Are Molinist Distinctives Found in the Bible?

RTS philosopher James Anderson has an interesting post which asks the question, “How Biblical is Molinism?” He concludes that there is strong biblical support for two theses held by Molinism: “God’s comprehensive providential control over his creation” and “God’s counterfactual knowledge of human choices.” But he points out that the latter kind of knowledge doesn’t have to be knowledge of libertarian human choices, and a good thing too, since it doesn’t seem that the Scriptures themselves indicate that this is the case.

Anderson closes by asking the question:

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).

My working hypothesis with respect to this question is the following: the propositions in Molinism which have explicit or implicit biblical support are not distinctive to Molinism (they are common to other views, such as Augustinianism), whereas the propositions in Molinism which are distinctive to Molinism do not have explicit or implicit biblical support.

On my view, the following five theses are essential to Molinism:

  1. Infallible divine omniscience
  2. Meticulous divine providence
  3. Human libertarian free will
  4. Three logical moments in divine omniscience (natural knowledge, middle knowledge, free knowledge)
  5. God’s decree placed in between middle knowledge and free knowledge

As Anderson points out, theses 1-2 are common to other views of divine providence, such as Augustinianism. So although they are essential to Molinism, they are not distinctive to it. I predict that Anderson will argue that prospects are dim for deriving theses 3-5 from the Bible (unlike theses 1-2).

It is important to point these out as the sine qua non of Molinism, because unfortunately, in my experience, some non-Molinists misunderstand what is necessary for Molinism. In particular, they think that if you’re a Molinist, then it follows that you’re a Pelagian or even a semi-Pelagian, or that you deny divine sovereignty, or that you’re a crypto-Roman-Catholic. I think this is all a mistake. These charges either confuse systems with people, or fall prey to some sort of genetic fallacy (Molina was a Roman Catholic, so Molinism is inherently Roman Catholic.)

In addition, at least in my experience, I think that some Molinists have misunderstood what is sufficient for Molinism. I have heard loose talk in defense of Molinism according to which you’re a Molinist if you believe that:

  • There are logical moments of divine omniscience
  • There are unactualized possibilities
  • God knows how humans would behave in various circumstances
  • God uses his knowledge in order to be an intelligent and wise Creator
  • There is such a thing as divine permission

But it is arguable that non-Molinists of all stripes also believe these theses, which are not the same as theses 3-5 above.

To zero in on the point of this blog post, let’s reword things a bit and compress Molinist distinctives into the following three claims:

  • There are true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, where the freedom is libertarian freedom. (So the CCFs are only contingently true, not necessarily true.)
  • God knows these CCFs logically prior to his decree. (So the CCFs are not based upon God’s will; they are prevolitional truths.)
  • God’s decree makes use of this middle-knowledge. God draws upon this middle-knowledge in order to figure out which possible world to actualize. (So the CCFs are used by God to steer world history to conform to his purposes.)

If even one of these claims is left out, then either middle-knowledge isn’t ‘middle’ or it isn’t relevant to providence. Notice that without libertarian free will, middle-knowledge isn’t ‘middle’. That’s because counterfactuals of creaturely compatibilist freedom constitute either natural knowledge (they are necessary, like the truths of logic) or free knowledge (they are based on God’s will). Therefore, those Calvinists who call themselves ‘compatibilistic Molinists’ are using misleading terminology at best. Notice again that if the counterfactuals aren’t known logically prior to God’s decree, then God can’t draw upon them as background knowledge to be used in formulating his decree. So they wouldn’t be relevant to providence.

With respect to the first claim on the list, that the kind of freedom we’re talking about is libertarian freedom, it does seem implausible to think the Bible speaks to the issue of human freedom with such specificity that it lays down, say, source or leeway conditions on human freedom. If you’re inclined to agree, theologian Alister McGrath has a theory as to where the idea really came from, arguing that:

the introduction of the non-biblical, secular Stoic concept of autexousia or liberum arbitrium in the articulation of the human response to the divine initiative in justification [was one of] two major distortions [which] were introduced into the corpus of traditional belief within the eastern church at a very early stage, and were subsequently transferred to the emerging western theological tradition (1: 18). Alister McGrath, Justitia Dei: a history of the Christian doctrine of justification (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 2 vols.

Among his conclusions are the following:

Indeed, by the end of the fourth century, the Greek fathers had formulated a teaching on human free will based upon philosophical rather than biblical foundations. Standing in the great Platonic tradition, heavily influenced by Philo, and reacting against the fatalism of their day, they taught that man was utterly free in his choice of good or evil (ibid., 1: 19).

It is quite possible that the curious and disturbing tendency of the early fathers to minimise original sin and emphasise the freedom of fallen man is a consequence of their anti-Gnostic polemic (ibid., 1: 20).

The weakness of Pauline influence in the early church may be illustrated from the fact that two non-Pauline, non-biblical terms (autexousia and liberum arbitrium) came to be introduced into the early Christian discussion of man’s justification before God… the ‘self-determination’ of the human free will is not so much a Christian idea, as a philosophical idea of its early Hellenistic milieu (ibid., 1: 22).

As for the second claim on the list, that the CCFs are known by God logically prior to his decree, William Lane Craig seems to agree that it is going to be difficult to derive it from the Bible:

Biblically speaking, it is not difficult to show that God possesses hypothetical knowledge. For example, Jesus affirms before Pilate the counterfactual conditional “If my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews” (John 18:36) RSV). The Scriptures abound with examples of such counterfactual conditionals concerning creaturely choices and actions. Unfortunately, this fact does not settle the matter of whether God has middle knowledge. For the scriptural passages show only that God possesses knowledge of counterfactual propositions, and, as I have said, until modern times all theologians agreed that God possesses such hypothetical knowledge. The question remains, when in the logical order of things does this knowledge come? Is it before or after the divine decree? Since Scripture does not reflect on this question, no amount of proof texting concerning God’s hypothetical knowledge can prove that such knowledge is possessed logically prior to God’s creative decree. This is a matter for theologico-philosophical reflection, not biblical exegesis. Thus, while it is clearly unbiblical to deny that God has hypothetical knowledge, those who deny middle knowledge while affirming God’s hypothetical knowledge cannot be accused of being unbiblical (WL Craig, pp. 83-84 of Stanley Gundry (ed.), Four Views on Divine Providence (Zondervan, 2011), emphasis mine).

Finally, what are we to make of the third and last claim on the list, that God in his decree makes use of his middle-knowledge, in order to figure out – intelligently and providently – which possible world to actualize? Consider God’s words to David about the men of Keilah, in a classic proof-text for Molinism:

9 David knew that Saul was plotting harm against him. And he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” 10 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. 11 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.” 12 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.” (1 Samuel 23:9-12)

Surely we can concede that God does have the kind of knowledge indicated in this and similar texts. And let’s concede – simply for the sake of argument – that the texts speak of the libertarian free will had by Saul and the men of Keilah. Despite all that, does the inspired author indicate that God used this knowledge logically prior to his decree to create? That he planned creation by way of relying on this counterfactual knowledge? In fact, do any of the key Molinist prooftexts teach God’s providential use of middle-knowledge? Do they teach that God ‘steers’ the course of history by relying on this knowledge? (In the midst of our skepticism, though, let’s not suppress this interesting point: apparently God revealed a bit of his counterfactual knowledge to David in order to get David to do something. God ‘steers’ the universe by way of middle-knowledge at least to that extent! But that is a poor substitute for what Molinists are claiming more globally about God’s use of his middle-knowledge.)

In short, there is no text that says or implies: “From eternity God had knowledge of how free creatures would use their freedom and he used this knowledge in coming up with his decree, in figuring out what kind of universe to create.”

So, is this some sly disproof of Molinism? Not at all. What would follow from the fact that those claims which are distinctive to Molinism don’t find biblical support? That would depend on what we think is the proper relationship between the Bible and theological/philosophical ‘systems’. Here’s one view: I can only allow into my theology that which is explicitly taught in Scripture. Here’s another view: I can allow into my theology views that are implied by Scriptural teaching, as long as I have a good argument that it is an implication. And here’s yet another view: as long as a view is internally consistent (logically consistent with itself), externally consistent (logically consistent with everything else that is taught in Scripture), and has great explanatory power (for instance, its truth would help me to explain many difficult passages of Scripture that are otherwise hard to explain), then I am permitted to believe it because I have good reason for thinking it is true. As in science so in theology: great explanatory power counts toward truth, and therefore grounds justified belief. If I were a betting man, I would bet that Molinists would bet on this third view of the relationship between the Bible and theological/philosophical systems.

If so, they’d be in good company. Inter alia, the doctrine of the Trinity seems extremely plausible precisely because positing the triune nature of God helps to explain how the following passages of Scripture can all be true together:

  1. The “each Person is God” passages (the F is G, the S is G, the HS is G)
  2. The “persons are distinct” passages (the F is not the S, the F is not the HS, and the S is not the HS), and
  3. The monotheism passages (there is only one God).

Likewise, doctrine that the Holy Spirit is a Person is extremely plausible because it helps to explain how the following passages of Scripture can all be true together:

  1. We can grieve the Spirit, and only persons can be grieved.
  2. Jesus’s discourses in John refer to the Holy Spirit with personal pronouns.
  3. The Spirit can be sinned against, and only persons can be sinned against.

Or, perhaps, the doctrine of divine timelessness is extremely plausible because it helps to explain a whole range of otherwise disparate data (Why is God ethically immutable? How could he have created the entire spacetime continuum? Did he traverse an actual infinite to get to the present? As a perfect being, can he suffer continual lack and loss, such as lack of his future, and loss of his present?)

Maybe the justification for Molinism is like this, despite its lacking explicit or even implicit biblical support. If so, it is in good company… as long as the explanations powering its ‘explanatory power’ are good explanations, of course!

So far we’ve seen reason for my working hypothesis with respect to Anderson’s question, the hypothesis being: the propositions in Molinism which have explicit or implicit biblical support are not distinctive to Molinism (they are common to other views, such as Augustinianism), whereas the propositions in Molinism which are distinctive to Molinism do not have explicit or implicit biblical support.

But all that I have said above is consistent with something we might add to my ‘working hypothesis’: at least some of the propositions in Molinism which are distinctive to Molinism not only do not have biblical support; in addition, they simply don’t have the explanatory power their adherents claim. Since this is probably the most controversial aspect of my post, I’ve chosen to sneak it in at the end so that only persevering readers are rewarded. But it’s not much of a ‘reward,’ since I’m only going to talk about it in a future blog post, not this one.


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