Can Arminians Be Molinists? (Part 2)

Robert E. Picirilli

(This is the second part of a two-part article)

In Part I, I have defined Molinism and evaluated its view more basically. I have other criticisms of Keathley’s position, some of which might not be shared by all Molinists but all of which seem likely to result from Molinism’s effort to achieve a stance between Calvinism and Arminianism.  I will treat three matters.

Other Problems with Keathley’s Molinism

1. Keathley confronts the objection often posed by Calvinists who say that requiring a person to exercise faith for salvation makes faith something the saved “do” that is in some way virtuous and distinguishes them from unbelievers. He states the objection as follows:

If I freely believe, but my neighbor freely does not, does not this imply that somehow I was nobler than my neighbor? Did I not use my freedom to a higher end? Yes, salvation is a free gift, and receiving redemption incurs no merit, but is not the one who accepts it in some way wiser, more humble, more virtuous, more appreciative, more aware of his need, or more sensitive to sin than the one who rejects it?[1]

In essence Keathley accepts this as a “problem” and proceeds to resolve it by viewing faith as a gift and not something the elect “do.” He represents the elect as “doing” absolutely nothing; they don’t even choose to accept Christ. By contrast, the non-elect actively “do” something; they consciously resist God and thereby become solely responsible for their damnation. So, for Keathley, the salvation of the elect is totally the work of God, while the damnation of the non-elect is totally their own work.

I would urge, however, that as long as one regards salvation as conditional, there will inevitably be a difference between what a believer “does” and what an unbeliever “does” (or “doesn’t”) and this can theoretically (but mistakenly) be regarded as making the one more “worthy” or “virtuous” than the other. The very reason for unconditional salvation is to avoid that.

Keathley says the elect “refrain” from resisting, whereas the non-elect actively resist. Well, to “refrain from resisting” is still to “do” something—which simply substitutes for “choosing Christ.” The difference between one who “does” this refraining and one who actively resists can still be (falsely) accused of amounting to a difference in “worthiness.”

The way to deal with this Calvinist objection is to deny that it is valid. Biblically speaking, believing (faith) is not a “work”; accepting a gift with the empty hand of faith is not offering any worth or merit or virtue to God. The actions of the elect and non-elect are parallel: one chooses for and the other chooses against. If libertarian freedom means anything at all, it is exercised by both the elect and the non-elect. Otherwise, only the unbeliever acts with libertarian freedom, while the believer does not lest he be guilty of offering something he has “done” to God.

Elsewhere Keathley shows clearly that he understands that faith is not a work and that the verb “do” doesn’t require doing a meritorious work or deed. If one asks, then, why he bothers to offer a different solution, the answer is that he is determined to hold to Calvinism’s view of what it means for salvation to be wholly the work of God. To this end he is sustaining unconditional election, to which I now turn.

2. Keathley’s treatment leaves cloudy the question whether salvation is by faith. I say “cloudy” because he seems to speak both ways. On the one hand, he forthrightly affirms that salvation is by faith: “The Bible does not merely present faith as the evidence of regeneration or effectual call but as the condition to receiving salvation. Salvation is by faith.”[2] Again, he says, “We are required to exercise faith in order to receive salvation.”[3]

On the other hand, he also affirms things that appear to mean that salvation is unto faith instead of by faith. He follows the quotation just given with these words, “but this disposition of trust is a divine gift.”[4] He “understands the sinner’s coming to faith as a process by which the Spirit of God carries a person to the point of saving trust.”[5] He refers to this as “ambulatory faith” and illustrates with an ambulance carrying an unconscious man to treatment who wakes up on the way having had nothing at all to do with being transported to the emergency room.  This means that God’s “overcoming grace” carries a person all the way into faith. This way, God gives him or her the faith: “All that is necessary in this scenario is that a person refrains from acting.”[6] The man in the ambulance could rebel and insist on getting out, of course; but as long as a person being drawn to Christ doesn’t resist, he will infallibly believe.

We remember that this is the case for persons for whom God, knowing how they would respond to specific circumstances of grace, designed and actualized the world to include the very circumstances that they were certain not to resist.

As I see it, this is not salvation by faith,[7] and the matter is further complicated by the fact that Keathley defends unconditional election. In traditional theology, unconditional election entails unconditional salvation, and conditional election implies conditional salvation. For Arminians, election is God’s choosing believers for salvation, and so their salvation is conditional. If election is unconditional, the elect meet no condition.

I found myself trying hard to discern how Keathley’s unconditional election is compatible with his observation that salvation is by faith. Clearly, he means that election is not grounded in the believer’s faith: “Molinists agree with Calvinists that it is crucial to maintain that God did not elect on account of foreknown merit or foreseen faith.”[8] I concluded that for him “by faith” does not mean conditional salvation, precisely because he regards faith as a gift and therefore the initial element of salvation itself. In the end, Keathley is making a diligent effort to credit the work of salvation to God alone—with which we Arminians will enthusiastically agree. By the same token, he accepts the idea that if the individual must exercise faith in order to be saved then the individual has contributed something and the work is not God’s alone—with which we will firmly disagree. We are not synergists.

For Keathley, then, God’s decree to save the elect is completely independent of their faith. God’s “overcoming grace” carries them along to a faith that God gives them and which they do not actively choose to exercise. This is not the Arminian view of conditional election or of salvation by faith.

3. Keathley does not seem consistent in drawing out the implications of how God deals with the non-elect as compared to the elect. I do not intend to pursue this in detail, but I think it important to mention as a matter for further consideration. To sum up, his view makes God fully responsible, in grace, for the salvation of the elect; but he intentionally does not draw a parallel conclusion with regard to the non-elect.

However, I believe that if he were consistent his view of how God uses middle knowledge would make God just as responsible for the damnation of the non-elect as for the salvation of the elect. At least there would be more that is coordinate than he appears to realize when he compares the two as “asymmetrical.”[9] In both cases, a Molinist God acts in exactly the same fundamental way. For the elect, God provides circumstances that He knows they will not resist and will lead them into faith. For the non-elect, God provides circumstances that He knows they will resist and will not lead them into faith. Both of them have, by His design at the moment He actualized the created order, been placed in circumstances which they will freely respond to in ways that accomplish God’s will for them. This is one of the problems of determinism that Keathley fails to avoid, I believe.

I call attention again to these words from the three quotations I included earlier: “God predestines all events.” “God meticulously ‘sets the table’ so that humans freely choose what He had predetermined.” “By use of middle knowledge [God] ordained … with infallible certainty that Peter would [deny Jesus].”  “[God] rendered certain … the destruction of certain ones who would reject God’s overtures of grace.” “Our free choice determines how we would respond in any given setting, but God decides the setting in which we actually find ourselves.”

The implications of these observations are as surely for the non-elect as for the elect. What Arminians call “prevenient” grace, which effectively enables even those who reject Christ to believe, is not the experience of any non-elect in Keathley’s view, so far as I can see.

The Problem of Order in Molinism’s “Middle Knowledge”

Molinism is about the logical order of elements of God’s knowledge—and, consequently, of His decisions. To begin with, I see no need for Molina’s “middle knowledge.” If God by virtue of His omniscience knows all possible worlds, then He already knows how anyone would respond to any conceivable circumstance.

Nevertheless, Molinism has a problem in its own presentation of order. Keathley and Molinism strongly distinguish between the three supposed “moments” of God’s knowledge.  First is God’s necessary knowledge of what could be, then His middle knowledge of what would be in any of the worlds that could be, and finally His free knowledge (or foreknowledge) of what will be in the world He decides to actualize.

The question is this: Where in this logical progression does election take place?  One would think that God’s decision to elect some out of the mass of fallen humanity cannot logically exist until He has first decided to permit (or cause, in supralapsarian views) the fall. And yet, in Keathley’s progression, God has already, prior to creation, identified the elect in considering what circumstances of grace to include for them in the world He actualizes.

In other words, the way God can provide “circumstances of grace” in the lives of the elect when He actualizes the world is if he has already identified them.  But that means (logically) that He must decide on the world to actualize before He (logically) decides about the fall and then about the election. That might work well if He were designing the world to provide equal opportunity for all, but instead He is designing its circumstances to the advantage and disadvantage of the elect and non-elect. And in order to do that he has to know who they are before He even knows they have fallen and need salvation.

If it should seem that I am violating my own uncertainty about Molinism’s logical “moments” in God’s knowledge, I say that I realize that some things known and/or decided must at least logically precede or follow from other such things. And it is clear to me that God must know/decide that He will create the world, before He knows/decides about the fall, before He knows/decides about election to salvation or about reprobation. But Molinism inverts the logical order.

Conclusion

In the end, the problem with Molinism is, precisely, a problem of order in God’s design for the world and human beings. Molinism offers that God, knowing all our tendencies, designed the world first in such a way that all those He willed to save would freely come to Him and all those He did not will to save would freely reject Him. This means that when we come into the world, God has already placed us in circumstances that will bring the elect to faith and will not bring the non-elect to faith. For such a view, Keathley is right to use words like determines and renders certain to describe the salvific acts of God.  And this is how God becomes a manipulator of human choices.

For the evangelical Arminian, however, the order is different. God designs the world, first and foremost, in a way that works in harmony with the libertarian freedom of all. In His universal salvific program, He provides for all and deals graciously with all in a way that enables each to respond positively to His wooing. Then both the elect and the non-elect, enabled by the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit, respond in libertarian freedom to accept or reject Christ.

When it comes to showing how God’s sovereignty and human freedom work together, then, Arminianism offers a much better understanding than Molinism.

________________

[1] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 102.

[2] Ibid., 119.

[3] Ibid., 116.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 104.

[6] Ibid., 105.

[7] I can tolerate saying that faith is a gift of God, but only if that is carefully explained to mean that God gives the opportunity and persuasion that enable faith.  But always the Scriptures attribute faith to the person exercising it.  See my Grave, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism & Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 167.

[8] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 11.

[9] Ibid., 145.

13 thoughts on “Can Arminians Be Molinists? (Part 2)”

  1. Thanks to Richard Clark, who sent me Craig’s chapter (which I didn’t have access to any more, I am aware that there is more than one kind of “Molinism.” Some are more deterministic than others, and Keathley appears to be among those. Craig regards Molina himself as being less “Calvinistic” than, say, Keathley, but he doesn’t quite make clear just how far Molina would have gone to say that God arranged circumstances in the existence of the elect and non-elect to which they would respond, freely, to do what God wanted them to do. To believe in “middle knowledge” (though I don’t call it that) does not by itself make one a Molinist. The question is what did God “use” that knowledge to do? And it seems clear that even Molina would say that he used it to ensure that people would freely do what he willed for them. It’s what Craig takes that to mean, specifically, that isn’t clear. If Molina meant that only to say that God willed for them to be free to make their own choices, then that’s no improvement over Arminianism; we already say that. If he meant (as seems likely) that in some way God willed for certain individuals to be elect (and non-elect), then that apparently will lead inevitably into determinism by manipulation. Either way, Arminians don’t need Molina.
    R. E. Picirilli

    1. Hello Dr. Picirilli, how are you? My name is Douglas. I from Brazil. Please, I need your e-mail for a personal question.

  2. Dr Pic, I’ve always admired your work. I think you misunderstand the idea of mere Molinism. If God knows any free action we WOULD do in a given circumstance and we are libertarianly free to choose…Mollinism is true

    1. Thank you, Tony, for pointing me to “Mere Molinism.” I have not encountered that phrase before. If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that mere Molinism makes two claims: (1) that God has middle knowledge: namely, that even before creating he knew what every conceivable person would do in every conceivable set of circumstances; and (2) that humans have libertarian freedom.

      By the way, you mentioned that Molinism covers more than soteriology. You’re right, but when we’re discussing Arminianism and Calvinism (the perspective of my article), soteriology is the application of Molinism that is of primary interest.

      I must say that I think these two alone are not worthy of being called Molinism, since in fact I believe both of them (as I think most Arminians would if they understood them), and I am certainly not a Molinist. I believed these things long before I ever heard of Molina.

      To me, there is a third element required for a view to be called Molinism (“mere” or otherwise): namely, that God used that middle knowledge in creating the world, and did so to achieve his will or purposes. In other words, knowing how every person would respond to every circumstance, he chose to actualize circumstances in the world that would lead to those persons’ doing what he willed for them to do.

      I will readily acknowledge that adding this third element does not necessarily lead one to determinism, but I believe there is a tendency in that direction. It seems likely to me that any Arminian (the perspective from which I’m writing, remember) who wants to add a Molinist element to his theology is probably seeking to be more deterministic than Arminianism. It would be interesting to know—and I don’t claim to know—whether most Molinists lean to some form of determinism, but I do suspect that there is a tendency in Molinism in that direction.

      Perhaps someone will say, in regard to my third element, that the only thing God purposed to do by taking his middle knowledge into account when he decided to actualize this world and its circumstances, was to ensure that every person in the world would have equal opportunity and enabling (by prevenient grace) to put faith in Christ and be saved. But if that’s all, then my question would be why bring Molinism into the picture? Arminianism already teaches that.

      Since your comments, I’ve taken a little time to listen to Tim Stratton and read an essay by Evan Minton, both promoting “mere Molinism.” I wonder if either one would claim to be Arminian. Stratton said he regards himself as a “libertarian compatibilist” and defines that to mean that a person is free to choose among any options that are in accord with his nature. That’s not an adequate definition of libertarian freedom for me. Minton says, “If God wants a person to do a certain thing, He will actualize a possible world where … [that person] is in [a] circumstance [in which he] freely chooses the option [which God ordained by actualizing that circumstance].”

      This is the thing I don’t find attractive about any form of Molinism. I’m not saying that Minton means that God directly determined the choice or made it necessary or forced the person’s will, but I am saying that this strikes me as determinism by manipulation, and I find my Arminianism much more satisfying. In my theology, God is equally active in favor of the salvation of all and the world he created is equally “friendly” to the salvation of all. -REP

    2. Agreed and this is consistent with much of Arminianism. Basic Molinism is consistent with both conditional and unconditional views of election.

    3. In other words, I think that juxtaposing Arminianism with Molinism is a false dilemma. Basic Molinism is consistent with either Calvinism or Arminianism. Basic Molinism is, after all, principally a doctrine of God whereas Arminianism and Calvinism are principally soteriologies.

  3. W.L. Craig is, of course, a thoroughgoing Arminian of the Wesleyan variety. He stresses the point that God via His middle knowledge chose to create the world in which the maximal (he uses that word a lot) number of people will come to freely — in the libertarian sense — choose to repent and turn to God through Jesus by the prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit. So, an Arminian Molinist would agree with Craig, while a Calvinist Molinist (Doug Blount, who did his doctoral dissertation under Alvin Plantinga at ND, was my Philosophy prof at Southwestern, was this sort of Molinist) would say that the world God chose to create was not necessarily the one in which the maximal number of people come to know God through Christ Jesus. For the Calvinist, God chose to create the world that would bring Him the maximal glory, and the damnation of sinners is an aspect of glory-getting for God. The big point is that Molinism seems to provide both “sides” with an option that perhaps maximizes both freedom of will and a robust sovereignty. It seems uncontroversial to me that God does, in fact, have such knowledge; how could God not have such knowledge, if such knowledge is logically possible to possess? and I see no reason to think God would not know what free creatures *would* do in any given circumstance. God, it seems to me, knows exhaustively all things that have from the perspective of this space-time continuum come to pass, and God in God’s simple foreknowledge knows exhaustively all things which shall be (an in God’s perfect foreknowledge, if those things freely chosen would have been freely chosen differently, then God would have foreknown *that* instead of *this*), and God in God’s exhaustive middle knowledge knows all things that would have been in any other logically possible but not actual circumstance. It seems equally obvious that God in His wisdom exercises all of God’s perfect capacities to carry out His perfect will. Finally, it seems to me that the Bible teaches that an aspect of God’s perfection of nature is that God truly desires none to perish and all to come to repentance, but not at the cost of the impossibility of genuine love due to a lack of genuine freedom.

    On faith as a work, it seems to me that Ephesians 2, where faith and works are starkly juxtaposed, is proof positive that faith cannot be considered a work, since the Apostle Paul clearly (to me at least!) says faith is not a work. Thank you for the work, Dr. Picirilli!

    1. Thanks for this feedback, Brother Jeff. I think I agree with everything you say in regard to your own beliefs, starting with “It seems uncontroversial to me that… .” Yes, God knows (and knew before creation) what every conceivable creature would do under every conceivable set of circumstances. And he exhaustively knows everything that will come to pass in this world he created. You’re right that if any of us had chosen (or were yet to choose) differently from the way we did (or will) choose, God would foreknow that instead of this (I like that way of expressing it!) Also, yes, in his infinite wisdom he does everything he does to carry out his perfect will. Most certainly, he desires the salvation of all and works for the salvation of all without depriving any of genuine, libertarian freedom. (I also say Amen to what you say about faith and works, and I like your use of Ephesians 2 to make the point; I often use Romans 4:16, in its context, to make the very same point.)

      So I’m left to think that I have failed to show clearly (1) just why Molinism means something to me that it apparently doesn’t mean to some others, and (2) just why I don’t find helpful (or coherent) any moment of knowledge in the “middle.” I’m going to post, within a few days, an addendum to my article that explains this more thoroughly, not so much for the purpose of convincing anyone but to try to make sure everyone understands just what I see in these matters and therefore why I reject Molinism altogether. I hope that will prove helpful. T/ R.E. Picirilli

  4. Keathley rightly says that faith is something you “do,” and then wrongly and tendentiously asserts that anything you “do” is a “work.” This completely misrepresents what Paul says in Eph 2:8-9 and likewise what Paul says so clearly in Rom 4:5. There are certain things that everyone must “do” to be saved, none of which are “works”: e.g., “repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). E.g., “receive him [Jesus] … and believe in his name” (John 1:12). Keathley would only be correct if the following two statements were equal and interchangeable: “to earn/merit/deserve a gift” = “to receive a gift.” (But already the first statement is an oxymoron.) Thank you, Dr. Picirilli, for clarifying this.

    –A.R.

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