I apologize for two things: first, how long I have been writing about Calvinism (ten posts now!), and second, for how long I have not been writing at all — the last few months of school were busy, and I couldn’t justify writing 3000 word blog posts when I had papers to write. But now school’s done (!), and I plan to resume blogging weekly.
Next Issue: Providence
After working through why I thought Calvinism was wrong, I needed to begin to reconstruct, positively, an alternative theory. Hence, I re-thought Romans 9.
The next issue at hand was broader: how ought we understand God’s providence? I had come to deny the Calvinistic understanding of the doctrine, which in one way or another argues that God is the cause of all things. However, I was still struck at the magnificent claims of Scripture, the same ones that convinced me to become a Calvinist in the first place:
- Ephesians 1:11 — God “works all things according to the counsel of his will.”
- Romans 8:28 — “For those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
- Amos 3:6 — “Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?”
What does it mean for God to work all things according to the counsel of his will and for him to work all things for good, such that it can even be said of a disaster coming to a city that the Lord has done it?
Developing a Doctrine of Providence
As with any doctrine, as you develop it, your goal is to come up with a theory that makes the most sense of what is present in Scripture. One’s hypothesis is successful to the degree it faithfully accounts for all the data. What, then, are the data included in Scripture that need accounting for? The relevant data fall under two broad categories:
1. God’s providence. These texts affirm that the general course of the world, specific events, the falling of dice, the death of his son, the end of history, the destruction of cities, the decisions of political leaders, and practically everything is in some sense governed, planned, and orchestrated by God.
2. Man’s freedom. This is a point that is, I believe, assumed by all of Scripture. The authors assume it in giving people choices: Joshua 24:14-15 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” In fact, every imperative (command) is an implicit affirmation of the will’s existence.
Furthermore, it is assumed by affirming that people could have done other than what they did. 1 Corinthians 10:13 “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” This means that for every time a person has sinned, God had given a way of escape that they could have taken. The implication is that nobody sins who wasn’t able, by God’s grace, to do otherwise. (Emphasis on “by God’s grace.”)
Now, there are many philosophical objections that Calvinists raise to the notion of libertarian free will, which I will address in the future. For the meantime, I am assuming that when Scripture speaks of free will, it is speaking of something truly free. The difference between the Calvinist and the Arminian is how they judge the truthfulness of this claim: “God determined/caused me to freely do X.” The Calvinist says “Yes, that’s true,” whereas the Arminian says “No, that’s nonsensical — if it was determined/caused, it wasn’t free.”
The key is trying to fit these together faithfully. And there are five potential outcomes that I can see such an effort having:
- We provide an account that makes sense of God’s sovereignty but not of man’s freedom.
- We provide an account that makes sense of man’s freedom but not of God’s sovereignty.
- We provide an account that fails to make sense of either.
- We provide an account that makes sense of both.
- We affirm both man’s freedom and God’s sovereignty, but we don’t give an account that tries to make sense of how they work together — in other words, we admit our intellectual limitations and embrace mystery.
Options 1-3 must be avoided. Option 5 is perfectly acceptable, and it’s what the majority of good Christians do. However, Calvinists do not do this, even though they claim to do so. As you read Calvinist work, notice how the question inevitably shifts from “How can God be sovereign and man be free?” to “How can God be sovereign and man be responsible?” This shift in words is evidence they have already gone too far. They’re not saying: “Man is truly free, and God is truly sovereign, and I have no idea how it works!” They say “God has absolutely determined what every person would will and desire and do at every point in history. Boy, it sure is a mystery why we’re responsible for our actions!” However, a legitimate form of holding to mystery is perfectly fine, and some professing Calvinists truly do this, and they do it by not following or being ignorant of how Calvinist theologians have consistently described God’s sovereignty.
But I think the best option is clearly #4. If it is possible, we really do want an answer for how these two things fit together. And the best answer I’ve ever found is in the theological view known as Molinism.
During the Reformation, there was a Catholic Jesuit named Luis Molina who wanted to develop a doctrine of providence to serve as a corrective to what he saw in the Reformers. I believe the story goes that upon reading some of their works, he was convinced of how highly they wanted to affirm God’s sovereignty, but thought they did it in a way that didn’t account biblically for man’s freedom. So he developed his own view, which today has become known as Molinism. His view was never formally adopted by the Catholic church, and as far as I know there’s a decent amount of debate within Catholicism between followers of Molina and followers of Aquinas in how they deal with this issue. But I’ve honestly studied very little of the history thus far.
What It Is
- Molinism is primarily a view concerning God’s knowledge, and secondarily a view concerning God’s sovereignty. It’s a view about God’s knowledge that has implications for how God can be sovereign.
- Specifically, Molinism is the affirmation that God has what is called “middle knowledge,” and that by means of this knowledge, he providentially guides all that comes to pass.
- The three presuppositions to Molinism are God’s omniscience, God’s sovereignty, and man’s freedom. Another way to say this is that those three things are the data that Molinism try to explain, or the three things from which Molinism is inferred.
I’ll get back to all this in a second, but let me first explain what it is not:
What It Is Not
Molinism is not:
- About “possible worlds” or “feasible worlds.” Any Christian philosopher can hypothesize on “possible worlds” if he so please; it is not at all unique to Molinists. In fact, there are atheist philosophers who use the terminology as well.
- A theory of salvation. It is a theory firstly about God’s knowledge, and secondly about his providence.
- In fact, there are some Molinists who are for all intents and purposes Calvinists: they affirm that election is unconditional and grace irresistible. They simply affirm these things within a different framework of how God’s providence works, and I agree with them that they do a better job at maintaining legitimate human freedom.
Back to What It Is
I’m going to explain it simply, then indirectly, and then in detail.
A Quick, Simple Sketch
Molinism claims that God works in history through people’s free choices. He knows what people would freely choose to do in any given circumstance, and he uses what he knows they freely will choose to do in order to accomplish his purposes.
An Indirect Sketch: Best of All Possible Worlds?
Throughout history, Christians have wondered: is this world, the one we live in, with all of the good and evil, with the Fall and the death of Jesus, the very best possible world that could have been created?
- Leibniz and Calvinists like John Piper say yes. They say that Jesus’ redemption of the world from sin is what makes this world so great, and so the evils were necessary so Jesus could redeem us from them.
- Thomas Aquinas would say not necessarily; he had doubts there even was such a thing as “the best world,” and he had doubts that if there was one, that God would have necessarily wanted to actualize it. Maybe he wanted to make the 18th best world.
- Molinists would disagree among themselves as to the specifics, but I think a decent number would agree with this:
- First, they’d be uncommitted to the idea that there is a “best possible world.” That is, they wouldn’t think anything they believe necessarily depends upon their being a best possible world.
- Second, they would make a distinction between a logically possible world, and an actually possible world. The terms used in philosophy are possible and feasible. Possibility within these discussions refers to mere logical possibility, and the only requirement for something to be possible in this sense is that it isn’t a contradiction. If something is feasible, on the other hand, it actually could come to pass in reality. All things that are feasible are logically possible, but not all things that are logically possible are feasible. Given this distinction, the Molinist could say that we do not live in the greatest possible world but in the greatest feasible world. We live in the greatest world that God could actually make. The greatest possible world would have 1) creaturely freedom and 2) no sin. But perhaps those two, given how man would freely choose to use his freedom, were not possible. Perhaps man would use his freedom to sin. In that case, we are left with the greatest feasible world, given what free creatures would choose to do.
A Detailed Explanation
First, it is a view concerning God’s knowledge. It supposes that there is “middle knowledge,” which is logically “in between” (hence, “middle”) his natural knowledge and his free knowledge. What are those? First, his natural knowledge is God’s knowledge which he eternally possesses by virtue of his own being, who he is. According to his natural knowledge, God knows himself perfectly, and he knows all possible worlds which could logically be possible. Second, his free knowledge is the knowledge which God knows by virtue of his free will, his decision. God has this knowledge eternally, but we can distinguish it from his natural knowledge (which is also eternal), because God knows these things because he willed them. Under this heading falls just about everything else. Via his free knowledge, God knows that Obama would be elected president of the United States in 2008, that my favorite color would be purple (and black), and that Jesus would return in whatever year he returns. These things are known by God, because he willed them to be; apart from God’s choosing to create this world, he would not have known these things. One way to test whether something God knows pertains to his natural knowledge or his free knowledge is to ask “Could God have not known that?” If he could have not known it, it means that it belongs to his free knowledge. For example, he could have not known that I would exist, because he could have not created me! In fact, he could have chosen to not create anything! In that case, God would not know that he was going to create a universe, because that “knowledge” would be false, and thus not knowledge.
What Molina argued is that “between” the two “moments” of God’s natural knowledge and his free knowledge, there is what he calls “middle knowledge.” (Note: the language of “moments” or “before and after” when referring to God’s knowledge refers to the logical order, not the temporal order. God knew all these things simultaneously and eternally, but the things knows eternally still relate to one another in a logical order.) What does God know according to his middle knowledge? He knows all free decisions which creatures, if God were to create them, would choose to do.
Examples really help to make this all clearer. For whatever reason, the famous example is Peter’s denial of Christ.
- According to God’s natural knowledge, he knew that it was logically possible for Peter to deny Christ and for Peter to confess Christ.
- According to God’s middle knowledge, he knew that Peter would freely choose to deny. Thus, it should be clear that Peter is the one who determines the content of God’s middle knowledge. If Peter had chosen to confess Christ, then God would have known that. But, since Peter in fact chose to deny Christ, God eternally knew “Peter, given this particular situation (the historical setting he was in, as described by the Gospels), would deny Christ.”
- But that’s not all. According to God’s middle knowledge, God knew that Peter would deny Christ if he were in that situation. This is merely hypothetical knowledge at this point. But the moment God decides to create this world, he knows via his free knowledge not only that Peter would deny Christ, but Peter will in fact deny Christ.
Another example helps explain this last point. Imagine God creating a very boring world, which consisted simply of a small room, one woman named Jane, and a quarter. Upon creating the world, God commands Jane to flip the quarter. She chooses to obey, and flips heads.
- According to God’s natural knowledge, he knew that it was logically possible for him to create this world or not, for her to choose to obey or not obey his command, and that that she could flip heads or tails.
- According to God’s middle knowledge, he knew she would obey, and that she would flip the quarter in such a way that it would land heads up.
- According to God’s free knowledge, he knew that none of this would happen. Why? Because God didn’t create this world! He created the world we are currently in. But he still knows (via his middle knowledge), that if he were to create that boring world, Jane would obey and end up flipping heads.
Second, given this understanding of what God knows, God is able to sovereignly order all things according to his purposes. He uses the free choices which he knows we will do, and uses them to accomplish his purposes. According to my personal view, and I believe the view of the majority of Molinists, I would want to say that God’s will is not always accomplished. I believe that, were it feasible, God would prefer a world in which nobody sinned and only obeyed him. Sin is the opposite of God’s will; it’s disobedience to what God wants. But perhaps God was unable to create a world of free creatures without creatures abusing that will and falling into sin. So God did what he could based on his knowledge of what mankind would freely choose to do — he created us, permitted us to use our freedom to sin, and then in marvelous grace sent his Son to redeem us from that sin.
So God, by knowing what every person would freely choose to do in any given situation, is able to maximize his purposes in this world through the free decisions of his people. That is, God knows all the ways in which people will respond to given situations, and thus is able to use that to his advantage to accomplish his purposes. Again, concrete examples are helpful:
Imagine Nebuchadnezzar. In the book of Daniel, it records that Nebuchadnezzar became prideful, God made him live like a wild animal for seven years, and then Nebuchadnezzar worshiped God. I think it is safe to say that God’s purposes in making Nebuchadnezzar live like an animal was to humble him to the point of worshiping God (which is the kindest thing he could have done to him). And it seems plausible to me that God knew, if Nebuchadnezzar went temporarily insane, he would come to worship God. This isn’t to say that Nebuchadnezzar would have to worship God as a result, but he knew that he would in fact do so. Thus, God lowered Nebuchadnezzar to the point of living basically like an animal for seven years, in order to bring Nebuchadnezzar to the point of worship.
And the contention of Molinism is that God essentially works all of history out this way. He knows, via his middle knowledge, every feasible way that things could work out. And what is the variable between these given feasible worlds? It is God’s actions, God’s working in the lives of people. So by knowing every precise response of all free creatures to any of God’s actions, he is able to construct a sovereign plan for the world. And this plan is exhaustive: every single movement of every single creature is accounted for, and it extends to eternity. God has a plan from “Let there be light!” till the eternal songs of worship which we will sing to King Jesus. These plans are both shaped by and accomplished through our free choices, but they are fixed. They will certainly come to pass.
Much more can be said. And much more will be said — I plan on addressing objections to this position in my next post. However, I hope that in this post I was able to briefly sketch out a rough picture of how it is that, according to the Molinist, God is able to sovereignly use man’s decisions to bring about his purposes. And I hope that the philosophical discussion and my strange examples don’t distract from the main selling point of this view: it is intuitive and simple on the one hand, yet mind-boggling and majestic on the other.
First, it is intuitive and simple. I remember as a young teenager, thinking hard over these issues, and coming to the conclusion that God must somehow use our free choices to accomplish his purposes in spite of his rebellious creatures. Nothing else could have been more obvious. I never, as a child, could have dreamed of God himself being the direct cause of evil in the world, so I knew there had to be a certain distance, but I knew he had to be somehow in control of it as well. And I think Molinism holds this balance better than any other view.
Second, it is mind-boggling and majestic. The philosophical rigor required to think about Molinism should not count as points against it. If anything, it should be points for it. I would be quite surprised if the answer to the question of how God is sovereign and man is free turned out to be a simple one, just as I would be surprised if I ever came to the point during this life of having it totally figured out. We should expect that whatever knowledge we come to about the mechanics for how this works would be mighty complex, and I’m sure I’ve failed to be as nuanced as I ought to have been! And as for the majesty of this view, I will end with the words of William Lane Craig. He wrote these on the last page (154) of his book The Only Wise God, a book in which he lays out his arguments for Molinism. He writes,
“‘O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!’ (Rom 11:33). We can only stand in awe of this infinite Mind, this incredibly vast and complex Intelligence, who arranged and decreed a universe of creatures moving certainly toward his previsioned ends by their own free choices, who knows the end from the beginning, and who loves us and wills our eternal salvation. ‘To the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ!’ (Rom 16:27).”