Divine Will, Human Choice; notes 4 (Reformed Understandings)


Necessity, Contingency, and Freedom: Reformed Understandings

With Vos, Muller notes that the Reformed orthodox did use an architectonic framework of an “ultimate and absolute divine knowledge, identified as scientia necessaria,” which meant that God knew himself and all possibles (183). This meant that some possibles are indefinite.  Others are contingent.  Neither are necessary, since God doesn’t have to actualize all possibles (and a possible is a state of affairs which doesn’t entail a contradiction).

Calvin does remark on necessity and contingently, but not exhaustively.  While his comments are often ambiguous, “he is quite consistent in his assumption that God in no way causes human agents to act contrary to their natures or to will contrary to their own inclinations” (187; cf. Institutes I.18.2).

His contemporary Peter Martyr Vermigli, however, is quite exhaustive on the subject.  Divine knowledge doesn’t actually cause x, since knowledge isn’t a matter of will (Muller 194). We must, rather, identify the ground of a thing’s necessity. An interior principle means an intrinsic necessity. Think of fire burning, earth moving, etc.  Here’s where it gets interesting: these are necessary only in the usual course of the world.  God overrode these at times (Shadrach, etc., and Joshua and the Sun).  Therefore, it is a contingent necessity.

Vermigli then clarifies what the Reformed mean by “free will,” or more accurately free choice. He writes, “Choice (arbitrium) seems to consist in this, that we follow things that are appointed by reason….Then, without a doubt, the will (voluntas) is free what it embraces those things that are approved on the part of the knowing soul” (Vermigli, Loci II.ii.1).

In an interesting comment, Vermigli doesn’t reduce freedom to spontaneity.  That makes sense if you think about it.  If a free choice is one where the reason deliberates, then it isn’t purely spontaneous (although it doesn’t rule out spontaneity in other areas). What is important is the absence of coercion.

Zanchi, a few years later, continues the same line of thought concerning contingency and the two kinds of necessity.  Elsewhere, he modifies Vermigli’s comments on free choice by adding that the will also has the freedom of contradiction, “namely, potency to more than one effect” (Muller 200).


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