I’m not surprised, but my last post (on Molinism) received far more push back than usual. This is good and normal when discussing Molinism. It’s controversial and confusing (I have yet to meet someone who seemed to have a firm grasp of what Molinism actually proposes on their first try — I’m still trying to figure out how to explain it in such a way that it’s understood by most people the first time). So, allow me to try to defend it against what are the most common objections and misconceptions. Like most things I enjoy writing about, these objections fall under three categories: Biblical, theological, and philosophical. However, after beginning to write responses to a few philosophical objections, I decided to scrap them. The philosophical objections are honestly quite bad, and far more complicated than the theory itself. If you would like an analysis of the main objection, however, here is a link: William Lane Craig on the Grounding Objection. Unless I receive many requests to write more on the philosophical issues, I think I’ll leave it there.
In my last post, I argued that Molinism was Biblical, because it’s an attempt to answer a biblical question. Scripture presents to its readers a vision of a transcendent and sovereign God, and simultaneously portrays man as genuinely free (in an indeterministic sense, as I will argue in the future). Molinism is an attempt to explain how these fit together. But simply offering a theory to explain the different texts is not enough; there is a second step I ought to take to show that Molinism is Biblical, and it is this: go back to various passages, and show how a Molinist account of God’s knowledge makes better sense of how God was sovereign in specific instances. Basically, if Molinism doesn’t help my Bible reading, I should suspect that it’s likely wrong. So here is my attempt to do just that in a few examples. Let’s start with one example which Molina himself used:
Texts Demonstrating God’s Middle Knowledge
1 Samuel 23:10-13
- Then David said, “O LORD, the God of Israel, your servant has surely heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah, to destroy the city on my account. Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O LORD, the God of Israel, please tell your servant.”
- And the LORD said, “He will come down.”
- Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?”
- And the LORD said, “They will surrender you.”
- Then David and his men, who were about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go. When Saul was told that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the expedition.
(The context of the passage: Saul is pursuing David, trying to kill him.)
David and God carry on a conversation about something entirely hypothetical (or as philosophers term it, “counterfactual” — a proposition pertaining to something that isn’t actual). David asks God two questions: 1. Will Saul come to Keilah (the city he’s staying at)? 2. Will the people of Keilah turn me over to Saul? To both of these, God answers “Yes.” But, curiously, neither of these things happen! Is God a liar? No, of course not. What’s happening is that they are discussing hypotheticals/counterfactuals. What David and God are saying is shorthand for the following:
- David: “If I were to stay in Keilah, would Saul come to Keilah?”
- God: “Yes, if you were to stay in Keilah, Saul would come to Keilah.”
- David: “If I were to stay in Keilah, and if Saul were to come, would the people of Keilah turn me over to him?”
- God: “If you were to stay in Keilah, and if Saul were to come, the people would turn you over.”
As I said, neither of these things came to pass. This implies that the following truths were also true:
- If David were to leave Keilah, Saul would not come to Keilah (“When Saul was told that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the expedition”).
- If David were to leave Keilah, the people of Keilah would not turn him over to Saul.
And this is exactly what Molinism would have expected to be the case. Not only does God know the future (that David would in fact flee and Saul would in fact give up his pursuit), but he knew via his middle knowledge what would have happened if David stayed in Keilah.
Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”
It has been argued by some Molinists (including Molina himself) that this text also shows that God has middle knowledge. And you can see why: Jesus says “if these cities had been in a situation in which they had seen these mighty works, they would have repented.” Ultimately, I think this text likely isn’t actually an affirmation of God’s knowledge of counterfactuals via his middle knowledge — I think it’s more likely that Jesus is simply using hyperbole. He’s saying, in essence, that those who saw him perform miracles and yet didn’t believe were so wicked that they were even worse than Sodom.
1 Corinthians 2:8
None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.
Again: this is a counterfactual, which God and Paul and us all know to be true. If God is omniscient, he must know this, and if he is eternally omniscient, he must know the above truth eternally.
Texts Showing God’s Sovereignty, Best Explained by Molinism
Let’s now look at a few examples, not simply of affirmations of God’s middle knowledge (which we did above), but examples of it in action. And to do this, a distinction is helpful to keep in mind. Molina distinguished between two different ways in which God can bring something about, and he refers to these as “strong actualization” and “weak actualization.” If God strongly actualizes something, he brings it about directly, without intermediaries; examples include the creation of the world, sending Joseph a dream, illuminating people’s minds and hearts to the preaching of the Gospel (at which point they are enabled to believe), calling things to people’s minds, meeting us spiritually in Scripture reading, splitting the red sea, and all other miracles. On the other hand, if God weakly actualizes something, he causes it indirectly, through the agency of another person, who freely chooses to do it himself; examples include everything else that happens: Joseph’s brothers’ sending him into Egypt, the crucifixion of Jesus, Adam’s fall into sin, the mailman delivering the mail twelve minutes late, the pastor’s voice cracking. All of these things are weakly actualized by God.
Again, that’s not to say that God is the cause of evil. All it’s saying is that God created these beings, and he knew what they would choose to do. So, by creating them, God weakly actualized what they were going to do, because he strongly actualized those who would do it.
Now, why is that distinction helpful? Because of texts like these:
1 Chronicles 10:3-6, 13-14
The battle pressed hard against Saul, and the archers found him, and he was wounded by the archers. Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and mistreat me.” But his armor-bearer would not, for he feared greatly. Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it. And when his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died. Thus Saul died; he and his three sons and all his house died together.
So Saul died for his breach of faith. He broke faith with the LORD in that he did not keep the command of the LORD, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance. He did not seek guidance from the LORD. Therefore the LORD put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse.
Simple question: how did Saul died? Answer 1: Saul committed suicide. Answer 2: God killed him. Paragraph 1 supports answer 1; paragraph 2 supports answer 2.
God did not strongly actualize Saul’s death; he did not strike him dead directly, or hurl a stone from heaven on top of him. He weakly actualized Saul’s death. God knew, via his middle knowledge, if Saul were to be in such a battle as this one, he would end up wounded, and out of fear kill himself. So what did God do? He made sure that Saul was in that battle.
You can imagine David and Uriah. For those who don’t know, David wanted a particular man by the name of Uriah dead, so he told the commander of his army to put him on the front lines, and then to have everyone else fall back, so that Uriah would be surrounded by soldiers and inevitably killed. Here we have a human sort of weakly actualizing something. God set Saul up to die, like David set Uriah up to die.
- 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?
Isaiah 10:5-7, 12-16
- Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
- But he does not so intend, and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few;
- When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes.
- For he says: “By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I remove the boundaries of peoples, and plunder their treasures; like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones. My hand has found like a nest the wealth of the peoples; and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken, so I have gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved a wing or opened the mouth or chirped.”
- Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? As if a rod should wield him who lifts it, or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood! Therefore the Lord GOD of hosts will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors, and under his glory a burning will be kindled, like the burning of fire.
Amos: One quick observation. God says that no city is destroyed without the Lord himself doing it. Again, I think this might, in context, be an example of hyperbole. I think the main point of the passage is that Israel’s cities have been destroyed, and he wants it to be clear that God did it. Well, did God do it by sending fire from heaven to kill them? No. Isaiah explains:
Isaiah: Assyria is one of the two nations that God used to take Israel captive as a punishment for their sins (see 2 Chronicles 36:15-17). How did he do so? Was the Assyrian king a prophet of sorts from God, who received a divine revelation that God wanted him to go and attack Israel? No. He was wicked. Notice the second bullet point from Isaiah 10: even though Assyria will be used by God to attack Israel, Assyria himself does not intend to be a tool of God’s righteous judgment. No, Assyria only wants to destroy, and he is in fact very proud about it. Yet God refers to Assyria as an axe in his hand, a tool he is using. And also notice, that even though God plans to use Assyria to punish Israel, God will then turn around and punish Assyria for their wickedness (the last bullet point)! How can we make sense of all this?
Simple: Molinism. God knew under what conditions the nation of Assyria would freely choose to go attack Israel, and he saw to it that those conditions obtained. And the skeptic may now ask: what kinds of things could God have done to set the conditions up just right? I’m glad you asked! He could have done a million different things for all I know. He could have caused a false rumor to spread in Assyria about how much riches there were in Israel; he could have orchestrated a number of events to occur in the previous months that served to swell the king’s pride and make him want to prove his power; he could have created signs in the sky which he knew the astrologers of Assyria would interpret as a blessing from their god; he could have given the king of Assyria a dream; he could have sent a prophet of sorts to the king saying that if he were to attack Israel, he would succeed (and this prophet could have even warned the king that he would one day be punished himself if he didn’t watch his pride). There’s a host of things God could have done.And I frankly have no idea which one he did in fact do. But what I do know is that Molinism at least offers a way of explaining how this sort of interplay between so many different human actors actually makes sense.
This interpretation avoids two things: 1. It avoids making God the cause of evil; God never put it into the heart of the king of Assyria to be evil and bloodthirsty. I’ve heard many Calvinists affirm, however, that God does in fact control people’s desires! 2. It avoids an explanation-less account, as some Arminians would put forward.
Now, perhaps another question comes to mind: “What would God have done if the king of Assyria chose not to go to war with Israel?” And this is a legitimate question, for Molinism teaches that man has free will; the king of Assyria did not have to attack Israel. But how can God use mankind to sovereignly accomplish his purposes if people are free to do otherwise? Consider the next verse:
Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Notice a few things: first we see an affirmation of counterfactuals. Mordecai claims, and I take this to be with divine authority due to the way this passage is portrayed in the book of Esther, that if Esther does not appear before the king, then two things will happen: first, she will die, and second, the Jews will receive deliverance from somewhere else. And this is the point that answers the above question: if Assyria didn’t want to go to war with Israel, God would find someone else who would be able to, just as if Esther hadn’t been willing to risk her life for her people, God would have saved Israel some other way.
And trust me, I can feel the tension: there’s a suspicion that this theory might be too good to be true. It can almost sound like God got lucky to happen to have the right people in the right place who were willing to do the right thing. But I don’t think that’s a fair representation of it. For one thing, God often uses people’s sin to accomplish his purposes, precisely because people are so unbelievably uncooperative. Joseph’s being sent to Egypt, Assyria’s conquering of Israel, the crucifixion of his Son, etc., are all evidences that God is powerful and creative enough to bring unparalleled good out of suffering. And I think this is what Romans 8:28 means: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” The fantastic promise of Scripture is that God, who did not cause evil, will use everything, even every evil, for the good of his creatures, all under one condition: be willing. The only reason anyone doesn’t have every one of the world’s evils turn to their eternal joy is because they don’t love God, because they refuse to align with God’s purposes.
Although many of the above comments were theological in nature, here I will address more explicitly theological objections, which claim that Molinism (which I believe is a doctrine derived from Scripture) is in conflict with a different doctrine derived from Scripture.
Objection to the Notion that God’s Knowledge is Determined by Man
The objection stated: “You say God’s knowledge of Peter’s free decision is not intrinsic to God, but based on Peter. You said Peter determines the content of God’s knowledge insofar as it is concerned with his free choices. How can this be? Doesn’t this risk making God dependent on creation in some way?”
My response: even if it initially sounds funny to say that Peter’s choices are why God knows something, it’s the only option open unless we want to say that God himself causes Peter to do everything, including sin. Consider Peter’s denial of Christ, which was a sin. God eternally knew that Peter would sin in that given situation. (So far so good.) But now, a question arises: did Peter sin because God knew he would sin, or did God know Peter would sin because Peter would choose to sin? Does God’s knowledge of a future decision cause that decision to come about? Certainly not! Otherwise, God would be the one guilty of causing Peter to sin. Instead, I want to say that Peter is the one responsible for his sin, and God knew he was going to do it.
In other words, there are two options: either God’s knowledge of sin is dependent on creatures’ choices, or else creature’s sins are caused by God’s knowledge, which would make God the author of sin. The latter option is impossible, so the first option must be the case.
Follow Up Objection, Concerning Knowledge Arising from Uncreated People
The objection stated: “You say God’s middle knowledge consists in God’s eternally knowing what any creature would freely choose to do in any situation. But how can God’s knowledge be based on creatures which, apart from creation, do not exist?”
My answer: Again, this initially seems strange, I admit. However, I am convinced that nearly every Christian believes exactly this. To admit that God has foreknowledge is to admit that, apart from creation, God knew what would take place. This includes knowledge of what created persons would freely choose to do. And do you understand how that works? No. Neither do I. However, Scripture indicates that God eternally has knowledge of all things, and it indicates he has knowledge of even counterfactuals, so even if we don’t understand how, I think we must confess this. The only other option, again, is to resort to the Calvinist approach, which says God can’t know anything that he doesn’t meticulously predetermine. In the face of such a response, I appeal to Scripture and, if I must, to mystery.
One Last Objection: Does God Accomplish His Will or Not?
My friend pointed this out to me: in my last post, I was very sloppy with my wording. At times I made it sound like, through God’s middle knowledge, he accomplishes his purposes. But then I also said elsewhere that God’s will is not always accomplished. This was my response to him:
I admit that I spoke sloppily. I never meant to set up a sharp distinction between purpose and will. The distinction I’m looking for is probably found in a hierarchy of things that God wills. Some things are more important to God than other things. As I mentioned in an earlier post, 1 Timothy is helpful here, when he says “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” This text is proof, I believe, that God’s will is not accomplished. So why doesn’t everyone come to repentance? Both the Calvinist and non-Calvinist would have to argue, one way or another, that there’s something more important to God than universal salvation, or that universal salvation is impossible.
What then of texts that speak of God’s will always being accomplished? I think God is speaking of particular things that he’s willing and working toward, such as the final salvation of all who believe, the establishing of the kingdom of God on the earth, and the final judgment. I think it simply doesn’t make sense to take those verses too literally, for sin is against God’s will by its very definition: God cannot will that which he does not will. Yet sin exists. God must not have willed it. The key point I would want to make is that he is sovereign over sin, he defeats sin, he incorporates sinners and sinful decisions into his overall plan for creation. So God is sovereign over sin, but strictly speaking, I think it’s wrong to say that he wills it.
Conclusion: Summary of Argument
So why should you believe in Molinism? Here is the shortest way I could think of summarizing it all:
- Mankind is free in an incompatibilist/libertarian sense (otherwise God is the author of evil).
- The Bible (and common sense, I might add) affirm that if people had been in different circumstances, they would have behaved in certain ways. In other words, it affirms counterfactuals.
- God is omniscient, and therefore he knows all counterfactuals.
- And based on this knowledge of counterfactuals, God is able to sovereignly guide history by strongly and weakly actualizing various states of affairs in order to accomplish his purposes.
- Lastly, this understanding helps make sense of various passages in Scripture.
In the end, Molinism ought to be believed for two reasons: first, Scripture implies it exists (by affirming God’s sovereignty, man’s freedom, the reality of counterfactuals, and God’s omniscience — Molinism almost has to be true if those things are true). Second, it helps Christians read Scripture and make sense of what’s happening in the text, as I tried to show above.
So, my last thoughts on the subject are simply this: test it; try it out. Try reading Scripture through this perspective, and see whether it makes more or less sense of the text.