Molinism and Divine Foreordination

The Westminister Confession states:

“God from all eternity did by the most and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established."

Molinists and Calvinists agree with the Westminister Confession quote which I quoted above. Molinists believe that everything that happens happens because God has foreordained it to happen. When the Molinist says this though, he means something very, very different from what the Calvinist means when the Calvinist says that everything that happens happens because God has foreordained it. When the Molinist says it, he means that God has foreordained everything in the sense that before God created the world, He had a potentially infinite list of possible worlds from which to choose from, which He could have caused to come into existence. You’ll remember what a possible world is from my treatment of The Ontological Argument For God’s Existence that I posted recently. I think maybe the best way to think of a possible world is to think of it as a conjunction of true propositions. Let’s imagine some propositions p, q, r, s, and so on. These would be statements like, “Bob Smith goes surfing in Hawaii in the year 2009,” “Bob Smith becomes a Christian in 2011” “Bob Smith reads this Cerebral Faith post in 2014.” and so on. These are all just various propositions. You can imagine a possible world as just a huge conjunction of such propositions:

p & q & r & s & . . .

So that all of the propositions that are true are included in that conjunction. We can alter some of these propositions – we can negate them – to arrive at a different possible world. For example, a series of possible worlds might be:

World #1 could be: p & q & r & s & . . .

World #2 could be: not-p & q & not-r & s & . . .

World #3 could be: not-p & not-q & r & s & . . .

World #4 could be: p & not-q & not-r & not-s & . . .

Each one of these will represent a different possible world – a maximal description of the way reality might be. When we are talking about possible worlds, we are not talking about parallel universes or other sorts of worlds that exist, populated with actual people and things. We are just talking about abstract descriptions, maximal descriptions, of the way reality might be. From a Molinist perspective, God had a potentially infinite list of these maximal descriptions that He could have actualized.

So, if world number 1 is a world where Bob goes surfing in 2009, becomes a Christian in 2011 and reads this very blog post in 2014, and God choses actualize world number 1, God, in a sense, foreordained that all of these things would come to pass, and He did so without causally determining all of Bob’s actions. How so? Well, on Molinism, God has 3 types of knowledge. There’s God’s natural knowledge, middle knowledge, and free knowledge. The first is God's knowledge of necessary truths or natural knowledge. These truths are independent of God's will and are non-contingent. This knowledge includes the full range of logical possibilities. Examples include statements like, "All bachelors are unmarried" or "X cannot be A and non-A at the same time, in the same way, at the same place" or "It is possible that X obtain" or “It is impossible for squares to be triangular”. The second is called “middle knowledge” and it contains the range of possible things that would happen given certain circumstances, for example “If Evan Minton chooses to eat fish at this particular restaurant rather than a burger, he would get food poisoning and have a miserable weekend.” or “If Evan’s dog breaks his leash and starts running after a squirrel, he would chase after it”. The third kind of knowledge is God's free knowledge. This type of knowledge consists of contingent truths that are dependent upon God's will; that is to say, truths that God brings about. Examples of this would include “God becomes incarnate in the first century A.D” or “God created the universe”. This is knowledge that God has because He has chosen to bring it about.

So, according to the Molinist, God not only knows what will happen and what could happen, but also what would happen. God literally knows everything there is to know about everything. He even knows counter-factuals (“If X happens, then Y would happen after it”). This is was beautifully illustrated in the moving Christmas film “It’s A Wonderful Life” In which God shows George Baley what the world would have been like without Him. It’s A Wonderful Life shows God’s middle knowledge. God knew George Bailey was going to be born but knew what would have happened if he never was (i.e the town gets renamed Pottersville, Soldiers die because George's brother couldn't save them because George wasn't around to save him and so on). God knows if what I would have done and who I would have married if I had been raised in sixteenth century Japan instead of twenty first century America.

Because God has middle knowledge, He knows what an agent would freely do in a particular situation. So, agent A, if placed in circumstance C, would freely choose option X over option Y. Thus, if God wanted to accomplish X, all God would do is, using his middle knowledge, actualize the world in which A was placed in C, and A would freely choose X. God retains an element of providence without nullifying A's choice and God's purpose (the actualization of X) is fulfilled.

God uses His middle knowledge in order to direct human history towards His envisioned goals. God knows what would happen in every single possible world because every single possible world has people in different circumstances and therefore making different choices. If God wants a person to do a certain thing, He will actualize a possible world where the history of the universe leads up to that moment in time where Agent A is in circumstance C and freely chooses the option of X over Y. God accomplishes X by creating a world where the history of human events leads up to that very moment.

Do Our Circumstances Determine What We Do?

Some people feel uncomfortable with Molinism because they think it logically entails a type of Divine Determinism. I can understand this discomfort as I used to have it myself. If God knows everything that will happen in a given world, and He actualizes that world where people are placed in circumstances where God knows in advance they’d choose X over Y, is this not fatalistic or deterministic in some way? God foreordained everything that came to pass because He chose to actualize a certain world where He knew in advance that all of those things were to occur should He actualize that particular possible world. Molinism, like Arminianism, emphasizes libertarian free will.

Think of it this way; what if you were going to buy your child a car for his 16th birthday. You know how he would react depending on which car you get him. If you buy him a sports car, you know that he would act ecstatic, he’d just be extremely grateful to you for the awesome viper or Ferrari or whatever. Now, if you get him an old broken down jalopy, you know that he would probably act disappointed. He might even be angry at you for getting him such a car. Now, let’s say you bring about one or the other circumstance and he behaves exactly as you predicted. Just because you knew how he would act and brought about the circumstance to get him to act that way, does that mean that he couldn’t possibly have done otherwise? It doesn’t seem that way to me. It seems like he very well could have acted in a different way than the way that he acted, it’s just that you know ahead of time that he wouldn’t act a different way.

Or think of this, as children, we had a pretty good idea how our parents would react depending on how we behaved. I knew my parents well enough to know that if I talked back to them, they would get even angrier than they already were. I knew that if I spit on them, they would be even angrier still. So, because I don’t want that situation to come about, I refrain from speaking. Now, if I in fact was disrespectful to my parents, thus bringing about their anger, does that mean they were causally determined to get angrier? No. They could have very well refrained from displaying any anger. They could have chosen to just walk away. My actualizing a situation to get a response out of them does not mean in any sense that I causally determined them. I see God’s providence in the same way.

So it seems to me that what we have with God’s middle knowledge and Him acting on His middle knowledge is an instance of would-do/would-not-do-differently situation rather than a could-do/could-not-do differently situation. If God knows that if I were placed in situation X, that I would choose A instead of B, and then He places me in situation X in order to get me to choose A. It doesn’t seem to me that I couldn’t have chosen B instead of A. God just knew ahead of time that I would not choose B and that I would choose A. I still could have chosen B and refrained from choosing A. Nothing causally determined me to choose A over B. Nothing forced my hand to pick A over B. Also, there were no factors which prohibited me from choosing B and refraining from choosing A. it’s just that God knew that I wouldn’t choose B, and I would choose A.

So, the situation is would do differently verses could do differently, and would not do differently verses could not do differently. We can do differently in a situation then what we do, it’s just that God knows that we won’t. In the same way that your son could act thankful for you getting him the jalopy even though you might know ahead of time that he would not act thankfully.

God knows everything that will happen in every possible world. But the only reason He knows what would happen in every possible world isn’t because He or any other factors causally determine us to behave in certain ways in these worlds, it’s simply because we make certain free choices in different circumstances. God doesn’t control what He knows about us in His middle knowledge. God Himself does not make the proposition “If Bob were placed in circumstance S, He would choose A instead of B” true. God does NOT decide what Bob or anyone else would freely choose in any given circumstance. If that’s the case, then who or what does make this proposition true? The answer: Bob! Bob makes this proposition true. God knows that Bob would freely choose A instead of B because that’s what Bob would choose. Bob made the proposition true. Bob’s own volition is why he chooses some things over others in various circumstances. God just simply knows in advance how He’ll choose and He takes advantage of this to get His ends accomplished without violating Bob’s freedom. Now, what if Bob were to choose differently in circumstance S? Let’s say God decides to choose B instead of A in circumstance S? Does that mean God’s middle knowledge was off? Could God be wrong? No! If Bob were to choose B instead of A in circumstance S, then that proposition would be in God’s middle knowledge.

The Arminian’s objection to God’s middle knowledge is similar to the Calvinist’s objection to even simple foreknowledge. The Calvinist and The Open Theist both believe that if God knows what we are going to do in advance, we cannot truly have free will. Because, they argue, if we were to choose an alternative, then God’s predictions of what we were going to choose would be off. But God, as a perfect being cannot be mistaken about anything. So they argue that our choices must occur. It’s impossible for us to choose anything else than what we choose. For if we could, then God would be wrong. So the Calvinist denies that we have free will while the Open Theist denies that God has any foreknowledge. Both positions are extremely problematic biblically and philosophically.

For example, on the night of Jesus’ arrest. Jesus predicted that Peter was going to deny him 3 times before the rooster crows. People will argue that if Peter exercised his free will and chose not to deny Jesus, then Jesus’ prediction would have been wrong. How can a God with perfect foreknowledge make such a mistake? I don’t think this objection holds water. My view is not that God’s foreknowledge determines what we do,  but that what we do determines God’s foreknowledge. In the case of Peter’s denying Christ, I submit to you that if Peter chose not to deny Christ, then Jesus never would have made the prediction in the first place! If Peter actually chose not to deny Christ, then Jesus’ response to Peter saying “I’ll never deny you” would be “You’re exactly right, Peter!”

If Peter chose to affirm Christ, then THAT’S what Jesus would foreknow and He wouldn’t have predicted that Peter was going to deny him. If Peter chose to deny Christ, then THAT’s what Jesus would foreknow and Jesus actually would have made the prediction.

God’s foreknowledge doesn’t determine what we do. What we do determines God’s foreknowledge. And I hold that the same is true of God’s middle knowledge. God doesn’t determine what we would do in any given circumstance. What we would do determines God’s middle knowledge.

I know I quote William Lane Craig a lot, but he really does have some amazing insights. In response to a question from someone regarding Molinism and Free will.

Dr. Craig writes in response to this person

“There are indefinitely many free choices that you could make in those circumstances, e.g., you get up and leave, you order a Coke, you tell the waiter to get lost, etc. Of course, if you were to do any of those things, then the omniscient being’s knowledge of what you will do would have been different. Because the omniscient being’s knowledge of what you will do is a soft fact about the past, it is not independent of how you will freely choose. In cases like this you have the power to act in such a way that if you were to act in that way, some past fact would have been different than it is. Cases like these justify the use of certain so-called “back-tracking counterfactuals” to the effect that if you were to perform some action A at t, then some fact prior to t would have been different. We run into the same sort of situation in thought experiments involving cases of time travel or backward causation. “

Read the entire question and response here:

Does This Mean That God Sanctions Everything That Occurs In The World He Actualizes?

Not at all! There are many things in this world that God hates with a fiery passion! He hates that people all over the world do evil to one another every single day. He hates that some people reject His offer of salvation for those very evil acts which they have committed. He hates that there is suffering in the world. However, there are many things in this world God does like and wanted to occur. I don’t have nearly enough space to address this issue fully as this is a somewhat complex issue and whole books could be written on this topic. But there are two aspects of God’s will. There’s God’s initial will and God’s permissive will. His Initial Will is what God desires to happen. The former involves things God wants. The latter involves things that God dislikes and does not want because in many cases, He knows that something He does want will come out of it. I go into a lot more detail on this in my post “The Problem of Evil and Suffering (Revisited)”.

For example, suppose God wants a particular unbeliever to commit his life to Christ and be saved. In order for God to bring this about, He would have to get me (or some other Christian) and this unbeliever (We’ll call him “Todd”) in the same place where a conversation about Christianity will come up. God knows in His middle knowledge that if Todd talks to me about The Bible, He would make a commitment to Christ. This commitment to Christ is what God intensely desires (2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4). So God allows Todd to get cancer. God knows that if Todd gets cancer, he would freely choose to go to the hospital in order to undergo chemo therapy so that he can survive. And let’s say that God knows that if He lets me get into an automobile accident, I would end up at that hospital as well and in fact, in the same room as Todd, and that a conversation about the gospel would shortly ensue. God knows all of this in his middle knowledge. So, God in fact allows Todd to get cancer and He allows me to get into a car accident so that we end up at the same place, at the same time in order to have a conversation about the gospel.

This relates to the problem of suffering in that this illustration shows that God can allow bad things to happen in order to bring about a greater good. Before the first verse of Genesis 1, God decided to actualize this world in which all of these things so in fact come to pass. In fact, there were probably trillions of complex interactions between free agents and natural events which lead up to that very moment, and if any one of those interactions or natural events were not to occur, Todd and I would never have arrived in the above situation. Every time travel enthusiast knows what I’m talking about. You change one thing about the past and the entire future goes out of whack.

Now, you might ask “Couldn’t God have managed different scenarios somehow in order to get Todd saved? Why did the situation have to involve such suffering for both you and Todd?” Well, I think it is very possible that Todd would have given his life to Christ under a different circumstance. Indeed, even in a circumstance that didn’t involve me at all. I thought about this with regards to my own salvation. There could be different times and places in which God knew I would give my life to Christ. But here’s the thing: the universe doesn’t revolve around me or the hypothetical Todd. Yes, God likely could have saved me and Todd under at least 2 or 3 different scenarios, but in that case, other purposes of God may have been thwarted.

For example, what if Todd, because he became a Christian at that precise moment, he’s able to witness to other unbelievers sooner than he could have if he became a Christian in a different scenario at a much later date. But let’s say that in the hospital scenario above, Todd gives his life to Christ, studies Christian Apologetics and writes an apologetics blog and/or books on the subject. After writing these blog posts and books, he ends up converting several people at certain points in time (say, 4 years after his conversion in the hospital). In a possible world where Todd actually gets regenerated 10 years later than the time of the hospital scenario, he would not have had the impact on these lives that he did in the former scenario.

I think you can begin to see that God’s providence over the whole of human history is so extremely complex that finite creatures cannot ever possibly comprehend it. Thanks to Molinism though, we can comprehend it to a very small extent. We can get an idea of how God gets things done without causally determining everything.

In my Todd-Hosptial illustration, there were things God wanted to happen and took pleasure in, and there were also things God did not want to happen and things He did not take pleasure in. God took pleasure in Todd giving his life to Christ, become a famous apologist and contributing to the advancement of His kingdom. He did not take pleasure in the suffering that Todd and I had to endure in order to get to that point though.

God allowed things He took displeasure in because He knew that they would eventually bring about things that He did take pleasure in.

God even works this way on Himself. Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity, took great displeasure in His own sacrificial death. By that, I mean that Jesus wasn't having a whole lot of fun when his flesh was being ripped from His body and his median nerves were being destroyed by the nails being driven through His wrists. It was a horrifying experience! He was suffering under the intense wrath of God the Father for the sins of every single human being! It was unpleasant both physically and spiritually. Nevertheless, although He didn’t take pleasure in having to go through all that, He did take great pleasure in the millions and millions of souls that would be saved from eternal damnation because of His death. When Jesus was hanging on that cross in agony, we can easily imagine Jesus thinking something like  “This is horrifying! My skin has practically been ripped off! Almost all of the blood in my body is gone! I, the second person of the Godhead, for the first time in eternity, is experiencing the separation from the other two Trinitarian persons! I can no longer feel the presence of my Father or The Holy Spirit! But…this is worth it. I will save so many of those I love and cherish by my own agony. Because I’m going through this, millions and millions of human beings won’t have to. I hate feeling this pain, but to spend eternity with those I love is worth it.”

God allows things He doesn’t like (e.g the crucifixion) to bring about things that He does like (e.g the salvation of human beings). God allows things He doesn’t like (e.g Todd getting cancer and me getting into an automobile accident) to bring about something He does like (e.g the salvation of Todd and the salvation of those Todd would influence and perhaps other things that come about as a result of Todd’s early conversion).

So, no. Even though God foreordained everything to happen via middle knowledge of what everyone *would* do and what things *would* happen, it doesn’t mean He takes pleasure out of everything that occurs. Given God’s good and loving nature, He likely takes displeasure in the means but takes pleasure in the ends.

I’ll End On An Analogy.

Even though God foreordains everything by choosing to actualize a possible world, He doesn’t determine our day to day actions and choices. Our own volitions are the reasons we choose what we choose. Here’s another analogy: Let’s say you have 100 DVDs to stick into your DVD player. Let’s say you’ve seen these movies before and know what’s going to happen in every single movie. Depending on which movie you choose, you are, therefore, by your choice, foreordaining what will appear on your TV screen. Now, does this mean that you causally determined what would appear on the TV screen simply by deciding what movie to put in the player? No! Does it mean that everything in the movie had to happen? Again, not neccesarilly. For example, the script writers could have chosen a different plot, different character names, different outcomes, different actors, etc. etc. etc. The actors could choose not to participate in the filming of the movie. Nothing you did causally determined what the actors would say, what the script would be, what the characters’ names would be or anything like that. Everyone in the making of the film determined these things. You just knew….in advance….what would happen on the screen if you chose to insert this particular DVD.

Does it mean you took pleasure in everything that came about on the screen? No. While you might take great pleasure in many things about the movie, there are probably things you don’t like about it. Perhaps one of your favorite characters die. Perhaps a particular couple doesn’t get together in the end. Perhaps you don’t like hearing curse words and the F bomb is dropped a few times. Nevertheless, although it’s not a perfect movie, it is an overall good movie. Indeed, perhaps it’s even the best movie you have in your collection (the best feasible world). Even though there are other movies probably better than the best one in your collection (the best possible world). But you don’t have this movie in your collection, so you cannot put in into the DVD player.