Sunday, November 12, 2017

What Is Molinism?

It was May of 1973 and I was two months shy of twelve years old. Our small United Methodist Church in Indiana had invited an evangelist, Y. D. Westerfield, from Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky, to preach at special evening meetings for the week. I was not at all excited about it because my mom wanted me to attend. I hated going to church. I was finishing sixth grade, loved baseball, was very much drawn to the model of a family member who told me of his wild escapades when he was a boy, and so I would sneak a baseball into Sunday morning services with me, I would try and sit at the end of a pew and look at the window, and I would dream of more exciting things I could be doing. I had no interest in what was being said at regular Sunday services, and certainly no interest in going to more services where there was more preaching!
But there were movements, things going on behind the scenes of which I was unaware. My mom was fervently praying for her youngest child. She knew I was heading down a path that was away from God. There was also a desire in my heart for my life to be significant. And, as much as I tried to snuff it out, there was sensitivity to what was right and wrong. Little did I know that, as C.S. Lewis famously described his own conversion, the great fisherman in the sky had his hook in my mouth and was reeling me into the boat.

 I do not remember anything that the Rev. Westerfield preached that week, but I do remember that at one of the services this eleven year old boy came under great conviction of his sin, realized he was on his way to hell, and wanted nothing more than to “gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8). That time is such a sweet memory for me, for it was as if light filled the vast and dark cavern of my soul. And from then on I wanted nothing more than to serve my Savior. Oh how I loved him and his Church from that day!

Yet, as I think back on that evening, the events that led up to it, the events that transpired afterward, and even of the other people who were present, so many questions arise. If God answered the prayers of my mom and worked mightily in my heart so that I would trust in Christ, in what way did my faith and repentance comprise free decisions on my part? If the Spirit of God placed within me a desire to please God, in what ways could my subsequent desires, decisions, and actions to obey God be free? If all these decisions were free on my part, in what way can we say that the sovereign God was governing me and my actions through his providence—that salvation was ultimately of him? And finally, what about other people who were present, those who heard the same messages and did not respond? Maybe some of them never responded. Are their actions free? Was God also governing them?

Molinism posits middle knowledge as a way of bringing together God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility to answer such questions—and doing this in such a way that claims to preserve libertarian human freedom. The Molinist would say that little Tommy Barnes, in 1973, was governed by God in a strong way that he was certain to trust in Jesus Christ, but at the same time, his faith and repentance were not determined, and in such a way, at the same time, he could also have rejected Christ.

 Since many readers are not familiar with Molinism’s history, let’s take a look at how it arose.

The Origin Of Molinism
Luis de Molina was a sixteenth century (born in 1535) Spanish Jesuit Counter-Reformer.[1] The Roman Catholic theologian was both committed to God’s “prevenient grace, which stirs and solicits the will of man…[that] may be either accepted or resisted by the human will”[2] and also was troubled by the sense that God’s infallible foreknowledge, implicit in those who followed the approach of Thomas of Aquinas and explicit in the Protestant Reformers, denied libertarian freedom.[3] Molina described this freedom in this way: “…given the same disposition and cognition on the part of the intellect, the will is by its innate freedom able to will or to dissent or to neither will nor dissent.”[4]

The problem Molina faced can be illustrated in this manner. If God infallibly knows that Tommy Barnes will go to a special service in May of 1973 and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior, then Tommy Barnes will certainly do that. As a result, there is some sense in which Tommy is unable to avoid this, which would seem to deny libertarian free will. Yet, if Tommy truly were able to make another choice that night at the special service, then God’s foreknowledge is not infallible.
Molina and modern Molinists have rejected Open-Theism, Simple Foreknowledge Arminianism, and Calvinism in favor of a fourth approach, one that includes “middle knowledge.” This doctrine must be understood in light of the categories theologians used in Molina’s day. Both followers of Aquinas and Reformed Theologians distinguished between natural (or necessary) and free knowledge.[5] In the 17th c. Reformed theologian, Francis Turretin, for example, spoke of both natural and free knowledge—arguing these encompassed all the knowledge God had.[6]  Some Reformed theologians still speak of the logical moments of God’s natural and free knowledge.[7] Molina argued for a third kind of knowledge God possessed: Molina and his followers have set forth three logical moments in the life of God, which can be diagrammed as follows: [8]

[Logical] Moment 1: God’s natural knowledge of everything that could be.

[Logical] Moment 2: God’s middle knowledge of everything that would be.

Divine Decree[9]

[Logical] Moment 3: God’s free knowledge of everything that will happen in the actual world.”
Let’s look more closely at these three kinds of knowledge according to the Molinist model.

A Closer Look At Molinism
God’s natural or necessary knowledge is his knowledge of all that could happen, in other words, the possible worlds that could be. This knowledge:
…refers to that part of God’s knowledge which he knows by his very nature…. Included here is God’s knowledge of all metaphysically necessary truths and all possible truths. Thus natural knowledge, properly conceived, is that part of God’s knowledge which could not have been different from what it is. It follows from this that the content of God’s natural knowledge is independent of his will…. [Natural knowledge is] logically prior to any act of will on God’s part….[10]

Thus, what is being asserted in God’s natural knowledge is that, “He knows all possibilities, everything that could happen…. These fully formed possible scenarios are generally called possible worlds. There is an infinite upon infinite number of possible permutations of how things could have been.”[11] What is more, “a central feature of God’s natural knowledge is that the content of this knowledge is essential to God; indeed this is why such knowledge is natural. It does not depend on God’s will, but necessarily belongs to God’s omniscience.”[12] In other words, God, by his very nature, has this knowledge.[13]

The second kind of knowledge that theologians of the Middle Ages, as well as Molina, posited is God’s free knowledge—his knowledge of the world that he did make and all that will happen, all that will be actualized in that world. “The free knowledge of God comprehends everything that has/is/will happen in this existent and contingent world.”[14] It is called “free” since it is based upon God’s free decision to create the world that is and not another. It is also called free because it “has its source solely in his mind and will.”[15] In other words, free knowledge:

…refers to that part of God’s knowledge which he knows by his creative act of will. Included here are truths which refer to what actually exists (or will exist). Since free knowledge comes from God’s creative act of will, it follows that the content of that knowledge is contingent. It includes only metaphysically contingent truths, or truths that could have been prevented by God, if he had chosen to create different situations, different creatures, or not to create at all. Thus, free knowledge can be characterized as dependent upon or logically posterior to God’s will.[16]

Molina and Molinists assert that God freely chose to “actualize” the world that is, and, “Of the infinite possibilities available to God, He was under no compulsion to choose this one. Yet He chose a world that contains free moral agents—angels and humans—who make genuinely free decisions”[17]—namely, the world that is. “According to the theory, middle knowledge is similar to natural knowledge in that it is prevolitional, or prior to God’s choice to create and therefore its truth is independent of God’s determining will. Likewise, it is similar to free knowledge in that the truths that are known are contingent (not necessary) because, in the mind of the Molinist, they are dependent on creaturely will.”[18]

William Lane Craig explains how the three kinds of knowledge relate:

For example, [God] knows whether Peter, if he were placed in certain circumstances, would deny Christ three times. By his natural knowledge God knew in the first moment all the possible things that Peter could do if placed in such circumstances. But now in this second moment he knows what Peter would in fact freely choose to do under such circumstances. This is not because Peter would be causally determined by the circumstances to act in this way. But God knows which way Peter would freely choose. God’s knowledge of Peter in this respect is not simple foreknowledge. For maybe God will decide not to place Peter under such circumstances or even not to create him at all. Middle knowledge, like natural knowledge, thus is logically prior to the decision of the divine will to create a world.[19]

Given only natural knowledge and free knowledge, according to the Molinist, there is not sufficient explanation of God’s knowledge to posit why he made the world he did and why or how his manner of creation preserves libertarian human freedom and also how it successfully addresses the issue of pain and evil (why did God create a world in which there is sin?). So, Middle knowledge is affirmed, which is God’s comprehension of all that would happen if certain things were different or if certain things were true.[20] In other words, “God’s middle knowledge comprehends everything that would happen if God had been willing to decree its occurrence.”[21]

To put it another way, this involves “God’s knowledge of possibilities involving human choice (the ‘counterfactuals of freedom’ as they have been called), ”[22] i.e. all counterfactuals of (libertarian) free choices.”[23] This knowledge allows God to know that if he made a different world than what he did, what would happen in that world.[24] So, for example, if God made a world in which the Jews and Jewish leaders of the first century had ignored Jesus, God knows what events and decisions would come out of such a world. He also knows if he made a world in which those same Jewish leaders and Jews had accepted Jesus as Messiah, what events and decisions would come about as a result. God also knows what would have happened with Tommy Barnes had the United Methodist Church in Belleville, Indiana not invited a special speaker to hold special services in May of 1973.

“The content of God’s middle knowledge can be seen as a virtually infinite number of propositions of the form, ‘If person P were in situation S, then P would freely perform action A.’”[25]
Kenneth Keathley adds: “An important note to make…is that God does not perceive what free creatures would do, but rather He conceives their choices within Himself. That is, God does not look forward in time to ascertain what decisions [people] would make; instead He innately knows all free choices due to his omniscience.”[26] Keathley adds that “the source of that knowledge is not the creature…[but] God Himself.”[27]

So, this is an introduction into the view known as Molinism. Coming into contact with this view has been the catalyst for my going back and revisiting divine sovereignty and human freedom. In our next blog I will briefly touch upon some strong points of Molinism and also introduce some problems.

Joyfully Exploring Divine Sovereignty And Human Freedom With You,

Tom Barnes

[1] Travis James Campbell, “Middle Knowledge: A Reformed Critique” (accessed from on April 20, 2015), 1; “Luis de Molina,” in Catholic Enclyclopedia (accessed at on April 20, 2015).

[2] William Lane Craig, “Middle Knowledge: A Calvinist-Arminian Rapprochement?” in Clark H. Pinnock, Ed., The Grace God God And The Will Of Man (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1989), 141.

[3] For the reality Molina was motivated by the implications of Thomistic Theology and Reformed Theology, see Robert R. Cook, “God, Middle Knowledge, And Alternative Worlds,” Evangelical Quarterly, 62 (1990): 294. See also James R. White, The Potter’s Freedom (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 2000), 34.

[4] Liberi Arbitrii cum Gratiae Donis, Divina Praescientia, Providentia, Praedestinatione et Reprobatione Concordia, 4.2, cited in Campbell, “Middle Knowledge,” 1-2. This is a classic and typical way of describing libertarian or indeterministic freedom.
Keathley, Salvation, chapter 3, argues for what he wisely calls soft indeterminism, an indeterminism that is not absolute. Rather, choices, he recognizes, are limited by character—in the case of humans—and character in turn is shaped by previous choices. In this book I will argue for soft determinism.

[5] Campbell, “Middle Knowledge,” 4. See also John D. Laing, “The Compatibility Of Calvinism And Middle Knowledge,” JETS, 47, 3 (September 2004): 456; Craig, “Rapprochement?” 145; and William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God: The Compatibility Of Divine Foreknowledge And Human Freedom (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf And Stock Publishers, 199, repr.), 119ff.

[6]Francis Turretin, Institutes Of Elenctic Theology (3 vols.; ed. James T. Dennison Jr.; Trans. George Musgrave Giger; Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1992), 1:212-13, cited in Paul Helm, Terrance L. Tiessen,“Does Calvinism Have Room For Middle Knowledge? A Conversation,” WTJ, 71, 2 (Fall 2009): 437.

[7] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation And Sovereignty (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, Kindle Edition), 150. See also Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology: New Combined Edition, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 102.

[8] The following diagram is taken from Campbell, “Middle Knowledge,” 2. Campbell adds: “One will find a similar diagram in William Lane Craig, What Does God Know? Reconciling Divine Foreknowledge And Human Freedom (Norcross, Ga.: Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, 2002), a popular booklet expounding Molinism.
That these three kinds of knowledge have a logical and not temporal relationship, see Craig, “Rapprochement?” 145; and William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God: The Compatibility Of Divine Foreknowledge And Human Freedom (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf And Stock Publishers, 1999, repr.), 129-130.

[9] By divine decree we mean God’s eternal purpose by which he has chosen all that will come to pass (the actual world with all its creatures, events and facts that exists).

[10] John D. Laing, “The Compatibility Of Calvinism And Middle Knowledge,” JETS, 47, 3 (September 2004): 456.
Craig, The Only Wise God, 129, explains that included in this natural knowledge are the “laws of logic.”

[11] Keathley, Salvation, ch. 1.

[12] Craig, “Rapprochement?” 146.

[13] Craig, The Only Wise God, 129.

[14] Campbell, Middle Knowledge,” 3.

[15] Paul Helm, “Molinism 101,” 1 (accessed from Ligonier ministries on April 22, 2013).

[16] Laing, “The Compatibility:” 456-57. See also Craig, “Rapprochement?” 146; Turretin, Elenctic, 1:212-13.

[17] Keathley, Salvation, ch. 1. As will be shown below, I believe that the Molinist position cannot consistently argue for such a free creative act of God and such free works of providence given their commitment to indeterministic human freedom.

[18] Laing, “The Compatibility,” 457. Andrew A. Postiff, “The Theological Viability of Middle Knowledge” ( A Paper Presented To  W. Combs For Seminar In Soteriology, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2006), 4, adds: “Natural knowledge does include possibilities, but middle knowledge further limits these possibilities to those which are in harmony with the free wills of creatures. And by the point that God’s free knowledge has been ‘settled,’ there are no more open possibilities, but God knows all circumstances and all the decisions that free creatures will make in them.”

[19] Craig, The Only Wise God, 130.

[20] This knowledge for God is posited based upon all the subjunctive conditionals in Scripture. Also, it is asserted that since God is omniscience, this omniscience would include all possible actions or outcomes that could happen if certain things were true.

[21] Campbell, Middle Knowledge,” 4.

[22] Helm, “Molinism,” 2; Campbell, “Middle Knowledge,” 4-5.

[23] Campbell, Middle Knowledge,” 5.
Keathley, Salvation, 35: “A counterfactual is a conditional statement that has two distinctive features: (1) It involves a condition that is contrary to fact….; and (2) it expresses a truth that belongs to this actual world.”
Craig, “The Middle Knowledge View:” 120: “Counterfactuals are conditional statements in the subjunctive mood….”

[24] Craig, “Rapprochement:” 147, further explains: “…[God] knew what Peter would do within any possible order of circumstances, then, given the decision of his will to bring about a certain set of circumstances, God knew what Peter [will] in fact do.”

[25] Laing, “The Compatibility:” 457. Laing adds: “It should be noted that the actual existence of P or the occurrence of S or A is not necessary for God to have this knowledge” according to the Molinist position.

[26] Keathley, Salvation, 39.

[27] Keathley, Salvation, 39. Craig, “Rapprochement:”147, cites Molina himself: “[God] saw in his own essence what each such will would do with its innate freedom were it to be placed in this or that or, indeed, in infinitely many orders of things—even though it would really be able, if it so willed, to do the opposite….”
Postiff, “The Theological Viability:” 4-5, adds that the Molinist asserts, “…God knows each creature so well that he knows what free choice the creature would make in any possible circumstance.” He then explains: “In the literature this is called the doctrine of supercomprehension.”
These assertions, in part, are set forth to answer the grounding objection set forth by some opponents of Molinism, namely that there is not sufficient ground for God to have middle knowledge in regard to all future truly free human choices and actions.

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