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.


Divine Will, Human Choice; notes 5 (Scholastic Approaches to Necessity)


Scholastic Approaches to Necessity

Contingency and necessity must be understood at both levels of causality, primary and secondary (212). God executes his decree through the “instrumentality of causes that are themselves not necessary but contingent or free” (213).

Gomarus advances the discussion by making a distinction between free acts and freedom itself. A free act is free to the kind of act it is.  Free choice is a potency flowing from the essence of the soul.  Freedom belongs to the rational agent regardless of whether he is engaged in the act (223).

Wiliam Twisse argued that while God knows everything in one moment through his divine essence, we can still understand him to know and will possibles “in a logical ordering, indeed, in a sequence of non-temporal instants of nature” (226).  Prior to God’s willing, in the in actu primo, “there is a simultaneity of potencies.”

Later Reformed writers rejected the current Jesuit view of a liberty of indifference.  This is impossible because man is not a completely autonomous, abstract individual.  Even in a state before the fall, man was dependent on God. There is an indifference in the will regarded as a potency in primary actuality, but not in its operation (244).

Men like Voetius could even argue for a co-causality between God and man.   God wills A, B, and C to occur by both God and a human being.  God in his absolutely free governance wills B, removing his indifference to A and C “in the composite sense.”  The human was initially indifferent to A, B, and C, but in his “dependent freedom” wills B, which removes his indifference to A and C (245).

Paul Helm and Faculty Psychology

I was recently given a copy of Paul Helm’s Human Nature from Calvin to Edwards in exchange for an Amazon review.  I plan to have the review up this weekend.  I do want to post the notes and analysis of parts which wouldn’t make it into the review for length reasons.

Buy Book Here!


The Soul comprises three sets of powers (On the Trinity X.11).

  • Memory
  • Understanding
  • Will

Augustine has a complex understanding of will.  Sometimes it means “choice” between alternatives or the power of God in regeneration (Helm 12).

Thomas Aquinas

The soul informs the body.  When the body dies, many of the soul’s powers “hibernate.”  While the soul is not the person, in this state it carries the identity of the person until the resurrection (15).

The intellect is “a possessor of collective powers related in incredibly complex ways between itself and the memory, will, and affections” (16).

Specific to Thomas’s claim, and a claim the Reformed (and Roman Catholics) would generally maintain until recent times, was that the “soul itself acts via these various powers” (20).

The Anthropology of Calvin and Vermigli

The short of it is that Calvin took his cue from Plato, Vermigli from Aristotle.  There might be more to it, though. Calvin probably didn’t even intend that. It seems Calvin wanted a model of the soul that could account for life after death and a division of the capacities (33).

Free Will Controversy, Part One

In his debate with Pighius, Calvin uses “voluntas” to mean both the Augustinian “heart” and the choice a man makes (34).  In order to clear this confusion, Helm focuses on Calvin’s happy phrase that the fall is “adventitious” on human nature, not essential to it.

Body and Soul

Helm breaks new ground in this section.  Despite the differences and nuances of the various Platonisms and Aristotelianism of the post-Reformation period, all thinkers to a man held that the soul is not reducible to the body. They would have heartily rejected the Christian physicalism of some thinkers today.

The Soul as a Whole

  • The soul is nonspatial but nevertheless located in the body.
  • Animals have souls but only vegetative powers.

John Flavel:

  • A substance is a subject with properties.

Key shift: Cartesianism reassigned the various powers of the soul (74).


  • The soul has the power of indefinite self-persistence (76).
  • It is immortal by necessity of the consequence.

The Faculties and Powers of the Soul

Key idea: “The soul has a range or array of powers which the mind groups as certain activities of the understanding, and others as certain activities of the will” (81).

Flavel: the will is sovereign over the body but not over other faculties of the soul.  In regeneration the will does not disturb conversion but is also changed by divine power (87).

Free Will Controversy, Part Two

Man’s free will is indexed to different states of man (e.g., fourfold state).  According to the post-Reformation thinkers, man’s “Freedom” relates to spiritual activity.  Man’s liberty relates to the capacities of our faculties.

Faculty Psychology

Powers of the soul are intrinsic to one faculty or another and they may be shared.  Habits are acquired by nature or grace (105).


Spiritual Desertion (Voetius)

We are glad to see Voetius’s writings being translated into English for the first time.  In this work Voetius and Hornbeek explore the reasons God appears to sometimes desert His children. The work is easy to read, pastorally sensitive, and filled with martyr stories that will stir your soul.

(P1) Definition: by desertion Voetius simply means when God withdraws (temporarily) all but saving grace from his children.

Voetius examines some of the reasons concerning desertion:
1) those which always accompany desertion: non-acceptance of consolation
2) those causes which usually accompany: diseases, poverty, hardship
3) those which sometimes accompany: demonic affliction. Interestingly, Voetius believes (correctly) that demonic activity, even exorcisms, continue today (Voetius 40). But this doesn’t apply for the deserted believer because, interestingly enough, the symptoms are diffent.

P2: the reality of grace doesn’t depend on our feelings (50).

Hornbeek writes the following treatise in this volume, also titled “Spiritual Desertion.” He doesn’t add much materially to the discussions, though he gives a number of very powerful martyr testimonies. What I learned: the martyr John Holland had an out of body experience, flooded with divine light, right before his death (159), as did Oleavian and Olympia Marote.

Highly recommended.