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#157 Molinism vs. Calvinism

April 19, 2010

Dr. Craig,

I am troubled at the mass amount of calvinists I see who are incredibly intelligent and trustworthy christian leaders. What I mean is that, So many seem to be capable of great analysis (far beyond myself), but seem to stick their head in the sand when it comes to the problem of evil. If they don't, then they tend to make God a self-contradicting being. Why do you think this is so?

Im also personally troubled at how few leaders I see subscribing to molonism. It seems to me that it answers the most questions and creates the least problems. I understand it can be complex, but I wouldn't think we would just rest with the problem of evil not being satisfied. I don't base what I believe on the beliefs of others, but we can't ignore the influence others have in our lives, or the desire to have a home with others when it comes to these thoughts.

Anyway, I would enjoy your thoughts... as I always do.



United States

Dr. craig’s response


Molinism vs Calvinism

I think you’re right, Gordon, that a great many intelligent and godly Christian leaders are Reformed, or followers of John Calvin, in their theology. I’m currently participating in a four-views book on divine providence along with a pair of Reformed theologians. It is evident from their contributions that, despite the intellectual puzzles raised by the Reformed view, they both embrace it because they are convinced that it most faithfully represents the teaching of Scripture on the subject, Scripture being the only authoritative rule of faith.

Actually, I have no problem with certain classic statements of the Reformed view. For example, the Westminster Confession (Sect. III) declares that

God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Now this is precisely what the Molinist believes! The Confession affirms God’s preordination of everything that comes to pass as well as the liberty and contingency of the creaturely will, so that God is not the author of sin. It is a tragedy that in rejecting middle knowledge Reformed divines have cut themselves off from the most perspicuous explanation of the coherence of this wonderful confession.

Molinism vs Calvinism – Accepting a solution or a mystery

By rejecting a doctrine of divine providence based on God’s middle knowledge, Reformed theologians are simply self-confessedly left with a mystery. The great 17th century Reformed theologian Francis Turretin held that a careful analysis of Scripture leads to two indubitable conclusions, both of which must be held in tension without compromising either one:

that God on the one hand by his providence not only decreed, but most certainly secures, the event of all things, whether free or contingent; on the other hand, however, man is always free in acting and many effects are contingent. Although I cannot understand how these can be mutually connected together, yet (on account of ignorance of the mode) the thing itself is (which is certain from another source, i.e., from the Word) not either to be called in question or wholly denied (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1: 512).

Here Turretin affirms without compromise both the sovereignty of God and human freedom and contingency; he just doesn’t know how to put them together. Molinism offers a solution. By rejecting that solution, the Reformed theologian is left with a mystery.

There’s nothing wrong with mystery per se (the correct physical interpretation of quantum mechanics is a mystery!); the problem is that some Reformed theologians, like my two collaborators in the four-views book, try to resolve the mystery by holding to universal, divine, causal determinism and a compatibilist view of human freedom. According to this view, the way in which God sovereignly controls everything that happens is by causing it to happen, and freedom is re-interpreted to be consistent with being causally determined by factors outside oneself.

It is this view, which affirms universal determinism and compatibilism, that runs into the problems you mention. Making God the author of evil is just one of the problems this neo-Reformed view faces. At least five come immediately to mind:

Molinism vs Calvinism – Five difficulties with the Reformed view

1. Universal, divine, causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture. The classical Reformed divines recognized this. They acknowledge that the reconciliation of Scriptural texts affirming human freedom and contingency with Scriptural texts affirming divine sovereignty is inscrutable. D. A. Carson identifies nine streams of texts affirming human 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, (7) the elect are responsible to respond to God’s initiative, (8) prayers are not mere showpieces scripted by God, and (9) God literally pleads with sinners to repent and be saved (Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension, pp. 18-22). These passages rule out a deterministic understanding of divine providence, which would preclude human freedom. Determinists reconcile universal, divine, causal determinism with human freedom by re-interpreting freedom in compatibilist terms. Compatibilism entails determinism, so there’s no mystery here. The problem is that adopting compatibilism achieves reconciliation only at the expense of denying what various Scriptural texts seem clearly to affirm: genuine indeterminacy and contingency.

2. Universal causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed. There is a sort of dizzying, self-defeating character to determinism. For if one comes to believe that determinism is true, one has to believe that the reason he has come to believe it is simply that he was determined to do so. One has not in fact been able to weigh the arguments pro and con and freely make up one’s mind on that basis. The difference between the person who weighs the arguments for determinism and rejects them and the person who weighs them and accepts them is wholly that one was determined by causal factors outside himself to believe and the other not to believe. When you come to realize that your decision to believe in determinism was itself determined and that even your present realization of that fact right now is likewise determined, a sort of vertigo sets in, for everything that you think, even this very thought itself, is outside your control. Determinism could be true; but it is very hard to see how it could ever be rationally affirmed, since its affirmation undermines the rationality of its affirmation.

3. Universal, divine, determinism makes God the author of sin and precludes human responsibility. In contrast to the Molinist view, on the deterministic view even the movement of the human will is caused by God. God moves people to choose evil, and they cannot do otherwise. God determines their choices and makes them do wrong. If it is evil to make another person do wrong, then on this view God is not only the cause of sin and evil, but becomes evil Himself, which is absurd. By the same token, all human responsibility for sin has been removed. For our choices are not really up to us: God causes us to make them. We cannot be responsible for our actions, for nothing we think or do is up to us.

4. Universal, divine, determinism nullifies human agency. Since our choices are not up to us but are caused by God, human beings cannot be said to be real agents. They are mere instruments by means of which God acts to produce some effect, much like a man using a stick to move a stone. Of course, secondary causes retain all their properties and powers as intermediate causes, as the Reformed divines remind us, just as a stick retains its properties and powers which make it suitable for the purposes of the one who uses it. Reformed thinkers need not be occasionalists like Nicholas Malebranche, who held that God is the only cause there is. But these intermediate causes are not agents themselves but mere instrumental causes, for they have no power to initiate action. Hence, it’s dubious that on divine determinism there really is more than one agent in the world, namely, God. This conclusion not only flies in the face of our knowledge of ourselves as agents but makes it inexplicable why God then treats us as agents, holding us responsible for what He caused us and used us to do.

5. Universal, divine determinism makes reality into a farce. On the deterministic view, the whole world becomes a vain and empty spectacle. There are no free agents in rebellion against God, whom God seeks to win through His love, and no one who freely responds to that love and freely gives his love and praise to God in return. The whole spectacle is a charade whose only real actor is God Himself. Far from glorifying God, the deterministic view, I’m convinced, denigrates God for engaging in a such a farcical charade. It is deeply insulting to God to think that He would create beings which are in every respect causally determined by Him and then treat them as though they were free agents, punishing them for the wrong actions He made them do or loving them as though they were freely responding agents. God would be like a child who sets up his toy soldiers and moves them about his play world, pretending that they are real persons whose every motion is not in fact of his own doing and pretending that they merit praise or blame. I’m certain that Reformed determinists, in contrast to classical Reformed divines, will bristle at such a comparison. But why it’s inapt for the doctrine of universal, divine, causal determinism is a mystery to me.

Molinism vs Calvinism – Informing theologians may increase Molinism’s acceptance

So why do so many intelligent and faithful Christian leaders buy into Calvinism? I think that the sort of Calvinism represented by the statement quoted above from the Westminster Confession is a fair summary of Scripture’s teaching and therefore should be believed. It’s only when one goes beyond it to try to resolve the mystery by embracing determinism and compatibilism that one gets into trouble. So insofar as these Christian leaders are content to remain with the mystery, I think theirs is a reasonable position. The vast majority of them have probably little understanding of Molinism and so are just insufficiently informed to make a decision. A few years ago I spoke at Westminster Seminary in San Diego on middle knowledge, and half way through the Q & A period following my talk, one of the faculty said, “I’m embarrassed to say, Dr. Craig, that we aren’t even able to discuss this with you because we just are completely unfamiliar with what you’re talking about.” He was embarrassed that as a professional theologian he was so ignorant of these debates. By contrast, some theologians who belong to the Reformed tradition have moved toward Molinism. When I gave the Stob lectures at Calvin College and Seminary, I was shocked when the theologians at the seminary told me that they were all Molinists! I increasingly encounter people who are moving in the Molinist direction (both from the Calvinistic end and the open theist end of the spectrum!)

So don’t be too hard on our Calvinist brethren. Offer them something better, and hope that they will embrace it.

- William Lane Craig