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Divine Will and Human Choice by Richard A. Muller

David C. Noe

Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought, by Richard A. Muller. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017, 336 pages, $42.75.

There is perhaps no scholar today who enjoys as much well deserved auctoritas in historical theology as Richard Muller. Any one of his numerous volumes by itself should earn him the gratitude of church and academy alike, and this is without taking into consideration the magisterial four-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics.[1] Chapter 6 of After Calvin,[2] for example, should be required reading for all students of theology. There one can see the compelling standard of “calling, character, piety, and learning” set by our Protestant forebears which it would behoove ordained men in the OPC, and students of theology more generally, to emulate.

The volume under review is no exception in terms of quality, but it does stand out among Muller’s other works for the difficulty and intricacy of its argument. The main brief of the book is to show that the majority of contemporary interpreters of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Scotus have erred fundamentally in their understanding of how these thinkers were appropriated and used by Calvin and his successors on the topics in question. This thread is carefully followed through the book’s nine chapters, which are helpfully divided into three broad headings: (1) Freedom and Necessity in Reformed Thought: The Contemporary Debate; (2) Philosophical and Theological Backgrounds: Aristotle, Aquinas, and Duns Scotus; and (3) Early Modern Reformed Perspectives: Contingency, Necessity, and Freedom in the Real Order of Being.

The book’s epigram is a quotation from Westminster Confession of Faith 3.1, which Muller apparently takes to be the touchstone (or at least endpoint) for mature Reformed reflection on the titular concepts. This quotation establishes the superstructure of the book, as it seeks to explain the historical development of the relationship between the notion of real human freedom and the doctrine that “God from all eternity did . . . freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (WCF 3.1).

Before he takes up the main thread of this argument, however, Muller establishes the boundaries of his method on pages 12 and 13. The first is that, unsurprisingly, he will take a historical approach. This means he does “not begin with a priori assumptions concerning what must be true either philosophically or theologically about necessity, contingency, and free choice” (12). Like so much of Muller’s work, this dogged persistence to follow the evidence wherever it may lead, combined with nearly unparalleled dexterity and precision in handling source material, pays important dividends throughout the course of the work.

Second, and worth quoting at length lest the reader be misled, is Muller’s caveat about what one may expect when cresting the summit:

It is also important to register what the present essay does not discuss, namely, the issue of grace and free choice in salvation. It does not touch on the perennial debate over monergism and synergism—and it ought to be clear that what can be called soteriological determinism does not presuppose either a physical or a metaphysical determinism of all actions and effects, just as it ought to be clear that the assumption of free choice in general quotidian matters (such as choosing to eat or not to eat a pastrami sandwich for lunch) does not require an assumption of free choice in matters of salvation. (13)

This self-imposed limitation may come as a disappointment to many, since we may want to know precisely what the author thinks are the theological implications of the surgically precise historical work he has done. But in fact, this is the strength of the work, that it hovers above the fray of theological polemic. Fervid and simplistic readings of the historical record on contentious issues like this are abundant.

But there is no shortage of scholarly polemic in this book, and chief among Muller’s opponents are Antonie Vos and his article “Always on Time: The Immutability of God,”[3] as well as Vos’s The Philosophy of John Duns Scotus.[4] Other targets include the work of Hintikka, Time and Necessity: Studies in Aristotle’s Theory of Modality, and Knuuttila, Modalities in Medieval Philosophy,[5] on whom Vos relies, and also Jacobus Martinus Bac, Perfect Will Theology,[6] and Oliver Crisp Deviant Calvinism.[7] Yet Muller does not spare praise when it is occasionally due.

No significant Reformed thinker who wrote on freedom, contingency, and necessity (with the odd exception of Beza) is not at least briefly assessed somewhere in the 324 pages. Especially canvassed are Calvin, Peter Vermigli, Franciscus Junius, Francis Turretin, Franciscus Gomarus, Amandus Polanus, and Gisbertus Voetius. Girolamo Zanchi, Zacharius Ursinus, John Davenant, William Perkins, John Owen, Richard Baxter, and Jonathan Edwards, as well as several lesser lights, are also discussed.

It may be helpful for the reader to have a sense of the book’s complexity, to realize that this work is not well suited to the faint of heart or those easily distracted. For example, in his discussion of Turretin, Muller writes:

In the composite sense, it is not possible that the event occur and the event not occur—but it remains the case, for Turretin, that the decree ensures the certain futurity of the event without removing the contingent matter of its eventuation: “what, therefore, is impossible not to occur in the composite sense & on the supposition of the decree of God concerning futurition of the event, nonetheless in the divided sense & apart from the decree, was possible not to have taken place.” By removing the “supposition of the decree” from consideration as the root of contingency in the divided sense, the syntax of the sentence thrust into the foreground the location of contingency in the created order. Turretin’s argument places the possibility of the event taking place or not taking place primarily in terms of the potencies resident in finite or secondary causality. (251)

And this is one of the more mild examples. Given the range of the argument and the inherent difficulty of the concepts, I did not find the volume easy to digest (it took many pastrami sandwiches to get through it), and so it may require multiple readings to appreciate fully the force of the argument.

A few niggling comments are in order before concluding. Although Muller’s translations of his Latin sources are generally sound, there are instances (204) where a second set of eyes would have measurably improved the lucidity of his construals. In addition, as with other of his works, especially The Unaccommodated Calvin,[8] Muller is not well served by his editors, who allowed a number of small errors to vitiate an otherwise exemplary effort. Instances of omission, misspellings of Latin words, and anacolutha are much too frequent for a work of this caliber and sophistication.

Muller’s conclusion to this volume should be seen as part of the overall project to which his entire career has been devoted, namely to refute the specious claims of the “Calvin against the Calvinists camp,” i.e., those who think that the salutary direction of the early Reformation was hijacked by the bogeyman of Aristotelian scholasticism. Though far more nuanced and focused than previous works, this volume runs in the same trajectory. We close with Muller himself:

Our study has shown, from a philosophical or philosophico-theological perspective, that the determinist readings of Aristotle and Aquinas endemic to the claim of a Scotistic revolution of thought and of its impact in early modern Reformed theology are not supported by the documents. As we have seen, a different narrative is required. The issue for the Western tradition was not to shed a purported Aristotelian determinism but, beginning quite clearly with Augustine, to coordinate an Aristotelian understanding of contingency, potency, and freedom with a Christian assumption of an overarching divine providence, resting on the non-Aristotelian assumption of a creation ex nihilo. (317)


[1] Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003).

[2] After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[3] Antonie Vos, “Always on Time: The Immutability of God,” in Understanding the Attributes of God, ed. Gijsbert van den Brink and Marcel Sarot (Frankfurt: Lang, 1999).

[4] Antonie Vos, The Philosophy of John Duns Scotus (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006).

[5] Jaakko Hintikka, Time and Necessity: Studies in Aristotle’s Theory of Modality (Oxford: Clarendon, 1973); Simo Knuuttila, Modalities in Medieval Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1993).

[6] Jacobus Martinus Bac, Perfect Will Theology: Divine Agency in Reformed Scholasticism as Against Suárez, Episcopius, Descartes, and Spinoza (Leiden: Brill, 2010).

[7] Oliver D. Crisp, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).

[8] The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Formation of a Theological Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

David C. Noe is a member at Hillsdale OPC in Hillsdale, Michigan, and serves as an associate professor of classics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also serves on the Committee for the Historian. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2018.