Friday, November 01, 2019

.....And more on Molinism

Luis De Molina (1535-1600) 

The Reformed theologians in the 17th century who faced Molinism, such as Rutherford and Twisse, seem to have focused their arguments against middle knowledge by stressing the divine decrees. It is a pity that most of their writing is in scholastic Latin. The most direct source of this approach is Turretin’s  discussion of middle knowledge in Institutes !, 212-217, now joined by the excellent translation of relevant passages  by Todd Rester, in volume II of Petrus Van Mastricht’s Theological - Practical   Theology,  2.267f. (Reformation Heritage Books, 2019)


Ch, III of the WCF, Of God’s Eternal Decree  starts as follows -

I. God from all eternity did, by the most wise 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, not is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
 III  Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet hath he not decreed anything because he foreknow it as future, or as that  which would come to pass upon such conditions.

Paragraph III cuts off middle knowledge, which has God being presented by an array of counterfactuals of (libertarian ) freedom, and his election of that one which is most accord  with his purposes. Not so, says the Confession.  God’s decrees and his foreknowledge cover the same ground, and are grounded by the divine intuition, not by God's inspection of un-decreed possibilities.  His decrees are the ground of whatever happens. They do not include decreeing based on what he foreknew as future, nor of what he foreknew would occur as a result of conditions other than his decree. These statements should be amplified by the chapter on Providence, and on questions 12- 14 of the Larger Catechism.

Van Mastricht

Petrus van Mastricht regards middle knowledge as superfluous for Christian theology for the several reasons, including this:

 ‘[S}ince every knowable thing is subject to the two received knowledges, natural and free [knowledge]. For if a thing is considered as merely possible, then undoubtedly it falls under natural knowledge. If it is considered as having a connection with various second causes, and thus as a thing that will occur if it should be construed with  those second causes, even though it never actually will occur, it  belongs to that latter knowledge that depends upon the decree, the decree that constituted at creation the order that would thereafter  be applied to things, so that for example, dry straw would be burned if it were laid near  a flame, even though God never did decree that it would be laid there or burned, And finally, a thing will actually occur belongs to the free knowledge.’(2. 268)

Note two or three things about what is quoted above. The divine decree is free, for as the Confession earlier has asserted, God himself ismost free; that is, it is only brought about by the divine nature that had the power to make other decrees, or none at all. Second, providence it is in effect a continuous creation, as God in effect extends the initial creative acts according to his decree. It is a primary effect, of God himself, embodying sets of secondary effects as what is decreed in accordance with the nature of what is being continued in existence. As stated in the Westminster chapter on providence, ‘[God] ordereth all things to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either  necessarily, freely or contingently’ (V.II) The falling out of a rock, is different from that of a plant, or a human being. So the things created are by God’s power and wisdom, ‘established’.

Theologians such as William Twisse and Samuel Rutherford were not so much interested in whether Molinism was internally satisfactory,  that whether God know the outcome of a counterfactual of libertarian freedom, 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. What is a counterfactual? It is not a ‘factual’, what is decreed. So if X, something decreed, were be expressed in a counterfactual of the form, ‘If X were to have….’ Or If X had done D, it would have …..’ none of these are facts, because not decreed. The counterfactual does not follow from what has already been decreed, but it is simply a ‘free floating’ form of words. 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 a state of affairs that exists apart from the decree of God, but only what is decreed, one of the countless events, or states of affairs, brought to exist by God’s decree. For what comes to pass is only what is decreed. So the idea of middle knowledge, some category between the divine natural knowledge (his knowledge of all possibilities), and free knowledge (his knowledge of actualities) of what he has decreed, and so brought into being, all actualities), 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.

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 necessarily 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, 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.

Those contemporary scholars 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 rejected the possibility of csuch future libertarian actions, and is held by those who uphold libertarianism and who let go of the traditional view of God’s omniscience. So viewed theologically, modern discussion  is a debate within the libertarian guild, discussed without any reference to the necessity and scope of the divine decrees. 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 inaccurate it is to characterise his position as theological fatalism, and ourselves as puppets or machines, being run along fatalistic lines.


Note – those whose appetite for discussion of middle knowledge is not at this point assuaged might care to read the article of Charles Rennie,  in two parts, currently available at Reformation 21. His article, a confessionally-based discussion, is entitled ‘Is Middle Knowledge Biblical?' An Evaluation’.