Tuesday, October 01, 2019

A review of a book on Molinism

This is an enlarging of the text of a review that was published some time ago

Molinism, The Contemporary Debate, ed. Ken Perszyk, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011, vii+320 pages)

The popularity of ideas, as that of other things, ebbs and flows. This is true even in philosophy, where the intention is for reason to prevail. In philosophy there is intense clarification of concepts and their implications, and deployment of arguments in which these concepts figure.  Arguments may be proved to be invalid, or to be based on ideas which are dubious because confused.  When I was younger Logical Positivism and its effects prevailed. It has the characteristic thesis that unless a proposition could be verified or falsified (or is in principle verifiable and falsifiable) by sense experience it was cognitively, i.e. literally meaningless. It was counter-argued that by that standard many scientific claims are unverifiable or unfalsifiable, and that scientific laws appear to be verifiable or falsifiable in principle. Many other propositions were unfalsifiable yet meaningful. Why then not theological propositions? For a while the arguments go to and fro, some being convinced that logical positivism is indefensible, others that it is defensible, and many in-between. And what of the ‘private language argument’? Time was when students wrote doctoral theses on the topic. What usually happens is after some time a tiredness settles over the academic community, as the arguments for what is fashionable are rehearsed and re-visited, and as little new light emerges. People look for other things to argue about. The wheel turns.

In the 1970’s Alvin Plantinga defended and developed the free will defensce against the charge that it is inconsistent to suppose that there is evil in a universe created by an all-good, all-powerful God. Plantinga’s adherence to a libertarian account of human freedom is crucial to this argument. It is fair to say that he elaborated this argument with a sophistication that is without parallel in the modern literature. In what may be called the second phase of this work he employed the newly-developed semantics of modal logic to argue that God can know the counterfactuals of freedom, propositions such as ‘If A were placed in circumstances C, he would freely choose to X rather than Y’. He knows what would happen in the future since he knows what A would freely do if placed in circumstances C. God can then ’weakly actualise’ C in some circumstances which best suit his purposes knowing that, say, in those circumstances A will choose X. (For details, see Plantinga God. Freedom and Evil, 49f).

Little did Plantinga know (until it was pointed out to him by the likes of Anthony Kenny and Bob Adams), that by that argument he had thereby re-invented the Molinist doctrine of middle knowledge: that besides God’s natural knowledge, and his free knowledge, he possesses middle knowledge, knowledge of the counterfactuals of human freedom (and , for all I know, of angelic freedom, as well).  By actualizing a possible world in which this state of affairs is true, God can ensure that creaturely freedom is preserved for someone as well retaining his immaculate knowledge of the future free actions of his creatures. Bingo!

Perhaps it is too precipitate to conclude that there remains some doubt in the minds of some involved in this matter whether even the divine omniscience can embrace the counterfactuals of indeterminate acts. It is said to depend on the grounding ‘objection’. That an individual with equipoise between A and not-A gives vanishly small evidence of which his free choice will go for.

Plantinga’s proposal precipitated an avalanche of discussion on Molinism. Parts of Molina’s Concordia were translated into English for the first time, and several philosophical theologians became avowed Molinists, applying the insights not only to the problem of evil, but to the incarnation, providence, prayer, heaven and hell, perseverance in grace, and so on. The main practitioners here are Tom Flint (Divine Providence and innumerable articles) and Bill Craig (The Only Wise God and equally innumerable articles, and other books). The likes of Flint and Craig were prominently challenged, among others, by William Hasker, for whom how God might know the future free actions of his creatures, and they be brought about, is beside the point, he being an Open Theist.  Some of the articles by these and others have been collected  in Middle Knowledge: Theory and Applications edd. William Hasker, David Basinger and Eef Dekker, (Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang, 2000)

Now there is another collection, welcome of course, but several features about it suggest that, after a surge of interest, the Molinist tide is ebbing. No one now gets excited over the ‘grounding objection’ to Molinism, the objection that God cannot have knowledge of future free actions unless he has evidence, and what could that evidence be, given libertarian freedom? A number of contributions review and summarise the course of arguments in ‘Molinist studies’ without offering any new arguments, while others go to topics at the margin, such as theodicy (and hard determinism).  This also suggests that the tide of interest and philosophical argument and counter-argument is retreating, and that Molinism will drop in the league table of interest to be replaced by the next issue to attract interest. 

In his helpful Introduction to this new collection Ken Perszyk not only provides interesting historical background, he restates the distinction between the theory of middle knowledge, its perspicuous statement, and the discussion of resources that may be called upon to overcoming of objections to its deployment, on the one hand its application, to grace, predestination and free will and other theological areas. The question, can it fly? raises one set of questions. If so, where can it fly to? raises another, though it would misleading to suppose that those who are interested in this second question wait patiently until the first question is settled, if it can be settled to general satisfaction. And this is fair enough, because the second question can in any case be raised hypothetically: if Molinism were to be theoretically satisfactory, where could it be deployed?

Among the chief theoretical questions are: questions about the counterfactuals of freedom, whether there can be any that are true; our old friend the ‘grounding objection’. This is featured here in two summary discussions, Hasker, ‘The (Non)-Existence of Molinist Counterfactuals’, and Tom Flint in ‘Whence and Whither the Molinist Debate: A Reply to Hasker’), and the latest rounds of the debate. A second kind of theoretical objection, that concerned with bringing about counterfactuals of freedom, making them true by what we do, is also discussed. This features Hasker again, and Flint and Trenton Merricks. And there is discussion about whether there can be true counterfactuals of freedom prior to God’s decree of them. Objections along this line go back to J.L. Mackie. The remaining papers are by Dean Zimmerman and Merricks, Edwin Mares and Ken Perszyk, Edward Wierenga, William Lane Craig and Greg Restall Those by Derk Pereboom, Hugh McCann and perhaps John Fischer, on determinism and providence, the free will defense, and on what Molinism does and does not imply, stand apart from the main lines of argument. Some of the papers are quite technical, because a further reason for discussing Molinism is a philosophical interest in conditionals and modality. All the discussions on the theological use of Molinism have this in common: an overriding concern to safeguard human libertarian freedom. This needs to be borne in mind when we read, for example, that middle knowledge provides ‘the reconciliation of divine sovereignty and human freedom’, William Lane Craig means divine sovereignty in the Arminian sense.) But it is not obvious that the counterfactuals of indeterministic choices  are consistent with the powers of the God of classical theism.

The recently published volume contributing to Calvinism and Middle Knowledge,  A Conversation, edited by John D. Laing, Kirk R. MacGregor and Greg Welty (Eugene Or. Wipf and Stock, 2019)  is certainly interesting. As regards so-called ‘applied’ Molinism, the satisfactoriness or otherwise of these discussions  depends in part on what one regards as a satisfactory Christian doctrine, even a satisfactory Calvinist doctrine!  But intriguing as it is, Molinism cannot be allowed to determine the contours of a Christian doctrine  or how it is to be formulated, much less control what counts as Calvinism.

Harking back to the objection to there being true counterfactuals of freedom prior to God’s decreeing of them, this is one of the few places at which contemporary discussion of Molinism connects with the original Reformed objections to Middle Knowledge. Theologians such as William Twisse and Samuel Rutherford were not so much interested in whether Molinism was internally satisfactory as in cutting it off at the root because they could not conceive of any counterfactuals of creaturely freedom being true that were not first decreed by God, and true because of this, and so part of his free knowledge. So they argued ad hominem against Molinism by denying the very idea of middle knowledge.  Their answer to the ‘grounding’ objection would be that what grounds the truth is not evidence that exists apart from the decree of God, but that decree. So the idea of middle knowledge, some category between the natural and free knowledge of God, is inadmissible. How could it be known to God that in circumstances C, A will freely do P other than by being unconditionally decreed by him, and so being an aspect of the divine free knowledge. If God cannot know this it cannot be true? (Do I hear you say that there is some equivocation in these debates in the use of ‘knowledge’ in phrases such as ‘middle knowledge’ and ‘God’s free knowledge’? Indeed there may be, but the fact goes largely unnoticed.)

For the Reformed who debated Molinism in the seventeenth century, God’s knowledge of what takes place in his creation, whatever else it is, is knowledge of what he will decree. So the idea that there are states of affairs, including the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, which are distinct from the divine mind and which are made true or false only by acts of creaturely freedom which God abets by supporting and enabling, but which he does not foreknow, is quite unacceptable. Theologians such as Bruce Ware, who find a place for ‘Reformed Molinism’ (God’s Greater Glory, pp.110-112) are an odd and an inexplicable exception. The problem with introducing such a theological view into the current work on middle knowledge is that it has the effect of changing the subject.

This is why those philosophers with Calvinistic convictions do not figure very prominently in current debates about Molinism, which is (as a rule) defended by those who wish to retain a traditional understanding of the scope of divine omniscience, and covers future libertarian actions, and is attacked by those who uphold libertarianism and who let go of the traditional view of omniscience. So viewed theologically, it is a debate within the libertarian guild, discussed without any reference to the necessity and scope of the divine decrees, and it excludes such as Hugh McCann who upholds absolute divine sovereignty and libertarian free will. To admit a Calvinist to the party would be a conversation-stopper or at least a conversation-changer, in which the Calvinist would do his best to show how unfair it is to characterize his position as theological fatalism, and ourselves as puppets or machines run along fatalistic lines. (The ‘fates’ are in fact the purposes of  God our creator who has given us life and who governs what he has created towards specific ends in accordance with his good and wise purposes.) He may in turn attempt to change the conversation. perhaps by calling the God of Molinism the ‘Demiurge’ (p.11 fn.22), and calling Open theologians ‘Socinians’. But nothing is to be gained by name-calling.

Reformed  theologians like Rutherford and Twisse wrote copiously on middle knowledge in the 17th century. Next time I'll say more about them.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Jonathan Edwards and the Rabbi

John 'Rabbi Duncan, 1796-1870

I dissent from Jonathan  Edwards’ doctrine, because he hazards a speculation, on will qua will, and therefore in reference to all will, divine and human. It is fatal to establish a necessary chain throughout every will in the universe. The divine acts are free, They are necessary, I maintain, qua moral, though free qua will. But I am a determinist as much as Edwards.

That’s John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan, in his Colloquia Peripatetica. Page 29 of the last edition, 1906.  This book is one of a few that I cannot put down when I open it. Here’s a link for a free electric copy: (Colloquia Peripatetica .. : Duncan,  John : Free Download, 
https://archive.org/details/colloquiaperipat00dun) There's also Only A Talker ed. John Brentnall, published by the Banner of Truth, which features his sayings.

I dare to say that ‘Rabbi’ Duncan  has not got things quite right on Edwards.

A couple of posts back in Helm's Deep, there are some remarks on divine freedom, focusing on a detail of the Westminster Confession, Chapter 2. God is said there to be  ‘most free’. What  follow are some further remarks on this topic.

Edwards was a classical theist, stressing divine fullness. He wrote in correspondence to a Scottish friend after his ejection from the Northampton pulpit, that he could subscribe to the Confession. Although he was a compatibilist regarding the mutable creation, he was in fact able to distinguish the Creator from his creatures, and did so.. In Part III In of his Freedom of the Will he has a chapter or section of Part IV, Section 7, entitled ‘Concerning the Necessity of the Divine Will’. His point is that though God‘s perfections could not be other than they are, nevertheless God is worthy of our worship and admiration, of praise and thanksgiving. God does not create or change or modify his perfections. The Supreme Being is the source of all other being. Creation is the model. He spoke and it was done. Those creatures that are external to him do not determine God's actions, he acts according to his untold power and wisdom. His ‘will was not confined, kept under, and held in servitude by something, which, as it were, maintain a strong and invincible power and dominion over it, by bonds that held him fast, and that he could by no means deliver himself from’. ‘Tis no disadvantage or dishonor to a being, necessarily to act in the most excellent and happy manner, from the necessary of his own nature. This argues no imperfection, inferiority or dependence, nor any want of dignity, privilege or ascendency.’ (377)

The reason why it is not dishonorable, to be necessarily most holy,  is because holiness in itself is an excellent and honorable thing. For the same reason, it is no dishonor to be most wise, and in every case to act most wisely, or do the thing which is the wisest of all; for wisdom is also in itself excellent and honorable. (381)

And so on. God is most necessary and free by being himself. What I venture to say that “Rabbi” Duncan has missed is this distinction between Creator and the creature’, in supposing the idea of determinism would have a parallel effect on both the Creator and the creature if determinism is granted on either, or on both. The creature is a product of the creation, it depends on it and is constrained by it, and has freedom as the power and choice that he or she is gifted with.  The Creator is by definition radically other than this. He is not created, but his possessed of aseity, aseitas, independence, (Not that he has created himself! For he is not created full stop.)

More to the point, nothing in the reality of God can be ultimately determined by any source outside himself. He cannot be determined. Hence he cannot have a determiner. Hence determinism cannot touch him. His actions are expressions of power and wisdom of which grandest of creatures have no real understanding, though we all have some. Rom. 1.18-20) . So if the creature is determined ad extra in everything he does, and so is determined, the Creator cannot be determined. So determinism in that sense cannot touch the Creator. So the question of whether God is acted upon does not arise.

So I suggest Duncan is mistaken to attribute creaturely conditions to the creator (‘It is fatal to establish a necessary chain throughout every will in the universe’ but Edwards does not attempt this, but the reverse). But at the same time God does not have any indeterminateness in his action, no  absolute indifference. This is the state of divine sovereignty. As in Acts 15.16.  James is speaking to the Jerusalem Council, The ESV reads, ‘known from of old’, the  NIV  ‘and have been known for ages’, and best of all the KJV, ‘known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world’’. This is part of his citation of Isa.45.11.


Some qualifications

But though Edwards holds that God had no reason to change whatever is in his plan, this emphasis on the nature of divine freedom does not mean for Edwards that God cannot be thought of making such a deviation , for he says that God could do what he has not in fact done. This is not the biblical case like Christ refers to the stones that could have been turned into children of Abraham.  “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’, “for I tell you, ‘God is able from these stones to raise children to Abraham.’ ”  (Matt. 3.9) Christ refers openly to what God is able to do.

The Bible refers to matters that could have happened but have not occurred nor never will occur. Christ refers to the stones that could have been turned into children of Abraham. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’, for I tell you, ‘God is able from these stones to raise children to Abraham.’ ”  (Matt. 3.9) This is clear.

But in Edwards’ case there are instances of him thinking what God could have done, or that he thinks that God could do. These are some of what we can call his ‘thought experiments’. These are experiments in language, part of the stock in trade of philosophers. They have a long history, but Locke gave them a new lease of life, and Edwards follows Locke. By them you are intended to put pressure on your intellectual intuitions,.

In his book on the freedom of the will he uses thought experiments sparingly. For example, he writes in Part IV S. 8, ‘Some Further Objections Against the Moral Necessity of God’s Volitions Considered' (364 f.) as follows – ‘Let us for clearness’ sake suppose, that God had at the beginning made two globes….. ’perfectly alike in every respect, and placed them near one to another……..

The details do not concern us. The fact is, here is a supposition on Edwards’s part’, which for all we know God did not choose and may never have chosen. The question is, given what Edwards allows regarding God’s necessity, is such a supposition allowable consistently? Everything that happens is an expression of the wisdom and power (and other perfections) of almighty God. Is this supposition about God warranted? Is any supposition about God that we devised from our own heads, warranted? Here is something that God has not done. Human beings may have done other than what they did. But in Edwards's doctrine of God cannot do other than what he has done. For him 'it is impossible but that God should be good'  (480) and this impossibility reaches down to each expression of that goodness, no matter how seemingly trivial. 

Perhaps this reaction is over-scrupulous. But isn't Edwards on dangerous ground here? Or because he is warranted by Jesus,  who taught  that God could have done things that he did not do, then so may we? In any case, he was notably cautious. Perhaps he wanted to avoid the slippery slide ahead.

Friday, July 26, 2019

'Most free'

In the Westminster Confession’s (and its relations’) chapter on ‘Of God, and the Holy Trinity’, (Ch II.1) tucked in a long list of divine perfections, there is the expression ‘most free’. It is nestled after ‘most  wise, most holy’ and before ‘most absolute’. What does ‘most free’ mean? What is it to be ‘most free’ in a list of divine perfections? (Note, the listing continues in Ch. II.2)

It is interesting that while much attention has been given to free will at the creaturely level, comparatively little has been devoted to divine freedom. Where it has occurred it has been spread over a variety of theological topics, creation, providence, the decrees.

Free from

The Confessionally-minded Reformed theologians of the 17th century referred to this state of affairs as what they call ‘indifference’. By this they understood that the divine action does not, and cannot depend on, or is affected by, anything that is not ultimately in the character and will of God. In other words God’s freedom is freedom from any factor outside of God, who is after ‘most  wise, most holy’ and before ‘most absolute’. These are the sources of his action ad extra, as a Creator and what is to occur in that creation. His own knowledge of what is possible. ‘most absolute’, the ‘most free’. His absoluteness means that God did nothing because there was a need to, a lack that he had to act to fill. These expressions appear to imply that God’s independence and unconditioned character, and his freedom, are capable of degrees. If he is most free then there is no greater degree of freedom that God enjoys in doing what he does. This echoes the way that God’s character is referred to by the superlative ‘most’ in Scripture, as in ‘Most holy’. If he is most holy, this refers to the greatest degree of holiness. So we must think of those perfections either side in the Confession, expressing in his creation his wisdom and holiness and whatever is due to his wonderful, perfect self, his identity.

So much for God’s freedom understood as ‘freedom from’. He is free from every possible condition  implied by the creation and its contents. This idea introduces another notion, the self-sufficiency of God, his independence or aseity. These attributes or powers - freedom from, self-sufficiency, independence, aseity – are characteristics of God’s creatorship. They are absent from his creation. It – we  - are creaturely, of the dust of the ground, breathed in by God’s Spirit, made in God’s image, fallen in Adam. We depend on our creator, despite talk about human autonomy. We live, move and having our being in him, and for our latest breath. Through our brains, spirits, and bodies, and the powers inherent in the non-human and inanimate creation, we devise and work with tools, and cooperate into developing our environment. Everything we do therefore bears testimony to our dependence.

Free to

But God is free to do what he decrees. The decree of God is said in Ch.III to be ‘the most wise, and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass’. He is free from, and free to. He is free and his decree (or decrees) are similarly free to serve his wisdom. What is actual is not all that is possible. The world and all that it contains is the wisdom of God. As Paul noted in Romans 1 (and elsewhere) ‘his invisible powers, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made’.  (Rom. 1.20)

Choice seems a prominent feature of God’s character. The Bible refers to matters that could have happened but have not occurred nor never will be. (Christ refers to the stones that could have been turned into children of Abraham. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’, for I tell you, ‘God is able from these stones to raise children to Abraham.’ ”  (Matt 3.9)) God is able to do what he has chosen not to do. The doctrine of election is the doctrine of God’s choice, as is vividly illustrated by the God’s choice of Jacob over his elder brother Esau, ‘A it is written “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”. And John Calvin had the opinion, (though you may not agree with him), that although we are redeemed by the Son’s Incarnation and Cross and Resurrection, by union with Christ and faith in him and so on, God could have saved us by a word.


But there is also ‘most wise’ in the Confession. Here we meet an implied reference to his will. He has an unsurpassedly wise will. Over the immense, intricate, universe that he has created, and that possesses a history, he exercises a most wise judgment. Wisdom has to do with the choice of ends, and of the means he ordains that effectively and wonderfully bring about those ends, and the wsdom of the ends themselves

The Larger Catechism (question 12) affirms, that ‘God‘s decrees are the wise, holy, free, and holy acts of the counsel of his will.’ (No doubt having Ephesians 'the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will' .(1.11)


Certainly there  are those matters which God cannot do? Clearly, there are those attributes and wisdom which he possesses necessarily, his holiness and wisdom. He cannot but act holily; he cannot but be wise.
'Tis the glory and greatness of the divine sovereignty, that God's will is determined by his own infinite all-sufficient wisdom in everything: and in nothing at all is either directed by any inferior wisdom, or by no wisdom: whereby it would become senseless arbitrariness, determining and acting, without reason, design or end' 
Jonathan Edwards, The Freedom of the Will, Part IV, Section 7.