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Christian Doctrines, Molinism, theology

Book Review: “Salvation and Sovereignty: The Molinist Approach” by Kenneth Keathley

Molinism is a topic hotly debated in theological circles. There have been several books on the topic published just in the past few years, which, for a topic of analytic theology, is extraordinary. Kenneth Keathley’s work, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach focuses on the theological usefulness of molinism.

Keathley’s central position is that the Calvinistic “TULIP” (Total depravity; Uncondtiional election; Limited atonement; Irresistible grace; Perseverance of the saints) is the incorrect approach to salvation. Instead, he endorses the “ROSES” approach (Radical depravity; Overcoming grace; Sovereign election; Eternal life; Singular redemption).

The contrast is laid out in detail through the book, but to sum up, Keathley provides a comparison in the introduction. Radical depravity allows for free will while still emphasizing the fallen nature of people. Overcoming grace emphasizes “God’s beckoning that overcomes our wicked obstinacy” (3-4); sovereign election is the affirmation that God desires salvation of all; eternal life is to note that believers “enjoy a transformed life that is preserved and we are given a faith which will remain” (4); finally, singular redemption emphasizes that Christ’s atonement is not limited to the elect (4).

Keathley seeks to wed these concepts of salvation and sovereignty with the analytic theological concept of molinism. Molinism, Keathley argues, is a “middle way between Calvinism and Arminianism” (7). Molinists can affirm that God controls all things, that “man does not contribute to his salvation,” that the believer is eternally secure in Christ; further, they can affirm that “God is not the author of sin” that “God desires the salvation of all,” and that “At crucial times, humans have the ability to choose” (7).

Keathley then turns to a defense of molinism. Here, he touches briefly on some of the philosophical aspects of the molinist account. There are three “moments” of God’s knowledge: natural knowledge, middle knowledge, and free knowledge. These are not to be understood as temporal moments but rather moments of logical priority. The first moment, natural konwledge, is God’s knowledge of all possibilities. God’s middle knowledge is the knowledge of everything that “would” happen in given circumstances. Between this “moment” and the next,  God chooses a world to actualize. Finally, God’s free knowledge is that knowledge of everything that will happen, given the created world (17). Keathley distinguishes these moments as “could” (natural knowledge), “would” (middle knowledge), and “will” (free knowledge) (17-18).

Next, the Biblical account is expounded. Before going into depth with individual verses, Keathley argues that the Bible teaches that God exhaustively knows all things (including the future), that God is holy and righteous and does not cause sin, and that humans do have freedom–contingent choices are placed before people (20). Keathley then turns to exegetical studies of various aspects of God’s knowledge and human freedom. First, he argues that God has exhaustive knowledge of all things (including the future),  meticulous providential control, freedom, and righteousness (20ff). He then turns to a defense of the notion of human freedom in the Bible through a study of “contingent choices” put before people. He draws on both Old and New Testament examples to make his case. [In the interest of length I’ll not go through these arguments, but I would like to note that he utilizes over 30 separate verses in the first two pages of the Biblical evidence sections alone.]

The second chapter covers a side topic: Does God desire salvation for all people? Here, Keathley outlines 4 major positions regarding this. First, there is universalism–all are saved; second, there is double predestination–God chooses who will be saved and who will be reprobate; third, God has two wills–a revealed will in which God desires salvation and a decretive will in which, for unknown reasons, He passes over some; fourth, God has a consequent and antecedent will–“God antecedently desires that all be saved, but He consequently wills that faith is a condition to salvation” (42-43).  Keathley argues that the fourth option is the most defensible (43ff).

Next, Keathley turns his work towards a specific defense of the “ROSES” position discussed above. This defense encompasses the rest of the book.

Radical depravity is a rejection of determinism along with an affirmation that humans are in bondage to sin and fallen (63). Keathley endoreses “soft libertarianism,” which affirms that people’s characters can determine the range of choices, but also that they are the “origin and source of their choices” and that they are genuinely free to reject or choose specific actions (70ff).

Overcoming grace holds that while grace is monergistic–God is the only worker in salvation, it is resistible. “God’s grace is truly offered and available. The difference between the saved and the lost is the continued rebellion of the unbeliever” (105). This is an “ambulatory” model, which basically means that God is drawing all people to Him at all times, such that the only way to not be saved is to resist belief in Him.

Keathley holds “sovereign election” in which “God ordains the salvation of the elect but only permits the damnation of the reprobate” (142). Keathley follows this chapter with “Eternal Life” in which he argues that believers can feel certainty about their salvation. Finally, “Singular Redemption” is the notion that “redemption is provided for all, but applied only to those who believe” (194). This reflects the “penal substitutionary atonement” view (ibid). Thus, God provides salvation to all who believe, and applies it to those who do.

Salvation and Sovereignty is not unique simply because of its emphasis on the theological utility of molinism. The book is also written at a level that general readership will find accessible. Considering the extreme nuances and significant philosophical groundwork which must go into an explication of molinism, Keathley does a simply phenomenal job making the concept accessible to readers who are not philosophically trained.

However, it should be noted that because of this simplification, several of the philosophical issues related to molinism drop off. Not only that, but it seems that Keathley is operating under very slightly different views of what molinism entails. For example he states that molinism is a kind of “compatibilism” (5). This is false for most molinists, because most molinists defend libertarian freedom in conjunction with God’s foreknowledge. Thus, it is not compatibilism but libertarianism. Finally, many philosophical objections to molinism are left untouched. Due to the focus of the book, however, these seem minor flaws for the overall work.

Keathley’s work is exciting in many ways. It brings the molinist discussion to a more general readership. It provides a significant challenge to theological determinism. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, it provides an account which shows the theological fruitfulness of the concept of middle knowledge. Readers interested in any of these topics should immediately get the book and read it. For those who have engaged with molinism on a philosophically developed level, it provides an interesting account of how to apply those studies to a theological framework. For those who know little or nothing about molinism, it provides an excellent introduction. While readers may not agree with all of Keathley’s theological positions, his work will challenge and inform anyone who reads it. It comes highly recommended.

Source:

Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2010).

SDG.

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “Book Review: “Salvation and Sovereignty: The Molinist Approach” by Kenneth Keathley

  1. “For example he states that molinism is a kind of “compatibilism” (5). This is false for most molinists, because most molinists defend libertarian freedom in conjunction with God’s foreknowledge. Thus, it is not compatibilism but libertarianism.”

    I think you’ve misrepresented Keathley’s point here. There are different “kinds” of compatibilism. In fact, one kind of compatibilism is a libertarian kind, i.e., that free will is “compatible” with indeterminism – since classical compatibilists like Ayer argued that free will was impossible if indeterminism was true. The kind of “compatibilism” Keathley is talking about here is not that free will is compatible with determinism, but that God’s sovereignty is compatible with human freedom. Elsewhere in the book Keathley explicitly argues for agent causal libertarian free will.

    Posted by Matt | January 25, 2012, 9:00 PM
    • Right, that’s exactly my point, though I could do to clarify the wording. Keathley’s use of philosophical terminology is misleading–he’s either calling molinism compatibilism–which it is not; or he is using the word without enough care. It has a specific meaning in philosophy, and if his meaning is the weaker claim that free will and God’s sovereignty are simply compatible, he should not use the term “compatibilism.”

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 26, 2012, 1:54 AM
  2. A couple of questions: one specifically related to Molinism and the other to human nature.

    First, could you please, if possible, recommend some works that deal with

    1) Supporting the Molinist interpretation of the words that are translated as “predestined” and “foreknew”
    2) Defense against philosophically-based objections to Molinism (e.g., the grounding objection)

    Secondly, what is your understanding of how the Fall relates to the nature of humanity ? On Calvinism and Arminianism, I’ve frequently wondered how it is fair or just that Adam and Eve’s descendants were saddled with a corrupt nature such that they are guaranteed to sin. I’ve frequently gotten answers that are along the lines of, “Ultimately, we still want to disobey God, so we are justly judged”. However, my reply to that has always been, “However, we had no choice to be born and burdened with such a nature, so that still leaves open the question of how we are ultimately accountable for our actions.”

    Please correct me in my reasoning here if need be, but at least with human perception of justice, it appears to be unjust that Adam and Eve’s descendants were born with a sinful nature and are individually held responsible for their sins. I just don’t see how compatibilism sufficiently addresses the question of justice in divine judgment, so I am wondering if your reasoning against compatibilism goes something like that which I’ve just mentioned.

    Posted by James | September 26, 2012, 11:05 AM
    • Regarding 2, I could list a huge number. Note, there is no such thing as a beginner level for dealing with issues like this. This is hardcore analytic theology, so any work is going to be tough reading.

      The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge & Human Freedom– This one is probably the closest to beginner-level. It deals with Scriptural and philosophical aspects.

      Divine Providence: The Molinist Account– Thomas Flint deals with the grounding objection and a whole range of other issues related to philosophical molinism.

      On Divine Foreknowledge– Molina’s own exposition of the view, with a lot of contemporary analytic philosophy applied.

      Perhaps the best book would be WLC’s Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom, but it is prohibitively expensive. I managed to snag one via a used book vender for around 50$, but I haven’t seen it less than 150-450$ since then.

      Regarding 1, these works all address that topic in one sense or another.

      Regarding the Fall: I would say we are totally depraved. We are sinful from birth–sinful from conception (Psalm 51:5). This original sin is real sin. There are a number of objections to this, and you’ve raised a few of them. However, I think that original sin is philosophically viable depending upon your view of the transmission/creation of souls. If, for example, souls are somehow passed down in combination just like genes, then it would seem that we are actually partly responsible for original sin. Other views of the soul would entail the same positions.

      Regarding compatibilism, I’m not sure what you’re asking me. I am definitely not a compatibilist, and my reasoning against it is mostly philosophical. I literally don’t see any reasonable way to say that our actions are determined and yet we are actually free. It seems almost blatantly contradictory to me.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 26, 2012, 12:32 PM
      • Thanks for the recommendations. I appreciate the warning on the difficulty, so I’ll proceed with ample caution.

        Would you recommend any writings or lectures that explain the details of different beliefs of soul creation or transmission ? I’ve heard of creationism and traducianism in that context, but would like something a little more substantial than the half-page descriptions I’ve seen on some websites. What view do you take on this subject ?

        Posted by James | September 26, 2012, 1:58 PM
      • Regarding the soul: the Straight Thinking podcast has a 3 part series called “the origin of the human soul” in which they talk about a number of related issues. As far as my own view goes, I would have to say I have hardly studied it enough to really commit, but if I had to I would probably go with either the notion that our souls are passed down or that we have in some sense the same soul as Adam. The reason is because I do see a pretty strong view of original sin in Scripture and in order for that to make sense philosophically there has to be some form of transmission.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 30, 2012, 12:31 AM

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