The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Calvinism and Molinism: Bill Craig beat me to it


Don’t you hate it when you think you’ve had an original thought – and it it may well be original in the sense that you came up with it yourself – and you plan to share it as your own idea, but then you discover that someone well-known has beaten you to it?

I’ve been friendly towards a Calvinist (or Augustinian) view on providence and salvation for a number of years now. In more recent years, I’ve become more sympathetic to Molinism, the view grounded in divine middle knowledge, although I don’t hold this view, and I think it is unlikely that I will. I became frustrated with a couple of things.

Firstly, although what warmed me up to Calvinism is my view of the biblical teaching on sin, grace and salvation, when somebody finds out that I’m kindly disposed to that Calvinism, one of the first things they want to grill me about is their understanding of a Calvinist take on God’s relationship to time, or fatalism, or something along those lines.

Secondly, it became clear to me that some Molinists that I know, and certainly some opponents of Molinism, seem to think that this is a significant alternative to a Calvinist view. And certainly, it is not Calvinism. But something that is an essential part of Molinism can certainly be maintained by a Calvinist, even though some people seem to talk about it as incompatible with Calvinism.

About a year ago these things came to a head for me when I sat down to start spelling out exactly why I, as a Calvinist, was bound to reject Molinism. Because the Molinists I knew, as far as I was aware, took their view to be a type of non-Calvinism (I want to say Arminianism but it is not that simple), my objection was along the following lines: Molinism presents God as looking down the tunnel of time at the potential futures of the possible worlds he could create, and choosing to create one of them, knowing what you, I, and everyone else in that world, would do as a response to His offer of saving grace. In some versions of Molinism (as far as I can tell, the one held by William Lane Craig), God then, on the basis of this knowledge, chooses to create the world in which the maximum number of people come to have faith in Him and receive eternal life. That’s where my objection arose. My objection was that given the biblical doctrine of depravity (a doctrine that I take to be thoroughly biblical), that number of people would still be exactly zero unless God, in true Calvinist style, sovereignly intervened.

As I considered this, it became clear to me that I was dealing with two distinct animals. The really “Molinist” part of this picture was primarily about the model of divine foreknowledge involved (namely middle knowledge), and crucially, this is not the part of the picture that I was objecting to. I was objecting to the second part of the equation, which involved one of two possibilities: Either it involves a flat out denial of total depravity, affirming that people are capable of attaining saving faith simply by force of natural will – which is sufficiently free of the effects of sin that it is free enough to do this all by itself, or it involves a doctrine of “prevenient grace,” where God gives everyone sufficient grace to empower the will in such a way as it may as well not be totally depraved, since it, thanks to this gift of grace, has the ability to respond faithfully to the proclamation of the Gospel.

So there was my new idea – or so I thought. I should get cracking and write a short piece on this: You can hold to a Calvinist soteriology and still be sympathetic to Molinism (even though you can’t hold to Molinism)! I checked over the idea a few times, and it looked pretty immune from obvious rebuttal. I hoped that Bill Craig wouldn’t mind – the last thing I wanted was to have a heavyweight like that critiquing me…

Well, I discovered today that I needn’t fear that. While browsing through Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, I took a look at the presentation of the Calvinist/Augustinian view by Paul Helm, and then the Middle Knowledge response from Bill Craig – and what do you think I found? Helm started out by presenting an argument concerning the efficacy of divine grace on salvation – a clearly soteriological issue. Bill Craig responded:

His first argument, based on the efficacy of God’s saving grace, is, however, irrelevant. There is just no connection (as Calvin himself, quoted by Helm, recognized) between the intrinsic efficacy of saving grace and divine foreknowledge.

He adds in a footnote:

Someone who thinks foreknowledge and libertarian freedom are clearly consistent [as Craig does – GP] could nonetheless be a Calvinist when it comes to the intrinsic efficacy of saving grace, and a theological fatalist could deny that saving grace is intrinsically efficacious.

So much for my original idea.


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  1. Rupee

    Let me try to clarify this for myself. Molinism seems like the old determination to seek to guard the sanctity of human free will. God, from eternity past, considers all the possible paths of history, with its infinite permutations, and chooses to direct it according to how many sinners will (of their own free will) be saved. The difference with standard Calvinism being that God manipulates external events only (and not the will of man directly) – it’s just that He knows exactly what will appeal to a sinner to result in the sinner choosing to be saved.

    The efficacy of saving grace is then limited to its power to wash a sinner clean of sin once he chooses to be saved, rather than its power to create an entirely new love within the sinner’s heart. I.e., God does not meddle with man’s free will, but rather controls circumstance so that the sinner’s will freely chooses salvation (external, but not internally effective grace). One could argue that grace is also the cause of God’s choice of history’s path so that that particular sinner comes to faith.

    Whatever the case, wouldn’t Molinism (as I understand it from your argument) challenge the Calvinistic view of regeneration? As I understand it, regeneration must happen before a sinner comes to faith – it is a work of God in the heart of man, not mere external circumstances working on the natural free will. The foreknowledge argument would seem to prefer the idea that a person first freely chooses salvation and is then given new birth etc. It has a somewhat different understanding of what grace is efficient for. Also, God becomes subject to an external force of cause and effect, though only with regard to man’s freedom of choice.

    I may be completely off track, but you’ve raised some interesting thought material. Let me know what you think.

  2. Hi Rupee

    I’ve been talking about Molinism insofar as it need not take a stance on the process of regeneration – namely its stance on middle knowledge. But yes, you’re right. I realise that Molinists also add in a lot of Arminian baggage about prevenient grace and the order of faith and regeneration. I think you can be a Calvinist who holds to a Molinist view of divine foreknowledge – provided you continue to hold that nobody will be saved unless God sovereignly acts to regenerate sinners to bring them to faith.

  3. Hmph! I’ve been an avid molinist for the last 3 years but I’m starting to get more and more reformed in my soteriology. I started seeing exactly what you’ve described here, namely that of course God can know what we would have done if this happened or that happened, as that is part of his omniscience, but that the idea of us being able to choose God first seemed utterly unbiblical!
    Also, scripture started changing my mind on the compatibility between human choice and divine sovereignty, the whole Pharaoh’s heart being hardened example being huge, as well as Pilate’s choice to hand Jesus over to the crowds (ie this was clearly part of God’s plan and it would not have been possible for pilate to have let christ free, however pilate is still completely responsible for his action). Scripture started opening up to me when it said God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and then a few verses later is said Pharaoh hardened his own heart! So who was responsible, God or Pharaoh? Well both, clearly. Yet a armenian molinist would say “ohh no, God looked into the future and saw that Pharaoh would harden his own heart and then God hardened his heart cos of that!” I want to be charitable and not pick fights within Christendom but tbh that strikes me as incredibly dishonest, maybe because when I was doing the same thing earlier I knew that I was relying on my own understanding rather than just letting the Bible teach me. I had a stubborn, prideful hatred of the idea that I didn’t choose God, that he choose me. Now I see the riches of God’s sovereignty, but only through his grace! 🙂

  4. Glenn hi, this may be slightly off topic. I read your debate with Thomas Talbott. You took the position there that it’s unfair to say that someone who believes God has bound over 99% of the world to disobedience with the intention of torturing them eternally for doing what they couldn’t help, does not believe in a God of love even if they say that they do. Now I know that’s not your own position, and I think Calvinism and common grace are dramatically less problematic when combined with conditionalism, as in your theology but I wanted to take issue with your apparent stance that we should never describe an opponents view in terms they wouldn’t accept. An example, say you describe the Arminian position which affirms salvation by grace alone. Then you observe that for them the difference between sheep and goats lies in their own free will response, not in anything God does. Couldn’t you then say “It seems to me that if the difference between the elect and reprobate lies in their choice rather than God’s then is not grace alone. So Arminians believe they believe in salvation by grace, but I am forced to conclude that in reality they don’t”. Wouldn’t that be fair. Surely one way of criticising a position, after stating it accurately in its original form, is to restate it in terms you consider equivalent but they would not, and to challenge them to show why your formulation is not equivalent to theirs?

  5. Also does your comment on Molinism mean you think we have libertarian freedom except with respect to the Gospel? I’ve always wondered why no one seems to take that stance.

  6. Glenn, I apologise for posting three times in a row, but I wanted to say this re free will. All agree that the Bible talks of freedom and choice and judgement for wrong choices. The Calvinist says “Ah, but nowhere does the scripture talk of Libertarian free will, it might be talking of compatibilism.” Let’s grant that. Compatibilism is a respectable stance which the majority of moral philosophers share. The problem is you deny compatibilist freedom as defined by moral philosophers. If a compatibilist enters a room and his host fails to stand he will say “his choice was fully determined but he is still responsible for it” The Calvinist agrees. But if you tell the compatibilist that the man was implanted with a chip at birth that prevents him from choosing to stand (even while making him believe that the choice is his own) the compatibilist will aquit him of responsibility, (the mind control machine being a limiting case of compatibilism). The Calvinist must say that if the chip was implanted by God then the man is still responsible. In fact he does say it (with respect to choosing God, if not to standing and sitting) , he just calls the chip total depravity.
    The philosopher assumes man to be naturally capable both of willing and doing good, in this case, and evil in that. Calvinists don’t. So Calvinist deny both Libertarian freedom and Compatibilist freedom as the philosopher understands it. Instead they affirm a Humpty Dumpty freedom recognised by no one else. Sure you will say that’s what the Bible teaches. But putting a nonsense in Gods mouth doesn’t make sense of it. If I were to say when we read of salvation by grace not works the bible means a reward for intrinsic merit as opposed to particular deeds, wouldn’t you say I’m denying the plain meaning of the quote? That’s how it looks to me when you say “choose this day between life and death” the bible means we can only choose death absent irresistable grace and only choose life present such grace. I could argue from the Bible but I won’t. You have an interpretation of all the verses as do Arminians. But a debate sheds no light if either side (yes Arminians too) are able to say “freedom means slavery” or “grace means reward for merit”. There’s a difference between interpreting and simply talking nonsense. Please don’t think it’s my intention to offend. I don’t reject all Reformed insights and I admire the courage of five pointers. Cheers

  7. “Couldn’t you then say “It seems to me that if the difference between the elect and reprobate lies in their choice rather than God’s then is not grace alone. So Arminians believe they believe in salvation by grace, but I am forced to conclude that in reality they don’t”.”

    You won’t make progress in discussion that way, because you’ll just end up describing their position in terms that they don’t recognise. I think the charitable way to go is to say: They believe that salvation is by grace alone, but they also believe some things that – if they understood the consequences – would cause them to believe that salvation is not by grace alone.

    Whether or not people connect such dots is very strongly controlled by their will, rather than simply their intellect. It may well be that the Arminian has good reasons to believe that salvation is not by grace alone (since they maintain that the difference between those who are saved and those who are not are differences that reside within the human recipient of salvation). But they might genuinely believe that there are no such reasons. They affirm that salvation is by grace (because the Bible says that) and yet they affirm that the sinner makes the difference between a person who is saved and one who is unsaved. It is not clear why they must therefore say that they don’t really believe the former (that salvation is by grace). Why can’t we say that in reality they don’t believe that latter (that the sinner makes the difference)? We don’t get to make such calls. They believe both, but they should not believe both.

    One further comment: “The philosopher assumes man to be naturally capable both of willing and doing good, in this case, and evil in that. Calvinists don’t.”

    You might wish to pass this memo on to Calvinist philosophers. Evidently they aren’t really philosophers! 🙂

  8. Glenn, thanks for your response. I won’t prolong the debate on any of my posts. You don’t have the time. I shall just read and absorb your wisdom and your graciousness in disagreement. I like your style. Cheers

  9. Glenn, still reflecting on your comments but let me apologise for any implication that you are not a philosopher! Clearly you are, of some stature. I should have spoken of non Calvinist philosophers. I also plough the philosophical furrow. If it interests you there is an essay on the philosophy page of my website (I won’t promote it here, you have the address) defending the philosophical coherence and empirical plausibility of Libertarian Free Will. It’s entitled “On the Imagination of the Artist”. Cheers

  10. Cheers for that.

  11. Giles

    I’ve just worked out I’m at least a three point Calvinist! So I shouldn’t be throwing stones from glass houses. Actually 3.25, I am allowing fractions, like 0.75 for total depravity because like CS Lewis I don’t think our consciences have fallen as far as the rest of us. I was shocked at my score. Guess I better take the beam out of my own eye. Though if Calvinism is the beam you might say I should keep it in.

  12. Dan

    “Also does your comment on Molinism mean you think we have libertarian freedom except with respect to the Gospel? I’ve always wondered why no one seems to take that stance.”

    I am curious about this as well. Seems to me that rather than choosing the contingencies that will allow for the most people to be saved, God would choose the set of contingencies that will ensure the salvation of His elect.

  13. Giles

    I have actually now embraced that we have libertarian freedom with respect to all but the Gospel. I’m a Calviminian. I think God chooses some of those he could bring to him without violating their libertarian freedom, and passes over others.
    However I think this relates to the class who are saved from the judgement and judge the world with Christ. I see another class who are saved at the judgement, called in one place sheep, in another those written in the book of life (allowing that the judges are also sheep and written in the book). Notwithstanding the exegetical difficulties of inclusivism, I don’t see how Christians can be at once the class of judges saved from the judgement and at the same time the class saved at the judgement. So in my Calviminian system we all have libertarian free will to pray the tax collector’s prayer, which secures justification at the judgement, but we don’t all have freedom to accept Jesus and judge the world with him.
    To me it makes the best sense of the “Calvinist” and the “Arminian” verses.

  14. Giles

    I think that’s a little different from the position you are sketching out. As I understand you God would make it 100% certain that the elect would choose God, and 100% certain the reprobrate would reject him, but both would have libertarian freedom with respect to other choices? So your system is more Calvinist than mine, (in which God chooses some of those whose libertarian pre commitments guarantee they will receive the Gospel if God removes the scales from their eyes). Nevertheless both models affirm libertarian freedom in choices that don’t touch the Gospel. I think both Calvinists and Arminians would do well to consider some such synthesis.

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