Paul Helm on Synchronic Contingency

As I wrote before Helm’s Deep is one of the blogs I frequently read. In his post at the beginning of this month, Paul Helm discusses the notion of ‘contingency’. He makes a distinction between two concepts of contingency: logical contingency and synchronic contingency. Concerning the latter, he mentions the name of John Duns Scotus and the advocates of his thinking. The notion of synchronic contingency in Duns has been (re)discovered in the early 1980’s, simultaneously,  by Jaako Hintiika (Helsinki) and Antonie Vos (Utrecht). Vos was one of my teachers in Utrecht.

However, Paul Helm is fairly critical about the concept of synchronic contingency. Why? In his post he gives two reasons for his critique. The first is this: “An oddity about this that immediately springs to mind is that Scotus applies a temporal adjective to the activity of a non-temporal being.” But what’s odd here? In fact, as Helm himself notes, this way of applying temporal adjectives to God’s willing and acting has been part of a broad theological tradition. Helm refers to the idea of the divine decrees and the question of its order, as it has been worked out in the reformed tradition. So, his argument turns out to be not an argument about synchronic contingency after all, but, at most, an argument about applying temporal terms to an eternal (that is: timeless) God.

What about Helm’s second argument? Helm claims:

Similarly, we might attempt to parse synchronic contingency along the following lines: at the same eternal ‘moment’, given that God chose to bring about X he could (in exactly similar circumstances) have chosen Y. This is divine freedom it is said. But then, do ‘circumstances’ apply to God as they do to us mortals? Surely not. God does not find himself in sets of circumstances, as we do, and so he does not the task of coping with them, as we do.

Once again Helm seems to work with a confused conception of synchronic contingency. He seems to explain these ‘circumstances’  in a rather ‘psychological’ way. At least, that’s what the word ‘coping’ suggests. Does he think of those circumstances as influences on God’s willing or His motivational structure? But that is of course not the way any medieval (or reformed) theologian could have been thinking. God is the ‘prima causa’. What then could Helm mean with ‘circumstances’? The only alternative which I can come up with, is that Helm thinks of the set of all logical possibilities, which God (necessarily) knows. They ‘determine’ in a certain sense God’s willing and choosing. However, if that is what he means, the word ‘coping’ doesn’t seem very appropriate. God isn’t coping with these logical possible states of affairs. What is at stake in the notion of synchronic contingency in relation to God’s willing, is that He perfectly knows all logical possible states of affairs and chooses one possible world (a set of possible state of affairs), although He could have chosen differently.

So, I don’t think Helm produced sound arguments against synchronic contingency. His real arguments we are waiting for.

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3 thoughts on “Paul Helm on Synchronic Contingency

  1. Pingback: Melanchthon on Determinism and Contingency | Qualitative Theology

  2. Pingback: Vermigli on necessity and contingency | Qualitative Theology

  3. Pingback: Heiko Oberman and the hot lava of Calvin’s sermons | Qualitative Theology

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