Recently, James White (a theologian and apologist) did a review of the debate on the Unbelievable? radio show between Paul Helm and William Lane Craig [accessible here; audio will begin immediately]. I thought that White did a decent job critiquing the synergistic tendencies in Craig’s exposition, but I also felt he failed to grasp the thrust of Molinism. I say this with great respect for White, whom I consider very thoughtful in the areas in which he engages. However, it is because of this respect that I write this with the hope that he–or at least others who wish to engage in this area–may be better equipped to engage with Molinism.* Although there are a number of places I could engage with White’s commentary, I want to focus on three particular areas, along with a fourth, methodological, issue.
Molinism and Free Will
The most problematic area in James White’s exposition came when he argued that free will is essentially vacuous on Molinism. His argument was essentially that the Molinist assertion that God knows what we will do in any given circumstance (the doctrine of middle knowledge) entails: “In this circumstance, this person will always do this” (emphasis White’s). Thus, he argued that Molinism is incapable of preserving human free will, which is ironically what Molinism was intended to preserve.
White based his argument on an example [actually a few examples, but this was most prominent]. While biking, he often came to a certain fork in the road. On one day, he may choose to turn one way, on another, he may choose to turn the other. Here’s the issue: White then said “The exact same conditions…” were in play in the scenario he described. The difficulty should be immediately obvious: White is very clearly mistaken that these are the “exact same conditions.” One day is not “exactly the same” as another day. Period. Thus, White’s objection fails. It fails for another reason, which we’ll explore in the next section, but for now it is enough to point out that White bases this objection on the notion that humans are able to choose differently in similar circumstances. That is, although he used the terminology of “the exact same conditions,” his example is merely that of similar conditions. His objection therefore fails.
Confusion about Middle Knowledge
It pains me to point this out for someone who I value as much as White, but I must object that it appeared as though White was disturbingly unfamiliar with what middle knowledge actually is. He continually objected to middle knowledge, as shown above, by arguing that people should be able to choose differently on Molinism but may not. Now, I don’t know how much White has read in this area, but surely if he’s going to engage with Molinists like Craig, he should–as someone whom I recognize as taking great care to read and engage with primary sources–read and understand Molina [let me be clear: I’m not saying he never has–I do not know what White has or has not read and would not claim to know]. Molina himself answers White’s objections in this regard very explicitly at a number of points in his On Divine Foreknowledge.
First, White is mistaken when he portrays Molinists as holding that middle knowledge determines choice. He has it backwards. It is the choices which “would be made” which determine middle knowledge. If one would have chosen differently, middle knowledge would have had different content. This is absolutely central to Molina’s view, and I’ll just quote him once to prove it. In his exposition of how various church fathers allegedly taught things similar to his own view, Molina wrote, “…when free choice by its innate freedom indifferently chooses this or its opposite, then God will bring it about that from eternity He foreknew nothing else, they [the church fathers he is favorably citing] are obviously teaching not that things will come to be because God foreknows that they will, but rather just the opposite” (180, emphasis mine).
Now whether Molina accurately exegeted these church fathers, and regardless of the objection which clearly will follow such a statement (“How is this possible?”–something Molina himself answers in detail in On Divine Foreknowledge), the clear and plain teaching of Molina is exactly opposite of what White seemingly attributed to him: namely, the notion that God’s middle knowledge determines free choices. Rather, it–even according to Molina–is exactly the opposite. Thus, White’s critique in this regard is simply wrong.
Confusion about Middle Knowledge II
A final difficulty with White’s critique was that he, at at least one identifiable point, confused middle knowledge with free knowledge. White was criticizing Craig by saying “if you’re truly free” you should be able to choose a different thing from what middle knowledge states (such as buying a different car than the Mercedes you wanted).
White’s critique was off base for two primary reasons. First, as shown above, he failed to recognize the absolute core of Molina’s doctrine of middle knowledge: that middle knowledge is not dependent upon foreknowledge. Second, White’s critique fails to recognize that middle knowledge interacts with free knowledge (God’s comprehensive knowledge of all things which will occur in creation). The reason for this is because White argues that one, if one has freedom, cannot “violate the middle knowledge… that was supposedly true.”
Here White seemingly confused the free knowledge of God with middle knowledge. It is true that the free knowledge of God cannot have been otherwise, for it is a result of the decree of creation. However, what White failed to recognize is that free knowledge is posterior to middle knowledge and so the fact remains that on Molina’s system (as demonstrated above), one can, in effect, change middle knowledge which would thus bring about a different state of affairs.
Again, the question is not here how this may be the case. Instead, what I am arguing is that White failed to correctly explain Molina’s position and so his critique actually failed to be centered upon the view against which he was arguing.
Methodological Issue: Philosophy?
I was surprised to see White comment so frequently on how this or that “may fly in philosophy classrooms” but apparently would not fly in the “real world” [this latter is not a quote, but he contrasted philosophy classrooms with the world outside of them]. He repeated this claim–or something similar–a number of times. I’ll keep this brief: White’s own engagement with Molinism was almost entirely philosophical. He continued to bring up the grounding objection (a philosophical objection if there ever was one), and he also pressed the attack by saying that Molinism cannot adequately account for the free will it is supposed to preserve (again, a purely philosophical argument). I was surprised to see this from White because I do really think he is quite a careful thinker, but the bottom line is that in denigrating philosophy while using a number of philosophical objections to Molinism he appeared rather inconsistent. Philosophy is a tool of the theologian, and White himself uses it in a number of ways. I would urge him to drop this kind of tongue-in-cheek dismissal of philosophical reasoning, even within theology. It seems to me he himself finds philosophical objections to theological systems to be of worth.
I commend White for taking on a difficult issue, and I readily admit he has more knowledge on any number of areas than I can begin to claim. I highly recommend much of his work, and even where he and I disagree, I have found him to be thoughtful and challenging. That said, I maintain White is mistaken in a few aspects of his interpretation of molinism. In particular, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge the broader philosophical framework behind the view. He also failed to allow for Molina’s own very explicit distinctions and definitions, and thus his critique actually declared Molina’s view to be the exact opposite of that which Molina actually held. I hope my own critique will be seen not as an attack, but rather as a call for clarification for White and others who hope to interact with Molinism.
*Full disclosure: I am a Lutheran with Molinist leanings, though I reject the synergism Molina himself held to. I view Molinism as a philosophical framework as opposed to a complete system.
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Luis de Molina On Divine Foreknowledge, edited by Alfred Freddoso (New York: Cornell, 1988).
James White, “The Dividing Line,” January 16, 2014. Accessible here. The primary interaction starts a ways into the show.
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Thanks for that JW! I have so many things to write about at the moment I’ve not been able to write my second piece on that particular show by White. One thing is for sure – I’m not going to be as gracious or sympathetic about his ignorance regarding Molinism. Another thing worthy of mention is that he often criticizes what he calls “non-biblical” analogies and yet he permits himself to use them when it suits him. You are spot on in noticing he tries his hand at philosophy himself despite being critical of others when they use it. Thanks!
I’m very careful to avoid saying he’s ignorant. It is quite possible he may have just misspoken a few times. I do not know whether he read Molina or Craig yet on the topics, and so I am very hesitant to simply say he didn’t know something. I’ve found White to be quite consistent in his effort to read and represent the other side as best as possible. My point with this post is to try to correct a clear misinterpretation of Molina (and Craig) on middle knowledge.
Regarding the point about philosophy: I was quite put off by this, as it was something I didn’t really expect from White. And, as I noted, he seems to have been quite philosophical in his own interaction with molinism.
Dear J.W. , thanks for this thoughtful post.
I am undecided about the different views on God’s knowledge.
I don’t believe that the Bible speaks with one voice on that topic and am convinced that some authors of the OT were open-theists if you analyze them objectively in the same way you would analyze the Koran or any other ancient text.
IF one set of circumstances were exactly the same'(thought experiment), would an intelligent agent always do the same things?
If you answer by “yes”, you are a determinist, your molinism notwithstanding.
If you answer by “no”, it is hard to know to make the difference with this “free will” ans sheer randomness.
This a problem with my position I openly recognize.
Did you take a look at this article of professor Roger Olson where he argues for the incompatibility of middle knowledge and libertarian free will?
I would be very glad to learn your take on all of this.
Lovely greetings in Christ.
I think one of the reasons why the “creaturely freedom” debate seems so intractable, even among ostensibly learned people, is the fact that it’s like a debate between two children about whether the bird in the backyard is a duck or not. The back-and-forth deals purely with the features of the observed bird, because there’s a latent and bad presumption that the two children share the same definition of “duck” (or that “duck” has a coherent definition at all). Further, the two children are disincentivized from *admitting* a recognition of the fact, “Whether the bird is a duck proceeds in a ‘boring’ way from the way in which ‘duck’ is defined.” (1) It requires admitting that the definition is not universal, or is unclear, which invites uncertainty and is destabilizing, (2) it flies in the face of argumentative tradition centuries old, which is “arrogant” and similarly destabilizing, (3) by dropping one end of the tug-of-war rope, it looks like a concession, and if the other debater does not also drop his end, he will win the rhetorical tug-of-war, and (4) it is simply more fun and/or profitable and/or stimulative and/or on-tradition to keep talking.
“Free will,” as a debate, is possibly the most egregious sinner against philosophical quietism. And I think Molinism is steeped in its toxic tea.
I don’t mean to get too off-point. Your indictment of White here is correct on both counts: He equivocates “numerically identical situations” with “qualitatively identical — along various vectors — situations,” and flips Molina’s idea backwards. It’s just hard for me, in the latter case, for me to even parse or resolve either side’s argument; “free choice by its innate freedom” causes a compiler error and the program never runs. It’s akin to saying, “White thinks Molina was arguing that ghrospad eln frizzol, but Molina was actually arguing frizzol eln ghrospad.” If those words reduce to gibberish before generating coherent meaning, then I have trouble disagreeing with the statement of White’s fault, but also have trouble agreeing with it (on a different layer of abstraction).
Anyway, this is nothing new to you; I’ve been complaining on your blog about the term “free will” for quite a while now. 🙂
My experience with James R. White is receiving and reading his books from well-meaning Baptists during my temporary foray into Catholicism some 15 years ago, namely “Mary: Another Reedemer?,” “The Roman Catholic Controversy,” and “What’s with the Mutant in my Microscope?”
I’m afraid that I do not have the same kind of respect for the man. That he seems either unfamiliar with the issues (at best) or is intentionally distorting them (at worst) is, in my experience, a flaw that infects much of his work.
I see where you are coming from and understand why White’s critic pains you so. However, I feel that you don’t need to loose respect for him, because people are at different different level of understanding than other people,and that ‘s Ok.
Fantastic article, JW. That was the most frustrating DL episode I’ve listened to. White is a whole lot better than that.
Agreed… that’s why I “tweeted” this @ him. I am hoping that he will read it and correct that part of his critique so he can be stronger in his critique by avoiding misrepresenting the position.
Good stuff, JW. In most of my discussions with others about Molinism, I’ve found they really don’t ‘get it’. At the same time, we often read the early Church Fathers without an appreciation for the apophatic nature of their theology, and trying to relate heavily Scholastic/Aristotelian-influenced cataphatic categories such as Middle Knowledge to bear on their writings is like playing hockey with a football bat (but what do you expect from a Jesuit? :P). Thanks for highlighting White’s misrepresentation of Molinism, I suspect he won’t be the last to do so.
I have to agree wholeheartedly with your observations in this post. I really respect James White’s analysis and observation on theological issues, and allow him a level of influence in my own investigation of these issues. I enjoy investigating competing views by watching debates and listening to talks such as his, but I have recently become more concerned with his approach to William Lane Craig and his views. There does appear to be a degree of misrepresentation or lack of understanding of the views being discussed. In particular White exhibits a cavalier attitude toward the use of philosophical argumentation by others, his own use of it, and his own use of rhetoric. I was disappointed with the way he represented Craig, whilst at the same time admitting having not fully heard the audio being critiqued. White however occasionally makes some good and valid points to challenge Craigs views, he allows an enormous amount of lampoon and ridicule to enter his dialogue. I was very disappointed to hear him link Craig to the Jesuits, and therefore Rome, because of the initial source of Molinism as if this form of argumentation is valid. It appeared as though the Genetic Fallacy was being employed as if it was a strong arbiter of truth, which I found to be empty.
I really respect White, but have been concerned with his careless approach to other views,
I really hope that he engages with opposing views a little better in future
Because of the grounding objection, James White thinks these Molinist “Christians” have an unbiblical view. He says: “The Christians who believe this kind of stuff, it’s because they spend too much time reading philosophy and not enough time reading the Bible.” (1:19:30-37) It’s hilarious because when he says this he pulls the rug out from under his own feet! That’s because the only reason James White thinks the grounding objection is a good objection is because he spends too much time reading the Bible and not enough time studying philosophy! Consequently, his view is the unbiblical one! And this is why it is difficult to intellectually respect theologians who don’t study philosophy…
Yeah I really don’t understand this way he’s wording the objection at all. I mean his comment left on the article he’s trying to critique was saying that we need to have all things moderated by divine revelation. Well of course he’s right, but what about those things which divine revelation does not talk about? Is owning a computer in the Bible? Should we therefore not own one? More on point, is the grounding objection in the Bible?
I think White did a decent job trying to show how he is saying it’s a biblical objection, but the problem is that the only way to understand it that way is to basically buy into his whole system because his point is basically Calvinism is correct, so anything else is unbiblical therefore a philosophical objection to Molinism is biblical because Molinism is unbiblical because it’s not Calvinism. Okay, that is simplifying it for sure, but it seems to me his primary argument was simply that if you adopt his system of interpretation, Molinism is unbiblical. Well of course he’s right, but that’s a big “if” to buy into.
One characteristic of James White is that when he knows very little about a subject, you will see him cite several other sources on it before he actually tackles the issue himself. He did that quite a bit on Molinism before he started doing videos on William Lane Craig, and you nailed it: he still doesn’t get it. Now I think Molinism has its problems which I will perhaps explain some other time, but it has FAR LESS problems than White’s determinism (See Jerry Walls, “Is Molinism As Bad As Calvinism?”).
White often criticizes WLC on his “two possible worlds” view (which WLC has recently clarified since White and his ilk have to great lengths to take this view out of context-http://www.reasonablefaith.org/molinism-and-infallibility#ixzz30rawgDVs) Yet White’s view on creaturely perspectives has the same problem: it espouses that 2 opposing worlds are operating at the same time, one in which God has determined all things whatsoever comes to pass, and another in which God has given the human the illusion of freedom in believing things like prayer impacting an outcome and that counterfactuals exist only in the mind of the creature. Even if these counterfactuals are merely creaturely perspectives, it is a creaturely perspective that God had to have determined, but nevertheless leads to the conclusion that there exists one realistic world in which all of the real abides only with God and the world of creaturely persectives which is some abstract euphoric dreamland that caused humans to believe we have a will that can choose A or not choose not-A with a built in defense for the elect when God is accused of determining and causing sin that blames secondary causations.
Indeed, James White has a much bigger “2 possible worlds” problem than William Lane Craig does. White has not made it very clear yet just exactly what his position is on compatibilism which I believe is because he is trying so hard to make hard-determinism palatable without offending the Piperites and the MacArthurites. The only consistent Calvinist is a hard-determinist (kind of the Gordon Clarks). Even though hard-determinism is consistently inconsistent and no different from Christianized atheist fatalism and Islamic determinism, it is the only consistent view that allows any Calvinistic view of predestination to work and explain how God can know what He knows. Unfortunately, for the Calvinist this view will always fail when drawn out to its logical conclusion no matter how many different faces or etymological changes Calvinists try to give it.
It is also a matter of futility for James White to continue crying against “philosophy” because even his so-called Biblical presuppositions are founded on Calvinist style exegesis FIRST. Granted, we all have certain doctrinal biases, but White has an allegorical method of interpretation Scripture which itself requires a LOT of philosophical stretchwork. And of course, there’s the task of any Calvinist trying to show that all inclusive “decree” which must be explained with pure theological presumption, or as White would call it: philosophy.
Calvinism is likely one of THE most philosophical religions extant. If James White and others of his ilk insist that the Calvinist doctrines of preterition, surpalapsarianism, infralapsarianism, sublapsarianism, particular redemption, monergism (and let’s not forget that synergism was a straw man accusation created by Calvinists) effectual call vs general call, and the spin placed on generally understood terms such as ‘world’, ‘all’ and ‘whosoever’, are not philosophical, then I have a bridge to sell you that stretches from my home in Tel Aviv to New York City.
Knowing what I know about the issues, I would love to see you take that up with him on the Dividing Line when he comes back from his trip in South Africa. I can see issues with your response that show me you probably won’t interact with criticism on that issue, but when he comes back, be respectful, call in the show 1-877-753-3341.