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Who Interprets Scripture? Sola Scriptura, the Reformation, and the modern era: Reformation Review

Theological debates raged throughout the period of the Reformation. These debates were about who had the right to interpret Scripture, what was the nature of salvation, who had authority in the church, and the like. Sound familiar? It should. Many of the debates that were central to the reformers are still in our purview today. Central to several of these debates focused upon the interpretation of Scripture.

Sola Scriptura: Two difficulties

The Reformers operated under the ideal of sola scriptura. The term literally means “scripture alone.” The notion seems simple enough: when it comes to doctrine, practice, and belief, the church universal is to be guided by Scripture alone. Yet it quickly became apparent during the Reformation era that things were not quite so simple.

First, sola scriptura was largely founded upon the notion that any Christian could read and understand Scripture. Yet, as became clear due to the fierce debates of the meaning of the Sacraments (i.e. the debate between Luther and Zwingli on the “real presence” in the Lord’s Supper), it seemed that on some things, Scripture wasn’t so simple (McGrath a, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 106-107, cited below). People could disagree, vehemently, even over things that each side thought was abundantly clear.

Second, Anabaptists and others argued that sola scriptura meant that every single individual Christian could read and understand the Bible for themselves. How was this problematic? Well, if every Christian could understand every part of the Bible, then there was no way to arbitrate between differing interpretations of soteriology (doctrine of salvation), eschatology (doctrine of the end times), and the like. Of course, not all of these interpretations could be correct, and if those who had argued for the individualism of Scriptural interpretation were correct, then they could all be right, in some sense. Furthermore, the issue was exacerbated in that because no one had the authority to proclaim what doctrines were correct, the church began to increasingly split  to the point that “the radical Reformation was not a unified movement, but rather a chorus of protest against the clergy, secular authorities, and Reformers such as Luther and Zwingli. It was a reservoir for uncompromising protest that could well up in the most varied social circles… ‘Within the turmoiled flood of radical reform or restitution the fresh vitalities of the Reformation… were borne along swiftly to radical extremes'” (Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 213, cited below).

Limiting Perspicuity

The solution to the first problem was simply to concede that, on at least some issues, Scripture was not crystal clear. On at least certain points, the magisterial reformers “had conceded that Scripture is obscure” (McGrath a, 108). There was genuine disagreement over some issues. However, not all agreed with this conclusion, and some still pressed that all of Scripture was indeed clear. Such an argument tied into the second problem the Reformers had to confront in relation to sola scriptura: who has the right interpretation?

Which Interpretation? Tradition’s Importance

Tradition played an important role in determining how the interpretation of Scripture was to be undertaken. During the Medieval period, a number of developments in hermeneutics laid the groundwork for the various interpretive methods utilized in the Reformation (McGrath b, 148ff). There were three primary views which emerged during the Reformation.

First, there was the position that “there is no place for tradition in the interpretation of the Bible. Every individual or community is free to interpret the Bible without reference to the Christian past” (McGrath a, 100). Such a position was part of the Radical Reformation and led to innumerable differing interpretations of Scripture. Of course, this was the group of reformers which applied sola scriptura most consistently. They took the principle literally and only allowed the Bible to be authoritative. However, with no way to arbitrate between differing doctrines, it seemed that such a position was incapable of standing up to scrutiny. All it could allow for was rampant individualism.

Second, there was the position that tradition was “an additional mode of divine revelation, in which information that was not committed to writing in the Bible was passed down…” (McGrath a, 100). The Roman Catholic church endorsed this position. However, it did not become popular with the reformers at all.

Instead, the Reformers developed a third position, one which stood as a middle way between the extremes of enshrining tradition and rejecting it outright. On this position, “Tradition designates a traditional way of interpreting a biblical text, which does not displace the text” (McGrath a, 100). Tradition therefore does not become an independent source of authority, but rather a way of interpreting the authority–Scripture–in an authoritative manner. By using tradition in this manner, the Reformers avoided the individualism of rejecting tradition, while also avoiding the error of raising tradition to the same level of importance as Scripture.

The third way was developed largely in the Reformed and Lutheran traditions, but it had its core in the historic Christian Creeds. Within the Lutheran tradition, the Apostles’; Nicene; and Athanasian Creeds were taken as theological foundations, and the Augsburg Confession and the later Book of Concord (which drew together several other confessions of the Lutheran faith) became the interpretive lens through which the Lutheran church would view Scripture and right doctrine.

Modern Theology, Reformation Problems

The discussions which occurred in the Reformation on the nature of sola scriptura, tradition, and the interpretation of Scripture had their origins in the past, and they continue into today. Some continue to insist that anyone can read the Bible and understand it in its entirety.

Against those who argue against their position, they insist that they themselves are just reading what the Bible says. This can be seen in a number of debates in Christian theology. It seems the best response to those who wield the ‘perspicuity of Scripture’ as a weapon against alternatives to their own doctrine have no alternative against those who disagree other than going back and forth claiming their own interpretation is correct and/or more clear.

The example I most often like to use is the book of Revelation and eschatology. Someone who claims the perspicuity of Scripture applies to the whole of Scriptural teaching must claim, in order to be consistent, that these doctrines are clear. Thus, such a person must maintain that every single verse in Revelation can simply be read by anyone and understood.

To be frank, I find this absurd. The extreme diversity of people’s interpretations of Revelation seem to undermine the notion that every passage in Scripture is clear. Furthermore–as has already been noted–those who hold to this radically individualistic position of Scripture have no way to decide between differing interpretations of Scripture. They are thus left with no way to determine any doctrine, whether it is radically opposed to Christianity or not, is heretical. Thus, one who holds this position cannot condemn modalism, as long as the person arguing for it is only using the Bible. After all, Scripture is clear! Everyone can read it. Therefore, it seems that this debate which continues to rage on from the Reformation must end. In order to avoid the mire of wanton individualism, we must have some principles for interpretation.

Another major issue of contemporary debate is that of Creeds and “paper popes.” Often, for example, the Lutheran Church is accused of utilizing the Book of Concord as a “paper pope”–a book which acts as an infallible interpreter of Scripture. Similarly, some argue that the historical Christian creeds are not Scripture and therefore must not be affirmed: again, sola scriptura.

It may be helpful to see this as a case study: in Lutheran circles, there is a debate over whether one must agree with the Book of Concord (the Lutheran Confessions) because it agrees with Scripture or insofar as it agrees with Scripture. Note the very important difference. If one says it is “because,” one is affirming that the Book of Concord is the correct intepretation of every relevant passage of Scripture. If one affirms that it is “insofar as,” one is admitting that there may be error in that interpretation. From a Lutheran perspective, this debate is hard to resolve. I tend to line up on the latter (insofar as) view.

However, it is clear that once one takes that position, one must lean more towards individualism. Again: how does one arbitrate doctrine if one does not adhere to any kind of authoritative statement on doctrine? It seems to me that one must at least hold that God has the power to transmit His teaching truthfully, and that’s why the historical Christian Creeds are vastly important. There must be a line drawn somewhere, but people may ever debate where to draw that line.

The key is perhaps found in Scripture itself, in which Christians are instructed not to continue arguments needlessly nor to focus upon topics which will create division (1 Corinthians 1:10ff; Ephesians 4:1ff). These teachings do not, however, preclude division nor do they allow for rampant individualism. It seems to me, therefore, that by adhering to the ecumenical council’s teaching–specifically, the creeds–as drawing out the right teachings of the church, we can avoid some of the great difficulties illustrated above. That’s why I would focus upon the Creeds which were drawn from those councils (like the Apostles’,  and Nicene Creeds) as the sources of authoritatively governing Christian interpretations on those topics.


Many theological questions that are in play today have their origins in various aspects of Reformation thought, which themselves have their origins in earlier Christian thought. The issue of the perspicuity of Scripture, it seems to me, must be limited to that of soteriology and perhaps a few other core issues. On who has the authority to interpret Scripture, it seems that the Reformers offered a way forward: by agreeing to submit to the authority of ecumenical Creeds not as sources of their own authority but rather as authoritative interpretations of the Bible, Christians can proceed in their reading of Scripture and interpretations thereof through those lenses. Thus, the danger of individualism and endless division can be avoided.


I survey the origins of the Reformation.


Alister E. McGrath a, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

Alister E. McGrath b, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003).

Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010).


Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction was a gift from an anonymous donor. I was blown away when I saw it show up at my door and I have to say Thank you so much for being such a blessing! Whoever you are, you made my day. Well, more than just one day actually. This series of posts is a direct result of your donation. Thank you!



The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Presuppositional Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til

Cornelius Van Til pioneered the field of “presuppositional apologetics” primarily through his works Christian Apologetics and The Defense of the Faith. His arguments are easily misunderstood as question begging or viciously circular. Herein, I have presented a brief outline and analysis which reveals that while the presuppositional approach may indeed have some logical faults, the overall system has a certain power to it and can be integrated into a total-apologetic system.

The Presuppositional Apologetic: Theory

Van Til was very adamant that believers cannot and should not give up any ground to those who are non-Christian. He argued that “Christian theism is a unit. Christianity and theism are implied in one another… Christianity can never be separated from some theory about the existence and the nature of God” (Christian Apologetics, 17). Again, he is adamant: “We must defend Christian-theism as a unit” (The Defense of the Faith, 28).

Along with his emphasis on defending Christianity as a unit, Van Til equally impressed the point of the extreme divergence of views between the Christian and the non-Christian. Apologetics must acknowledge the nature of man. Van Til placed particular emphasis upon the notion that apologists cannot ignore that “we shall have to choose between two theories of knowledge. According to one theory God is the final court of appeal; according to the other theory man is the final court of appeal” (The Defense of the Faith, 58). Because of this, “it becomes quite impossible…. [to] agree with the non-Christian in his principles of methodology to see whether or not Christian theism be true” (The Defense of the Faith, 118-119).

The key to understand here is that Van Til does not accept that there is a neutral reason “out there” by which Christians and non-Christians can arbitrate the truth of Christianity; his point is that there is no neutral ground and that one’s presuppositions will determine one’s end point. Again, he writes, “this [apologetic method] implies a refusal to grant that any area or aspect of reality, any fact or any law of nature or of history, can be correctly interpreted except it be seen in the light of the main doctrines of Christianity” (Christian Apologetics, 124).

However, Van Til takes it even further and argues that one must presuppose the truth of Christianity in order to make sense of reality: ” What is the content of this presupposition, then? It is this: “I take what the Bible says about God and his relation to the universe as unquestionably true on its own authority” (The Defense of the Faith, 253); again, “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything” (Christian Apologetics, 19). Thus, Van Til’s apologetic does not make Christianity the conclusion of an argument; rather, Christianity is the starting presupposition.

The presuppositional approach here cannot be stressed enough. For Van Til, one simply cannot grant to the non-Christian any epistemic point. “We cannot avoid coming to a clear-cut decision with respect to the question as to whose knowledge, man’s or God’s, shall be made the standard of the other. …[O]ne must be determinative and the other subordinate” (The Defense of the Faith 62-63).

What place is had for evidences in Van Til? At some points, he seems to be very skeptical of the use of Christian evidences. In particular, the fact that he argues there is no neutral evaluation grounds between the Christian and non-Christian seems to imply that  there can be no real evaluation of such arguments apart from Christianity. One of Van Til’s most famous illustrations of the use of evidences can be found in The Defense of the Faith pages 332 and following. He uses three persons, Mr. Black (non-Christian), Mr. Grey (Christian non-presuppositionalist), and Mr. White (presuppositional/reformed apologist):

Mr. Grey… says that, of course, the “rational man” has a perfect right to test the credibility of Scripture by logic… by experience… [Mr. Grey then takes Mr. Black a number of places to show him various theistic evidences. Mr. Black responds:] “you first use intellectual argument upon principles that presuppose the justice of my unbelieving position. Then when it it is pointed out to you that such is the case, you turn to witnessing [subjectively].

…At last it dawned upon Mr. White that first to admit that the principles of Mr. Black, the unbeliever, are right and then to seek to win him to the acceptance of the existence of God the Creator… is like first admitting that the United States had historically been a province of the Soviet Union but ought at the same time to be recognized as an independent and all-controlling power… If one reasons for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity on the assumptions that Mr. Black’s principles of explanation are valid, then one must witness on the same assumption [which makes witnessing wholly subjective.] (p. 332-339)

It can be seen here that even evidences for Van Til must be based within a presupposition. There is no way to look at evidences in the abstract. One can either offer them within the presuppositions of Christianity or outside of Christianity. For Van Til, once one has agreed to offer evidences outside of Christianity, one has granted the presuppositions of the non-believer, and therefore is doomed to fail.

His argument is therefore a type of “transcendental argument.” He argues that only within the Christian worldview can even the rationalism of the unbeliever make sense. Non-Christians may reject belief in God, but this is not a rational rejection, according to Van Til. Rather, “Sin will reveal itself in the field of knowledge in the fact that man makes himself the ultimate court of appeal… Man has declared his autonomy as over against God” (The Defense of the Faith, 58). Mankind is actively suppressing the knowledge of God. “It is not that we are merely brought into existence by God, but our meaning also depends upon God” (The Defense of the Faith, 63).

To sum up Van Til’s apologetic, then, there are three major points:

1) There is no neutral starting point between the Christian and non-Christian. One must presuppose either.

2) Christians should therefore presuppose Christianity in their apologetic and seek to show how only upon Christian presuppositions can one make sense of reality.

3) The transcendental argument: Only if God exists can their be a basis for morality, science, history, and rationality.

Analysis and Application

I admit that I am quite sympathetic to those who argue this type of apologetic is viciously circular. For example, one proponent of Van Tilian apologetics is John Frame. In his defense of presuppositional apologetics, he writes, “Premise 1: Whatever the Bible says is true. Premise 2: The Bible says it is the Word of God. Conclusion: Therefore, the Bible is the Word of God” (Frame, 356, cited below). I can’t help but think that while this argument is deductively valid, using P1 is to beg the question against the non-Christian. But of course, that’s exactly what Van Til urges. One must start with Christian theism and the Bible as presuppositions and reason from there.  Therefore, I’m inclined to think that presuppositionalism cannot stand on its own. However, I do think that Van Til’s method can be saved from logical absurdity and made applicable in a part of a “cumulative case” type of reasoning (or certainly, it could be paired with a type of Reformed Epistemology).

The way I would propose for this is to utilize Van Til’s apologetic by showing Christians and non-Christians how philosophical presuppositions can color one’s evaluation of evidence and even of reasoning itself. Instead of offering only evidences or only witness in a vacuum, the Christian apologist should indeed focus upon how one’s presuppositions change one’s evaluation of evidence or witnessing. One presuppositional approach to the problem of evil can be found, I’ve suggested, in Job.

Furthermore, it seems to me that the transcendental argument is extremely potent. By arguing that even the process of reasoning cannot make sense apart from God, Christians can effectively place the burden of proof upon their opponents to show how their system can cohere with reality.

Finally, I can’t help but appreciate the tenacity with which presuppostional apologists, in the spirit of Van Til, pursue incoherent positions and actively turn people back to the presuppositional approach. The presuppositional apologetic, while not necessarily one I think can stand on its own, is extremely powerful.


Reading Van Til leaves me at points breathless with his innovation and boldness; but at other points it leaves me frustrated. He is not easy to understand, nor are his arguments always convincing. Too often, he axiomatically states a position and assumes his argument has carried his point. However, one can hardly dismiss the whole of Van Til’s thought as useless to Christian apologetics. Van Til’s transcendental argument has staying power, and his urges to focus upon presuppositions cannot be ignored.

This is but the first in a series of posts I have planned on presuppositional apologetics. I will be analyzing Van Til’s thought further, as well as diving into some other well-known proponents of presuppositionalism like John Frame, K. Scott Oliphant, and Greg Bahnsen. A few posts will focus on applied presuppositional apologetics.


Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith 4th Edition (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008).

—-, Christian Apologetics 2nd Edition (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003).

John Frame, “A Presuppositional Apologist’s Closing Remarks” in 5 Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000).

Links [Will update as series continues]

Proof that God Exists– an insightful view of presuppositional apologetics in practice.

Choosing Hats– A mammoth collection of articles from a presuppositional apologetic.



The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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.


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



The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

A Denial of Theological Determinism

It was not too long ago that I read a book by John Frame, a respected Calvinist theologian, entitled No Other God: A Response to Open Theism. In my review of that book, I wrote, “Interestingly, while I went in reading this book looking for some good arguments against Open Theism, I came out with the realization that theological determinism is a far more dangerous doctrine indeed.” It is time to address theological determinism more fully.

The Debate

There are many sides to the debate over the content of and/or level of determination entailed by of God’s omniscience. Briefly, I will summarize what I see as the four major positions:

  1. Open Theism- Open Theists hold that the future is, in some sense, “open” to the extent that even God doesn’t know for sure what will happen. God knows everything that might happen, and so can plan for every contingency.
  2. Theological Determinism- Essentially, the view that God, in His sovereignty, has determined everything which will happen. It is generally paired with compatibilism, the view that, despite God’s determining of creaturely action, those creatures are still responsible for their behavior.
  3. Molinism- The “middle knowledge” perspective holds that God knows counterfactuals of creaturely freedom–God knows what anyone will do in any situation–and so comprehensively knows the future. However, molinists hold that God does not determine what will happen, He merely foreknows it.
  4. “Bare Omniscience”- Those who hold this view basically fall into a combination of the previous three categories–mixing and matching as they will.

The Biblical Evidence

I’m only briefly going to operate under a claim which I’m sure will be quite contentious for all involved, so I will qualify it heavily:

P1: The Biblical data about God’s omniscience lacks the philosophical development to settle the issue. 

Now, this claim is very qualified: essentially I’m claiming that any one of the four positions discussed only briefly above can claim some kind of Biblical justification. Do I personally think they are all equal? Not at all, actually. But I do think that each position can put forth at least a few passages to try to justify their position. Thus, my suggestion is that the issue needs to be settled philosophically, not exegetically.

Some may latch onto this claim and rejoice, arguing that “J.W. has clearly rejected the Bible! [insert series of Bible verses]!” Such a strategy is wrongheaded for a number of reasons, foremost among them is the forcing of [cited verses] into a preconceived philosophical paradigm. I’m not arguing that the Bible cannot or does not reveal philosophical development. Rather, my argument is that on this issue, the Bible does not present a specific picture. Certainly, there are those who will disagree and say, “Well J.W. is just wrong! The Bible clearly states [favored position]!” It is not here my purpose to enter into a proof-text vs. proof-text argument. Rather, I wish to argue that determinism cannot be true and therefore one of the other positions must be the case. Given that most theologians grant there at least a few verses to support any of the previous positions, I think this is a safe qualification.

Against Determinism

I have argued extensively elsewhere for molinism and against open theism, and it is high time I turn my sights against determinism. I feel that theological determinism is, at best, philosophically untenable. At worst, it is incoherent. I shall put forth three theses to press my claim:

P2: Theological determinism’s only way to preserve creaturely responsibility (and thus save God from responsibility for causing evil) is compatibilism, which is incoherent.

Compatibilism, essentially, is the claim that God determines all things, and people are responsible for their actions.

I confess that, on the face of it, I struggle to understand compatibilism of any sort. But rather than giving in to a lack of imagination, I will seek to understand how theological determinists present compatiblism. Paul Helm, a Calvinist philosopher for whom I have great respect, writes “…God, though responsible, is not to blame for bringing about an evil act on the part of a human being if he has good reason for bringing such an act about, which he must have” (Helm, 164, cited below). Helm argues that God is the sufficient cause for all actions, but not the necessary cause of them. Because of this, Helm holds that “God may be ‘responsible’ for evil in some sense, but this does not mean that he is morally culpable” (Ibid, 164).

Again, I don’t see any way for this to work. First, if God really is the sufficient cause for evils, then it is extremely difficult to see how God would not be culpable. Sufficient causation implies exactly what it seems to: that God’s action alone is sufficient to bring about the evil. Yet Helm seems to think that because he holds that God is not a necessary condition for the evil actions, this removes God from responsibility.

Again, this seems to be exactly backwards, for at least a couple reasons. If God is the sufficient cause of all things, then that means that for any evil I can imagine (let’s say the Holocaust), one need only to refer to God to reveal its cause. Now Helm would hold that humans are the necessary conditions for this evil to occur. In other words, while God may have determined it to be such that the Holocaust would occur, it would not have occurred had there not been creatures to bring it about. But if this is the case, then it seems God is indeed squarely to blame for such evils because, after all, God is not only the sufficient cause of the events, but He also created the necessary conditions and set them up in such a way that these events would occur.

Other theological determinists take two supposedly different approaches to the problem. Some argue that because of total depravity, human wills are in fact free. In other words, humans are incapable of choosing good, but that does not mean they are not free or responsible because they continue to freely choose evil. This tactic does not seem to work, however, because theological determinists must also hold that God made humans in such a way that they would not desire good. In other words, God made these people totally depraved to begin with. Thus, those who disagree with determinists could counter by once more asking, “But isn’t God responsible for causing humans to only be free to choose evil anyway?”

The other tactic is to argue that while God is cause of all things, people themselves are the secondary cause. So while God might sustain my existence and even determine that I should do evil, it is I who do evil, not God. I am a creature, and I bring about the evil. God and I are separate entities, so it follows (on this view) that God is not the cause of evil. Now this view is really no different from Helm’s view explained above, but with less philosophical terminology. The problems with it are the same. Suppose we grant that it is the secondary causes, not God, which bring about evil. Whence these secondary causes? Why do these secondary causes act as they do? According to theological determinism, God created, ordained, and sustains these secondary causes. When a being brings about evil, that being acts secondarily–they are not themselves God. But God ordained and caused the world to be such that theses secondary causes would act in exactly the way in which they do. The secondary causes themselves are caused to act by God. So we have only pushed the problem back one step. Why would God cause secondary causes to do evil? It seems God would certainly be culpable for such evils.

Finally, a brief survey of those theological determinists who take the determinism seriously seems to confirm that God is the cause of evil. John Frame, for example, writes:

“The uniform witness of Scripture is that the evils of this life come from God” (Frame, cited below, 140).

“…[I]t is important to see that God does in fact bring about the sinful behavior of human beings, whatever problems that may create in our understanding” (68).

John Calvin himself wrote, in the Institutes:

When, therefore, they perish in their corruption, they but pay the penalties of that misery in which ADAM FELL BY THE PRDESTINATION OF GOD , and dragged his posterity headlong after him. Is he not, then, unjust who so cruelly deludes his creatures? Of course, I admit that in this miserable condition wherein men are now bound, all of Adam’s children have fallen BY GODS WILL. And this is what I said to begin with, that we must always at last return to the sole decision of God’s will, the cause of which is hidden in him.

It seems, therefore, that theological determinists, when consistent, acknowledge that God causes evil, and indeed wills it. The main reason given is some kind of mystery or hiddenness. I conclude this section with the observation that, despite attempts to the contrary, theological determinism must hold that God causes evil.

P3: Theological determinism is not a “lived” philosophy.

One of the tests for a philosophy–and I should think a theology in particular–is whether it is livable. If something is true, it should reflect reality. Theological determinism holds that every action I take is determined by God. I have found that in practice, I have not yet run into any theological determinist who agrees that they live as though their lives are determined. When bad things happen to them, they are distressed; when relatives are in danger, they pray for the danger to pass without harm; etc. Yet if theological determinism is true, none of these things would matter–all things are determined already. Even were one to pray, that prayer itself would have been determined, along with the outcome. Therefore, theological determinism seems to be unlivable.

P4: If theological determinism is true, I cannot know that it is true. It is therefore self-refuting.

Finally, even if none of the above arguments seem convincing, P4, at least, seems devastating to theological determinism. The argument itself is remarkably simple:

1) If I am determined by non-rational factors to have belief x, then I cannot rationally hold x.

2) On theological determinism, I am determined by non-rational factors to have any given belief.

3) Therefore, on theological determinism, I cannot rationally hold any given belief.

4) Therefore, if theological determinism is true, then I cannot rationally hold that theological determinism is true.

It seems to me that this argument is quite powerful. If theological determinism is true, then my beliefs are determined by God. That includes the belief I currently have that theological determinism is false. However, suppose I believed theological determinism were true. In that case, I have been determined by God to believe theological determinism is true. In fact, my act of deliberating and coming to believe that determinism is true would, itself, be determined. Thus, I cannot rationally hold theological determinism to be true (this argument can be attributed to a podcast from William Lane Craig, though I can’t track down the reference).

Given these reasons, it seems that there are some quite sound objections to theological determinism. Given that there are other positions with at least some Biblical support, it seems theological determinism should be abandoned. The position makes God the author of sin (contrary to the objections of its supporters), it is unlivable, and it is incoherent.


Paul Helm, Eternal God: A Study of God Without Time (New York, NY: Oxford, 2010), 2nd edition.

John Frame,No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001).

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The New Defenders of Molinism: Reconciling God’s Foreknowledge and Our Free Will

God has both complete foreknowledge concerning how… creatures will act and great control over their actions, in the sense that any act they perform is either intended or permitted by him. Yet because the knowledge which generates this foresight and sovereignty is not itself a product of free divine activity, our actions remain genuinely free, not the robotic effects of divine causal determinism. (Thomas Flint, 44, cited below)

Middle Knowledge–God’s knowledge of counterfactuals–is under attack from all sides. On one side, theological determinists argue that God’s foreknowledge necessitates all states of affairs. On the other side, open theists and process theists argue that foreknowledge limits the free will of creatures. That said, there are some extremely powerful philosophical defenses–and defenders–of the doctrine of middle knowledge.

Logical Priority and Creaturely Freedom

Essential to a correct understanding of molinism is an investigation of creation. Here, however, the discussion is not over the temporal nature of creation or the steps God took in creating. Rather, the focus is upon the logical priority within God’s creative act. By drawing out the logical priority involved, molinism solves the objections of both determinism and open theism.

The logical order of events is different from the chronological order in which they occur. Determinists focus only upon the chronological order: 1) Future contingents are true or false, God knows those which are true. 2) The events which are true occur (Craig, 128). From this, determinists (and open theists who deny God’s foreknowledge in order to preserve freedom of the will for this reason) conclude that everything is determined. The problem is they have ignored the contribution middle knowledge can make to reconciling free will and foreknowledge.

The logical priority of events occurring is quite different from its chronological order: 1) Events occur; 2) Statements about the events are true or false; 3) God knows the true statements.

By drawing out the logical priority of events’ occurring, one can then apply this to creation. William Lane Craig points out “The Three Logical Moments of God’s Knowledge”: 1) Natural Knowledge- God’s necessary knowledge of all possible worlds; 2) Middle Knowledge- God’s knowledge of creaturely counterfactuals. Here is the pivotal point: the third “logical moment” (again, note the distinction between chronological priority and logical priority) occurs only subsequent to God’s decision to create a world. God uses His natural knowledge to peruse the possible worlds, and His middle knowledge to determine how to best bring about His divine plans. Then, He chooses which possible world to create, and this brings about the third “moment” of God’s knowledge: 3) Free Knowledge–God’s contingent knowledge of the actual world (Craig, 131).

Note that God’s free knowledge is contingent–it is based upon actualizing a world from the set of possible worlds. Combining this with the facts of logical versus chronological priority, the resolution of the alleged difficulties from both determinists and open theists is revealed. Determinists ignored the fact that God, upon creating, is selecting from the set of possible worlds–included in each possible world is the set of free creaturely choices which will occur. God, therefore, does not determine which events will occur, but selects a world full of free choices. Open theists, on the other hand fail to recognize that the choices are free. The point must be emphasized: the choices themselves are logically prior to God’s knowledge of them. In other words, there is a set of possible worlds, each of which features various states of affairs. Middle knowledge reveals the free choices made by the individuals which can populate the possible worlds. God’s knowledge does not determine the choices–God simply chooses to actualize one of the worlds full of free choices. It is only the “free knowledge” of God which is determined by God (Flint, 42).

The Theological Superiority of Molinism

Reconciling God’s foreknowledge and creaturely free will is not the only reason to accept molinism. The doctrine has a number of theological advantages over both open theism and theological determinism. First, the doctrine undermines the extremely untoward idea within theological determinism that God causes evil. John Frame, for example, says quite simply “…[I]t is important to see that God does in fact bring about the sinful behavior of human beings, whatever problems that may create in our understanding” (Frame, 68). Molinists, on the other hand, acknowledge that God accounts for evil within His plan but they can rightly argue that evil is due to the free acts of creatures.

Molinism also provides a grounds for Biblical Inerrancy. Open theists have great difficulties providing any grounds for this doctrine (and often end up abandoning it). The reason for this is because open theists don’t believe God knows what free creatures will do. Thus, free creatures–the authors of the Bible–could be fallible. Middle knoweldge, on the other hand, shows that God knows what the creatures will do in whatever circumstances they are placed in. Thus, God would have known who, what, where, when, why, and how to bring about His infallible Word.

Most notably, prophecy perhaps only makes sense on a molinist account. While determinism allows for the truth of prophecy, it undermines the creature-creator relationship inherent in prophecy (and found in accounts like that of Jonah). God simply foreordains that His prophets come forward and prophecy, then He unilaterally brings about the truth of their prophetic utterances. Open theism, on the other hand, must force prophecy either into God’s luck or argue that it is one of the “unilateral” actions of God (which undermines the core of open theism–human freedom). Molinism, however, allows for human freedom and the truth of prophecy. Thomas Flint points out that prophecy on a molinist account could be brought about in two ways–either through God acting to bring about the truth of the prophetic utterance, or through God’s foreknowledge of the free actions of creatures (Flint 197ff).

Again, prayers and their answers may only make sense upon a molinist account. Determinists, in particular, have difficulty with prayer. God seems quite narcissistic–He foreordains that His creations worship Him, and then chooses to bring about their requests. Open theists, on the other hand, have left God hog-tied. I may pray for a friend to come to the faith, and God can only hope with me that that friend might change his/her mind. God doesn’t know what will happen, on open theism, so He, like me, can just try His best. Conversely, molinism allows for creaturely freedom to choose to pray, while also allowing God to bring about the states of affairs prayed for (Flint, 229ff–Flint specifically is discussing praying “for things to have happened”).


Molinism provides a wealth of theological insight. Not only that, but it also reconciles God’s foreknowledge with our free will. Molinism avoids the difficulties of both open theism and determinism, while making sense of theological and philosophical truths. The defenders of molinism have won their case.


William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999).

Thomas P. Flint, Divine Providence: The Molinist Account (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1998).

John Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001).

Image Credit: Bdpmax



The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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