Book Write-Up: Divine Will and Human Choice, by Richard A. Muller

Richard A. Muller.  Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

I will quote the description of the book on Amazon, then I will provide my impressions of it.

“This fresh study from an internationally respected scholar of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras shows how the Reformers and their successors analyzed and reconciled the concepts of divine sovereignty and human freedom. Richard Muller argues that traditional Reformed theology supported a robust theory of an omnipotent divine will and human free choice and drew on a tradition of Western theological and philosophical discussion. The book provides historical perspective on a topic of current interest and debate and offers a corrective to recent discussions.”

Here are some of my thoughts:

A.  Richard Muller addresses a variety of scholarly debates.  Was Thomas Aquinas a determinist or a libertarian?  Was John Calvin a fatalist, who believed that God caused every single event?  Are the terms libertarian and compatibilist truly helpful in conceptualizing Reformed thought, since the Reformers Muller profiles held a rigorous conception that the human will was free (like libertarians), while also believing that God foreordained human choices (like compatibilists)?  Were the Reformers drawing primarily from the medieval Catholic philosopher John Duns Scotus, or from a variety of medieval sources?  And how consistent are Reformed views on divine sovereignty and free will with Aristotelian and Catholic medieval thought?  The book also highlights diversity among the Reformers: for instance, not every Reformer thought that God was determined by nature to make certain decisions, for some maintained (as Aquinas before them) that God had free will and could glorify Godself in a variety of settings, not just the setting that God actually chose.  In addressing these issues, the book is informative and performs a scholarly function.

B.  The description says that the book concerns how Reformers “reconciled the concepts of divine sovereignty and human freedom.”  Based on my understanding of their attempts to reconcile these concepts, which Muller discusses, I would not say that their attempts were particularly convincing or successful.  Many of the attempts emphasized secondary causes, meaning that God does not directly cause every human decision but uses means.  Some stressed the dependence of the will on God for its existence.  Some probed the relation between the intellect and the will.  Some said that God could foreordain contingent choices.  In my opinion, these solutions did not directly answer a key question: If God foreordains that people make certain choices, how can they choose otherwise?

C.  The book is rather advanced and difficult, with elaborate prose.  Laypersons can still learn from this book, however.  The book does tend to repeat certain themes.  One such theme is that the decision that people make is the decision that exists, not alternative decisions, even though people had the potency to make those alternative decisions.  The book’s conclusion was also effective in tying themes together.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley.  My review is honest!

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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