Reformed Thought on Freedom, pt. 3 (contingency)

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

See part 1 and part 2.

In the previous post (pt. 2), we left off with the authors making the distinction between the first cause (God) and the second cause (man), where both causes are contingent, not necessary, in-themselves and yet act concurrently to yield one particular result. The most significant point, to my mind, admitted by the authors was that God creates a space “for the causal activity of his creatures.” The full quote is important enough to repeat:

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. (p. 32)

This means that as a free (contingent) act the human person retains the possibilities for choosing among different possibility operators (Md or Me) yet “is guided to choose by itself for d.” So, what is possible — what can be done — is the issue under discussion, and the Reformed answer is that both (or more) are possible while one is actual. God does not coerce or manipulate the will of man in order to effect Md, but God does work within the free space of man’s will in order to influence or empower the will to the particular end as chosen by God.

Within the possibilities intrinsic to a particular number of objects presented to a man’s will, the objects under discernment are all possible — they could or could not be chosen. An object could only be necessary if it were impossible, given the nature of the object and the willing subject, that the effect (the object chosen) could be otherwise. God as the first cause, however, makes the choice of a particular object certain — it could not be otherwise. So, how is it not the case that God’s agency makes man’s agency necessary, not contingent, since it is impossible that it could be otherwise?

Not surprisingly, the answer requires a further distinction where “something can be necessary in one respect, whereas it is simultaneously contingent in another respect” (p. 35). Is this a case of having your cake and eating it too? Perhaps, but it all goes back to the quote I gave above about the non-manipulative agency of God and how that is to be conceived. In the meantime, it is important to recognize that the Reformed believed that any object/event/choice (p) is not necessary “itself”:

…the Reformed made it clear that if God knows p, then the existence of p itself is not necessary; p is only necessary on the supposition of God’s knowing. (p. 37)

Thus, the consequence is necessary, but not the consequent; that is, the result is necessary but not according to the properties intrinsic to the objects themselves (whether the cause or the effect, which are contingent). In itself, p is still contingent (could be otherwise); as an object of God’s knowledge, p is necessary (could not be otherwise).

So it seems to me that the veracity of the Reformed position depends upon the credibility of their belief that God acts in and with the human will such that the human will acts freely among different possibilities. This requires the further distinction about the human will acting spontaneously, not coerced, which will be the subject of the next part in this review series.


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