Doctrine of Creation (Part 11)

October 29, 2012     Time: 00:35:04

We have been giving an assessment of different views of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom. Last week I offered a critique of universal divine causal determinism and argued that that is not a good, biblical, coherent way of reconciling these teachings of Scripture on divine sovereignty and human freedom. Today we want to look briefly at the Arminian account.


As I explained when we surveyed the three views, present day Arminianism is really a sort of watered down version of what Arminius, himself, believed. It is really very different from the original Arminian doctrine. Contemporary Arminianism tends to think that what God does is he looks into the future, down the timeline, and he sees some event e is going to occur and, therefore, foreknowing that e is going to occur, he foreordains e’s occurrence. His foreordination, or predestination, is based upon simple foreknowledge of the future. He foreordains what he foreknows what will happen.

I want to suggest that, again, this model of divine providence can make no good sense out of God’s providential planning of a world of free creatures because on this view God does not have, logically prior to his creative decree or his choice of a world, any knowledge of what creatures would do under any circumstances. All he knows is all of the possibilities that could happen. He simply knows it is possible that creatures might behave in such and such a way, but he really has no idea whatsoever how they would behave. So when he declares to create a world (and he has knowledge of the future and everything that is going to happen) this must come as something of a shock to God. He must find himself in a situation where he thinks he is extraordinarily lucky that this world happened to exist. We can imagine God looking into the future and saying, “Oh! What a break! Herod and Pilate and all those people in Jerusalem did just the right thing in crucifying Christ so that atonement can be made for the world. They just all behaved perfectly.” In fact, the situation is really much worse than that because God wouldn’t have any idea whether there would even be a Roman Empire or whether any of these people would exist. He must be utterly stunned when he suddenly looks into the future and sees all these things that are going to happen which he hasn’t determined to happen and discovering that, lo’ and behold, he is going to become incarnate and die on a Roman cross for the sins of mankind as a substitutionary offering for the sins of the world. This would be really quite a surprise to God.

Of course, I am speaking anthropomorphically here. But nevertheless, the philosophical point is that without middle knowledge – without knowledge of how creatures would behave under various circumstances – God cannot know, prior to his creative decree of a world, anything that would happen except what he, himself, determined. So there would be no providential planning at all in such a world. God just finds himself with this world on his hands and the future that he knows will happen. But it is not the result of his providential planning on the simple foreknowledge view.

Moreover, the simple foreknowledge view reduces divine foreordination and predestination to a triviality. If all God does is foreordain what he knows will happen then foreordination becomes a sort of fifth wheel – it doesn’t do anything; it doesn’t carry any weight. If it’s going to happen anyway, what difference does it make to foreordain it to happen? So his foreordination is really meaningless.[1] All it amounts to on this view is that God foreordains that what will happen will happen, which is a tautology. He foreordains that what will happen will happen. Surely, there is much more substance to the biblical doctrine of divine sovereignty and foreordination than the triviality that God decrees that what will happen will happen. So I find this simple foreknowledge view to be just really completely deficient in terms of giving us a robust biblical doctrine of providence and foreordination.


Let’s go on, then, to the Molinist view of divine providence.

The original Arminianism was, in fact, Molinism. It was through Arminius (according to church historian Richard Muller) that Molinism entered into Protestant theology.[2] Luis Molina, himself, was a Catholic Jesuit and counter-Reformer in fact. But it was through Jacob Arminius that Molinism entered into Protestant theology. Unfortunately, over the centuries, it became so watered down that, among most contemporary Arminians, it has been reduced to this sort of triviality of God foreordains what he foreknows will happen. It is easy to see how this watering down would occur because the doctrine of middle knowledge is very subtle. It is very easy to see how people would confuse God’s knowing what would happen under any circumstances with saying God knows what will happen and that is how he chooses which world to create (it is based on what he knows will happen). So the distinction is between indicative statements such as “this will happen” and subjunctive conditionals (conditionals in the subjunctive mood) such as “if Jones were in circumstances C he would freely do action A.” That is a subtle distinction that isn’t easy to grasp and so I think over the course of the centuries Arminianism lost this distinction and became this sort of simple foreknowledge view.


Question: Does he foreordain what he is going to cause to happen?

Answer: No, that would be more of the Reformed view. The Reformed view would be that the way God knows the future is that he foreordains or he causes it. He brings it about himself. He can make promises, for example, in prophesies because he, himself, will bring these about. And knowing his own omnipotence and sovereignty, he is confident that he can bring these events to pass. But on the Arminian view, they want to affirm genuine libertarian freedom. They are incompatibilists. Remember that distinction? They are incompatibilists about freedom. So they think that what God knows are these future free acts. For example, that Steve will freely place his faith in Christ. So knowing that Steve will freely do this, God then foreordains that this will happen that Steve will freely place his faith in Christ.

Followup: Do they think that God is actively participating but not infringing upon libertarian free will?

Answer: Yes. For example, the instance I gave of Steve placing his faith in Christ. They would say that is only in response to the prevenient work of the Holy Spirit. Steve isn’t going to come to Christ on his own initiative. But God knows that he, through his Holy Spirit, will draw Steve to himself through his grace and then he knows that Steve will freely respond and be saved and so God decrees then that that will happen. My critique is not, in any way, that the Arminian view is incompatible with human freedom. I think they are entirely correct in thinking that God’s foreknowledge of these events is entirely compatible with the libertarian freedom of these events. Indeed, it is just the opposite. What they have done is they’ve reduced foreordination to just a triviality – that God just declares that what will come to pass will come to pass and doesn’t really have any sort of robust providential planning of the world.[3]

Followup: Would God be willing to follow someone down any abyss in which he might go in order to bring him back?

Answer: Maybe. That is a question of God’s grace and universal salvific will and so forth. We don’t need to get into that. Again, the point is that on the Arminian view, it is not as though God is uninvolved as we just pointed out earlier. God is involved. He is drawing that person to himself. He is doing things in human history but he just knows what he will freely do and he knows what people will freely do. God knows all of that but what I am saying is that it is not as though there was any kind of plan for that – he just finds himself with this world on his hands without any sort of providential planning prior to his decree. I think this will become clearer when I share the Molinist view and you can contrast it with the simple foreknowledge view.

Let’s remember, on the Molinist account of divine providence, it is based upon God’s middle knowledge. Logically prior to God’s decree to create a certain world, God knows what every creature would freely do in any set of circumstances that he might place that person in. So, by knowing what a person would do in a set of circumstances, God can create those circumstances, place that person in them, and then he knows exactly how that person would freely act. So by creating the circumstances and the person, God sovereignly directs history toward his provisioned ends.

So consider how the Molinist would explain the following passages. Acts 2:23, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” And then Acts 4:27-28,

for truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place.

In these two passages, we have a staggering assertion of divine sovereignty over the affairs of men. The writer says that the conspiracy to crucify Jesus – which involved not only the Romans but also the Jews living in Jerusalem at the time and even, by name, Pilate and Herod who sent Jesus to the cross – is said to have happened by God’s plan based upon his foreknowledge. Now, if we take the biblical word “foreknowledge” to encompass middle knowledge, we can make perfect sense of this. For, via his middle knowledge, God knew exactly which persons, if they were members of the Sanhedrin, would freely vote to condemn Jesus to death. He knew which persons, if living in Jerusalem at the time, would freely demand Christ’s crucifixion and favor the release of Barabbas. He knew what Herod, if he were the Jewish king, would do in reaction to Jesus and he knew exactly what Pilate himself, if he held the prefecture of Palestine in AD 30, would freely do under the pressure of the Jewish leaders and the crowd. Knowing all of the circumstances, the persons and the possible permutations of these, God decreed to create just those circumstances with just those people who would freely do what God willed to happen. So the whole scenario unfolded, as Luke says, according to God’s plan.

This is really mindboggling. When you reflect on the fact that the existence of those persons and the circumstances were themselves the results of myriads and myriads of prior free choices on the part of other persons and these agents as well and those in turn were the result of even prior contingencies then I think you can see that only an omniscient mind – an infinite mind – could providentially direct a world of free creatures toward his provisioned sovereignly established ends.[4] In fact, in 1 Corinthians 2:8, Paul reflects, “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” Isn’t that interesting? None of them understood this because if they had, they would not have crucified Jesus Christ. When you grasp this doctrine, the doctrine of divine middle knowledge issues an adoration and praise of God for so breathtaking a sovereignty. It reconciles divine sovereignty with genuine libertarian freedom.


Question: [off mic] I actually looked on Wikipedia to find out what Molinism actually is, and the first sentence says “Its major proponent is Dr. William Craig.”

Answer: Oh no! OK. Well, poor Molina. That is sort of overlooking Luis Molina!

Question: Would you give us a simple definition, to clear up my thinking, what middle knowledge is, leaving everything else aside?

Answer: Middle knowledge is God’s knowledge of what every free person would freely do in any circumstances God might place him. So, for example, he knew what you would have done if you had been the prefect of Palestine in AD 30 instead of Pontius Pilate. He knows what you would have done if you had won the presidential election in America in 1964. He knows what you would have done had you been a Chinese peasant living in the Middle Ages in such-and-such circumstances. So the idea here is that God knows not only what will happen – he has not only simple foreknowledge – but he has knowledge of what every possible person would freely do in any circumstances in which he might be placed.

Question: Don’t you think an Arminian theologian would believe that God knows counterfactuals? Do you think if I went to Thomas Oden and asked, “Do you believe God knows these counterfactuals?” he would say yes?

Answer: I don’t know what Thomas Oden would say but I do know some other simple foreknowledge folks (I am thinking, for example, of David Hunt) who would affirm simple foreknowledge but say God doesn’t have middle knowledge. Frankly, I haven’t heard my Arminian theologian friends, like Thomas Oden or Roger Olson, express themselves on this. So I don’t know. If they would affirm it, then I would say “Praise the Lord, they are going back to their genuine roots.”

Question: I just wanted you to clarify what you mean by libertarian free will.

Answer: You remember we talked in a previous lecture about different views of free will and we said that everybody affirms free will but the difference will be: is free will compatible with being causally determined or is free will incompatible with being causally determined? Compatibilists think that you can be free even though you are as determined to do what you do as a tree branch growing a limb. Incompatibilists say that if you are determined in that way causally then you are not really free. Your actions might be voluntary in the sense that you are not compelled against your will but the very will that you have is itself determined by causal factors – it is not really up to you. Those who affirm freedom of the will and incompatibilism are called libertarians. That is not a political designation! This is not to be associated with libertarian politics. This is a philosophical classification of people who believe in freedom of the will and in incompatibilism. Molina was a libertarian in that sense.[5]

Question: When the plagues were coming upon Egypt, three times it says Pharaoh hardened his heart, three times it says God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and three times it says his heart was hardened without any explanation of how. How would that relate to what we are discussing here?

Answer: What it would indicate, I think, is a possible Molinist solution. God knew that if Pharaoh were in the situation of seeing, say the plague of flies or the plague of frogs, that he would harden his heart and resist him. So in a sense, God placing him in these circumstances knew how he would react and that his heart would be hardened. Sometimes the Scriptures will ascribe these events to God as the ultimate source of them. Here is one of my favorite examples. In Samuel and in 1 Chronicles you have two different accounts of the death of King Saul by suicide.[6] He falls on his sword rather than be captured by the Philistines and kills himself. Both of them describe how he falls on his sword and commits suicide but the Chronicler adds this comment, “thus the LORD slew Saul and delivered the kingdom to David.”[7] It was under the sovereignty of God; God knew what Saul would do in that situation surrounded by the Philistines. So in that sense he can say “thus the LORD slew Saul and delivered the kingdom over to David.” Let me introduce a philosophical term here that can be very useful: the difference between strong actualization and weak actualization. We can say that God, or someone, strongly actualizes a state of affairs when he causally brings it about. He causes it to happen. But, if God has middle knowledge, he can weakly actualize states of affairs not by causing them to happen but by placing people in circumstances where he knew how they would freely react. So he weakly actualizes certain states of affairs like slaying Saul and delivering the kingdom to David. God didn’t slay Saul – he didn’t plunge the sword into his belly. Saul did this of his own free will. But this was the means by which God weakly actualized the destruction of Saul’s reign and delivered the kingdom over to David. This enables you to explain things like Pharaoh’s hardening his heart, Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery in Egypt which are brought about by God but God is not the author of sin. He does not cause these things to happen but he permits them to happen knowing that his purposes will be achieved. So this distinction between strong and weak actualization is very helpful in understanding God’s providence especially with respect to sinful acts that he knows will happen.

Question: One of those verses you read earlier used the term “predestined.” That is a pretty strong word. Is it correct to say that God predestined it, not in that he caused a certain thing to happen, but that he created a world in which he knew that would happen?

Answer: That is what the Molinist is saying. The word there is also translated “foreordain” – I’ve often used the word foreordination rather than predestination. That is the biblical word, it is proorizo – to foreordain something. You are right. He would foreordain it in the sense that he decrees this is going to happen by placing free persons in situations where he knows what they would freely do. In that sense, his foreordination is not universal divine causal determinism as the Calvinists think. The Calvinist only thinks of God’s foreordination in terms of strong actualization but once you introduce this distinction of strong and weak actualization it enables you to read these passages in a totally different way that is now compatible with human libertarian free will.[8]

Question: When you say that God knows what somebody will do, is this probabilistic knowledge or is it like he knows us better than we know ourselves?

Answer: I think he does know us better than we know ourselves. What God knows is not only what a person will do – that is simple foreknowledge – but more than that he knows what they would do under any circumstances they might be in which is even more radical and something that is completely beyond us. Sometimes we know the truth of certain of these subjunctive conditionals. For example, when we pull out into traffic, we look both ways and we make the judgment, “if I were to pull out now I would make it.” We do have knowledge of some of these counterfactuals. If we were to say, “if I were to ask the boss for a raise, he’d probably chew my head off” so you don’t do it. Many times we have this kind of knowledge of these subjunctive conditionals but we are suggesting that God has complete knowledge of what anybody he could create would do in any circumstance in which he might place him.

Question: I am not sure but it seems to me that if God knows me because I was woven in my mother’s womb and he knows me inside out then if he sets up the circumstances and situations so that I will react only in the direction that he wants me to go then I don’t see why that doesn’t make God in control of what I do.

Answer: Well, you have to understand that it is not a matter of determinism. We are talking here that you have the ability to do other than what God knows you would do. These are often called counterfactuals of freedom because these are freedom permitting circumstances in which he places you.

Followup: But if he designed me in such a way that I am going to react in a particular unique way and he sets those situations up…

Answer: No, that is a denial of libertarian freedom. That is really a subtle form of determinism in which you don’t really have the ability to do anything other than what you actually will do. That is not the affirmation here of the Molinist. He thinks that you do have the ability to do other than what you will do.

Followup: When I was selling real estate one time, I was going through a house that was getting ready to close and it had a cricket in the bedroom on the carpet. I could have easily picked it up and threw it out but what I chose to do was I walked in such a position that I guided the cricket through the door, down the hall, through the living room out to the yard. Now this cricket thought that he was escaping some horrible death but I wasn’t going to bother him. But I controlled his every movement by what I wanted to accomplish in the end but he didn’t know that. So I think I am like the cricket.

Answer: Well, except the cricket doesn’t have free will. You were determining which way the cricket would go by what you did whereas when we are talking about free agents here, many times agents will act in ways that God doesn’t directly will. God, in any situation you find yourself in, always wills that you do the right thing. His will is never that you sin, that you do evil. But he knows that some people would do evil in certain situations and knowing that ultimately this will redound to his providential plan for human history he permits them to do the evil that he doesn’t really will for them to do. It is a very different view of what a human being is than the view that you’ve expressed. This is the idea that we are not determined by our character, our genetic makeup, our upbringing, but we have genuine freedom that something like a cricket would not have.

Question: We have libertarian free will to do what we want, but God can change factors of our situation so we choose to do a certain actualization. He is working a greater work.[9]

Answer: I think what you are expressing is that you are saying since the circumstances are under God’s control, he could change the circumstances in which you are so that you would do something different. But given that, in the same circumstances, this is how you would freely react, that is not under God’s control. On this view, God doesn’t determine the truth of these counterfactuals of freedom. Remember on the diagram we did of divine middle knowledge, middle knowledge is prior to God’s decree so it is independent of his will – how you would react in any situation that you find yourself. So he can say, “Whoa! He wouldn’t act very helpfully in this situation, so I am going to put him in some other situation or I’m going to put somebody else in that situation.” Yes, he can do that. But he cannot affect how you would freely choose in those very circumstances because that is something that is prior to his will and outside his control.

Question: Back it up just a little bit for a point of clarification – you use the term Calvinism and also Reformed view and also universal divine whatever that four word thing was. Are those pretty much interchangeable terms?

Answer: Pretty much. Yes, generally speaking. Although as we said last week there would be some Reformed theologians who wouldn’t perhaps embrace universal divine casual determinism but might simply say it is a mystery. We don’t know how to reconcile sovereignty and freedom, we simply affirm both but we are not going to embrace compatibilist views of freedom. So although this is, I think, generally sociologically true that these are the same people we are talking about, it is not always necessarily true that you have to be a universal divine causal determinist to be a Reformed theologian.

In drawing this to a close, let me raise an objection to Molinism that is very close to what has just been raised. I said that God could change the circumstances in which he places a person because then the person might act differently. So it has been objected that really Molinism gives God such sovereign control over creatures that it really becomes indistinguishable from the Calvinistic view. Given that we are talking about nondetermining circumstances, how a person would freely choose in any set of circumstances has to be just an inexplicable brute fact. He is not determined by the circumstances to choose that way, so why he would choose as he does in those circumstances is just an inexplicable, brute fact. But then, couldn’t God alter the circumstances in some imperceptible way, say, by causing a different event to occur in Alpha Centauri at the same time in outer space (and there is an infinite number of these other alternative circumstances which, to all appearances, would be identical to the circumstances that the person finds himself in, but there would just be trivial causally irrelevant changes that God could make) and, since it is inexplicable why the person chooses as he does in any set of circumstances, in these other circumstances in this infinite array of other circumstances there would be examples where the person would choose just as God wants him to do.

So what God could simply do is tinker with the circumstances in which a person finds himself in these imperceptible, tiny, causally irrelevant ways and he would be able to get the person to do exactly what he wants the person to do. Thus, the world would be just as strictly under his control as the Calvinist imagines and nothing has been gained by positing middle knowledge or a Molinist account of freedom. This critique would say Molinism is too successful; it gives you such a strong doctrine of divine sovereignty that in fact it really becomes indistinguishable from the Reformed view. What I will do next time is look at this objection and try to answer it.[10]


[1] 5:05

[2] See Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Baker Pub Group, 1991)

[3] 10:09

[4] 15:10

[5] 20:00

[6] cf. 1 Samuel 31:1-6; 1 Chronicles 10

[7] cf. 1 Chronicles 10:14

[8] 24:51

[9] 29:53

[10] Total Running Time: 35:03 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)