Can Arminians Be Molinists? (Part 1)

Robert E. Picirilli

(This is the first of two guest-authored posts)

I hear that some Arminians incline toward a Molinist view of God’s sovereignty and human freedom. Perhaps the reason is, Molinists say their purpose is to uphold libertarian freedom[1] in a universe governed by a sovereign God, sure to achieve His purposes. We Arminians believe in both of those things.

What Is Molinism?

Molinism was conceived by a sixteenth-century Jesuit, Luis de Molina, with the express purpose of maintaining human freedom in a world providentially governed by a God who accomplishes His purposes in all events. Molina did this by defining God’s knowledge as occurring at three logically different (not temporally different) “moments.”

First is necessary (or natural) knowledge, which includes everything God knows simply because He is an omniscient God. What He knows at this stage includes “all possible worlds,” as philosophers like to express this—everything that could be, in other words.

Second is free knowledge, which includes knowledge of everything that will be as a result of God’s choice—out of all possible worlds—to create this world that actually exists. (Understand that a “world” in this sense includes everything that occurs in it, all the circumstances that ever arise.) Since this world didn’t have to exist (else it would have been co-eternal with God), then God’s knowledge of it likewise didn’t have to exist, and wouldn’t have if He had not created it.

Third is middle knowledge. The distinction between the first two goes back well before Molina.  He added a third “moment” or phase of God’s knowledge that stands logically between necessary and free knowledge, called middle knowledge. This includes God’s knowledge of everything that free beings would do in every conceivable set of circumstances.

Now, what does this have to do with anything? According to Molina: when God decided to create this world and all its “circumstances,” He already knew just what every person would freely choose in every possible circumstance. The key idea, then, is that God didn’t just actualize a world, He actualized all the circumstances in that world that He knew everyone would respond to and “freely” make the very choices that fit into God’s eternal plan. This way, God remains in sovereign control and His plan is entirely successful, but human beings remain free to choose between live options.

At first glance, this may seem appealing. I myself have sometimes said that God can keep me from working in my garden, by sending rain, without infringing on my freedom. He can, of course, and that’s an example of “middle knowledge” at work, say the Molinists. But read on.

Molinism and the Theology of Salvation: a Specific Example

In the following three paragraphs I will summarize the view of Kenneth Keathley, as explained in his recent book presenting a Molinist view of soteriology.[2]

When God actualized this world, using His middle knowledge of how every person would respond to every possible circumstance, He designed all the “circumstances” of every person’s existence in such a way that all of them would respond—in their libertarian freedom—in the very way necessary for His plan to be successful.

For the elect, He included in their existence what I will call “gracious circumstances” which He knew they would find appealing and not resist, and which would therefore carry them along to salvation. While this grace is resistible, God knew just how to present it so that they, although free and capable of doing so, would not resist. This way, their salvation is entirely effected by God’s grace, from beginning to end. They “do” absolutely nothing, not even so much as choosing to receive grace. In the entire process that brings them to God, they remain free to accept or reject Him but certainly accept Him—I add, given the circumstances He has placed them in.

For the non-elect, perhaps God also placed them in gracious circumstances to which they could respond favorably, even though He knew they would not. But He did not place them in any gracious circumstances that would bring them to Him, although (I assume) He must have known of such circumstances and could have actualized them but didn’t. As is true for the elect, then, the non-elect remain free to accept or reject God but certainly will reject Him—I add, again, given the circumstances He has (or has not) placed them in. Thus their damnation is entirely their own doing; God in no way desired or caused it.

Lest the reader think I have misinterpreted Keathley’s view, I include here his own words.

From the repertoire of available options provided by His middle knowledge, God freely and sovereignly chooses which one [which option] He will bring to pass. … [By utilizing his knowledge] God predestines all events, yet not in such a way that violates genuine human freedom and choice. God meticulously “sets the table” so that humans freely choose what He had predetermined. Remember the example of Simon Peter’s denial of the Lord. The Lord predicted Peter would deny Him and by use of middle knowledge ordained the scenario with infallible certainty that Peter would do so. However, God did not make or cause Peter to do as he did.[3]

When God made the sovereign choice to bring this particular world into existence, He rendered certain but did not cause the destruction of certain ones who would reject God’s overtures of grace. According to Molinism, our free choice determines how we would respond in any given setting, but God decides the setting in which we actually find ourselves.[4]

God determines the world in which we live. Whether I exist at all, have the opportunity to respond to the gospel, or am placed in a setting where I would be graciously enabled to believe are sovereign decisions made by Him. The Molinist affirms that the elect are saved by God’s good pleasure.[5]

Evaluation

It’s one thing for God to use such knowledge in providentially controlling circumstances after He actualized and designed the world. No doubt He does such things to “work all things together” for our good (Rom. 8:38) or for His own purposes. But it’s an entirely different thing for Him to use His knowledge that way to design circumstances for us at creation—before we even exist!—to bring about our salvation or the development of our moral character.

I indicate my rejection of Keathley’s approach with an analogy.[6] Consider a skilled chess-master, playing against opponents whose abilities are much less that his and whose tendencies he knows well. He decides in advance which opponents will win and which will lose. He chooses his moves carefully and designs them in accord with his knowledge of their tendencies and skills. By making this move or that one, he skillfully maneuvers each opponent to freely make moves that will lead to the victory or defeat that the chess-master decided in advance.  And the opponent never suspects a thing!

That’s the way I see Keathley’s Molinist view of how God deals with the elect and non-elect. As I see it, Keathley makes God a manipulator of human beings. He knows their tendencies—more, He knows exactly how they will respond to any circumstance—and ordains circumstances in the very structure of the world that will bring them to salvation or leave them for damnation as He has willed. I appreciate Keathley’s insistence that all the persons involved are free to choose, but I confess that this claim rings hollow.

Like Keathley, I will also affirm that when God deals graciously with people, He knows how they will respond. But he is saying much more than that: namely, that God, before our existence, has set up the world with circumstances calculated to bring the elect to Him and not to bring the non-elect. What sort of creaturely “freedom” is that? Wouldn’t it be better if God brings circumstances of grace into the lives of both elect and non-elect, influences to which all of them really can respond positively? Wouldn’t it be better if He does this without tailoring their circumstances to fit their tendencies in a way that guarantees the salvation of the elect and the damnation of the non-elect? Wouldn’t it be better if everyone, in libertarian freedom and without divine manipulation behind the scenes, can choose for or against Him? This is the Arminian position, and this is not Molinism.

If anyone thinks I am misrepresenting Keathley, I call attention to some of the words in the quotations above. “Humans freely choose what God had determined.” In Peter’s case God “ordained the scenario with infallible certainty.” God “rendered certain … the destruction of certain ones who would reject God’s overtures of grace.” This may be determinism by indirect manipulation rather than by direct causation, but it is determinism nonetheless.

This is not Arminianism. We Arminians agree that God has foreknowledge of the choices we make, but we insist that God’s “overtures of grace” (to use Keathley’s apt phrase) are made to all persons, with the same salvific intent of making possible the salvation of all of them. Molinism, instead, offers that God uses His knowledge of how people will respond to various circumstances to arrange different circumstances for those He chooses to save as compared to those He does not will to save. Arminianism believes that God extends saving grace to all alike and draws them all with the desire that all be saved, thus providing real opportunity for them all; and they choose whether they will meet the condition for salvation or not.

Does Keathley Portray Molinism Accurately?

I believe Keathley’s view, so far, is true to Molinism. Other representations of Molinism seem clearly to confirm this. For one example, consider the following summary:

Before all decision to create the world, the infinite knowledge of God presents to Him all the graces … which He can prepare for each soul, along with the consent or refusal which would follow in each circumstance. …Thus, for each man in particular there are in the thought of God, limitless possible histories … and God will be free in choosing such a world, such a series of graces, and in determining the future history and final destiny of each soul.[7]

That this is, after all, a form of determinism seems assured when the writer adds that in this way God actualized, out of all possible worlds, this very one in which all the circumstances and all the “graces” He likewise actualized bring each individual to the destiny God chose.[8]

William Lane Craig affirms that Molina himself viewed God as operating in this way, that God “chose for the one [the elect] and for the other [the reprobate] the order of providence in which He foresaw that the one would be saved and the other not.”[9]

G. Sutanto capsules Molinism to say, “In so decreeing [all that comes to pass], God elects to actualize a world in which free creatures do exactly what He wants them to do, but in a way that does not sacrifice libertarian freedom.”[10]

Part II of this article will appear next week. 

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[1] The freedom to choose between alternatives, sometimes called the power of alternate choice, is called libertarian freedom.

[2] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2019).  Keathley is Southern Baptist, teaches at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina.  Thanks to Matt Pinson for introducing me to this work.

[3] Ibid., 152.

[4] Ibid., 154.

[5] Ibid., 155.

[6] I know that analogies do not prove anything, but they enable us to express our view more clearly or forcefully.

[7] Portalié, Eugène. “Teaching of St. Augustine of Hippo,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 2 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907), as transcribed in New Advent, ed. Kevin Knight, at  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02091a.htm.  I thank Richard Clarke for pointing me to this article;

[8] My purpose here is not to vouch for Portalié’s interpretation of Augustine but to show how he understands Molinism.

[9] William L. Craig, “Middle Knowledge, A Calvinist-Arminian Rapprochement?” in Clark Pinnock, ed. The Grace of God, the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1989),156–57, quoting the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, s.v., “Molinisme,” by E. Vansteenberghe, 10.2., col. 2112.  (Thanks to Matt Pinson for this reference.)

[10] Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, review of Sze Sze Chiew, Middle Knowledge and Biblical Interpretation: Luis de Molina, Herman Bavinck, and William Lane Craig (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2016), in The Journal of Theological Studies 69:1 (April 2018), 389.

6 thoughts on “Can Arminians Be Molinists? (Part 1)”

  1. Your critique, Dr. Picirilli, is not of Molinism but of Dr. Keathley’s ‘application’ of Molinism on soteriology. ‘Mere Molinism’ as Dr. Tim Stratton has termed it, is not a soteriology always position. As has been argued by other Molinist, Molinism is consistent with Arminian soteriology or even Calvinistic versions.

  2. Interesting article but here are a few points of critique:
    1) Arminius likely held to a Molinist understanding of middle knowledge (see Stanglin and McCall’s ‘Arminius’).
    2) “But He did not place them in any gracious circumstances that would bring them to Him, although (I assume) He must have known of such circumstances and could have actualized them but didn’t.” The Molinist would take issue with your assumption that there are circumstances in which everyone would freely choose to follow Jesus. Plantinga has written extensively on this in terms of transworld depravity. Also, how does the non-Molinist Arminian escape this criticism without adopting universalism?
    3) Molinists reject determinism by default in holding to a libertarian view of freedom. In that case, the language of predetermination simply refers to God’s actualising of a possible world that he fully knows and wills. William Lane Craig’s account of freedom ditches the principle of alternate possibilities though. Frankfurtian counter examples are what narrow his definition down.

    1. Thanks for your critique. Probably the addendum that I’m posting will answer some of what you have noted, but here are some brief replies to your three observations.

      1. Yes, Arminius made sparing use of “middle knowledge,” but I’m not convinced he was a Molinist. I’ve tried to emphasize the difference between saying those two things, so I won’t keep repeating.

      2. The quotation of me you give came in the context, specifically, of critiquing Kenneth Keathley’s Molinism, not of all forms of Molinism. I do suspect that God could put any sinner, or at least almost any, in circumstances that would lead to repentance; if that’s speculation, the same is true for the other assumption. But Matt. 11:21 confirms my view for me, anyway. I think we “escape” the criticism you refer to when we say that God works, by prevenient grace, on people who will be saved and on people who will not be, in such a way that truly enables them to be saved.

      3. Yes, I understand that (as I’ve said) it’s the very nature of Molinism to uphold libertarian freedom. That’s the reason I spoke of “determinism by manipulation” or “indirect determinism” rather than, simply, “determinism.” Again, I hope my addendum will make clearer why I reject Molinism. I appreciate your acknowledgement that Craig has given up libertarian freedom as traditionally defined (as I’ve noted in the addendum yet to be posted), and I think that is very significant; when you read the addendum, please take note of the implications of the full quote I give from Craig.

      Thanks again. R. E. Picirilli

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