How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 3)

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

In this unintentionally and regrettably sporadic series, I’ve been considering the question: How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? In the first post I argued that the Bible affirms (1) comprehensive divine providence and (2) God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (i.e., knowledge of what any created agent would freely choose if placed in specific circumstances), but Molinism holds no advantage over Augustinianism with respect to (1) and (2). I concluded with this statement:

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 second post I examined one candidate for proposition p: the proposition that moral freedom is incompatible with determinism (which Molinists invariably affirm, but Augustinians typically deny). I concluded that the Bible offers no support for incompatibilism. In this post I’ll consider a second candidate for proposition p: the proposition that God desires all to be saved.

The Bible and God’s Salvific Will

Some Molinists have argued that the Bible teaches God’s desire for the salvation of all and that Molinism does better justice to this teaching than its major rival, Augustinianism. Kenneth Keathley, for example, in his book Salvation and Sovereignty, points to three biblical texts in particular — John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:3-4, and 2 Peter 3:9 — as teaching God’s universal salvific desire. Keathley then proceeds to argue that Molinism does better justice to this biblical teaching inasmuch as it affirms such a divine desire while also better explaining why that desire isn’t realized. (Keathley assumes, as I do here, that universalism is false.)

Let’s begin by considering whether God’s desire for universal salvation really is a biblical data-point, in the sense that it’s clearly and explicitly affirmed in Scripture. John 3:16 may be the best-known verse in the Bible:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Note carefully what the text does and doesn’t say. It says that God’s love for “the world” was such that God sent his only Son with the purpose that whoever believes in him (the Son) will have eternal life. It doesn’t say that God desires every single person to believe and thereby have eternal life. One might think that’s an implication of the text, but it’s not explicitly stated, and it’s only an implication of the text given certain assumptions, e.g., that “the world” refers to every single person, and God’s love for X entails that God desires X to have eternal life. My purpose here is not to question those assumptions (although I will at least note that John nowhere in his Gospel or Epistles uses kosmos in a way that implies “every single person”). Rather, my point is simply to observe that the idea that God desires universal salvation, even if true, cannot be directly read out of John 3:16.

Consider next 1 Timothy 2:3-4:

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

This one looks more clear-cut, until you learn that the Greek word for ‘all’ can sometimes carry the sense of all without distinction (in English: “all kinds” or “all types”) rather than all without exception. Which sense does it carry in this case? Well, that’s a matter of debate among commentators. Given the immediate context (consider how Paul uses ‘all’ in verses 1-2) it’s reasonable to think Paul’s point here is not so much that God desires every single person to be saved, but rather that God desires people of all stripes — those in high places as well as plebs like the rest of us — to be saved. According to the gospel of free grace, God doesn’t privilege one class of people over another when it comes to salvation. As Calvin put it, “Paul surely means only that God has not closed the way unto salvation to any order of men; rather, he has so poured out his mercy that he would have none without it.” (Institutes, 3.24.16)1 Even if one isn’t ultimately convinced by this reading of the text, one ought at least to concede that it’s linguistically plausible and makes good sense in the immediate context.

Finally, let’s consider 2 Peter 3:9:

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

Once again, on a superficial reading this looks like a slam-dunk: God wants all to repent so that no one should perish. However, as with the 1 Timothy 2 text, Peter’s statement needs to be interpreted in its context. The scope of ‘any’ and ‘all’ is qualified by the audience to whom Peter is writing: the ‘you’ earlier in the verse. The second half of the verse should be understood thus: “not wishing that any of you should perish, but that all of you should reach repentance.”

Now again, it may well be possible to infer a broader claim about God’s desire for universal salvation by bringing in supplementary theological assumptions derived from other biblical texts and teachings. My point here is only that there is no clear and explicit affirmation of a universal salvific desire in 2 Peter 3:9.

To be clear: I don’t mean to argue against the idea that God desires all to be saved. I firmly believe that he does, in a properly qualified sense. I’m simply observing that there aren’t any biblical texts which explicitly state that idea or straightforwardly imply it. It’s an inference (and I think a warranted one) from a host of different texts interpreted in terms of the overarching biblical story-line.

In any event, it turns out that this is largely beside the point when it comes to evaluating Molinism. For as I will now argue, even if we grant that the Bible does indeed teach a universal salvific desire on God’s part, it’s far from clear that Molinism does better justice to that teaching than Augustinianism.

Does Molinism Have the Edge?

Let’s assume then that the Bible teaches that God desires all to be saved. Does Molinism better accommodate that teaching than Augustinianism? Molinists also believe that, contrary to God’s salvific desire, not all will be saved. So Molinists have to reconcile these two claims:

A. God wants everyone to be saved.

B. Not everyone will be saved.

There are basically two options here for the Molinist. The first is to say that not everyone is saved because it wasn’t within God’s power to ensure that everyone is saved. We need to remember, however, that Molinists want to affirm comprehensive divine providence, according to which everything in the world takes place according to an eternal divine decree. So from a Molinist perspective, to say that God couldn’t ensure that everyone is saved is equivalent to saying that God couldn’t eternally decree that everyone be saved, which means (in Molinist terms) that God couldn’t actualize a possible world in which everyone is saved.2

Possible and Actualizable Worlds

Recall that in the Molinist scheme, God cannot actualize just any possible world. His choice of which world to actualize is limited by the counterfactuals of creaturely (libertarian) freedom. There is a subset of possible worlds (sometimes called the ‘feasible’ worlds) which God is able to actualize based on his middle knowledge. So according to this first option, the Molinist would be saying that while there are possible worlds in which everyone is saved, there are no actualizable worlds in which everyone is saved. (Presumably God wished there had been some such worlds, but that was beyond his control. God can only play the cards he was dealt, and he wasn’t dealt the best possible hand.)

On this first way of reconciling A and B, then, God couldn’t satisfy his desire for universal salvation simply because there were no actualizable worlds with universal salvation. The difficulty for the Molinist, however, is that there’s no positive biblical support whatsoever for such a claim. Moreover, there are no good theological or philosophical reasons to believe such a claim unless you’re already committed to Molinism. The best the Molinist can do here is to insist that “for all we know” there are no actualizable worlds in which everyone is saved; in other words, that nothing we know rules it out. But clearly that isn’t good enough to establish Molinism’s biblical credentials. What we need here is some reason to think that Molinism better accounts for the biblical data than its competitors.

The second way for the Molinist to reconcile A and B is to propose that God could have actualized a world in which everyone is saved, but he had some overriding good reason not to do so. Molinists can offer (and have offered) various suggestions as to what that reason was:

  • Perhaps the actualizable worlds with universal salvation are very sparsely populated worlds, so only a relatively small number of people would enjoy the blessings of salvation.
  • Indeed, perhaps God’s highest concern is not to actualize a world in which everyone is saved but rather to actualize a world with an optimal overall balance between saved and unsaved.
  • A closely related suggestion: perhaps God’s highest concern is to actualize a world in which net human happiness (which would take into account both the total happiness of the saved and the total unhappiness of the unsaved) is maximized.
  • Alternatively, perhaps the actualizable worlds with universal salvation also turn out to be worlds in which there are terrible moral evils which outweigh the good of universal salvation (or more precisely, outweigh the good of the salvation of all the particular fallen humans in that world).

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what specific reason the Molinist offers here, because the underlying rationale is the same: all else being equal, God would actualize a world in which everyone is saved, but all else is not equal.

Once the Molinist makes this move, however, the game is up, for the Augustinian can (and in fact does) make the very same move. The Augustinian will affirm that God could have decreed a world in which everyone is saved, but God had an overriding good reason not to do so. He can even agree that all else being equal, God would have decreed universal salvation, but all else was not equal: God had other (higher) considerations. In all likelihood the Augustinian will point to God’s desire to express his sovereign freedom in election and to glorify himself through the display of both his mercy (in the unmerited salvation of some fallen humans) and his justice (in the righteous condemnation of other fallen humans). Indeed, the Augustinian can cite Romans 9:14-24 as positive biblical support for his position, which is more than the Molinist can do for the speculations about God’s reasons he invites us to entertain. (I’ll revisit this important point in a later installment.)

Once again, we see that Molinism is at best on a par with Augustinianism with respect to the biblical data. Even granting that the Bible teaches God’s desire for all to be saved, Molinism fares no better than Augustinianism in accommodating that teaching (which is to say, it fares no better in reconciling that teaching with the additional biblical teaching that some will not be saved).

In the next part of this series, I’ll consider another candidate for proposition p, namely, that God is not “the author of sin”.

Next post: How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 4)

  1. Calvin also makes this devastating point: it makes no sense to take Paul’s statement as an affirmation that God equally desires the salvation of every human being given that God has evidently not arranged for every human being in history to receive the message of the gospel.
  2. More precisely, God couldn’t actualize a possible world in which everyone who exists in that world is also saved in that world.

2 thoughts on “How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 3)”

  1. James Gibson

    Hey James. I’ve had some very good philosophers cite John 3:16 to me as evidence that God desires every single person to be saved. After one conversation, it became clear to me what is going on here when they cite it. They will grant that “every single person” is not explicit, but it is an inference. The inference goes like this: the word “world” means one of two things, either every single person or the elect. The latter is implausible, they think, so it is the former. The possibility that the word carries the sense (or character) of all peoples is not even considered, and there’s a good reason for thinking that’s what John has in mind and why he uses that word.

    1. That’s interesting, James — not least because of the obvious false dichotomy! But I think this kind of inference may have been reinforced by bad Calvinist arguments (i.e., that “the world” must really mean “the elect”).

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