Notes on Reformed Thought on Free Choice

Asselt, Willem J. van. Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Modern Reformed Theology. Baker Academic, 2010.

I think the criticisms of this book are overdone and largely unnecessary.  I grant that one cannot read the Reformed scholastics as recovering Scotus.  Even a friendly reader such as Richard Muller criticized A. Vos and Van Asselt on that point. I think, rather, we should focus on this book’s clear strengths.  We have before us a rich and rigorous discussion of medieval ontology.  Further, we have translations from Zachi and Voetius that you wouldn’t otherwise find.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have the writings of Turretin himself.  I largely don’t care whether Turretin is the modern day equivalent of a determinist, compatibilist, or libertarian.  That is not my area of strength. I defer to the experts.  On the other hand, I have read Turretin fairly closely over the last decade.  I have an idea of what he said.  That’s what is most important in this volume.

While I remain unconvinced that the Reformed were as Scotist as the authors make them to be, much of the text is straightforward.  Let’s try to ignore the later debates on whether Jonathan Edwards innovated or not. The question before the house, or the status quaestionis, is “What saith Junius?”  We don’t care about trying to make them determinists or compatibilists or libertarians.  We are doing historical theology.  What did they actually say? 

In the introduction we get a survey of modal concepts.  The editors are in dangerous waters.  On one hand, since the Reformed scholastics (and medievals) dealt with issues of necessity and possibility and terms denoted by posse, they engaged in modal reasoning.  They might not have the fine-tuned systems we have today, but it is there.  On the other hand, the more they wade in these waters the more the discussion is likely to turn to modern discussions of libertarianism and determinism, and so incur the ire of analytic theologians.  Maybe that can’t be helped.

Fun fact: the more I read these guys, the more I realize that the Reformed have much in common with Dominican style theologians. We stand with Banez and Thomas against the Jesuits.

Main idea:  For the Reformed, “God as the First Cause (prima causa) and creatures as secondary causes (secunda causae) concur together in their acting to produce a contingent effect” (Van Asselt 33).

Contingency “is the actuality of the stated act” (39). If p is contingent; p occurs, but p could otherwise not occur. For Aristotle, while he held to contingency, it was only in a temporal sense (41). In each moment “only one state of affairs occurs without any alternative.”

Scotus, on the other hand, argues that for each moment of time, “there is a true alternative for each state of affairs.”


Thesis I: Man before the Fall had truly free choice towards good as well as towards bad (Creation During a Period of Six Days, Bk 3. Chap. 3).

Zanchi defines free choice as “the free agreement of the will” (55). The agreement is that the will follows the intellect. Considered in the abstract, free choice is always free in man.  “But if we consider the powers,” it is a slave (63).

Key argument: even after sin, man always retains the choice that is natural to him (Zanchi, De primi hominis lapsu, Bk 1, ch. 6).  At the risk of anachronism, Zanchi doesn’t seem to be operating with Edwards’ moral/natural distinction.  Zanchi defines free choice as “The faculty of freely willing or not willing, anything proposed by the intellect that you will or not will” (quoted in Van Asselt, 65).

Zanchi clarifies that “the freedom of our will does not consist in that it is driven by no necessity to sinning, but in this that it is free from all coercion” (68).  Therefore, whatever “necessity” means, it cannot mean coercion.  

The will is a faculty of the soul.  All of the potencies of the soul are called faculties (74).

Following the excerpt from Zanchi, the editors give their own interpretation.


Junius expands on the necessity of the consequent angle.  For example, “If Peter walks, it is necessary he moves” (114).  Yet, Peter’s walking is a contingent act.  “This necessary implication does not make moving itself necessary.”


We do not say that the judgment of reason determines the will.  Reason simply judges the goodness or badness of the means (130).

Free choice isn’t identical to free will.  Will has to do with potency.  Arbitrium is the means to be chosen (135).


It is with Voetius that the discussion takes on new levels of sophistication.  Voetius opposes the Jesuit doctrine of “complete indifference of the will,” yet he does allow indifference of a sort.  His running argument looks like this:

1) God is the efficient cause of my will, but not the formal cause.  The formal cause refers to my natural mode of willing.  

2) In eternity there is an indifference to objects to be chosen, A, B, C.  God removes A and C from the eligible objects to be chosen. 

3) In time my will freely chooses B.  While I might have limited choice, there is nothing forcing that choice.

4) Physical premotion: God’s applied power awakens the creature’s potency to a second act..

5) Physical premotion has a structural, not temporal priority.

(3) – (5) refute the Jesuit doctrine of indifference. As my will is premoved by God, which is another way of its being anchored by the divine decree, there cannot be indifference either with God or myself.

Reframing the Structural Moments

1st Structural moment: I am able to choose objects A, B, and C. God is indifferent to all of these.

2nd Structural moment: God selects B; he is no longer indifferent.

Human involvement:

1st: I can logically choose A, B, or C in the abstract.

2nd: In my dependent freedom, I choose B.


Turretin expands Voetius to note that the “indifference of the will” renders prayer and God’s covenant promise irrelevant.  If the will is completely indifferent, it’s not clear what God could do.  Even worse, it’s not clear how God could enact his covenant promises.

Bernardinus de Moor

De Moor applies the coup de grace to Jesuitical indifference.  There cannot be a complete indifference of the will because there are several prerequisites for acting that even traditional Roman Catholics concede (and here we side with the Dominicans).  There is the decree of God, his infallible foreknowledge, and the judgment of the intelleting mind.  The last one is particularly thorny for the Jesuits.  There can’t be complete indifference because the mind is not indifferent to the perceived Good.


Coercion: physical necessity; an outward causes which forces one to do something (39).

Rational necessity: if the intellect judges something to be good, then the will must follow.

Freedom of contrariety: possibility of the will to choose this or that object (46).

In actu primo: this is the faculty of the will in the abstract.

In actu secundo: the will in particular acts.

Bottom line between in actu primo and in actu secundo: there is a structural, not temporal order between the two.


I think it is safe to say that the Reformed orthodox were not “libertarians” of any sort.  I’m not sure Van Asselt even claims that.  There is nothing here of the “Jonathan Edwards” debate (I truly hate that discussion).  While the editors probably overcook the evidence on Scotist synchronicity, their discussions remain invaluable nonetheless.

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