Doctrine of Creation (Part 12)

November 04, 2012     Time: 00:26:21

In our lesson, we have been thinking about a Molinist view of providence. I closed last time by raising a possible objection to the Molinist view. To review, you will remember that, on Molinism, the Molinist maintains that God knows, via his middle knowledge, what any possible person he might create would freely do in any set of freedom permitting circumstances that God might place him in. So he knows, for example, what Dennis would have done if he had been Michele Bachmann’s husband during her campaign. Or he knows what Dennis would have done if he had been the aide of Abraham Lincoln that night in Ford’s Theatre. God knows what any possible person he might create would freely do in any set of circumstances God might create him.

The objection goes like this: since those circumstances are freedom permitting circumstances then that means that the circumstances don’t determine what the agent will do in those circumstances. It is a free decision. So ultimately why that agent chooses as he would in those circumstances must just be an inexplicable, brute fact. It is just that that is how he would choose and there isn’t any explanation of why he would choose that way in those circumstances. If that is true, the objection continues, then God could alter the circumstances in some imperceptible way by causing a change in some causally irrelevant event. For example, at the time of Dennis’ choosing, God could cause a stellar event in Alpha Centauri to take place and that would make then a new set of circumstances in which Dennis’ choice is taken. Given that there would be an infinite number of these alternative circumstances and that why a person chooses as he does in any set of circumstances is just a brute inexplicable fact, in these other circumstances people would act differently. So by choosing to create one of these other circumstances, God could have gotten Dennis to do exactly what God wanted Dennis to do. In effect, everything will happen just as God wants it to happen and by manipulating these circumstances in external ways, God can get the people to do whatever he wants them to do. So he can have any world that he wants.

That is how the objection goes but before we respond to it I think we would do well to pause and ask ourselves: what does the objection really prove if it is successful? Whenever you hear an objection to your view, you always need to ask yourself what is the worst case scenario – let’s suppose the objector is right. Let’s suppose the objection is true – what would the impact of that be? In this case, what would be the implications if this objection is successful? Well, if you think about it, it really doesn’t do anything to undermine the Molinist account of providence as such. It would still follow that God is sovereignly in control of the various circumstances and the agents who are in them and it would still follow that the agents freely act in whatever circumstances they find themselves in. Since the circumstances are freedom permitting and non-determining, how the agent would choose in any of those circumstances is still always free – it is always up to him. If God places an agent in some set of circumstances, let’s call it C, and these are non-determining circumstances then the agent freely acts in C even if God could have gotten the agent to do something different by creating some other set of circumstances, say C*, instead. The fact that the agent would have acted differently had God created some other set of circumstances doesn’t do anything to undermine the fact that the agent does choose freely in the circumstances in which he finds himself. So the objection really doesn’t undermine the Molinist account of providence as such. People still freely choose in their circumstances and God controls the circumstances and who is in them.[1]

So what is the import of the objection? I think what it threatens to undermine is not the Molinist doctrine of providence as such but what it undermines would be the theological usefulness of middle knowledge. If the objection is correct then it means that there really isn’t any distinction between the possible worlds that God could have created (or at least this distinction becomes inconsequential) between the possible worlds known by God via his middle knowledge (all of the possibilities) and that subset of feasible worlds that God can actualize given the truth of these counterfactuals of freedom. The distinction between possible worlds and feasible worlds would just become inconsequential if this objection is correct. Because even if God couldn’t bring it about that, say, Peter would freely affirm Christ in circumstances C he could just alter those circumstances to make them C* and Peter would freely affirm Christ in C*. So God can actualize whatever he wants just by manipulating or fiddling with the circumstances. In that case, the Molinist account wouldn’t be of any help, for example, in explaining the problem of evil. You couldn’t say, “Well, God would have preferred a world without evil in which free agents always did the good but it wasn’t feasible for him.” No, on this view it would be feasible for God to create a world in which everyone freely always did the right thing. So the Molinist would simply have to say with the Reformed theologian that God prefers to have a world with evil in it. Or take the problem of why God doesn’t create a world of universal salvation. You can’t say that there is no feasible world available to God in which this many people are saved without also this many people being lost. You have to say that God could have achieved a world in which all of these people are saved and nobody is lost but that he chose not to do so. Like the Reformed theologian, the Molinist will simply have to say that this is God’s will. So in that sense, the Molinist account of providence wouldn’t be of any help in explaining why we have a less than optimal world on our hands. You can’t ascribe this less than optimal state of affairs to the fact that certain worlds are infeasible for God because the wrong counterfactuals are true. Nevertheless (and I want to re-emphasis this) the Molinist account would still be preferable to the Calvinist view because it would still allow for genuine human freedom. It still gives you divine sovereignty plus genuine human freedom in whatever circumstances agents find themselves. It just means that you wouldn’t be able to exploit middle knowledge for great theological advantages as the Molinist purports to do. So if the objection is successful, while it would undermine the utility of Molinism or middle knowledge, it really wouldn’t annul the advantage of Molinism over Calvinism in its affirmation of both divine sovereignty and human freedom.

But is the objection successful? I don’t think it is because I think the objection is predicated upon a number of false assumptions or questionable assumptions at least. Let me isolate what some of these assumptions are.

First of all, the objection seems to assume that free choices are just random events. It is just a random matter how an agent would choose in a certain set of circumstances. But that is incorrect. Free choices are not random events. People don’t just choose to do something by chance. Therefore, we shouldn’t think of these free choices as just randomly occurring in these various sets of circumstances. On the contrary, free choices are indeterministic events which are done for reasons. People have reasons – that is to say motivations – for what they do. So even though they are causally undetermined by the circumstances, they are not random.[2] They are indeterminate events done for reasons. Therefore, that gives good grounds for thinking that how an agent would choose would not vary widely in these various circumstances that are altered in causally irrelevant ways. Namely, because these other circumstances are indistinguishable from the circumstances in which the agent finds himself, he would not choose any differently in these other circumstances because they look exactly the same as the circumstances he is in. I think you can give empirical evidence for this. Just ask somebody, “Would you have chosen differently if there had been some stellar event in Alpha Centauri that had been different?” And he would say, “Of course not! I would have the same reasons for choosing as how I did. God changing some causally irrelevant event in Alpha Centauri wouldn’t have prompted me to do anything differently than how I freely chose.” So the objection is just fundamentally flawed in thinking of free choices as random events which are distributed by chance across these various sets of circumstances.

Second problem: the objection assumes that the circumstances in which an agent finds himself are not limited in any way. It assumes that the circumstances which are mentioned in the antecedent of the counterfactual statement “if the agent were in circumstances C” are unlimited. This is, I think, far from obvious. For example, it is universally agreed that circumstances which are later than the time of the choice are irrelevant to how an agent would choose. Why don’t we consider events which are in the future? Because they don’t have any causal influence on how a person would choose. They are just irrelevant to how a person would choose what would take place after the choice. But, by the same token, events which are sufficiently distant from the agent are equally irrelevant causally because they don’t have any causal impact upon the agent’s choice. In fact, even events which are simultaneous with the person’s choice are irrelevant to how that person would choose at that time. In the Special Theory of Relativity, where light is considered to be the fastest causal signal there is, when any agent S is in a certain position, there is what’s called a light cone structure from S where anything that S could influence causally in the future is determined by where a light ray could reach as time goes on. And anything that could influence S is determined by a light cone that lies in S’s past. This is the past light cone and future light cone [see figure 1].

Figure 1- Past and Future Light Cones

Events which are spatially separated from S are causally irrelevant to what happens at S. They cannot affect S because no causal influence travels fast enough to reach S by that point. Indeed, according to Special Theory of Relativity, anything in this region (the space-like separation from S) can be considered to be in S’s future for some observer at this point. These are, in a sense, like future events. They are just as irrelevant as future events. What that means is that only events which are within the past light cone structure of S are relevant to the circumstances in which S’s choice is made. In fact, if the universe began to exist back at t=0, that past light cone structure is not infinite.[3] It is finite. So really, there are only a finite number of circumstances that are relevant to how S would choose at this time. So the circumstances are not unlimited. We don’t need to consider all these other circumstances. All we need to do is ask, “How would S choose if you were to alter something in S’s past light cone and what difference would that make?”

Third: the objection assumes that imperceptible events which are in S’s past light cone can be altered without significant effect upon S’s situation. It assumes that you can fiddle with, or alter, these circumstances within the past light cone without appreciably affecting S’s situation. I think that is false. The lessons of both chaos theory and quantum theory in modern science have taught us that even the alteration of the most insignificant events can, in time, have enormous ramifications. So fiddling with some event in S’s past light cone that might seem trivial could actually in fact affect S’s situation so that S would be in very different circumstances. For example, the indeterminacy in the position of a cue ball on a billiard table – quantum physics says there is a certain indeterminacy in the exact location of that cue ball. It is so tiny it is almost infinitesimal but there is a certain uncertainty in the location of that cue ball on the billiard table. That imperceptible indeterminacy is such that after only a dozen shots the indeterminacy of the ball’s location is magnified to the entire table top. It is uncertain as to anywhere the ball would be on the entire billiard table after just a dozen shots because of that quantum indeterminacy. So while you may be able to alter some events in S’s past light cone without appreciably affecting S’s situation, it is going to be pure speculation as to whether S would choose any differently if you were to alter those. If you were to alter many others then it might well change S’s situation in a significant way so that S really would not be in the same circumstances anymore in the causal sense.

Finally, the last assumption that this objection makes that I think is wrong is that it assumes that God’s concern is only with S’s free choice – that God is only concerned with how S would choose. But that is obviously false. God is concerned with the whole history of free creatures – a whole world of free creatures on into eternity future. Even if it were true that by substituting some other set of imperceptibly different circumstances God could get S to choose differently, that doesn’t mean that those circumstances won’t radically affect other agents in the world and how they would choose and how this would be magnified into the future. So it is not at all implausible that fiddling around with these circumstances would bring about a very, very different world than the one God intended. What that means, then, is that this distinction between possible worlds and worlds that are feasible for God comes back in again with a vengeance. It may well be the case that there are worlds that might be preferable, all things being equal, but they are infeasible for God given the counterfactuals that are true.

So it seems to me that this objection is not one that is compelling. It is predicated on a number of false assumptions that I think we should reject. In any case, it would not do anything to rob Molinism of its chief advantage, which is its reconciliation of divine sovereignty and human freedom.


Question: If, in the Molinist view, God has circumstances that he knows a person is going to respond to in a particular way – a way he would like him to. We know the Bible says that God would have not one perish. But we do know that there are people who do perish. It would look to me like there would be a conflict somewhere in there that if God knows these circumstances why would he allow circumstances so, when that choice is to be made, that person says, “No.”[4]

Answer: This is exactly the point that I was trying to make about the theological advantages of Molinism. I think you could say that, on balance, God would prefer a world in which everyone would freely receive Christ and be saved. But it may be that such a world is not feasible for God, at least not a world that would not have other overriding disadvantages; a world in which this many would freely be saved but no one would freely be lost. The advantage of the Molinist view is you don’t have to say that God preferred this kind of world. You can say with the Scriptures that God is not willing that any should perish.[5] His desire is that all should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth but such a world is not feasible for him.

Question: That being the case, how would you resolve the fact that God created Judas Iscariot knowing that his role in the salvation of man would be determinant for his loss? Or Pharaoh? Or others that he has created in certain circumstances that they chose what they would do but the circumstances were there that supported his overall plan and therefore it seems it determined his destiny?

Answer: They are not determined. That is what is important to understand. You used the world “determined.” It is not determined. These are freedom permitting circumstances and God’s will for Judas is that Judas would always do the right thing in whatever circumstances he finds himself. But knowing that Judas would freely betray Jesus, God has permitted him to be in these circumstances so that ultimately his will will be achieved and the crucifixion will take place and all of this will happen. This shows God’s ability to work with human free choice in order to bring about the ends that God desires but without directly willing the sin that he permits them to do.

Followup: Where I am having difficulty is that God knew what Judas would do before he did it in the circumstances in which he found himself and we also said that God had control of those circumstances. So God allowed those circumstances knowing that Judas would do what Judas in fact did. Are we saying that even though God would will that Judas do differently, he put in place circumstances in which Judas did what God knew what he would do?

Answer: Yes, that is right. This has a strong doctrine of sovereignty even over sin, even over the evil acts that people do. God is sovereignly in control knowing that he can ultimately bring his good purposes out of evil. But God doesn’t directly will the evil that people do. His will for them is always that they do the right thing but, knowing that they often won’t, he creates a world in which he knows that his ultimate purposes will be achieved through the sinful decisions of creatures. Judas didn’t have to betray Christ and he certainly didn’t have to remain unrepentant afterwards. God gives him sufficient grace to resist temptation and, if he has fallen, to come back and repent and be saved. It is entirely up to Judas whether or not he would do that.

Followup: But then the circumstances where Judas did what God knew he would do, God put those in place. Which seems to me somewhere along that, Judas, if God didn’t want Judas to deny his Son, those circumstances wouldn’t have been in place.

Answer: Right, but what you have to ask yourself is suppose God decided to create a world in which Judas didn’t betray Jesus. How would this have worked out for God’s providential plan for human history? We would just have no idea.

Followup: I was just trying to reconcile within myself that it seems to me he is adjusting or manipulating circumstances to fulfill his will.[6]

Answer: Yes. God is sovereign over the circumstances and he knows which circumstances to create and he gives people sufficient grace to do the good in whatever circumstances they find themselves and he wills that they do the good in those circumstances. But he can work things through to achieve his good purposes even when they won’t do the right thing and choose to do evil instead. Were he to prevent acts of sin and so forth, well, it may be that that would be a much worse world. We can’t even imagine what sort of a world might have transpired if these things hadn’t taken place. So what we do is we trust that God has so providentially ordered the world as to achieve his purposes in a good and just and equitable way.[7]


[1] 5:05

[2] 10:00

[3] 15:00

[4] 20:11

[5] cf. 2 Peter 3:9

[6] 25:03

[7] Total Running Time: 26:20 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)