Calvinism, Molinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism: monergism/synergism at the macro and micro levels.

Last November, I linked to a post by Roger Olson in which he accepted Open Theism as an option within Arminianism but rejected Molinism because he viewed it as a form of determinism. Initially, I agreed with Roger about Open Theism, but I disagreed with him about Molinism. After further thought, I proposed a more nuanced understanding, in which Arminianism, Open Theism, and Molinism are all distinct forms of synergism.

Earlier this week, I mentioned our previous discussion to Roger and we corresponded briefly about it once again. This time, I had a “eureka” moment. I finally grasped why Roger and I had previously disagreed about where to put Molinism relative to the monergist/synergist divide. He was focused on the macro level. There, Molinism is indeed a monergism. Everything that happens in the history of this world was determined by God’s choosing to actualize this world from among the many feasible worlds about which God knew in his middle knowledge.

I, on the other hand, was looking at the way Molinism works at the micro level, and there Molinism’s explanation is a synergism. In this particular world, things happen, according to Molinists, just the way they do according to Arminians. God graciously attempts to bring everyone to a saving relationship with himself, but each human individual decides whether or not God’s sufficient grace is efficacious.

So, the apparent disagreement between Roger and me was actually a difference in perspective. Both of us are agreed that Molinism is synergistic at the micro level and monergistic at the macro level. That is precisely what Molinists like about it. Thomas Flint, for instance, in his splendid presentation of a Molinist account of God’s providence (in Divine Providence: The Molinist Account), asserts that

The Molinist picture of providence constitutes an attempt to blend together two distinct notions which are independently attractive to the orthodox Christian. The first of these is the strong notion of divine providence typically affirmed by Christians through the centuries; the second is the libertarian picture of freedom. . . . My goal here is to provide a clear (albeit brief) sketch of the two ideas and explain why the orthodox Christian would naturally find them extremely appealing. (11)

Readers of my work will know that I have felt the appeal of which Flint speaks, but I find the “grounding objection” to the Molinist account persuasive, and so I have not adopted their perspective, though I have drawn significantly upon their work in developing my own “hypothetical knowledge Calvinist” account of providence.

From Roger’s perspective, an authentic Arminianism must be thoroughgoingly synergistic. Open Theism obviously meets that criterion, for it gives moral creatures an even larger place in the determination of the outcome of human history than Arminians do. Open Theists deny that God knows the future acts of libertarianly free creatures, except in cases where he decided to restrain that freedom. Arminians, on the other hand, maintain the classical theist understanding of God’s comprehensive foreknowledge. Nevertheless, Arminianism and Open Theism are both synergistic at both the macro and micro levels. Calvinism, on the other hand, is thoroughgoingly monergistic at both levels.

Once this perspectival analysis is taken into account, Roger and I agree about where Molinism stands. I suggest, however, that his attempt to preserve classic Arminianism is going to be a tough struggle, precisely because the battle has to be fought on two fronts. Against Open Theism, the classical tradition must defend God’s comprehensive simple foreknowledge. Against Molinism, the tradition must fight the attraction of the doctrine of divine middle knowledge to Arminians who find appealing Molinisms affirmation of a more robust view of God’s sovereignty, while still attributing to moral creatures the libertarian freedom that Arminians view as essential to the absolution of God from any responsibility for the evil done by creatures.

The effort of contemporary (orthodox?) Arminians to keep Molinism outside the camp will be difficult precisely because, historically, Remonstrant theology aligned itself with the Molinism of Jesuit theology, against the classic (Thomist) perspective which the Reformed maintained. William Lane Craig proposed that Calvinists and Arminians could significantly reduce their disagreement if both of them incorporated middle knowledge into their systems (in his essay in Clark Pinnock, ed. The Grace of God, the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism, 141-64). But Richard Muller finds that proposal quite unreasonable, when we consider the history of the debate in the Reformed church.

As if the concept had never before been proposed by Arminianism, and as if the concept actually offered a middle ground between the Arminian and Calvinist theologies. For scientia media to become the basis for such rapprochement, however, the Reformed would need to concede virtually all of the issues in debate and adopt an Arminian perspective, because, in terms of the metaphysical foundations of the historical debate between Reformed and Arminian, the idea of a divine scientia media or middle knowledge is the heart and soul of the original Arminian position. Middle knowledge is not a middle knowledge. It was the Arminian, just as it was the Jesuit view, in the controversies over grace and predestination that took place in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. (In Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware, The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, vol. 2:Historical and Theological Perspectives on Calvinism, 265-66)

Needless to say, I would be happy if there were a widespread move among Arminians toward Molinism. Then, at least, they would be monergists at the macro level. I might be less happy if the movement grew toward Open Theism. On the other hand, I’m not sure that the difference in that direction is as great as some Arminians think, because I agree with Open Theists that simple foreknowledge is pretty much useless to God, unless one posits that God gains his foreknowledge incrementally, in which case he would have the opportunity to determine his response. That would make classic Arminianism quite similar to Open Theism, except that the whole course of history would have been decided already before God created anything.

I will be watching future developments with interest, but I am happy, at least, to have found common ground with a thoroughgoing synergistic perspective about where Molinism belongs on the spectrum. It occupies a uniquely middle ground between monergism and synergism, which seems humorously appropriate, given its innovation regarding the middleness of a type of God’s knowledge.

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