A Brief(ish) Response to Richard Muller

Grace and FreedomIn 2017, Paul Manata and I co-authored an article published in the Journal of Reformed Theology that offered a critique of two versions of “libertarian Calvinism” proposed by Oliver Crisp. Taking the Westminster Confession of Faith as representative of the Reformed tradition, we argued (1) that the WCF affirms theological determinism (and thus rules out libertarian free will for creatures), and (2) that even if the WCF doesn’t affirm theological determinism, it makes other assertions that conflict with the idea that we have libertarian free will (LFW). In our introduction we made mention in passing to the work of Richard Muller on the Reformed tradition and views on human freedom.

In his most recent book, Grace and Freedom: William Perkins and the Early Modern Reformed Understanding of Free Choice and Divine Grace, Prof. Muller cites our article a couple of times. On both occasions he makes critical comments to which I would like to respond. (Note: I am speaking only for myself in this post, not for my co-author.)

On pages 3-4, Muller writes regarding the debate over whether the Reformed tradition represents a compatibilist view of human freedom:

One line of argument assumes that an identification of the Reformed as compatibilist is mistaken—as would be an interpretation of Reformed theology as libertarian. This reading of the historical materials posits a significant continuity between the early modern Reformed writers and the argumentation of medieval scholastics, at the same time that it identifies a shift of argumentation toward philosophical determinism in eighteenth-century writers like Jonathan Edwards. A line of counter-argument views the Reformed tradition as unequivocally compatibilist and tends to assimilate the scholastic argumentation of a theologian like Francis Turretin to the compatibilism of Jonathan  Edwards. (Muller, pp. 3-4)

A footnote attached to the last sentence cites several articles by Paul Helm (including this and this) before adding:

Note also James N. Anderson and Paul Manata, “Determined to Come Most Freely: Some Challenges for Libertarian Calvinism,” in Journal of Reformed Theology, 11 (2017), pp. 272-297, which argues against Oliver Crisp’s notion of “libertarian Calvinism” but oddly assumes that the argumentation in Reformed Thought on Freedom and various other studies is libertarian, despite the authors’ clear statements to the contrary. The fundamental mistake in Anderson and Manata’s approach is that they assume that modern theories of libertarianism and compatibilism are the only two options for arguing free will. This also leads them to misread the Westminster Confession (Anderson and Manata, pp. 285-285 [sic]) on the issues of contingency and freedom. On the Westminster Confession, see John V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), pp. 101-111. (Muller, p. 4, fn. 4)

There are a number of things to say in response.

First, we have never suggested that the Reformed tradition is “unequivocally compatibilist.” There have been some Reformed theologians who have affirmed something like LFW (Girardeau appears to be one, as Oliver Crisp has noted). Our argument, rather, is that the Reformed tradition affirms certain theological claims (e.g., about divine sovereignty, divine providence, and the nature of conversion) that rule out LFW and thus commit that tradition (whether acknowledged or not) to some form of compatibilism. That’s certainly the case for the Westminster Confession, as we argue in our article.

Second, we do not in fact assume—oddly or otherwise—that the authors of Reformed Thought on Freedom (Van Asselt et al) argue from (or for) a libertarian position. Rather, we note that they contest the idea that the Reformed tradition is committed to determinism or compatibilism, and “thus that a Calvinist may consistently hold to a libertarian view of free will” (Anderson & Manata, p. 273, emphasis added). Indeed, later on in the article we acknowledge that the recent scholarship (RTF, etc.) suggests that the early Reformed rejected both compatibilism and libertarianism:

As we noted earlier, recent scholarship has questioned whether Reformed theologians historically held to these views [i.e., theological determinism and compatibilism]. Some have interpreted this scholarship as affirming that the early Reformed theologians held to something like libertarian freedom, which would commit those theologians to rejecting both compatibilism and determinism. This is somewhat confusing given the recent scholarship’s claim that early Reformed thought excluded libertarian freedom. [Footnote: Van Asselt, Bac, and te Velde, Reformed Thought on Freedom, 15, 38.] In our judgment, the recent scholarship assumes an extreme form of libertarian free will. It therefore remains an open question whether early Reformed theologians might have endorsed a more moderate form of libertarianism. (Anderson & Manata, pp. 278-79)

Thus, we explicitly deny that the recent scholarship depicts itself as arguing from a libertarian standpoint. But we also observe that this scholarship assumes “an extreme form of libertarian free will” that doesn’t correspond to how libertarianism is understood in contemporary debates between compatibilists and libertarians. Hence, as we note, even if early Reformed thought rejects an extreme form of LFW, it might yet permit a more moderate form of LFW along the lines defended today by (say) Robert Kane or Kevin Timpe. That’s precisely why Crisp’s “libertarian Calvinism” proposal is worthy of critical consideration.

Third, it is far from a “fundamental mistake” to “assume that modern theories of libertarianism and compatibilism are the only two options for arguing free will.” As we define those terms (and as those terms are conventionally defined in the contemporary literature) those are only logically possible alternatives for those who affirm human free will. Here’s how we define libertarianism in our paper (p. 274):

Libertarianism about free will is the conjunction of two theses:

  1. The free will thesis: Some people sometimes act freely and with moral responsibility.
  2. The incompatibility thesis: Freedom and moral responsibility are incompatible with determinism.

This is consistent with the contemporary literature (we cite five prominent scholars—Van Inwagen, Kane, Pereboom, Ginet, and Vihvelin—in support of our definition). Both libertarians and compatibilists affirm the free will thesis. The debate between them focuses on the incompatibility thesis: libertarians affirm that thesis, while compatibilists (the clue is in the name) reject it. Here’s the crucial point: the incompatibility thesis is either true or false (given a consistent definition of ‘determinism’). There’s no logical third option here, unless you take the view that the incompatibility thesis itself is incoherent. (If Prof. Muller thinks that, it would be fascinating to know why.)

One slight complication here, admittedly, is that there are different kinds of determinism, and thus one could be a compatibilist with respect to one kind of determinism (e.g., theological determinism) but an incompatibilist with respect to another kind of determinism (e.g., logical determinism). Alternatively, one could adopt a broad definition of determinism that bundles together some or all of the different kinds that might otherwise be distinguished. But for any given definition of determinism, human freedom will be either compatible or incompatible with determinism so defined. In any event, it is clear from our paper that theological determinism (which we define and explicate on pp. 275-77) is the kind of determinism in view.

So, to summarize: given (1) the standard definitions of compatibilism and libertarianism, (2) the assumption that human freedom exists, and (3) the understanding that kind of determinism in view is theological determinism (as we define it in our paper), there are only two logical positions available: either compatibilism or incompatibilism (libertarianism).

As an aside, Muller seems to think that it’s inappropriately anachronistic to ask where the early Reformed tradition stands on the modern compatibilism-vs-libertarianism debate. There’s a legitimate concern here. Of course the early Reformed weren’t familiar with the categories, distinctions, and arguments of the contemporary literature, so there’s something artificial about asking which side they took. It’s rather like the debate over whether John Calvin held to the doctrine of limited atonement. Nevertheless, it’s fair to ask whether the early Reformed would have sided with the compatibilists had they been familiar with the modern debate, and (a closely related question) whether any of the theological convictions of the early Reformed commit them to a compatibilist position (i.e., whether compatibilism follows by implication from any of the claims that they did explicitly affirm). Manata and I have offered our answer to that latter question.

Fourth, Prof. Muller suggests that the aforementioned “mistake” leads us to “misread the Westminster Confession … on the issues of contingency and freedom.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain how we have misread it, so it’s hard to know how to respond to this charge. I realize that this is only a footnoted remark, and footnotes are not normally the place for lengthy arguments, but if you’re willing to say that someone has misread a source, I think it behooves you to say a little more about how it has been misread. As it stands, this is the academic equivalent of a drive-by shooting.

Muller cites J. V. Fesko’s excellent book on the Westminster Confession, presumably indicating that Fesko’s discussion of WCF chapter 3 sheds light on the alleged misreading. I reviewed the specific section Muller cites (Fesko, pp. 101-11) and I can find nothing there that is inconsistent with anything in our JRT article. On the contrary, Fesko’s exposition confirms our view that the WCF affirms a form of theological determinism (see, e.g., pp. 108, 116) while also insisting upon human freedom and moral responsibility. In other words, the WCF takes a compatibilist position.

Fesko rightly distances the position of the Westminster Divines from the necessitarianism of Jonathan Edwards (p. 97)—but then, so do we (Anderson & Manata, p. 276, fn. 14). Edwards was a compatibilist, but not all compatibilists are Edwardsian compatibilists (indeed, very few are today). In our article, we carefully distinguished between determinism (the view that all events in the creation, including human actions, are ultimately determined by the will of God) and necessitarianism (the view that all events in the creation, including human actions, are absolutely necessary). For whatever reason, Muller has a tendency to conflate the two (e.g., Muller, Divine Will and Human Choice, pp. 130, 185, 231, 323), which perhaps explains why he so closely associates ‘determinism’ with Edwards.

The charge of misreading the Confession is repeated later in the book. On page 177, Muller quotes chapter 5 of the WCF and attaches this footnote:

Westminster Confession, V.2. Note that Anderson and Manata, “Determined to Come Most Freely: Some Challenges for Libertarian Calvinism,” in Journal of Reformed Theology, 11 (2017), pp. 285-288, argue a metaphysical or divine determinism in such passages by failing to give due attention to the way in which the Confession indicates that God decrees things, namely, by decreeing that some things come to pass contingently and some freely.

Once again, Muller refrains from explaining how we fail to give due attention to the Confession’s statements about the divine decree and human freedom. As I’ve already noted, we clearly stated in our article that divine determinism as such doesn’t imply necessitarianism and is consistent with the idea that divinely-ordained events (including human actions) are contingent in important respects. Furthermore, it should be obvious that we affirm human freedom. After all, we take a compatibilist position according to which theological determinism is compatible with human freedom and moral responsibility. It’s hard to understand how one could think that an article entitled “Determined to Come Most Freely” (a paraphrase of WCF 10.1!) overlooks what the Confession asserts regarding the freedom of human actions.

Finally, I must observe that Prof. Muller nowhere acknowledges or engages with the actual arguments we offer in our article. It would be interesting to know why he thinks those arguments are unsound. Perhaps he will see fit to address them more directly in a future publication.