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The Reformed Tradition and Human Freedom: An Overview of the Scholarship

I have been both fascinated and, it must be admitted, frustrated with the some of the discussions on Conciliar Post of so-called “Calvinism” over the past couple of years. The most recent set of discussions has been for me, I happily admit, more fascinating than frustrating. Rather than inserting myself into the middle of so fine a discussion being carried out by Timon, Jody, and John (wouldn’t want to darken their counsel, after all), I would like in this post to offer an overview of recent scholarship on the Reformed tradition’s view of human freedom.

To lay my cards out on the table, I consider the Reformed tradition my intellectual heritage. The Reformed tradition, I hasten to add, understood itself as part of the broader catholic tradition. I am persuaded that they were right on that point. My suspicion is that most who are familiar with the Reformed tradition are only familiar with the modern, American ‘young, restless, and Reformed’ version of it (if this can even be called a version of the Reformed tradition at all). This often goes under the moniker “Calvinism,” which is taken as synonymous with “determinism,” which is taken as synonymous with “not free.” But as Timon has been ably demonstrating, the Reformed tradition has a rich intellectual heritage, and has brought that heritage to bear on this particular question.

Scholarship on the Reformed tradition, God’s sovereignty, and human freedom is a bit of a cottage industry these days. There is much diversity of opinion within this scholarship concerning how the Reformed accounted for their view of human freedom. In my estimation, the diversity of this scholarship is (finally) beginning to reveal that there was a diversity of opinion on human freedom within the Reformed tradition itself. This is why, as Timon has shown in his first post, the framers of the Reformed confessions were careful to formulate their positions on this point so that theologians of differing opinions could sign on.

A helpful, and almost forgotten, article on this point is William Cunningham’s “Calvinism and the Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity” in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation.
He shows that there is nothing in the Reformed Creeds and Confessions of the seventeenth century that either precludes or requires holding to philosophical necessitarianism; or what we might call compatibilism. In other words, being “Reformed” and being a “compatibilist” are not identical; to be one does not mean you have to be the other. There is room within the Reformed tradition, identified by its Creeds and Confessions, for a variety of philosophical and theological accounts of the relation of God’s sovereignty and predestination to human freedom and responsibility.

Back to contemporary scholarship on the Reformed tradition. For the purposes of this overview, we can categorize three differing viewpoints in this scholarship. The issue is (of course) more complicated than I am able to present it here. I’m only aiming to give an introduction to scholarship. And don’t be fooled into thinking that I am merely giving three scholar’s opinions. Rather, each of these authors represents what is a kind of “school of interpretation” of the Reformed tradition’s thought on freedom, and each school of interpretation consists of many further scholars and works. (As I have said, this is a bit of a cottage industry these days.)

Antoine Vos and the Scotistic View

Following a rejuvenated philosophical interest in the work of the Medieval theologian, John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), Antoine Vos has argued that he developed the first, fully consistent answer to the “Master Problem” of Western philosophy.1 What is the Master Problem? In short: whether or not created reality is determined or contingent (read: “free”). In the history of philosophy and theology, getting the balance between determinism and contingency has proved near impossible, says Vos. He argues that there is an Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of contingency, which he calls “diachronic.” Take, for example, my raising my hand. Let’s divide that act into three separate time segments.

Time 1: I’m just beginning my deliberation whether to raise my hand or not;
Time 2: I have decided to raise my hand and am now carrying out the action;
Time 3: My hand raising action has been completed.

According to Vos, diachronic contingency placed real contingency only at time 1. At that moment it is really possible for me to raise or not to raise. Once, however, I’m raising my hand (time 2) and have raised my hand (time 3), these are no longer contingent. At time 2 I am currently raising my hand and cannot at the same time be not raising my hand. And at time 3 it certainly cannot be the case that I did not raise my hand (because in fact I did raise my hand).

The problem, says Vos, is that on this account of contingency the present (time 2) is as necessary as the past (time 3). Further, once carried back, as it were, into the eternal divine ‘present,’ it turns out that the entire created order is necessary for the same reason. Scotus, recognizing this problem, developed what Vos calls a “synchronic” notion of contingency. Put to our example above, even at time 2 it remains possible that I not be raising my hand. I am actually raising my hand while at the same time it is possible that I keep my hand down.

This genuine, alternative possibility in human action also corresponds to God’s knowledge of human actions. God knows certainly, but contingently. In other words, even though God knows certainly that I am actually raising my hand, he also knows certainly that I could keep my hand down. This is Vos’ interpretation of Scotus’s synchronic contingency.

The important thing to note here is that Vos (and the so-called Utrecht School) claims that the Reformed orthodox (diverging from John Calvin’s individual views on this point) held to Scotus’s understanding of synchronic contingency, and thus allowed for genuine human freedom. In the moment of an act there remained the possibility of not acting or of acting otherwise.

Paul Helm and the Compatibilist View

Paul Helm doubts whether the whole of the Reformed orthodox tradition can be classified as “Scotistic” on this question.2 Yet, even if synchronic contingency makes up part of the Reformed understanding of the notion of contingency, he argues that it doesn’t actually solve the issue on the human agent level or on the divine agent level. For example, even if one can say that while I am raising my hand it remains a logical possibility that I don’t raise my hand, the real question we are interested in is how some act moves from possibility to actuality.

Suppose, for example, that that at time 1 there is a set of external circumstances (everything in my life and world that is influencing me to either raise my hand or not) and internal circumstances (my mental state, desires, goals, etc.). And suppose that, given this set of external and internal circumstances, I raise my hand at time 2. Could it be, asks Helm, if that set of circumstances remains the same, that I could equally raise or not raise my hand? What possible reason could be given, then, for why I actually raise my hand? For it could be that all the same circumstances obtain, and I don’t raise my hand. The only differences between the two are that in one I raise and is one I don’t. No other differences can account for the why of either action.

So Helm says it must rather be that, given that set of circumstances, I am inevitably led to raise my hand. This is the only way to give a full account of why we freely make decisions. Hence, in that set of circumstances, my action of raising my hand is determined. This is not inconsistent with freedom, however, Helm argues, because I have not been coerced, or forced against my will, to raise my hand.

Synchronic contingency also does not account for the determinate character of God’s will, according to Helm. Even if you show that God’s knowledge of my actually raising my hand is certain (while he also knows that I could keep it down in that very same moment—thus, God’s knowledge is contingent), the Reformed want to say that God’s will is what establishes the actual order of all creational history (including the free actions of rational agents). Thus, on Helm’s view, the Reformed tradition did in fact believe that God’s will determines the created order, including human actions. But, he insists, this does not remove genuine human freedom and responsibility. He argues, in other words, that the Reformed tradition was compatibilist on the question (and he thinks Augustinian and Thomistic, then, as well).

Muller and the Thomistic/Eclectic View

Contrary to Helm, Muller thinks that the Reformed did use a notion of synchronic contingency.3 Rather than grounding it merely in a logical sphere, however, they worked it out along the lines of an Aristotelian/Thomistic potency/act metaphysics. Thinking through the example again (one last time, I promise), at the moment when I am raising my hand, I do also have the possibility not to raise my hand. That possibility is not merely a logical possibility, however, but is grounded in my abilities (potency) as an agent. I don’t lose those abilities when I act. In other words, when I decide at time 1 to raise my hand, I do not at that moment lose the ability to keep my hand down.
Yet, and contrary to Vos, even though I retain the ability to raise my hand, at time 2 I cannot actually exercise that ability and keep my hand down. This is for the simple reason that I cannot actually do contradictory acts simultaneously. Thus, while I am raising my hand it is both true that I cannot keep my hand down and that I retain the ability to keep my hand down.

On Muller’s account then, the Reformed orthodox—following an overall more Thomistic line of thinking, with some Scotist elements—were not compatibilists because they thought that even if the set of all circumstances just prior to a decision remained the same, a person could genuinely choose different options, and retained the ability to do contrary and contradictory acts even while acting.

Yet, they also believed that once the free judgement of the intellect had determined the will, the action following was such that its contrary or contradictory option could no longer be taken.


To wrap things up, I’ll note two concluding points to be drawn from this scholarship (many, many more could be drawn, of course):

  1. There is some disagreement as to what intellectual tradition most influenced the thought of the Reformed on this issue. This in itself is instructive. The debate over God’s sovereignty and human freedom is not a debate between the Reformed and Lutherans, say, or the Reformed and Catholics. It is a perennial debate within the broader Christian, intellectual tradition (The Reformed, for example, loved appealing to Dominicans on this issue over against the Remonstrants.)

  2. Though differing on their analysis of the intellectual traditions that most influenced Reformed thought on this issue, these different schools of interpretation agree that the Reformed tradition roundly affirmed both God’s freedom and sovereignty and human freedom and responsibility. In fact, it is a consensus that the Reformed tradition took human freedom and responsibility as a given. The question is in this scholarship, then, is not whether the Reformed tradition believed in human freedom. It is rather how philosophically to account for it.

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Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is professor of theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute in Bozeman, MT, where he lives with his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids.

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