Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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Thorny problems with Molinism #1: doing theology backwards

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6 minutes to read Molinism as a system begins with human intuitions about responsibility, and then reads these back into God’s word; rather than beginning with God’s word, and conforming our intuitions to it. In this regard it is no different than any other man-made religion.

Molinism is a view of God’s providence named after its popularizer, the 16th century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina. It tries to steer a middle path between Calvinism and classic Arminianism, by reconciling God’s providence and human freedom via a doctrine called “middle knowledge”.

Middle knowledge is so called because it sits between God’s “natural knowledge” and his “free knowledge”, like so:

  1. Natural knowledge: God’s knowledge of things that must be true regardless of circumstance (for example, mathematical facts and the laws of logic).
  2. Middle knowledge: God’s knowledge of what would be true if certain circumstances came about (for example, whether Sodom would have repented if Jesus had performed the signs there that he did in Capernaum).
  3. Free knowledge: God’s knowledge of what is true given the actual circumstances of creation (for example, that Peter denies Jesus three times).

The key things about middle knowledge for Molinism are that:

  • It is counterfactual—meaning it is knowledge of possible states of affairs, rather than actual ones.
  • It includes knowledge of the free choices people would make—meaning that God knows what any given person would do in any given circumstances. These choices are called the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom or CCFs.
  • God knows CCFs because they are true, rather than CCFs being true because God knows them. This is the crucial point: Molinism is concerned to deny that God determines our actions; rather, he knows what we would do in any given circumstance simply because that is actually what we would do. This allows God to actualize a world made up of the various circumstances that will produce the history he wants, while preserving human freedom.

I think there are a number of exceedingly thorny problems with Molinism, and I won’t mince words about them as I move forward. I have only marginally more respect for Molinism as a system than I have for, say, karmic worldviews, inasmuch as I think you have to be willfully committed to non-biblical principles not to detect the gaping problems with what you believe.

The first and least thorny of Molinism’s problems is this:

It is a philosophically-derived theology

Now, there is nothing wrong with Christians doing philosophy; indeed, they are at a great advantage over anyone else, because they start with what God has revealed.

But therein lies the rub.

Christianity is fundamentally a revealed religion. So doing Christian philosophy properly means starting from a position informed by Scripture. You can’t do Christian philosophy properly without first reading, understanding, and systematizing the doctrines taught in the Bible.

This isn’t to say Christian philosophers must always start from some passage of Scripture. But to be Christian philosophers they must nonetheless subject their reasoning to the authority of God’s word. A proper understanding of systematic and biblical theology is not only more important than Christian philosophy as a general field of inquiry, but is the ground on which you build such philosophy.

This should be what distinguishes Christian philosophers from secular ones, who do not admit revelation as a source of knowledge. But what actually seems to happen is that many of them start imitating the world, making their own observations, intuitions, and inferences—rather than revelation—the yardstick for the positions they develop. They arrive at their views independently of Scripture; the Bible becomes a resource for rationalizing them after the fact when they want other Christians to accept them.

Molinism is a clear example of starting with certain intuitions and then building an intellectual framework to support them—without first asking what God himself has revealed (or, worse, simply rejecting what God has revealed because it clashes with some intuition). There is no exegetical support for Molinism. Key Molinists like William Lane Craig openly acknowledge this. [See Foreknowledge: Four Views, 123–125. Here Craig denies that Scripture explicitly teaches middle knowledge, but affirms that what it teaches is consistent with Molinism.] Unlike Calvinism, which is derived from reading the Bible (even if you disagree with the interpretation), Molinism is derived from reasoning based on the intuitions of philosophers.

Molinism, in other words, is a theology built entirely backwards

Molinists start with an intuition—specifically an intuition about moral responsibility—reason out a framework, and then impose it as an interpretive grid on God’s word; rather than starting with God’s word, exegeting the framework, and then reasoning out the kinks in a systematic way.

Which makes the frequent smugness of Molinists as baffling as it is irritating. In my experience, they often seem to have an attitude that not only is Molinism a knock-down solution to every problem that historically has been raised against Arminianism, but it is also the moderate, rational alternative to the “extremes” of Calvinism. But whatever you think about Calvinism, it is at least a position derived from exegesis of Scripture; whereas Molinism equally is not. So I feel a bit embarrassed for Molinists, the way they parade about as if adherence to their philosophy is a litmus-test for how sophisticated a Christian you are. Especially since, as I will show, Molinism is a house of cards that cannot support its own weight. It is an ad hoc solution to a non-existent problem—and, because it starts with a governing intuition at odds with what God has revealed, it is irredeemable: every time you plug a leak in one spot, another springs up somewhere else. The whole structure is inconsistent with reality.

The boat is sinking, but the occupants are oblivious.

Unfortunately, it’s not just embarrassing. It’s also contemptible. A fundamentally upside-down approach to doing theology isn’t something to be smug about. Sophisticated Christianity is first exegetical, then philosophical. Why would we try to do theology by starting with our intuitions about responsibility, rather than with what God has revealed about it?

After all, isn’t that the difference between Christianity and every other religion? We start with what God has revealed; they start with their intuitions—what seems right to them? So this is the first thorny problem for Molinism, and I’d like you not to underestimate it:

Inasmuch as Molinism starts with human intuition rather than God’s revelation, it is fundamentally no different from any other non-Christian belief system.

Any belief that starts with a moral intuition, rather than Scripture—and especially any belief that purports to put a limit on what Scripture can actually say based on said intuition—should be regarded with considerable suspicion. This is because every thought of man’s heart is only and always toward evil (Genesis 6:5; 8:21). Hence man does not naturally produce true religions, nor understand right and wrong, nor act morally, in the absence of guidance from God. (This is why Scripture says in Romans 14:23 that whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.) If it is indeed true that all men have exchanged the worship of God for worship of the creation (Romans 1:18ff), and if God is the highest good (as I’m sure you’ll agree), then our moral intuitions are in fact completely grounded in the wrong thing, and are quite incapable of accurately leading us to truth.

Indeed, there are many intuitions we have to reverse in order to accept Christianity in the first place. It is a normal intuition, for example, that people are intrinsically good—yet people are actually intrinsically evil (eg Matthew 7:11). Most people find penal substitution intuitively abhorrent—yet without it there is no gospel. And even after conversion we cannot expect our intuitions to change overnight. Sanctification involves constant hard work and self-correction against God’s word. But how can you correct your intuitions against the Bible if you are using them to decide what the Bible must be saying in the first place?

So this is the first thorny problem with Molinism: if our moral intuitions are not only unreliable, but should generally be considered false when it comes to reasoning about God and ourselves…and if this is where Molinism starts…then Molinism is in serious trouble from the very beginning.


David White

This allows God to instantiate a world made up of the various circumstances that will produce the history he wants, while preserving human freedom.

This wasn’t the heart of your article, so this comment may be addressed in a future article. But I’ll go ahead and ask it now…

I don’t see how, from a Molinistic perspective, this does much to preserve human freedom. Once this world is instantiated, isn’t the course of my life irrevocably locked-in? God’s already seen what I’m going to do in this instantiation, so how can I do anything else?

Perhaps a Molinist would say “Ah, but you’re still doing exactly what you want to in this world freely – God is not forcing you to act contrary to your will.” But of course the Calvinist would say exactly the same thing, adding only that what I do of my own free (but sin-enslaved) will is also part of God’s sovereign decree.

If Molinism’s great purpose is to safeguard libertarian free will, I guess I’m not seeing how it does it.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

Agreed; Molinism is a form of theistic determinism, although not theistic causal determinism. So if we take the principle of alternate possibilities to be one of the two fundamentals of LFW (the other being agent sourcehood), then Molinism destroys LFW.

However, there are libertarians who reject PAP. And there are libertarians who are frankly confused on the matter, like William Lane Craig; compare his comments quoted here to the line he takes against Paul Helm, as noted by James Anderson.

I’ll have a lot more to say on this in a later installment of this series.


“… without first reading, understanding, and systematizing the doctrines taught in the Bible.”

My comments may appear to be completely out of left field, but this snippet caught my eye and I would like to comment on it.

Then entirety of scripture was produced in the context of near-Eastern, Hebraic culture… a culture that was at its heart not given to systematic thinking. They simply didn’t share our Western obsession with defining and explaining such lofty concepts as “free will” and were quite content to hold in tension things that drive us crazy.

I say this to point out that if scripture is our guide, then we must do business with the fact that it does not describe human freedom in the Libertarian sense of Desiderius Erasmus, Jacobus Arminius, or Roger Olson. However, in this same sense, we must do business with the fact that scripture neither describes human freedom in the Compatibilist sense of Francis Turretin, Jonathan Edwards, or John Piper.

*Both* views, share more in common with the Greco-Roman philosophy of Plato and Aristotle than they do Hebraic scripture – they both fall outside of the epistemic boundaries of the Biblical authors and are anachronistic hermeneutical tools. (It’s unfortunate that when the Reformers split with Rome over justification-by-faith, they happily brought with them much of their Roman Catholic scholastic and supercessionist attitudes.)

To me, the entirety of the “Free Will” debate between Cs and As – otherwise Reformed believers in Messiah – devolves into yet another in a series of Tu Quoque arguments. Both sides would be wise to recognize this and make the ultimate cause of Reformed brotherhood (and sisterhood) to be one of Truth *and* Charity.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

I think you’re fundamentally misconstruing what’s going on with systematic theology. Just because the ancient Semitic mindset wasn’t (supposedly) concerned with systemization doesn’t mean that the Bible cannot or should not be systemized. Truth, being consistent, can be systemized, even if the people God chose to write it weren’t especially concerned with that.

I’m also quite skeptical about your gross generalization. Paul, for instance, was a Jew of Jews, and Romans is the most systematic book in the Bible.

Jacob Cochrane

Before getting to my initial thought, I’d like to address the previous comment by D. I think it raises an important point and that you’re too quick to discount it. The issue is like taking a grainy picture and then using sophisticated means to zoom in on it – it doesn’t quite work. Our human ability to systematize… is it exempt from corruption? Take a pile of laundry and toss it on the bed, or look up at some puffy clouds – let your eyes de-focus a bit and see what you see. A face? A rabbit? Our minds are keen to “notice” a pattern, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the pattern has intrinsic value. I’m tyring to be brief, so I’lk end this thought by saying we need to be incredibly careful when creating a modern system of thought based on ancient documents – small changes in interpretation have massive impact, just like trying to clean up an enlarged blurry image. A small scratch on the original becomes a distinguishing feature!

Now to my initial thought. I find it strange that from the outset you’re setting up Calvinism (C) vs Molinism (M) in a bogus way. You’re claiming C = scriptural, and M = intuitional. Am I to believe you have never encountered scripture that suggests man has freedom and responsibility?…that explicitly says as much? But here’s what I’ve seen C’s do, claim biblical authority based on careful exegesis. Then, if someone claims to have carefully considered the same passage or topic and yet arrives at a different conclusion, they’re simply not interpreting correctly, so why listen? This is circular reasoning, it really is. And yet they often can’t see it. I’ll grant there are some impressive minds and lives in the C camp, but this same type of human is prone to an ignorant sort of educated pride. Again, such folks must be extra careful.

Now, there’s a big section of this article that could just be turned upside down. To illustrate, here’s a paragraph from that section:
“Molinism is a clear example of starting with certain intuitions and then building an intellectual framework to support them—without first asking what God himself has revealed (or, worse, simply rejecting what God has revealed because it clashes with some intuition). There is no exegetical support for Molinism.”
The claim that there is no exegetical support for non-determinism (forgive me if I’m wrongly conflating) is tantamount to saying there really are no scriptures that indicate man has a will, or choice, or responsibility; that our Lord genuinely pleads with man; that man has genuine expectations placed on him. I can relate with your being irritated and embarassed by someone’s smugness.

I think someone can honestly swap C & M in many of your statements and it makes just as much sense. However, I appreciate your writing and will gladly continue reading.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

Jacob, I cited a leading Molinist acknowledging that Molinism is not exegetically-derived. And I explicitly allowed that people can disagree with Calvinist interpretations. But Calvinism is manifestly exegetically-driven, and the fact that some people find the exegetical arguments unpersuasive presupposes rather than undermines that claim.

The question is whether the exegetical arguments are sound, and why people disagree with them. Which is what I start to get into in the next part of this series.

As for your treating passages that speak of freedom, responsibility etc as prima facie evidence for non-determinism, that’s just flagrantly question-begging, and suggests you hold some strawman understanding of Calvinism.