For this episode I will be continuing my series covering the doctrine of God from a philosophical perspective. Last time we looked at God’s relationship to time, this go-around I’d like to look at God and foreknowledge. This is a bit of a hot-button issue recently and I think a philosophical analysis of the issue will be helpful. For the book reviews I’ll take a look at two works that are highly relevant to the show topic- Divine Providence by Thomas Flint and The Openness of God by Clark Pinnock, David Basinger, William Hasker, Richard Rice, and John Sanders. First, though, we’ll take a look at the news.
Antony Flew, the philosopher and former atheist who converted to Deism 4 years ago, labeled Richard Dawkins a ‘secularist bigot’ in a recent article for the website bethinking.org. 1 Flew contends that Dawkins’ treatment of Einstein’s religious beliefs was terribly biased, revealing that Dawkins’ bestselling book- The God Delusion, was an attempt to spread atheism rather than uncover truth. In his retort, Dawkins’ mocked Flew as having lost the ability to write or read a book. Flew’s recent book, There is a God was written with the assistance of ghost writer Roy Varghese. Dawkins claims that Flew’s recent comments reflect an inability to read as well. Dawkins and Flew seem to have vastly different views on Einstein’s religious life. Dawkins sees Einstein as a man who totally rejected religion as foolishness, while Flew believes that Einstein was much more sympathetic to the concept of God. My personal opinion lies somewhere in between, but this debate is largely irrelevant, in my opinion. It seems that both sides are trying to recruit Einstein for their cause. However, even though he was certainly an excellent physicist, there is no reason to suspect that he was particularly competent in the areas of philosophy, theology, and religious belief. Einstein’s opinions on these issues may be interesting, but they certainly shouldn’t be taken as guides to how we should believe.
The shroud of Turin is back in the news. For those who don’t know, the Shroud of Turin is a cloth that appears to have the image of a man who was buried after crucifixion. The shroud was discovered in the 1300s, and was immediately proclaimed as the burial cloth used by Jesus Christ.
Believers in the authenticity of the shroud point to certain evidences in favor of the artifact’s legitimacy. The method is difficult or impossible to duplicate, especially given the technology that would have been available to forgers in the 14th Century. Moreover, the image seems to be remarkably accurate. For example, wounds in the wrists indicate that nails were driven through the wrist during crucifixion. We now know that this was the custom in the ancient world. However, as a large body of Christian art attests, the belief up until very recently was that nails were driven through the hands. The fact that the shroud got this detail right is very surprising if the artifact is a forgery.
Nevertheless, skeptics of the shroud believe that the cloth does not date back far enough. They cite carbon dating results demonstrating that the material dates back to the 14th Century. These tests were conducted by three separate laboratories and seemed to put the issue to rest.
However, a slew of criticisms have been raised about the legitimacy of the carbon dating used on the shroud. John and Rebecca Jackson are two shroud enthusiasts who are trying to reopen the debate on the issue. 2 They believe that the region of the cloth tested was contaminated, leading to skewed results. They hope to prove their hypothesis and then gain access to the actual shroud for more accurate dating. Oxford University has agreed to work with the Jackson’s.
I actually have a bit of a personal story here about the shroud. In my undergraduate chemistry class the professor gave us an extra credit quiz where we could analyze the argument for the legitimacy of the shroud’s dating. I wrote that the tests done were insufficient to confidently determine a date, since all three laboratories sampled the same area of the shroud. Thus, the possibility of contamination remained too high for us to make a confident assessment. He marked me off one point for my answer, and I listened as he explained to the class that the date should be considered authentic since it was confirmed by three separate scientific laboratories. He tried to turn the example into some sort of point about the difference between science and faith, and that they are compatible but deal with different subject matter, or whatever. I didn’t care about his philosophical musings, however, I wanted full credit for my answer! So I raised my hand to question his point reduction and argue that, since all three labs sampled from the same portion of the cloth, they did not adequately disprove the contamination hypothesis, and, especially given other evidences for an early date for the shroud, we cannot be confident that the results are accurate. In response, he rejected my claim, arguing that these scientists would never do something so silly as all analyze the same piece of cloth! Ironically, he virtually proved my point, since he implicitly admitted that examining one portion of the cloth was a methodological mistake. Yet, convinced that the scientists had wisely sampled different regions of the cloth to get an accurate date, my professor felt confident in his assertion that the shroud was a medieval forgery. I was a little mad that my professor reduced my grade because of his crass ignorance of the actual facts of the case, though I wasn’t motivated to continue the argument for a single point. His position though, seems typical of those who have undue confidence in the legitimacy of the dating.
My position on the shroud of Turin is solidly agnostic. I think that there are some compelling reasons to believe that the shroud is authentic, including the accurate portrayal of the crucifixion body. Nevertheless, the case is far from proved, and I think certain evidence points away from authenticity, such as its late appearance on the scene in the 1340s. To me, it seems rather silly, because the question of its date could probably be solved easily if access to the artifact was granted for sampling from different portions of the cloth. But, with the shroud withheld from scientific scrutiny, it will be difficult to determine the facts of the case. Hopefully Jackson is successful in securing permission for another analysis of the controversial shroud.
Bill Maher has a new documentary coming out on October 3rd. Entitled Religulous, the documentary looks to basically be an attempt to mock religious faith. I’ve seen Maher a few times before on television, and honestly I think the man is an absolute buffoon. He is basically a nasty combination of Richard Dawkin’s overconfidence, Christopher Hitchen’s indecency, and Sam Harris’s intellectual simplicity. Though I usually try not to judge films before I view them, I have little confidence that this film will be anything but ignorance on parade. Regardless, I’m going to try to catch the movie opening day, and I hope to write a review of it on the site soon after its release.
Main Feature: God and Knowledge
The question of God’s knowledge can lead us into some murky waters, where some of the greatest difficulties confronting the Christian worldview lie. It is in these waters that we confront the ever-perplexing problem- how can we reconcile God’s foreknowledge with human free will? If God knows everything that I will choose to do tomorrow, then how can I be free with respect to those choices? This also brings us head first into the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism.
In order to attack this problem, it will be profitable to lay out the different options that can be taken here. I think that there are three distinct perspectives a Christian can adopt. Each perspective places different emphases on two critical conceptions- freedom and providence. Here I am using freedom in the sense of ‘libertarian’ freedom. As I mentioned in podcast 15, where I discussed the problem of evil, libertarian free will involves the capacity of alternate choices. If I freely stand up, then, at the time of the decision, I could either stand up or not stand up. The choice is quite literally up to me. Providence is simply a word describing God’s control and guidance over the world. The notion of providence is intimately tied to God’s knowledge in general and God’s foreknowledge in particular. After all, as the well-known adage goes, knowledge is power. Virtually all Christians would agree that God is omnipotent- which means that He can do anything which it is logically possible to do. But, exactly what it will be logically possible for God to do will depend on what God knows. For example, if we deny that God has foreknowledge of future free choices, then it will not be logically possible for Him to create a world in which He knows for certain that Peter will freely deny Christ in a certain set of circumstances. Thus, denying God foreknowledge of future free choices has significant consequences for our conception of God’s providence.
We should also take the time to define the term counterfactual of creaturely freedom, as this will be pertinent to our discussion. Counterfactuals of creaturely freedom take the following form; “If person S were in state of affairs C, S would freely choose A.” A mundane example might be; “If Suzy were offered vanilla ice cream, she would eat it.”
So, as I said before, it will be helpful to analyze the options we have here by laying them out on a spectrum, one side of which emphasizes freedom and the other side of which emphasizes providence. On the providence side we have Thomist view, named after the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. This view either rejects or severely qualifies the notion of libertarian freedom, but it focuses squarely on God’s providence. According to this view, God determines the truth value of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. Thus, God decides what Suzy will freely do when she is offered vanilla ice cream. This is also The Augustinian/Calvinist perspective.
On the other side of the spectrum, which emphasizes human freedom, we have the so-called open view. According to this view, God does not have comprehensive foreknowledge of the future. Namely, He does not know with certainty the free choices His creatures will make, and He does not know any counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. Thus, the future is partially open- depending upon the decisions of free creatures. Since He chose to create a world with free agents, God is necessarily limited in His foreknowledge.
While the openness view does represent a rather radical break with traditional understandings of divine foreknowledge and providence, it does not deny that God is omniscient. God is omniscient just in case He knows all facts which can be logically known. Since, according to the advocates of this view, it is not logically possible to know the future free choices of agents (indeed, there simply aren’t any facts to be known!), it is no limit on God’s omniscience to say that God does not know them. In any case, we will turn to a closer look at this perspective in due time.
Squarely in the middle of this spectrum is the so-called Molinist view, named after the Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina. This view attempts to integrate a strong view of providence with a strong view of libertarian freedom. According to this perspective, free agents actually determine the truth value of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. Thus, to stick with our example, Suzy herself, in virtue of what she would freely do if she was presented with ice cream, makes the statement “If Suzy were offered vanilla ice cream, she would eat it” true. God is not in control of these counterfactuals of creaturely freedom according to this perspective, unlike in the Thomist view.
Traditionally, Molinists have explained their account of providence and foreknowledge by distinguishing between 3 moments of God’s knowledge. Since God is omniscient, God knows all of these facts immediately and from eternity. Nevertheless, different stages of God’s knowledge can be distinguished according to logical dependence. It is important to remember then, that in discussing three ‘moments’ of God’s knowledge, Molinists are not speaking about temporal progression, but rather are speaking about logical progression.
The first moment of God’s knowledge is called God’s natural knowledge. This includes knowledge of all necessary truths and all logical possibilities. Thus, in this first moment of God’s knowledge, God knows every fact about every possible world he might choose to create.
In some of the possible worlds God can create, free creatures exist. Creatures with libertarian free will, however, are free to make choices. For example, if God decides to create Adam in the garden under a certain set of circumstances, Adam can either choose to eat the fruit and sin or he can choose to refrain from eating and not sin. If Adam chooses to sin, there is nothing God can do about it. To be sure, God could force Adam not to sin, or He could create different circumstances under which Adam doesn’t sin- but then we wouldn’t be dealing with the same world. The upshot is that, IF God decides to create a certain world, call it World A, then Adam will choose to sin. Thus, this limits God’s possibilities from the range of logically possible worlds He perceived via natural knowledge. We may say that these worlds are possible but infeasible for God to create. Remember, it is certainly logically possible that Adam refuse to sin in World A. But, as it so happens, he will choose to sin. Since this second moment of God’s knowledge is between the first and third moments, it is often referred to as ‘middle knowledge.’
The third moment of God’s knowledge is called God’s free knowledge. This consists of His knowledge of every fact about the actual world He decided to create. It is called free knowledge because it depended upon God’s free choice. Had He decided to create a different world, He would apprehend a different set of facts about the actual world. Free knowledge includes perfect foreknowledge of every free creaturely decision.
Having presented the three major perspectives on this problem, let’s pursue a more detailed analysis and critique of the three views. First, we will consider the Thomist view. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this perspective?
One of the advantages of this view is that it offers us a strong view of God’s providence and power. A strong view of providence seems to be overwhelmingly supported by the Scriptures, Christian tradition, and Christian theology. A Thomistic perspective allows us to take seriously the notion that God is all-powerful and gives us ultimate assurance that His ends will be accomplished.
Another advantage of the Thomistic view is that it offers us a ready explanation for God’s foreknowledge. For a Thomist, God has foreknowledge of future events simply because He has foreordained them. God knows with certainty what He will do and therefore has complete and infallible foreknowledge of the future.
Nevertheless, these advantages are heavily offset by some crippling deficiencies in the Thomist account. The first difficulty is found in the fact that the account rejects libertarian freedom. For those philosophers who, like me, consider compatibilist accounts of freedom to be ultimately fruitless attempts to escape determinism, this fact could be quite troubling. Determinism certainly seems to be a view that is tough to square with the Biblical facts, and determinism also renders virtually insoluble challenges to the Christian faith like the Problem of Evil. If our options are truly between libertarian freedom and determinism, the orthodox Christian will want to do everything in her power to defend a libertarian account of some sort or another.
This line of argument may have limited appeal to those who are not averse to determinism, such as some hard-line Calvinists, or to those who believe that adequate compatibilist accounts of freedom can be formed. However, the Thomistic rejection of libertarian free will seems to create a bigger problem than it would initially appear. It seems to me that a consistent Thomist must deny even the theoretical possibility of creatures with libertarian free choices.
Earlier, when we were discussing the Molinist account, recall that we acknowledged that God could make sure Adam doesn’t sin in the garden. God, as the omnipotent Lord of the universe, can obviously make human beings do anything He wants them to. However, we made a key distinction there- noting that God cannot make Adam freely refuse to sin, if in fact it is the case that Adam will freely sin. However, since God can override our freedom by taking it away from us and forcing our hand, it is theoretically possible even on a Molinist perspective that theological determinism is true. Perhaps God freely decides to override our free will in every case. But, this does not change any facts about the truth values of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. God, in this hypothetical scenario, simply does not allow creatures to exercise their free will.
Here’s the upshot of this discussion- if there is at least one creature who has one libertarian free choice in one possible world, then the Thomist account is false, strictly speaking. Since Thomism affirms that God determines the truth value of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, one counterexample is enough to unravel the whole scheme. If there is just this one libertarian free choice we would either have to say, along with the open theists, that God does not know with certainty what the creature would choose to do, or we would have to cast our lot with the Molinists and affirm that God knows with certainty what that free creature would do if he were created in that specific world.
Thus, in order to maintain a consistent position, the Thomists will have to deny even the logical possibility of creatures with libertarian free will. Surely, however, this is hard to swallow. Certainly it seems possible that God create creatures with libertarian free will. As Christians, we must affirm, at least, that God is an agent with libertarian free will. Classic Christian doctrine affirms that God was free to create or not create- the choice to create was a free decision that could have been otherwise. Thus, there is nothing inherently incoherent about the concept of a libertarian free agent. Why should we suppose that it is literally impossible that God create agents with at least some limited form of libertarian freedom?
This critique aside, there is another problem with the Thomist view which seems, in my estimation, to pose an even greater difficulty for the theory. Thomist accounts of providence simply have no convincing account of evil. Orthodox Christians affirm that God never does anything evil. But with the rejection of libertarian free will, we are left without much explanation of why evil, particularly moral evil, exists. The Thomist solution here seeks to remove God from responsibility if we insist that God’s deciding not to concur with the relevant good action entails the performance of the evil action. In other words, whenever good actions are performed, it is a result of God’s concurring activity (concurring means happening at the same time). But when God does not concur with the agent and the agent is left on his own, the agent will perform an evil action.
Even assuming that the Thomist distinction here is valid, there are still many powerful objections to this escape route.
1.) It is insufficient for God’s complete foreknowledge and control. God would not know what type of sin would be committed, whether it be by omission or commission, how intense it would be, how long it would last, and so on.
2.) The Thomist account ends up with some rather silly implications. Some bad actions are unappealing and difficult to perform, such as fighting in an unjust war despite fear of death. Conversely, some good actions are pleasurable and easy to perform, such as having sexual intercourse with one’s wife. The Thomist, however, is committed to the rather silly view that, without God’s help, a man will fight in a war he would rather not fight in, but, unless God assists the man with His concurring activity, he will not have sex with his wife. Taking the absurdity to the next level, consider that some actions are sinful before some other action but good after that action. For instance, sex with one’s partner is sinful before marriage, but subsequent to a marriage ceremony, sex with one’s partner is good. The Thomist must maintain that, prior to a marriage ceremony, I could have sex with my partner on my own, but after the ceremony, I couldn’t possibly have sex with my wife without God’s concurrent nudge. Thomas Flint wryly states, “Marriage is sometimes alleged eventually to have a dampening effect on sexual activity, but (implies Molina) no one can take seriously the implication of the Thomist position that it has so massive and immediate an effect on a couple’s coital endeavors.” 3
3.) God cannot intend for someone not to sin while at the same time withholding a necessary condition for that person not sinning. Since, on the Thomist view, divine concurrent activity is a necessary condition of not sinning, if God does not provide the concurrent activity then the person will sin necessarily. But then how can we seriously maintain that God sincerely intends for that person to avoid sinning?
The Thomistic view also faces all of the traditional problems which beset Calvinist theology. For example, why aren’t all individuals saved, if it is God who ultimately determines whether someone freely accepts Christ? Particularly in light of the Biblical texts supporting God’s universal desire for individuals to gain salvation, found in 1 Timothy 2:4 and other places, the Thomist will struggle to find a way to reconcile her theological system with the Scriptures. This is a very brief critique of Calvinist theology, and I am well aware that these issues are complicated and nuanced. However, time considerations prohibit me from pursuing a full discussion of the Calvinist/Arminian debate.
In sum, despite some initial advantages, it seems to me that the Thomist view fails to offer an adequate understanding of God’s foreknowledge.
Swinging to the other side of the pendulum, what should we say about the open view of God? This view has some strengths which primarily are the contraries of the weaknesses of the Thomist view. First of all, the open view accepts a libertarian view of free will. Once again, this is particularly attractive for the philosopher who believes that the only other real choice is determinism.
Secondly, the open view allows us to coherently affirm that God does not cause moral evil. All evil human acts are a result of the misuse of libertarian free will, and God is not in any way implicated in the evil deed. This also means that the open view provides far better resources for combating the problem of evil and the problem of the unsaved.
Finally, the open view has a major advantage when it comes to the issue of libertarian free will. One of the perplexing theological questions other views face is, “how can we truly be free if God already knows what we are going to choose?” It seems that our choices are locked in a certain path, and, indeed, have been locked since the beginning of time. The open theist subverts this issue by simply denying that God knows with certainty the future free actions of human beings. There can be no worry of determinism or fatalism for the open theist view.
However, the open view is not without some serious philosophical, not to mention theological, objections. First, openness advocates are committed to the view either that there are no counterfactuals of creaturely freedom or that it is impossible to know the truth of these facts. If they don’t deny the existence or the knowability of these types of facts, then they would be forced to admit that God lacks omniscience- an extreme position that openness advocates seek to avoid. If there are good arguments for the existence and knowability of such facts, however, then this position will undermined. And as a matter of fact, it seems very likely both that counterfactuals of creaturely freedom exist and that these types of facts can be known. For example, I know that my sister will freely choose to eat ice cream if she is offered some. Indeed, I make judgements based on these types of beliefs all the time. To be sure, I am quite often mistaken in my beliefs about what free persons will do in certain circumstances. This is to be expected, since I am a fallible human being, but there is nothing conceptually difficult about supposing that God has complete and infallible knowledge of such facts.
However, the openness advocate can respond to this point by declaring that we do not really know counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, we only know so-called might-counterfactuals. Thus, when we believe that Suzy will accept ice cream if it is offered to her, we really believe that Suzy would probably accept the ice cream. So our intuitive analysis of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom cannot settle this issue.
Moreover, an open theologian may further contend that the denial of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom is a strength of the view, not a weakness. According to many proponents of the open view, counterfactuals of creaturely freedom cannot possibly exist because there is no grounding for their truth. We will briefly consider this objection when we take a look at the Molinist account.
Perhaps the most serious objections to the open view are theological and Biblical. Though open advocates cite Biblical support for their view, many passages of Scripture seem to indicate that God has complete knowledge of the future- including future free choices.To offer one strong example, consider Psalm 139:1-6;
“O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me!
THou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up;
thou discernest my thoughts from afar.
Thou searchest out my path and my lying down,
and art acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.
Thou dost beset me behind and before,
and layest thy hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high, I cannot attain it.”
This passage describes God knowing completely the words the psalmist will utter in the future. Such passages seem to starkly contradict the open theologians idea that God cannot know future free contingents. And, as William Lane Craig points out, the problem with the open view is that “the defender of divine foreknowledge need only show that God knows just one future contingent proposition or counterfactual of creaturely freedom, for in that case there is no logical incompatibility between divine foreknowledge and future contingents…and it becomes ad hoc to claim that other such propositions are not also true and known to God.” 4
Moreover, prophecy seems to be a serious difficulty for the open view. Though some prophecies may only concern what God plans to do and therefore can be infallibly known by God even without foreknowledge of future free contingents, explaining prophecy that deals with free human decisions is a major challenge. Perhaps the most poignant example is Peter’s rejection of Christ found in the Gospels. As a sinful act, it must be free because God would not commit sin. Thus, we know that Peter freely sinned when he rejected Christ. Nevertheless, Jesus was able to predict Peter’s denial ahead of time. According to openness advocates, then, how did Jesus Christ know that Peter would sin? He clearly didn’t force Peter to sin, for then he would be involved in sin. Nevertheless, we would probably want to avoid the suggestion that Jesus Christ might have been mistaken. If this were the case, then it is a matter of mere fortune that Jesus Christ and, consequently, God, is infallible. It is, by the way, extraordinarily implausible that Jesus could predict accurately based on Peter’s character that he would reject him. Jesus’ prophecy is quite specific, noting that Peter will reject him exactly three times before the cock crows twice. Moreover, his sin involved the free choices of numerous other individuals, including the people who asked Peter if he knew Christ. Without their freely asking Peter these questions at precisely the right time, Jesus’ prediction would have turned out false.
Now, individual cases could be explained away in some fashion or another, but I think it is quite apparent that the whole scope of Biblical prophecy creates serious questions about the open view of God’s knowledge. Especially consider long-range prophecies that God makes. It is implausible in the extreme to suppose that God could make any infallible long-term prophecies if He lacked any knowledge of free human choices. For example, in Isaiah 44:28-45:1, God speaks of using Cyrus to subdue the nations. In order to make this prophecy, however, God would need to know that a person named Cyrus would come to exist in the right place, at the right time, with the right characteristics to be used as an instrument of God’s. But think of the vast array of free choices that would precede such things. Certain parents would have to choose to have sex at certain times in order to produce the correct children to eventually lead to Cyrus, the parents would need to freely name him Cyrus, and so on. Just think of the vast improbability that you would come to exist just twenty years before your birth. God would face a similar imposing improbability whenever He wanted to make a prediction about persons who will exist in the future.
Thus, the open view has little to commend itself. It offers a theologically weak version of omniscience and providence, appears to be contradicted by strong Biblical passages, has difficulty coming to grips with prophecy, and is philosophically suspect. However, open theologians typically contend that their view actually receives strong support from Scripture. There are abundant passages describing God’s surprise, regret, and so on, in response to human choices. For example, God appears to momentarily regret having created man in the book of Genesis shortly before He floods the world. This seems to square with the open view. God changes His mind simply because He learns new things as time goes on, namely, He learns what free creatures are choosing to do.
I think that this is a strong argument in favor of the open position, but it is ultimately unpersuasive. Most of the Bible is composed of stories that reveal God’s relationship to man. In order to facilitate this type of narrative, the Biblical authors frequently use anthropomorphic language to describe God. In fact, many passages in Scripture talk about the ‘eyes’ and the ‘ears’ of God, and so on. Indeed, Mormons use these passages as proof texts to support their idea that God is actually a physical person with a body. Clearly, however, this is a misuse of the text. We know this because there are some passages of the Bible that speak definitively about God’s nature as spirit. Thus, we should not take these anthropomorphic accounts literally.
The same appears to be the case with passages describing God changing His mind, expressing surprise, and so on. We know from other declarative passages in Scripture that God does not change His mind, that he knows the future, and so on. The Biblical narratives describing God changing His mind are told from the human perspective, and they relay the important point that God responds to human behavior. However, they should not be taken literally as implying God’s ignorance of the future.
In any case, let us now turn to an analysis of the third option we have been discussing- middle knowledge, or, Molinism. At this point in the discussion, the advantages of a Molinist account should be clear. This account seems to give us the best of both worlds by taking the best features of the Thomist and Open views and rejecting or denying the unattractive features. Consider the primary problems with Thomism. First was its rejection of libertarian free will, and, in fact, its rejection of the mere possibility of such free will. Molinism, on the other hand, accepts with open arms the libertarian conception of freedom. For those Christians, like myself, who think that the Biblical testimony supports the notion of libertarian free will, this is a huge advantage.
The other big difficulty with Thomism was the existence of evil. Molinism, since it advocates for libertarian free choice, can provide a more satisfying account of evil. God is not involved in the evil deed because it is actually the creature who exercises his or her own free will to do evil, without any compulsion from God. God never approves of this misuse of freedom, so His hands are not dirty. Humans are truly responsible for their evil choices. This also serves to explain why some individuals aren’t saved, despite the fact that God wills for all men to be saved. Given Molinism, we can take the Biblical affirmation that God desires the salvation of all men seriously. Unfortunately, some men choose to freely reject God and are therefore condemned.
Now, let us briefly recall the chief difficulties with openness theology. First, it denies the existence of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, which the Molinist view clearly does not. Second, by denying God full foreknowledge of the future, the open view seriously limits God’s providence and contradicts many plain teachings of Scripture. How does the Molinist account fair on this issue?
It seems to me, Molinism pasts the test here easily. First of all, Molinism certainly gives God complete foreknowledge of the future. On this account, God knew before He created the world the range of possible worlds via His natural knowledge, and the range of feasible worlds via His middle knowledge. Possessing such knowledge, God decided to create one of those feasible worlds. On this account, God has complete foreknowledge of everything that will come to pass in the world.
Moreover, middle knowledge affords God a great deal of providential power. For example, knowing that John will freely reject Christ if placed in situation A and freely accept Christ if placed in situation B, God may decide to put John in situation B. This makes good sense of many Biblical passages that affirm God’s providential control and influence even over sinful human actions, such as the Biblical account of the story of Joseph. When Joseph confronts his brothers, who sold him into slavery, he declares,
“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” [Genesis 50:20]
This passage fits beautifully under a Molinist understanding. God, knowing that Joseph’s brothers would freely sin by selling their sibling into slavery, providentially decided to put them in just those circumstances so that they would freely sin. By so doing, God was able to so order world history that Joseph would become a great leader in Egypt, and save many lives from a famine.
One important philosophical objection to Molinism remains. This objection asserts that counterfactual statements about what a person would have freely done under different circumstances cannot be true. This objection is often called the grounding objection, because it contends that counterfactuals of creaturely freedom have no ground for their truth. Despite the popularity of this objection, however, this attack is hardly insurmountable. Counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are grounded in the same way ordinary statements are grounded- via correspondence. According to the concept of truth as correspondence, a statement is true if an only if what it states to be the case really is the case. Truth as correspondence does not require the existence of the things to which it refers. For example, the statement “Dinosaurs ruled the Earth millions of years ago” can be true even though dinosaurs don’t exist now. It is true just in case it was true that dinosaurs ruled the Earth millions of years ago. In the same way, the statement, “it will rain next week” is true just in case it will rain next week. Such a statement referring to the future is true if matters turn out as the statement predicts, and false if they don’t. It is easy to see how this analysis can be expanded to include counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. It is true that my sister would take ice cream if it were presented to her if it is the case that, if she were presented ice cream, she would take the ice cream. If we deny this strategy for grounding counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, then it seems we would be forced to similarly abandon the truth value of past-tense and future-tense statements. 5
It is worth noting here that Alvin Plantinga has argued that the notion of grounding is not entirely clear anyways, so that perhaps Molinism ought not be faulted for failing to provide so-called ‘grounding’ for counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. He writes,
“To investigate this question properly, we should have to investigate the implied suggestion that if a proposition is true, then something grounds its truth, or causes it to be true, or makes it true. Is this supposed to hold for all propositions? What sorts of things are to be thought of as grounding a proposition, and what is it for a proposition to be grounded by such a thing? What grounds the truth of such a proposition as ‘this piece of chalk is three inches long? I don’t have the space to enter this topic; let me just record that the answers to these questions aren’t at all clear. It seems to me much clearer that some counterfactuals of freedom are at least possibly true than that the truth of propositions must, in general, be grounded in this way.” 6
Thus, it is not entirely clear that the so-called grounding objection, even if technically unanswerable, should completely destroy the Molinist project, especially if we have other excellent reasons to think that Molinism is true. But, in any case, I think I have shown that counterfactuals of creaturely freedom can be grounded via correspondence just as easily as past and future-tense statements.
In conclusion, the Molinist account of Divine foreknowledge and providence seems to be the most compelling. God’s foreknowledge of the future and providential control over the world are completely consistent with human freedom. Middle knowledge is also an exciting theological idea that has relevance for discussions on a variety of issues- including predestination, biblical inspiration, prophecy, and prayer.
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 Molinist account that was defended in this podcast.
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.
The Openness of God
Those interested in the contemporary theological and philosophical discussion of God’s foreknowledge and providential control of the world cannot afford to miss a fascinating development known as the open view of God. As I’ve mentioned in this podcast, this view holds that God does not have comprehensive foreknowledge of the future. Namely, He does not know with certainty the free choices His creatures will make. Thus, the future is partially open- depending upon the decisions of free creatures. Since He chose to create a world with free agents, God is necessarily limited in His foreknowledge.
This view of God’s foreknowledge and providential control has been described and defended in detail in The Openness of God by some of the foremost defenders of the controversial view. Each author adds a contribution in his own area of specialty to provide a compelling cumulative case for the open view of God.
In chapter 1, Richard Rice looks at the biblical evidence for the open model. He points out that a consistent theme of God changing his mind in response to human actions reappears all throughout the Bible. For example, God repeatedly changes His mind when dialoguing with Abraham, who continually tries to persuade God to give him more lenient requirements for the salvation of the city of Sodom in Genesis 18. There is also the famous passage in Genesis 6 where God ‘repents’ of making man in the first place. These are but two examples that demonstrate a persistent biblical theme.
Rice also contends that the open view gains some support from the Biblical theme of God’s love. While other views (such as Calvinism) stress the power of God, the open view stresses the love and relational character of God. Rice argues that love is the more central feature of God’s character. First, there is a contrast between God’s anger and love in Scripture. While anger is temporary, love is eternal, and while God is reluctant to get angry, He is eager to show mercy. Secondly, the direct Johannine statement “God is love” is one of the most direct descriptions of God’s nature in the Scriptures.
Perhaps the most significant Biblical area of struggle for this account is to be found in prophecy. Here, Rice’s exposition is a bit weak. Though he legitimately points out that there are different types of prophecies, some of which are indeed conditional, he is still unable to find a solid metaphysical grounding for God’s prophetic pronouncements in order to make sense of the Biblical data.
In chapter 2, John Sanders attempts to argue that the early Christian church was unduly influenced by Greek thought. The melding of Greek philosophical categories and expectations with the Biblical God led to the untenable hybrid that is often upheld in traditional theology today. This chapter offers a fascinating historical review both of the development of Greek philosophy and the development of Christian theology. While some may differ with Sanders about the degree to which the Church Fathers were influenced by Hellenistic thought, Sander’s contribution provides some great food for thought and a fascinating recounting of history that will be of benefit to any reader.
In chapter 3, Clark Pinnock offers a brief look at systematic theology from the openness perspective. Pinnock is an interesting figure because he is a famous convert from Calvinism. Pinnock looks at some of the traditional characteristics ascribed to God by traditional theology and attempts to reinterpret them in light of what he considers a more balanced Biblical view. Some attributes Pinnock considers are immanence, transcendence, immutability, eternity, and, of course, omniscience. Much of Pinnock’s treatment is actually quite compatible with the view that God has perfect foreknowledge of the future, but Pinnock contends that a balanced Biblical perspective favors the open view.
In chapter 4, William Hasker offers some philosophical considerations relevant to the debate. He analyzes five competing theories of God’s knowledge and power, ranking them on a continuum from most controlling to least controlling. These perspectives include, in order, theological determinism, Molinism, simple foreknowledge, open theism, and process theology. Hasker then argues that the open view offers the most consistent and compelling philosophical account of Christian theism.
In the final chapter, David Basinger looks at some practical implications of the open view. He looks at five areas of concern- petitionary prayer, divine guidance, human suffering, social responsibility, and evangelistic responsibility. Basinger argues that, collectively, the open view of God is actually the most satisfying account of divine foreknowledge and providence. It makes sense of petitionary prayer- since our praying for things can actually change the outcomes of the future. It increases our sense and awareness of social and evangelistic responsibility by reminding us that the future is partially up to us. And it helps us understand human suffering. Rather than conceive of evil as directly created or permitted by God, on the open view we can acknowledge that some evil really is gratuitous.
Since this book is authored by some of the foremost defenders of the open view of God, it is highly recommended for any reader interested in the topic of divine foreknowledge and providence. Moreover, a number of peripheral issues are discussed. Even those who are not enchanted by the open view of God may find the discussions about divine transcendence, eternality, immutability, and simplicity very rewarding. And, since each author analyzes the view from a different perspective, The Openness of God offers a great overview of the pertinent issues concerning this debate.
Personally, I hold some serious reservations about the open view of God. It seems to me that several serious problems plague the theory. I think openness theology is particularly weak at explaining prophecy and providence. Moreover, the view seems to be disconfirmed by numerous Biblical texts that imply or teach God’s foreknowledge of future free events. As a matter of fact, I agree with the authors that many points of traditional theology have been unduly influenced by Greek thought and ought to be dispensed with. For example, the doctrine of impassibility teaches that God cannot suffer. But this view seems to be contradicted by many passages describing God’s frustration and disappointment with sin. Even if these could be brushed off as anthropomorphisms, certainly the suffering of Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry seems to contradict this doctrine. I also think that we ought to view God as existing in time (though always existing), rather than timelessly. Likewise, the doctrine of divine simplicity is rather dubious, particularly considering the fundamental fact that God is in fact a Trinity of three persons in one substance. In all of these cases, I think that the Biblical testimony strongly favors rejecting many of the attributes of classical theology.
Nevertheless, I lack such an inclination with regards to God’s absolute foreknowledge. That God has such foreknowledge seems to be taught repeatedly and forcefully in Scripture. Even if other classical theological doctrines came about via the influence of Greek philosophy, the view that God has foreknowledge about the future- even about future free choices- seems to be solidly based in the Bible. Although I grant that many passages seem to call this view into question (such as the ‘repenting’ passages cited by Rice), I think that the interpretative dilemma facing open theologians is even more severe.
That being said, I would like to offer a brief line of defense for open theists. Contrary to many authors, I do not consider advocates of open theism to be outside the pale of Orthodoxy. Although their view of God does differ significantly from the view offered by traditional theology, I find no reason to deem them heretical. Open theists still affirm that God is omniscient. Thus, the main difference between open theists and their antagonists is their view about whether there really are facts about future free choices. It is true that denying the possibility of facts about future free choices leads to some fairly serious theological consequences, but this fact alone should not lead us to condemn open theism. I think openness theology remains a live option for the Biblical Christian.
Nevertheless, regardless of your view on the matter, The Openness of God is an important work that I recommend.
For the question, Mark asks whether I have ever been challenged by an atheist with a logically sound argument that I could not refute. While I have certainly been challenged by many atheistic arguments, I have never encountered one that appeared logically sound and irrefutable. However, this is just because such types of arguments are very rare, in my opinion. Almost any argument can be rationally challenged at one point or the other, so there are very few things which can be logically proved. Even if an argument is sound, with premises that lead inescapably to a conclusion, the premises need to be supported. It is very easy, generally speaking, to find some way to poke some tiny hole in at least one premise of an argument.
That is why we must be careful to avoid bias when we evaluate arguments ourselves. It is easy to slip into the tendency of critiquing arguments that support our own views very easily, while we raise the bar of skepticism unreasonably high when we are confronted with an opposing argument.
If there is one argument in which I am afraid that I fall into this trap, it is the Problem of Evil. Even though I think that there are many good responses to the argument, sometimes I worry that I raise the bar too high when evaluating the soundness and persuasiveness of the argument. Frankly, it is sometimes difficult to truly believe that the Problem of Evil has been answered when I witness the suffering that goes on in the world, both historically and presently. Plus, I know that I am a very lucky person who has experienced a life of almost unbridled prosperity. I have a loving family, great friends, good health, abundant material possessions, and on and on. In fact, I have experienced very little tragedy in my life. So I am sometimes concerned that I lack a perspective to truly understand the gravity of the problem. I think that the Problem of Evil is the single most persuasive and best argument for atheism there is. If you are interested in my response to this argument, you can check out episode 15 of this podcast and a lengthy article I wrote on the website.
1. Beckford, Martin. “Richard Dawkins branded ‘secularist bigot’ by veteran philosopher.” Telegraph.co.uk. 8 Feb. 2008. 3 Oct. 2008
2. Correll, Deedee. “Shroud of Turin stirs new controversy.” Los Angeles Times – News from Los Angeles, California and the World. 17 Aug. 2008. 3 Oct. 2008
3. Flint, Thomas P.. Divine Providence: The Molinist Account. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006 p. 92.
4. Craig, William Lane, Paul Helm, Gregory Boyd, and David Hunt. Divine Foreknowledge: 4 Views. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001 p. 57.
5. Craig, William Lane. The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge & Human Freedom. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2000.
6. Tomberlin, James, and Peter Van Inwagen. Alvin Plantinga. New York: Springer, 1985 p. 378.
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