Doctrine of Creation (Part 9)

October 14, 2012     Time: 00:29:02

In our lesson, we have been thinking about the Doctrine of Creation and we have now come to the section on divine providence. The Christian teaching about God’s relation to the world is that God does more than simply sustain the world in being; he is actively engaged in directing the course of world history toward his provisioned ends. Yet, he does so in such a way as to preserve human freedom and liberty.

You will remember last time we listed the biblical evidence both in favor of divine sovereignty and in favor of human freedom. Let me just review those very quickly. These come from Don Carson’s book Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility. He says the biblical passages that support a strong view of sovereignty come under four main headings: (1) passages indicating that God is the Creator, the Ruler, and the Possessor of all things, (2) passages teaching that God is the ultimate personal cause of all that happens, (3) passages dealing with God’s election or choosing of his people, and (4) passages in which God is the unacknowledged source of good fortune or success.[1] On the other hand, Carson lists nine streams of biblical tradition that support that human beings have liberty and freedom: (1) people face a multitude of divine exhortations and commands, (2) people are said to obey, believe, and choose God, (3) people sin and rebel against God, (4) people’s sins are judged by God, (5) people are tested by God, (6) people receive divine rewards for what they do, (7) the elect are responsible to respond to God’s gracious initiative, (8) prayers are not mere show pieces scripted by God, and (9) God literally pleads with sinners to repent and be saved.[2] The question is: what view of divine providence can make the most sense out of these seemingly competing streams of biblical tradition of divine sovereignty and human freedom? We are going to examine three such attempts to reconcile these.

Systematic Summary


First would be Calvinism or Reformed theology associated with the Protestant reformer John Calvin but also going back as far as the church father Augustine. According to the Calvinist view, divine providence is based upon God’s foreordination of everything that happens. Down to the smallest detail, God has foreordained that this will come to pass. If that is the case then how is this compatible with human freedom? Very typically, Reformed theologians will embrace a form of freedom called compatibilism. It has been said that everyone will affirm human freedom whether you are Calvinist, Arminian or Molinist. What everyone will affirm is that human beings have freedom. The question is: is human freedom compatible with it being causally determined. The compatibilists think that human freedom is compatible with your choices being causally determined. Here they will differentiate between a choice or an action being voluntary and being compelled. For example, if someone were to grab you and thrust you into an automobile and drive off, you will have been kidnapped. They compelled you to get into the car and they drove you away. They would say that action is not free because it was not voluntary – you did something against your will.[3] But if you voluntarily get into the car and they drive away then that action is free because you did not do it under compulsion. They would say it remains free even if it was causally determined by antecedent causal conditions. For example, it was your wife picking you up from church to take you somewhere and you wanted to go there and you knew it was the time to get in and so you got in and all of those causal factors conspired to determine that you would get into the car and drive away. In that case, they would say even though the action is causally determined it is still free because it is voluntary – it is in accord with your will; it isn’t compulsed. By contrast, incompatibilism would say that causal determinism is incompatible with genuine freedom. If you are determined to do something by the antecedent causes that led up to that action then that action is not really free. Why? Because it is not up to you; it is the product of these causal determinants that came before. Therefore, even though the action isn’t compelled in the sense of being non-voluntary, even your will is determined by the prior factors that led up to that and therefore they would say it is not really free because it is not up to you. So, in order for there to be genuine freedom, the incompatibilist says your act cannot be the product of causal factors outside of yourself that lead up to the point of decision. As I say, Calvinists typically endorse compatibilism as their view of human freedom. Why is that? Because they want to say that God determines everything that you do. Calvinism is a form of universal causal divine determinism. It is universal because it is literally everything that happens. It is causal because God makes it happen – he is the one who brings it about. And it is divine – it isn’t physical causal determinism, it is divine causal determinism. So on the Calvinistic view, you have freedom and contingency only in the sense that you act voluntarily but nevertheless everything that happens is causally determined by God. It is universal divine causal determinism.


Now, contrast this with the Arminian view. The Arminian view would be an example of an incompatibilist view of human freedom. The Arminian would say that if God is the one who makes you do everything you do – if he determines the choices of your will – then you are not really free. In that case it just becomes inexplicable why God would hold you responsible for what you do. If he is the one who makes you do it, including sinful acts, then why should you be held responsible – it wasn’t up to you, it was God who made you do it. So to have genuine freedom we need to have incompatibilism. If that is the case, if we do have this affirmation of human freedom – incompatibilistic freedom –, then how will the Arminian explain these passages in the Scripture dealing with divine providence and God’s sovereignty over everything in the world?

The original fountainhead of Arminianism was a 17th century Protestant theologian named Jacob Arminius. It has been shown by church historians that Arminius himself was actually a Molinist (the next view that we are going to discuss). According to Richard Muller, it is through Jacob Arminius that Molinism entered into Protestant theology.[4] So Arminius was actually a Protestant Molinist.[5] But what has happened over the centuries since Arminius wrote is that a kind of bastardized Arminianism has taken its place – a sort of watered down, distorted Arminianism which explains divine sovereignty and freedom on the basis of God’s foreknowledge. What this bastardized Arminianism says is that God looks into the future by means of his foreknowledge and he sees that some event e will take place and knowing by means of his foreknowledge that e will take place, God then foreordains, or decrees, that it will take place. So it is the exact opposite of the Calvinist view. The Calvinist view would say that God’s foreknowledge of e is based on the fact that he has foreordained it – he knows it will happen because he has foreordained that it has happened. The Arminian turns it around and says, no, he foreordains it to happen because he foreknows it will happen. It is his foreknowledge that provides the basis for his foreordination. So, knowing for example that Wayne will freely receive Christ and become a Christian at some point in his life, God predestines or foreordains that Wayne will become a Christian at that point in time and give his life to Christ. In that way God’s sovereignty and foreordination is compatible with human freedom because it is based upon God’s foreknowledge of human free acts.


Let’s contrast those two views with a third view which is Molinism. This is the product of the thought of a 16th century Jesuit counter-Reformer named Luis Molina. We’ve already encountered Molina’s thought in our study of divine foreknowledge and divine omniscience. Molina distinguished three moments in God’s knowledge [see figure 1].

Figure 1 – Molinism’s three moments of God’s knowledge

First and most basic is what he called God’s natural knowledge. This is God’s knowledge of everything that could happen. All possibilities are known to God. So we can imagine this as God’s knowledge of an endless number of logically possible worlds of creatures that he might have created and he knows everything that could happen. So, for example, in this world – let’s call it W* – God knows that if Peter were in a certain set of circumstances he would freely deny Christ three times. So he knows that is possible. But in another world – say W** – in precisely the same circumstances Peter affirms Christ three times. That is also a possible world because that choice by Peter is free and so there are different worlds in which Peter does different things and God knows all of these by his natural knowledge. Secondly, there is what Molina called God’s middle knowledge. It is called that simply because it is sandwiched in between his natural knowledge and what he’ll call his free knowledge. By means of his middle knowledge, God knows what any possible creature would freely do in any set of freedom permitting circumstances that God might create him. So, for example, he knows that if Peter were in this particular set of circumstances he not only could deny Christ three times, he knows Peter would freely deny Christ three times. So if Peter were in those circumstances, he would freely deny Christ three times and God knows that by means of his middle knowledge. Now what that means is certain worlds, like W** where Peter is in exactly those circumstances but he affirms Christ three times, isn’t feasible for God to create. He can’t create W**. Why? Because it is not true that if Peter were in those circumstances he would affirm Christ three times. What is true is that if he were in those circumstances he would deny Christ three times.[6] So by means of his middle knowledge, God knows the proper subset of possible worlds which are feasible for him to create based upon his knowledge of these conditional statements “If agent A was in circumstance C, he would freely do action X.” On the basis of his middle knowledge of what creatures would freely do in any circumstances, God then decrees to pick one of these worlds to actualize. That then results in what Molina called his free knowledge. This is God’s knowledge of the actual world including what creatures will do. It gives him foreknowledge of the future. So in this case he knows that he has chosen to actualize W* and so he knows that Peter will deny Christ three times if in those circumstances and therefore Jesus is able to predict to Peter “before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.”[7]

How does this work itself out in terms of divine providence? Very simply this: since God knows what any possible person would freely do in any possible set of freedom permitting circumstances he might put him in, by decreeing to create just those circumstances with just those people in them, God can bring about a world in which people freely do what will ultimately achieve God’s purposes for human history. So God has decreed a world in which, down to every last detail, everything that happens is either directly willed by God or it is permitted by God with a view toward his overriding purposes for human history.

With regard to free acts, this serves to highlight Molina’s doctrine of simultaneous concurrence. Remember we talked about the doctrine of concurrence a couple of lectures ago which is the doctrine that God concurs with the actions of secondary causes to bring about their effects. So God is the cause, literally, of everything that happens. The fire would not burn unless God concurred with the action of the fire to produce its effect. Molina’s doctrine of simultaneous concurrence is different than the doctrine of his Catholic Dominican predecessors. He was a Jesuit and he disagreed with Thomas Aquinas and the Dominicans as well as the Protestant reformers on this. His view is that God does not act on the creaturely will to make it move this way or that, but he acts with the creatural will to produce its effects. Do you see the difference? He doesn’t act on John’s will to move John’s will to A or to not-A. Rather, he acts with John’s will in accordance with what John chooses so that if John chooses A, God concurs with that choice and produces the effect. He doesn’t act on John’s will to bring about A, rather he acts with John’s will so that both John and God bring about A. Therefore, John is completely free. He is not determined by prior causes. So John has libertarian freedom – incompatibilistic freedom. The circumstances in which John acts are freedom permitting circumstances. But God knows how he would freely act in those circumstances. So by placing him in those circumstances, God knows what John would choose and God concurs with John’s free choice to bring about the effect that John would have. So everything that happens is caused by God.[8] In sinful decisions, God concurs with the agent’s choice to produce the effect of the sinful choice but notice he does not move the person’s will to make that sinful choice. That is different from the Calvinistic view where God is the one who determines the choice of the will. Here what God does is he concurs in the choice by producing the effect of the sinful choice, but he does not act on that person’s will to make it choose that way. Therefore, God is not responsible for the sinfulness of the act since he did not move the creatures will to do it. Therefore, God is not the author of sin on Molinism. Out of his desire to permit human freedom, he allows human persons to make evil choices and he concurs in their effects because he wants them to have genuine freedom but he does not make them choose those evil actions. In the case of good actions, God directly wills the things that happen but in the case of sinful or evil acts God merely permits them to happen by concurring in producing the effects of those sinful actions but he does not will directly that they happen and he certainly does not move the creature to make those choices.

Those are the three views.


Question: On the Molinist view, would you say that humans have some level of middle knowledge as well? For example of what people would do like “If I give a genetic fallacy argument against Dr. Craig, Dr. Craig would accuse me of the genetic fallacy.” The truth of that versus “If I gave the genetic fallacy argument, Dr. Craig would pull out a revolver and shoot me.” There seems to be a difference between the two.

Answer: Good question! I think that you are absolutely correct that we often know the truth of these, as they are called, counterfactual statements or subjunctive conditionals. The example I like to give is: if I were to offer my wife a plate of chocolate chip cookies or a plate of liver and onions, I know which one she would choose as certainly as I know almost anything. She likes to use that example because I would choose the liver! [laughter] But that illustrates that, yes, we do have knowledge of these kinds of subjunctive conditionals. But, and this is important to understand, that is not technically middle knowledge. Why? Because middle knowledge has to be prior to the divine decree and we don’t have that kind of knowledge. So everybody, until recently – Calvinists, Arminians, Catholics – everybody agreed that God has knowledge of these counterfactual conditionals. The only question was when, so to speak, does he have them? Is it prior to the decree as the Molinist thought or is it after the decree as the Calvinist thought? Calvinists agree that God has knowledge of these subjunctive conditionals but because he ordains the choices.

Followup: [off mic] What about Arminians?

Answer: As I say, the original Arminianism just is Molinism. It would be prior to the decree. But simple foreknowledge types – this sort of bastardized Arminianism – doesn’t even have middle knowledge. So you would just erase it from the diagram. That is going to be one of my criticisms of this kind of simple foreknowledge view, which is that prior to his decree, all God knows is the possibilities. All he knows is what could happen but he has no idea what would happen. So that is going to make it impossible, I think, for God to have significant providence on this kind of simple foreknowledge view.

Question: Can you explain where Jonah fits in here with God’s knowledge? God makes the statement in X days I will destroy Nineveh and then he doesn’t.[9]

Answer: Right, good question. There are certain prophesies in the Old Testament that God gives his prophets that don’t actually come to pass, like the destruction of Nineveh. “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed” but then Jonah goes and preaches to them and they all repent so God doesn’t destroy them. What this shows, I think, is that what God was giving through Jonah was not a piece of foreknowledge.[10] He was not telling the Ninevites what will happen; he was giving them knowledge of what would happen if they were not to repent. So what Jonah was delivering was not a piece of foreknowledge, it wasn’t a prediction of the future. It was a forewarning. He was warning them, “This is what would happen if you don’t repent.” You have a number of examples in the Old Testament like that. One non-biblical example that I think is so wonderful is in Charles Dickens’ wonderful story A Christmas Carol. When Scrooge is confronted with the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, the Spirit shows Scrooge these horrifying images of his own death and so forth. Scrooge says to the Spirit, “Tell me Spirit, are these shadows of things that will be or are these shadows of things that may be only?” And the Spirit doesn’t answer him a word. Why not? Well, because they clearly were not shadows of things that will happen – we know that Scrooge repents and Tiny Tim doesn’t die. These are not images of the future. But they weren’t simply mere possibilities either. Scrooge could have done anything. What the Spirit was giving him was knowledge of what would happen to Scrooge if he were not to repent. So that would be a non-biblical example of exactly the same kind of thing that God was giving to the people of Nineveh through Jonah.

Question: I wonder how each of these views see God’s providence over nature? What degree of control does God exert over natural forces as they relate to our choices? Sometimes they force us to do things.

Answer: Yes, certainly the Calvinist would see all of nature as under God’s divine deterministic activity. So there wouldn’t be any difference between human activity and natural activity on the Calvinist view. For the Arminian and the Molinist who affirm incompatibilism, they might see nature as completely determined by natural causes but there would be room here for, say, quantum indeterminacy if you want to affirm that. If you want to say that is not just in your head but that is real, that there are real quantum indeterminate events happening in nature, then what the Arminian would say is that God sees those in advance, too, and then decrees them. What the Molinist would say is in addition to counterfactuals about human free choices, there are also counterfactuals of quantum indeterminacy like if this isotope were placed in these circumstances at this time it would decay at this moment. Even though that is physically indeterminate, God knows the truth of that subjunctive conditional just as he knows the truth of the conditional “if David were to do this experiment, he would get a Nobel Prize in Quantum Chemistry” or something of that sort.

What we will do next time is look at an assessment of these competing views with a goal of trying to articulate a coherent and biblically faithful reconciliation and account of divine sovereignty and human freedom.[11]


[1] D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension, New Foundations Theological Library (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), pp. 24-35.

[2] Ibid., pp. 18-22

[3] 4:57

[4] 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)

[5] 10:02

[6] 14:57

[7] cf. Mark 14:30

[8] 19:53

[9] cf. Jonah 3:1-10

[10] 25:02

[11] Total Running Time: 29:02 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)