Friday, February 4, 2011

An Unfortunate Critique of Molinism

The original article can be found here:

            I have known of this article for some time, but seeing many people quote it as though it is an accurate representation of middle knowledge is unsettling. I feel somewhat compelled to address it. I believe it is currently the reigning worst critique of Molinism or middle knowledge (insofar as academic writing goes).

            As far as the format of the article goes, McMahon utilizes absolutely zero references (scholarly or otherwise) in support of middle knowledge, and the 17th century reformer Francis Turretin somewhat sparingly against. While this does not mean McMahon is incorrect in his assessment it does cast doubt upon whether a fair treatment will be given.

            He starts out correctly enough, describing that Molina believed in three logical “moments” in God’s knowledge (as opposed to the traditional two posited by Aquinas and others). However, he goes astray when he says of free knowledge, “Molina, however, said this knowledge is not something that is essential in God, which is ludicrous in and if [sic] itself.”[1] What Molina posited was that the content of God’s foreknowledge was not essential.[2] The only reason to hold that the content of God’s free knowledge is essential is if God himself could not have created the world any differently than it is. This is a truly radical belief, so it may simply be that McMahon has not understood the relevant literature.

            The description of middle knowledge given in the article sets the tone for the rest of the article; it is the presupposition upon which nearly everything else builds. The relevant sentences are as follows.

            “Lastly, middle knowledge states that God cannot know the future free acts of men in the same way He knows other things absolutely.  Thus, this middle knowledge is dependent upon the free acts of what men will do.  God, in His ‘omniscience’, waits for men to act and then will choose them to be saved based on their choice to be saved.”

            The first sentence is somewhat ambiguous and possibly misleading. It is true, logically, that the moments of God’s knowledge are different (else why mention them at all?). But it is not true that any Molinist of which I am aware posits that God holds different modes of knowing.[3] It is true that the content of middle knowledge is dependent upon what free acts men would do (not will do; this is a conflation of middle and free knowledge). However, the conclusion “God waits for men to act” is a non-sequitur.[4] In fact this seems to be a criticism of the simple foreknowledge view of God’s omniscience.

            From here, the confusion really expands. “The Molinian [sic] logician will argue that an action must first occur before it can be true.” Again, no sources are provided to back this assertion. In fact, this is exactly an argument an open theist would use against middle knowledge (see William Hasker, Clark Pinnock, and others). To the contrary, Keathley (a middle knowledge proponent) explains that “before” any act of creation, God knows exactly how each person would respond to any complete set of hypothetical circumstances (these are called “counterfactuals of creaturely freedom”—see my paper, “Predestination and Middle Knowledge.” ).

            While it seems McMahon endorses the view that man’s actions are necessary (since he rejects the contingency of man’s actions explicitly), he does not give an argument for it and thus it will not be addressed here. Stylistically, he peppers the “refutation” with rhetoric designed either to insult the proponent of middle knowledge, poison the well against the teaching, or both. A brief example: “It is certainly easy to see what [sic] the doctrine of Middle knowledge is attractive here.  Men are ultimately their own little saviors….”
            He strangely moves from this to proclaiming another, unrelated doctrine: “Today, those who hold to Molinism simply reject the biblical data of God’s eternal decrees, His omniscience and His omnipotent power wielded in the doctrine of Continuous Creation.  Molinism is not compatible with these doctrines.  Molinians [sic] must simply deny most of the Bible in order to hold onto these ideas while at the same time exalt other portions of the Scriptures which they think holds their view together.  They must simply deny texts such as Isaiah 46:10-11 because it is incompatible with their ‘logic;’ ‘Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, 'My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure,'  Calling a bird of prey from the east, The man who executes My counsel, from a far country. Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it.’”

            The biblical data on middle knowledge is primarily in respect to counterfactuals (which to be fair, do not answer the question as to whether God directly causes all actions or whether some actions are free), but does exist. Moreover, it’s worth noting middle knowledge proponents (of which Bruce Ware is one [thus dispelling any rumors that Calvinists are not also middle knowledge proponents occasionally]) believe the biblical data is thus reconciled with logic, not incompatible with it. This means mere appeal to the texts will not be sufficient, since Molinists would also appeal to the texts. One must also consider the interpretation of the texts and terms involved. William Lane Craig (and coincidentally most of his opponents) has argued the question of God’s causally bringing about every action versus some actions being brought about by man is not biblically settled alone, but along with philosophical considerations.

            McMahon states middle knowledge is a “non-entity.” He boldly declares God’s natural and free knowledge exhausts God’s knowledge. “There is nothing in the nature of any thing whatsoever which is not possible or future.” While this statement is true, it misses the fact there is a crucial distinction between what one could do and what he would do in a set of circumstances. After all, I could choose to go to bed at midnight tonight, but knowing I must go to work in the morning, I hardly would. In fact, if God does not causally determine all acts (such as sinful acts) and middle knowledge does not exist, then God simply got lucky with respect to the way things turned out, since He would have no idea of what any free creature would actually do! Regardless of one’s answer to this, it nonetheless remains that there is a conceptual difference between what any agent could do and what he would do, and thus the objection fails.

            He tries a second track by claiming, “Second, no future conditional thing can be knowable before the divine decree.” Strangely, this is almost exactly what he accused the Molinist of believing! This critique will assume that he means “counterfactual” rather than mere conditionals belonging to the future, since otherwise there exists only one possible course of actions for both man and God! It seems McMahon has more in common with Open Theists than he may care to admit. He offers no argument for this assertion, and it thus functions as a question-begging argument.[5]

            The next argument references God’s providence. It is asserted since God is provident, middle knowledge is false. But this is only true if “providence” means “causal determinism.” Since no argument is given as to why causal determinism should be preferred to middle knowledge, the argument is again question-begging.

            The next objection is based upon the foundational misunderstanding of middle knowledge at the beginning. It objects that God’s omniscience is certain. The Molinist would gladly agree. “Thus, any knowledge about any thing in the created order would necessitate that all knowledge God has about the universe would be contingent upon the free acts of men in that universe.” This is fallacious for a number of reasons, one of which being that it’s just plain wrong. God’s knowledge (quite unlimited by middle knowledge), would include knowledge of how He himself would act (see Genesis 18). This alone is good enough to disprove the assertion that any knowledge about the universe necessitates a contingency of man’s acts. Also consider physical laws, none of which (generically—excluding quantum fluctuations) are contingent upon acts of man. Yet God knows them. Further, this ignores God’s natural and free knowledge.

            McMahon goes on to assert God is the primary and secondary cause of all acts, though this evinces a misunderstanding of what a secondary cause is. A man pushing a rock with a stick uses the stick as a secondary cause, but the man is hardly the stick. He does at this point explicitly state God’s knowledge is necessary, since what is known to him is based on his existence. But then of course free knowledge is both unnecessary and illusory (since God could not choose any differently, just like he cannot choose to sin).

            In short, McMahon has demonstrated a misunderstanding of middle knowledge as presented by its proponents, uses faulty logic, and does not explore logical consequences of alternative views if middle knowledge is false. He concludes in one paragraph, “The only reason why anyone would continue to hold this doctrine is due to unbelief – they reject the God of the Bible.” The rhetoric must be ignored in favor of the evidence—both biblical and philosophical.
                [1] Traditionally, “free knowledge” describes the content of what God knows logically posterior to God’s decree. What facts belong to this set of knowledge is all contingent on what God chooses, or decrees, to be actual (rather than merely possible). McMahon rightly describes “natural knowledge” as all possibilities and necessities, such as “2+2=4,” or everything that could be.

                [2] William Lane Craig, “Hasker on Divine Knowledge,” Philosophical Studies 67 (1992): 57-78.
                [3] See John Laing, “Middle Knowledge,” on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

                [4] A “non-sequitur” is a logically fallacious conclusion, meaning “it does not follow.”

                [5] This means the only reason one would have to believe it is if he already embraced the argument’s conclusion!


  1. I very much enjoyed this article and have written my own which treated this one as well as another one that was almost as bad. I think you might find it profitable. My email is

    God Bless,
    -Aaron Salazar

  2. Thanks Aaron! Sorry about not seeing this earlier. God Bless!


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