Monday, February 7, 2011

Jonathan Edwards vs. Calvin the Compatiblist?

About 5 months ago, Richard Muller gave a lecture on Jonathan Edwards' view of the freedom of the will, which can be found here. In the lecture, Muller argues that Edwards' necessitarian views of the will were a considerable departure from the established pre-Edwardsian Reformed Orthodoxy.

In his talk, he surveys various reactions from British Reformed writers who debated the Orthodoxy of Edwards' understanding of the Freedom of the Will. Muller says that the notion of Compatiblistic freedom that Edwards argues for in his brilliant Freedom of the Will (FOTW) was an anomaly at the time in which it was published. As an example, Muller suggests that Turretin believed the will to have a root indifference, thus exonerating Turretin from being in the class of philosophical necessitarianism. I have almost no exposure to Turretin, and since Muller is a fine scholar, I have no grounds on which to disagree with Muller's argument.

While I am not qualified to survey the reactions to Edwards from a historian's perspective (Muller does a fine job of that in his talk), I would argue that Calvin is much more 'Compatistic' in his thinking than he is given credit for in Muller's talk. In fact, he seems to outright deny that Calvin is a Compatibilist in his talk (which isn't surprising since the categories for Compatiblism didn't exist until many years after Calvin's time).

In contrast to Muller's position, however, Paul Helm, in his books Calvin at the Center and John Calvin's Ideas, has done much to argue that Calvin was what we might anachronistically (Helm is very self-conscious of this) refer to as a Compatibilist with regard to providence. If such is the case, then it is not that great a distance from Calvin the Compatibilist to present day Compatibilism as solidified by men such as Edwards in FOTW. If, in fact, Helm is right, then I would argue that Edwards' arguments are very much in keeping with the theological trajectory set in motion by Calvin - even if they did differ in the particulars.

Consider this discussion of Edwards by Helm:
So the created universe is a much flatter, more uniform place for Edwards than it was for Calvin. It is at all points subject to law, the law of universal causation, that in turn is subject to the divine decree; indeed, it is an expression of the divine decree; indeed, if one stresses the occasionalistic side of Edwards, it is the divine decree. Edwards’s determinism is as a consequence much more developed and avowed than that of Calvin or even of Calvin’s Reformed Orthodox successors such as Gill. Of course his aims are utterly congruent with Calvinism, but (in this work at least) he aims to argue philosophically against Arminianism, to hold it up to the ridicule of reason, to show its incoherence, rather than to appeal to the letter and spirit of Holy Scripture, except formatters of theological fact such as the extent of God’s foreknowledge and the occasional argumentum ad hominem from Scripture against the Arminians.[1]
Notice what Helm says: "Edwards's determinism is...much more developed and avowed than that of Calvin or even of Calvin's Reformed Orthodox successors..." No doubt. Few would disagree that there is new language and a different post-rationalist philosophical framework undergirding such unique terminology as "moral/natural ability" which form the bedrock of Edwards' arguments in FOTW. But a shift in framework and language does not a departure make.

In his latest post at his blog, Helm spends some more time in Edwards' FOTW. At one point near the end of his post, Helm quotes Edwards on the necessity of causation in all activity of the will and then Helm observes:
I think that it is fair to say that no claims as explicit as this are to be found in Reformed thought before Edwards. For Edwards, operating in a world increasingly influenced by the emerging natural science, and by the empiricist John Locke, human action is the result of one sort of cause, a 'volition', which is in turn the outcome of certain beliefs and desires. Such causal links, of different kinds, necessarily pervade the entire creation.
Or consider this other very relevant quote from Helm:
While I believe that it is plausible to suppose that Calvin had a broadly compatibilist view of such freedom, such as Edwards espoused, he does not advise his readers of this in so many words.
Rather than bringing Edwards to Calvin, Helm brings Calvin closer to Edwards, in my estimation. In Calvin at the Center, Helm has a chapter titled "Calvin the Compatibilist," which argues precisely as the title suggests. In Helm's appraisal, Calvin's "general outlook is that not only is human freedom and responsibility compatible with the divine decree, but that it is compatible with an immanent determinism" (227).

Don't get me wrong; Helm would be horrified if he saw me declaring his position to be that Calvin and Edwards were theologically identical. But he does argue that the conventional wisdom that Calvin was not a Compatibilist does service to Calvin's language, but fails to take into account Calvin's "hierarchical determinism" as Helm calls it.[2] This seems to fly in the face of Muller's claim that Calvin was not a determinist.

If Helm is right in his claims (and I tend to favor his thesis), then the current claim that Calvin was a strictly organic, strictly dogmatic theologian with reference to the doctrine of providence is shown not to be an entirely fair assessment.

We need to re-examine the conventional wisdom regarding Calvin and the doctrine of providence, and I think Helm's work is just the place to turn for some guidance in these matters. Such a work would go a long way towards showing that the perceived "parting of the ways" is more linguistic than substantive.

In conclusion, I really can't disagree with much that Muller has to say in his talk, as he is merely reporting the reception of Edwards' FOTW in England. However, I do ultimately disagree with his conclusion that Edwards' work constituted an actual "parting of the ways" in Reformed Orthodoxy, given the things that Helm has to say about Calvin. In truth, Reformed Orthodoxy, as Muller uses the term (especially with reference to Calvin himself), may deserve a second look.

[1] Helm, Paul. Calvin at the Center, Pg. 268
[2] See Helm, Paul. John Calvin's Ideas, Pg. 125-126

1 comment:

  1. It would do one well to familiarize one's self with Richard Muller's theological tradition, namely the Christian Reformed Church and the three points of common grace. The Protestant Reformed Church in America has convincingly argued that the CRC is inherently Arminian in its theology of common grace and the "free offer". This would explain why Muller is biased against philosophical necessity.

    One finds it hard to believe Muller is so naive that he completely ignores Augustine, the philosophical and theological father of Reformed theology. Martin Luther's Bondage of the Will in fact teaches philosophical necessity. Anyone reading the Scriptures can see the implications are a compatibilist theology and and philosophy.

    By Muller's theology I guess the Canons of Dort and the Heidelberg Catechism do not teach providence as a "philosophical necessity"?

    Muller has convinced me in his talk that he has no concern for remaining faithful to Scripture or the Reformed Confessions. His agenda seems to be to undermine confessional Reformed theology by indirectly attacking it in his analysis of Edwards.

    Thanks for input on this crucial issue.

    Sola Scriptura!



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