Thursday, May 29, 2014

Mailbag: Q and A on Molinism

I have recently started reading into molinism.  I agree with it and seems to be something that I have always believed but just know it had a name. I started out by reading Kenneth Keathley’s book “Salvation and Sovereignty.” I’m really enjoying his book.  I’m having one issue that I can’t seem to get and that is the difference between natural and middle knowledge.  This may be too long but being new to molinism, I will have to explain as best as I can.

From what I understand God’s natural knowledge is that God knows all possibilities, everything that could happen, all things of potential existence. God knows all possible worlds and all possibilities and there are an infinite number of these possibilities. Then Keathley goes onto explain that within natural knowledge is God’s middle knowledge.  That God knows all possibilities which would accomplish his goal or what God wanted to happen.  Keathley writes, “God’s middle knowledge contains all of the choices and decisions that free creatures would do if they were created in a particular world.”  Keathley uses:  could, would, and will for natural, middle, and free knowledge.

The main problem I have with these two types of knowledge is that I don’t see the difference between them.  In natural knowledge God knows all things of potential existence influenced by individual creatures.  Therefore, God knows all possibilities that “could” happen. So, how does this differ from middle knowledge?  Just because God creates a world to achieve a certain goal, the fact still remains that God knows all possibilities that “could” happen.  Changing the word from “could” to “would” doesn’t mean God changes anything about knowing all possibilities.  God already knows what we “would” do in an infinite number of worlds, and what “would” do in one particular world.  I think the focus is wrong in natural knowledge. I will have to give two examples to help explain what I mean.

Example 1 – With God’s natural knowledge God knows all the possible worlds and all the possibilities of what we “could” do in these worlds. God wants his creatures to love him, so he decides there are two feasible worlds that we “would” be able accomplish this goal, world A and world B.  So, in God’s middle knowledge he knows what his creations “would” do in all possible circumstances in these particular worlds. God decides to create world A.  In world A, God knows all the circumstances that we “will” encounter and what we “will” choose.

Example2- With God’s natural knowledge God knows all possible worlds and possibilities.  God “could” choose to make any one of these worlds but God wants his creatures to love him, so he decides there are 2 feasible worlds to achieve this, world A and world B.  In God’s middle knowledge he knows what we “would” do in the feasible worlds.  God decides to make world A, and now God knows what we “will” do in world A.

The difference in my two examples is in example 1, with God’s natural knowledge he knows all possibilities we could do, but God also knows this in middle knowledge. Just narrowing it down to two feasible worlds doesn’t change God’s knowledge of the possibilities.  In example 2, God is the one who “could,” instead of what we “could” do.  That puts the focus on what God “could” do, and not what we “could.” Then in middle knowledge it is what we “would” do. 

I’m not sure if I have explained myself that well. I just don’t see the purpose of having natural and middle knowledge, if God knows what we do in both forms of knowledge.  Any info you can give would be very helpful, or just tell me that my question really doesn’t make sense.  I have never taken any official classes in philosophy or theology, so please try to explain where a layman could understand.

Thanks for your time


Thanks for the questions, Steven!

I’m glad you’ve been reading Dr. Keathley’s book. I think I have seen the problem already! Dr. Keathley’s view, and Molinism's, is not that God’s middle knowledge is located within his natural knowledge. On p. 17, Keathley includes a chart that shows the three distinct moments, so that none of the moments are located within the other in terms of the exact propositions they describe. However, on p. 18, Keathley does say, “Within His natural knowledge of all possibilities—everything that could happen—God possesses a perfect knowledge of all feasible worlds—all possibilities which would accomplish what He wanted to have happen.” That Keathley is not speaking about logical locations for the knowledge moments is evidenced in that same paragraph. So what does he mean here? Well, Keathley has a strong background in mathematics (a master’s degree in it, in fact) and is speaking here, more or less, in terms of set theory. We can see that from the next paragraph. The things that would happen are subsets of things that could happen, to put it in math terms. That’s all Keathley’s doing here (or else he would be in blatant contradiction mere moments after he said this first sentence that you’re speaking of!).

Now with that cleared up, maybe we’ll be able to solve the overall problem. After all, I’m sure you don’t think that everything that could happen would happen, do you? At least, most people don’t think this way, when they really think about it. Suppose you are in a conversation with a family member or close friend, and you snap at them and say something a little unkind. Now it’s obviously true that, were you to be in the situation you were in, you would freely snap at that person. But it also seems true that you could have refrained from snapping at them at that moment, couldn’t you? But if everything that could happen, would happen, and if you could have refrained from snapping at them, then it follows that you would have refrained from snapping at them. But you didn’t. You did snap at them, remember? So something has gone wrong! It seems that it’s not true that everything that could happen, would happen.

So what’s my point? My point is that if there is no difference between what could happen and what would happen, then everything that could happen would happen (otherwise there would be a difference). But not everything that could happen would happen. Therefore, there is a difference between what could happen and what would happen. Namely, the number of things that could happen is greater (or higher) than the number of things that would happen.

Now to the examples, just to be sure we clear everything up. Because Keathley’s only speaking of set theory in that particular quote, and he is emphasizing logical distinctions, we would not want to say that the counterfactual form (the “would” statements) are located in natural knowledge. The object, for lack of a better term, of the “would” statements are part of God’s natural knowledge. So, consider, “If Randy were in C, then he would freely answer this question” is not the same as “If Randy was in C, then he could freely answer this question.” So everything that would happen could happen, but not everything that could happen would happen. So the set would look like this:

Could happen-->Would happen-->Will happen

The need for middle knowledge in order for God to be omniscient and sovereign, and for us to have genuinely free will is great. If God knows everything we could do prior to the divine decree, and not what we would do, then God actualizes a world in which he literally has no idea what we will do, since he doesn’t know what we would do! In this case, God would lack omniscience, because there are truths about reality that he doesn’t know (namely, how we would act in various circumstances). Since how we would act helps inform how we will act (since God actualizes the world by acting within it to bring about the circumstances in which we all live, and we actualize the world by making those propositions true about the actual world that we would do were the actual circumstances to be made actual), middle knowledge is necessary.

On the other hand, we could just say God, at the divine decree, takes the mere possibilities and causes us to act the way we will act. This means God knows all possibilities, but it also means we lack geunine freedom. In order for all of these things to be true, God needs to know how we could act, how we would act, and how we will act!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Book Review: John Piper's Does God Desire All to Be Saved?

First, let me say this is not a hit piece on John Piper. His Desiring God ministries have helped more people than I could ever hope to help in their Christian walk. This is just a critical interaction with claims in his recent book, and I hope it will be a help to you.

John Piper’s book Does God Desire All to Be Saved?[1] is his very sincere attempt to wrestle with the seemingly contradictory views of Piper’s Reformed theology and the seemingly biblical teaching that God desires all to be saved. Piper is not attempting to advance some ideology that he forces on to the Bible; he genuinely wants to exegete the text and believes this is the best way to do it. This short book (54 pages!), unfortunately, is not his best effort. Although he does answer the titular question correctly (with a strong “yes”), he deals very little with the teachings he holds in tension.

Piper holds to the famous “two wills” scenario of God, whereby God wills in one (desire) sense that all be saved, and wills in another (decretive) sense that only some specific persons are saved (16). It is ambiguous as to whether or not Piper means two faculties of will or something else; I think charity invites us to assume he does not mean this. He is a little unclear when contrasting God’s desire that all be saved with the decree that only some will be. I think the most coherent view of Piper here is to say that God desires both of these things; at least, he desires something that entails that only some are saved more than he desires that all be saved (but he does desire them both). I actually don’t have a problem with the basic idea that God has competing desires (that is, two desires that cannot both be actualized). I think, as a Molinist, that God desires that all are saved. I also think God desires a real love relationship with creatures made in his image[2], so that if any free creatures made in the image of God were to be created, then they must have the choice whether or not to sin (and then the choice of salvation becomes subsequent to these initial creations faced with such a choice—Piper does not recognize this level of the discussion, confining it merely to those who are choosing salvation or not). These twin desires come strongly into play with respect to Piper’s argument.

However, Piper has a few naïve habits. First, he tends to say things like his argument is “driven by texts, not logic” (17). Next, he accuses his opponents of engaging in “philosophical presupposition” (40). Before I go any further, I want to explain why these two quotes are naïve. First, it supposes that logic is not involved. I don’t even know what it’s supposed to mean to say that Piper has arrived at an exegetical conclusion without it being “driven” by logic. Although he doesn’t say what “driven” means, perhaps he thinks it means logic without consulting the biblical text. While this is fine, the vast majority of Piper’s theological opponents do not ignore the texts. Further, the use of logic is necessary in exegeting the text. When we see Jesus saying “if your right eye offends you, pluck it out,” why is Piper not demanding that we all pluck our eyes out with some instrument, should that offensive situation arise? “Well that’s easy,” he might reply. “Jesus is using hyperbole.” Really? Where in the text does it say that? Any good response Piper gives is going to use logic and reasoning. But then, we say that his interpretation of the text is “logic-driven,” something he apparently thinks is inferior or incorrect. Second, he talks about philosophical presuppositions as if: a) he didn’t have any, or b) not having a philosophical presupposition when coming to a text were possible. His own philosophical presuppositions include infusing God’s sovereign actions with causality.[3]

Next, Piper actually engages in an exegetical fallacy by insisting that the hardening work of God was not in response to any act of the creature (24). In a footnoted response to those who would say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart first (cf. Ex. 8:15), Piper insists, “But they are probably wrong about this . . . The text implies that God is the one hardening even when the passive voice is used. We know this because the passive verb is followed by the phrase, ‘as the Lord had said,’ which refers back to Exodus 4:21 and 7:3, where God promises beforehand that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart” (n. 8). The problem we have here is that the two theories (Pharaoh hardened his own heart, followed by God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, confirming his decision in consequence vs. God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart from the beginning) seem to be empirically equivalent. This means that the data is consistent with both theories being true. If that is the case, we either need to dig a little deeper in the texts themselves, and use some reasoning, or just engage in philosophical and theological reflection itself.

Let’s try the former. In Exodus 4:21-23, the Lord is instructing Moses in what he should say to Pharaoh. If Piper had taken serious note of verse 22, he would have seen that Moses was to say, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is My son, My firstborn….’” Interesting that the firstborn should be brought up only a few Hebrew words away from the discussion about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. If this were all that there was, then it wouldn’t be much. But we have verse 23, which says: “So I said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may serve me’; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn.’” So it is very clear: Exodus 4 is not referring to the initial hardening of the heart as much as the timeframe of the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn.

Exodus 7:1-5 is a discussion on the entire process as a whole, and gives no time reference to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. All that we can conclude is that God does in fact harden Pharaoh’s heart (which all sides agree on). So what does 8:15 refer to when it says, “as the Lord had said.” It seems obvious that it would be something along the lines of 7:3, i.e. “When Pharaoh does not listen to you….” It would be incorrect exegesis to assume that each event in this sequence is given chronologically. They are rather grouped in causal pairs. When the exodus is conducted, then the Egyptians know that God is real. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, then plagues and the exodus will occur. When I harden his heart, then signs will be multiplied. All of this is consistent with a non-Reformed exegesis.

Beyond exegesis, Piper has an ambiguity problem with his definition of free will. He defines it as, “ultimate (or decisive) human self-determination” (40). At first, Piper says this only means that, “whatever other influences may lead toward a decision, the influence that settles the choice is the human self” (40). Now, beyond concerns as to what it means to “settle” a decision, he at least appears to be trying to convey a libertarian conception of free will. However, later in the book, Piper says, “I do not find in the Bible that human beings have the ultimate power of self-determination. As far as I can tell, this is a philosophical presupposition brought to the Bible rather than found in it” (53).

First, of course, is the issue that libertarian free will is emphatically not merely presupposed, and his insistence that it is either betrays his ignorance of arguments to the contrary or is question-begging. Second, this slightly different definition comes in the context of a rhetorical shift. The preceding paragraph has Piper claiming that either Reformed theology is correct or else we must concede that God’s will is “constrained by his commitment to ultimate human self-determination” (53; note carefully Piper’s language is not “constrained,” but “restrained,” by Reformed theology. This is especially curious given Piper’s proposed solution as to why not all are saved.). The idea is that we’re supposed to accept Reformed thinking or else proclaim our sovereignty over God. Who wants to do that? That sounds impious, irreverent, and even blasphemous! But let’s move away from the “sounds good” theology rhetoric. Once the rhetoric is jettisoned, it becomes either believe Reformed theology or believe that God wanted a relationship with creatures that were made in his image, and that this relationship precluded the logical guarantee that no one would ever sin or be in need of salvation,[4] and it precluded the idea that all would freely be saved. That loses a lot of rhetorical force.

So what is Piper’s solution to the issue of universalism? Piper is not a universalist, by any stretch of the imagination. He says that the solution is that God wanted to glorify himself by extending the “full range of his perfections,” which include wrath. Thus, some people go to Hell. But, as others have argued, God’s attribute of wrath is plausibly a dispositional property from his essential property (synonym for “perfections”) of justice. God is always in a state of being just, even with no creation present. Nevertheless, God is not always in a state of being wrathful. So when would he be in such a state? Only in cases where justice demands it. Justice demands punishing those who have done wrong. In those cases, God’s being wrathful is exercised on those who have done wrong. So why isn’t everyone in Hell (or going there)?

Because of the next point: Jesus Christ bore the penalty for sins. Jesus Christ satisfied the wrath of God. So if being wrathful is necessary to the glory of God, it is already exemplified on the person of Christ. Piper surely agrees with this much. So then everyone is saved, right? Wrong. Piper would probably rely on limited atonement. But then notice something: this doesn’t answer why particular people aren’t included in Christ’s suffering. Notice the whole point of appeal to wrath was to explain why not everyone could be saved.

But let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that this is insufficient, and that someone needs to be eternally punished. It seems like the devil and his angels are good candidates. Why is God’s wrath not exhibited then? Suppose we bypass that. God could save everyone but one, or a handful of persons. Why did he not do that? God’s perfection is on display in those cases as well. The only good answer hinted at by Piper (and it is only a vague hint) is that the number of people consigned to Hell are needed in order that his glory be displayed to the proper extent. But why? Who knows? It’s a mystery. However, I prefer the mystery in this case be left to the depravity of man, instead of the lovingkindness of God.

Finally, in what could be a dialectical response to just such an argument, Piper offers an analogy of George Washington. Washington faced a treasonous soldier in his midst, and was forced to sign his death warrant. Washington had compassion on the man, and wished to pardon him, but could not, due to what was just. Just as no one should think Washington’s pity was not genuine, so no one should think that the Reformed conception of God’s pity on the lost is not genuine (47-48). I thought this was interesting, and it was not the first time I had heard this.

Unfortunately, Piper only has heard of three objections, and none of them are very good. In fact, none of them matched the immediate objection I had: that the two scenarios are disanalogous. In order for the situations to be analogous, Washington would have had to order the soldier to perform the treasonous acts, so as to increase Washington’s fame and honor later on when Washington acted justly in signing the death warrant for the soldier. This is precisely what God does in Piper’s theology. God so orders the world by causing the specific events that come to pass (instead of actualizing sets of circumstances where the creature will do what God knows the creature would do were those circumstances to be actualized), and then punishes those people for what God has done through them (as they are secondary causes, like sticks in the hands of a man pushing a rock).

Now, to be fair, Piper is only attempting to illustrate that God can have a genuine pity for the unsaved and still send them to Hell. And I am 100% with him on that. However, Piper’s conception of God causes the analogy to fall apart. It does not seem God can really have a salvific love that’s very strong, especially since there is no logical necessity in the number of (nor the specific!) persons who are condemned to Hell. Can God love someone salvifically when he caused them to sin, caused them to reject His message, and then condemns them to Hell? Since that question is not directly addressed by the Bible, I can freely say it doesn’t seem very loving to me. And I doubt it actually seems loving, in the relevant way, to anyone else. Putting the mystery in to the character of God is not a very good option. I’d rather wonder (and it makes sense to me as well) why it is that man rejects God, than why it is God rejects man.

[1] John Piper, Does God Desire All to Be Saved? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).

[2] In fact, it might be the case that free creatures made in the image of God must have a generally libertarian free will in order to truly be in that image.

[3] In fact, none of the texts Piper uses establishes this causal determinism. One must use the philosophical presupposition of logic, amongst other things, in order to arrive at this conclusion.

[4] Not only this, but if Alvin Plantinga and others are right, creatures who are free in the libertarian sense would always freely go astray, given significant time and moral circumstances. This means God’s creation of creatures made in his image virtually guarantees some sin in the world. But on the non-Reformed view, this sin is a consequence of other things that have been willed directly (in terms of both decree and desire). On the Reformed picture, sin is not merely the consequence of free creatures; it is the consequence of God’s willing that free creatures commit those specific sins.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Why Philosophy? Well...

Many times, we apologists hear things like “Philosophy just infuriates me. Every time I hear it, I roll my eyes. I deal in facts, and we have science to tell us what is real.” One would be surprised at how many times you might hear this from Christians, not just atheists! This is a major problem, and it is a problem of perception, not the intellect. The last thing I want to do is frustrate people. I think we philosophers tend to frustrate people because, intuitively, people know that we are justified in certain beliefs.

Here’s an example: my wife sometimes gets frustrated in philosophical conversations. She knows we are justified in making inductive inferences. And you know what? She does know that. But if she were to become frustrated, and say to me, (not that she does) “This whole thing is stupid! We’re obviously justified in believing that the sun will rise tomorrow, so who cares? Why would you say we aren’t?” What would my wife’s problem be? Is she being obstinate? No. Is she trying to be a jerk? No. Is she telling me philosophy is not important? Kind of. But what is she really doing? She’s really reacting to the idea that somehow we don’t have the knowledge we take ourselves to be having. But here’s the kicker: the philosophical problems we might bring up are not the further claim that we are not justified in holding certain beliefs. It’s the question to wonder how it is that we are justified. These are two very different things.

Why is that important? Because everyone is a philosopher. Everyone has a reason or reasoning process that they think is more or less the truth of the matter. When someone says, “I don’t do philosophy; I deal in facts,” they presumably believe some epistemological (way of knowing) claim like one ought to deal only in facts. If they don’t, it’s difficult to see if anything more than an autobiographical fact is being shared. But suppose even this is true; the person who says they don’t use philosophy is just informing you, and holds no opinion on the matter. Surely they expect to be telling someone else this information when they tell you, and not merely shouting to hallucinations or in their own minds. But if they believe that, whether consciously or unconsciously, then it seems they hold, as a presupposition, that the external world is real.

Now here’s where some of you might start to roll your eyes. “Oh here he goes again,” you’ll think. “Of course there is an external world.” Again, it must be stressed that’s not the point. I agree there is an external world, and I’m not trying to call it into question. The point is that one takes it as a truth of reason (presupposed) that the external world is real. Whether you think that is rational (as I do) or irrational (as very few do) is of no consequence: you are a philosopher. The only differences will be to what degree you are aware of your philosophy and then whether or not you’ll be a good or bad philosopher. You literally cannot think about any issue without engaging in some kind of reasoning or beliefs or presuppositions, whether explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious.

So which will you be? The Church needs good philosophers, good theologians, good Sunday school teachers, good preachers. We've had too many bad ones in the past.