Edwards’ non-Reformed determinism

I imagine that most people who read this blog also have Scott Clark’s blog on their blog readers, but if you haven’t seen it Clark has posted a link to a fascinating lecture by Richard Muller at TEDS. Muller’s thesis is that Edwards’ treatise on Freedom of the Will used Enlightenment philosophical determinism, instead of the Thomist-Aristotelian compatibilism of Reformed scholasticism. So, whereas the Reformed scholastic categories allowed for a non-coerced freedom of will, while entirely circumscribed by the divine will, Edwards’ categories yielded a determinism proved by rationalist logic. This thesis is building off of the work found in Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Reformed Theology, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I love Edwards, but I’ve never liked his treatise on the will; so, it’s highly interesting to re-think Edwards’ argument in the light of the prior Reformed tradition and developments in philosophy.

By the way, although Barth is not happy with either Enlightenment or Aristotelian methods, his own defense of omni-causality (and attack on Molinism) is rather congruent with Muller, van Asselt, et al.‘s defense of the Reformed scholastic allotment for free choice.



  1. Very interesting.
    Is there any information available anywhere on what volumes Edwards had in his library, Kevin? Or what was available from the scholastics in Princeton library at the time?
    As I’ve noted before, elsewhere, Edwards was clearly a brilliant thinker, and yet there are these strange idiosyncracies in his theology that prevent me from recognising him as a ‘top shelf’ theologian. Perhaps it was due to inadequate availability to him of classic theological literature, which forced him to use only his own intellectual resources and the works that were readily at hand? Just thinking out loud.

    • If I remember correctly, he had Peter van Mastricht and Francis Turretin in his library, so he was at least familiar with Reformed scholasticism through them. But, he was never schooled in the great dogmatic faculties of Europe, and the major intellectual currents of his time were generated by the Enlightenment philosophers. So, it seems that the latter is where Edwards found the rigor he desired in order to defend his Reformed faith on certain points. To be clear, this doesn’t characterize the whole of his theology.

      I don’t know where to get information on the contents of Edwards’ library, without going to Yale, which houses his personal books and letters. Yale, not Princeton, is where he received his formal theological education. He only moved to Princeton at the end of his life, to become President of the college, but he died soon after arriving.

  2. Yes, I thought it should be Yale but went with Princeton – should have checked; these names don’t loom as large in an Anglo-Australian cultural imagination as Oxford and Cambridge do! Anyway, that would be some very interesting information, and not only fo runderstanding Edwards but also early American intellectual history, given the importance of these schools in its formation.

  3. I listened to the lecture. I thought it was one huge line of bull. Not once did Muller demonstrated any real understanding of total depravity, providence, predestination or even of compatibilism. He just painted Edwards black, quoted names of folks who criticized Edwards without telling us the theology of the people doing the criticizing, etc.

    So if an Arminian attacks Edwards, we can see where its coming from. What we have here is the equivalent of an N.T.Wright bringing in a Trojan Horse through the back door.

    Muller’s status as a “Reformed” scholar is tainted by the three points of common grace, among other things.


    • It is entirely unreasonable to expect that Muller would attempt to demonstrate those points (total depravity, predestination, etc.) in an historical contextual analysis. The book I linked, Reformed Thought on Freedom, gets into the dogmatic points.

      I have to say that it’s quite interesting to see this sort of reaction to Muller from within the confessional camp, but not surprising.

  4. Of course it isn’t surprising. Muller has an agenda. He’s maligning Edwards for applying philosophical terms for what has always been there. Luther’s Bondage of the Will argues solidly against any idea of free will. Contingency does not exist in God’s mind. It’s Muller who is the innovator, not Edwards. I might disagree with Edwards on the affections but certainly not on absolute predestination. That’s the issue that caused the necessity for the Synod of Dort in the first place.

    Let’s just say that Muller’s compromised because of his neo-Calvinist and Kuyperian views,i.e. the three points of common grace, the free offer and other such Arminian compromises. Why would be surprised to find that he thinks Arminians and Calvinists have a similar view of “free will”? Hah.

  5. I have to say, though… I’m curious about Dr. R. Scott Clark’s view on this since he’s into the Calvin against Calvinists school of thought. I think it’s more a case of neo-calvinists against classical Calvinism myself. And Kim Riddlebarger? hmmm


    • Yes, I’m curious too what Clark thinks. Also, Paul Helm said a while back that he would write a review of the book I linked above. That would be interesting.

      I commend a wider view of the Reformed tradition, so we’ll have to disagree there, Charlie. That’s not to say that there are no limits, to be sure.

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