“You’ve been given a great gift, George: A chance to see what the world would be like without you.”
I am sure most, if not all, of us remember that classic line from the movie It’s A Wonderful Life, one of my all time favorite movies which my wife and I watch every Christmas. Notice the last part of the above sentence that I underlined. Clarence, the angel, gets permission to give George Bailey his wish and shows him what the world WOULD have been like IF he had not been born. That statement and others like it are called true counterfactuals. They are true because IF it were the case that George Bailey had not been born then that is what the world WOULD have been like. It is called a counterfactual because its truth will never obtain in the actual world, hence it will be counter-to-fact so to speak. In this article we will also talk about “possible worlds.” I don’t mean planets or things like that. What we mean by “possible worlds”are alternate descriptions of reality, in other words the way reality COULD have been. So there are possible worlds, one in which George Bailey is born and another in which he is not born. While both are possible worlds, only one or the other can obtain and become the actual world, the other becomes a true counterfactual.
Example: Say my wife asks me to go out to eat this weekend. I can say “yes” or “no.” Up until I make my choice both “worlds” are possible, namely the one in which I say “yes” and the one in which I say “no.” Both have consequences. Say I choose to say “yes,” but in that world we are involved in an accident and I pass away. In the other I choose “no,” and we stay home and avoid the accident and I live until I am 80 years old. Once I make a choice then one of those “possible” worlds becomes the ACTUAL world, the other becomes a counterfactual. Why is that important for us to study or even be concerned about as Christians? Two reasons, the first is that true counterfactuals are used in everyday life and are vital to our decision making. William Lane Craig sums it up nicely when he says,
“Counterfactual statements make up an enormous and significant part of our ordinary language and are an indispensable part of our decision making: for example, ‘If I pulled out into traffic right now, then I wouldn’t make it’; ‘If I were to ask J.B. for a raise with his mood, he’d tear my head off’; ‘If we sent the Third Army around the enemy’s right flank, we would prevail’ Clearly life-and-death decisions are made daily on the basis of the presumed truth of counterfactual statements.”1
Second, what we find is that once we understand things like true counterfactuals, possible worlds, etc. we can actually find answers to issues related not only to God’s foreknowledge and human freedom (which is what we are going to examine in this article below), but many other practical applications as well. Answers to questions such as “How can the Bible be a divine AND a human product?” “What happens to those who have never heard the Gospel?” can actually be satisfactorily answered given God’s middle knowledge and we will explore those questions and more in upcoming articles.
Once we take all of these things into consideration we can now be introduced to Molinism and God’s middle knowledge, to which we now turn. I want to give a brief introduction to the topic and I’ll follow up in the future with more articles where I give a defense of Molinism against some objections raised against it as well as show how it can help us in other areas besides the issues of divine foreknowledge and future free acts.
What Is Molinism and Middle Knowledge?
Molinism is named after Luis de Molina (1535-1600), who was a Spanish Jesuit counter-Reformer during the time of the Protestant Reformation. He ascribed what is called “middle knowledge” to God to alleviate the seeming problems with reconciling divine foreknowledge and human freedom. Molinism is built on the twin bases of indeterministic/libertarian freedom, and a strong view of God’s providence.2 What we mean by freedom in a libertarian sense is there are no causal restraints placed on the agent such that the agent determines the choice made. Thomas Flint when speaking of providence informs us that there are two elements worth emphasizing:
“First, God has complete and certain foreknowledge.”
“Second, God exercises sovereignty over his world in a very strong and specific sense.”3
This view is also motivated by Scripture and the passages that affirm these “Twin Bases,” and for sake of brevity here I will include an article this month devoted solely to Molinism and Scripture so we can see just how well it accounts for the biblical data as well.
According to Molina there are three logical moments in God’s knowledge:
1. Natural Knowledge: God’s knowledge of what “could” happen. He knows all necessary truths as well as all possibilities.
2. Middle Knowledge: God’s knowledge of true counterfactuals, in other words He knows what “would” happen if “such and such” were the case given certain circumstances and human freedom.
God’s Creative Decree
3. Free Knowledge: This is God’s exhaustive knowledge of the world He actualizes/brings into existence.
The key, according to Molina, is to ascribe Natural Knowledge and Middle Knowledge BEFORE God gives His decree to create. This would then give God knowledge of future free acts of creatures without Him determining their actions. Then they are responsible for their actions and they would be free in a libertarian sense yet God would still preserve His sovereignty/control of the world which he chose to actualize.
Remember these are moments of logical priority, not chronological priority. A good reminder is that these moments are in logical sequence, not a chronological sequence or even all at once.4 He doesn’t have natural knowledge, THEN middle knowledge, THEN free knowledge as in moments in time, but rather in a logical sequence as one is explanatorily prior to the other.
The question of whether or not God has this counterfactual knowledge is generally not an issue (until we get to the Arminian/simple foreknowledge view in future articles). The issue is WHEN does God have it. Philosophers and theologians have typically placed God’s knowledge of counterfactuals as part of His free knowledge, as opposed to Molina who placed them as a separate category “in the middle” of those two types of knowledge, hence the name middle knowledge.
Why Does It Matter When God Knows Counterfactuals?
Placing this counterfactual knowledge of God either BEFORE His creative decree (yet logically posterior to His natural knowledge) or AFTER His creative decree as part of His Free Knowledge has serious ramifications. Placing God’s knowledge of counterfactuals AFTER the creative decree and just lumping it in as part of His free knowledge ends up being very problematic. Having God’s knowledge of counterfactuals as a separate category, namely middle knowledge, and placing it BEFORE His creative decree really seems to alleviate the alleged problems of divine foreknowledge and sovereignty as well as divine providence with human libertarian freedom but some say that it’s too good to be true and that this causes problems as well. Let us explore each of these in turn below.
Knowledge of Counterfactuals AFTER the Divine Decree
If we place God’s knowledge of counterfactual truths AFTER His decree to create then they would be part of His Free Knowledge. This actually ends up being very problematic because it annihilates indeterministic/libertarian human freedom5 and makes God the cause or the ground of all truth claims, even counterfactual truths. If God only has knowledge of true counterfactuals AFTER the decree to create then another problem arises: not only does that annihilate human freedom, but now we have to commit to the fact that God would only know what WOULD have happened if people were placed in different circumstances AFTER He has already brought the actual world into existence! Think about that for a moment. God decrees a world to create and only after that can He know what WOULD have happened if He had actualized a different possible world! This conclusion follows because it is God’s decree which has determined which counterfactuals are true, and why Molina insisted that He knows these counterfactual truths before His creative decree. Another major hurdle for this placement of God’s counterfactual knowledge is that God is ultimately the author of evil, which is unfathomable.
Knowledge of Counterfactuals BEFORE the Divine Decree
God’s knowledge of true counterfactuals being logically prior to His creative decree (yet occurring logically after His Natural Knowledge) is helpful in many ways. God chooses from not just possible worlds to create, but then in the next moment of His knowledge (middle knowledge) has the range of worlds narrowed down from all that are possible to those that are actually feasible given human freedom.
The difference in “possible” and “feasible” is similar to someone playing a hand at a card game. Imagine one has an infinite number of cards that can be dealt out which for our purposes will represent all possible worlds (again, remember that here we are speaking of God’s natural knowledge). Now a hand is then dealt to the player, which is still a large number of cards, but it is much smaller than the original number of cards. Now the player can play a hand based on the cards He has been dealt. This second set of cards from which the player can play a hand from represents “feasible” worlds given human freedom and has limited the possible hands that can be played.
God is like the player on this view. He has knowledge of all possible worlds He can create. In the next moment of His knowledge (His middle knowledge) He knows what “would” be the case given human freedom and some worlds now are impossible to create given human freedom.6 To have this knowledge of true counterfactuals prior to the creative decree makes them independent of God’s decree/will and hence God can use this knowledge to providentially plan and guide a world toward His ultimate will down to the last detail, despite human sin and rebellion. Again, this also makes human sin/rebellion independent of His will/decree and so thereby the rebellious/sinful actions are done freely and therefore we are responsible for our actions.
As we have seen thus far, Molinism is a very ingenious way of preserving human freedom, divine foreknowledge as well as God’s sovereignty. In the weeks to come we will look at objections to Molinism by critics as well as clear up some common misconceptions and mistakes that critics of the view generally make when attacking Molinism. We will also explore some common questions that Molinism seems to be able to answer that other systems of thought such Arminianism and Calvinism have much trouble answering, as well as look at the Scriptural motivations for affirming Molinism.
- William Lane Craig, in “Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views,” pg.120
- Thomas Flint, Divine Providence: The Molinist Account, pg.11-34
- Ibid, 12-13
- See Kirk MacGregor, “A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology,” pg. 94
- One of the twin bases of Molinism which is derived from Scripture.
- This is because it is logically impossible to make someone do something freely. By definition if a decision is forced, it is not free. If a decision is free it is not forced.