‘Reformed Thought on Freedom’, pt. 2 (ontological concepts, a.k.a. the whole shebang)

This post continues a review series of Reformed Thought on Freedom (Baker, 2010), e.d. Willem J. van Asselt et al.

See part 1 (series introduction).

The first several pages of the first chapter, “Introduction,” which is co-written by the editors, deal with the historical background of both the issue at hand (the problem of free choice) and the recent scholarly turn toward a primary source reading of this issue in the Reformed church of the 16th-18th centuries. So, for example, the work of Dr. Antonie Vos is emphasized for bringing-out the medieval sources of Reformed Scholastic theology, especially John Duns Scotus on contingency. This section is brief but interesting, and it situates the reader to understand the motive behind the present book, which is to further the scholarly work of close attention to semantics and sources. Thus, the authors want the Reformed to be understood on their own terms, and not through the categories provided by their opponents (Arminian, Cartesian, etc.). And, now to the meat of the discussion.

The authors state that the Reformed were utilizing a particular form of logic called “modal logic.” As they state,

A modal term is an expression (like “necessarily” or “possibly”) that is used to qualify the truth of a judgment. Modal logic is, strictly speaking, the study of the deductive behavior of the expressions “it is necessary that” and “it is possible that.” However, the term “modal logic” may be used more broadly for a family of related systems. These include logic for explaining the concept of faith, tense and other temporal expressions, as well as deontic (moral) expressions and the logic of willing. (p. 28)

Or, to borrow from John Henry Newman, they are concerned with detailing a “grammar of assent,” with a focus on the objective (“ontological”) criteria for coming to faith and what must be said concerning the effective agency of both God and man. The importance of recognizing the precise semantic scope of the Reformed formulas is the most important part of the subsequent chapters, which each deal with a particular theologian. And, so, we will frequently visit the technical language involved. The Introduction does an outstanding job of providing an overview of this language so that the reader can then enter the subsequent chapters with a much-needed “heads up.”

The first ontological distinction is between cause and effect and their relation by either “necessity” or “contingency.” In the former case, the effect is determined by a “natural act”; in the latter case, the effect is determined by a “free act.” As the authors state,

A natural cause is determined by its nature to the act; a free cause determines itself by freedom to one of possible acts. Hence, determination refers to the state of a cause: being undetermined means that the (free) cause has not yet directed itself to a certain effect. A determined cause will produce its determined effect, but still the effect can be either contingent (determined by a free act) or necessary (determined by a natural act). (p. 31)

Thus, a natural act has only one “possibility operator” (Nd):

natural cause: Nd –> necessary effect (d)

While the free act is not limited to a single possibility operator (for example, Md and Me):

free cause: Md or Me –> contingent effect (d/e)

The importance of this distinction is seen when the claim is made that both God and man act concurrently as free acts. As the authors state,

In terms of the relation between God and man, both were held to be free causes. God as the First Cause (prima causa) and creatures as secondary causes (secundae causae) concur together in their acting to produce a contingent effect. We should be aware that this causal terminology does not imply a manipulative, causal relationship: God as the Creator initiates, sustains, empowers and governs all that exists, while leaving room for the causal activity of his creatures. God does not only stand at the beginning, but is present to every moment of time in providing life, powers, and possibilities for action. It should further be noticed that in this relationship God is independent of his creatures, while these are dependent on God. The secondary causes are contingent themselves, so they are dependent in their existence on him. (p. 32)

Or, to put this in a modal formula:

[(God) First cause: Md or Me / (man) second cause: Md or Me] –> [contingent effect (d/e)]

Obviously, we have come to the tricky part, where the most objections arise. Can the secondary cause really be claimed to have a freedom of choice where d and e are possibility operators? “Does the second cause keep a real freedom between different acts (both d and e), or does the determinate state of the effect leave only the option of d open?” (p. 32). The authors answer: “the divine choice for d is realized by the free choice of the second cause for it. So, the second cause keeps both possibilities, but is guided to choose by itself for d.” (p. 33)

Case closed! I’m glad that’s settled. 🙂 Just kidding…we’ll continue in part 3 with a closer look at this important claim to be able to freely choose (“by itself”) yet determinate to one particular end.



  1. The Reformed would’ve done better to ground ‘freedom’ and contingency in Christ’s humanity . . . ah, unfortunately they were’nt privy to Barth and Torrance’s reading 😉 .

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