So although Calvin does not employ the apparatus of alternative possible worlds, nor the ’foreknowledge of possibilities’ in the manner of Gomarus, it is clear that Calvin envisages the divine mind as having before it various alternative possible outcomes, no doubt myriads of them. There are alternative outcomes, which are consistent states of affairs, that God could have chosen, each of which is in accordance with his nature. No doubt there are also consistent states of affairs that God could not have chosen, possibilities that are abhorrent to his nature. And any outcome which God might have chosen, if he had chosen it, that outcome would be necessary only because he chose it, spontaneously and willingly. So there is a distinction to be drawn between God willing a certain outcomes according to his nature – wise, just, and so forth, and God willing a particular outcome necessarily. The latter does not follow from the former. The particular outcomes that he wills are thus hypothetical or conditionally necessary.
So the necessity that God should act in accordance with his nature is a different sort of necessity than that possessed by states of affairs brought about by the divine will. God is necessarily wise, for example. Wisdom is a discriminable feature of his essence, such that any individual lacking such wisdom could not be God. Such wisdom is not given to him, nor imposed on him. God’s wisdom is ontologically or necessarily possessed by him, in virtue of his aseity. By contrast God creates the heavens and the earth. These states of affairs are brought about, causally necessitated, by God’s wisdom. He wills them. They are product of God’s ontologically necessary wisdom, but they are not themselves metaphysically or ontologically necessary. ‘I shall not hesitate with Augustine that “the will of God is the necessity of things” and that what he has willed will of necessity come to pass as those things which he has foreseen will come to pass.’ They are logically contingent, and causally necessary in virtue of his will, his choice of this and not of some other alternative. But because God wills them omnipotently and immutably they have the necessity of the consequence.
So there is an ambiguity over the expression ‘Whatever God wills, he wills necessarily’. Necessarily whatever God wills is wise, just, good etc: the action-type is necessitated by God’s nature. But it does not follow that each action token is necessitated in the same way, or indeed that any action-token is necessitated in this way. Actions ad extra are causally necessitated by God’s will. Such outcomes, if willed by God, must be in accordance with his nature and caused by him. Jesus said that his Father could of these stones raise up children to Abraham, and were he to have done so he would have brought about this state of affairs, causally necessitated it, a state of affairs that would have been a consistent expression of his nature. That is, there is a distinction between
Necessarily, whatever God wills he wills wisely.
If God wills some particular wise act W, W is necessitated.
Whatever God wills ad extra has the necessity of the consequence.
In its first occurrence ‘necessarily’ denotes metaphysical or ontological necessity, while its second occurrence ‘necessitated’, it denotes causal necessity, and its third occurrence draws attention to the immutability of whatever he wills. That caused action is willed by God in accordance with his nature, but its choice is not logically entailed by that nature. But the choice having been made it cannot fail.
Calvin himself respects the distinction between the manner in which God possesses powers, such as wisdom, and the manner in which creatures possess such powers in a number of places, most notably in his Excursus ‘Coercion versus Necessity’ in The Bondage and Liberation of the Will. The question is whether necessity excludes responsibility, praise and blame. Not so, says Calvin. ‘We reply that God is good of necessity, but he obtains no less praise for his goodness because of the fact that he can only be good’.
We do not argue that people are good or evil of necessity because God is good of necessity, but show by means of this example that it is not contrary to reason for a quality which exists of necessity nevertheless to be deemed worthy of praise or censure.
Similarly with contingency. In discussing contingency in connection with divine providence in the Institutes Calvin reserves the term ‘contingent’ for causal contingency, never denying that, should God have willed it, there could have been an alternative causal outcome from that what in fact occurred. What he does deny is the presence of uncaused or self-caused events, Fortune, or (it seems) libertarianly-free human choices. He steers a mid-course between Epicurean Fortune and Stoic Fate. So the necessity that he ascribes to divine action is conditional or hypothetical necessity, contrasting ‘chance’ (in a metaphysical sense) with divine contingency.
Putting this in a rather different way we can suppose that for Calvin, all the particular actions that God wills he wills so as to necessitate the outcome, with a hypothetical necessity . It is because he chooses to bring about some action that it is necessarily comes to pass, his choice being infallible and all powerful and in accordance with his nature. ‘What necessarily happens is what God decrees, and is therefore not exactly or of itself necessary by nature’.
So, when Vos concludes that according to Calvin, ‘therefore, everything is necessary. Because the whole of reality is necessary, God knows and acts necessarily, and because God knows and acts necessarily, everything is necessary too’ these words are an inaccurate account of Calvin’s view due to the failure to disambiguate what is ontologically necessary, a feature of God’s essence, and what is causally necessary, a consequence of his will, and what is hypothetically necessary. Only in this way can Calvin’s attitude to God and necessity be made clear, and its relation to those that followed him in Reformed Orthodoxy be properly assessed.
A sidelong glance at Reformed Orthodox treatments of the divine will does not give the impression that they are engaging in a reconstruction of the doctrine of God, along Scotist or any other lines. For example, take Turretin’s short section on the divine will. (III.14) He makes the following points. A contrast needs to be drawn between absolute necessity and hypothetical necessity with respect to God. God wills himself necessarily, but other things freely, because created things (with respect to God) are contingent. God’s freedom consist in acts that are spontaneous and indifferent. Indifferent acts are those which God ‘so wills that he could have nilled them’. (An ita illa velit, ut potueruit ea nolle). There is no suggestion that such indifference is a case of synchronic contingency: no reference to ‘moments’ or structures in the divine mind, for example, or to time, but simply a reference to God’s sovereign choice. Instead, indifference is linked to divine aseity. God cannot do without his wisdom, which is thus absolutely necessary, but he can do without planet Earth, which is thus only hypothetically necessary. ‘Contingent’ is understood by reference to the divine essence. No created thing is necessary with respect to God but contingent ‘(as he could do without them) so he wills all things as that he could not will them.’ Such things are contingent with respect to his own being. Interestingly, Turretin’s emphasis is not on God’s freedom to create A or B, but to create A or to refrain from creating it, the ‘freedom of contradiction’. I suggest that all these points are consistent with Calvin’s doctrine of God. The only difference is stylistic, whereas Calvin’s views are scattered throughout his writings, Turretin gathers together his views in a formal and more self-aware mode.
There are of course difficulties in understanding divine freedom given the general position regarding divine simplicity that Calvin adopts. As Brian Leftow has shown, if one thinks of divine freedom principally in terms of the opportunity to choose between alternatives to it is impossible to fit this into Aquinas, not on because of his atemporalism but also because of the strength of his commitment to divine simplicity which seems to imply the necessity of the divine will, since for Aquinas the divine volition is an aspect of God’s simple nature. I think it is fair to say that wherever Calvin dwells upon these features of God – his simplicity and atemporality, the application of the difference between necessity and hypothetical necessity - his outlook is very similar to that of Aquinas, but he tends to cast a veil over the divine mind rather than attempt to work out a position in detail as Aquinas does. Rather than try to work out a version of divine simplicity that is more hospitable to divine freedom than Aquinas’s, (assuming Calvin was aware of the difficulties of Aquinas’s view), Calvin takes the approach that the Creator – creature distinction sets up not only an intellectual barrier to understanding, but should also remind us of the moral and spiritual difference between ourselves and God. Calvin insists that it is impertinent, a loss of creaturely reserve, to try to bridge the ontological gap between the Creator and his creatures.