Divine Providence: The Molinist Account

23 July 2008

In Divine Providence: The Molinist Account, Catholic theologian Thomas Flint endeavors to explicate and defend a particular view of God’s foreknowledge and providence. The theory, which takes its title from the 16th century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina, attempts to reconcile the notions of divine providence and creaturely freedom.

Molinism contends that there are three logical moments of God’s knowledge. In the first moment, God knows all logical possibilities. This includes every logically possible choice that every possible free agent could make in every possible situation. This conceptual stage of God’s knowledge is known as natural knowledge. In the second moment, God knows all contingent truths that God does not determine Himself. Such truths include the free choices of agents endowed with free will. For example, a truth such as “If Adam is placed in the garden, he will freely sin” is included in this category. Herein lies the crucial notion of middle knowledge.

Middle knowledge does two important things. First of all, it limits the range of worlds God can create. For example, God may desire to create a world in which Adam is in the garden and Adam freely refrains from sinning. Yet, if Adam freely decides to sin when placed in the garden, then God cannot actualize such a world. Surely, He could override Adam’s free will and force him to avoid sinning. But, then we wouldn’t be talking about the same world. The second important function of middle knowledge is closely related to the first. This knowledge aids God in His decision-making and providential control of the world. For, God knows infallibly what every possible free creature would do in every possible circumstance. Thus, He can so create the world to have the desired effects by creating the right free creatures in the right physical circumstances to guarantee that His plans are achieved. Using this information, God freely decides to create the actual world. This brings us to the third stage of God’s knowledge- what is known as free knowledge. This knowledge consists of all the facts about the actual world- past, present, and future. It is named ‘free knowledge’ because it is based upon God’s free creative decision.

Molinism is an extremely attractive account of providence for the Christian, argues Flint, because it allows us the possibility of upholding both a strong account of providence and a libertarian conception of free will. Other accounts tend to eliminate or severely restrict these key notions. For example, the open theism model strongly affirms libertarian free will. Yet, by denying that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of the future, this account greatly restricts the notion of God’s providence. The Thomist account upholds a strong view of providence by affirming that God determines the truth value of all contingent facts. Yet, such a view must sacrifice any (plausible) account of libertarian freedom.

Flint separates the book into three sections. The first section is an explication of the Molinist account, where he explains in some detail the specific tenets and implications of the view. In the second section, Flint undertakes a detailed defense of the theory. His defense includes critiques of the three primary alternatives to Molinism, as well as responses to the main objections lodged against the account. This includes detailed discussions of the arguments offered by William Hasker and Robert Adams- perhaps the foremost contemporary critics of the Molinist account of providence.

Having responded to the serious objections leveled against it, Flint proceeds to examine some practical applications of the Molinist account in the third section. He applies the concept of middle knowledge to the issues of papal infallibility, prophecy, unanswered prayer, and retrospective prayer. In each case, Flint contends that the doctrine of middle knowledge can help us gain important insight into these doctrines. The issues here get a bit technical at times, but the discussion is certainly fruitful, and it demonstrates that Molinism is a powerful account that can prove very useful for understanding the Christian faith.

On the whole, I heartily recommend Divine Providence. Flint’s witty writing style and clever examples make the book fun to read. Nevertheless, the discussion is high-level and proves to be intellectually challenging. For the Christian who has struggled with the issue of divine foreknowledge and human freedom, Flint’s book should be a compelling read.


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