Theology - General

Are open theism and Molinism forms of Arminian theology?

Roger Olson has addressed an interesting question: are open theism and Molinism forms of Arminianism or not? He thinks that open theism is but Molinism is not.

I agree with Roger Olson that open theism is a sub-category of Arminian theology but I disagree with his assessment that Molinism does not belong there. Here is the slightly edited comment I wrote on his blog post (though it has not yet been approved there).

 I speak as a Calvinist, but I think you are right to identify open theism as a form of Arminianism. I also think that the more traditional Arminians who want to exclude open theism (deeming it something drastically different because of the denial that God foreknows libertarianly free creaturely choices) are wrong. Their error derives, I think, from overstating the practical difference between open theism and classical Arminianism. I say this because I agree with William Hasker that simple foreknowledge is useless to God because it allows him no opportunity to do anything about what he foreknows. By the time God knows what a creature will do in the future, he also knows what he will do, so there is no room for him to decide how to respond. (This is true even if God is absolutely timeless, so that one is speaking logically rather than chronologically about the order of God’s decrees.) So open theism actually gives God more room for genuine responsive action than simple foreknowledge Arminianism does. God’s activity in the world is thus enhanced, rather than diminished, by open theism.

On the other hand, I disagree with your assessment of the proper location of Moliniasm. It is a type of synergism. As a position that considers freedom to be libertarian, so that the situation in this actual world is indeterministic/incompatibilistic rather than deterministic/ compatibilistic, Molinism (and midddle knowledge) is a live option for Arminians, but not for Calvinists. The usefulness of Molinism within an Arminian framework is even being acknowledged by an open theist such as Greg Boyd, when he speaks of the usefulness of God’s knowledge of “might” counterfactuals, even though he denies that God can know “would” counterfactuals. Incidentally, I agree with him in regard to the grounding objection to Molinism (it is impossible to foreknow what a libertarianly free creature would do unless the creature makes a decision), but I disagree with his critique (and that of many Calvinists) about the possibility of simple foreknowledge of libertarianly free acts. (William Lane Craig, a Molinist, is right to propose that we think of divine foreknowledge propositionally rather than according to the metaphor of sight.)

On the other hand, I doubt that an open theist affirmation of God’s knowledge of might counterfactuals gives God a significant advantage providentially. Even if God could predict with 99% accuracy how libertarianly free creatures would act in every possible situation, the combination of the immense number of decisions that make up human history would not enable God to plan ahead very much. Nonetheless, if I reverted to synergism tomorrow, I would more likely become an open theist than a classic Arminian.


By Terrance Tiessen

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

6 replies on “Are open theism and Molinism forms of Arminian theology?”

When you speak about Molinism in your response, are you speaking about the five doctrines or simply about the philosophical framework (minimally taken, I guess, as libertarianism+middle knowledge)? If it is the latter then I don’t see why there is a conflict with, say, the five points of Calvinism, so long as we grant the plausible necessary fact that, “For every agent P, if God were work in P through the Holy Spirit, then P would freely come to saving faith”. We could alternatively say that God working in us is the circumstance in which we freely choose him. This would give us Irresistible Grace and allow God to Unconditionally Elect us. Beyond that we could phrase Total Depravity as something like “For every agent P, there is no circumstance C (except for God’s work in P through the Holy Spirit) for which if P were put in C, then P would come to saving faith” or “For every agent P, if P has freely come to saving faith, then God has worked in P through the Holy Spirit” (I’m not sure if Total Depravity is a necessarily true fact or merely a fact contingent on us being fallen, so I guess the formulation depends on that). Limited Atonement and Perseverance of the Saints don’t seem to be dependent on any philosophical framework for their formulation.

Is there something I’ve missed?

Thanks for your thoughts Roland, but I see things differently with regard to Molinism and the five points of Calvinism.

You wrote: “We could alternatively say that God working in us is the circumstance in which we freely choose him. This would give us Irresistible Grace and allow God to Unconditionally Elect us.”

Your statement in the first sentence is fine for a Molinist, but it does not lead to your conclusion re: “I” and “U.” Is not the whole point of libertarian freedom that, in precisely those circumstances, including God’s work in your mind and heart, you could have freely chosen to reject him? Consequently, in Molinism your believing was not on account of God’s efficacious grace, but was because of your decision to respond to God’s accompanying grace positively. But you might, instead, have decided to reject that grace. So it is not God’s grace that determined your salvation, in a Molinist framework, it is your free choice, which might have been different, even if God’s work and all other circumstances were unchanged. You were therefore conditionally elected, even though the world in which you choose to believe was the world God chose. From the Molinist perspective, God chose this world in which you believe but, in this world, it is your choice, not God’s that is critical. Hence Molinist salvation is synergistic, whereas Dort’s is monergistic.

I can see how a Molinist might affirm total depravity, just as Arminians do. In fact, it goes well with Alvin Plantinga’s concept of “transworld depravity,” that is, that there was no possible world in which the fall does not occur.

With regard to your statement, “For every agent P, if P has freely come to saving faith, then God has worked in P through the Holy Spirit,” I agree that a Molinist can affirm this, but so will an Arminian. This is what distinguishes them from Pelagianism. Saving faith is impossible without grace. The critical difference from Calvinism, however, is that for Molinists (and Arminians) the same grace is given to everyone, but whether or not they are saved depends upon the use they choose to make of it, not the intrinsic efficacy of the grace.

A Molinist could not affirm any limitation of God’s intent to save everyone through Christ’s death. Like Arminians, they can affirm that God’s grace is sufficient for all but efficient only for the elect but, here again, the efficacy is not of God’s doing, it is brought about by the person’s free choice, which could have been otherwise, without any change in God’s work having existed in the person’s circumstances.

Perseverance of the saints, in Dort’s sense of God’s continuing to give saving faith to those whom he has chosen to salvation is not possible within Molinism. A Molinist (like an Arminian) might, however, affirm that all who are justified persevere, through the belief that the salvation which a person libertarianly freely chooses is irrevocable. Once again, however, that perseverance would not then be the consequence of God’s ongoing efficacious grace, it would be the result of the person’s having freely chosen to respond in faith to God’s justifying grace, even though they could have chosen not to respond (the principle of alternative possibilities), all other things being equal.

Thanks for your response Terrance, and sorry for taking to long to reply. I fear that either I have misunderstood you or you have misunderstood me. Hopefully, now that I’ve thought a bit harder about these things (in light of your comments), we can clear these confusions up.

First I will propose my “Molinistic-Calvinism” model and then make comments relevant to our discussion. the definitions of the terms are akin to my understandings of Craig’s definitions here: (strange that I reference a later post in an earlier one). The following are the philosophical convictions of the view:

1. Causal Indeterminism: The necessary and sufficient condition for free will is that our choices or wills are not externally causally determined.
2. Incidental power of contrary choice: While not required for free will (thus the “incidental”) we nevertheless do have the power of contrary choice in general.
3. Middle knowledge: God’s moment of hypothetical knowledge occurs between his necessary and natural knowledge.

The following are the doctrines of grace which, for the most part resemble Calvinism (or at least they are as close to Calvinism I can get while still holding onto the philosophical convictions above):

4. Compelling Grace: For any person P, if God were to work in P’s heart, then P would freely turn to God.
5. Total Depravity: For any person P, if P has freely turned to God, then God has worked in P’s heart.
6. Unconditional Election: For any elected person P, God’s election of P is not dependent on anything P does (including turning to God)
7. Limited Atonement: Given the implication for some person P, “if P turns to God, then P will be saved”; Christ’s death bought the implication for all (is sufficient for all) but the antecedent for the elect only (is effective for some).
8. Perseverance of the saints: For every elected person P, once God starts working in P’s heart, he continues to work in P’s heart and ensuring that P will not fall away.

Now the Compelling Grace is not applied to all mankind like the Arminians Previnient Grace. It is only applied to the elect. Like, Irresistable Grace, this “God working in P’s heart” is understood to be the regenration of P and the assumption in (4) is that necessarily, every regenerate person would always freely choose to turn to God (ie. respond in faith). Even though they *could* choose not to come to faith, they never *would*. Because this regeneration happens before the person responds, I take it as a case of “regeneration precedes faith”, which is mongergism as far as I can tell. This is a slightly weaker form of Irresistable Grace: I take Irresistable Grace to say that in every possible world in which God works in P, P will turn to God. Compelling Grace, however, says that in every *feasible* world in which God works in P, P will turn to God.

As for (6), I understand the typical Arminian doctrine of Conditional Election as saying that God sees who will respond to his Prevenient Grace and then he “elects” those people in light of their choice. Thus the Arminian says that God elects once he has his natural knowledge. According to (4), however, God can elect prior to his natural knowledge, meaning the election is not dependent upon what his creatures’ *will* choose. Where things get slightly hazy for me, is I wonder if I can construe (4) as a necessary truth independent of God’s middle knowledge and so allow God to elect prior to even his middle knowledge. If I can’t (and I suspect I can’t) perhaps I should call it Middle Election or something.

Because (4) is monergistic, Limited Atonement seems withint grasp, and thus we have (7). And I take Limited Atonement to be true, so I need it in my model.

Finally, is (8) a fair construal of Perseverance of the saints?

Thanks again Roland.

Here are a few of my thoughts in regard to what you have written.

You define causal indeterminism as belief that the sufficient and necessary condition of free will that “our choices or wills are not externally causally determined.” By this definition, I am a causal indeterminist, as are most Calvinists these days, following Edwards. That seems very peculiar. Most synergists, be they Arminian or open theist, would not accept this definition precisely because Calvinists are determinists. Likewise, classic Calvinists, who accept this definitions of freedom, do not identify themselves as indeterminists. So, I see your defining “indeterminism” in this way as a serious muddying of the waters.

Re: your # 4, I would not personally use the term “compelling grace,” precisely because it connotes to Arminians the sort of coercion which is objectionable. I prefer to speak of “efficacious grace.” God makes means effective to the salvation of particular individuals by this special operation of grace, but they are drawn willingly, which “compelled” does not connote to most people. Your later description of how regeneration serves to make proper response possible indicates that you and I are essentially agreed, though we differ slightly in regard to preferred terminology.

In regard to your distinction between irresistible and compelling grace, I am somewhat puzzled. I find it difficult to conceive of worlds in which the regenerative grace of God, which brings about the salvation of people in feasible worlds, would not bring about the salvation of those people. So, when I think of feasible worlds, I think of the worlds between which God libertarianly freely chose, but any of which would have adequately glorified him (I don’t believe in a “best possible world”). This is a subset of all the possible worlds. But, because I understand God’s knowledge of counterfactuals to be natural to him, it is impossible that an identical grace in the life of identical creatures would produce different results in different possible worlds. It is precisely because God knows this naturally that he is able to choose a world which turns out, in meticulous detail, as God intends it to, without his needing to coerce people.

Your suggestion that God elects people logically prior to his natural knowledge drastically reconfigures the logical relationship of his free to his natural (or even his middle, in the case of Molinism) knowledge. Election, being an act of God’s will, is necessarily free, not natural. But, given the way the knowledge of God has been understand throughout the centuries, by both monergists and Molinists, I can not imagine a construction in which God’s free knowledge (which results from his choice) logically precedes his natural knowledge.

I think your # 8 does adequately state a belief in the doctrine of the preservation (through perseverance) of the saints.

On a more general level, I encourage you to reconsider your overall nomenclature for your understanding. Given that Molinism is a form of synergism, and Calvinism a form of monergism, to identify a model as “syngergist-monergism” is a dialectical way of speaking that exceeds my comprehension.

Thanks for entering into conversation. I find this helpful and I hope that you do too.

Terrance, thanks for responding. It’s great to have this discussion with someone who has such a solid understanding of the issues at hand and I’ve personally found it very helpful in getting to articulate (and correct) my view 🙂 And sorry for taking so long to reply!

With respect to distinguishing between compatibilism and libertarianism on the basis of external causal determinism I guess, because my understanding comes from William Lane Craig and my reading of his views (like I explained in, I tend to find these distinctions more natural. I feel that, because of my point (2), I can’t call myself a compatilibist, because I think meticulous divine control is out of reach. So perhaps I should just call myself a non-libertarian imcompatibilist? Although, I must say that I’m in a slightly confusing position, given this comment from Craig:

“I’m a libertarian who thinks that causal determinism is incompatible with freedom. That doesn’t imply that I hold to the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP), which states that a free agent has in a set of circumstances the ability to choose A or not-A. I’m persuaded that so long as an agent’s choice is not causally determined, it doesn’t matter if he can actually make a choice contrary to how he does choose.” (from

I know you’d disagree with this construal of the matter, but since I respect both of you I’m left in a state of slight confusion 😛 I’ll just not give a name to my view of free will yet.

Before I continue, I should probably point out that I made a big mistake: I confused God’s natural and free knowledge. I place his middle knowledge (logically) after his natural and before his free knowledge. Sorry about that, rookie error (I guess I thought, “natural”, like “nature”, like “creation”) 😛

With this in mind let me comment on the distinction between Irresistible and Compelling Grace. You say you “find it difficult to conceive of worlds in which the regenerative grace of God, which brings about the salvation of people in feasible worlds, would not bring about the salvation of those people.” (my emphasis) And I agree, because there are no possible worlds in which a creature would freely reject the regenerative work of God. But the difference is that, contrary to Irresistible Grace, creatures still could reject this work in their hearts.

That’s where I see this model differing from traditional Calvinism (and why I’d rather not name it “effacious grace”, even though I think it is effacious): Irresistible Grace and Unconditional Election happen at the level of possible worlds, whereas Compelling Grace (for want of a better name) and Middle Election happen at the level of feasible worlds.

I agree that since Molinism is traditionally synergistic that I should renamed the view. Is Middle-Calvinism taken? And Feasible Grace maybe instead of Compelling Grace? No, that sounds wrong too. Bother.

Roland, thank you for joining me in consideration of these issues relative to Molinism. It has taken me a while, but I have just put up a post triggered by your comment, so I won’t say more about it here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

145,577 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments