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Premier Christian Radio—Unbelievable?

“Calvinism vs Molinism”

Time : 00:16:14

Premier Christian Radio, UK – January 4, 2014

In November 2013, Dr William Lane Craig was invited to the radio show Unbelievable, hosted by Justin Brierley, on Premier Christian Radio in the United Kingdom. The topic of discussion on this day was "Calvinism vs Molinism.” Paul Helm is a leading Calvin Scholar. He defends the view that God predestines the future, limiting human freedom.
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JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Welcome along and today a fascinating discussion for you as we ask two views of divine sovereignty: Calvinism and Molinism are debated on the show today. Does God preordain the future including people’s eternal salvation? Well, that’s certainly a way of looking at Calvinism; if that’s true it raises the question as to whether people have free will.

We’re going to be exploring an alternative view today, as well, called Molinism. And two leaders in the field who join me on the program today. I’m so pleased to welcome into the studio William Lane Craig—well known as a Christian philosopher and theologian. He’s an author and speaker [and] debated many leading atheists around the world. We recently had him on reviewing his debates with Lawrence Krauss in Australia, and Bill’s the founder of Reasonable Faith.

Paul Helm is a leading Calvinist scholar and theologian. He’s a teaching fellow at Regent College, Vancouver and he’s defending the historic Calvinist view today. So, welcome gentlemen, both, to the program.

Well, let’s introduce you in turn. Many listeners, Bill, are very familiar with your name. You’ve been on the show a number of times and of course well known in the world of apologetics. Perhaps, though, less well known is the fact that you are, effectively, a leading champion of what’s called Molinism—a particular view of divine sovereignty, and many people may be unfamiliar with the concept altogether. We’re going to have you explain that but just for the record we’re recording this while you’re over in the UK talking at a C.S. Lewis Symposium—around the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’ death. Has Lewis had a big impact on your life apologetically speaking?

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: I would say that Lewis as a model for doing Christian apologetics has had a great impact on my life—less so as a thinker, however, I would say in all candor. For me, Lewis serves as a model of the Christian apologist in being willing to resist cultural currents that go contrary to Christianity, to have boldness to march to the beat of a different drummer. I think he’s a model, as well, in the importance of producing a body of published work that can outlive oneself. The legacy of C.S. Lewis are these published works that have reached far, far more people for Christ since his death than he ever reached during his life. I think in that sense he’s a real model for us today, and in his defense of what he called ‘mere Christianity’ as apposed to the fine points of doctrine—I think that’s a model. So, in one sense the discussion that we’re having today goes beyond what Lewis’ apologetics would have involved, which was just a mere Christianity.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: […] Let me introduce Paul. Paul, thank you for joining me on the program today. When did your interest in Calvin begin? Do you want to take us back to how it all started for you?

PAUL HELM: Well, it’s inseparable from my childhood and my upbringing, really—an interest. But a scholarly interest, that’s something that’s developed more recently. I wrote a book in 1982, a small book on Calvin and the Calvinists, but more recently I’ve written fuller books on the way in which philosophical ideas have impacted on Calvin, and I’m more or less finished with that now. I think I’ve said everything I want to say in this area.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: If you said everything you wanted to say, at the end of all those studies, how have you come to view the issue of God’s sovereignty? If you could put it in a nutshell, what is your view of the way God acts and predestines in the world today?

PAUL HELM: Well, it’s a strong view of divine sovereignty. When the apostle Peter spoke of the death of Jesus he talked about it being by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. Calvinists, or Augustinians, or a Pauline thinker will think not only of the death of Jesus being predestined but of all events being in the hand of God. That doesn’t mean to say that God determines these acts in the way in which you and I are determined. Nonetheless, he’s in control and in control, perhaps, in ways that we can’t fully grasp or fully understand.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Calvin himself didn’t just write on predestination; though that’s often the thing people associate him with. How important would you say is his legacy, generally?

PAUL HELM: I think it’s very important, but you are correct in saying that he is not a sort of one-theme theologian. He’s a catholic (small ‘c’) theologian and predestination is one of those elements as it is for Aquinas or for Anselm or for Augustine—the three A’s. These are all predestinarians every bit as much, I believe, as Calvin was. So, in a sense, he inherited a tradition and he certainly lived with it and ran with it but he didn’t invent predestination nor did he give it any particular twist of his own, in my view.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: There is, these days, what’s sometimes been termed a neo-Calvinist sort of stream—new Calvinist stream—within the churches where people are championing, even among young fashionable pastors—Calvin’s doctrines and so on. Do you welcome that? Do you think that’s a positive thing?

PAUL HELM: Yes, I think it is! I think that the term Calvinism can be used in a broader and narrower sense. It can be used, of course, to incorporate not simply his theology but also his ecclesiology. But you can narrow it to what he has to say about matters to do with Christian salvation and it’s that, I think, that these people have taken an interest in recently.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Bill, coming back to you—Molinism. Now this may be a term that many people are not familiar with. Would you like to explain what it is and how you came to arrive at the decision that you are a Molinist?

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Yes! Molinism derives its name from Louis de Molina who was a sixteenth century Jesuit counter-Reformer. Unfortunately, Molina thought the central point of the Protestant Reformation was the denial of human libertarian freedom in favor of God’s being the all-determining reality. And so what Molina was constrained to do was to offer an alternative to Luther and Calvin that would affirm the same sort of sovereign divine control that Paul spoke of a moment ago but without denying libertarian freedom. The view that Molina enunciated came to be called Molinism after his name. It eventually entered into Protestant theology through Jacob Arminius, and there is a kind of bastardized Molinism that goes under the name Arminianism today, though it usually is somewhat different from what Molina said.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: So you wouldn’t describe yourself as an Arminian in that sense?

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Well, I would in the proper sense but these names or labels can be very misleading and therefore it’s very important that we define what we mean when we call ourselves a Calvinist or a Molinist or an Arminian.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Now, before you lay out the Molinist view, I’m sure you’d affirm lots of other aspects of what those Calvinists and Reformers were doing.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Yes! In fact as Paul spoke a moment ago I thought, “I believe everything he just said!” which would make me a Calvinist. The Molinist has this very, very strong sense of divine sovereignty and meticulous providence. Molina said, “Not a leaf falls from the tree but that it does so either by God’s will or permission.” And if he were living today I think he’d say that the tiniest motion of a sub-atomic particle cannot occur but without God’s direct will or permission. So, this is a very strong view of divine sovereignty and control.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: You recently contributed to a book on four views of divine providence and divine sovereignty and there are other views out there—we’re not representing everything that is in the public sphere at the moment. For instance, there’s been a lot of debate over Open Theism—like Greg Boyd.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Right, and I think Paul and I would be united in rejecting that sort of revisionist view.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Quite, but I think that’s another debate perhaps for another time. But today we’re looking at, specifically, the distinctives between Calvinism and Molinism. So, Bill, as simply as you can for the likes of me, as much as anyone else, can you explain how Molinism, as it were, reconciles human free will and God’s foreknowledge?

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Yes. The key to understanding Molinism is Molina’s doctrine of what he called middle knowledge. This is God’s knowledge of everything that would happen under various circumstances, and he called it middle knowledge because it’s in between, so to speak, God’s natural knowledge, which is his knowledge of everything that could happen, and his free knowledge, which is his knowledge of everything that will happen. So, in between everything that could happen and everything that will happen is everything that would happen under different circumstances. The doctrine of middle knowledge says that God knows what you would have freely done if you had been in the Apostle Peter’s shoes. He knows whether you would have denied Christ three times or whether you would have been faithful or what. And so the key to Molina’s doctrine of providence is that by means of his middle knowledge God knows what free agents would freely do in any set of freedom-permitting circumstances that God might put them in. So, by creating those circumstances and putting the agents in them, God then, so to speak, takes hands off and he lets the agent freely choose how he wants but he knows how that agent would choose if in those circumstances.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: How they will use their free will . . .

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Well, more than how he will use it! Remember that’s free knowledge. It’s how he would use it if he were in those circumstances. And so then by creating the circumstances and putting the agent in it God’s free knowledge falls out automatically. Then he knows how he will act and can control human history.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Okay. Now how does this then apply to, for instance, the issue of salvation? How does God then organize the world with this doctrine of middle knowledge in mind?

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: For Molina, divine election to salvation is simply that aspect of divine providence that relates to salvation. And so what he would say is that the circumstances in which God puts a person include various gifts of divine grace, various solicitations of the Holy Spirit, and God knows how you would respond, for example, to the Gospel if you were born and raised under such and such circumstances or you were to hear the Gospel preached in such and such a way. And so by putting people in various circumstances God can elect certain persons to salvation without abridging their free will.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Okay, and so in that instance then do you believe that God has ordered the world in such a way that the maximum number of people who would believe and accept his salvation will do so?

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: That’s not part of Molina’s doctrine, Justin. Molina said that God is free to choose whatever sort of world he wants with whomever he wants to be saved. Again, it’s a very strong view of sovereignty. My own inclination is to think that God does want as many people to be saved as possible and therefore he would try to create people in circumstances which would be conducive to the greatest number being saved and the least number being lost, consistent with human freedom. But that’s an idiosyncrasy of my own view. That’s not Molina’s view.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: It’s fascinating and it is a bit difficult to get your head around. It is a little bit more of having to think through those concepts. Perhaps explaining why it isn’t, in a sense, as widely accessed by the general Christian population . . . Do you feel that it is becoming a more mainstream view that is gaining acceptance?

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: I think that it’s definitely got momentum on its side. When you look at the debate over divine providence it’s very interesting that the Calvinists now, some of them I mean, are talking about a Molinistic-Calvinism. Some of the Arminians are talking about Open Theism that affirms God’s middle knowledge of counterfactuals of freedom. So the extremes are being sucked, I think, towards the center of gravity in the middle, which is Molinism. Dean Zimmerman who is a prominent Christian philosopher recently said “that of the plethora of views available on divine providence Molinism probably has the largest percentage of Christian philosophers who would support it.”

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Paul, okay, you’re very familiar with the Molinist view. Why has it not convinced you?

PAUL HELM: For a number of reasons, one is that I think that it’s an unnecessary theory. What is done by God’s natural knowledge and his free knowledge—what those terms cover—covers all that William Craig wants to apply to middle knowledge. So, it’s unnecessarily complicated. But that’s because for theological reasons. In Calvinism there’s a stronger view of sin and the way in which it binds the will such that God’s grace cannot only be offered to man, it has to be imparted to them for these men and women to become reborn and to become liberated from their sin. What Molinism does is to postulate, in common with the multitude of other views available, postulates a very strong sense of human freedom and God must respect that sense of human freedom in the way that Bill has been describing. One question is, do they have that freedom and, if they do have that freedom in the strong sense, how can God know it in advance? Bill seems to think that, “Well, God knows it in advance in the sense that he’s got this sort of movie of it and reality will run in accordance exactly with the movie he’s got, as it were, in his head.” But if these people are free and free in the strong sense that Bill indicates, then how can God know that they will act in these circumstances?

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Do you believe that in some sense Molinism collapses into a form of Calvinism?

PAUL HELM: Well, I think it collapses into a form of Arminianism. Arminianism is the view that God’s foreknowledge is compatible with this strong sense of human freedom and Bill’s view is that, with of course the Molinist’s twists to it. It boils down to a kind of Arminianism.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Because if creatures are truly free, as far as you’re concerned, that means God cannot know what they will choose.

PAUL HELM: Well, we’ve got different senses of freedom at work here, right? A Calvinist will affirm that human beings are frequently free.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: So what kind of freedom do you affirm?

PAUL HELM: The sort of freedom that you’ve got as you’re speaking to me now. Responding to remarks that I’ve made, responding to the situation that we’re in, doing so in an uncoerced way. These are, as it were, cases of freedom for the Calvinist, typically. Of course, people can be coerced but the strange view of freedom that people have wills such that in exactly the same situation they’re in now they could have, as it were, chosen differently in precisely that situation—this the Calvinist thinks is an unacceptably strong or an unbiblically strong sense of freedom, and one ought not, as it were, allow one’s theology to orb around this view of freedom.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Does that cohere with the way you understand a Calvinist might view freedom, Bill?

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Yes, I think that Paul has correctly delineated the differences. One major difference would be with regard to your doctrine of grace. For the Calvinist grace is irresistible. For the Molinist grace is not irresistible, it becomes efficacious only when it meets with an affirmative response from the human agent. Another difference would be that the notion of freedom—I do think that a person in identical circumstances could choose one way or another. And I think that is biblical. You know the verse in Scripture when it says that in any situation in which we are tempted God will provide a way of escape so that we will be able to endure it. Now what that means is that in any situation in which a person succumbs to temptation and gives in, it was possible for him to take the way of escape and to endure it. So I think that teaches that in those circumstances, sin, temptation, or falling into temptation isn’t inevitable. That person could have taken the way of escape. So I think that this doctrine of freedom is consistent biblically.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Now, Paul’s criticism here, though, is that you described it as being like a movie playing out.

PAUL HELM: That’s right. My worry at this point is that if God knows what would happen in these circumstances where Jones had the freedom we’ve just been talking about, why isn’t Jones free to actually exercise that freedom when it comes to pass?

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Well, isn’t it just what I said a moment ago? In identical circumstances a person has the ability to choose A or not-A. It seems to me that is what Scripture affirms, and I don’t see any reason to think that that’s not true. That makes us responsible for sin because we freely choose sin. So, given that it doesn’t seem to me that Molinism is deterministic. It’s at the heart of this view that by his middle knowledge God knows how people would freely choose in these circumstances and he doesn’t make them choose that way and the circumstances are not deterministic. They’re freedom permitting. He just knows how they would choose.

PAUL HELM: But how can he know them if in the actual circumstances the people have this very strong view of freedom to choose alternatively in a given set of circumstances? Why can’t they go off in the other direction?

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Why couldn’t they go off script in that sense?

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Well, they could.

PAUL HLEM: So, there’s a world in which they do! And you have a problem, I think; Bill has a problem at this point just as Arminians have a problem with divine foreknowledge and human freedom. He can say, “Well, God just does” and we’d have to accept his word for it. God just does. But there’s a mystery there.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Well, if I might address that issue – how does God know how free agents would act in any circumstances? I think it’s because there are these subjunctive hypothetical propositions which are true or false. These are if-then statements in the subjunctive mood—grammatically. Like, “If I were rich, I would buy a Mercedes.” Now, I may not be rich and so I don’t buy one but that’s a subjunctive conditional, and I think we use these all the time in planning.

If I were to ask the boss for a raise he’d tear my head off! If I were to pull out into traffic now I would make it. If we were to send the army around the left flank we would prevail. These kinds of subjunctive conditionals are inherent to rational planning and activity and more importantly, I think, Justin, just for our purposes today, the Scripture is full of these kinds of subjunctive conditional statements. So, anybody who believes in verbal plenary inspiration has to affirm that these are true or false. Now, let me just give one example. Second Corinthians 2.8: Paul says, “If the rulers of this world had understood this they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.” Now that is a subjunctive conditional that I think, as Christians, we want to say is true. And if that’s true then God must know it because God is omniscient and he knows all true propositions.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Let’s come back to that because obviously Paul gave another verse, which he believes suggested the opposite. You started off with that verse about Jesus’ crucifixion being foreordained, foreknowledge, and so on. So, we’ve obviously got verses that could be applied in both directions here, haven’t we?

PAUL HELM: I’m not denying, no one would deny, that there are such things as subjunctive conditionals. As Bill said, the world is filled with subjunctive conditionals—things we might have done, things we would have done, . . . and so on. The question, however, is how is it to be interpreted and what gives them their truth value? Is that truth value dependent upon this very strong sense of freedom that Bill espouses? That’s what makes the difficulty for a Calvinist. If they’re so free how does God know that what they’re going to do, or what he thinks they’re going to do, at some time in eternity or some time in the past, will actually take place? Why doesn’t he have the power to choose the alternative and indeed exercise that power on occasions?

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: For you, [Bill], as I’ve said, this reconciles the issue of human freedom and God’s foreknowledge . . .

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: And foreordination! I want to make it clear, Justin, lest I be misunderstood. I think God does preordain everything. Molinism has a strong sense of sovereignty. You can’t deny, biblically, preordination. It’s in the New Testament—προορίζω (proorizo). God has foreordained, but the Molinist perspective is that his foreordaining things takes account of human freedom and what he ordains and therefore his foreordination doesn’t annihilate human freedom. I wouldn’t want folks to think I don’t believe in foreordination.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Sure. And for you that presents a problem because the issue concerns whether God is the author of evil, for instance, whether human sin is something that is chosen by us or we’re not actually ultimately responsible. These are the big problems that Calvinism, for you, throws up. Is that correct, Bill?

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Yes, I think that’s right. And, particularly for me, an anguishing difficulty would be that I take, at face value, the passages in the New Testament about the universal salvific will of God. That is to say, that God really does want all persons to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, as Paul [the Apostle] says.[1] I think that if we take these passages at face value it either leads to universalism, which we know isn’t true, or it means there is something that impedes God’s perfect will being done because all persons aren’t saved—and that seems to me to be human freedom. God will not coerce or overpower someone in order to save them. He will respect their freedom of choice as an individual and some persons freely choose to separate themselves from God forever despite his will that they be saved and his every effort to save them.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Feel free to chip in at this point, Paul. What’s your response to the way that Bill sees salvation and people’s free choice?

PAUL HELM: One thing, a multitude of people don’t have the opportunity to hear the Gospel. It isn’t as if the Gospel sounds to everybody and each person has an opportunity, in a kind of clear headed and deliberate way, to say yea or nay. That isn’t our world. Our world is one in which there are millions of people who have never heard of Christ. So I don’t see that description, as it were, to begin with. And the other is, of course, the Calvinist (equally with Bill) wants to affirm the wickedness of people under certain circumstances. It is by wicked men that Jesus was crucified, as Peter says. He didn’t say, “Oh, well! Because God has foreordained this, these people were not wicked.” He holds together both the foreordination of God and the wickedness of people.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Can it be wicked if the person, as it were, didn’t ultimately choose? It was actually something that they were always going to do because God had foreordained it.

PAUL HELM: Well, they were the choosers. It was not God who chose that in the sense in which the wicked men chose it. Bill uses the phrase, you use the phrase, I think, that God’s the author of sin and I’ve never really been able to understand what that phrase means. Does it mean that God is a sinner? Does it mean that God has somehow the malevolent wishes of a sinner? That he’s somehow selfish in some way which is despicable? I don’t understand what the phrase means to begin with. So I don’t see there’s a charge, as it were, to be resisted at that particular point.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Let me respond, first, to the problem of the geographical expanse of the Gospel over the twenty centuries of Christian movement. It seems to me that here middle knowledge and Molinism provides a very attractive understanding of this. Namely that God has so providentially ordered the world that persons who would respond to the Gospel if they heard it are born at times and place at which they do hear it. So that those who fail to hear it are only persons who wouldn’t have responded to it even if they had heard it. And thus no one is lost because of historical or geographical accident. And I find that this view is very biblical because in chapter seventeen of the book of Acts, Paul says that from one man God made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the face of the whole earth, and he determined the exact times and places that they should live. He did this that men might seek after God and reach out for him and find him because he is not far from every one of us. For in him, we live and move and have our being.[2]

That, to me, is consonant with a Molinist perspective. By contrast, on the Calvinist view, you have to say that God has just elected—for most of Christian history—so far people living in Western Europe or the United States and just overlooked the rest of these folks. So I find Molinism, again, to provide an answer to this question that is difficult for all of us as Christians.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: And now, the second point that was raised there . . . about God being the author of evil or sin or whatever.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: That, I think, depends on how the Calvinist explains divine providence. Many Calvinists that I have spoken with understand divine providence and sovereignty to mean that God causally determines everything that happens. And that’s why it all unfolds the way he wants to because he is the one who causally moves the will this way or that. If that’s the case that means that God moves some people to sin and that would make him the author of sin both in the sense that the reason the person wills to sin is because God is the one who moved his will to do that. He’s like the puppeteer who pulls the strings on the puppet’s arms to make him do what he wants. But it would also impugn or make God the author of sin in a more profound sense in that it would seem terribly, morally wrong to do that. To move another person to sin and then to hold that person morally responsible for that—that seems to impugn the goodness of God.

PAUL HELM: Well, to start with what Bill began starting with I think is bread and butter for the Calvinist—that God has determined the nations and the ways in which the nations develop, and the culture of those nations, and so on. That’s a very strong statement to divine sovereignty, it seems to me in Acts there.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Bill, though, just to stay on that issue, is saying that the problem is that it seems terribly unfair on a Calvinist view of that inasmuch as these people had no . . .

PAUL HELM: Yes, but you see I personally reject any kind of human analogy between the divine relationship to his creation, and that of a puppeteer or a programmer. These are all, as it were, creature to creature relationships. But I presume that the infinite God has resources at his disposal that are, as it were, beyond the resources that human beings have at their disposal at this particular point. And, of course, Calvinists have always made a distinction between God’s relationship to evil and his relationship to good. He permits evil. It’s under his control but he permits it.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: But if, as Bill suggests, God is literally causing people to do wrong things – evil things – does God then not become, as it were, the author of evil in that sense? In what sense is it just permitting if God is the one who has caused it?

PAUL HELM: Because he’s nonetheless respecting the wills of people who act their agency so that when I tie my shoelace it isn’t God who’s tying my shoelace, it’s me tying my shoelace. I have sets of beliefs and situations in life which is not that of God but is my own set of circumstances. No doubt given to me by God but not his—mine nonetheless.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: I want to affirm what Paul says about “God has resources for providentially ordering the world that go beyond puppetry and causal determinism.” But what I want to know is why couldn’t that resource be middle knowledge? Middle knowledge will do the trick. And so I find that when I read the Westminster Confession I resonate with virtually everything that’s in it except for one clause. There’s one clause that says God’s providence is not based upon how he knew people would respond and so it’s clearly an anti-Molinist . . .

PAUL HELM: Bill couldn’t subscribe to the very strong statements of the Westminster Confession on the bondage of the will to sin. There’s a stronger doctrine of grace in that Confession. . . . I don’t have it committed to memory but it’s there.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: You’ve raised this already – this strong bondage to sin that the Bible speaks of that is confirmed in the Confession. Is that a problem for you, Bill?

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Well, I don’t think it is because I, with I think virtually all Christians who aren’t Pelagians, will affirm the need for prevenient grace. Natural man does not seek the things that are of the Spirit of God, they’re foolishness to him. So, no one apart from God’s initiative would ever come to God and I think that is the bondage of the will of which Paul speaks. We’re lost in sin and therefore it needs to be God’s prevenient grace that reaches out and begins to draw people through the convicting power of the Holy Spirit to himself. But the difference would be, again, that whereas the Calvinist sees that calling and drawing as irresistible, I would want to say that at some point along the line that it is resistible. As Stephen said to the Jewish persecutors of his day, “You hard-necked people! You always resist the Holy Spirit!”[3]

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Now, in that sense, those hard-necked people doing the resisting, that is in some sense ordained by God that they would resist.

PAUL HELM: Yes. He leaves them to their own sinful devices or their own sinful desires. That’s the way I understand it. But you see, there is more to grace than the prevenience of it. It’s rather like a kiss of life. The grace of God coming to us all is like a kiss of life or it’s like the dragging of a person who can’t help themselves out of an icy pond that they’ve gotten into trouble. In other words, it’s a monergistic, unilateral activity on the part of God.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: And does Bill’s view, the Molinistic view, undermine that in some way, inasmuch as it takes away something of the all-pervasiveness of God’s grace if humans have a hand in their own salvation, inasmuch as they freely choose?

PAUL HELM: Yes, for me it does. It goes some way, of course, but it doesn’t go, for the Calvinist, all the way that they think the Scriptures require of us. Many are called. That is, there is, of course, a universal call of the Gospel but few are chosen. This choice is this irresistibility that Bill has mentioned but that he does not want to go so far as simply talking in terms of God’s encouragement of people, and of his prompting of people. But there’s more to it, I think, than that.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Well, I would strongly reject the charge that Molinism or Arminianism leads to some kind of synergism where we are partly to credit for our salvation. When Paul says, in Ephesians 2.8, that by grace you have been saved through faith and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, lest anyone should boast. The word this is in the neuter gender in Greek. Faith is feminine. So he’s not referring to faith as the gift of God; rather, commentators will say that it is the whole process of salvation by grace through faith, which is the gift of God. And nowhere does Scripture speak of faith as a work which we perform which merits salvation. Over and over again Paul opposes faith to works. Faith and works are opposite to each other. I think that one of the mistakes Calvinists make is thinking that if we exercise faith in God we have somehow performed a work. That’s a very non-Pauline point of view.

PAUL HELM: I haven’t said anything about a work but you’re causally contributing, nonetheless, to your salvation. It may not be something that is praiseworthy or meritorious in some kind of medieval sense, but nonetheless without the contribution of this strong sense of freedom you will not receive the grace of God effectively.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Right, and I would affirm that.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: But for you that doesn’t undermine the idea that it’s all God’s initiative?

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Right, because it’s not meritorious.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: In the same way that you can receive a gift from someone, you don’t, as it were, do anything to receive that gift; you just open yourself up to having it.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Yes, it’s the passive acceptance of what someone else has done on your behalf.

PAUL HELM: Another question is, what energizes that passive acceptance? What energizes the response of faith? Is it the person himself with Bill’s very strong sense of libertarian freedom doing something of which he can give and then withdraw, give and then withdraw, as it were, that there can be no irresistibility about it? It can be an in-out, in-out business. Tuesday and Wednesday I could be a Christian. Thursday and Friday not—then Tuesday and Wednesday he can be a Christian again. Open to his faith to do that. That, I think . . .

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Yes, does it present a problem with this sort of “once saved, always saved?”

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Now that’s an additional issue to talk about and here I think that persons who affirm freedom would probably differ on whether or not a regenerate person can apostasize and lose salvation. There is the doctrine that when we are regenerated by God we’re indwelt with the Holy Spirit and sealed by the Holy Spirit for salvation. So I think that there’s a diversity of perspectives.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Well, let’s perhaps not chase that rabbit trail. That perhaps is beyond the ream of this program. Let’s go to a typical [Calvinist] passage . . . Romans 8 is often used by Calvinists as a typical example of predestination, election of a certain people to salvation and so on. Paul, do you want to just explain?

PAUL HELM: I think you’re thinking about what’s sometimes called the golden chain in Romans 8: whom he did foreknow then he did predestinate, whom he predestinated then he also called, whom he called then he also justified. What should we say to these things? If God is for us who shall be against us?[4] And so on in that chapter. . . . That chain, of course, is a staple for the Calvinist, certainly.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: So, we do have here a tricky text for the Molinist, Bill. It appears that God fully . . .

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Well, the first link in the chain is foreknowledge, right? Προγινώσκω (Proginosko), whom he foreknew. And if that encompasses middle knowledge then there’s just no problem and I would say the same about the text from Acts 4 that Paul quoted at the beginning of the program where the church at prayer says to God, “Truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, Herod and Pilate and all the people, to do exactly as thy will and thy plan had foreordained.”[5] This is according to God’s foreknowledge. He knew what Herod would do if king. He knew what Pilate would do if prefect in first century Palestine. He knew that the people would call for the release of Barabbas rather than Jesus. So all of this unfolds according to God’s plan, according to his foreknowledge.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: But they are free within that plan?

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Right, because it’s based upon how he knew they would freely act if placed in those circumstances.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Now, I suppose a question that occurs to me is, “Well, is that not just Calvinism at one removed?” Because it’s still going to happen.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: This is what Open Theists will say because it has such a strong affirmation of divine sovereignty, but I take that to be a good thing, a biblical thing. But the huge difference is, as I’ve said before, on this view grace isn’t irresistible, the person really can do differently in those circumstances if he wants to, it’s just that he can’t escape God knowing how he would freely choose. But God takes hands off and says, “All right, it’s up to you. Do what you want.”

JUSTING BRIERLEY: [Addressing Paul Helm] You are shaking your head.

PAUL HELM: I am, because I don’t see that the foreknowledge of God is spectator-like. I think the foreknowledge of God is simply what he knows with respect to his own mind. It’s what he himself knows what he wants to happen. In accordance with that foreknowledge, he predestinates, which is simply the means to the end of the predestinating. You have, as it were, this continuous sequence of connected events of the golden chain leading to the glorification of the people of God.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: In that sense, when that talks about the election of people to salvation, that’s God very specifically choosing some people for salvation and, by the same token, other people are evidently bypassed and hence will be lost. I think for a lot of people that seems morally wrong.

PAUL HELM: Let me say a word about that. We think of God’s goodness as his omnibenevolence, right? Though the facts don’t look that way, do they? The facts of the world don’t look like the world of an omnibenevolent God in quite that way. That’s how I would come at it, really.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: So we don’t experience the world so we need to somehow understand that God’s benevolence is not necessarily the same as [we’d understand].

PAUL HELM: . . . The whole fabric of the Bible has to do with his choice—his choice of a people. Does he bypass the other people when choosing the Jews and choosing Abraham? Yes, of course he does. In choosing Abraham he not chooses these others. In choosing Jesus to be, as it were, the elect Redeemer, other ways of salvation are bypassed.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Well, as I said earlier, I take at face value the passages in the Scripture teaching the universal salvific will of God – that he wants all people to be saved. Even in the Old Testament, being a part of the corporate nation of Israel was no guarantee of salvation. If a person were an evil, wicked person, just being a Jew was no guarantee. And there are non-Jews in the Old Testament who clearly have a relationship with God. Job would be a perfect example. Job wasn’t even a Jew. He was from Uz. He was a non-Jewish person yet clearly Job knew God.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: So, in that sense then when Romans 8 speaks of people being elected to salvation (when you also believe that God wants all people to be saved) in what sense is God electing individual people then in that passage?

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: I would say in a secondary sense. The primary sense of election is corporate. God has called out a people to himself and then if you want to be a member of that elect body of chosen people it’s up to you. . . . So you have all these corporate images in Scripture: the olive tree with branches grafted in or broken off[6], the building of living stones and the priesthood of believers[7], the body with its different members and parts[8], the nation of Israel, the commonwealth, all these corporate images.

PAUL HELM: I was making a very simple point, really. Bill is going on about it, but I was making a very simple point that the fabric of our faith depends upon God’s choice and his not-choice. That’s fundamental to the Bible as a document. It’s fundamental to its character, to what it contains, that he chose a people and that through them the Messiah came; and that in choosing them, effectively choosing them, not choosing them in a kind of watery sense, but choosing them because he works all things out of the counsel of his own will. This included. In choosing A, he doesn’t choose B.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: I know that one thing you wanted to bring up before we finished up today, Paul, is that you think Molinism has other aspects to it that get rather confusing and messy. Did you just want to explain one concern?

PAUL HELM: If I can very briefly. It concerns, really, where it leaves God’s sovereignty. The situation as I understand it is somewhat messier than we’ve discussed so far in our program. That is to say, that the conditions that God chooses to actualize – there are certain worlds that he chooses which are feasible worlds and there are certain other worlds which he can’t possibly choose because they’re not feasible. So, the worlds that he does choose may contain exercises of human freedom, which inhibit other exercises of human freedom. So, it’s very messy.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: When we’re talking about possible worlds in which God can see that in this particular world people would choose to do this under these conditions and in another do this under another set of conditions. Not all of those possible worlds are open to God’s choosing. I’m sure you understand the origin of this.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Right, and I think this is a very significant distinction and I think has great theological fruitfulness. So, the Molinist will want to affirm that there are some worlds which are infeasible for God to actualize. And I suggested that perhaps one of these would be a world of universal salvation. Perhaps in any world of free creatures that God might create some would freely reject his grace and separate themselves from him forever. So that even though it’s logically possible for there to be a world of universal salvation, perhaps it’s infeasible for God given these subjunctive conditionals that we talked about.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Yes, because there may not be a world in which everyone would choose freely to be saved.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Exactly. I do say that, or I do affirm that, and I think that you can get great theological mileage out of that distinction.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: As far as you’re concerned, God is more concerned with the human freedom than having a world in which everyone gets saved. That would be the choice, as it were, that God’s making.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Yes, yes, I suppose that’s right—that he would not exercise a sort of divine coercion in order to save people, that he will respect people’s wills and say, “I’m not going to make you go to heaven. If you choose to reject me and my grace and my love for you then I will allow you to do so.”

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Okay. I think Paul’s concern is that, by there being worlds which are not feasible for God to choose, that somehow undermines God’s sovereignty because then it is suggesting . . .

PAUL HELM: It weakens it. You see the emphasis now is not on God’s choosing me because he wanted me to be his child eternally and unconditionally and by his grace, but he’s chosen a world and I happen to be a part of that world.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: So you’re sort of a byproduct of a world where he’s trying to maximize, say, the most number of people saved.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Whatever his conditions of feasibility are, there are certain worlds that are ruled out – that’s clear. But coming, as it were, closer to the center, what the conditions of feasibility are seems to be what we couldn’t possibly be clear on. That would have to remain a mystery. Nonetheless, his love for me is not, as it were, direct and personal. It’s because I’m part of a world which is the world overall that he wanted.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: I don’t see that at all! I wouldn’t agree with that at all! God loves each individual and wants that person to be saved, and he will choose to create a world of individuals. So the world isn’t primary; the individuals are primary and they build together a kind of world as you accumulate individuals. But what the Molinist does say that I think the Calvinist finds objectionable is that God is not in control of which subjunctive conditionals are true. He doesn’t determine the truth value of these subjunctive conditionals; that’s outside his control and the Calvinist finds that objectionable.

PAUL HELM: That’s right. The whole notion of middle knowledge as portrayed by Bill is objectionable to the Calvinist. As I said in the beginning, he can shunt all of this stuff into one of God’s other two sources of knowledge.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: I think that’s been a very helpful distinction to have at the end actually – a point at which this actually breaks in terms of the view of God for a Molinist and a Calvinist because in the end, in that sense, God . . . would you say God is in some sense limited by the fact that he has chosen a world in which human freedoms will . . .

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: No, not quite just yet. Actually, it’s consistent with middle knowledge that this world is totally determined. It’s possible that God looked at all of the indeterministic worlds that have freedom in them and said, “Oh, those are lousy worlds! I don’t want any of them! I’m going to choose one in which I determine everything!” So, middle knowledge is actually consistent with causal determinism but . . .

PAUL HELM: Molina would turn in his grave if he heard that!

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: But where it does presuppose libertarian freedom is, again, that these subjunctive conditionals are not within God’s control. That’s correct.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: But that doesn’t undermine God’s sovereignty?

PAUL HELM: Well it does and it doesn’t really, that’s the problem.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: There are worlds that are infeasible for God in virtue of these subjunctive conditionals.

PAUL HELM: Maybe it may be a condition of him choosing the world he’s chosen that people don’t get as much freedom in that world as they would in other worlds, for example. I might trample on their toes. I am chosen—I may be chosen as someone who freely tramples on their toes, as it were.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: So your freedom may be at the expense of another person’s freedom.

PAUL HELM: Yes indeed, and there’s nothing he can do about it except choose a different world. That’s why worlds are preeminent in this, not individuals. He doesn’t love . . . Paul says, “He loved me and gave himself for me.” I don’t know if he could say that in quite the unqualified way that I think he does say it.

JUSTIN BRIERLEY: Okay, we’re going to draw that to a close. Bill, thank you for being on the program; Paul as well. In conclusion then, you would encourage people who perhaps have struggled with this whole issue of human free will and God’s foreordination to embrace Molinism, presumably. You think that is a biblical and an intellectually satisfying way of reconciling this.

WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: I think it is a biblical and intellectually satisfying view. I’m not claiming that it is the one view but I’m saying it provides a model that integrates human freedom with divine sovereignty in a way that is biblically consistent and intellectually satisfying. And therefore this model is one that shows that these doctrines are coherent and credible.

PAUL HELM: And I think that it’s intellectually mystifying to introduce this very strong sense of human freedom in the way discussed earlier and it’s not a price that’s worth paying and it’s not biblical.


  • [1]

    cf. 1 Timothy 2:3-4

  • [2]

    cf. Acts 17:26-28

  • [3]

    cf. Acts 7:51

  • [4]

    cf. Romans 8:29-31

  • [5]

    cf. Acts 4:27-28

  • [6]

    cf. Romans 11:17-32

  • [7]

    cf. 1 Peter 2:5

  • [8]

    cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Romans 12:4-5