How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 4)

[This is the fourth in an n-part series, where n>1 and probably n<10.]

In this embarrassingly intermittent series, I’ve been addressing the question: How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? In the first post, I argued that Augustinianism and Molinism can equally well accommodate comprehensive divine providence and God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, both of which the Bible clearly affirms. I concluded by observing that in order to show Molinism to be more biblical than Augustinianism we would need to identify some proposition p that is (i) affirmed by Molinism but denied by Augustinianism, and (ii) affirmed or clearly implied by some biblical teaching.

In the second and third posts, I considered two candidates for p: first, the proposition that moral freedom is incompatible with determinism, and second, the proposition that God desires all to be saved. In neither case, I argued, does the proposed p meet both (i) and (ii).

Now I’ll consider a third candidate for p: the proposition that God is not the author of sin. This is quite a common objection for Molinists to level against Calvinists (and Augustinians more broadly). For example, William Lane Craig raises this complaint in his contribution to the book Four Views on Divine Providence. (I’ll examine his criticisms more closely below.) The thrust of the charge is that Augustinianism, on account of its commitment to divine determinism, makes God the author of sin in a way that Molinism (which rejects divine determinism) does not.

“The Author of Sin”?

So does Augustinianism make God the author of sin? The first problem we face in answering that question is the muddiness of the phrase “author of sin”. Critics of Calvinism (one form of Augustinianism) will frequently assert that it makes God the “author of sin”; rarely if ever will they precisely define that phrase and explain how Calvinism turns God into the “author of sin” (and, moreover, why that would be objectionable). As often as not the charge is simply left hanging there, as if it’s all self-evident. “Calvinism makes God the author of sin!” apparently carries all the force of “The emperor has no clothes!” Once the observation has been made, what more needs to be said?

Author of SinWell, quite a bit more. So let’s try to get some clarity here on exactly what the phrase means. In order for the argument to hold water (i.e., that Molinism, unlike Augustinianism, avoids making God the author of sin) there must be some interpretation of the charge “God is the author of sin” such that (i) it applies to Augustinianism but not to Molinism, (ii) it does more than merely restate the differences between Augustinianism and Molinism, and (iii) it has some objectionable entailments. (In the present context, the objectionable entailment needs to be a demonstrable conflict with some biblical teaching.)

Option #1: God decrees/ordains sin. Certainly Augustinianism affirms that God decrees/ordains sin — or more precisely, decrees/ordains that some of his creatures will sometimes sin. But the same is true of Molinism. According to Molinism, God has an infallible decree that encompasses every event within the creation, including creaturely sins. So this cannot be what the Molinist means by “author of sin”.

Option #2: God ‘scripts’ sin. Perhaps ‘author’ is meant to be analogous to the human author of a novel. On the Augustinian view there’s a clear sense in which God is the author of history: his decree is analogous to a script or storyline that is played out in the history of his creation. If that’s the meaning, to say that God is the “author of sin” is to say no more than that God decrees/ordains sin (see above). But again, if that’s the meaning then Molinism also makes God the “author of sin”.

Option #3: God acts so as to ensure that his creatures sin. Augustinianism affirms that God creates and providentially directs the world in accordance with an eternal, infallible, comprehensive decree, and that decree includes creaturely sins. So in that broad sense, God does act so as to ensure that his creatures sin. But one again the same can be said of Molinism: God “weakly actualizes” a possible world, one that includes creaturely sins. Moreover, he does so infallibly: if God weakly actualizes a possible world in which some creature commits a sin, then it follows necessarily that the creature will sin. So this option doesn’t distinguish between Augustinianism and Molinism either.

Option #4: God determines that his creatures sin. If one holds (as I do) that Augustinianism is committed to divine determinism, then Augustinianism certainly implies that God determines that his creatures sin. I’ve argued elsewhere that Molinism is also deterministic in a certain (weaker) sense, but leave that aside for the sake of argument. If “author of sin” simply means “determiner of sin” (in the Augustinian sense) then to charge Augustinianism with making God the author of sin is to say nothing more than that Augustinianism is Augustinian, which is hardly a shocking revelation. What the Molinist needs to show is that the Bible denies divine determinism, or affirms things that contradict divine determinism. However, that can’t be done without importing controversial philosophical theses such as incompatibilism. In other words, this option ends up begging the question against the Augustinian.

Option #5: God causally determines that his creatures sin. Obviously this is a refinement of the preceding option. There are different types of determinism, and not all types are causal in nature. Divine determinism doesn’t have to be divine causal determinism. So it’s an open question whether Augustinianism is committed to the idea that God causally determines that his creatures sin. However, even if we grant that it is so committed, the same problem arises as for the previous option. Merely restating the tenets or entailments of Augustinianism does nothing to refute it or to show that it’s at odds with biblical teachings.

Option #6: God is the originator or creator of sin. The word ‘author’ can sometimes mean ‘originator’ or ‘creator’. So perhaps the claim that Augustinianism “makes God the author of sin” translates to the claim that it makes God the originator or creator of sin. Still, that’s less than fully perspicuous. Augustinianism is certainly not committed to the idea that God creates sin. Rather, God creates the world, including creaturely agents, and he creates everything good. Some of those creaturely agents go on to commit sins of their own free will, but it would be perverse to suggest that creating an agent who commits a sin entails creating a sin. (If that were true then the Molinist, along with every other orthodox Christian, would be in the same sinking boat as the Augustinian.)

What about the idea that God is the originator of sin? If that means nothing more than that God decrees, ordains, or determines that some of his creatures sin, then this option is no advance on #1 or #4 above, which have already been discarded. If, on the other hand, it means that God is somehow the original sinner (by virtue of ordaining sin in an Augustinian, non-Molinist fashion) then that’s something Augustinians absolutely repudiate, as the Bible does. Again we’re faced with a scenario in which the Molinist has to appeal to disputable extra-biblical philosophical theses about determinism and moral culpability in order to make the charge stick. But our concern here is whether any non-controversial implications of Augustinianism are at odds with any biblical affirmations.

Option #7: God intends that his creatures sin. This interpretation is trickier, because there’s some residual ambiguity. Does God intend that his creatures sin in the sense that he deliberately ordains it? Augustinians say yes; but then so must Molinists (see above). Does God intend that his creatures sin in the sense that he somehow brings about creaturely sin as an end in itself, an end of which he approves? Augustinians deny it. Molinists will claim that even though (on their view) God deliberately ordains sin, by way of weakly actualizing one possible world, he does so only as a means to an end — as a means of bringing about some greater good. Very well: Augustinians can say the same. (Alternatively, Molinists might appeal to the principle of double effect; but again, I see no reason why Augustinians cannot do likewise.) In any event, we’re presented once again with an interpretation of “author of sin” that fails to adequately discriminate between Augustinianism and Molinism.

Option #8: God directly causes his creatures to sin. I suspect this is close to what many Molinists have in mind when they make the charge that Augustinianism (or Calvinism) makes God the author of sin. However, it’s far from clear that Augustinianism is committed to such a notion. I noted earlier that it’s disputable whether Augustinianism is committed to divine causal determinism; even if it were, it wouldn’t follow that God directly causes his creatures to sin (rather than, say, determining by way of intermediate causes or some type of negative causation). But suppose for the sake of argument that Augustinianism does claim or imply that God directly causes his creatures to sin (and that Molinism denies it). The question is whether that’s contradicted by any straightforward biblical affirmations. I don’t know of any biblical texts that could be taken as such. (If James 1:13-14 comes to mind, see below.) Indeed, there are some biblical texts which do indicate direct divine action upon the human will (or upon human faculties so as to bring about certain choices). But more on that point in a future post. For now we can simply say that this option proves no more promising than the preceding ones.

Before moving on, it’s worth taking a look at how some Augustinians have understood the phrase “author of sin” in the course of denying that it applies to God. Consider the following statements from the Westminster Confession of Faith:

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (3.1)

The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in his providence, that it extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin. (5.4)

Note first that the confession explicitly denies (twice!) that God is the author of sin. However, it also affirms that God has infallibly ordained “whatsoever comes to pass” and thus rejects several of the interpretations considered above (#1, #2, and probably #3). The statement that God is not the “approver of sin” is clear enough: God, being pure and holy, does not take pleasure in or approve of sin qua sin. But what is meant here by “author of sin”? The clue lies in the coordinating clauses: “nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures” (3.1) and “yet so, as the sinfulness therefore proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God” (5.4). The core notion, I take it, is that sin is always a creaturely action and never a divine action. Creatures commit evil acts, but God never commits evil acts, even though he foreordains the evil acts of creatures (which is not the same thing at all).

What Does the Bible Say?

Recall that we’ve been considering the extent to which Molinism enjoys biblical support over alternative views of divine providence and foreknowledge. Here we’re specifically assessing whether Molinism holds some advantage over Augustinianism inasmuch as the latter somehow makes God the “author of sin”. We therefore need to consider what biblical teachings or texts would bear on this question.

The Bible nowhere uses the phrase “author of sin” (or “author of evil”). However, there is one text commonly cited to support the claim that God is not the author of sin:

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. (James 1:13-14)

The denial is clear enough: God doesn’t tempt anyone to sin. (The Greek verb is peirazo, which is uniformly rendered as tempt in English translations.) Now, why would anyone think that Augustinianism claims or entails that God tempts people to sin? As verse 14 makes clear, tempting to sin involves luring and enticing to sin. The idea is that the tempter places something before a person, or puts them in some situation, in the hope that the person will be inclined or motivated or otherwise drawn to commit a sin. TemptationIn the Bible, of course, the paradigmatic tempter is Satan, and the paradigmatic temptations are those of Adam (by Satan, through Eve; Gen. 3:1-6) and of Christ (by Satan directly; Matt. 4:1-11).

However, none of the tenets of Augustinianism imply that God tempts people to sin. Tempting is certainly one way to bring about sin, but it isn’t the only way. (Note that Molinists are also committed to the idea that God “brings about” sin in some sense.) Tempting implies certain means and motivations on the part of the tempter. But it would be wholly mistaken to think that such means and motivations are necessary components of divine providence on the Augustinian view; that is, to think that God can deterministically ordain the sins of his creatures only by tempting those creatures. All this to say, the Augustinian will gladly join every other Christian in denying that God tempts anyone to sin, and there’s no demonstrable inconsistency on his part in doing so.

As far as I can tell, the only other texts cited in support of the claim that God is not the author of sin are those numerous texts testifying to God’s absolute holiness and moral purity (e.g., Isa. 6:3; Hab. 1:13; James 1:17; 1 John 1:5). But to these texts the same considerations apply as to James 1:13. Augustinianism doesn’t deny God’s absolute holiness and moral purity — on the contrary, that’s one of its essential tenets — and one cannot show that divine determinism compromises that tenet without resorting (once again) to disputable philosophical theses about free will and moral responsibility.

A Case Study: Craig’s Criticisms

Let’s wrap things up by examining one example of a leading Christian philosopher arguing that Molinism should be preferred over Augustinianism/Calvinism because it avoids making God the author of sin. (The “author of sin” charge has been leveled at Calvinism by Jerry Walls and Roger Olson, among others, but since they aren’t Molinists their arguments are less relevant and instructive.)

Responding to Paul Kjoss Helseth’s defense of the Reformed view in the book Four Views on Divine Providence, William Lane Craig writes:

Universal, divine determinism makes God the author of sin and denies human responsibility. . . . [I]n contrast to the Molinistic view of simultaneous concurrence, the deterministic view holds that even the movement of the human will is caused by God. God moves people to choose evil, and they cannot do otherwise. God determines their choices and makes them do wrong.1

Note that there are two distinct criticisms here: (1) divine determinism “makes God the author of sin” and (2) divine determinism “denies human responsibility”. The second criticism is basically the incompatibilist objection, which I discussed previously. As for the first, observe that Craig nowhere defines or explicates the phrase “author of sin”. He seems to assume it’s self-explanatory, when in fact it’s susceptible to various interpretations.

However, he does proceed to state the objection in other words. “God moves people to choose evil” — but in what sense? If it means simply that God determines, by some broadly causal means, that his creatures sin, then that’s nothing more than a restatement of the Augustinian position. If it means that God somehow acts directly on the human will, turning it towards a sinful choice like a finger forcing a compass needle against its natural direction, then Craig needs to show that Augustinianism is committed to such an notion.

Craig further states that on the Augustinian view, “God determines their choices and makes them do wrong.” The first part of this sentence, again, does nothing more than state the Augustinian view. The second part strikes me as a calculated ambiguity. God ‘makes’ people do wrong — but in what sense? If ‘make’ is synonymous with ’cause’, then once again this merely restates the Augustinian claim. I suspect, however, that most readers will understand ‘make’ here to imply something like coercion. (Compare the statement, “Frank made Stan take the money.”) Yet on the Augustinian view, God doesn’t coerce any of his creatures to sin. Craig’s objection here seems to assume an incompatibilist view of free will, which is one of the very points in dispute between Augustinians and Molinists.

Craig continues:

If it is evil to make another person do wrong, then in this view God not only is the cause of sin and evil, but becomes evil himself, which is absurd.2

A couple of things to observe here. First, it looks as though Craig is indeed taking ‘make’ to be synonymous with ’cause’. Secondly, Craig apparently concedes that divine causation as such doesn’t entail that God is evil or the author of sin. Rather, he has to appeal to an auxiliary principle, namely, that if one person causes (‘makes’) someone else sin, then that person is evil (or at least commits an evil). The trouble is, Craig gives us no reason to accept that principle. Augustinians must certainly deny it, at least with respect to divine causation. So why shouldn’t they deny it?

Later in the same book, as part of his defense of Molinism, Craig returns to the “author of sin” objection:

The Augustinian-Calvinist perspective . . . interprets the biblical passages such as those quoted above to mean the foreknowledge is based on foreordination. God knows what will happen because he makes it happen. Knowing the intentions of his will and his mighty power, God knows that his purpose shall be accomplished. But this interpretation inevitably makes God the author of sin, since it is he who moved Judas, for example, to betray Christ, a sin that merits everlasting perdition for the hapless Judas. But how can a holy God move people to commit moral evil, and moreover, how can these people then be held morally responsible for acts over which they had no control? The Augustinian-Calvinist view seems, in effect, to turn God into the Devil.3

Note that two distinct objections are run together again: God’s ‘moving’ people to sin (1) makes God the author of sin and (2) implies that those people cannot be held responsible for their sin (the incompatibilist objection). But what exactly does it mean for God to ‘move’ people to sin? If ‘move’ (like the earlier ‘make’) is merely a synonym for ’cause’, Craig is doing no more than restating the Augustinian view and then asserting that it makes God culpable for sin. If ‘move’ means something more specific, like directly cause or directly act upon, Augustinians can reasonably ask why they should be committed to such an idea (see #8 above). Finally, if ‘move’ is taken to imply coercion, Augustinians will object that Craig is begging the question by assuming incompatibilism.

In conclusion, I can’t see that Craig offers any good reason to think that Augustinianism makes God the “author of sin” in any objectionable sense, still less that it turns God “into the Devil.” Neither does Craig show that Augustinianism is in any worse a position than Molinism with respect to God’s ordaining the sins of his creatures.

To sum up all of the above: the phrase “author of sin” is a slippery one, open to many different interpretations, but there doesn’t appear to be any consistent interpretation of “author of sin” that satisfies the following three conditions: (i) Augustinianism affirms or indisputably implies that God is the author of sin; (ii) Molinism denies that God is the author of sin; (iii) the Bible denies that God is the author of sin (in the given sense).

Postscript: I say much more in response the charge that Calvinism makes God the author of sin in my essay “Calvinism and the First Sin” published in Calvinism and the Problem of Evil. Several other essays in that volume address the same criticism, and in a variety of ways, but see especially Greg Welty’s “Molinist Gunslingers: God and the Authorship of Sin” which argues (by way of an inspired analogy) that if Calvinism’s account of divine providence makes God culpable for the sins of his creatures, so does Molinism’s.

  1. Four Views on Divine Providence, ed. Dennis W. Jowers (Zondervan, 2011), pp. 60-61.
  2. Ibid., p. 61.
  3. Ibid., p. 91.

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