Theology - General

Further thoughts concerning Molinism and Arminianism

A few days ago, I responded to Roger Olson’s opinion that Open Theism is a form of Arminianism but Molinism is not. I’ll wrap that conversation up with these citations of our further conversation in the comment thread of Roger’s post, particularly regarding Molinism.

Roger wrote:

Thanks, Terry. I don’t consider Greg Boyd a Molinist. His “might counterfactuals” are not at all what traditional Molinism/middle knowledge claims. His “neo-Molinism” is not, IMHO, any version of Molinism. As for Molinism belonging to Arminianism–what do you say about Bruce Ware who uses middle knowledge to explain and defend divine determinism? And don’t most classical Molinists, including some Arminians, use it to “explain” meticulous providence? That is my experience.

I replied:

 Roger, I didn’t intend to suggest that Greg Boyd is a Molinist. Sorry to have left a confusion there. I was simply wanting to observe that Greg has found useful the basic Molinist contention that God’s knowledge of counterfactuals is useful to God, even though he can know them only as probabilities.

In regard to Bruce Ware, Roger, I might observe that I published concerning my own “middle knowledge Calvinist model” of divine providence in *Providence and Prayer* before Bruce had published anything on this line, so I was later happy to hear that I had some company. It is important to note, however, that God’s knowing counterfactuals was not an innovation with de Molina. Classic theism, as found in Aquinas and the Reformed scholastics, affirmed that God knows counterfactuals, but they insisted that he knows them as part of his natural/necessary knowledge, not at a middle moment.

Molinism was very strongly criticized by Reformed Orthodox theologians, like Turretin, and Barth strongly opposed it too. I wrote an article in Westminster Theological Journal (2007), entitled “Why Calvinists Should Believe in Divine Middle Knowledge, Although They Reject Molinism.” Calvinists have been afraid of any suggestion that God’s knowledge is contingent upon his creatures. What I set out to demonstrate is that what I (and Ware) have done does not fall into that problem. God’s knowledge of possible worlds in no way makes him contingent upon what creatures would do in such worlds, because those worlds are not real. The critical thing is that what creatures actually do, in the world God chooses to actualize, in no way makes God dependent upon them or threatens his aseity and self-sufficicency.

I was never strongly invested in the idea that God’s knowledge of counterfactuals occurs at a logically separate (middle) “moment.” What I do think is important is to acknowledge that God makes use of his knowledge of counterfactuals of human creaturely action in choosing the world he actualizes. I had a very helpful correspondence with Paul Helm about this, in 2009, and he eventually convinced me that God’s knowledge of counterfactuals is natural/necessary. We published an article together in *WTJ*, in 2009.

So, I would no longer call my model of providence “middle knowledge Calvinism,” but might rather call it “hypothetical knowledge Calvinism.” I am aware that my continuing to affirm the importance to God of his knowledge of counterfactuals in his choice of this world will trouble many Calvinists. So, everything I said in my earlier article is still very important, but my nomenclature has changed. I now believe that it only makes sense to designate God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom if creatures are libertarianly free, as Molinism asserts. A part of what God knows naturally is what a particular creature would do in a particular circumstance. Thus, my emphasis on God’s use of his knowledge of counterfactuals is very important to compatibilism. This is what enables God to choose a world in which creatures act voluntarily, but act in ways that contribute to the accomplishment of God’s purpose. It removes the need for coercion.

In short, I have learned a good deal that has been helpful from the writings of Bill Craig and Thomas Flint (and to a lesser extent Alvin Plantinga). I think that Molinism is possibly the best form of synergism on offer. Unfortunately, I am convinced that the grounding objection is valid; it is impossible for anyone (including God) to know with certainty (as opposed to probably) how a creature would act in hypothetical circumstances. So, I remain a Calvinist and a soft-compatibilist, not a Molinist.

I can see why you might think of Molinism as affirming meticulous divine providence, since everything about this world and its history is of God’s choosing. But do you not see a significant difference between their position and that of Calvinists? Their affirmation of libertarian freedom shapes their doctrine of providence quite differently from the compatibilism of Calvinists (or Thomists who are hard-compatibilists, affirming both meticulous divine control and libertarian freedom). On the other hand, I do think that Molinism stands right at the top of the slope on the synergist side of the watershed between synergism and monergism. But I would only apply “meticulous providence” to monergistic models. Perhaps we only differ in our terminology, not in our concepts on this matter.

And Roger responded to that with the following brief observation:

 Again, for me the issue of all issues, the finally determining one for me, is God’s character. I cannot reconcile any form of divine determinism, coercive or not, with God’s goodness. And I cannot see any significant difference between meticulous providence and divine determinism. I believe the world does contribute to God’s knowledge a la Dallas Willard, Donald Bloesch and the Bible  .

I’ll let Roger have the last word at his blog, but I want to nuance, or revise slightly, my assessment in my previous post, after sober second thought. It is clear to me that Molinism is synergistic, despite Roger’s perception that it affirms meticulous providence and hence determinism. On that point, we clearly differ in our assessment of the fundamental nature of Molinism, and I am quite confident that Molinists would agree with me.

In regard to the original question, however, whether Open Theism and Molinism are forms of Arminianism, I want to suggest now that this is not a helpful way to view the relationship. I suggest, instead, that we speak of Molinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism as forms of synergism. In particular, with regard to Molinism it is historically misleading to view it as a species of Arminianism. Rather, we should view the relationship of Molinism to Thomism as analogous to that between Arminianism and Calvinism. Both Molinism and Arminianism were synergistic proposals formulated with reference to the monergistic tradition within which they arose. The resulting dispute between Dominicans and Jesuits was as animated as the debate between Calvinists and Arminians. Unlike the Reformed Church, however,  the Roman Catholic Church never took a position on the dispute. At one point, the Pope pronounced a moratorium on the discussion, and the Church has never made one or other position a matter of orthodoxy. On the other hand, the Synod of Dort clearly announced approval of Calvinism and rejection of Arminian (or Remonstrant) revisionism.

With regard to Open Theism, perhaps a more plausible case can be made, but even there, because Open Theism strongly rejects the classical theism which Arminianism appropriated, we do better to speak of the two schools of thought as forms of synergism.

In short, synergism is the umbrella category for all three of these theologies, and none of them should be subsumed to another. Within that broad category on one side of the great theological watershed, it is not surprising that many Arminians have appropriated Molinism’s concept of middle knowledge, or that an Open Theist such as Clark Pinnock was a self-identified Arminian, before he moved into Open Theism, which he saw as correcting the errors of classical theism that remained in Arminianism, such as divine  atemporality.


By Terrance Tiessen

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

3 replies on “Further thoughts concerning Molinism and Arminianism”

Dr. Tiessen,

I agree with much of what you say here. But I kinda disagree that it is historically misleading to view Molinism as species of Arminianism. I disagree mainly because Molinism’s historical influance on Arminius and the remonstrants. Eef Dekker’s artical, Was Arminius a Molinist?, is helpful in documenting Molinia’s influance on Arminius.

God be with you,

Thanks Dan, for passing along that point of history. Given what you have described, I wonder if it might not make more sense to identify Arminianism as a type of Molinism than the other way around. The problem with that is, however, that, although many Arminians do affirm middle knowledge, it has never become a characteristic feature of Arminianism as a school of thought. This is evident, perhaps, in Roger Olson’s inclination, as a scholar of Arminianism, to strongly disassociate the two positions. Unfortunately, I think that this is because he seriously misconstrues Molinism, taking it to be a form of determinism. Nonetheless, he is well studied in Arminianism, is a leader among evangelical Arminians these days, and insists that Molinism is not part of the system, even though he is aware that some Arminian theologians adopt it as part of their own theology.

Dr. Tiessen,

Thanks and good point. Labels are often so difficult to pin down in a way that makes everyone happy. Yes, I was a little surprised when Dr. Olson took on Bruce Wares form of middle knowledge in his book, without also addressing some libertarian form of Molinism. In the end, probably he sees little difference between Molinism and Calvinism, but others do the differences.

God be with you,

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