PREDESTINATION AND FREE WILL: IS MOLINISM BIBLICAL?

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PREDESTINATION AND FREE WILL: IS MOLINISM BIBLICAL?

Introduction

Heresy and false teaching have been subjects of keen interest in the history of the church. In an effort to make sense of God’s attributes, distorted views of the Divine Self often follow. It is thus natural for traditional and conservative Christians to desire to uphold orthodoxy. But this zeal can also lead to legalism and close-mindedness even when a plausibly true doctrine is offered that challenges years of settled—and potentially incorrect—theology.  I believe the doctrine of middle knowledge should be seriously considered as coherent and biblical rather than to be dismissed—a priori—as heresy. In this document I will argue that we have positive reasons to include Molinism in the list of orthodox Christian doctrines and no good arguments to reject it as heretical.

The Doctrine of Middle Knowledge

For those unfamiliar with Molinism, the doctrine of middle knowledge can sound suspicious. I was raised in a Baptist tradition and when I first heard about this concept my gut reaction was to reject it on the spot. It wasn’t until I understood the doctrine from Dr. William Lane Craig—one of its most ardent proponents—that the doctrine made sense to me. In this section I will explain Molinism and the doctrine of middle knowledge.

The term Molinism was coined after the sixteenth-century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina. Molinism affirms that God accomplishes his will in free creatures[1] via the use of his omniscience. Molinism harmonizes two seemingly irreconcilable biblical truths: (1) God exercises sovereign control over all of His creation and (2) humans are free agents, accountable for their deeds.

Molinism harmonizes two seemingly irreconcilable biblical truths: (1) God exercises sovereign control over all of His creation and (2) humans are free agents, accountable for their deeds.

It is important to note that Calvinism and Arminianism uphold both truths, but Calvinism leans heavily towards a strong view of divine sovereignty that, taken to extremes, falls into divine fatalism,[2] making God the author of evil. On the other hand, libertarianism taken to the extreme can lead to Pelagianism.[3] The Molinist should reject both positions.

Molinism teaches that God is sovereign trough his attribute of omniscience.[4] Omniscience includes three types of knowledge. God has natural knowledge—all necessary truths—and free knowledge—all truths about the actual world. Logically prior to free knowledge is middle knowledge, including counterfactual truths—all knowledge of feasible worlds that would accomplish God’s sovereign will. It contains knowledge about all the choices and decisions of free agents if they were created in a particular world using counterfactual knowledge. Counterfactuals (CC) are conditional statements of the type “if…then…” in the subjunctive mode. These CC-type statements are indispensable for human decision-making. Through the use of middle knowledge—prior to the divine creative decree—God knows what free agents would do in any given situation.

Through the use of middle knowledge—prior to the divine creative decree—God knows what free agents would do in any given situation.

 Using this knowledge He then actualizes the universe through his divine decree in which his sovereign will is upheld without violating human freedom. Once God actualizes the universe, then he has free knowledge of all future facts. In diagram form, this could be seen as follows:

Moment 1:  .  .  .          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          .  .  .

Natural Knowledge: God knows the range of all possible worlds.

Moment 2: .  .  .                       •                      •                                  •          .  .  .

Middle Knowledge: God knows all the feasible worlds he could create.

___________________________________________________________

Creation of the actual World (Divine Decree)

___________________________________________________________

Moment 3:  .  .  .                                              •                                              .  .  .

Free Knowledge: God knows all truths about the actual world.

These three logical moments are not controversial and were affirmed even by medieval theologians such as Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas. Our main concern thus is with middle knowledge. Here is how Kenneth Keathley summarizes God’s three logical moments:

…from the infinite set of possible worlds that could happen (God’s natural knowledge), there is an infinite subset of feasible worlds which would accomplish His will (God’s middle knowledge). God freely chooses one of the feasible worlds, and He perfectly knows what will happen in this actual world (God’s free knowledge). In the Molinist model, God sovereignly controls all things, yet humans possess real freedom for which they must give an account.[5]

But, is the idea of middle knowledge supported by scripture or is it a mere theological and philosophical construct? As we will see in the next section, CC of creatures—the foundation for the doctrine of middle knowledge—are amply supported by scriptural witness.

Middle Knowledge: Biblical Support

Before presenting a biblical justification for the doctrine of middle knowledge, it is important to clarify our terms. In this section we will (1) assume that God has simple foreknowledge (since this point is largely uncontroversial) and (2) provide support for the thesis that God is possessor of counterfactual knowledge. Now, if counterfactual knowledge comes logically prior to the divine decree, then that would be middle knowledge as understood by the Molinist.

If counterfactual knowledge comes logically prior to the divine decree, then that would be middle knowledge as understood by the Molinist.

Therefore, while we can support biblically that God has counterfactual knowledge, the conclusion that God possesses middle knowledge is a matter of “theological reflection.” [6]

As previously stated, counterfactuals are conditional and contingent statements of the type “if…then…” in subjunctive mode that express a condition contrary to fact (for example, “if archduke Franz Ferdinand had not been murdered in Sarajevo, then World War I would not have  started in 1914”), but also expresses a true statement of the actual world. We also use these statements in daily life. For example: “if I had not been born in Mexico I would not know Spanish”; or “if I had not studied for my math exam I would not have passed the test.” The Bible is permeated with this type of counterfactual language. Let’s begin with some sayings from Jesus that support counterfactual knowledge.

In John 15:22 he states that if he had “not come and spoken to them, they [the world] would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.” Similarly, in v.24 he affirms that if he had “not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father.”

In the context of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, Jesus says that “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matt 26:24) and in Matt 11:21-23 he warns the cities where he performed the mightiest miracles as such:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.”

A very clear example can be seen in Matt 17:27. Here Jesus tells Peter to “go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” If we understand that Peter had the freedom to either obey or disobey Jesus, then it follows that there is a possible scenario in which Peter does not cast a hook to get the fish.

Jesus also affirmed a chance for a different outcome to occur:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

We also have examples of the apostles. When Ananias and his wife sinned by extracting a price from their offering in Acts 5:4, Peter implies that they could have done otherwise: “Was it not under your control?” (NASB).

Paul states in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that humans have always the ability to not sin when tempted. This means that when a person sins, there is a possible world where the same person in the same circumstances could have not sinned. God genuinely provides an exit hatch and the human is free to take it or reject it. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 2:8 Paul writes that “None of the rulers of this world understood it [God’s hidden wisdom], because if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” Other clear counterfactual examples include Matt 12:7; 23:30; 24:43; Mk 13:20; 13:57-58; 6:47-49[7]; Jn 4:10; 15:19; 16:36; 18:36; 21:6 and Heb 4:8.

The Old Testament is also ripe with God’s counterfactual knowledge. In Ex 32:9-14 God intends to destroy the Israelites, but Moses pleads with God and so “the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.” The fact that God knew Moses’ response does not make this hyperbolic language for God does not lie.[8] God’s warning would have been as true as any of God’s promises and prophecies with real and actionable intent. Along the same vein, in Amos 7:1-6 God shows the prophet—in rather graphic images—his intention to judge Israel. In Isaiah 38:1-5, the prophet foretells Hezekiah’s immediate death—which the Lord waives after Hezekiah’s pleads.

According to Psalm 139:1-6, God knows every human thought “from afar,” possibly indicating temporal distance.[9] Again, the Old Testament has numerous examples of God’s counterfactual knowledge: 1 Sam 23:1-14; 38:1-5; 13:13-14; Jonah 3; Gen 19:2-3[10]; 18:16-33; 22:12[11]; 2 Kgs 13:19; Ezek 21:21-23[12]; 14:14-16; 33:5; Jer 23:22; 37:9-10.

With this biblical evidence in place, it can be safely affirmed that God possesses counterfactual knowledge of free creatures as part of his natural knowledge, and if this knowledge is possessed by God logically prior to the divine decree, then we have a solid base to affirm the doctrine of middle knowledge.

Is Molinism Philosophically-charged Eisegesis?

Some objectors to Molinism have dismissed it as heresy “mustered up by the semi-Pelagians,”[13] and that Craig is in danger “of embracing a theological method that moves not from the text to philosophical speculation but from philosophical speculation to the text.”[14] But this would be strongly denied by the biblical Molinist. Scripture affirms that salvation is completely the work of God.

The Molinist agrees with the total depravity of man—as affirmed by reformed theologians—and his inability to come to Christ lest the Spirit draws him (Jn 12:32; 6:44) but the unbeliever is also free to reject and resist[15] this freely given grace and remain damned. It is God’s merit if the unbeliever repents and it is the unbeliever’s fault if he rejects God’s saving love trough the Holy Spirit. What is clear is that without God’s grace nobody would be saved.

Kirk MacGregor argues that Craig’s interpretation of Matt 11:21-23 “seems to be a clear case of allowing philosophical presuppositions to trump grammatico-historical exegesis.”[16] But here I have to agree with Keathley against this accusation given that “presuppositions are integrated with grammatico-historical exegesis all the time.”[17] The only question here is: are Craig’s presuppositions incorrect? Given that Craig affirms that (1) God desires all men to repent (Ezek 33:11; 1 Tim 2:3-4; 2 Pt 3:9), (2) God judges based on revelation (Rom 1-2), (3) God determines the time and place so man seeks God (Acts 17:26-28), and (4) humans are damned because of their sin. These presuppositions are consistent with a systematic study of scripture and this constitutes a proper frame of reference to interpret Matt 11:21-23 in such a manner that, if it were feasible for God to actualize a universe/world in which the people of Tyre, Sodom, and Sidon would have repented then He would have actualized such a world given (1) and (3). Jesus then judges these cities more harshly according to their revelation (2) and damns them because of their sin (4). Thus all four of Craig’s presuppositions are scriptural. MacGregor’s appeal to eisogeted philosophy is invalid.[18]

Paul Kjoss (a Calvinist) argues that 1 Corinthians 2:8 suggests that “the rulers of this age…crucified the Lord of glory” neither because they were oblivious to the “mind-boggling” wonders of Molinism, nor because they did not have the intellectual ability to understand the propositional content of what the apostle Paul refers to as “the folly of what we preach” (1 Cor. 1:21). Rather, they crucified the Lord of glory because, as Richard Gaffin has incisively argued, they were “devoid of the Spirit” and thus without the moral ability to understand…the things of the Spirit. In short, those who cannot stomach the God of the Augustinian-Calvinist tradition would be well advised to remember that God is no “respecter of persons” (Col. 3:25), not even of really smart philosophers.[19]

But this reasoning from Kjoss presupposes a philosophical system, namely universal divine determinism, which turns God into the direct agent that makes people sin to then punish them for it. This view is “neither faithful to the testimony of Scripture nor honoring of God.”[20] Furthermore, the KJV translation used by Kjoss in Col 3:25 as God being “no respecter of persons” can better be translated as “For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality” (ESV). Ironically the text clearly states that God shows no favoritism, which makes it hard to explain why, in some reformed views, God destined some for salvation and others for destruction if he is impartial! Therefore, the “potter and the clay” passage in Romans 9 used as an objection to Molinism should not be worrisome, for it depicts God’s freedom to choose whomever he wants for his purposes and elects—via middle knowledge—those who would freely respond to his salvific grace. The reprobate still exist to demonstrate God’s justice and dealings with human evil and sin. This manner to understand the text presupposes that God is just, and sovereign, but he also wants his creatures to have significant freedom. These are presuppositions derived from scripture that amount to a philosophical position so to speak.

The question is not if Craig is introducing philosophical presuppositions into his exegesis—frankly we all do—the question rather is, are Craig’s philosophical presuppositions valid and consistent with a faithful exegesis of Scripture? And here the answer seems to be a resounding “yes.”

Molinism and the Problem of Evil

Not only does Molinism provide a coherent and harmonious view of divine sovereignty, omniscience and human freedom, but in doing so it explains many difficult passages related to the problem of evil. This issue has been troubling theologians, philosophers, and laypersons for centuries. It can be summarized as follows: if God is omnipotent, he has the power to eliminate evil, if he is good he wills to eliminate evil, but evil exists and thus he is either impotent, maleficent, or simply does not exist. Furthermore, if God is the last link in every chain of events, and divine determinism is true, then he is the cause of sin. In fact—according to Acts 2:23—Jesus was crucified and killed according to God’s “definite plan and foreknowledge.” Acts 4:27-28 asserts that “Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentles and the peoples of Israel gathered together against” Jesus to execute the plan “predestined” by God. Does this make God the cause of people’s sin? Here we see two passages that unequivocally affirm God’s overarching and absolute sovereignty over the affairs of men that resulted in God’s preordained plan. Craig explains how Molinism can help make sense of this situation whilst maintaining humans responsible for their evil deeds:

If we take the term foreknowledge as encompassing middle knowledge, then we can make perfect sense of God’s providential control over a world of free agents. For via his middle knowledge, God knew exactly which persons, if members of the Sanhedrin, would freely vote for Jesus’ condemnation; which persons, if in Jerusalem, would freely demand Christ’s death, favoring the release of Barabbas; what Herod, if king, would freely do in reaction to Jesus and to Pilate’s plea to Judge him on his own; and what Pilate himself, if holding the prefecture of Palestine in A.D. 27, would freely do under pressure from the Jewish leaders and the crows… God decreed to create just those people who would freely do what God willed to happen.[21]

The same logic can be applied, for example, to difficult passages stating that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” but at the same time “Pharaoh hardened his heart”[22] and to the fact that Judas is responsible for his betrayal of Jesus even though it was part of God’s plan since the beginning. On the other hand, “The Augustinian-Calvinist perspective interprets the above passages to mean that foreknowledge is based upon foreordination: God knows what will happen because he makes it happen…but this interpretation inevitable makes God the author of sin.”[23] Open theism, Calvinism, and simple foreknowledge (devoid of middle knowledge) can’t account for God’s providence and—at the same time—affirm God’s absolute sovereignty and human freedom.

 This is truly remarkable and unavailable in any other theological system!

The Grounding Objection

Even though this document is concerned chiefly with biblical argumentation in favor of middle knowledge, it is worth spending some time discussing one last obstacle that the reader may encounter whilst considering Molinism: the grounding objection. Some philosophers have asked how it is that God simply knows what free creatures would do in a world that hasn’t been actualized. In other words, what is the “grounding” of God’s counterfactual knowledge of free creatures? And here, as Craig points out, the objector has the burden of proof to show that God can’t possibly possess such knowledge: “But why should I know how God has such foreknowledge? Who are human beings that they should know how God foreknows the future? …Therefore, we cannot be required to demonstrate the actual way God foreknows; we are free to suggest a possible way.”[24] The grounding objection is based on a “particular construal” of truth-making theory—known as such by contemporary philosophers—but the objection is “virtually never articulated or defended in any depth by its advocates.”[25]

Unless and until it can be successfully shown that God can’t possibly possess such middle knowledge logically prior to the divine decree, Molinism remains a viable theological option for the orthodox Christian.

Unless and until it can be successfully shown that God can’t possibly possess such middle knowledge logically prior to the divine decree, Molinism remains a viable theological option for the orthodox Christian.

Final Word

A few weeks ago I witnessed an apologetics panel discussion with the participation of several eminent theologians. Close to the middle of the conversation the host/moderator—an eminent Christian lawyer—asked:

“If you have ever doubted your faith, what was the most troublesome issue to you?”[26]

Two of the panelists mentioned the problem of evil and one mentioned the issue of “God’s sovereignty, free will and predestination.” It is interesting that the doctrine of middle knowledge can shed so much light on both issues. Even if Molinism is false, at the very least, it constitutes a plausible way to reconcile some of the most complex issues in the history of theological and philosophical thought. That alone has tremendous apologetic value. Given that there are no good objections against the doctrine of middle knowledge and that it is consistent with an orthodox reading of Scripture, the reasonable and conservative Christian ought to consider Molinism as a viable theological system. I personally have to agree with Dr. Craig that Molinism is probably “the single most fruitful theological concept” I have ever encountered.

[1] And here I mean “free” in the libertarian sense.

[2] Fatalism is thus a denial of human freedom. It entails that, if we shall act in a certain way, then we are not free to act in a different way. Whatever we shall do we must do. Now fatalism should not be confused with determinism, the view that all our choices and actions are determined by prior causes. William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 14.

[3] Pelagianism argues that man has it within his power to obey and choose God. The Semi-Pelagian affirms that man can’t be saved apart from God’s grace but still argues that man has a natural ability to turn to God. The Molinist can (and should) reject both of these views and still affirm libertarian freedom and divine sovereignty.

[4] Omniscience here is understood in the traditional sense as the property of God to know all true statements and to know no falsehoods. This is a specific rejection of omniscience as defined by the open theist as the knowledge of the settled future (settled directly by God) and that the rest remains an open possibility that God simple remains ignorant about.

[5] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Account (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2010), Kindle Locations 385-388.

[6] James Beilby and Paul Eddy, eds., Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001), Kindle Location 1532.

[7] Mark’s account of Jesus walking on the water has the surprising statement that before the disciples saw Him, Jesus “wanted to pass by them” (Mark 6:47–49). A similar comment is made about Jesus’ walk with the Emmaus disciples. Luke says that when the disciples arrived at their destination Jesus “gave the impression that He was going farther. But they urged Him: ‘Stay with us, … So He went in to stay with them” (Luke 24:28–29). Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, Kindle Location 555-557.

[8] God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? Numbers 23:19.

[9] Craig, The Only Wise God, 31.

[10] In this case, the angels had the intention to spend the night at the square but become persuaded to come into Lot’s house indicating a counterfactual scenario.

[11] “Similarly, the anthropomorphic language used by God at Abraham’s offering of Isaac points to the reality of Abraham’s test. ‘For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from Me’ (Gen 22:12). The outcome was both contingent and certain. Contingently, Abraham could have failed. But according to God’s flawless foreknowledge, certainly Abraham would not.” Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, Location 601-602.

[12] Here, God foreknows Nebuchadnezzar’s divinations to determine his battle plans. Craig, The Only Wise God, 30-31.

[13] Matthew McMahon, “The Heresy of Middle Knowledge,” http://www.apuritansmind.com/historical-theology/heresy-in-the-church/the-heresy-of-middle-knowledge-by-dr-c-matthew-mcmahon (accessed April 24th 2015).

[14] Beilby, Divine Foreknowledge, Kindle Location 2112-2114.

[15] It is in this issue that the Molinist disagrees with the Calvinist. For the Calvinist the calling of the Holy Spirit is irresistible (effectual calling) and always results in salvation. But with this doctrine the Calvinist has cornered himself for it is a mystery, if God wants all men to be saved, why does He not save all?

[16] Kirk R. MacGregor, A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology (Lanham, MD:  University Press of America, 2007), 69.

[17] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, Kindle Location 884-991.

[18] This paragraph summarized from Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, Kindle Location 908-991

[19] Stanley N. Gundry and Dennis W. Jowers, eds., Four Views on Divine Providence (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Kindle Location 2168-2171.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Beilby, Divine Foreknowledge, Kindle Location 1664.

[22] See Exodus 7:13-14; 7:22; 8:15; 8:19; 8:32; 9:7; 9:12; 9:34-35; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27; 11:10; 14:8.

[23] Ibid., 1675.

[24] Craig, The Only Wise God, 118-21.

[25] Beilby, Divine Foreknowledge, Kindle Location 1747.

[26] Mark Lanier, “Seminar – Christianity on Trial – Panel Discussion,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDSGslqlDfU (accessed April 28th 2015).

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2 thoughts on “PREDESTINATION AND FREE WILL: IS MOLINISM BIBLICAL?”

  1. Question: What do you mean when you suggest that the Calvinist perspective entails that God “makes” someone do something? What do you mean by “makes”? Isn’t it the case that Calvinist believe that the creature freely acts within the constraints of his nature? And as such, the creature acts freely, which in the case of the unregenerate man, he freely chooses his sin. Thanks in advance for your response. -Blessings!!!

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