How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 2)

Reposted from Analogical Thoughts, with permission. Read Part 1.

In this short series I’m considering the question: How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? In the first post I summarized how I plan to approach the question, before looking at two biblical teachings which Molinism seeks to accommodate: (1) comprehensive divine providence and (2) God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. I concluded that while the Bible does indeed affirm (1) and (2), and Molinism is consistent with the Bible on those points, Augustinianism also affirms those points. So Molinism holds no advantage over Augustinianism with respect to (1) and (2). I then added:

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 few posts I want to examine three potential candidates for proposition p from the Molinist side: (1) that incompatibilism is true; (2) that God desires all to be saved; and (3) that God is not the author of sin.

Incompatibilism About Free Will

As I noted in the first post, Molinists are committed to a libertarian view of free will. Libertarianism involves two basic claims:

  • Incompatibilism: genuine freedom is incompatible with determinism.
  • Freedom: we make (at least some) genuinely free choices, i.e., choices for which we can be held morally responsible.

These two claims together entail that determinism is false, but since compatibilists typically agree that we make genuinely free choices, it’s the first claim which really distinguishes libertarians from compatibilists.

So the relevant question here is whether the Bible offers any support for incompatibilism. Before answering that question, however, I want to make two preliminary points. The first is this: I’ve argued before that there are different kinds of determinism and there are non-trivial senses in which Molinism is deterministic. What the Molinist really objects to is causal determinism, the thesis that every event is entailed by prior sufficient causes. So when we consider the incompatibilist claim in what follows, we should understand it as the claim that freedom is incompatible with causal determinism.

Secondly, while there’s no debate about whether Molinists are committed to libertarianism, there’s some debate about whether Augustinians are committed to compatibilism. (Recall that I’ve framed this discussion in terms of whether Molinism or Augustinianism has better biblical support.) Oliver Crisp, for example, has defended “libertarian Calvinism” as a live option for Calvinists. To the contrary I’ve argued in several places (e.g., here and here) that confessional Calvinists should reject libertarianism.

Fortunately we don’t need to settle that debate here. Either Augustinianism is consistent with a libertarian view of free will or it isn’t. If it is consistent with libertarianism, it follows that any biblical support for libertarianism (if such exists) wouldn’t favor Molinism over Augustinianism. If it isn’t consistent with libertarianism, Molinism would enjoy an advantage only if the Bible were to offer some support for incompatibilism. But as I will now argue, it doesn’t.

As far as I’m aware, there’s nothing in the Bible which comes close to explicitly affirming or straightforwardly implying incompatibilism about free will, i.e., that genuine freedom is incompatible with causal determinism. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what that would look like. Certainly we wouldn’t expect the Bible to make an explicit affirmation that freedom (or moral responsibility) is incompatible with determinism (or some relevant kind). And it would be question begging to argue, “The Bible teaches that we make some free choices; determinism is incompatible with free choice; therefore, the Bible implies that we have libertarian free will.” Such an argument merely assumes incompatibilism as one of its premises. The question is whether the Bible offers any independent support for that premise.

When Molinists (along with other Christians who hold to libertarianism) are invited to defend their view of free will, they rarely appeal directly to biblical texts, for the very reason that there are no biblical texts which serve that purpose. Usually they’ll appeal to commonsense intuitions about free will or to one or more philosophical arguments for incompatibilism. So their defense comes to this:

  • the Bible affirms that we can make free choices (i.e., choices for which we are held morally responsible);
  • free choices must be libertarian free choices (appealing to intuitions and/or philosophical arguments);
  • therefore the Bible supports libertarianism (indirectly at least).

This line of defense can be criticized on several fronts. In the first place, the notion that libertarianism is the commonsense view of free will is highly questionable. A number of studies have been done on the question and there’s nothing like a consensus. Depending on which questions are asked (and how exactly those questions are framed) it appears that some people’s intuitions lean towards incompatibilism and others lean towards compatibilism. Indeed, it seems many people have conflicting intuitions when it comes to free will and moral responsibility.

As for philosophical arguments for incompatibilism, once again the jury is out. I’ll concede that there are some impressive arguments for incompatibilism, but there are equally impressive responses to those arguments. Furthermore, there are serious philosophical arguments against libertarian accounts (e.g., the luck objection and the indeterminism-doesn’t-help objection). As the debate over free will currently stands, it’s fair to say the field is pretty evenly divided between compatibilists and incompatibilists.1 What’s more, the latter aren’t all libertarians; the incompatibilist camp includes some who are skeptical about free will or deny it outright.2

In any case, all this is largely beside the point. Recall that the question we’re considering here is whether any biblical teachings support Molinism over against Augustinianism. Appeals to extra-biblical intuitions or philosophical arguments obviously don’t count as biblical teachings!

There is one verse, however, to which many libertarians have pointed in support of non-deterministic free will:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

The suggestion is that the apostle Paul is affirming (or at least assuming) some version of the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP):

  • PAP: A person is morally responsible for an action only if that person could have done otherwise (i.e., was able to do otherwise).

The argument runs like this: Paul is giving the Corinthians (and by extension all Christians) an assurance that whenever a believer is faced with a temptation to sin, God will ensure that the believer has the ability to resist that temptation and not succumb to it. In other words, when a believer is tempted to commit some sin, God will faithfully ensure that the believer has the ability to do otherwise, i.e., to not commit that sin. The believer thus has the power of contrary choice — which is to say, he possesses libertarian freedom. (This argument assumes, reasonably enough, that the believer is morally responsible for whether or not he resists temptation.)

There are, however, several problems with this appeal to 1 Corinthians 10:13.

1. There is debate even among libertarians over whether PAP is true (and, indeed, which version of PAP is true, for there are variations on the basic version above). Some advocates of libertarianism argue that the sine qua non of libertarian free will isn’t PAP but rather some other condition, such as the “ultimate source” condition (i.e., a person chooses freely only if he is the “ultimate source” of his choice).3 So even if 1 Corinthians 10:13 supported PAP, it wouldn’t immediately follow that it supports libertarianism.

2. Not only are there libertarians who reject PAP, there are also some contemporary compatibilists who endorse PAP — or at least, endorse a compatibilist-friendly version of PAP.4 There are ways to understand the phrases “could have done otherwise” and “had the ability to do otherwise” which are consistent with causal determinism. So even if 1 Corinthians 10:13 supported PAP, it wouldn’t immediately follow that it supports only an incompatibilist version of PAP. Clearly what Paul says in that text isn’t fine-grained enough to distinguish between compatibilist and libertarian understandings of the crucial term “ability.”

3. Note two things about Paul’s statements in 10:13. First, they’re directed specifically to believers, not to all human beings (see 10:1). Secondly, they indicate that God will actively provide something to believers, something they wouldn’t otherwise have in the normal course of events. So if this assurance from Paul really does imply a libertarian view of free will, it further implies that libertarian freedom is something God will actively (supernaturally?) bestow upon Christians when faced with temptations. But that’s simply not enough for the Molinist. For according to Molinism, all human beings have libertarian freedom in the normal course of events (since libertarian freedom is taken to be a necessary condition for moral responsibility). If anything, the libertarian reading of 1 Cor. 10:13 runs contrary to the basic suppositions of Molinism.

So here’s the bottom line. 1 Corinthians 10:13 offers no clear support for an incompatibilist view of free will. There are perfectly straightforward ways to understand this Pauline assurance that are consistent with compatibilism.5 In reality, the only way to get libertarian free will out of this biblical text is to supplement it with various philosophical arguments (that PAP is the distinctive tenet of libertarianism, that compatibilist versions of PAP are inadequate, etc.) and even then it doesn’t get you to the kind of ordinary-libertarianism-for-all posited by Molinism.

I’m aware of no other biblical texts or teachings that offer any straightforward support for incompatibilism about free will. I therefore conclude that there is no such support. In the next post in this series, I’ll consider whether the biblical teaching that God desires all to be saved favors Molinism over Augustinianism.

Addendum: For some incisive critiques of the Molinist/Arminian appeal to 1 Cor. 10:13 see the following posts by Steve Hays:

Notes

1 See, e.g., the PhilPapers survey results.

2 For more on this point and the previous one (about pre-philosophical intuitions) see the discussion and citations in my paper “Calvinism and the First Sin.”

3 William Lane Craig, a prominent Molinist and advocate of libertarian free will, is among those who deny that PAP is necessary for libertarianism.

4 See here for an overview.

5 For further discussion, see Steven Cowan’s JETS article.

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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David R. Brumbelow's picture

“Molinism argues that God perfectly accomplishes His will in free creatures through the use of His omniscience.  It reconciles two crucial biblical truths:  (1) God exercises sovereign control over all His creation, and (2) human beings make free choices and decisions for which they must give account…”   

“The Molinist model is the only game in town for anyone who wishes to affirm a high view of God’s sovereignty while holding to a genuine definition of human choice, freedom, and responsibility.” 

-Dr. Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, B&H Academic; 2010.  Keathley is a Theology professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Kenneth Keathley includes a chapter on “The Biblical Case for Molinism.” 

For anyone wishing to learn more about Molinism, they should read Salvation and Sovereignty. 

David R. Brumbelow

Aaron Blumer's picture

I can appreciate what the Molinists are trying to accomplish. There are some genuine theological -- and eventually practical ministry -- problems involved in understanding, to borrow the title above "Salvation and Sovereignty" as well as "everything else and sovereignty."

But to me it's quickly apparent that Molinism doesn't make sense, and ends up only tucking God's sovereign activity in our choices behind a very thin curtain, rather than supporting its own idea of freedom.

The alternatives can't completely resolve the tensions either, but they get much further. We are contingent beings and should accept that, be it ever so humbling.

ScottS's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

We are contingent beings and should accept that, be it ever so humbling.

Aaron, from your perspective, what does being a "contingent being" have to do with the discussion? It seems like you are making that statement as though a Molinist (or other middle-knowledge type view) cannot agree to that. Taking a few definitions from Merriam-Webster:

1: dependent on or conditioned by something else

No Molinist (or middle-knowledge type person like me, since I do not hold to the Molinist idea argued against here of incompatiblism, though one does have to define determinism in this context) would argue that we as beings are not contingent on God in either a dependent sense or a conditioned sense. Additionally, another definition:

3: not logically necessary

We as creatures are not logically necessary, so again our being is contingent on God having in His plan to have us come to exist. And further, the choices God allows are contingent upon His allowing them; and the design and application of the will to make decisions is contingent on Him (i.e. there are people in mental states that are not capable of choices).

However, being contingent does not negate the possibility of God allowing true choice (the ability to choose A or not choose A in the situations He allows it).

So maybe I'm missing something, but your final statement does not appear to relate to the discussion. Please elaborate if I am missing your point there.

Additionally, you state that you are expecting Molinism to be "supporting its own idea of freedom," but I do not think that is the goal of Molinism (or any middle-knowledge type view). Rather, the goal as I understand it is to fit actual freedom of choice (again, the ability to choose A or not A in a given choice situation, generally labeled libertarian freedom) in a context of God still having control of the situation (i.e. a form of determinism), as it is He who is allowing either path A or another path(s) to be chosen and allowing His creatures to participate in shaping the course of history, but under His providence of the paths so allowed). That is a big difference from pure libertarianism that has history out of God's control (as some argue that God cannot preknow the free choices people will make) and from a pure determinism that has history not only in God's control, but without real options for people to make choices (all the apparent choices being really not choices at all). So it is not a new type of freedom being supported, but supporting freedom in the context of providential control.

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

J. Baillet's picture

Scott,

You may have addressed this before, but what is your view on the relationship of God to time?  Does God experience time or is he outside of time, i.e. the eternal now?

Also, do we, as creatures, have an existence independent of God's decree? Does creation in some sense have an existence independent from God and is it self-sustaining in that sphere?

JSB

Aaron Blumer's picture

What I mean by contingent beings is that nothing about us is uncaused. Nothing at all. Even if we take the view that God narrows down the options so that we choose from a smaller list of possibilities, whatever we choose is still the result of something. If I choose A rather than B or C, it doesn't really matter how large the number of options is, or how small, because I will make my choice as a result of some combination of external factors, my own nature, and internal factors (if the latter two are even really two different things). So my attitudes, values, desires, character, habits, genes, prior choices -- all of that works together with all the external factors to determine what I will choose.

There is no such thing as "freedom" in the sense of "free of any cause" or "free of determining factors."

It's clear to me that everything that happens must be determined (which I can't see any way to distinguish from "caused"). It's also clear in Scripture that we are responsible for our choices. Fully harmonizing these from our point of view is probably ultimately not possible (in this life), but the Augustinian angle seems less strained than any other option I've seen so far.

ScottS's picture

J. Baillet wrote:

What is your view on the relationship of God to time?  Does God experience time or is he outside of time, i.e. the eternal now?

Also, do we, as creatures, have an existence independent of God's decree? Does creation in some sense have an existence independent from God and is it self-sustaining in that sphere?

JSB, to answer your questions of my views of God and time:

  • God both experiences and is outside of time (i.e., He functions in both the eternal now and within history as a participant of that, both as Himself as Spirit, as well as the incarnated God-man).
  • We (nor any of creation) do not exist independent of God's decree (as most Christians I know of would agree, which is why I noted that even Molinists would consider people contingent beings).

Where I think people differ is on the nature of the decree (i.e does the decree allow for human choices, in some form and at some level, to shape the course of history or not).

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

ScottS's picture

Aaron, I agree with everything you stated about the nature of contingency (which is partially why I was challenging that having a middle-knowledge view does not mean one does not believe in contingency, which seemed to me to be what your initial statement implied that solicited my question of you).

I also agree that

There is no such thing as "freedom" in the sense of "free of any cause" or "free of determining factors."

For me, the question/definition of "freedom" deals with whether or not 

  1. God has given people real choices to make in which He allows them freedom to determine what the path of history is, His decree allowing for the choice of either/any path(s) He has allowed.
  2. God has given people a will that is free to weigh one's own "attitudes, values, desires, character, habits, genes, prior choices," etc. and determine the desired path; that is, in my view the will (which is itself caused to exist in mankind by God) is the final causal agency of the choice God allows of that person, based on how that person's will deems to weigh the various factors, which weighing is free to be changed by the will. This freedom is why in my view, given the same set of causal factors, one is free to choose A or not choose A (which is what libertarianism argues), because the will is free in the sense of being able to weight the factors in a way that favors choosing A or in a way that favors not choosing it, and so actually make the choice using those factors as its cause (so a determination is being made), but not railroaded into only one path (i.e., no real choice). Recall that I hold that God does have foreknowledge of what a person will choose.

All this is functioning within God's decree since that is what allows the choice, maintaining God's sovereignty (as compatiblism argues), while also allowing grounds for human responsibility (how the person willed to choose). For me, it is a clear path to a full harmonizing of determinism, and freedom, and responsibility.

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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