‘Reformed Thought on Freedom’, review series

Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Modern Reformed Theology (Baker Academic, 2010)

This is a much-anticipated work coming from a group of scholars associated with the University of Utrecht and the Protestant Theological University in Utrecht. It is the latest volume in Baker’s “Texts & Studies in Reformation & Post-Reformation Thought,” which is part of the larger renaissance in Reformed Scholastic ressourcement, largely thanks to the labor of Professor Richard Muller. So far, I’ve read half of the book and am thoroughly impressed. I’m going to go back and blog through what I’ve read, highlighting what I think is most important and interesting.

The purpose of the book is to explicate the Reformed understanding of free choice in the generations after Calvin, ending with Bernardinus de Moor in the 18th century. The authors are trying to understand what the Reformed theologians meant by “will,” “freedom,” “coercion,” “violence,” “spontaneity,” “contingency,” et cetera. For example, what does the Westminster Confession mean when it states:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

This is a historical study, but the authors do assert the cogency of the Reformed position, as against those (then and now) who reject the Calvinist synthesis of divine providence and human choice. As a way to wet your appetite, here are the first few paragraphs from the first chapter, “Introduction”:

“We establish free choice far more truly than our opponents.” The Reformed theologian Francesco Turrettini (1623-1687) made this rather surprising contention against contemporary advocates of freedom, the Jesuits, Remonstrants and Socinians, who complained that the Reformed categorically deny free choice. The Reformed account of predestination and providence was held to imply “Stoic fate.” Ever since, a deterministic interpretation of Reformed thought seemed obvious.

The Reformed scholastics themselves, however, were not impressed by this critique. They certainly confessed a foundational involvement of God’s will in creation and the history of salvation. Yet, for them this insistence on divine will precisely established a realm for human willing. Being constituted in freedom, reality is open for human freedom as well. God himself, acting freely, enables human beings — who are made in his image — to act freely alike.

This rather daring interpretation of Reformed thought on freedom is mainly complicated in two ways. First, the contemporary notion of freedom in an autonomous, libertarian sense does not allow any creational dependence or divine guidance in human acting. In this sense, divine willing must exclude human freedom. As we will see, however, the Reformed dismissed autonomy as a proper interpretation of freedom.

Second, the theological concept of freedom was taken in a normative sense in scholastic theology. Being faced with the choice between good and bad, only rightly willing was taken to be properly free. A will in bondage to sin was denied to be free, though it acted freely in its own choice to sin. This sometimes rather definite denial of human freedom has to be taken as an explicit endorsement of the Reformed sola gratia: only divine grace enables to do good. Underlying this theological concept of normative freedom, however, was a more basic philosophical concept of freedom, which made it possible to articulate sin as freely choosing to do evil.

We are convinced that the sources of Reformed theology present a balanced view on human freedom. Accordingly, this volume offers translations and analyses of some important theological texts on free choice from the era of early-modern Reformed theology. …

See Part 2 and Part 3 of my review.

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7 comments

  1. Sounds interesting. I look forward to your series.

    Did the Reformed Scholastics engage Duns Scotus on freedom as the capacity to rank the affections, so that in the will well-ordered the affection for justice has priority over the affection for advantage?

  2. Sounds like a good one, Kevin!

    The Reformed would do will do avoid this duality by workin out of the implications of the Incarnation instead, eh?

    I would also be interested if they engage the impact that Duns Scotus had upon Calvin’s doctrine of God and thus salvation; or do they simply slide over this in the vein provided by Muller and others?

    Glad to see you blogging again!

  3. So far, they have mentioned Scotus as an influence concerning contingency but not much specifics and nothing that I recall about the affections. I’ll keep my eye out for anything as I’m going back through.

  4. And, yes, Bobby, they would do well to systematize according to a doctrine of God, but they are more concerned about (1) syllogistic validity and (2) exegetical support (scripture proofs). Oddly enough, they are not very systematic in the way that Barth, though claiming to be non-systematic, actually was very systematic by way of constantly thinking-through the contingencies of the Christ event. As such, Scripture, and not the God of Scripture, is the proof/authority and “systematic” ground for the Scholastic theology. Of course, there are much worse ways to go about doing theology (such as, making anthropology the proof and foundation), but I think there are much better ways, with folks like Barth and Torrance at the forefront.

    Yes, I just argued that Barth was more systematic than Turretin! 🙂

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