Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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Thorny problems with Molinism #2: the demonstrable falsehood of its governing intuition

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10 minutes to read The Molinist’s governing intuition is that people can’t be responsible for choices which (i) do not ultimately originate in their own wills or (ii) where they could not have done otherwise. This intuition is flatly contradicted by Jesus in John 6:44; so Molinism should be rejected as false.

Molinists correctly recognize that God foreordains all things. They have a high view of providence. That is one of the main purposes of Molinism: to preserve God’s sovereignty. And in that, it is admirable.

However, Molinists combine this high view of providence with a governing intuition about human responsibility that anchors how they do theology—and what exegetical conclusions they will allow. As I argued previously, intuitions about moral issues ought to be distrusted as a matter of course, and this one is no different.

The Molinist governing intuition looks something like this:

People can’t be responsible for choices which (i) do not ultimately originate in their own wills or (ii) where they could not have done otherwise.

This twofold intuition is known as the libertarian view of freedom and responsibility, or libertarian free will (LFW). The assumption is that free will just is where a person can choose otherwise (the principle of alternate possibilities), and the choice has its ultimate source in the person himself (sourcehood). Molinism aims to preserve this assumption along with God’s sovereignty.

Although the broad question of how to reconcile sovereignty with human freedom is said to be at the heart of Molinism, in my experience there are two key motivating issues within this gamut. Molinists, like most freewill theists, tend to feel very strongly that:

  1. God would be unjust or unfair or somehow unworthy of worship if he were to Calvinistically save people. This is because their choices to love and submit (i) would not ultimately originate in their own wills, and (ii) could not have gone otherwise.
  2. If counterfactuals of creaturely freedom that involve evil choices are true because God determines them, rather than God knowing them because they are true, then God would be the “author of sin”.

Since I’ve dealt with (2) in the past—both by showing that freewill theism still leads to theistic determinism, and that freewill theists’ intuitions still make God evil—I’m not going to rehearse that dog and pony show here. I’m going to focus more exclusively on the governing intuition itself, using item (1) as a kind of test case to see whether it holds up against the Bible.

Is the governing intuition biblical?

There are three issues we need to canvass here:

1. Why focus on the governing intuition instead of middle knowledge itself?

Molinists do, after all, offer prooftexts to support their belief that God knows what people would do in circumstances that will not come about. Here are some of them: 1 Samuel 23:8–14; Matthew 11:23; Ezekiel 3:6–7; Jeremiah 38:17–18; 1 Corinthians 2:8; Deuteronomy 28:51–57; Matthew 12:7; Luke 16:30–31; Luke 22:67–68.

Now, if middle knowledge is taught by the Bible, then the governing intuition I called out above is really irrelevant: Molinism would be true simply because the Bible affirms God’s middle knowledge.

The trouble is, all the passages above prove is God’s counterfactual knowledge. They prove that he knows the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom: what people would do in certain circumstances. But remember that middle knowledge isn’t merely knowledge of CCFs. After all, God knows CCFs under Calvinism as well—he knows them because he determines them! Middle knowledge, by contrast, requires that God knows what people would do just because that is what they would do, and not because he determines it.

But there aren’t any passages that make that kind of claim. The Bible isn’t a philosophy book. It certainly tells us that God knows what people would do under certain circumstances; but it unsurprisingly doesn’t go so far as to tell us why or how he knows this, or what makes it true. (To be precise to a fault, I actually think it does, but only in very specific cases, which makes it hard to draw out a general principle.) So this avenue for proving Molinism is no good. Middle knowledge itself cannot be directly proved or disproved by exegesis (to my knowledge). Which means we need to test it some other way—namely, by trying to exegetically prove or disprove the Molinist’s governing intuition.

2. Is there an exegetical way to prove the governing intuition?

That is, can Molinists show from Scripture that freedom and responsibility demand (i) sourcehood and (ii) alternate possibilities?

Again, since the Bible isn’t a philosophy textbook and wasn’t written to explicate a nuanced view of what is called action theory, I can’t see how Molinists could make this kind of exegetical case. I’m certainly not aware of anyone trying, and indeed quite the opposite is true: Molinists tend to acknowledge openly that this isn’t something derived from Scripture, but rather from philosophy. They think it is a commonsense view which we must read Scripture in light of.

3. Is there an exegetical way to disprove the governing intuition?

Here’s where a fatally thorny problem arises for Molinism. Although the Bible doesn’t mark out exactly what the conditions for responsibility are, it certainly does provide us with numerous examples of people being held responsible. If even one of these involves someone being held responsible who is (i) not the ultimate source of his own choices, and (ii) could not have chosen otherwise…then Molinism is done for.

In other words, if God—even just once—holds anyone responsible—even just one person—for any decision—even just one small choice—that was sourced or determined from outside that person’s will, or where the person obviously could not do otherwise, then Molinism falls apart. Its idea of moral responsibility and human freedom would be demonstrably false. You see, Molinism makes a very strong claim: it supposes that it must be false—that it is necessarily false—that we can be morally responsible and have our choices determined by God. So even a single example of someone having his choice determined by God and being held responsible for it would falsify Molinism completely.

Are there any such examples?

Actually, on this point I think Scripture serves us an embarrassment of riches. Pharaoh’s hardening would be the classic case, but any one of these passages would do just as well: Deuteronomy 2:30; Joshua 11:20; Judges 9:23; 2 Samuel 12:11–12; 24:1; 1 Kings 22:22; Ezra 6:22; Job 12:16; Psalm 33:11; 141:4; Proverbs 16:1,9; 20:24; 21:1; Isaiah 6:10; 45:7; 46:10; 63:17; Jeremiah 10:23; Ezekiel 14:9; 20:25; Lamentations 3:37–38; Amos 3:6; John 12:40; Acts 2:23; 3:18; 4:27–30; Romans 9:18; Ephesians 1:11; 2:4–16; Philippians 2:13; 2 Thessalonians 2:11; Revelation 17:17.

The problem is, Molinists are slippery creatures. Take, for instance, the hardening of Pharaoh. They will cunningly deflect counterexamples like this by saying, “Well, when the Bible talks about God hardening Pharaoh, what it means is that God knew which exact circumstances would result in Pharaoh hardening his own heart. So when God ‘hardens’ Pharaoh, that means God ensured Pharaoh would be hardened by putting him in those circumstances.”

Now obviously this is not what the Bible says, and it beggars belief to think Moses intended to say such a thing; the straightforward meaning of texts like Exodus 4:21 is that Yahweh himself acted upon Pharaoh’s heart so as to make him choose to sin. But when you have a governing intuition like the Molinist does which is the lens through which the Bible is read, there is almost nothing the Bible can say that he can’t distort until it affirms Molinism. It is the same trick attributed to Wesley, though of course originally invented by the serpent: “Whatever God says, he can’t say that!”

What we need is…

A decisive counterexample

I believe there is at least one—and the one I’ve picked can only be plausibly interpreted in a way which shanks Molinism. Notice I’m not claiming that there is no way to interpret it differently. Obviously a committed Molinist will find a way; that’s what it means that his governing intuition is a governing intuition. But someone who only happens to be a Molinist, or is considering Molinism but is more committed to God’s word than to his own intuitions, will plainly see that this passage destroys Molinism beyond reasonable doubt:

No one is able to come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, “And they will all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. John 6:44–46

Brian Bosse has already done an extensive logical analysis of verse 44’s grammar, so I won’t reinvent the wheel here. But to summarize, the structure of the Greek verbs demands that “drawing” and “coming” be treated as one unit, with “being raised up” added to it. So, if we call whoever Jesus is talking about “X”, and rephrase v44 using standard logical conditionals (“if, then”):

A If the Father draws X then X can come to Jesus, and X will be raised up on the last day

Now, Molinists are committed to understanding this verse as teaching that all people are drawn by the Father, because clearly it is saying that anyone who is not drawn cannot come—and Molinists believe that God wants everyone to come. More to the point, anyone unable to choose Jesus could not do otherwise than reject him. But remember the principle of alternate possibility: anyone who could do no other than what they did, cannot be held responsible for doing it. Since God commands people to accept the gospel (eg Acts 17:30), and holds them responsible for rejecting it (eg 2 Thessalonians 1:8), the Molinist must believe he makes it possible for them to do either. (This is called prevenient grace.)

So the Molinist must say that all people are drawn by the Father—and some will come to Jesus of their own free will, while others will reject him.

But here’s what happens when we take (A) above, and substitute in “all people” for X:

B If the Father draws all people then all people can come to Jesus, and all people will be raised up on the last day

The Molinist obviously wants to affirm the first half of (B)…but he becomes a universalist heretic and destroys the sense of the passage if he affirms the second half. Clearly not all people will be raised up on the last day in the sense Jesus is using here—raised up to eternal life—and in fact his comments to the Jews become incoherent if he is going to raise them all up on the last day despite their unbelief!

We know that only those who believe in Jesus will be raised up on the last day. This leaves one possibility, and one possibility alone, available to plug into X: it must be the case that the Father only draws those who believe and are raised up on the last day (let’s call them the elect):

C If the Father draws the elect then the elect can come to Jesus, and the elect will be raised up on the last day

Now of course, the elect not only can come, but will come. That must be the case because all of the elect are raised up—and only those who come will be raised up. Indeed, this is exactly what Jesus goes on to explain in verses 45–46. Notice how he parallels being drawn by the Father with being taught by God; they are one and the same thing. And in the same way, being taught by God is the same as hearing and learning from the Father. The point is to reinforce the logic of his statement in verse 44: being drawn = being taught = hearing and learning; and everyone who is drawn/taught/hears/learns will come to Jesus. He re-emphasizes this again in verses 63–65, where he contrasts those who do not believe with those who have been granted to come to him by the Father.

As an aside, what Jesus is explaining here is precisely what Paul elaborates on in 1 Corinthians 2:10–16:

These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual [ie, those who have the Spirit]. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are discerned spiritually. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

John 6:44–46 contradicts the Molinist governing intuition

As I have said, this passage will not convince the most committed kind of Molinist; just as all the other tightly-integrated places where John teaches monergistic regeneration won’t convince him (John 1:13; 3:6–8, 27; 6:63–65; 10:26–29; 11:52; 12:37–40; 13:18; 15:16; 17:2, 9; etc). But to anyone who is willing to submit his natural intuitions about freedom and responsibility to the word of God, rather than submitting the word of God to his intuitions, this should be a decisive blow against Molinism, because in just three verses (indeed, just one if v44 stands alone), the two prongs of the governing intuition are snapped off:

  1. Sourcehood is eliminated as an option, because coming to Jesus is something which God irresistibly imposes on his elect: the ultimate source of their faith is not their own minds, but God’s mind (“we have the mind of Christ”). Whether we believe in Jesus is determined ultimately by whether God chooses to indwell us with the Holy Spirit—it is not determined by our own wills, for our own wills are incapable of making that decision (“the natural person is not able to understand”; “the flesh avails nothing”).
  2. The principle of alternate possibilities is equally eliminated because no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him. Therefore, a person whom the Father does not draw cannot come to Jesus. There is no possibility of him accepting the gospel and exercising saving faith—yet God still holds him accountable.

We thus have to conclude that neither sourcehood nor alternate possibilities are required for God to hold us accountable. And since without these there is no libertarian free will, and without libertarian free will there is no Molinism, Molinism crumbles.

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