Book Review: Divine Will and Human Choice by Richard Muller
March 20, 2018
Richard A. Muller, Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017). 329pp. Hardcover. $45.00.
Richard Muller has gained a (deserved) reputation as one of the leading scholars of historic Reformed orthodox theology. He has, in large part, led the way in exploding historical myths, such as that of a pristine Calvinian theology that was fouled up by later Reformed writers through appropriating scholastic elements. He has done so by arguing that Reformed theologians developed their theology from Scripture through an eclectic dialogue with early church, medieval, and contemporary authors. Calvin did not single-handedly found a theological tradition. Moreover, later Reformed orthodoxy illustrates continuities and discontinuities with the Middle Ages as well as with the sixteenth-century Reformers. Such research has been useful, both in historical and contemporary theology, for a number of reasons. In this reviewer’s opinion, Muller’s primary contribution to both fields is that his work has enabled classic Reformed theology to speak more clearly with its own voice in its own context once again. Doing so has great potential to provide different options to the church today than what are current regarding both faith and practice.
Divine Will and Human Choice tackles the difficult age-old question of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom. More specifically, whether and how the actions both of God and of humanity can be contingent and capable of contradictory or contrary choice. Muller treats this question with boldness, contradicting many respected historians on the subject, complexity, using uncommon scholastic terminology, and thoroughness, drawing from a wide range of primary source literature. The philosophical nature of the subject matter and the difficulty of the terminology for the uninitiated makes this work a particularly difficult read. This means that the subject matter, though profound and well argued in itself, will be rewarding to some readers and off-putting to others.
Muller’s analysis is bold. In treating issues related to divine will and human freedom in Reformed orthodoxy, he simultaneously builds upon and contradicts most respected scholars in the field, including Paul Helm, Antonie Vos, Andreas Beck, Willem van Asselt, Eef Dekker, Martin Bec, and many others. His primary contention is that that early modern Reformed authors developed a “robust doctrine of creaturely contingency and human freedom,” that drew from classic scholastic distinctions, in order to uphold the sovereignty of God’s decrees, while maintaining the distinction between necessary, contingent, and free events among his creatures (34). Contra authors such as Helm, Muller argues that this meant more than simply saying that free choice is compatible with divine sovereignty, since Reformed theology taught that mankind genuinely retained the power of contrary choice and of contrariety. Contra authors such as Vos, he argues that ascribing the power of contrary choice to mankind in a given action (“synchronic contingency”) does not necessarily entail a Scotist dominance in post-Reformation Reformed theology. Nor, he adds, did using the relevant scholastic distinctions result in an ontology because the only intent behind their use was to explain the interrelationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom. Leaving aside the complexities of such assertions for the moment, modifying or rejecting the conclusions of such a stellar collection of scholars is a bold move. However, such boldness does not make Muller’s arguments wrong. The topic treated in this book can be perplexing and if anyone is qualified to refine and even correct the arguments of other scholars in this area it is Muller.
Yet Muller’s book is complicated as well. This point relates the character of the “scholastic distinctions” (34) that Reformed authors employed and how Muller explains them. Roughly half of the book evaluates debated interpretations of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Duns Scotus on the issue of the nature of contingency in divine and human choices. The second half of the book illustrates the influences and uses of these concepts among Reformed authors. Understanding his work requires a working knowledge of paired terms such as synchronic vs. diachronic contingency, necessity of the consequence vs. necessity of the consequent, scientia intelligentiae simplicis vs. scientia visionis, and, especially, simultaneity of potencies vs. potency of simultaneity. Put simply, Muller never really puts these terms simply. Synchronic contingency conveys the idea that when an event comes to pass, human beings retain the power of making alternate choices. Diachronic contingency asserts that though things could have turned out otherwise according to God’s will, the event or outcome of human actions is certain as it happens in time. The first term teaches that man could have done differently as a volitional creature. The second term asserts that man could not ultimately change the outcome because his freedom of choice is a “dependent freedom.” Necessity of the consequence means that an event must come to pass when it comes to pass through a volitional being, but not by any natural or inherent necessity in the thing itself (such as choosing to sit vs. choosing to run). Necessity of the consequent is a necessity that results from the nature of a thing (such as a rock falling). Human choice is involved in the former but not in the latter. Scientia intelligentiae simplicis refers to all possibilities that could come to pass in agreement with God’s nature (corresponding to potentia absoluta) and scientia visionis refers to God’s knowledge of what he has ordained to come to pass (potentia ordinata). Simultaneity of potencies means that human beings have the power to make more than one choice in any given circumstance. Potency of simultaneity refers to the (impossible) idea that human beings have the power of performing two contrary actions at the same time. The purpose of this complex set of terms is to show how and why God, as the first cause, foreordains whatsoever comes to pass without violating the wills of his creatures or eliminating the freedom or contingency of second causes. While such concepts can be inherently taxing, this reviewer finds it easier to understand them from reading scholastic authors directly than from reading Muller’s analysis of them.
In light of Muller’s reputation, it should not surprise readers that his book is thorough. Every scholar knows very little ultimately in relation to what he or she could know in his or her field of study. Research is nothing if not humbling. However, Richard Muller has read and knows more than all but a very small number of people will ever know. In spite of the work being challenging to process, it remains a wealth of information. The primary liability in this respect is that the publisher did not include a bibliography, enabling readers to follow up with sources cited.
In conclusion, Muller’s book is well-research, nuanced, and insightful, but it is not for everyone. His books are always worth laboring through, but they will not help all readers. The relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom will continue to be an important issue in both church and school. Yet Muller’s treatment of this subject, while highly important, will be inaccessible to most people. For those interested in a more straightforward and standard introduction to classic Reformed theology, his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics or his two volumes published with Oxford University Press are easier entry points. Yet for those who want (or need) to understand the medieval and Reformed terminological and philosophical underpinnings of the issue treated in this present volume, Divine Will and Human Choice will likely set the standard for years to come.