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A Molinist response to a determinist model of providence

The other three contributors to Four Views on Divine Providence each respond to Paul Helseth’s omnicausal (determinist) model, and the first one up is William Lane Craig. Since I have learned much from Molinism, in constructing my own Calvinistic understanding of providence, I will deal separately with this first response to Helseth.

William Lane Craig’s response

Response to Helseth’s problems with the Molinist account of providence

Craig observes that “divine omnicausality” is an inadequate description of the distinctive of Helseth’s model because “a Molinist doctrine of simultaneous concurrence could also be so characterized” (53). Craig suggests that “what truly distinguishes Helseth’s view is that it is a form of divine causal determinism” (53). Although Craig grants that God could causally determine everything that happens, he wonders why we should “think that our experience of indeterministic freedom is illusory” (53).

Reformed theologians (Craig cites Turretin and D. A. Carson) have noted the clear biblical indications of human freedom but indicated their inability to explain how this is compatible with God’s deterministic providence. About this situation, Craig proposes that when “one’s interpretation of Scripture leads one into this sort of cul de sac, it is a good idea to reassess whether one has, indeed, rightly interpreted Scripture” (55). It is here that Molinism makes its crucial contribution, in Craig’s view. It provides the means of reconciling “God’s decreeing and securing the event of all things” with human freedom and contingency, through God’s middle knowledge (55). This doctrine “enables us to explain how God brings all things to pass (which is the affirmation of Scripture), but not by means of universal, causal, determinism,” as Helseth proposes, so that contingency and indeterminism are preserved  (55). The key difference is that “Helseth thinks that God brings all things to pass by strongly actualizing (causally determining) various states of affairs, whereas the Molinist thinks that God weakly actualizes certain states of affairs (by bringing about the nondetermining circumstances in which he knew persons would freely choose something)” (55).

Craig charges that Helseth does not hold in tension the two truths of God’s meticulous control (though that is not Craig’s terminology) with human freedom, as Turretin had advised. In Craig’s opinion, Helseth has abolished the mystery by removing contingency in the world, through the affirmation of comprehensive divine causative determination. Scripture will not allow us to do this. 1 Cor 10:13, for instance, indicates that Christians always have an escape route when tempted, indicating that they had the power to act otherwise than they did. Craig complains that Helseth has identified weaknesses in classical Arminianism’s treatment of indeterminism, but he has not spoken to the Molinist proposal (56).

Helseth charges that libertarian freedom is theologically and philosophically problematic, and he cites Muller’s objection to the Molinist/Arminian doctrine of simultaneous concurrence, which Muller finds ontologically absurd “because no finite being can bring anything, including its own will, from potency to actuality without God’s concurrence” (56). This puzzles Craig, who sees nothing in the Molinist proposal other than a disagreement with the Thomistic/Reformed view of divine concurrence. Craig states:

“It is not the case, as Muller alleges, that according to Molina, ‘God thus supports the effect and gives it actuality while not strictly bringing it about or willing it.’ On the contrary, in Molina’s view, God not only conserves both the secondary agent and its effect in being; he also wills specifically that the effect be produced, and he concurs with the agent by causing the intended effect. Without such concurrence, the effect would not be produced. The difference between Molina’s view and the Thomistic/Reformed view is that God does not cause the secondary agent’s will to choose one way or the other; he just concurs with the agent’s choice by causing the intended effect. (This is, by the way, why the Molinist view holds that God is not the author of sin. While he concurs with the sinful will in producing its effect, God does not move the agent’s will to sin. By contrast, in the Thomistic/Reformed view, God causes the agent to sin by moving his will to choose evil, which makes the allegation that God is the author of sin difficult to deny.)” (57).

Craig struggles to understand where Helseth discerns a problem in the Arminian/Molinist understanding of concurrence. In the Molinist/Arminian view, Craig points out, “it is not as though some potency actualizes itself. Rather, the soul, which is an actual entity, actualizes its own potency to will this or that” (57).

“Libertarians do not consider an agent’s freely choosing something to be an instance of an agent’s causing its own choice, for that would lead to an infinite regress of causes. Rather, an agent’s freely willing something is just an action of the agent, not an effect of the agent. So it is not as though some effect is produced by a secondary cause without God’s concurring” (57).

Thus, Craig sees no insuperable problem. On the contrary, “the Molinist doctrine of simultaneous concurrence enjoys the considerable advantage of not making God the author of sin” (57).

Craig identifies an important difference between simple foreknowledge and middle knowledge, a distinction which he thinks has been missed in Richard Muller’s objection, as cited by Helseth.

“If we think that God looks into the future and sees who will receive his grace and so, foreknowing this, ordains that it should happen, one could think that God is responding to an independent human action (though even that seems a stretch, since what he sees is a human response to his grace). But in a Molinist view, none of what God knows via middle knowledge actually exists. Such knowledge is purely hypothetical. God knows that if he were to offer some person S his grace under such-and-such circumstances, S would (or would not) respond. God would have such hypothetical knowledge even if he never created anything! So God is not responding to an independent human action, since no such action exists” (58).

Helseth dubbed libertarian freedom “essentially unintelligible,” without explaining why. Generally, “the so-called intelligibility problem concerns how to distinguish libertarian choices from mere random or chance events.” Craig thinks that Helseth’s objection would be more impressive if he had considered some of the libertarian proposals, “such as agent causation or noncausal reasons for action” (59). Craig fails to see how Helseth’s appeal to the inscrutability of compatibilism offers any advantage over the purported unintelligibility of libertarian freedom.

Craig’s objections to universal, divine, causal determinism

Craig raises 5 objections to Helseth’s model:

  • “Universal, divine, causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture,” and Craig avers that this is recognized by Reformed theologians who state that reconciling the texts that affirm divine sovereignty with human freedom and contingency is inscrutable (59).  Helseth achieves it by adopting compatibilism, but only “at the expense of denying what these scriptural texts seem clearly to affirm: genuine indeterminacy and contingency.”
  • “Universal causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed,” because “the difference between the person who weighs the arguments for determinism and rejects them and the person who weighs them and accepts them is wholly that one was determined by causal factors outside himself to believe, and the other not to believe” (60).
  • “Universal, divine determinism makes God the author of sin and denies human responsibility” (60). In the deterministic view, “God moves people to choose evil, and they cannot do otherwise” (61).
  • “Universal, divine determinism nullifies human agency” because “our choices are not up to us but are caused by God.” We are “mere instruments by means of which God acts to produce some effect” (61).
  • “Universal, divine determinism makes reality into a farce” because it speaks of free agents as genuinely responding to God (62).

My reflections

I read Craig’s response to Helseth with particular interest because of my high degree of appreciation  for the Molinist proposal and, in particular, for Craig’s own work. From Molinism, I have appropriated the belief that God makes significant use of his knowledge of counterfactuals. I remain convinced, however, that it is impossible to know counterfactuals regarding the action of libertarianly free creatures because, by definition,  those actions are dependent upon decisions which are unpredictable, by virtue of their agent causation, when those agents could have chosen otherwise in precisely those circumstances. This is the famous “grounding objection.” It occurred to me, as I read Craig’s response to Helseth, that his complaint about the appeal to mystery and inscrutability in regard to compatibilism is undermined by the necessity that faces Molinists to make the same appeal in regard to the knowability of counterfactuals of libertarian freedom. In their own effort to reconcile a strong doctrine of providence with genuine human agency, Molinists simply locate the mystery/inscrutability at a different point from Calvinists; but they do not escape the need to make that appeal eventually.

In regard to this matter of inscrutability, I am puzzled by Craig’s contention that there is a significant difference between Turretin (or Carson) and Helseth’s constructs. Craig posits that Helseth fails to acknowledge the tension between comprehensive divine sovereignty and human morally responsible agency, but I see no substantive difference between Helseth’s proposal and Turretin’s. Both offer forms of compatibilism, and both admit that we are left with some mystery in regard to the compatibility, but that we are obligated to affirm both meticulous divine providence and moral responsibility, because Scripture clearly teaches both of these. Helseth’s citations from the Reformed confessions clearly put him on the same ground as the Reformed tradition in general, so I think it very strange that Craig drives a wedge between them.

I agree with Craig that God’s knowledge of counterfactuals contributes significantly to our understanding of how it is that God achieves his purposes in the world through the actions of authentically free creatures. I have argued elsewhere that the classic Reformed objections to Molinism (particularly concerns about an undermining of God’s independence) do not apply when God’s knowledge of counterfactuals is part of his necessary knowledge, not a knowledge of what libertarianly free creatures would choose when they could choose contrarily. Craig’s description of the critical difference between simple foreknowledge and middle knowledge is correct, and well stated. Where I differ from Craig, however, is that I locate God’s knowledge of counterfactuals in God’s necessary knowledge, where it is made possible (or grounded) by the account of human freedom soft compatibilists provide.

Like Craig, I see God’s hypothetical knowledge (i. e., knowledge of counterfactuals) as a very important factor in God’s comprehensive and eternal decision concerning the nature and history of all that he chose to create. It has great explanatory usefulness within a soft compatibilist doctrine of divine providence. Of course, this account of creaturely freedom seems inadequate to libertarians, but it is here that the mystery lies, for me. I know that the will of God’s eternal purpose is always accomplished, and I know that humans are morally responsible for their uncoerced actions, however inscrutable that combination is to us. My critical disagreement with Craig lies in my belief that only the hypothetical decisions of creatures with the freedom of spontaneity could be known by God, so that what Molinists hope to gain in intelligibility can only be gained in this way.

I admitted in a recent post that I face decisions as though I were libertarianly free. Craig’s charge that, given this common feature of human experience, we ought not to consider such an assumption illusory. Hard-compatibilism, holding together meticulous providence and libertarian freedom as Thomism does, is certainly attractive at this point, but I do not find satisfactory the moves Thomists make to put these two together. Nevertheless, I felt the prick of the rapier when Craig referred to 1 Cor 10:13. I have often cited the text as evidence that God knows counterfactuals. He knows in what circumstances we would be unable to resist temptation, and he does not allow us to get into such situations. But I am unsure how best to respond to Craig’s proposal that 1 Cor 10:13 also indicates that we have the power of contrary choice. The text does sound, on a natural reading, to indicate that when we yield to temptation, we could have done otherwise, all things being equal. At present, I only hear the text as an affirmation of the genuineness of human freedom. Whatever freedom is necessary for a human action to be morally accountable, we have that sort of freedom. I do not presently see, however, how it could be that humans have libertarian freedom (which would make God’s knowledge of counterfactuals impossible, for one thing), but I grant the difficulty of explaining or defending soft-compatibilism. For now, I simply observe that Molinism is not in better position, though it differs from Calvinism regarding where the point of mystery should be located.

I share Craig’s dislike for Helseth’s language of causation. Although I agree essentially with Helseth’s affirmation of complete divine control, I do not think that Scripture is best represented by speaking of God as “causing” everything. I think that this manner of speaking makes it more difficult for people to grasp the genuineness of the double agency affirmed in Calvinistic compatibilism.

I also agree with Craig’s criticism of  two complaints Helseth makes regarding libertarian freedom. While reading Helseth’s model, I doubted the validity of his complaint that if creatures were libertarianly free they would have the power to actualize themselves, at each moment of decision making. I am happy with the manner in which Craig responded to that criticism. When discussing the nature of God’s freedom, in a previous post, I also noted that I no longer make the common monergistic complaint that libertarianly free decisions would be random, because this creates problems in our conception of God’s freedom. Here again, I liked Craig’s response.

In regard to my own model of providence, Craig would be incorrect to complain that whether or not a person accepts the arguments for determinism is “wholly . . . determined by causal factors outside himself” (60 [emphasis mine]). An essential contention of the soft-compatibilistic account of freedom is that the crucial determining factors are internal. Moral responsibility derives from the fact that a person is not coerced to the action. Although he could not have done otherwise, being who he is and all the circumstances of the situation being what they were, the person acted freely, that is, voluntarily or without external coercion. This is possibly an instance in which Helseth’s preference for causal language gets him into trouble, and it illustrates well my reasons for aversion to such language.

Causal language also creates unnecessary difficulty in regard to God’s relationship to evil. Here again God’s hypothetical knowledge also has a significant role. Craig’s objection that divine determinism makes God the author of sin is addressed by the important Calvinistic distinction between events which God directly effects himself and events which God wills to allow creatures to directly effect. Here too, God’s knowledge of counterfactuals is important. God knows what a particular created “essence” would do in particular circumstances, and he chooses the world in which these particular creatures find themselves in these circumstances. He knows that, if this complex of agent and circumstance occurs, the agent will sin. But God does not “cause” the agent to sin in such instances. For good reasons, God chose to actualize the particular world in which this agent freely chooses to commit this sin, but God no more causes the agent to sin in this case, within my hypothetical knowledge Calvinist model of providence, than he does within Craig’s Molinist model. Using Craig’s terminology, I think it could be argued that in my model God actualizes states of affairs less strongly than in Helseth’s but more strongly than in Craig’s model.

With regard to authenticity of human agency, I have no more to say than I have previously written regarding soft-compatibilism. Once more, however, I think that the discussion would be helped if we avoided the causative language that Helseth has used. Craig’s final objection that “determinism makes reality into a farce” is another way of coming at the complaint that determinism does not allow for genuine creaturely agency. Once again, as we saw so frequently in Roger Olson’s critique of Calvinism, the plausibility of compatibilism is in question. With regard to Craig’s making of the objection, placed within his Molinist framework, however, I see a certain irony. Everything that Craig hopes to gain in his own case for the compatibility of a world history chosen by God with free creaturely action, rests upon the role of God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely action. If the grounding objection is not valid, but is a truth which we must acknowledge to be mysterious or inscrutable, then Craig’s affirmation of creaturely libertarian freedom provides an account of human agency and moral responsibility which has definite advantages over the soft-compatibilism common among Calvinists. But if, as I believe, the grounding objection is valid, then soft-compatibilist or deterministic freedom is the only kind of freedom creatures could have for counterfactuals of their actions to be known by God.

Here, then, is the crux: where does the point of mystery lie in our understanding of God’s control within his creation? Does it lie at the point of compatibility with human moral agency, as Calvinists contend, or does it lie at the point of God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of libertarianly free creaturely action, as Molinists contend? To this question, Craig and I give a different answer. But I am grateful for the work that he and fellow Molinists have done, and I propose that a better determinist account can be given, within the Reformed framework, than Helseth has provided, if we refrain from causal language and if we incorporate God’s natural knowledge of counterfactuals into our doctrine of providence and of God’s decree.

Previous posts in this series: Part 1


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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