Theology Proper

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.


By Terrance Tiessen

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

11 replies on “Calvinism, Molinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism: monergism/synergism at the macro and micro levels.”

I read your article with interest, and took note of the fact that you find the “grounding objection” to Molinism persuasive. If I may offer a view that would resolve those objections.

I take a synergist view where are choices are real and cause “contingent futures” which is all known by God’s middle knowledge.

If we take the view that time is part of His creation, and as such, part of God’s being exists “outside” of it, meaning all points of time would be “now” for God, and this middle knowledge would also include all points of time in all contingent or alternate futures.

The contingencies would all be grounded in the experience and “present” knowledge of God, thereby resolving the grounding objection., for not only is God “currently” experiencing these contingent futures, in another real sense He has also already experienced them as He is also “now” experiencing thing future to those.

Based on this, not only is the grounding objection resolved, but also the necessity of limiting God’s knowledge of events future (ala Open Theism) is removed.

//choices are real and cause “contingent futures” which is all known by God’s middle knowledge//

//in another real sense He has also already experienced them//

The problem is that Molinism requires that God know precisely one outcome of every free choice. Your grounding has God knowing multiple outcomes of every choice, and doesn’t attempt to answer how He picks one out of the possibilities as the one that the free creature “would” choose. This is (ironically) kind of a Theory-B Open Theism.

This is the strength of the grounding objection — Molinism makes a very particular claim, and hasn’t yet answered why we should think that claim is true. That specific claim of Molinism is that even though choices are libertarian-free, it’s possible to know one always-true proposition about their outcome that’s true in all possible worlds.

That is precisely where I differ with Molinism (along with its Calvinistic attempt to harmonize with the idea of Particular Election)

In my view, God does not need to pick out one choice a person makes as the “true” or “actualized” one. As He exists in all points of time and in every “timeline” so to speak, all freely-made choices are taken into account in His purposes and Providential dealings with us.

I’m not a theologian or a philosopher, so I’m not sure what one would classify my view as, since it differs from Molinism and Open Theism. Ive taken to calling it “Limited Synergism”, as to me the very term “synergism” implies a level of equality among the agents involved which would not be the case in the relationship of God and man. His purpose involves free agents, but free agents with limited power, knowledge, and options available to choose from.

Jim, your view sounds like a variant of open theism, which holds that God knows all choice-opportunities by logical necessity, but doesn’t know which actual choice will be selected by people.

There is one difference, though — you seem to be saying that a person can make two contrary choices and both be equally real in two different timelines. I’m not sure if you mean that.

Rev. Henry W. Nelson

As I understand the issue at hand, the only answer I can find between the two extremes is that. God works one way within the confines of the historical context and another way from an eternal perspective. Both monergism and synergism are contained within the balance of the teachings of the Scriptures, but must be intellectually, spiritually, and within the time/space continuum balanced by rightly dividing the words of truth from the Scripture.
In other words, there are times when Scripture seems to teach that God reacted a certain way in Time which does not reflect what we know about God’s Being in eternity.


I have a question about Molinism and thought you could help.

I understand the structural moments: God does have natural and middle knowledge before He decrees.

But with His decree there is a NEW Information added: the information which part of the natural knowledge becomes ‘reality’.

But why would such this Information not be included in His natural knowledge? Does this lead to the conclusion that God was not omniscience before He decrees?


You said, concerning Molinism:

“But with [God’s] … decree there is a NEW Information added: the information which part of the natural knowledge becomes ‘reality’.”

and then you asked:

“But why would such this Information not be included in His natural knowledge? Does this lead to the conclusion that God was not omniscience before He decrees?”

You raise a good question, which draws out the important difference between the Molinist doctrine of middle knowledge and my own affirmation of what I call “hypothetical knowledge Calvinism.”
I think that Molina offered a portrait of God’s knowledge and providence which is beautiful and highly illuminating. But, with both classic monergism and open theism, I assert that Molinism is incoherent on account of the grounding objection.

First, let’s be clear that, when we use temporal language regarding God’s knowledge and action “before” he creates anything, we are speaking logically, not chronologically.
Second, I need to identify the critical difference between the Molinist conception of God’s knowledge of counterfactuals and my own “hypothetical knowledge Calvinism.” Molinists assert that God’s knowledge of counterfactuals happens at a middle moment because of their belief that moral creatures are libertarianly free. Open theists deny that God knows counterfactuals of libertarian freedom, just as classical monergists do. Greg Boyd emphasizes the fact that God knows probabilities, and that is a helpful advance, I think, but it does not give God anywhere near the control which monergists believe Scripture attributes to God.
Contrary to Molinism, I assert that God’s knowledge of counterfactuals is natural, because creatures have compatibilistic or determinist freedom. It is because God knows naturally the principles of agent causation that he knows all possible worlds.
This answers your question from the perspective of my position, while acknowledging that your question raises a serious problem for Molinism. Since God knows counterfactuals as part of his natural knowledge, there is no growth in God’s knowledge from the moment of his knowing all necessary facts to the moment of his knowing counterfactuals regarding the actions of free moral agents. From the monergist perspective, God’s dependence upon the will of his creatures for an important part of the knowledge which he uses in choosing which world to actualize would be problematic.
In my construction, God’s knowledge is more extensive after his choice of the actual world than “before” he makes that choice, but this is no problem because nothing is added to God’s knowledge from outside himself. There is no dependence upon creaturely decision. God remains self-sufficient.

Hi Terrence,

Thank you very much for your precise answer. Everything is very clear now.

There remains only one question: As I see it, you dismiss the scotic notion of the ‚neutral propositions‘. In the ‚hypothetical knowledge calvinism‘ propositions already have a truth value, they are not neutral before God decrees to create the world. In Molinism, the truth-value of a (contingent) proposition is given by Middle Knowledge. In the ‚hypothetical knowledge calvinism‘ the truth value is -as I see it- given by mere determinism.

But if the truth-value of a proposition is given before God decides to create the world, the truth-value is given independly of Gods decree to create the world.

Isn’t God then merely evaluating which of the seen, hypothetical worlds He is going to acualize? In other words: If the truth-value from the propositions exists before God decide to create the world, then they have their truth not from God but from determinism. It isn’t Gods decree which makes proposition true then, but they are true apart from Gods decree. And the only thing, what God does, is evaluating the possible worlds and choose one. Thus, God’s decree does not GIVE the proposition a truth value, because the truth-value is already given. If the truth-value is already given, how can there be any contingency? Wouldn’t that lead to a stoic fatalism?

The dutch theologian Gisbertus Voetius meant that it is God who assigns the antecedent and the consequent. But the truth-value isn’t given by law of determinism but of the decree of God. Thus, it is Gods decree who ‚makes‘ the neutral propositions ‚true‘.

As I see it, the ‚hypothetical knowledge calvinism‘ is very similar to this. The difference seems to be that Gods decree is merely evaluating.

Good comments, Maurice.

As I understand the situation, only factuals, result from the decree of God concerning creation. But I don’t see the truth of the counterfactuals as being independent of God. Even though God knows that A would do X in situation Y, prior to his deciding which persons and which situations will actually exist, the principles of agent causation which make it possible for God to know true counterfactuals prior to his decree, exist by virtue of a coherence with God’s person. God’s knowing mathematical truths (e.g., that 2 + 2 = 4), prior to his decree does not make those truths independent of God, but they are not arbitrarily true by virtue of a decision of God, their truth lies in their being the reality which coheres with God’s eternal being. I see the principles of agent causation as analogous.

Thus, God does not decree that 2 + 2 will equal 4, as though they might have equalled 5, if God had so decreed. Knowing himself perfectly, God knows all truth which coheres with his own being. I see the principles of agent causation as analogous.

You speak of determinism, but I think it is important not to use that word, with regard to these universal truths whose ground is God’s being, not his decree.

Does this help at all?


Thank you very much for your answer. I think I understand. One point stands out already:

If God knows future contingent states of affaires through Himself (like rules of logic), than those affaires are always in a state of necessity, because they could not be any different.

Doesn’t your solution lead to the conclusion that there is/was only one possible world for God to create? I assume one could „save“ the contingency of the world by stating that God had a choice between creating and not creating a world. But if God had no alternatives in choosing between possible worlds it seems not wrong to state that God wants to create a world where S necessarily chooses X. Or in your example: If 2+2 equals 4 than it seems right to state that God necessarily wants that 2+2 equals 4. Same with contingent propositions.

The scotic solutions seems a viable solution too; Before God’s decree to create, every possible state of affair has no ‚truth-value‘. It is God’s free decree that decides what makes a contingent proposition true. Thus, the whole creation is contingent because God could have decided to create differently. This means also that the state of contingent propositions remain contingent, they are never necessary.

I have to think about this problem, especially the object of Gods will. Thanks again for the input. I appreciate it very much!

Maurice, you ask: “Doesn’t your solution lead to the conclusion that there is/was only one possible world for God to create?”

I think not, which is why I doubt the coherence of the concept of a “best possible world.” God’s knowledge of principles of agent causation made it possible for him to know possible worlds, and more importantly to know how particular actions of his own would affect particular creatures. So, the possible worlds which God knows are not worlds in which only the creatures are agents. There could be no world without God, and God could not be in a world but not be actively involved in it. So the possible world which God actualizes is a world in which he decides ahead of time how he will act to bring about the particular good that he wills, some of which is brought about through evil, without his being culpable for the evil of the act of a voluntary creaturely agent.

But God was not obligated to himself to bring about the “best possible world,” he was only obligated to bring about a “good world.” What makes the concept of “best possible world” doubtful, I think, is that some goods are incommensurable. Being wise and good, God chose a possible world which would glorify himself and give him great opportunity to express his love and to demonstrate his other attributes. But if there were a “best possible world,” God would have been obligated to choose that one, which would lead to your starting point, and that I consider inconsistent with God’s freedom in choosing which world to create.

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