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.
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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