Free to Do Otherwise [Commentary on Browne: Article X]

One of the Thirty-nine Articles’ distinctive features is that, on a number of disputed topics, they allow for multiple interpretations within limits. Browne underscores this tendency in noting the broad language of Article X:

There have been, ever since the reign of Elizabeth, two parties in the English Church, one holding the doctrines of Calvin, and the other opposing those doctrines, and each party has considered the Articles to speak their own language. It is however an undoubted truth that the Articles were drawn up before Calvin’s works had become extensively known, or had become in any degree popular in this country. It is probable that they speak the language neither of Calvin, nor of Arminius; and between the extreme opinions, which had prevailed among the Schoolmen and others, they held a middle course, carefully avoiding the dogma of congruous merit, maintaining jealously the absolute necessity of preventing grace to enable us to will or to do according to the commandments of God, but not minutely entering into the questions concerning the freedom of man before the fall, or the degree of free agency left to him since the fall.[1]

The possibility of merit de congruo (on the nature of which see Browne’s explanation) is excluded. Beyond this, the Article is careful in “not minutely entering into the questions concerning the freedom of man before the fall, or the degree of free agency left to him since the fall.” Much of its language was “taken from the Wirtemburg Confession” by Archbishop Parker, and it resembles Article XVIII (“Of Free Will”) of the Augsburg Confession as well:

It [man’s will] has no power, without the Holy Ghost, to work the righteousness of God, that is, spiritual righteousness; since the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, 1 Cor. 2:14; but this righteousness is wrought in the heart when the Holy Ghost is received through the Word.[2]

Regarding the freedom of fallen humanity, Article X’s reference to preventing (i.e., prevenient) grace as necessary for good works is not distinctly Calvinist or Arminian—both sides affirm the necessity of God’s grace working in an unregenerate person before truly good works can be done. Where they differ is on whether or not this grace can be resisted, and on this point the Article is silent. Similarly, the Article’s allusion to “the grace of God by Christ…working with us” to do good works “when we have that good will” is uncontroversial, as Calvinists and Arminians agree that the regenerate can will, even as they are moved by the Spirit, to do good works. William Perkins is illustrative here, holding that while good works in the regenerate require that “God further give a double grace” both “assisting” and “exciting” the human will, with this help the regenerate can indeed will what is good.[3] It is in this spirit that Browne says, “Although He must work in us, yet we, under His influences, must strive and press forward, not resisting Him, not neglecting, but stirring up His gifts in our hearts.”

Despite the studied ambiguity exemplified here, it is often said that this and other Articles are Calvinist in essence. Probably the greatest evidence against this contention is the fact that the overtly Calvinist Lambeth Articles were proposed as an appendix to the Thirty-nine Articles in 1595. While Article X states that fallen man “cannot turn and prepare himself by his own natural strength and good works to faith,” Article 8 of the Lambeth Articles declares not only that “no man can come unto Christ unless it shall be given unto him, and unless the Father shall draw him,” but also that “all men are not drawn by the Father, that they may come to the Son,” thereby excluding an Arminian interpretation. Likewise, Article 9 of the Lambeth Articles insists that “it is not in the will or power of every one to be saved.”[4] If Article X (and some of the other Articles) were straightforwardly Calvinist, one would have to wonder why there was any felt need for the Lambeth Articles to begin with.[5]

Thus far I have been saying that Article X allows for both Calvinist and Arminian interpretations. I should clarify that possible understandings of the Article are not confined to the modern accounts of free will popularly associated with Calvinism and Arminianism, namely compatibilism and libertarianism, respectively. Compatibilism is the belief that there is “no conflict between determinism and free will,” and on this account, freedom means “(1) to have the power or ability to do what we want or desire to do, which in turn entails (2) an absence of constraints or impediments (such as physical restraints, coercion, and compulsion) preventing us from doing what we want.”[6] In contrast, libertarianism holds that “free will and determinism are incompatible,” and moreover that freedom properly understood includes “the power to do otherwise here and now.”[7]

Contemporary accounts of Calvinism and Arminianism are almost exclusively dominated by the language of compatibilism and libertarianism.[8] However, recent scholarship suggests that many early modern Reformed accounts of free will do not fit well within either of these modern categories.[9] This is because many of these older accounts do not assume, as moderns typically do, that a belief in exhaustive or meticulous providence—i.e., the “divine determination of all things”— rules out contingency in human willing. So says Richard Muller:

In the traditional language, whether Thomist, Scotist, or in the various forms taken by the early modern Reformed writers, the assumptions concerning divine concurrence and multiple levels of causality yielded a highly nuanced view of necessity, contingency, and freedom, in which human free acts, characterized by alternativity as well as spontaneity, were argued to occur in a world order entirely willed by God—a contingent world in which choices, events, and all things could be otherwise.[10]

In particular, it has been shown that multiple figures in the English church of the 17th century, such as Bishop Davenant[11] and William Perkins,[12] held the sort of nuanced views of human and divine willing described above by Muller. As Muller puts it, Perkins and others like him formulated views on this topic in order to “defend as truly catholic the English form of Reformed Protestantism as embodied in the Thirty-Nine Articles.”[13] Unfolding all of the details and nuances of such early modern Reformed accounts of human freedom would require more space, but it is enough to have shown that modern compatibilism and libertarianism do not exhaust the field of approaches to the question of free will. Indeed, Article X is constructed “so as to include as many as possible within the pale of the National Church,” a goal that should be kept in mind with regard to not only this Article, but all of the Articles in general, while still recognizing the boundaries they establish.


  1. Compare Darwell Stone, Outlines of Christian Dogma, 3rd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903), 236.
  2. Book of Concord, “Augsburg Confession,” Article XVIII,
  3. William Perkins, Treatise of Gods Free Grace, p. 890, col. 1‒2, quoted in Richard A. Muller, Grace and Freedom: William Perkins and the Early Modern Reformed Understanding of Free Choice and Divine Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 150.
  4. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 4th ed., vol. 3, The Evangelical Protestant Creeds (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1977), 523,
  5. For more on the Lambeth Articles, see Charles Hardwick, A History of the Articles of Religion, 3rd ed. (London: George Bell & Sons, 1876), 159‒77.
  6. Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 13, italics original
  7. Kane, Free Will, 172.
  8. See, e.g., Paul Helm, “The Augustinian-Calvinist View,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 161‒89; Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 96‒118; Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams, Why I Am Not an Arminian (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 136‒61; Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 20, 75; Michael Horton, For Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2011), 43‒44; Roger E. Olson, Against Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2011), 75, 100, 184; F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation, ed. J. Matthew Pinson (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2011), 42, 55; Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 117; and Thomas H. McCall and Keith D. Stanglin, After Arminius: A Historical Introduction to Arminian Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 115. On this tendency see Richard A. Muller, Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 21‒22, 322‒24, and Muller, Grace and Freedom, 4‒5.
  9. See Willem J. van Asselt, J. Martin Bac, and Roelf T. te Velde, eds., Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Modern Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010); Muller, Divine Will and Human Choice; McCall and Stanglin, After Arminius, 72; and Richard A. Muller, Providence, Freedom, and the Will (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2022).
  10. Muller, Divine Will and Human Choice, 324.
  11. David S. Sytsma, “Aquinas in Service of Dordt: John Davenant on Predestination, Grace, and Free Choice,” in Beyond Dordt and De Auxiliis: The Dynamics of Protestant and Catholic Soteriology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, ed. Jordan J. Ballor, Matthew T. Gaetano, and David S. Sytsma (Boston: Brill, 2019), 169‒99.
  12. Muller, Grace and Freedom.
  13. Muller, Grace and Freedom, 20.


James Clark

James Clark is the author of The Witness of Beauty and Other Essays, and the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.

'Free to Do Otherwise [Commentary on Browne: Article X]' has 1 comment

  1. June 28, 2023 @ 12:26 pm Philip Enarson

    A most excellent article on a most argumentative teaching. I’m especially impressed on how the author approaches the difficult argument within the context of the Elizabethan Settlement; very Anglican! Additionally, I very much appreciate the footnotes \ directory for follow up study! As I say a most excellent posting! I would like to add how much I appreciate all articles I receive on The North American Anglican. A window into not only Anglican Theology but a means of understanding the theology of the Church at large, both in time and space! Keep up the good work and God Bless!


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