What is Molinism?

Since this blog was started partly due to a push to popularize Molinism, I thought it was only appropriate to kick it off with a post explaining what it is (and what it isn’t) to serve as a reference point for future posts.

The Twin Pillars

Nearly all Christians have held to two truths as taught in Scripture: God is sovereign and man  is free.1  By sovereignty I mean that everything in the world (regardless of how big or small) is under God’s control and is incorporated into His overall plan for the world and by freedom I mean that (at least some of the time) we can choose otherwise than we in fact do.  This freedom is generally regarded as necessary for moral responsibility.

Molinists also hold to another belief, one that is, on the face of it, quite natural.  We believe that if an action is truly free, then it cannot be causally determined.  This is known as incompatibilism and many Calvinists reject it in favor of compatibilism, where human freedom is compatible with our actions being causally determined.  Believing in both freedom of the will and incompatibilism is know as libertarianism, which is the Molinist understanding of human freedom.

Needless to say, these twin truths have caused theologians and philosophers of religion much trouble throughout history, with most reconciliations either weakening the notion of sovereignty or diminishing man’s freedom, as open theism and divine causal determinism each respectively do.  Molinism is a way of reconciling these two truths without doing violence to either free will or God’s sovereignty.

Middle Knowledge

Briefly stated, Molinism can be seen as grounding God’s sovereignty in His omniscience rather than His omnipotence.  How does this work?  Suppose your friend offered to buy your favorite coffee mug (complete with a picture of Molina himself, of course) from you for $15.  Would you take the offer?  Or will it take at least $50 to separate you from your prized mug?

This is a situation which is not actual, your friend is not actually offering to buy your mug, but it could be.  If it were to happen, then you would either accept or reject his offer and there is a truth to it one way or the other.  It does not have some indeterminate truth value until you are placed in the situation and then takes one on only after you choose.  It was always true or false that if you were to be placed in that set of circumstances, then you would sell your mug.

Propositions of the form “if placed in circumstances C, person P would perform action A” are known as counterfactuals of creaturely freedom.  They state what a free creature would do when placed in a certain set of circumstances.  We can now understand the situation above as corresponding to the counterfactual “If your friend offered you $50, then you would sell your mug.”  This counterfactual has been either true or false from all eternity, yet is based solely on what you would freely do, it’s truth is determined by how you would respond, not the other way around.2

It should be fairly clear that there are infinitely many counterfactuals describing what every free creature would do in every possible set of circumstances.  Some of these are true and some are false.  Since God is omniscient, he knows which ones are true and which ones are false from eternity past, and this knowledge is what we call Middle Knowledge.

Stated explicitly then, God’s Middle Knowledge is God’s knowledge of how every free creature would freely act when placed in any set of circumstances.  How does this relate to sovereignty though?  It’s surprisingly simple: God creates just those people and puts them in just those circumstances such that His will is accomplished through their free actions.

This allows for a robust view of sovereignty while at the same time granting people genuine freedom.  Every action we make is due to the fact that God desired us to perform it or, at the very least, permitted it in the case of evil actions.  Nothing catches God by surprise and nothing happens contrary to His will since He has ordained everything which occurs, using His middle knowledge to accomplish it.

At the same time, humans are genuinely free.  Nothing about middle knowledge precludes human freedom.  The mere knowledge of how a person would act does not causally determine the action.  We can still make genuinely free choices, God simply knows what they would be and uses them to accomplish His purposes.

What Molinism is Not

Molinism gets critiqued from all sorts of theological camps, each thinking that it is something that it is not.  Ironically, many Calvinists claim that it is too Arminian while many Arminians claim that it is too Calvinistic.

Most of these issues can be responded to if we realize that Molinism is only a view of providence.  It’s proponents hold to a wide variety of theological positions from many theological camps.  As a result, most critiques are actually of applying Molinism to other doctrines, but not to Molinism proper, so I decided to close with some typical red herrings:

  1. Molinism is not a soteriology.  This is perhaps the most important thing to grasp.  Many Molinists incorporate insights from Molinism into their view of salvation, but Molinism proper makes no claims on how salvation works, it is entirely consistent to hold to TULIP while at the same time affirming Molinism and likewise it is entirely consistent to be an Arminian and a Molinist.
  2. Molinism does not take a stand on the depravity of man.  The only thing Molinism states is that man at least sometimes makes genuinely free choices.  It does not affirm that man is not corrupted by sin nor does it state that man can make the first move towards God.  It it silent on these issues and every Molinist I have read emphatically affirms the depravity of mankind.
  3. Molinism does not diminish God’s sovereignty.  Some argue that since God’s middle knowledge is contingent upon the free actions of humans, then God’s plans are subservient to man’s will.  This is not true at all.  We claim that God cannot accomplish His will via certain means, not that God cannot accomplish His will.  He could causally determine us to act according to His plan when He knows we won’t act as He desires, this is not an issue for the Molinist.

 

1. Because the vast majority of Christians hold to either libertarianism or compatibilism, I take it as non-controversial that freedom of the will is the default position for Christians. What “freedom of the will” means, however, has been vigorously debated.
2. This is speaking loosely, of course. The question of what grounds counterfactuals of creaturely freedom is another heavily debated subject.

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