Christian Doctrines, God/Trinity, Molinism, theology

Molinism and Aseity- A knock-down argument against middle knowledge?

stpeters2One of the most recent “Straight Thinking” podcasts–a podcast put on by Reasons to Believe–featured Travis Campbell discussing Middle Knowledge (which is an aspect of the philosophical theological position known as molinism). Middle Knowledge is, essentially, God’s knowledge of counterfactuals–that is, the knowledge of things like “If someone talks about molinism, J.W. Wartick will be interested.” That is a counterfactual because it states something which may be contrary to fact–that is, it depends on some condition to be fulfilled in order to be true (in the example above, it is the occasion of someone to talk about molinism).

On the second part of the interview, Campbell discussed some objections to molinism which he felt made the position intractable. One of the first objections he presented was an objection from “aseity” that is, God’s self-existence. According to the doctrine of divine aseity, God does not rely upon anything else for God’s existence. Now, molinism classically holds that God surveys the realm of possible worlds prior to the creative act and so sees all possibilities related to free creaturely choices. Then, God creates the world God desires. Campbell argued that this undermines God’s aseity because it makes God dependent upon creatures for omniscience–one of God’s essential attributes.

The argument, if sound, has great force. After all, if molinism means one must deny an essential attribute of God, there is a pretty serious difficulty with the doctrine. But does it? Campbell cited William Lane Craig, a leading proponent of molinism, as admitting that molinism entails that God’s knowledge, at least, is in some sense dependent upon creaturely choices. From what I have read of WLC,*  I have found it seems he frequently makes it appear as though molinism presents God as able to choose among any parts of possible worlds to construct whatever possible world God wants. Not correct… but possibly also not Craig’s actual view;* perhaps Craig is only making it seem thus when he discusses molinism in summary. What I’m getting at is that I’m not convinced Craig is as consistent a molinist as, well, Molina (or in modern times, Thomas P. Flint).

Now for the claim itself, I do not think it follows that God is actually dependent upon creaturely choices. And, if it follows from molinism that God is dependent in that way, then it must also be true of any view which holds to foreknowledge whatsoever. In fact, this is where I have a pretty serious bone to pick with any view which denies comprehensive foreknowledge. Unless I am much mistaken–which is quite possible–the realm of possible worlds is a set of necessary truths. That is, each possible world is a complete set of all true propositions for the entire history of that world.*** But if that is the case, then molinism is no different on God’s creative activity than any other view of creation, for God is simply selecting one from a set of possible worlds.

There is debate over how such a set of possible worlds might be populated–does the set of possible worlds come from God, or is it simply a set of necessary truths?** Whatever one’s answer for this, it remains clear to me that molinism is not defective in this area: the molinist simply holds that God selects a possible world from the set of possible worlds. The fact that the molinist emphasizes that these possible worlds include free choices is essentially a moot point so far as aseity is concerned. If there is such a set of possible worlds, then any view of God’s foreknowledge and creation has to acknowledge that God’s creative act is the bringing forth of one such possible world. If there is no such set, then it seems our universe is necessary, which would itself be problematic for the doctrine of creation.

So it seems to me that Campbell failed to make a compelling argument against molinism from aseity. In order for his argument to be successful, he would have to show that molinism’s view of possible worlds is somehow radically different from any other position and then also demonstrate that molinism’s view also necessarily makes God dependent upon creaturely freedom. But of course that would also involve him having to show that the set of possible worlds, on molinism, is itself independent of God. And it seems to me that although perhaps not all molinists hold that God does generate the set of possible worlds, it is entirely possible for a molinist to consistently hold that this is the case: the set of possible worlds is dependent upon God. And, if that is true, Campbell’s argument fails. I conclude that Campbell’s argument fails because it is both incomplete and unsound.

*I have his Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom but I am working through Molina’s work before I transition into it.

**Interestingly, Craig is working in this area for his next major academic work, according to his own discussion of related topics on his podcasts.

***One may hold that a possible world is merely the starting conditions of a world, but I do not see how that distinction could be made coherently. That is, I’m not convinced that a set of possible worlds would not include the entire history of the possible world. Moreover, any who would argue that God has comprehensive knowledge of the future would have to grant that God’s creative act would entail the history of the entire [possible] world.


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


17 thoughts on “Molinism and Aseity- A knock-down argument against middle knowledge?

  1. Good blog JW. I think you demonstrate why this is not a problem for Molinism very well. Thanks!

    Posted by michaelstheology | January 8, 2014, 6:51 AM
  2. This is the knock-down point: “The fact that the molinist emphasizes that these possible worlds include free choices is essentially a moot point so far as aseity is concerned.” Also the rest of that paragraph.

    When we make decisions, we evaluate a series of imaginary prospects and elect one to actualize. In a poetic sense, we are “affected by” each of those prospects. I guess this “poetic affectedness” is the kind of offense against aseity being claimed? Weird.

    For my part, I still don’t know what WLC’s creaturely freedom even means (it seems to fluctuate from WLC to WLC, a pattern you’ve also noticed), and depending on what it means, Molinism either really IS an offense against aseity (if “creaturely freedom” means “lives outside of the Sovereignty bubble and fires arrows of agency into it”), or doesn’t afford anything more than spurts and varieties of compatibilistic free will (which would make me a Molinist… which I cannot fathom).

    I have read zero Thomas P. Flint. Maybe you/he illuminates a third way here.

    Posted by Stan | January 8, 2014, 11:46 AM
    • I think the problem is that Craig approaches molinism from an Arminian viewpoint, when it was really conceived as an alternative to Banezian view (following Freddoso’s terminology in his introduction to Molina’s “On Divine Foreknowledge”). That is, it was conceived within a framework which was foreign in many ways from Arminian assumptions. But again, I haven’t yet read Craig’s most technical work on the topic, so there is more to be explored there as well.

      As far as “agency” is concerned within molinism, it seems to me that the real turning point is on the notion that we are discussing possible worlds. Again, conceived as a set of all truths within a reality, I don’t see how this would entail compatibilism or really any view of free will. One could come along and layer that over the molinist framework, but the core of it is that God is selecting a world complete with all choices.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 8, 2014, 6:09 PM
  3. (By knock-down point, I meant, “The point at which you knocked his argument down.”)

    Posted by Stan | January 8, 2014, 12:20 PM
  4. Very nice. I have listened to all of WLC’s Reasonable Faith podcasts, and read many of his questions of the week, so I am acquainted somewhat as an admiring if not terribly interested observer in the matter. I don’t have the sense though that he thinks God picks and assembles from partd of multiple possible worlds. I’ve heard Greg Koukl describe his own view as “God elects persons” versus Craig’s “God elects worlds.”

    Posted by cogitatingduck | January 8, 2014, 2:04 PM
  5. I think that monilism fails completely when it has to explain why God would create billions of human beings who are going to eternally suffer in hell.

    To my mind, there is only few difference with Calvinism and God predetermining individuals to damnation and as Roger Olson pointed out, divine determinism cannot be avoided if God made it certain that the people He placed in such and such circumstances would act in such and such a way.

    The problem is largely alleviated by the fact that the the major voice of the Bible teaches conditional immortality instead of eternal torment.


    Posted by lotharson | January 8, 2014, 4:34 PM
    • The objection you bring up is, of course, entirely unrelated to the current issue. But as far as why God would create some number of persons who would suffer eternally in hell, I’m quite skeptical of the notion that we need to explain this.

      I admit that I think the comment regarding Roger Olson is more than a little confused. Once more, we’re not talking about some kind of picking and choosing of how people will act in whatever circumstances. Molinism conceives, instead, of God surveying the entire range of possible worlds (which of course includes all actions of any individuals therein) and then creating one. If Olson truly does hold the position you give to him, he is simply not understanding what molinism is.

      Regarding the post you linked, I fail to see how it has any relevance whatsoever for molinism. I guess I’d have to see some sort of argument for how the analogy is actually applicable.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 8, 2014, 6:14 PM
    • If you take the Bible’s threats of destruction literally, then its major voice is conditionalism/annihilationism. If you take them figuratively, and respect Paul’s emphasis on God’s primary “mission objective” being an “all in all” reconciliation, then its major voice is purgatorial universalism. Both voices were present in the early Church, alongside the endless torment folks.

      While I agree that there are irreconcilable problems with endless torment and divine sovereignty of a good God, that doesn’t seem to have much *directly* to do with Mr. Wartick’s point here.

      Posted by Stan | January 8, 2014, 6:17 PM
      • That was essentially my feeling as well–that whatever problem one might have with eternal punishment/etc., that has little (if anything) to do with my argument here.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 8, 2014, 6:20 PM
  6. As I see it, the main challenge to Molinism is NOT that it involves God choosing from a set of possible worlds. Most philosophically-inclined Calvinists, I think, would be comfortable describing God’s decree as the choice of a possible world. The real challenge is that Molinism seems to entail that God’s action is limited by something external to himself. It is not so much a matter of aseity but of sovereignty and infinity.

    God’s sovereignty and infinity are typically construed to mean that God is not limited by anything outside of himself; any “limitations” are those contained within his nature. Thus, it is God nature as a perfectly logical and moral being that makes him unable to actualize a contradiction or to lie or to sin, rather than some external force or entity.

    Yet according to Molinism, God’s power in actualizing a world is limited by the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. God neither decrees the truth of these counterfactuals, nor are they entailed by his nature. Thus, God would appear to be limited by something external to himself; there are worlds that are intrinsically possible but not feasible for God.

    By contrast, on a Calvinist account, the set of possible worlds is coextensive with the set of feasible worlds.

    Posted by christandcosmos | January 12, 2014, 12:32 AM
    • Bingo.

      I still don’t know what “creaturely freedom” even means. It is implausible that God, given foreknowledge and at least SOME deterministic contingency between a person’s choices and factors that are not products of that person’s choices, does not dictate the truth of counterfactuals.

      Posted by Stan | January 12, 2014, 2:30 PM
  7. J.W.,

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that “Middle Knowledge is, essentially, God’s knowledge of counterfactuals” prior to his divine decree to create the universe?
    WLC has written and said that God could have knowledge of counterfactuals via some other means.

    Posted by tkjaros | May 5, 2014, 1:38 PM
    • Yes, I suppose that would help clarify it a bit… though I would also note that many simply deny that there are such things as counterfactuals of freedom for God to know. That’s why I stated it as I did–to essentially include the notion that there are indeed such counterfactuals (something the molinist is committed to).

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | May 5, 2014, 1:43 PM
  8. Basic Argument for Theological Fatalism

    Yesterday God infallibly believed T. [Supposition of infallible foreknowledge]
    If E occurred in the past, it is now-necessary that E occurred then. [Principle of the Necessity of the Past]
    It is now-necessary that yesterday God believed T. [1, 2]
    Necessarily, if yesterday God believed T, then T. [Definition of “infallibility”]
    If p is now-necessary, and necessarily (p → q), then q is now-necessary. [Transfer of Necessity Principle]
    So it is now-necessary that T. [3,4,5]
    If it is now-necessary that T, then you cannot do otherwise than answer the telephone tomorrow at 9 am. [Definition of “necessary”]
    Therefore, you cannot do otherwise than answer the telephone tomorrow at 9 am. [6, 7]
    If you cannot do otherwise when you do an act, you do not act freely. [Principle of Alternate Possibilities]
    Therefore, when you answer the telephone tomorrow at 9 am, you will not do it freely. [8, 9]

    Seems that molinism differs on premise 4 (most radically). That is on Calvinism, or at a least how it represented currently, God’s sovereignty ensures the truth value where as on middle knowledge God obtains a world that accomplishes his will without denying people’s free will (when it is important for God to change outcomes).

    On fatalism what value is wisdom? Why are the authors of the New Testement trying to convince their audience of Christ’s Messianic office? We are fated to believe and act the way God has determined.

    For a baseline philosophical treatment of fatalism and the argument presented above see:

    For a theological discussion on Campbell’s point that God’s hypothetical, prexisting knowledge about the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom I recommend the article “Maximal Power” by Flint and Freddoso.

    Stronger still is the problem of the data from scripture. Here you can play the old Bible roulette and just open that book open to any random page and see if there isn’t an appeal to someone making a choice to do a rather than b. Scripture is replete with conditional promises by God. If freedom to choice is illusory then God seems to be conducting a marionette show (perhaps a cosmic Punch and Judy). Then judging us in the future for things we were fated to do is cruel and inconsistent with God’s character. Every conditional statement, “If you do this God will do that” is misrepresenting the truth! The truth value is intrinsic to God but represented as intrinsic to the free creatures.

    Scripture seem sincere in its statements that God loves “All” the world, that he doesn’t want “Any” to parish, or “Any” who receive him he will give the right to become children of God. It seems equal artificial (as is claimed of molinism, to suggest that the original audience would have naturally understood these passages as inserting the subordinate clause, “Of God’s elect” parenthetically after “All” and “Any”.

    We seem to have enormous evidence, from how we intuit the world, that we have freedom to do a and not a. We seem to make thousands of free choices daily. I recognize that we have other intuitions that are completely false, e.g. We are all basically good, or God judges people by comparing good vs bad works, or that a stick bends when we put it into the water, so this is the weakest point.

    We need to engage all perspectives in an even-handed way based on the data. Many Individuals including James White rely on rhetorical flourish rather than a discussion. Statements like “I can’t even comprehend molinism,” often uttered by Paul Helm, a Professor of theology/philosophy who engages the argument in a book, seems utterly incomprehensible. He clearly understands the argument but realizes that his audience doesn’t. These fallacies are meant to manipulate listeners and not inform them!

    For a more balanced approach I recommend, “Four Views on Divine Providence?”

    Posted by Uber Genius | April 16, 2015, 9:11 AM


  1. Pingback: Molinism & Aseity | Remington's - January 9, 2014

  2. Pingback: Philosophy Matters – James White Missing the Mark on Molinism | Captain Lawson - May 12, 2014

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