How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 1)

Jacobus Arminius

Reposted from Analogical Thoughts, with permission.

Molinism is a theory that purports to reconcile a robust doctrine of divine providence and foreknowledge with a libertarian view of free will by appealing to the notion of divine middle knowledge: God’s eternal knowledge of the so-called counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, that is, contingent truths about what possible creatures would freely choose if they were created by God and placed in particular circumstances.

Molinism is most often criticized on theological or philosophical grounds, mainly because it’s most often championed on the basis of its supposed theological and philosophical virtues. And there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve objected to Molinism on theological and philosophical grounds myself. (So it must be okay, right?) Nevertheless, for the Christian who takes the Bible to be the Word of God and the final authority in theological matters, the preeminent question ought to be: How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? (I don’t propose to defend the underlying methodological principle at this time; I’m simply going to take it for granted.)

There are at least two components to the question at hand. First, is Molinism consistent with the Bible? In other words, does the Bible teach some things that are (or appear to be) inconsistent with the tenets or implications of Molinism? Second, does the Bible offer any positive support for the distinctive claims of Molinism, i.e., those tenets that distinguish Molinism from its major alternatives such as Augustinianism or Open Theism? In this series of posts I propose to explore these questions with reference to some key biblical texts. I will focus in particular on how Molinism compares to Augustinianism, which is arguably its leading competitor among orthodox Christian theologians. (Note: I’m using the term Augustinianism simply as shorthand for causal divine determinism. Nothing is assumed about whether St. Augustine himself actually held to Augustinianism in that sense! But Augustinianism so defined would include most confessional Calvinists and, I think, many conservative Thomists.)

Before getting into the meat of it, I ought to address a concern which some readers may have. I’m not assuming at the outset that the Bible answers all philosophical questions and can settle any philosophical dispute. Clearly there are some philosophical questions, such whether time-travel is possible, whether numbers are real entities, and whether rule-utilitarianism collapses into act-utilitarianism, that the Bible doesn’t even begin to address. (And that’s a good thing too!) But at the same time, I do take the view that the Bible makes some philosophical assertions (indeed, the opening declaration of the Bible is deeply metaphysical!) and even more often expresses things (affirmations, promises, commands, etc.) that have reasonably clear philosophical implications or presuppositions.

So to put it somewhat crudely, I take it that the Bible presents us with a number of “data points” which ought to both inform and constrain our philosophizing. Some philosophical theories are consistent with those data points, while others are not. Some philosophical theories better fit those data points than others. Some philosophical issues are underdetermined by the biblical evidence, but not all are. So the questions explored in this series will include: (1) What are some of the important biblical data points when it comes to assessing Molinism? and (2) How well does Molinism fit those data points?

Comprehensive Divine Providence

One of the most prominent themes of the Bible is God’s comprehensive providential control over his creation (sometimes called “meticulous divine providence”). Everything that takes place in the creation does so according to God’s sovereign plan; nothing takes place apart from God’s will. Theologians have made various distinctions here between God’s active and permissive will, his decretive (secret) and preceptive (revealed) will, his antecedent and consequent will, and so on, but the central claim is the same: God has an eternal decree which covers every single event in the creation, and that decree will infallibly come to pass.

Here are some specific texts which illustrate this pervasive biblical doctrine:

The Lord of hosts has sworn: “As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand…” For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back? (Isa. 14:24, 27)

“Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.” (Isa. 46:8-11)

Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? (Lam. 3:37-38)

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Rom. 8:28)

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will… (Eph. 1:11)

Particularly striking are the biblical affirmations of God’s sovereign control over the sinful actions of his creatures, such that even those actions form part of his providential plan (e.g., Gen. 50:20; Judg. 14:1-4; 1 Sam. 2:25; Isa. 10:5-19; Acts 4:27-28; Rom. 9:14-21).1

One of the virtues of Molinism is that it seeks to accommodate this major biblical theme. According to Molinism, God does indeed have an eternal infallible decree; every event in the creation has been ordained by God. To cite one leading defender of Molinism:

Not only does this view make room for human freedom, but it affords God a means of choosing which world of free creatures to create. For by knowing how persons would freely choose in whatever circumstances they might be, God can, by decreeing to place just those persons in those circumstances, bring about his ultimate purposes through free creaturely decisions. Thus, by employing his hypothetical knowledge, God can plan a world down to the last detail and yet do so without annihilating creaturely freedom, since God has already factored into the equation what people would do freely under various circumstances. Since God’s hypothetical knowledge lies logically in between his natural knowledge and his free knowledge, Molinists called it God’s middle knowledge.2

On this point, then, Molinism clearly has the advantage over alternatives such as Open Theism which reject the doctrine of comprehensive divine providence. However, since Augustinianism also affirms this doctrine, Molinism cannot claim to be more biblical than Augustinianism on this point. In other words, the Bible’s teaching on God’s comprehensive providential control doesn’t favor Molinism over against Augustinianism.

Counterfactuals of Freedom

The defining tenet of Molinism is that God possesses so-called middle knowledge and bases his eternal decree on this prior middle knowledge. Middle knowledge is God’s pre-creation knowledge of what any possible creature (i.e., any creature God might bring into existence) would freely choose in any particular set of circumstances.

For example, according to Molinism, God knows from eternity what I would freely choose to eat for breakfast if I were staying at the Hilton Atlanta on November 18, 2015, and presented with a particular range of options while feeling hungry and slightly adventurous. This knowledge doesn’t in itself entail that I will make that free choice, only that I would make that free choice if God decided to create me and providentially arrange for me to be presented with those options on that particular date in those specific circumstances.

Likewise, according to Molinism, God also knows from eternity what Schmames Anderson — my evil twin, a possible creature whom God mercifully chose not to create in the actual world — would freely choose to eat for breakfast in similar circumstances. (I’m guessing either “grits” or “biscuits and gravy”.)

Molinism therefore entails (i) that there really are such counterfactual truths about the free choices of possible creatures and (ii) that God knows these counterfactual truths from eternity (i.e., prior to his decision to create a world). Both (i) and (ii) have been challenged by critics of Molinism, but that’s not my concern here. Rather, I want to consider whether there is biblical support for these distinctive Molinism claims.

Understandably, Molinists have placed great weight on statements in Scripture which, on the face of it, presuppose God’s hypothetical knowledge of how people would behave if they found themselves in particular circumstances (specifically, how they would behave if the world were otherwise than it is; hence the term counterfactuals of freedom). These biblical texts include: 1 Sam. 23:8-14; Ezek. 3:6; Jer. 38:17-18; Matt. 11:21-24; Matt. 12:7; Luke 22:67-68; John 18:36; 1 Cor. 2:8.

I agree that there’s strong biblical support for God’s counterfactual knowledge of human choices. However, we should something very important about these texts: they don’t explicitly state that the choices made (or that would be made) are libertarian free choices.

It’s entirely reasonable to infer that the choices in question are free choices, since the creatures are (or would be) held morally responsible for those choices. But there’s much debate among philosophers as to what kind of freedom is required for moral responsibility. On the one side are the libertarians, who argue that genuine freedom requires causal indeterminism (i.e., free choices cannot be causally determined by prior events or states). On the other side are the compatibilists, who argue that genuine freedom is compatible with causal determinism.

Molinists by definition hold to a libertarian (incompatibilist) view of freedom.

The prime virtue of Molinism, according to its defenders, is that it reconciles human libertarian freedom with comprehensive divine providence. But the biblical texts cited above don’t address the question of what kind of freedom humans possess. They don’t favor a libertarian view over a compatibilist view. If Molinists take them as support for God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of libertarian freedom, that’s only because they’re taking for granted that libertarian freedom is necessary for moral responsibility. But that’s a disputable philosophical claim; it’s not something that can be straightforwardly inferred from those texts.

Augustinians typically hold to a compatibilist view of freedom.

On this view, there’s no problem at all in affirming that God knows counterfactuals of human freedom. This knowledge isn’t middle knowledge, which by definition is knowledge of counterfactuals of libertarian freedom. Rather, it falls under either God’s natural knowledge or his free knowledge. (Augustinians can take different views here, but that intramural debate is beside the point; all Augustinians will affirm that God has comprehensive counterfactual knowledge.)

The upshot, then, is that the biblical texts cited in support of Molinism — those texts which imply (1) there are counterfactual truths about human free choices and (2) God knows these truths — are just as consistent with Augustinianism, if we don’t beg the question about the nature of human free choices (libertarian versus compatibilist). That’s to say, these texts favor Molinism over against alternatives which deny (1) or (2), such as Open Theism or the Simple Foreknowledge view. But they don’t favor Molinism over against Augustinianism, simply because Augustinianism also affirms (1) and (2).

We might be tempted to go further and argue that in light of the philosophical objections to the idea that there can be true counterfactuals of libertarian freedom (e.g., the so-called grounding objection), those biblical texts actually turn out to support Augustinianism over against Molinism. I suspect the Molinist will retort that there are philosophical objections to compatibilism (i.e., arguments for incompatibilism) which are no less weighty than the arguments against there being true counterfactuals of libertarian freedom. What that response doesn’t take into account, I think, is that the Molinist has two sets of problems to deal with: objections to middle knowledge and objections to indeterministic freedom (e.g., the so-called luck objection). In any event, it’s clear that at this point the debate has shifted away from the surface implications of the biblical texts cited above to deeper metaphysical disputes.

Where Next?

We’ve seen that with respect to two significant biblical affirmations (comprehensive divine providence and God’s knowledge of counterfactuals) Molinism holds no advantage over Augustinianism, since both positions are consistent with those biblical teachings, at least on the face of it. If we want to show that Molinism has better biblical support than Augustinianism (or vice versa) then we need to find some proposition p which is affirmed by Molinism and denied by Augustinianism (or vice versa) such that p enjoys positive biblical support (i.e., there are biblical texts which, on the most natural and defensible interpretation, and without begging philosophical questions, assert or imply p).

In the next part of this series, I’ll consider some candidates for proposition p.

Addendum: Greg Welty offers some excellent commentary here.

Notes

1 For a more extensive discussion of the biblical teaching on divine providence, see chapters 8-9 of John Frame’s Systematic Theology, or chapters 3-5 of Loraine Boettner’s The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.

2 William Lane Craig, “God Directs All Things,” in Four Views on Divine Providence, ed. Dennis W. Jowers (Zondervan, 2011), p. 82, emphasis added. God’s “natural knowledge” is his knowledge of all possibilities and necessities, which is grounded in God’s essential nature. God’s “free knowledge” is his knowledge of all contingent truths about the actual world, which is grounded in God’s eternal free decree.

James N. Anderson Bio


Dr. James Anderson is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Dr. Anderson came to RTS from Edinburgh, Scotland, and specializes in philosophical theology, religious epistemology, and Christian apologetics. His doctoral thesis at the University of Edinburgh explored the paradoxical nature of certain Christian doctrines and the implications for the rationality of Christian faith. He is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

First, never heard of Molinism before (or if I did, forgot) and found this and several of Anderson's linked posts fascinating.

But the Molinism solution, like similar perspectives I've read, doesn't seem to actually solve anything. The focus in this series is how well it answers to Scripture, but from the POV of those who developed and defend it, I wonder how well it answers even to their purposes. At best if you view God as having full knowledge of all the potential free choices everyone could make under all possible conditions, and then He acts to produce the conditions He wants, there is precious little space between that and old fashioned determinism.

It might put a little more comfortable distance between people's choices and the idea that God is the author of evil, maybe. But I for one, don't see how it can make humans significantly more morally responsible for their choices than several of the more classical Calvinistic/Augustinian views.

In the end, you can't have uncaused results, and all "free choices" are results of something. And as soon as you posit that something -- any something -- you start your path back to God.

ScottS's picture

Here is a run down of my thoughts. We know from Scripture (illustration follows) that

  1. counterfactuals (events that do not occur in fact, but would have occurred or will occur in fact given the outcome of some choice) have a truth value to them (they are either true or false); we know this because God only speaks truth, and it is He who makes statements that such things would/will occur, so therefore they must be true if said choice/circumstance comes about.
  2. counterfactuals are at times dependent upon human choice
  3. because of #1, there is at times a real (I'll use the word) libertarian choice being made in cases of #2, because if there was no chance (because of determinism) that the counterfactual could occur, then God could not truthfully say it would have.1
  4. the variable of #3 does not interfere with those things that are already determined to occur.

One of the best illustrations of these points is a Scripture noted by Dr. Anderson that Molinists use, 1 Sam. 23:8-13 (NKJV):

8 Then Saul called all the people together for war, to go down to Keilah to besiege David and his men. 9 When David knew that Saul plotted evil against him, he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” 10 Then David said, “O LORD God of Israel, Your servant has certainly heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah to destroy the city for my sake. 11 Will the men of Keilah deliver me into his hand? Will Saul come down, as Your servant has heard? O LORD God of Israel, I pray, tell Your servant.” And the LORD said, “He will come down.” 12 Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah deliver me and my men into the hand of Saul?”
And the LORD said, “They will deliver you.” 13 So David and his men, about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah and went wherever they could go. Then it was told Saul that David had escaped from Keilah; so he halted the expedition.

There are two counterfactuals here that God affirms to be truth (per #1 above): (a) Saul will come down to Keliah and (b) the men of Keliah will deliver David into Saul's hands. Neither of these in fact occur, yet God has declared it true that they would come true given the current circumstances of David being in Keilah, so this truth statement by God means there is the chance/opportunity for such a course of action to be taken (per #3 above). The choice that determines this is a human choice (per #2 above), David's choice. Is he going to remain and have God's statements prove their truth in reality or is he going to go and leave the truth of them proved only in God's knowledge of those possible events? David trusts God will make him king, for God has said He would, so the question here is what path toward that predetermined goal of kingship does David want to follow; the choice will not affect the reality of some certain outcomes, such as David becoming king, from occurring (per #4 above).

Such choices exist in a framework of "God's plan," meaning that God's plan includes human (or more broadly creature) choice when He allows for it. So in some cases, people have no choice. In situation A, B is going to happen because God has not allowed a choice (that is His right as sovereign of the universe).

However, sovereignty does not necessarily entail micro-manager (or micro-determiner) either. In His sovereignty, He can allow for choice. So in such a case, situation A allows for paths B or C (or even D, E, etc.) to be followed (all as part of God's plan, but one that allows for creature choice). How God keeps providential control is (a) by which situations He allows choice and (b) by the outcome He chooses for each creature choice He has allowed (the outcome may not be what the creature expected). How God knows what really will happen is because He knows what choice a creature will make; so I do not hold weight to the argument that God pre-knowing something will or will not in fact occur means the actual path is then predetermined by God by anything other than His will to allow a choice and the will of the creature in making that choice He has allowed. So the future is predetermined based off God's plan and creaturely choices He allowed in that plan that are yet to come.

Note that, while I do believe people make choices based upon "conditions" in which they exist (more a compatibilist view), I also believe one of those "conditions" is the "will" itself that can choose that which it would not typically choose for reasons that might even be unreasonable or emotionally traumatic. The "will" is, to me, by definition the decision maker; but not as Wikipedia states "that faculty of the mind which selects, at the moment of decision, the strongest desire from among the various desires present;" rather, the will can choose from among any of its desires, not necessarily the strongest one. That is, I do not believe that the "strength" of a desire is singularly determinative of the will's decision (else there really is no decision).

However, assuming that even a truly "random" choice were occurring (completely libertarian), the fact that God controls which things are allowed to be chosen and the outcome of that choice, then He has lost no control of His creation, nor His plans, nor His predetermined outcomes. Randomness does not affect the One Who controls when it occurs and what the outcome of that randomness is. This is how sin can be permitted by God (a choice), but not be charged against God as part of His predetermined will that a person must choose to sin in any particular instance, for He always has a way of escape from temptation (1 Cor 10:13) that is one path that could be chosen along with the path to sin.

That's my worldview in a nutshell on this topic.

1. My answer to the "grounding question" of counterfactual truth is found in an article I wrote about the nature of truth, in which God's knowledge and what He can therefore affirm as true or not is what determines the truth of any statement, including counterfactuals.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

TylerR's picture

I've heard William Lane Craig discuss Molinism many times. I find it's based more on speculative philosophy than Scripture, and its categories are not derived from the text, but forced upon it violently. I believe its proponents are generally trying to find a way to escape compatabilism.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Aaron Blumer's picture

Some questions for Scott... and others of that general perspective: what causes "human choices" to happen? Do people make choices for no reason? If there are reasons, how do those reasons come to be? If there are not reasons, how do the "human choices" come to be?

Don Johnson's picture

Environment can limit the available choices, it is true. And sometimes external factors eliminate choice. But the notion of choice doesn't demand that choice options need to be unlimited in order to be real choice options. So external causes limit my choices to a finite list of options? Big deal. They are still choices to be made.

Unless I am totally misunderstanding your questions!

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Aaron Blumer's picture

Where I was going with those questions is to try to tease out how non-determinists understand causation and choice. To pick up with your observation, Don, suppose God arranges the causal factors leading up to a human choice only to a certain point. Would you say He limits the available options, then ends His involvement so the chooser is "free" to pick a, b, or c?

In that scenario, the chooser makes his choice at the end of a complete chain of causal factors, many of which God arranged but the last 10 yards of which came from somewhere else? Where did they come from?

 

Don Johnson's picture

God is able to do whatever he wants to do. I don't worry about the details he hasn't told me.

I am sure those who are passionate about sussing out the details would have a better answer, but I find the arguments to be useless. Yes, God can limit our choices. Whether he does this for all of us all the time (he is big enough to do that, I am sure), or whether he allows the universe to function within parameters he has set, only intervening at moments of his choosing, I don't know. I don't think I can know. I don't sweat it.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Aaron Blumer's picture

I don't generally sweat it, either, but occasionally the topic comes up in an interesting way, and Anderson has made me aware of a whole lot of thinking folks have done on the topic that I wasn't aware of before.

Also, as fussy as many of the details might seem, there are some conclusions that have weighty consequences for how we look at things and even how we do ministry.

I don't claim to have it all figured out, but here's what's clear to me:

  • The only uncaused entity is God.
  • Everything that happens, including human choices, is caused. (The chain of causation may be complex and long, but it is always a complete chain.)
  • Even the final factors that result in choice A rather than choice B are not random/uncaused. They must come from somewhere/be caused by something.
  • Identifying "the human will" as the final cause is self-contradictory, because "will" is just another way of saying "response" or "result." It is caused by something else. (We choose for reasons, whether external or internal. These reasons are causes.)

As far as I can tell, any flavor of Arminianism or non-determinism ultimately tries to have an uncaused result. But how could there be any such thing?

ScottS's picture

I want to address from my perspective some of Aaron's comments and questions. To group them together (coming from different posts):

Aaron Blumer wrote:

What causes "human choices" to happen? Do people make choices for no reason? If there are reasons, how do those reasons come to be? If there are not reasons, how do the "human choices" come to be?

...

Suppose God arranges the causal factors leading up to a human choice only to a certain point. Would you say He limits the available options, then ends His involvement so the chooser is "free" to pick a, b, or c? 

In that scenario, the chooser makes his choice at the end of a complete chain of causal factors, many of which God arranged but the last 10 yards of which came from somewhere else? Where did they come from?

...

I don't claim to have it all figured out, but here's what's clear to me:

  • The only uncaused entity is God.
  • Everything that happens, including human choices, is caused. (The chain of causation may be complex and long, but it is always a complete chain.)
  • Even the final factors that result in choice A rather than choice B are not random/uncaused. They must come from somewhere/be caused by something.
  • Identifying "the human will" as the final cause is self-contradictory, because "will" is just another way of saying "response" or "result." It is caused by something else. (We choose for reasons, whether external or internal. These reasons are causes.)

As far as I can tell, any flavor of Arminianism or non-determinism ultimately tries to have an uncaused result. But how could there be any such thing?

I want to answer the sets of initial questions using my thoughts regarding the four bullet points that Aaron stated, though specifically the final point. I AGREE with the way the first three points are stated, so no further elaboration is needed.

Regarding the fourth point, I first want to give a background for my contention on that point: any causation leading up to a choice can only be considered one of a number of contributory causes (of which some maybe necessary causes), but no sufficient causes (else by definition there is only the one sufficient cause x that brings about result y). So if God has predetermined (rather than merely pre-known) the choice itself, then that predetermination is the one sufficient cause of the choice, and there is no other contributory causes, and as such, it is not really a choice.

Where I disagree with Aaron is that "Identifying 'the human will' as the final cause is self-contradictory, because 'will' is just another way of saying 'response' or 'result.'" I do not hold that the "will" is merely a faculty that is "predetermined" to simply necessarily "result" in decision B because of causation string A leading up to it. If such were the definition of the the will, then God's "will" is not free to choose anything other than what He has chosen, as His own decisions are then merely the result of the necessary decision based on the causes. Rather, I do hold that there are valid possibilities (even for God, so i.e. good, righteous, holy choices that fit His Person) to choose a variety of paths to go with shaping reality, and He is free to choose among those for His own reasons. But I consider His "will" (the decision point itself) to be one of those "reasons" and the "final" cause of any choice. For me, the will is what is "free" to assemble the information from the contributory causes and choose between the possible choices allowed utilizing the contributory causes as part of that decision making process, but not of necessity choosing one one path to follow based on those causes.

If a choice is available, then those causes do not amount to a particular necessary path for reality, else it is no choice. This point of decision is where "free will" to me emerges and is valid (but qualified as to what that means), and that free will is what makes "compatible" divine sovereignty (including determinism), real (true) possibilities to the course of reality, and human responsibility. So the faculty of the will is free to assemble the reasons as it sees fit, and to weigh the reasons as it sees fit, which results not in an uncaused/random result, but a "reasoned" result that is not a necessary to the causes, but one of two or more possible results from the choice.

So to more directly answer the questions posed (and address a few other points):

  • The human will's determination (it is the active selector faculty of the person shaped in the likeness of God who also has such a selector faculty) in weighing the contributory causes of a decision is the final, necessary cause to the human choice (the resulting selection) that shapes which path reality will follow in God's allowed scheme of possible paths. (This answers Aaron's first set of questions, and shows why I do not equate the will = the result as his fourth bullet point states)
  • God's "involvement" is not "ended" when He allows a creature a choice of paths because that allowing of the choice is part of His being involved. The lead up of contributory causes He is involved in (both by allowance of previous choices of a creature and other creatures and by predetermination), allowance of the choice itself is His involvement, and the actual outcome of the choice is His to determine and thus His involvement also. Such a free choice is compatible with divine sovereignty.
  • God is a necessary cause to the existence of a free-thinking entity (the creation of that individual person necessarily depended upon the Creator to bring about that person and that person's ability to make decisions), a necessary cause of any choice that free-thinking entity can make (the providential controller of the possible paths of reality), and a necessary cause of the results from that decision, but because He sovereignly chooses to allow a creaturely choice, He is not the sufficient cause of any choice, but only part of the contributory causes, of which the final contributory cause is left (by His sovereign choice) to the creature He made capable of choosing and allowing to choose.
  • Sinful humanity is shackled with a sinful nature that affects the reasoning, the causes leading up to decisions, and the faculty of the will to decide (but Adam was not affected by this in his initial choice to sin); but that sinfulness also does not predetermine any particular choice (though it most certainly affects what choices God is allowing in any instance and affects the contributory causes of a decision, the sinfulness itself being one of the possible contributory causes). People have, at any given point of choice, at least one (if not more than one) "right" (morally speaking) path to take when a moral decision is facing them (1 Cor 10:13), and they can choose in any particular instance to do right (all people are totally depraved, meaning they are affected in all aspects by their sinfulness), but they are not as fully depraved as they can be (meaning they do not always choose the most sinful path, nor necessarily a particular sinful path), and so they sometimes do right, to the praise of God (Nu 36:5; Dt 5:28; 1 Kg 15:5; 2 Ch 24:16; Mt 25:21, 23 et al.). It is just than no person, but Christ, does/has done what is right every time (Psa 14:1 [Ro 3:12]), and but one failure makes one unrighteous (Ro 3:10) in the sight of the standard of God's perfect righteousness.
  • Finally, I do believe that there are cases where there is no choice allowed (even in a situation where one might think they have a choice), and as such, God has not allowed a choice, but has predetermined how a person will respond. This just reiterates that God is in control of what truly can or cannot be chosen (the possible paths that reality can take).

That, I believe, covers the questions posed from my perspective of what I see from a logical analysis of Scripture on the points related to this discussion.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Aaron Blumer's picture

Scott, thanks for that thorough reply. There's alot there to mull over... and it deserves a more comprehensive response, but I do have a few thoughts:

  • On the human will and image of God. I think we'd agree that we're like God in some ways and not like Him in others. He is the only non-contingent being, the only self-existent being. It seems necessary to conclude, at the very least, that nothing about Him is "caused" in the same way that everything else is caused. So I don't think that making the human will a product of causation  requires us to say that anything God does is necessary or caused in the same way.
  • On the idea that God continues to be involved by/in His ceasing to cause, at some point, the factors that lead to our choices (so I understood you to be saying): I don't believe there is any real distinction there. If He can be said to be involved, then His involvement must have results, whether that involvement is active or passive. So, though we might agree He is not always actively involved, it seems necessary to believe He is always causitively involved.

So, in my view, He is always acting to bring about His will, whether through secondary causes or through passive involvement, and that the human will itself cannot act without reasons/causes that must ultimately be the product of His working.

I realize that leads back to the problem of how we can be morally responsible, how He can not be the author of evil... those famous, ages-old problems. But the compatibilist propositions seem the best option I've seen for accommodating (if not exactly "solving") those problems.

ScottS's picture

Aaron, thank you for the exchange (I know, time limits abilities to fully discuss these things).

Regarding your first bullet, we do agree that people are "like God in some ways and not like Him in others," and I can agree "nothing about Him is 'caused' in the same way that everything else is caused." But I would argue that part of people being like God is that He has given us the ability to make determinations (i.e., we have a will). If so, God intended people to make determinations at points of choice that He so allows. If there were no determination to make, that likeness to God would not exist as part of us. Part of the debate on "free will" versus "compatiblism" stems, in my view, from the false assumption on compatiblism's part that "causes" beyond the will dictate certainly that choice A will be made over choice B because of the nature of the person (i.e. the person's choice is predetermined only by the "sum" [so to speak] of all the causes except the will). I am saying that all the reasons presented are weighed by the will, but the will is free to make its determination at the point of choice as the final cause for the decision. That really is the only way "responsibility" can be upon an individual for choices; he or she must be in fact choosing between possible options.

Regarding the second bullet, I can also agree with your statement that "If He can be said to be involved, then His involvement must have results, whether that involvement is active or passive. So, though we might agree He is not always actively involved, it seems necessary to believe He is always causitively involved." But again, I think we differ on what that implies. As my prior response stated, God is in control of the results of the choice, so yes, His involvement is intimately tied to the results that come. Yet it is precisely that by giving a creature a choice (which is one actively causal involvement of God in the matter), God is being passively involved in what that choice is, and allowing the creature to be the active agent of choice. So God is causitively involved in (1) having made the creature capable of choice, (2) allowing the choice, and (3) having His plan/will for what the resulting outcome of that choice will be. But none of those "cause" the creature to choose A or B, as either is allowed by God, and He has His will and plan for how history will unfold based on that choice allowed.

That last part relates to your statement, which I also agree with, that God "is always acting to bring about His will, whether through secondary causes or through passive involvement." But the difference, I think, is that I believe God's fixed will allows for creaturely choices at the places He has determined (it is a "plan" that has branches and possibilities, hence back to my original post that God can truly say something is/was possible or not, depending on a choice that will be/was made), whereas many people imply that God's fixed will is a single line path that does not have possibilities in the mix at all. This is why I see a big distinction between God foreknowing and God pre-determining. His predetermination is the "plan" He allows to manifest, including the points of choice, but His foreknowledge is knowing what path in that plan creatures will freely act on where He has allowed them choice to do so.

I see this view as not only the only logical one that accounts for freedom (when allowed), responsibility, and compatibility, but also (as I've noted in prior posts), the only one that matches to the points of Scripture that do speak to such things as truthful counterfactuals. To me, this is the compatiblist explanation of free choice (i.e. "The Compatibilist believes that free will is 'compatible' with determinism," note all links in this paragraph are to this same page) as God has determined to allow the choice and determined the results of any choice, so it does not go against determinism. Yet at the same time, a person's choice is "caused" by their own capacity to choose (the will), and is affected by their nature (both as sinful and as created to be like God), but not sufficiently so (only necessarily so), therefore at a point of choice, people "could have done otherwise" if they had willed to do so.

That is, I do not see compatibilism and libertarian freedom at the points God has allowed for choice as being antithetical to each other. But that is because unlike the compatibilist view that "man freely chooses what God has determined that he will chose" (which I agree with the libertarians that such is not then a choice, if by "determination" one means God really chose what a person would "choose" [sarcastic quotes there], rather than God knowing what he/she will choose), which they believe is necessary to protect "the idea that God is in charge." But God is in charge, even through the allowance of the free choices. He need not determine that choice to still be in charge.

What helped me see this was my experience with computer programming. The programmer is sovereign over the course of actions allowed by the user, and sovereign over what those actions result in. What the programmer allows is the user to choose from those actions to route the course of "history" for the use of that program. The only distinction is that God knows the choices that will be made, and so His program of history has accommodated those choices in ways that no human programmer can, so that history reaches the way-points (the goals) He has for it, in spite of the human choices made (Rom 8:28).

I see the next installment of this series has been posted, so perhaps our discussion will continue. But I don't see much more I could say to clarify my thoughts. I believe (from they way you are writing) that you are more the standard compatiblist on this, but clarify if I am wrong.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

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