Robert E. Picirilli
(Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of recent blog posts dealing with the subject of Molinism. For those late in coming to this discussion, they can read part one here and part two here).
I want to explain my reasons for rejecting Molinism in two key matters. I won’t take space to review the basic elements of Molinism.
(1) Apparently some think I see more that’s unappealing in Molinism than may really be there. And of course that’s possible. But I am confident that its key ingredient lies in the way God uses his so-called “middle knowledge,” and I hope the following will at least show why I believe this is where a problem lies.
I realize that Molinism intends to protect both human freedom and God’s sovereign control and government of the created order (two things I’m in favor of!). Molinism presents “middle knowledge,” as God’s knowing what every free person would do in every conceivable set of circumstances. Then Molinism says God used that knowledge, when designing and creating the world, so as to preserve both God’s sovereign control and human freedom.
Then how did God use that knowledge (of what everyone would do in every circumstance) to do these two things? The answer is: since he knew how all of us would respond to various circumstances he designed the world he would actualize in a way that it would include the circumstances in which we would respond in the way that is in accord with his will. (I am satisfied I can cite Molinists of different persuasions to confirm this.)
As I see it, nothing less than that is Molinism. I am not a Molinist and I believe that God knew how every person would respond to every conceivable circumstance when he designed and created the world; that isn’t the issue. He knew how Adam and Eve would respond to the circumstances they were in, for example—as well as how they would have responded had the circumstances been different.
So it’s how God used that knowledge that makes Molinism Molinism. And Molinism offers that God, when he created this world, took that knowledge into account and created the circumstances in the world in which each person would (yes, freely) make the decision that would carry out his will.
To say the same thing in other words: before God made us, he determined to put us in circumstances designed to fit the responses he knew we would make. Again, knowing how we would respond led him to shape the circumstances he created us in. That’s the whole point of Molinism, the very reason for defining this middle knowledge. Logically, this can’t help but mean (whether stated or not) that these are the circumstances in which we would respond in accord with his will for us and the world.
To illustrate, when we say God knew in advance how Judas would respond to any conceivable circumstances, that would mean, say, that he knew (1) just how Judas would respond to the circumstances that actually took place; and (2) how he would respond if the circumstances were different in some way (say, his friends would advise him against it, for example); and (3) how he would respond if the circumstances were different in yet another way (say, the priests only offered him 15 pieces of silver, for example), etc. I don’t see how Molinism can avoid saying that God chose, as part of this world he actualized, the very circumstances in which he knew that Judas would betray Jesus—and for that very reason. Yes, Molinism insists that Judas’ decision was still a free and unforced one, and I appreciate that. But the point of Molinism, it seems clear to me, is that God chose Judas’s circumstances, not to directly cause him to betray Jesus, but for the very purpose of providing the circumstances in which he knew Judas would do so. That, to me, is the significant (and displeasing) thing.
Take Adam and Eve as another example. I (and Arminians) will readily acknowledge that when God created them and the “circumstances” of their existence (which included the garden, the tree, the serpent’s temptation, etc.) he knew they would sin. But I can’t believe that he provided that set of circumstances as a result of knowing that they would sin if he did. That is a very different theology of God’s use of his knowledge in creation, it seems to me.
Now, someone may suggest that both Molinism and my view (that God created them and their circumstances, knowing they would sin) are the same and in both God has the same relationship to their sin. If anyone says that, I will disagree. Adam and Eve (as all of us will agree) did not have to sin and God did not desire that they sin. Obviously he wanted them to be free to sin, and for reasons best known to him they needed to be tested. The circumstances they were in contributed to nothing more than their being tempted; their failure was all their own doing and the circumstances they were in made no contribution to their failure and were not constructed as a result of God’s knowing how they would respond.
Perhaps a human illustration would be helpful. I may know someone well enough to be confident as to how he will respond if I put him in a certain situation. I may then indeed put him in that situation. The question is, why do I do that? I could do it for a good or a bad reason. I could do it in order that he would respond that way, which would be manipulative. I could do it because it was the right thing for me to do regardless how he is expected to respond. That would not be manipulative. The difference is that in the first I would be constructing the circumstances to produce the response, while in the latter I would not take into account his response in deciding to construct the circumstances because that was the right thing for me to do to him.
This difference, I fully believe, is the difference between Molinism and Arminianism. Molinism teaches that God took into account his knowledge of how people would respond when he decided on the circumstances to create for them. And the reason for this is that in Molinism God was constructing the circumstances not just as a way to maintain human freedom but also as a way to maintain his control and purpose for things. For me, and Arminianism I think, God conceived and created this world to be the arena in which he acts and interacts with human beings in an interpersonal way, providing circumstances that are both friendly to their freedom and designed to test them and give them opportunity, but not in a way that considers, in advance, how they will respond to his overtures.
Believe me, I have diligently tried to see how Molinism’s view (that God created things in accord with his knowledge of how people would respond) is “innocent” of manipulation. But every time I think, “Well, maybe if we look at it this way it will be OK,” I start realizing the full implications of having God create circumstances in the world to fit how he knows people will respond. One reason is that it becomes very hard to apply this to the negative cases like Judas and Adam and Eve and those who reject Christ and go to Hell. But even if it weren’t for that, I still wouldn’t find appealing the idea that God knew before creation how each person would respond to all sets of circumstances (which he did) and then selected the sets that they would respond to in a way that accords with his exercise of sovereign control. If, knowing how all would respond, he chose circumstances that upheld everyone’s freedom, circumstances that served to enable them all to exercise that freedom, or things like that, I wouldn’t have a problem. But then I wouldn’t need Molinism, since Arminianism already justifies that sort of thing.
Let me give one more telling example. I’m aware that William Lane Craig is greatly respected—including by me. But Craig has given up one of the key elements of libertarian freedom: namely, the ability to make an alternative choice. Lest you think I am misinterpreting him, I provide here a quotation from him, which can be found here. I’m including the lengthy quote so that you can see both the context and his understanding of how God uses his “middle knowledge” to control what people “freely” do:
I’m a libertarian who thinks that causal determinism is incompatible with freedom. That doesn’t imply that I hold to the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP), which states that a free agent has in a set of circumstances the ability to choose A or not-A. I’m persuaded that so long as an agent’s choice is not causally determined, it doesn’t matter if he can actually make a choice contrary to how he does choose. Suppose that God has decided to create you in a set of circumstances because He knew that in those circumstances you would make an undetermined choice to do A. Suppose further that had God instead known that if you were in those circumstances you would have made an undetermined choice to do not-A, then God would not have created you in those circumstances (maybe it would have loused up His providential plan!). In that case you do not have the ability in those circumstances to make the choice of not-A, but nevertheless your choice of A is, I think, clearly free, for it is causally unconstrained—it [is] you who determines that A will be done. So the ability to do otherwise is not a necessary condition of free choice.
For him, then, “libertarian freedom” does not include the power of alternative choice, and so I wouldn’t call it libertarian freedom. And you can see from his illustration just how God uses middle knowledge. I trust you can also see why I reject Molinism, even in the hands of someone who is not a Calvinist.
(2) Now I move to my second part, to clarify what I said about there being no logical need for “middle” knowledge, taking it in logical steps.
First, consider that Molinists themselves believe that the first “moment” of God’s knowledge (necessary or natural knowledge) includes his knowing “all possible worlds.”
Second, understand exactly what is meant by a (possible) “world,” in this sense. It includes not just the physical cosmos (galaxies, stars/suns, planet earth with its natural elements and inhabitants, etc.) but all the “circumstances” in the existence and history of that “world,” which includes all the choices of agents and all the things that follow from those choices.
Third, then those possible worlds (possible only in God’s conceiving them) included this one we inhabit. Up until the point at which Adam and Eve disobeyed God, perhaps there were no other “possibilities.” (I tend to think that to whatever degree the concept of “possible worlds” is useful, it refers to the possibilities that result from the choices of free agents.) At the time of their choice, there were (at least) four possible “worlds,” in which: (1) Adam and Eve would sin; (2) Adam and Eve would not sin; (3) Eve would sin but not Adam; (4) Eve would not sin but Adam would. (If we think of billions of people making billions of free choices, there was an infinite number of “possible worlds” just for the one described in Genesis 1!)
Fourth, for God to fully know this possible world (the one in which Adam and Eve sinned, and in which JFK was shot in Dallas in 1963, and in which I enrolled at FWBBC in the fall of 1949, etc., etc., etc.) in his necessary knowledge (see “First,” above), means that he already knew what every being in it would do if he decided to actualize this world. And the moment he decided to actualize this one, at that moment his knowledge of it (omniscience, necessary knowledge) provided exhaustive/perfect foreknowledge of all that will be in this world.
Fifth, thus middle knowledge is both unneeded and in some ways illogical. God, by knowing perfectly this world (even if only as one of the possibilities) in moment 1, already knew what all its inhabitants would do and already knew all its circumstances. Consequently, he could not then, at another logical (“middle”) moment, design circumstances in this world by taking into account his knowledge of how people would respond. By already knowing this world, he already knew all the circumstances and all the responses.
Sixth, only two “moments” are needed, then: the moment of his necessary knowledge of all possible worlds and the moment of actualizing this world (out of all possibilities). To say that his knowledge (of this world) from the creation moment can be called “foreknowledge” is nothing more than a way of viewing God’s exhaustive knowledge in the temporal context of this world with its past, present, and future. (It is “fore”knowledge in that he knew yesterday what I will do today, and that is “before” from our perspective. The unchanging God himself is eternal.)
I hope all our readers can see better, now, why I say that middle knowledge is entirely unnecessary. Arminians don’t need that middle. We can go directly from God’s eternal knowledge to his decision to create a world that has free agents in his image, agents whom he loves and labors with equally to persuade them all to be saved. We don’t believe his sovereignty is in conflict with that. The only thing required for sovereignty to be fully intact is for the world to operate the way God designed it to operate.
Furthermore, we don’t believe foreknowledge itself “determines” things, or that the number of the saved has already been established by God’s decree or act of creation. We believe, for example, that if missionaries go to a given country and preach the gospel, some will be saved who will not be saved if someone doesn’t go; and this is a contingency, and God has constructed this universe to permit our obedience or disobedience. We don’t believe that God’s creation of this world, “made certain” the events of this world that come about by free, human choices. A person’s choice to obey or disobey, in time and space, is what makes certain his act of obedience or disobedience (this is part of what is meant by “self-determinism”), even though God eternally knows it as certain. This involves the distinction I rely on, between certainty, necessity, and contingency.
We Arminians believe God created this very world knowing what it would be, sin included. We don’t believe his creating it as it is makes him the author of the sin. Determinists, including Calvinists, misunderstand sovereignty and all-inclusive providence. They misunderstand the implications of foreknowledge. Our calling in this world, I think, is to challenge them on the very points they are so strong about. We have a good case to make, I am firmly convinced. Our Arminianism, following the lead of Arminius himself, already explains Biblically how God is sovereign and achieves his purposes with full respect for the free agency of human beings.
I can speak only for myself, of course, but I don’t find any problem within our Arminianism that needs the help of Molinism to solve.
 I apologize for the technical, logical terminology in all of this. I don’t like the language of “possible worlds” and don’t use it myself. But the issues involved in Molinism are logical constructs that the Bible does not deal with, and when I do discuss such matters I try to make them as clear as I can to readers who aren’t used to such discussions. I hope I’ve been able to do that here.
 See my Free Will Revisited: A Respectful Reply to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 79-81. Certainty is anything that was, is, or will be, considered simply as a fact. Necessity is anything we have to do because of influences from outside ourselves. Contingency is anything we do when we could do otherwise.