of God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom.  

An impromptu roundtable has emerged, which is what CP is all about, fostering dialogue across Christian traditions. Jody Byrkett directed some comments and further questions my way (which can be viewed here) in response to my last article. I hope to address them in detail below. John Ehrett then posted his own reflections (Misunderstanding “Calvinism”?) on April 8th. Again, AJ should be credited “causing” (see what I did there?) all of this to develop with his initial reflection on Calvinism and Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch film.

To keep the discussion rolling, I will first partially quote and summarize Jody’s comments and then attempt to provide something of an answer to her main question by further delineating and clarifying the Reformed view of human freedom. In a future post I will elaborate on the subjects of contingencies and causality, and their relation to God’s knowledge and human action.

Jody’s Comments

Commenting on my previous article, Jody wrote:

“I’m still convinced that God can know all things and all choices that people (for us stuck in time I use the following verb) will make—because God isn’t in time, so He sees all of history as now. But, just because He foreknows does not mean He foreordains every choice we make.”

“This is rather the opposite of Bandersnatch,” writes Jody. In the case of Bandersnatch, the player/viewer does not know what the outcome will be, and yet “the creator of the film does know what all possible outcomes are/will [or could] be.” And the creator also has knowledge, at least theoretically, of all (other) possible outcomes that could have been included in the film but in fact were not. Jody concludes from this that, since the viewer/player is only given a limited set of options by which they direct Stefan in the film, they (the viewer/player) do not possess real free will. Certainly, Stefan does not have free will, but neither does the viewer, in Jody’s assessment.

“Unlike the finite filmmaker, God’s foreknowledge allows Him to foreordain the way things can work together, even if it isn’t how He would want to work things out in His perfect plan. Like a director making a play unfold as desired while the actors ad-lib the script. He knows what their ad-libs/deviations from His original script are (though they are solely the choice of the actors), and yet keeps the play heading along the storyline He wrote.”

“God can know from eternity past what we will freely choose (not determining or causing us to choose it), and still use our choices (good and ill) to work towards His ultimate desired ending.”

Jody then stated basic agreement regarding God’s attributes (e.g. omniscience, immutability, etc.) but disagreed with me about the implications of such, namely, that these attributes do not necessitate his foreordination of all things, insofar as that would mean that he has “determined all choices and actions before we make them.” Jody views my representation of free will in the previous post as a limited freedom within God’s foreknowledge (and foreordination), or, one could say, God’s providence.  

Jody’s comment ends by asking for further clarification on the Reformed idea of “free will/choice” noting that, based on the preceding post, it seems to be analogous to the Bandersnatch viewer/player’s limited freedom, what Jody calls, “freedom (in parameters),” which to her is still basically deterministic and does not allow for “the ad-libbing of God’s image bearers in His story.” Jody does not mention the alternative, but I presume the contrast to this limited freedom would be a more libertarian freedom or a more autonomous self-determination.

Jody’s comment and question feature several elements explored below.

Metaphysical Assumptions of Classical Theism

As proponents of what is now commonly referred to as “classical theism,” the Reformed of the seventeenth-century (i.e. the period of High Orthodoxy, roughly 1620-1700, during which many of the still authoritative confessions were penned) held to certain metaphysical assumptions when addressing the question of human freedom. At the outset, it should be said that the entire character of at least the Reformed approach to classical theism is that of denying creatureliness to God, or rather, removing creaturely imperfections from their predications of him. And since God in his essence is fundamentally beyond our comprehension, these predications are often merely negative assertions. As Stephen Charnock said in his magisterial, The Existence and Attributes of God, “Though we cannot comprehend him as he is, we must be careful not to fancy him to be what he is not.”  

Before I go further, it is helpful to define “contingency” and “necessity.” Contingencies can be understood in two ways: A contingency can be, with respect to the first cause, in that it can either be or not be (i.e. not necessary that the first cause should cause it to exist). But something can be contingent according to the secondary cause as well, which can either produce or not produce an effect, and is thereby distinguished from necessary causes.

“Necessity” was generally defined by the Reformed as being “that which cannot be otherwise or other than what it is.” Contingency, on the other hand was “that which is able to be other than what it is.”1 Below I will refer primarily to the first definition of contingency given above. The second definition will come into play in a future post, as will conceptions of causality, though the idea of primary and secondary causality has already been mentioned in my prior post, and by John in his post. That basic distinction of causality will therefore be used freely here.

First, God is the only necessary being. It is his essence to exist. This is what it means for him to be a se, and thereby, totally independent. By contrast, it is not of man’s essence to exist. Man is a contingent being. All of the created order is contingent. It is not necessary that it exist. A contingent thing cannot bring itself into existence and it cannot provide for itself the sufficient reason for its existence. Therefore, it must receive existence form something outside of itself, not of its own essence. This basic principle is often referred to in philosophy texts as the Principle of Sufficient Reason. All beings must have a sufficient reason for what it is and that it is, and if it does not possess this in and of itself, then it must be given to it by something/someone else. That other thing is, then, the reason or “cause” of the existence of the contingent thing (which cannot provide existence of or to itself). It is that which positively influences the being of another by communicating being to it.

Since God is the only a se, necessary being, he must be the original or first cause of all else that exists; he must communicate being to all else. And he himself must have absolute possession of his own being in order to communicate existence to other beings. Creatures are by nature, then, contingent beings.  They are thereby dependent and finite, since dependent things cannot be infinite. Furthermore, they must continually receive being or existence from another. There is no point at which a contingent being becomes not contingent. Even if a contingent being could be called independent in its principle of activity, it cannot account for the logically first act of existing, and therefore cannot fully account for its own logically subsequent activity in itself.  

In short, contingent beings require a primary cause through and through, and the primary cause must be a being in itself, one incapable of not existing. It must be a necessary being that essentially exists. It is helpful for purposes of this part of the discussion to think of “contingent” and “necessary” as terms of status, one applying to the creation, the other applying to God. This understanding of contingency and man’s being in relation to God, as well as much of what I will address in the next post, was adopted by the Reformers from Thomas Aquinas and, among other sources, his famous Five Ways.2 The point is that, by definition, man is a contingent, dependent being, and God is an independent, necessary, absolute being. God is the reason for his own existence and man cannot explain his own existence (or action) in/of himself.

This basic conception of man’s nature in contradistinction of God’s nature has direct implications for the Reformed view of human freedom, and in a very real sense, is the foundation for all else that follows. The doctrine of God, as the Reformed of High Orthodoxy understood it, will be described further when I come to contingency, causality, and God’s knowledge, wherein the principles of act and potency are especially important. Having laid some of the groundwork above, I will now outline the basic understanding of human freedom from a Reformed perspective, in light of said groundwork.

John Owen on Freedom

John Owen (1616-1683) is very helpful on this topic. I appeal to Owen, because his Reformed bona fides are unimpeachable. He was a lead polemicist against Arminianism, and his works, which span some twenty-four volumes, are still widely read today (and I have them on hand). More importantly, Owen is fairly clear in expressing his opinion on the matter, and his opinion was basically representative of the Reformed persuasion (c.f. Turretin and Voetius). But again, as I emphasized in my last post, there was great diversity of thought within the Reformed tradition, especially on such a nuanced and enduring discussion such as this one. Yet, on what I draw out from Owen below, Reformed theologians of his day were in accord.   

Owen conceived of a contingent and dependent order of the world operating under God’s providence. All things are carried along and sustained by the first, and unmoved, mover. Owen affirmed the two types of contingencies mentioned above, and he assumed that free human acts rest upon real choice; a free action of the secondary cause, but not without qualification.

“We grant,” said Owen, “in the substance of all his actions, as much power, liberty, and freedom as a mere creature is capable of. We grant him to be free in his choice from all outward coercion, or inward natural necessity, to work according to election and deliberation, spontaneously embracing what seemeth good unto him. Now call this power free-will, or what you please, so [long as] you make it not supreme, independent, and boundless, we are not at all troubled.”3

Owen further affirmed that God must have perfect knowledge of all that is intelligible, including contingencies, in the secondary sense (see above). These contingencies (in both senses) are dependent on God as the first cause to exist, but are nonetheless contingent. This is getting a bit ahead of the point of this post, but it will be returned to later and is worth stating here nonetheless. Regarding contingencies (in both senses), Owen argued that either they “depend on something for their existence, or they come forth into the world in their own strength and upon their own account, not depending on any other. If the latter, they are God; if the former, the will of God… must be the principle on which they do depend.”4

Owen goes on (citing Aquinas and Alvarez):

“God can work with contingent causes for the accomplishment of his own will and purposes, without the least prejudice to them, either as causes or as free and contingent. God moves not, works not, in or with any second causes, to the producing of any effect contrary or not agreeable to their own natures. Notwithstanding any predetermination or operation of God, the wills of men, in the production of every one of their actions, are at as perfect liberty as a cause in dependence of another is capable of… The purpose of God, the counsel of his will, concerning any thing as to its existence, gives a necessity of infallibility to the event, but changes not the manner of the second cause’s operation, be what it will.”5

Owen clearly affirms that humans are capable of all the freedom that their natures are capable of, but this is the key qualification: Creatures are free in a creaturely fashion. It is necessarily a dependent freedom; call it not “boundless.” No other option exists, in Owen’s view, given what was affirmed by the Reformed in their theology proper. 

God ordained all secondary causes to act in a manner that accords with their nature. They are all contingent (in the first sense), but only rational beings are contingent in the second sense. Thus, rational moral agents operate contingently, but physical causes (non-rational things) operate necessarily (i.e. an internal principles of necessity), though they do not exist necessarily. The basic distinction here is between the presence of capability of deliberation. Non-rational things have potency to one effect—they do one thing by an inward necessity, even though the effects that follow therefrom may vary. Richard Muller helpfully provides the example of lightning, which always does the same thing, even though the effects vary; but even those effects vary only within a narrow range of conceivable options.6 

Returning to humans, they are free in their choices “from all outward coaction, or inward necessity to work according to…deliberation.” But this freedom is not, and cannot be, boundless, given the dependent nature of man. Humans have the liberty that is proper to them. Per Owen, man’s created, contingent status, “hinders [him] from doing any thing of [himself] without the assistance of God’s providence,” since creatures do not possess “a self-sufficiency of operation, without the effectual motion of Almighty God, the first cause of all things.”7 To be otherwise, man would have to possess existence by virtue of his own essence (aseity). A dependent being has a dependent principle of operation. Stated another way, it has being by participation in the being of God, and therefore, only has freedom by participation as well. This could be called a dependent freedom or, as Richard Muller calls it, a “liberty by participation.”8 A dependent being possesses “an imperfect potentiality” to act which “cannot be brought into act without some premotion…of a superior agent” which is actus purus.9 As Muller notes, Owen’s language here is drawn from the Thomistic idea of the praemotio physica.10 For the sake of clarity, what I am focusing on here is not a moral limitation of freedom, per se, as in the distinction between liberty and license, but rather an ontological limitation of freedom. From the Reformed view, as expressed in WCF 3.1, the primary causality of God does not destroy this freedom, but rather, is the only thing or principle that makes any freedom, any existence, possible at all.

To Owen, this does not deny freedom. It is not a contradiction to hold that man’s designated, internal principle of operation is free, yet conformed to his mode of existence, and thereby dependent on being moved, at all times, to its appropriate operation by a superior agent. And because this “premotion”, which enables the operation of man’s will, is extrinsic, it does not violate man’s free internal principle of operation. In true freedom, says Owen, “the internal principle of operation [must] be active and free,” but this does not require “that the principle be not moved to that operation by an outward superior agent.”11 Man, therefore, is simultaneously free, according to the capacity of his nature, and necessarily ontologically dependent. He is self-moved in a relative, but not absolute, sense. His freedom must be considered within the parameters of his creaturely existence, which itself stands within God’s providence, as all things do. And this includes all of the creature’s acts, not just the first act of existence. Owen considered all acts of the will to be “positive entities” that have real existence and intelligibility and therefore also require a supreme cause and mover.  

Similarly, Aquinas wrote, “God moves man to act, not only by proposing the appetible to the senses, or by effecting a change in his body, but also by moving the will itself; because every movement either of the will or of nature, proceeds from God as the First Mover.”12 And again,”When anything moves itself, this does not exclude its being moved by another, from which it has even this that it moves itself.”13 


Hopefully this was not too convoluted or repetitive. As mentioned above, I will more fully discuss contingency and causality as they relate to what has been outlined here, as well as the principles of act and potency, in a future post. The goal of this post was to establish the first principles that govern the Reformed conception of human freedom, a subject which must be at all times considered with the aforementioned metaphysical assumptions in mind. The main takeaway is that man’s freedom is metaphysically dependent. Since all existence is derivative of God, he not only communicates existence to man in the first instance, but must continually communicate existence to man and his actions at every point. 


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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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