Tag Archives: Determinism

Addendum: More on Molinism

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]

(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.[2]

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.

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[1] 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.

[2] 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.

Conferences, Podcasts, and Piper on Sovereignty: A Reply

W. Jackson Watts

I was recently listening to some online sermons that were given at the Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference. All of the speakers were household names, and none more familiar than John Piper. Piper is now retired from active pastoral ministry after decades at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. However, he has continued what has been a prolific writing ministry, and he also speaks regularly at conferences.

I have benefited immensely from Piper’s ministry from afar. I was first exposed to his work when in 2004 I took the course Biblical Discipleship. His bestselling book Desiring God was one of the assigned texts. I did not agree with all that he said in the book then (and I’m sure I didn’t understand it all either!), but I remember thinking, “He is saying something really profound here for Christian spirituality.” Since that time I’ve read more of his work and heard probably two dozen of his sermons.

While I came of age theologically before the full burgeoning of the podcast/online sermon era, I was shaped by it. No doubt I have been influenced by giants like the MacArthurs, Kellers, Carsons, Devers, and Pipers. As best as I can tell, these men exude an authentic commitment to Christ, His church, and His Word. For that I am grateful.

Some Broader Concerns

Where my concerns have persisted is that the preponderance of those who are influencing younger evangelicals is almost always five-point Calvinists. Let me define here what I mean and don’t mean by “concerns.”

First, I do not mean that we should be surprised that so many popular conference speakers are of this theological persuasion. When we consider the books published annually and the authors’ theological commitments, Arminians need to be honest: our theological tradition, in its best version, is in the minority (by a lot!). We have a lot of work to do in getting the word out about the God-centered, Scripturally-based Arminianism that we espouse. We should not then be surprised that publishing trends correlate to how well known some are in evangelicalism.

Second, I do not mean that our principal goal in Christian ministry is to see how well known we can personally be because of our theological stances and speaking circuit credentials. How easy it is to be known first as Arminians or Calvinists, and not as sincere, Spirit-filled men and women of God. How easy it is for us to relish (by whom we admire) or reinforce (by whom we invite to speak) the speaking circuit idolatry that promotes the same handful of people over and over. We should repent of where the spirit of this present age has shaped us in this way.

I do, however, have two interrelated concerns: (1) Seeing that it is part of our goal to spread biblical Christianity as far as the curse is found, it is unfortunate that many theologically serious Christians have come to believe that Calvinism is the only live option in town; and (2) What has partly, but significantly fostered this belief is the massive platform that influential speakers have to promote this error. While Calvinism and its entailments is not a heresy in the historic sense of that word, the way it is taught often leads to confusion and can foster the belief that those who are believers but not Reformed—in the narrow way most Calvinists mean that word—have a deficient theology for life and ministry.

A Specific Concern

The broader concerns I have articulated here are exemplified in many places, but especially in some remarks Dr. Piper shared in his otherwise very good sermon at the Gospel Coalition’s National Conference. He preached Mark 8:31-38, a quite familiar passage in which Jesus reveals his coming sufferings. Peter rebukes Jesus, but then Jesus rebukes him for contradicting the plan of God. Piper spends several minutes (around the 19:00-24:00 minute mark) reflecting on the word “must” in verse 31. This deals with the necessity, in the plan of God, for the Son to die. Piper then observes how the sovereignty of God—defined as God controlling and determining everything in history and human existence—is integral to the Gospel itself.

Piper asserts that some people try to disconnect “the all-controlling sovereignty of God from the innocent suffering, the sinful rejection, [and] the wicked murder of Jesus.” Millions, he says, make a concerted effort to disconnect those two. Yet he is encouraged. He explains,

   “I’m saying that in the last 50 years millions of people around the world are seeing that that effort is futile, unbiblical, [and] undesirable. It is a rending of the precious fabric of the Gospel, because they see, over and over again, in Scripture the sovereignty of God  is the stitching that holds the Gospel together.”

Characteristically, Piper says a lot here. However, I’ll focus on two key points. First, Piper describes a changing evangelical landscape in which Calvinism has blossomed over the last half century. More believers have become convinced that God is sovereign in the sense that He controls (read decides) everything in human life, including who will or will not be saved. The second point is an extension of the first: this vision of God’s sovereignty is said to be not only an element of the Gospel, not just “how one comes to be in a state of grace,” but it is a theological essential that “holds the Gospel together.”

This assertion is not startling for those familiar with Piper’s work and like-minded Calvinists. Where it is somewhat attention-grabbing is that he is implicitly acknowledging the success of preachers, authors, and institutions in spreading the good news of Calvinism. This isn’t just a recent phenomenon, but has been happening for decades. Such Christians see God’s sovereignty, defined by the construct of determinism, as just as essential to the Gospel as grace or faith itself.

A Response

I offer two replies to Piper, first to his demographic claim, and second to the theological one.

First, I wonder which millions of believers around the world Piper has in mind. Thank God that the Gospel is reaching the nations! But much of the data reflects that this growth is in sub-Saharan Africa, China, and South America, to name a few places. I wonder if Piper’s remark lands the same way there as it does to his conference listeners. Much of the growth is within Pentecostalism. No doubt some Pentecostal Christians are Calvinistic in their soteriology, but the vast majority of them are not. In fact, when we consider the expansion of many other traditions abroad such as Anglicanism, Wesleyanism, and Lutheranism, just to name a few, suddenly five-point Calvinism looks rather small. The all-too-familiar, North American, evangelical narrative about Calvinism’s massive expansion must be significantly revised, at least if we’re being honest with the data.

Moreover, many Christians abroad belong to communities where having a Bible in their own language is a rare and cherished fact. To hear the Gospel itself is an all-too-rare privilege. How plausible is it that a theological system as sophisticated as five-point Calvinism is on the radar of those millions in quite the same way that it is for young Americans who have the disposable income to buy books, download sermons on their Macs, and attend conferences? This is mainly a sociological query on my part, not a moral judgment.

Second, I wonder how many listeners to Piper’s sermon, whether in person or online, have taken the time to study the concept of sovereignty in Scripture or in Ancient Near Eastern thought. More specifically, how much thought have they given to the philosophical concept of determinism? Somehow I imagine that Dr. Picirilli’s excellent, thoughtful, and brief Free Will Revisited isn’t selling as well as Dr. Piper’s books. Now let’s ask ourselves: Why might it be the case that some questions aren’t asked, some topics aren’t pursued, or some books aren’t read, while others are? I fear that one evangelical sub-culture, partly embodied by the conference circuit context, is reinforcing people in existing perspectives without challenging them to take a hard look at their theological assumptions, or the theology of the church’s history.

As I have attended multiple seminaries, meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society (national and regional), and interacted with assorted local church pastors in my community, the reactions are always interesting to the name “Free Will Baptist” or “Reformed/Classical Arminian.” I find that the most close-minded or hostile individuals are those who don’t really get out a lot. They’ve rarely interacted with Christians in other regions or denominations. Crossway is the only publisher they’re familiar with. They tend not to know much about church history before 1517 (perhaps it began in 1517?).

On the other hand, people who are open to and even accepting of a vision of sovereignty in which God doesn’t meticulously determine everything (although He did purpose to send His Son! Jesus wasn’t wrong when he said, “I must do these things.”) didn’t go to a conference. They either simply (1) read the Bible as a believer in a straightforward way, or (2) when confronted with sovereignty, free will, and soteriology, they got interested in the topic and really sought to understand both sides of the discussion. Most Arminians I know who do not have a Free Will Baptist background like I do came to their beliefs through one of these two paths.

Some Concluding Reflections

I cannot or will not pretend to speak for all Arminians. However, having swam in these waters a while, I’ll offer a few concluding reflections on the vision of sovereignty that I believe Scripture presents us with, or is consistent with, and what it might look like to place that vision in dialogue with the one Piper has presented:

  • I do not think it is theologically careful or spiritually responsible to communicate: “You don’t get the Gospel if you don’t understand sovereignty this way.”[1] It’s no overstatement to say that Piper believes it is not only unbiblical to not see deterministic sovereignty as “the stitching that holds the Gospel together,” but people who do so are theologically reckless and spiritually impoverished.
  • For less charitable interpreters who would take this criticism of Piper further, let me be clear: Piper is not saying that non-Calvinists don’t believe the Gospel, and are therefore not saved. He does not go that far. He specifically says that many Christians try to disconnect the all-controlling sovereignty of God from the Gospel. So in making this observation/criticism, he is at least acknowledging the actual existence of such believers. However, Piper leaves himself totally open to this other charge when he says, “There is no Gospel apart from the sovereignty of God, the all-controlling sovereignty of God.” If he means that the way he states it, then it would imply either (a) non-Calvinist Christians who believe the Gospel are ignorant of some of its central content, namely all-controlling sovereignty (At best they’re inconsistent); or (b) Non-Calvinists are in fact not saved since they, by definition, do not accept the precious stitching of the fabric of the Gospel. I believe Piper would claim option a.
  • Meticulously determining every aspect of human existence is but one construal of divine sovereignty. In other words, it is not the only way for God could exercise sovereign control over His creation. Here I think of people who, when they hear the word “authority,” only think of a hierarchy, even though hierarchy is but one way for authority to operate.
  • It is very difficult to adopt theological determinism without coming to terms with its philosophical entailments, and that would involve facing up to issues of free will and moral responsibility, and the problem of evil. Determinists do have some options on how to answer those, but I don’t believe many Calvinists have fully wrestled with those.
  • Some Calvinists would reply to the last assertion by saying “Biblical claims trump philosophical tensions or inconsistencies.” Of course, this reply ignores the 2,000-year relationship between philosophy and theology. It is a complicated, but important one. The best of the Christian tradition, in my view, has seen philosophy as not a Master of theology, but a handmaiden or servant to it. If philosophical terms and concepts have been widely used in understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ, why not learn from it when it comes to how foreknowledge, free will, and the future might relate?[2]
  • God could have designed the world in any way He desired, but we don’t expect that  world and the way humans act in it and respond to God to contradict the way He reveals His character and will in His Word. So Arminians like me agree with Terence Freithem: “The divine sovereignty in creation is understood, not in terms of absolute divine control [determining every detail], but as a sovereignty that gives [permits] power over to the created for the sake of a relationship of integrity.”[3] Our inability to even imagine such a kind of sovereignty reflects our impoverished theological imagination being shaped in modern evangelicalism. Our unwillingness to do so reflects a lack of attentiveness to the breadth of the Christian tradition.

Much remains to be said about this discussion, and I pray it will be an honest, fruitful, Christ-like dialogue. I remain thankful for the ministry of John Piper and many Calvinists like him. It speaks to the sovereign grace of God that He would allow ministries like these to flourish, and for Arminians like me to freely choose to learn from them. But in the end, a sovereign God can exercise comprehensive control over a realm without also meticulously forcing every state of affairs. God is aware, He permits, restricts, and can certainly carry out his purposes for his church in a world that must choose Him.

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[1] This is not a direct quote, but rather my way of stating what I think Piper has at the very least implied, and all but stated explicitly.

[2] Some Calvinists espouse a theological (and philosophical) construct known as Compatibilism in which Divine sovereignty (understood deterministically) and free will are somehow compatible. D.A. Carson would be example of one such theologian. However, this view was not the view of Calvin or Edwards, nor is it the view of Piper.

[3] Terence Fretheim, “Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 1 (Nashville, Abingdon, 1994), 346.

New Work by Robert Picirilli

by Theological Commission

Robert Picirilli is a man who needs little introduction to the Free Will Baptist movement. He is our most significant biblical scholar, and one of the two most influential theologians we have produced in the modern period of our movement. We are especially blessed to have such a productive scholar among us even at this stage of his career.

In the last ten years, there has been a growing interest in non-Calvinist streams of Reformation theology, particularly that taught and embodied in the Dutch theologian James Arminius. Picirilli has contributed to this interest most notably through his 2002 publication Grace, Faith, and Free Will (Randall House). Appreciative followers of Picirilli will then be delighted to learn of his recently published article in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry entitled, “Toward a Non-Deterministic Theology of Providence.” This journal is one produced by the faculty and staff of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Though it is produced by Southern Baptists primarily for Southern Baptists, several Commission members (Matt Pinson, Jackson Watts) are among the non-Southern Baptists who have contributed to past editions.

Picirilli’s article in the latest journal without a doubt should be read and discussed by those in the larger Calvinist-Arminian dialogue. We encourage readers of this blog to check out the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry and read Dr. Picirilli’s article, found on pages 38-61 of the most recent journal.