How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 5)

Reposted from Analogical Thoughts, with permission. Read the series so far.

A long time ago, in a galaxy remarkably like this one, I began a series addressing the question, How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? It’s high time I started to wrap things up. So, to recap:

In the first post, I argued that Augustinianism and Molinism can equally well accommodate comprehensive divine providence and God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, both of which the Bible clearly affirms. I observed that if Molinists wants to argue that their position is more biblical than the Augustinian position, they need to identify some proposition p that meets two conditions: (i) p is affirmed by Molinism but denied by Augustinianism, and (ii) p is affirmed or clearly implied by some biblical teaching.

In the second, third, and fourth posts, I considered three candidates for p: first, the proposition that moral freedom is incompatible with determinism; second, the proposition that God desires all to be saved; and third, the proposition that God is not the author of sin. In none of these three cases, I argued, does the candidate p meet conditions (i) and (ii).

In this post, I turn the tables and argue there are three propositions, each of which meet the following two conditions: (i) the proposition is denied by Molinism but affirmed (or at least not denied) by Augustinianism, and (ii) the proposition is affirmed or clearly implied by some biblical teaching. That being the case, we should conclude that Augustinianism is better supported by the Bible than Molinism.

1. No Contingencies Beyond God’s Control

According to Molinism, there are contingent truths that are beyond God’s control: specifically, the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs) that provide the content of God’s middle knowledge. Their truth values are determined neither by God’s nature nor by God’s will. They are, in a real sense, brute facts that are imposed upon God, such that God has to take them into account when formulating his eternal decree. As some Molinists have put it, “God has to play the cards he’s dealt.” On Molinism, God’s eternal decree does not originate entirely in God.

This is not true for Augustinianism, which doesn’t recognize the category of divine middle knowledge. On the Augustinian view, God’s knowledge is comprised entirely of his natural knowledge (grounded in his nature) and his free knowledge (grounded in his will). There are no contingent truths beyond God’s control.

So consider this first proposition:

(1) There are no contingencies beyond God’s control.

Is it affirmed or clearly implied by any biblical teaching? I grant that the Bible doesn’t explicitly assert (1). However, Scripture does make some very clear and emphatic statements about God’s aseity (self-existence) and independence (i.e., that his thoughts and plans are not dependent on any external factors). In the first place, there are many texts which teach or imply that God is not dependent on his creation for anything (e.g., Job 41:11; Ps. 50:12; Acts 17:24-25). These are reinforced by other texts which emphasize the sovereignty and independence of God’s will (e.g., Exod. 33:19; Rom. 9:14-21).1

Now the Molinist might counter that these texts speak only of God’s independence of the actual creation; they don’t say anything about independence of pre-creational contingent truths (specifically, CCFs). But that looks like an ad hoc exception. If God’s perfection means that he isn’t dependent on his creation, wouldn’t that same perfection imply that he isn’t dependent on any external conditioning factors, whether pre-creation or post-creation?

Scripture clearly depicts God’s independence as a great-making property. To put it in Anselmian terms: if God is that being than which no greater can be conceived, then the Molinist view of God falls short, for it’s easy to conceive of a being greater than the God of Molinism, namely, a God whose decisions don’t depend on contingencies beyond his control. An absolutely great being must be absolutely independent of any external constraints or conditioning factors.

Furthermore, it seems to me that Molinists can’t cleanly separate dependence on the CCFs from dependence on the creation, because they want to say that creatures have some kind of counterfactual power over the CCFs and (by implication) over God’s decree. Even if God has decreed that Sam freely choose A, the Molinist wants to say that Sam could have freely chosen not-A, in which case the CCFs would have been different and (consequently) God’s decree would have been different.2 In other words, what Molinists typically say about human freedom and moral responsibility implies that God’s plans are, in some non-trivial sense, partly dependent on his creatures. But that doesn’t sit at all comfortably with the kind of biblical teachings mentioned above.

There’s one further biblical text that I suggest is almost decisive on this point:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)

Not only does Paul speak here of the independence of God (v. 35) but also of (as Cornelius Van Til put it) the self-containment of God. Note the comprehensive scope of Paul’s affirmation in verse 36: all things find their source, sustenance, and purpose in God, such that God alone receives glory for the accomplishment of his plans. Can that be genuinely affirmed with respect to the Molinist’s counterfactuals of creaturely freedom?3

2. God (Sometimes) Causes Human Free Choices

Another salient difference between Molinism and Augustinianism is that Molinism is committed to a libertarian (incompatibilist) view of human freedom. (For the record, I think Augustinianism is committed to compatibilism, but all I need for my argument here is that Augustinianism isn’t committed to libertarianism.)

On the Molinist view, then, causal determinism is incompatible with freedom and moral responsibility. (Here I assume, as Molinists invariably do, that freedom is a necessary condition of moral responsibility.)

So consider this second proposition:

(2) God sometimes causes human free choices.

This claim is inconsistent with Molinism, but not with Augustinianism. Does it enjoy any biblical support? Consider the following texts:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek. 36:26-27)4

The Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.” (Exod. 4:21)

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing… (Ezra 1:1; cf. 1:5)

In each case, the clear implication is that God is acting directly upon a person (or people) such that they make specific choices or perform specific actions. (For other examples, see Deut. 2:30 and Josh. 11:19-20.) Moreover, there’s no indication that these choices weren’t free choices on the part of the human agents, or that they weren’t held morally responsible for those choices. (Molinists might respond that if these choices were in fact caused by God then they couldn’t have been free choices, but that would be question-begging in the present context.)

In addition, there are also biblical texts that imply double-agency, where certain events are said to be cause both by human agents and by God. One particularly striking example comes from the account of the death of Saul:

Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it… Thus Saul died… Therefore the Lord put him [Saul] to death… (1 Chron. 10:4, 6, 14)

Who killed Saul? Scripture gives two complementary answers: Saul killed Saul, and God killed Saul. (Other examples of this double-agency: Gen. 45:7-8; Gen. 50:20; Judg. 14:1-5; Job 1:13-12; Isa. 10:5-19; Acts 4:27-28 [cf. Isa. 53:4, 10].)

In each of these texts, the straightforward reading is that God acted upon human agents so that they would perform specific actions. Furthermore, in most if not all of these texts it’s implied that the human agents are held morally responsible for those actions. There’s no hint of the kind of passive control posited by Molinists (merely manipulating external circumstances without any direct action on the human will).

So inasmuch as we find biblical support for (2), we find further evidence that favors Augustinianism over Molinism.

3. Divine Election Is Unconditional

Molinism and Augustinianism both affirm divine election and predestination, but take different positions on whether God’s election is conditional. On the Augustinian view, divine election is unconditional in the sense that God’s election of S is not conditioned or determined by S’s own choices or actions. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it:

Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace. (WCF 3.5)

Arminians often take the position that God’s election is conditioned on his foreknowledge of future human choices, but that’s not how the Molinist sees things. For the Molinist, God’s decree is logically prior to his foreknowledge (his knowledge of what will take place) even though his decree is logically subsequent to his middle knowledge (his knowledge of what would happen upon certain conditions). So the Molinist view of election is a kind of mediating position between the Augustinian view and the Arminian simple-foreknowledge view. Nevertheless, the Molinist still holds to a conditional view of election, because God’s decree is conditioned on the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, and the truths of the CCFs are (in some metaphysically mysterious sense) “up to us.” Thus, if God decrees and actualizes a world in which S is elect, that is partly on account of S’s libertarian free choices, over which God has no direct control. (Remember: if S had freely chosen otherwise, God would have decreed and actualized a different world.)

In fact, since God’s decree is conditioned on the entirety of the CCFs, and God’s decree includes the final destiny of every human being, the complete roster of the elect is conditioned on the free choices of creatures. That’s to say, my election is conditioned not only on my choices but also to some degree on your choices as well.

So here we find another salient difference between Augustinianism and Molinism: on Molinism, divine election is conditioned on the libertarian free choices of creatures.

Consider then this third proposition:

(3) Divine election (of individuals to salvation) is unconditional.

I submit that there are no biblical texts that contradict (3) but there are several that support it. The most of explicit of these texts is, of course, Romans 9:9-18:

For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

Paul’s emphasis clearly falls on the sovereignty of God. A sharp contrast is drawn between the divine will and the human will; the assertion is that election is grounded entirely in the former. “Not that but this” is the logical and rhetorical form of Paul’s argument. There’s no room here for a mixed position according to which election is conditioned partly on the divine will and partly on the human will. (Compare another Pauline antithesis, that between faith and works, in Rom. 3:27-28 and 9:32.)

On the face of it, Romans 9:9-18 explicitly affirms that God’s election of individuals for salvation is unconditional.5 That constitutes a third strike against Molinism when contrasted with Augustinianism.

In the final installment of this series, I’ll draw together all the threads and summarize the overall argument. Stay tuned!

Notes

1 Commenting on Exodus 33:19, John Currid writes, “Yahweh uses an idem per idem formula to express other important aspects of his nature. This formula, ‘favour … favour’ and ‘compassion … compassion’, signifies that God is autonomous, free to bestow his grace and compassion on whomever he pleases. It underscores the doctrine of the sovereignty of God.” Exodus, vol. 2 (Evangelical Press, 2001), p. 305.

2 William Lane Craig makes this very point here.

3 Perhaps Paul should have added an footnote to verse 36: “CCFs excepted, natch.”

4 Compare NASB (“cause you to walk in my statutes”) and NIV (“move you to follow my decrees”). The Hebrew verb is ‘asah, which has the basic meaning “to do, make.” It appears frequently in the OT, including the creation account, and always connotes an active agency on the part of the subject.

5 For a detailed exegetical defense of this claim, see Thomas Schreiner’s articles here and here.

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

Anderson's view is pretty traditionalist... We're just talking about different traditions.

David R. Brumbelow's picture

“Non-Calvinistic Southern Baptists have been using the term ‘Traditionalist’ to describe the most commonly held Southern Baptist view of salvation taught by leaders over the last one hundred years or so.  In 2012, a document was produced to better articulate the scholarly non-Calvinistic soteriology of Southern Baptists, whose primary author was Eric Hankins, and was entitled A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.  The word ‘traditional’ was again used for the basic Baptist view of non-Calvinists.  This term has never been meant to suggest that all Southern Baptists have been non-Calvinistic because it is clear there have been two clear streams of soteriology throughout Baptist history.  See www.connect316.net for more details.” 

-Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology, Trinity Academic Press; 2017.

David R. Brumbelow

Aaron Blumer's picture

I see the reasoning, and as far as I know, "traditionalist" is accurate within the scope of how they're using the term in SBC history.

... there are Baptist traditions older than SBC, but I get that it would be awkward to try to claim the moniker "SBC Soteriological Traditionaists" or something similarly compound. Smile

G. N. Barkman's picture

For anyone who has read Tom Nettle's book, "By His Grace and For His Glory", the assertion that non-Calvinists are the Traditionalists within the SBC sounds questionable.  (This book has been updated and issued with a different title since I read it, and I don't remember the new title.)  Nettles documents that the Doctrines of Grace were affirmed by nearly all the founding fathers of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Unless someone can disprove Nettles documentation, its sounds to me like Calvinists were the Traditionalists in the SBC.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

The 1833 NHCF is clearly Calvinistic; though it's milder than the Philadelphia Confession, to be sure. The 1833 NHCF is the basis for the SBC Faith and Message. The SBC has clear Calvinistic root, soteriologically speaking.

As for Leighton Flowers, he's been the flavor of the month for the non-Calvinistic guys in the SBC for about two years or so. I watched his moderated debate with James White on Romans 9. Suffice it to say, I'm not interested in reading what he has to say on this text. His performance, exegesis and explanations in that debate were quite embarrassing to watch. I''ve seen all I need to see from that man on this topic.  

Molinism? Spare me. I've listened to William Craig try to explain it. I'm not interested. But, in another possible world, it's likely I might be ...

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

David R. Brumbelow's picture

“Baptists have always had both Calvinists and non-Calvinists [aka Traditionalists; Moderate Calvinists] within their ranks.” 

-David L. Allen and Steve Lemke, “Whosoever Will.”  Allen is professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Lemke professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. 

William Bullein Johnson (AD 1782-1862) was the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention.  He wrote in the “Southern Baptist” in 1855, that some Baptists “believe in the Calvinistic scheme, and some in the Arminian.  Some are hyper-Calvinists, and some are moderate Calvinists.” 

-reference, “The Extent of the Atonement,” by David L. Allen. 

Also, Francis Wayland on Calvinism in 1856

http://gulfcoastpastor.blogspot.com/2012/10/francis-wayland-on-calvinism...

Many, many, more examples can be given of both streams throughout Baptist history. 

David R. Brumbelow

G. N. Barkman's picture

David,  I doubt that anyone who is even slightly familiar with the SBC would question your "two streams" statement.  But do you deny that Calvinists dominated the leadership of the SBC for the first several decades?  That's what Tom Nettles asserts, and I have yet to see any documentation to credibly refute that assessment.  My understanding of SBC history leads me to believe it was not until the early twentieth century that Arminian theology became ascendant.  Before then, Southern Seminary professors and SBC leaders were nearly all Calvinists.  Within the rank and file, Arminianism was more widely represented, but still not dominant.  That is why I keep questioning the label "Traditionalists" to identify non-Calvinists.  It seems to me that the SBC has a strong nineteenth century tradition of Calvinist theology, with Arminianism rising to the fore in the twentieth century.  One of my goals in life is to help Baptists understand and embrace their Calvinist roots.

G. N. Barkman

JohnBrian's picture

David R. Brumbelow wrote:

William Bullein Johnson (AD 1782-1862) was the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention.  He wrote in the “Southern Baptist” in 1855, that some Baptists “believe in the Calvinistic scheme, and some in the Arminian.  Some are hyper-Calvinists, and some are moderate Calvinists.” 

So why are these "traditionalists" so hesitant to admit they are Arminians? Why do they need to use a different name?

p.s. I thought Geisler in his book coined the term "Moderate," but interesting to see that it was used so long ago.

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David R. Brumbelow's picture

While the term, Arminianism was used more in the past, most Traditionalist Baptists today look at that term for a Baptist as perjorative. 

It should be kept in mind that in a sense, all Baptists (except Free-Will Baptists) are Calvinist to some degree.  Years ago I remember preachers and professors pointing out, if you believe in eternal security you are a Calvinist. 

Depending on how the survey is worded, you can get results showing most Americans are Pro-Life, or, that most Americans are Pro-Choice.  You can kind of do the same with Calvinism and Traditionalism among Baptists. 

While most Baptist writers of the 1800s were Calvinists, there was a growing influence of Traditionalists during that time.  See Francis Wayland’s quote; there are many similar quotes from that time. 

I think some Calvinists overemphasize the number of Calvinists in the 1800s and early 1900s.  Some Traditionalists  (aka non-Calvinists; Moderate Calvinists) overemphasize the number of Traditionalists during that time. 

Some believe Dr. Nettles overemphasizes the number and influence of strict Calvinists in the 1800s and early 1900s. 

David L. Allen in The Extent of the Atonement, deals directly with how, in the last 2,000 years, Christians viewed Limited vs. Unlimited Atonement.  He and others point out some in history have appeared very Calvinistic, yet did not believe in Limited Atonement.  Of course, you can draw the line in any of a number of places or points. 

W. A. Criswell, past SBC president and FBC, Dallas pastor, prided himself on being a Calvinist.  Yet he said things that would make many Calvinists cringe, and did not believe in Limited Atonement. 

Traditionalists point out the leaders in each of the three versions of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925; 1963; 2000), fit more with the Traditionalist point of view (E. Y. Mullins, H. H. Hobbs, Adrian Rogers).  Of course, it was written so as to include both Calvinists and Traditionalists. 

David R. Brumbelow

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Traditionalists don’t like the term, Arminian.  To many, that is a term for Methodists and those who believe you can lose your salvation. 

Some Calvinists point out, well, you believe in several points of Arminianism.  So, it’s proper to call you Arminian.  My reply is, Hyper-Calvinists believe in all 5-points of Calvinism; so then why don’t we call all Calvinists, Hyper-Calvinists?  Or, much better, why don’t we just refer to each other as Calvinist and Traditionalist. 

By the way, one reason for Traditionalist, is because some did not was to be referred to, in one way or another, by the name Calvin.  But, Leighton Flowers’ above definition of Traditionalism, is a good, brief description. 

David R. Brumbelow

G. N. Barkman's picture

David, I thank you for your explanation.  I appreciate the spirit with which you interact on SI.  You always have documentation to support your positions.

That being said, it would appear that your explanation serves to confirm my impression about the strong Calvinist roots of the SBC.  Saying that some believe the number of Calvinists was over estimated, and some believe the number of Traditionalists was over estimated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries does little to support either position.  It simply adds additional opinion to already stated opinion.

However, acknowledging that virtually all SBC writers of the nineteenth century were Calvinists is helpful and insightful.  That confirms my impression, gained largely by reading Nettles, that the leaders of the SBC in the early decades were nearly all Calvinists.  That situation changed in the early to mid twentieth century, but it seems the pendulum is swinging back in the direction of Calvinism in the twenty first century.  If one is to examine the SBC according to books and articles published in the nineteenth century, one would conclude that Southern Baptists began on a very strong Calvinist foundation.  Hopefully, from my point of view, an increasing number of Baptists, both SBC and otherwise, will find their way back to their historical and theological roots.

G. N. Barkman

G. N. Barkman's picture

I will be out of the country for a couple of weeks.  I don't know how much I will be able to engage on SI during that time.  I will stay in touch as able.

G. N. Barkman

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