Providence Theology Proper

Nuancing my view of providence

Last December, when I already had plans to get a blog launched, I came upon a review of my book, Providence and Prayer, in the blog of James Miller. It was an encouraging review that described my book quite accurately. If you are not familiar with that work, you may want to look at Miller’s review.

I always find it helpful to learn how others hear my ideas in their representation of them, and I am glad that Miller heard me much as I intended. Nevertheless, I would like to nuance a bit the way that he describes my model of providence, which I originally called “Middle Knowledge Calvinism” (MKC in Miller’s representation). After that, I want to explain a development in my terminology that occurred in the last few years, of which he was not aware.

Nuancing Miller’s description of my “Middle Knowledge Calvinist” model

Miller described my model as

  . . . somewhere between Molinism and Calvinism.

MKC differs sharply from Molinism because it rejects libertarian free will and accepts compatibilist free will – that we have a free will to make choices voluntarily, but not independently of our own desires, characteristics, circumstances, etc. Because God can influence these things, he is able to achieve his plans and purposes through the free choices of human beings without using anything like force or coercion. In effect, God has an infallible ability to influence us to do what he wants through doing what we want.

MKC is basically a form of infralapsarian Calvinism. The only difference being that in Tiessen’s MKC, God does not need to positively foreordain everything in order to foreknow it will happen. Because he has middle knowledge of everything a free creature would do in any set of circumstances in any one of an infinite number of possible worlds, God merely has to choose to realise or “actualise” the particular world in which . . .  human beings do what he wants to fulfil his purposes. God’s will is then perfectly carried out while human beings act perfectly freely in the world God chose to actualise. The difference in Tiessen’s view from standard Calvinist models is that MKC gives a much greater place to God’s permission of events to achieve his purposes. If God knows what creatures would do in particular circumstances, all God has to do is create this particular world in which those circumstances arise to render certain future events without having to directly control them or even cause them. Due to middle knowledge, much of what happens in history only has to be left to happen because it is foreknown, though God is still free to intervene or display his power in direct action whenever he wishes to do so.

Miller has captured nicely my intention, namely, to offer something of an explanatory account of the way in which compatibilism operates. As I said in a recent post, Molinism is attractive because it understands human freedom to be libertarian, but it still gives God a strong degree of control. In this world, creatures act freely in the libertarian sense that synergists consider essential for authentic freedom, the sort that would ground moral responsibility. Yet, God has a strong form of sovereignty because he chose to actualize this particular world.

Despite its attractiveness, I have been unable to affirm Molinism because I believe the grounding objection to be valid. According to that objection, it is impossible to predict counterfactuals of libertarian freedom. One can not know what a libertarianly free creature would do in a situation in which that creature has not actually made the decision. Nothing grounds such knowledge because, by definition, it is the agent’s decision that is determinative, not anything in the situation in which the decision is made.

One point that needs particular emphasis, in regard to Miller’s description of my model, is that we must not confuse middle knowledge with the knowledge of counterfactuals. I am not certain that Miller has done this, but his description leaves room for it and, since it is something I have discerned in the thought of many who have read my work, I want to correct that idea now.

The classic theist understanding of God’s knowledge

The belief that God knows counterfactuals of human freedom (that is, things which humans have not done [i.e. factuals] but which they would do if circumstances were different) was part of the classic theist understanding of God’s knowledge, back to the medieval scholasticism of Aquinas and his contemporaries. Calvinists did not question that belief. But Thomas and the early Calvinist tradition asserted that God knows counterfactuals as part of his natural or necessary knowledge. Classically, God was understood to have only two kinds or logical (not chronological) “moments” of knowledge: in his natural knowledge, God knows perfectly himself and everything else of which knowledge proceeds from its necessity by virtue of God’s being; in his free knowledge, God knows everything that is true by virtue of God’s having willed it.

Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina (1535-1600) thought that Aquinas’s hard compatibilism, which asserted both meticulous divine sovereignty and libertarian human freedom, was problematic. To address the perceived difficulty, Molina proposed a third logical moment of God’s knowledge, that comes (logically) between God’s necessary and his free knowledge, hence a “middle knowledge.” A few Calvinist theologians liked the idea but not many.

My abandonment of divine middle knowledge

In 2007, Westminster Theological Journal published my article, “Why Calvinists Should Believe in Divine Middle Knowledge, Although They Reject Molinism.” The main purpose of that article was to respond to the classic Calvinist objections to middle knowledge. By and large, these boil down to a concern that it makes God dependent upon the creature. I posited that this, along with the related concerns, may have validity in regard to Molinism, but it is groundless if creatures are soft compatibilistically free (having the freedom of spontaneity). God’s decision to create was free and independent. Having made that decision, God’s choosing from the range of worlds which he might possibly create, did not make him dependent upon the creature because none of those worlds existed unless God chose to create (or actualize) one of them. God is, therefore,  not dependent upon the creatures in the world he chooses to create. Their existence and the particular circumstances within which they exist, from which their actions are predictable, exist only by God’s will.

Paul Helm read my article and wrote me to protest my contention that God’s knowledge of counterfactuals is middle rather than natural. We had a very fruitful dialogue. The fact is that, in proposing my model of providence, I had regularly observed that it did not greatly matter to me whether God knows counterfactuals as an aspect of his natural knowledge or of a middle knowledge. I had posited the latter, however, because Calvinist theologians had very rarely made God’s knowledge of counterfactuals a significant factor in God’s decree to create or in his providential governance. Consequently, I thought that it might be worthwhile to view it as a distinct “moment,” in which God extrapolates from (or applies) his natural knowledge, in order to make a wise decision in the decree that would be the ground of his free knowledge.

Helm convinced me that this move was unnecessary, that the only thing that justified a distinct kind/moment of divine knowledge was the attribution of libertarian freedom to moral creatures. Helm and I coauthored an article in WTJ, in Fall 2009, “Does Calvinism Have Room for Middle Knowledge?” He answered “no,” and I answered “no, but . . .”

 My model of providence has scarcely changed at all, though I now refer to it as a “hypothetical (rather than middle) knowledge” model to draw attention to the importance of God’s knowledge of counterfactuals in the making of his decree. Consequently, except for the change in nomenclature, virtually everything in my first WTJ article still needs to be said. It would be nice if my dropping middle knowledge removed a stumbling block for traditional Calvinist theologians, but I’m aware that many will still need to be convinced in regard to the classic concerns which I addressed in my first article.

This somewhat complex post will save me time when I move on to explaining why I find compatibilism coherent and, hence, why I regard Roger Olson’s passionate objection to the Calvinist doctrine of providence to be invalid.

In the meantime, I welcome questions or comments on what I have said here.


By Terrance Tiessen

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

3 replies on “Nuancing my view of providence”

Thank you Terrence for this clarification. You are right I was unaware of this refinement of your position. I think I can see what Helm is getting at: the reason the true Molinist invokes middle knowledge and libertarian free will is to teach that though God largely gets what he wants by choosing an actual world from all the feasible worlds, he does not get everything he wants (as not all possible worlds are feasible in which human beings have libertarian freedom). That is, that feasible worlds are a small subset of possible worlds. I think William Lane Craig argues along these lines to account for why not all are saved though God wills the salvation of all: because there was no feasible world with libertarian freedom in which all choose to be saved.

For the “Middle Knowledge Calvinist” (to use the old terminology) on the other hand, God can always effect all his purpose. The number of feasible worlds is pretty much co-extensive with possible worlds. Therefore God can choose any possible/feasible world to actualise.

I do see Helm’s point and understand your refinement. What I wondered is if there is not still some benefit in retaining a type of middle knowledge where the “feasibility restriction” from possible to feasible worlds comes not from humanity’s side but from God’s own sovereign choices? For example God choosing not to save everyone and display his justice and wrath, renders possible worlds where all are saved (and for Calvinists it would be as easy to imagine God saving all as saving some) not feasible.

In other words, is there not perhaps still some value in recognising a distinctive moment between God knowing all the possible worlds (natural knowledge) and the logical process of choosing this actual world (free knowledge)? This would be the middle moment when God applies all his own criteria to the possible worlds to settle on the one actual world he creates. What do you think?


You asked:

“In other words, is there not perhaps still some value in recognising a distinctive moment between God knowing all the possible worlds (natural knowledge) and the logical process of choosing this actual world (free knowledge)? This would be the middle moment when God applies all his own criteria to the possible worlds to settle on the one actual world he creates. What do you think?”

What you have described is exactly what I had in mind when I proposed that God had middle knowledge, even though moral creatures are only soft-compatibilistically free and God is meticulously sovereign in his governance of the world. Following my conversation with Helm, however, I am ready to concede that the knowledge God uses in choosing which of the possible worlds he will actualize is part of his natural knowledge, as to its kind; it does not depend in any way on the actions of creatures in the various possible worlds. It is a knowledge possible for God because of the soft-compatibilist nature of human freedom; God knows what a particular “kind” of creature would do in particular circumstances, even though such circumstances and creatures are never actualized unless God chooses them to be.

You have spelled out well my previous reason for speaking of God’s knowledge of the counterfactuals of human creaturely action. Classical theists had not taken into account the value of God’s deliberative process, using his natural knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. On the other hand, I am happy to minimize for traditional Calvinists the difficulty of giving my concept (and yours) a hearing, by not burdening it with the unnecessary terminology of middle knowledge.

I am well aware that my proposal will still face substantial resistance from classical theists, even without reference to middle knowledge. The proposal that God uses his natural hypothetical knowledge in a deliberative manner, to contemplate the possible worlds and wisely choose which one of them to actualize, will still appear to many as compromising God’s independence. Here, what I want to underline for them is that the creatures upon which they purport God is being made dependent have no existence. They are, at the stage of God’s contemplating possible worlds, only hypothetical, and the counterfactuals which God takes into consideration are precisely the counterfactuals which classical theism always understood God to know. But I see enhanced the compatibility of God’s meticulous sovereignty and human moral responsibility when this deliberative process on God’s part is understood as occurring (logically) between his knowledge of possible worlds and his knowledge of the actual world, whose actuality is the consequence of his free choice of it.

This is exactly what you have spoken about in your comment, I am simply suggesting that we not complicate things by identifying the moment of deliberation as a different kind of knowledge, with a term that has been traditionally used only by those who did, in fact, make God’s knowledge dependent upon the independent decisions of libertarianly free creatures.

Do you see where I am going here?

Leave a Reply

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

HTML tags are not allowed.

145,569 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments