[This is the first in an n-part series, where n>1 and probably n<10.]
Molinism is a theory that purports to reconcile a robust doctrine of divine providence and foreknowledge with a libertarian view of free will by appealing to the notion of divine middle knowledge: God’s eternal knowledge of the so-called counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, that is, contingent truths about what possible creatures would freely choose if they were created by God and placed in particular circumstances. (For previous posts on Molinism, see here.)
Molinism is most often criticized on theological or philosophical grounds, mainly because it’s most often championed on the basis of its supposed theological and philosophical virtues. And there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve objected to Molinism on theological and philosophical grounds myself. (So it must be okay, right?) Nevertheless, for the Christian who takes the Bible to be the Word of God and the final authority in theological matters, the preeminent question ought to be: How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? (I don’t propose to defend the underlying methodological principle at this time; I’m simply going to take it for granted.)
There are at least two components to the question at hand. First, is Molinism consistent with the Bible? In other words, does the Bible teach some things that are (or appear to be) inconsistent with the tenets or implications of Molinism? Second, does the Bible offer any positive support for the distinctive claims of Molinism, i.e., those tenets that distinguish Molinism from its major alternatives such as Augustinianism or Open Theism? In this series of posts I propose to explore these questions with reference to some key biblical texts. I will focus in particular on how Molinism compares to Augustinianism, which is arguably its leading competitor among orthodox Christian theologians. (Note: I’m using the term Augustinianism simply as shorthand for causal divine determinism. Nothing is assumed about whether St. Augustine himself actually held to Augustinianism in that sense! But Augustinianism so defined would include most confessional Calvinists and, I think, many conservative Thomists.)
Before getting into the meat of it, I ought to address a concern which some readers may have. I’m not assuming at the outset that the Bible answers all philosophical questions and can settle any philosophical dispute. Clearly there are some philosophical questions, such whether time-travel is possible, whether numbers are real entities, and whether rule-utilitarianism collapses into act-utilitarianism, that the Bible doesn’t even begin to address. (And that’s a good thing too!) But at the same time, I do take the view that the Bible makes some philosophical assertions (indeed, the opening declaration of the Bible is deeply metaphysical!) and even more often expresses things (affirmations, promises, commands, etc.) that have reasonably clear philosophical implications or presuppositions.
So to put it somewhat crudely, I take it that the Bible presents us with a number of “data points” which ought to both inform and constrain our philosophizing. Some philosophical theories are consistent with those data points, while others are not. Some philosophical theories better fit those data points than others. Some philosophical issues are underdetermined by the biblical evidence, but not all are. So the questions explored in this series will include: (1) What are some of the important biblical data points when it comes to assessing Molinism? and (2) How well does Molinism fit those data points?
Comprehensive Divine Providence
One of the most prominent themes of the Bible is God’s comprehensive providential control over his creation (sometimes called “meticulous divine providence”). Everything that takes place in the creation does so according to God’s sovereign plan; nothing takes place apart from God’s will. Theologians have made various distinctions here between God’s active and permissive will, his decretive (secret) and preceptive (revealed) will, his antecedent and consequent will, and so on, but the central claim is the same: God has an eternal decree which covers every single event in the creation, and that decree will infallibly come to pass.
Here are some specific texts which illustrate this pervasive biblical doctrine:
The Lord of hosts has sworn: “As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand…” For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back? (Isa. 14:24, 27)
“Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.” (Isa. 46:8-11)
Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? (Lam. 3:37-38)
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Rom. 8:28)
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will… (Eph. 1:11)
Particularly striking are the biblical affirmations of God’s sovereign control over the sinful actions of his creatures, such that even those actions form part of his providential plan (e.g., Gen. 50:20; Judg. 14:1-4; 1 Sam. 2:25; Isa. 10:5-19; Acts 4:27-28; Rom. 9:14-21).1
One of the virtues of Molinism is that it seeks to accommodate this major biblical theme. According to Molinism, God does indeed have an eternal infallible decree; every event in the creation has been ordained by God. To cite one leading defender of Molinism:
Not only does this view make room for human freedom, but it affords God a means of choosing which world of free creatures to create. For by knowing how persons would freely choose in whatever circumstances they might be, God can, by decreeing to place just those persons in those circumstances, bring about his ultimate purposes through free creaturely decisions. Thus, by employing his hypothetical knowledge, God can plan a world down to the last detail and yet do so without annihilating creaturely freedom, since God has already factored into the equation what people would do freely under various circumstances. Since God’s hypothetical knowledge lies logically in between his natural knowledge and his free knowledge, Molinists called it God’s middle knowledge.2
On this point, then, Molinism clearly has the advantage over alternatives such as Open Theism which reject the doctrine of comprehensive divine providence. However, since Augustinianism also affirms this doctrine, Molinism cannot claim to be more biblical than Augustinianism on this point. In other words, the Bible’s teaching on God’s comprehensive providential control doesn’t favor Molinism over against Augustinianism.
Counterfactuals of Freedom
The defining tenet of Molinism is that God possesses so-called middle knowledge and bases his eternal decree on this prior middle knowledge. Middle knowledge is God’s pre-creation knowledge of what any possible creature (i.e., any creature God might bring into existence) would freely choose in any particular set of circumstances. For example, according to Molinism, God knows from eternity what I would freely choose to eat for breakfast if I were staying at the Hilton Atlanta on November 18, 2015, and presented with a particular range of options while feeling hungry and slightly adventurous. This knowledge doesn’t in itself entail that I will make that free choice, only that I would make that free choice if God decided to create me and providentially arrange for me to be presented with those options on that particular date in those specific circumstances.
Likewise, according to Molinism, God also knows from eternity what Schmames Anderson — my evil twin, a possible creature whom God mercifully chose not to create in the actual world — would freely choose to eat for breakfast in similar circumstances. (I’m guessing either “grits” or “biscuits and gravy”.)
Molinism therefore entails (i) that there really are such counterfactual truths about the free choices of possible creatures and (ii) that God knows these counterfactual truths from eternity (i.e., prior to his decision to create a world). Both (i) and (ii) have been challenged by critics of Molinism, but that’s not my concern here. Rather, I want to consider whether there is biblical support for these distinctive Molinism claims.
Understandably, Molinists have placed great weight on statements in Scripture which, on the face of it, presuppose God’s hypothetical knowledge of how people would behave if they found themselves in particular circumstances (specifically, how they would behave if the world were otherwise than it is; hence the term counterfactuals of freedom). These biblical texts include: 1 Sam. 23:8-14; Ezek. 3:6; Jer. 38:17-18; Matt. 11:21-24; Matt. 12:7; Luke 22:67-68; John 18:36; 1 Cor. 2:8.
I agree that there’s strong biblical support for God’s counterfactual knowledge of human choices. However, we should something very important about these texts: they don’t explicitly state that the choices made (or that would be made) are libertarian free choices.
It’s entirely reasonable to infer that the choices in question are free choices, since the creatures are (or would be) held morally responsible for those choices. But there’s much debate among philosophers as to what kind of freedom is required for moral responsibility. On the one side are the libertarians, who argue that genuine freedom requires causal indeterminism (i.e., free choices cannot be causally determined by prior events or states). On the other side are the compatibilists, who argue that genuine freedom is compatible with causal determinism.
Molinists by definition hold to a libertarian (incompatibilist) view of freedom. The prime virtue of Molinism, according to its defenders, is that it reconciles human libertarian freedom with comprehensive divine providence. But the biblical texts cited above don’t address the question of what kind of freedom humans possess. They don’t favor a libertarian view over a compatibilist view. If Molinists take them as support for God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of libertarian freedom, that’s only because they’re taking for granted that libertarian freedom is necessary for moral responsibility. But that’s a disputable philosophical claim; it’s not something that can be straightforwardly inferred from those texts.
Augustinians typically hold to a compatibilist view of freedom. On this view, there’s no problem at all in affirming that God knows counterfactuals of human freedom. This knowledge isn’t middle knowledge, which by definition is knowledge of counterfactuals of libertarian freedom. Rather, it falls under either God’s natural knowledge or his free knowledge. (Augustinians can take different views here, but that intramural debate is beside the point; all Augustinians will affirm that God has comprehensive counterfactual knowledge.)
The upshot, then, is that the biblical texts cited in support of Molinism — those texts which imply (1) there are counterfactual truths about human free choices and (2) God knows these truths — are just as consistent with Augustinianism, if we don’t beg the question about the nature of human free choices (libertarian versus compatibilist). That’s to say, these texts favor Molinism over against alternatives which deny (1) or (2), such as Open Theism or the Simple Foreknowledge view. But they don’t favor Molinism over against Augustinianism, simply because Augustinianism also affirms (1) and (2).
We might be tempted to go further and argue that in light of the philosophical objections to the idea that there can be true counterfactuals of libertarian freedom (e.g., the so-called grounding objection), those biblical texts actually turn out to support Augustinianism over against Molinism. I suspect the Molinist will retort that there are philosophical objections to compatibilism (i.e., arguments for incompatibilism) which are no less weighty than the arguments against there being true counterfactuals of libertarian freedom. What that response doesn’t take into account, I think, is that the Molinist has two sets of problems to deal with: objections to middle knowledge and objections to indeterministic freedom (e.g., the so-called luck objection). In any event, it’s clear that at this point the debate has shifted away from the surface implications of the biblical texts cited above to deeper metaphysical disputes.
We’ve seen that with respect to two significant biblical affirmations (comprehensive divine providence and God’s knowledge of counterfactuals) Molinism holds no advantage over Augustinianism, since both positions are consistent with those biblical teachings, at least on the face of it. If we want to show that Molinism has better biblical support than Augustinianism (or vice versa) then we need to find some proposition p which is affirmed by Molinism and denied by Augustinianism (or vice versa) such that p enjoys positive biblical support (i.e., there are biblical texts which, on the most natural and defensible interpretation, and without begging philosophical questions, assert or imply p).
In the next part of this series, I’ll consider some candidates for proposition p.
Addendum: Greg Welty offers some excellent commentary here.
- For a more extensive discussion of the biblical teaching on divine providence, see chapters 8-9 of John Frame’s Systematic Theology, or chapters 3-5 of Loraine Boettner’s The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. ↩
- William Lane Craig, “God Directs All Things,” in Four Views on Divine Providence, ed. Dennis W. Jowers (Zondervan, 2011), p. 82, emphasis added. God’s “natural knowledge” is his knowledge of all possibilities and necessities, which is grounded in God’s essential nature. God’s “free knowledge” is his knowledge of all contingent truths about the actual world, which is grounded in God’s eternal free decree. ↩