Paul Helm: A Calvinist Objects To Middle Knowledge Part 2


In our previous article (which can be found here) we gave an introduction to Paul Helm’s objections to Molina’s doctrine of middle knowledge and dealt with Helm’s first objection: that divine foreknowledge and indeterministic freedom are incompatible. In this article we will deal with Helm’s second objection, namely that he claims the Molinist appeal to mystery in regard to the truth of counterfactuals is no different than the Augustinian-Calvinist appeal to mystery in regard to God as the author of evil.

Objection 2: The Molinist Appeal to Mystery In Regard to the Truth of Counterfactuals No Different Than the Augustinian-Calvinist Appeal to Mystery In Regard to God as the Author of Evil.

Helm gives an overview of Alvin Plantinga’s remarks about the Molinist having to appeal to mystery when it comes to how counterfactual statements could be true,1 which as we have already seen, is critical for the truth of Molinism and middle knowledge. Helm then compares the mystery that a Molinist appeals to concerning counterfactuals as analogous to the mystery that the Augustinian-Calvinist would appeal to in order to avoid the charge of God being the author of sin/evil.2 This analogy, while having an intuitive appeal is actually not as reasonable as it first appears. There are two reasons as to why this objection fails to be a mark against Molinism, first:

1. While an appeal to mystery is inevitable on every view on this issue, the key is where the mystery is placed.

Certainly there are going to be things that are mysterious because we simply are not in a position to know the answer. What we want to be careful to watch out for is where we place the mystery and why. For the Molinist can claim that while we may not know how counterfactuals can be true we can know that God, via His omniscience has to know them and so the mystery is left as to how God knows the truth of counterfactuals. Helm says,

The unanswerability of ‘How does God know?’ removes constraints that would otherwise lie on the Molinist. He can accept that God has middle knowledge, even though we do not know how God has such knowledge. But it has a parallel effect on the Augustinian-Calvinist: that we cannot see how God, while pure and holy, nevertheless ordains the impure and unholy actions of his creatures, ought not to surprise us, given that our ignorance stretches beyond how God know, to how God ordains. Augustine called God’s willing permission of particular evil actions ‘unspeakably strange and wonderful’ (Enchiridion Ch. C)).”3

Here Helm tries to say that since the Molinist can get off the hook by “not knowing” something in regard to counterfactuals and their truth, then certainly (according to Helm) the Augustinian-Calvinist can in the same way affirm that a holy and pure God can ordain impure and unholy actions of his creatures. Helm goes on to say,

This ‘author of sin’ objection, which is routinely produced by opponents of God’s ordaining of all that comes to pass, cannot count as a serious objection to Augustinianism, so long as Plantinga’s point holds. Indeed one might even prefer the Augustinian position to Molinism simply on the grounds of simplicity, if for no other reason, thus rendering the Molinist hypothesis otiose.”4

However as Kenneth Keathley has rightly observed,

There is a place for mystery. However, in the divine sovereignty/human responsibility paradox, sometimes my Calvinist brethren appeal to mystery in order to avoid the harsh and contradictory conclusions of their own system. ‘Mystery’ and ‘contradiction’ are not synonyms.”5

So the Calvinist appeal to mystery is quite different than the Molinist appeal to mystery because the Molinist is not doing so to aviod a logical contradiction. Therefore the two are not analogous as Helm wants us to believe.

2. We need to separate the two quite different issues of how God can know true counterfactuals with how can counterfactuals be true.

“How God can know counterfactuals?” is different from “How can counterfactuals be true?” If there are true counterfactuals then certainly God would know them even if we don’t know what makes a counterfactual true. The question of how can counterfactuals be true is summarized best by William Lane Craig 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 now, I wouldn’t make it;’ If I were to ask J.B. for a raise with his mood, he would tear my head off; If we sent the Third Army around the enemies flank, we would prevail.’ Clearly life and death decisions are made daily on the basis of the presumed truth of counterfactual statements.”6

Also 1 Cor. 2:8 seems to be an example of middle knowledge: “None of the rulers of this age knew this wisdom, for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” What is problematic for those theists who deny the truth of counterfactuals is that they would have to concede that this verse is not true, which causes problems for their view of Scripture. However, if they say that the verse is true then they are committed to the truth of counterfactuals. So we can offer that there are true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom.

As for how God can know true counterfactuals, the Molinist can quite appropriately respond that if counterfactuals can have a truth value then an omniscient being by definition would know them even if we don’t know how He would know them. This seems to follow simply based on the definition of omniscience.7


After examining Helm’s objections to Molinism and middle knowledge it seems as though they are far from compelling. We can see that both of his objections when subjected to criticism from a Molinist perspective are not anything that should keep the Molinist up at night. Remember Helm’s earlier remarks,

It may be possible to combine the strong view of human freedom and a ‘no-risk’ view of divine providence. If such a combination is possible, it would in the eyes of many represent the best of all possible outcomes; a strong view of providence and a strong, indeterministic view of human freedom.”8

Not only do we have good reasons for thinking this option is possible, but it would also seem to be highly plausible given the problems with Helm’s objections.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *