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#89 Gregory Boyd’s Neo-Molinism

December 29, 2008

I first want to thank you for all that you have done and continue to do for the Lord. I am very grateful for websites like yours that get into all of the hard questions with regards to Christianity. I cannot begin to tell you awesome and helpful it is to have the wisdom of someone like you available for me to access at anytime.

I have been going back and forth with another Christian on the open view vs. classical view of God's omniscience. Currently I side with the open view as expressed by Greg Boyd. I am really surprised that you do not seem to mention him in your discussions, as I feel that he is one of the greatest Christian minds right now. He is also one of the biggest proponents of the open theology. As I have many questions on this subject, I would like to hear your input on one particular aspect of which Boyd calls Neo-Molinism. He introduces the existence of might counterfactuals as well as would counterfactuals. On his website and in his books he says,

On a counterfactual square of oppositions, the logical antithesis of the statement, "agent x would do y in situation z" is not the statement, "agent x would not do y in situation z." This is a contrary proposition, not a contradictory proposition. The logical antithesis of "agent x would do y in situation z" is rather the statement, "agent x might not do y in situation z." This latter statement also has an eternal truth-value and hence must be known by an omniscient being.

The point is that would-counterfactuals do not exhaust the category of counterfactuals: there are also might-counterfactuals. Propositions about both categories of counterfactuals have an eternal truth-value that must be known by God. Hence I see no reason to restrict God's middle knowledge to knowledge of would-counterfactuals, or, what comes to the same thing, to conclude that all might-counterfactuals are false.

There is much that can be said in the defense of the open view of God's omniscience and what Boyd has to say on the matter, but I feel that much of is can be boiled down to this statement above.

Do you disagree with his statements about the existence of might-counterfactuals?

I am very interested in your take on this as I feel this is one of the most interesting and important issues within Christianity today.


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Dr. craig’s response


Actually, I have interacted with Greg Boyd's views in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. James Beilby and Paul Eddy (Downer's Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001). In fact, at the annual convention of the Evangelical Theological Society last month in Providence, Rhode Island, I was on a panel with Greg devoted to competing views of divine providence, he defending an open theist approach and I defending a Molinist perspective. (I believe a recording of this session is available through the ETS website.) The criticisms of his biblical hermeneutics offered from the floor were, I think, just devastating. It was also evident to me that he did not have a firm grasp of the Molinist alternative predicated on God's middle knowledge.

While I consider Greg to be the most important popularizer of open theism today, I think his work in this area exhibits a number of misunderstandings that vitiate his critiques of divine foreknowledge and middle knowledge. David Hunt, who also participated in the Four Views book mentioned above and is not a Molinist, agrees and is currently co-authoring with me a response to a recent article on open theism which Boyd wrote along with Alan Rhoda and Thomas Belt that we find very confused.

At the ETS meeting Boyd explained his neo-Molinist alternative, which, he said, hasn't generated many followers. His claim is that although God lacks middle knowledge of "would" counterfactuals of creaturely freedom such as "If Jones were in circumstances C, he would freely do action A," God does have middle knowledge of "might" counterfactuals of creaturely freedom like "If Jones were in circumstances C, he might freely do action A." Thus, God knows logically prior to His decree to create a world what any person He could create might or might not do in any set of circumstances in which God should place him. By exploiting His middle knowledge of such might-counterfactuals, God is able to plan how He would Himself respond to any choice which any person might make in any set of circumstances. Thus, although God gambles in creating a world of free creatures, in that He knows neither how creatures would choose were He to create them, nor how they will choose in the actual world, nevertheless, He is never caught off guard or unprepared for their choices, for He has already decided how He would respond to any action they might take. Moreover, He is so intelligent that He knows that however creatures might choose He will so respond as to ensure the realization of His ultimate purposes.

Such a move on Boyd's part appears at first blush to represent a significant step in the direction of Molinism, since there is a significant intuitive difference between what a person might do in a set of circumstances and what he could do. For example, when Adolf Hitler spoke to the Nazi rally at Nuremberg in 1937, he could have broken into an oration in praise of Winston Churchill—but doubtless this is not something that he might have done. Thus, there is an important difference between what a person can do and what he might do in any given set of circumstances.

If Boyd means to capture this intuitive sense of "might," then by admitting the truth of might-counterfactuals logically prior to the divine decree, Boyd seems to have quietly abandoned the most common and forceful objections to the doctrine of middle knowledge, namely, objections based on the lack of grounding of such propositions. On Boyd's neo-Molinist view there appear to be truths about what persons might or might not do under any set of circumstances, truths which seem to go beyond mere possibilities, which are known by God logically prior to His decree which world should be actual.

But if might-counterfactuals can be true logically prior to God's decree, then why not also would-counterfactuals? Boyd doesn't seem to appreciate that on the Molinist view would-counterfactuals logically imply might-counterfactuals, so that both are true and known to God. Boyd is fundamentally mistaken if he imagines that Molinism aims "to restrict God's middle knowledge to knowledge of would-counterfactuals, or, what comes to the same thing, to conclude that all might-counterfactuals are false." The Molinist maintains that both kinds of counterfactuals are true and known to God via His middle knowledge.

It is Boyd, then, who is trying to restrict God's knowledge by limiting it to might-counterfactuals. But, having abandoned the typical objections to middle knowledge, what justification does Boyd have for this restriction? If he claims that would-counterfactuals are incompatible with creaturely freedom, then he has forgotten the difference between what one could do and what one might do in any set of circumstances. Freedom requires only that in a given set of circumstances one be able to refrain from doing what one would do; it is not required that one might not do what one would do.

It's important to understand that on the traditional semantics for counterfactual conditionals, might-counterfactuals are simply defined—contrary to their usage in ordinary language—to be the negations of would not-counterfactuals. That's what Boyd recognizes when he mentions in the passage you cite, Ephraim, that "On a counterfactual square of opposition, the logical antithesis of the statement, "Agent x would do y in situation z" is not the statement "Agent x would not do y in situation z" . . . [but] "Agent x might not do y in situation z." Boyd seems to confuse the ordinary language use of "might," which is fraught with connotations of freedom, with its technical meaning in counterfactual semantics, which has no bearing at all on the freedom of the choices made. (In fact this conflation of what one could do with what one might do is a confusion that runs throughout Boyd's writings.) If Boyd is willing to accept true might-counterfactuals, then I see no reason remaining to deny the truth of would-counterfactuals as well. But that gives you full-blown Molinism.

Unfortunately, by denying the truth of any would-counterfactuals, Boyd's view seems to collapse the distinction between "might" and "could." So long as might-counterfactuals are implied by true would-counterfactuals, we can maintain the distinction between what someone might do and what he could do under any circumstances. It is true that Hitler might not give an oration in praise of Churchill because he would not; but still, he could do so because there are possible worlds (less similar to the actual world than those in which he might not do such a thing) in which he does. But if would-counterfactuals are uniformly false, then it is false that he would not do such a thing and so by definition it is true that he might do such a thing. No matter how outlandish an action we pick—like Hitler's delivering his oration while standing on his head—, there will, in the absence of any true counterfactuals to the effect that he would not take such an action, be worlds among those most similar to the actual world in which he takes that action, and so it is true that he might do such a thing. Hence, Boyd's apparent move toward Molinism turns out to be a mere feint. Since might-counterfactuals collapse to counterfactuals about what someone could freely do, God knows nothing more than mere possibilities prior to His creative decree—exactly what traditional open theism claims!

Boyd, then, seems to face a fundamental dilemma: if might-counterfactuals are distinct from statements about what one could do in any set of circumstances, then no reason remains for denying the truth of would-counterfactuals as well; but if they are not distinct, then Boyd's supposed neo-Molinism is only a trivial variation of the usual open theist view.

On the Molinist view, as on Boyd's view, God plans how He would react to any decisions which creatures could freely take. For when He decrees which world is to be actual, He simultaneously decrees the truth of so-called counterfactuals of divine freedom, that is, counterfactuals concerning how God Himself would freely act in any circumstances involving His creatures. In decreeing a world, God decrees not only how He will act in response to creatures but also how He would act were creatures to choose any differently. Thus, like the God of neo-Molinism He is prepared for every contingency, but He excels the God of neo-Molinism in that He knows not only how creatures might choose in any set of circumstances but also how they would choose under any such circumstances.

In any case, knowledge of mere might-counterfactuals is insufficient to give God the sort of specific providential control described in the Bible. Consider the following biblical passages:

'This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men' (Acts 2.23)

'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' (Acts 4.27-28).

Here we have a staggering assertion of divine sovereignty over the affairs of men. The conspiracy to crucify Jesus, involving not only the Romans and the Jews in Jerusalem at that time, but more particularly Pilate and Herod, who tried Jesus, is said to have happened by God's plan based on His foreknowledge and foreordination. How are we to understand so far-reaching a providence as this?

If we take the biblical word "foreknowledge" to encompass middle knowledge, then we can make perfect sense of God's providential control over a world of free agents. For via His middle knowledge, God knew exactly which persons, if members of the Sanhedrin, would freely vote for Jesus' condemnation; which persons, if in Jerusalem, would freely demand Christ's death, favoring the release of Barabbas; what Herod, if King, would freely do in reaction to Jesus and to Pilate's plea to judge him; and what Pilate himself, if holding the prefecture of Palestine in A.D. 30, would freely do under the pressure of the Jewish leaders and the crowd. Knowing all the possible circumstances, persons, and permutations of these, God decreed to create just those circumstances and just those people who would freely do what God willed to happen. Thus, the whole scenario, as Luke insists, unfolded according to God's plan. This is truly mind-boggling. When one reflects that the existence of the various circumstances and persons involved was itself the result of myriads of prior free choices on the part of these and other agents, and these in turn of yet other prior contingencies, and so on, then we see that only an omniscient mind could providentially direct a world of free creatures toward His sovereignly established ends. In fact, Paul reflects that "None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory" (I Cor. 2.8). Once one grasps it, the doctrine of divine middle knowledge thus issues in adoration and praise of God for so breath-taking a sovereignty.

Now what account of divine providence can be given in the absence of middle knowledge? Advocates of divine openness freely admit that without middle knowledge a strong doctrine of divine providence becomes impossible. But such a viewpoint can make no sense whatsoever of Scriptural passages such as those cited above. Consider the account of Saul's death in I Samuel 31.1-6 and I Chronicles 10.8-12. Both writers describe Saul's death at his own hand in lieu of surrender to the Philistines. But then the Chronicler adds the stunning comment: "Therefore the Lord slew him and turned the kingdom over to David" (I Chron. 10.14b). Now how is Boyd going to make sense of this assertion? Saul's suicide was considered a sinful and disgraceful deed and therefore could not have been causally determined by God. Yet his suicide, says the Chronicler, was God's doing. Or think of Joseph's statement to his brothers in Egypt: "Do not be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life . . . . You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result" (Gen. 45.5; 50.20). Again, the brothers' treachery and deceit could not have been caused by God; and yet God sovereignly directed events toward His previsioned end of saving Israel from famine. Openness theology is at a loss to explain this coalescence of human freedom and divine sovereignty. Ironically, Boyd is forced to revert to Calvinistic determinism to account for God's providence and thus actually winds up destroying human freedom. By contrast Molinism provides a perspicuous account of divine sovereignty and human freedom in terms of God's middle knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom.

Boyd likes to compare God to a Grand Master in chess, who is able on the basis of his knowledge of his own prowess and his opponent's weakness to predict exactly when and with what move he will checkmate his opponent. The analogy is an engaging one; unfortunately, on Boyd's view God is not so brilliant a chess player as to be able to know that His plans will probably succeed. For He failed to achieve the universal salvation He desired and regretted having created man. Those are not the moves of a Grand Master! So how could He possibly know before the foundations of the world, for example, that His plan for Christ to be crucified through the free agency of Pilate and Herod would be fulfilled? At the ETS meeting Boyd's answer was that God's plan did not include Herod, Pilate, or even crucifixion, but merely the fact that Christ would die for our sins. Why, in the absence of compelling philosophical arguments, compromise biblical teaching in this way?

By contrast, Molinism makes perfect sense of God's providential plan in all its detail. He is like a Grand Master who is playing an opponent whom he knows so well that he knows every move his opponent would make in response to his own moves. Such a Grand Master could not actualize just any possible match, given his opponent's freedom, but he could actualize any match which is feasible given the counterfactuals of freedom which are true. Thus, the Molinist can explain the absence of universal salvation in terms of the wrong counterfactuals' being true. It may be that a world having more saved but less damned than the actual world was not feasible for God. But given His knowledge of true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, God is certain that His plans for building the Kingdom of God will ultimately be achieved.

On top of all this there are also good arguments for thinking that Molinism is true, a discussion of which may be found in my booklet What Does God Know? (Atlanta: RZIM, 2002).

- William Lane Craig