Providence & Prayer (2) » Molinism

If Molinism was a TV show I think it would be Quantum Leap. Ok, a few adjustments would have to be made here and there (and ‘by a few’, I mean a lot and by ‘here and there’, I mean everywhere).

According to Molinism, people act with complete freedom, yet God has knowledge of the future and this future only comes into being through divine and human actions. In fact, Molinism proposes that before time God had perfect knowledge of every possible world and the outcomes included within that existence and chose our world based on the decisions and actions we would make. Still following?

Molinism is the attempt to reconcile the absolute autonomy of the creature, on the one hand, and God’s sovereignty, on the other. While Luis de Molina was a sixteenth century Spanish Jesuit, his ideas are alive and well and can be found in the work of contemporary thinkers like Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, so we cannot simply shed this belief as something expired.

The question remains: How exactly is this reconciliation between human autonomy and divine sovereignty accomplished for the Molinist?

The answer: through a theological idiom known as divine scientia media (middle knowledge). Within the scope of God’s omniscience, Molina held that God knew how humans would respond under other possible situations. According to middle knowledge then, God knows exactly what a person will choose to do and based on this knowledge, God will ‘equip’ this individual and her surroundings to accomplish what God foresaw in the life of this particular individual. Craig confirms this point when he claims in regards to salvation that

… the relation of the unevangelized within God’s providential ordering of the world [is] a situation in which God may have so arranged the world that those who never in fact hear the gospel are persons who would not respond to it if they did hear it. God brings the gospel to all those who he knows will respond to it if they hear it (Craig, Only Wise God, 150).

With that said, God can in no way intervene to bring this human action to pass through his own willing or activity; this action is entirely within the remit of the creature. I like to think of it in terms of what happened in the Quantum Leap episode where Sam teaches Chubby Checker how to do ‘the twist’, but you’ll probably better appreciate Molina’s example of two men pulling a barge:

There are two causes cooperating to produce a single, total effect. Thus, when a man wills to produce some effect, God concurs with the man’s decision by also acting to produce that effect; but God does not act on the man’s will to move it to its decision (Tiessen, 170).

Problems: Molinism still commits itself to a zero-sum game, where one party/agent has to come out on top as winner and the other, consequently, as the loser. The discussion can’t simply go back and forth between God and man as though these were equal and similar agents as, in this frame, one party inevitably has to win and the other has to lose. As Kathryn Tanner has helpfully explained, ‘The theologian must correct the assumption that freedom and power are had by the creature only in independence of God’s creative agency for them. The theologian must talk of creaturely freedom and agency as freedom and agency under God’.

The mistake, therefore, of Molinism and other accounts that speak of the relation between God and humanity in this uniform way is that it subjects both parties to a single category. By doing so God is stripped of his Lordship and made an equal with the creature within this single category, but so parsed, this category cannot contain both, as God refuses to be domesticated. At the end of the day one party will inevitably have to declare: ‘this town aint big enough for the both of us’.

Finally, the account of God’s providence that underwrites this model essentially culls an orthodox doctrine of God. Here God is portrayed as an indifferent divine agent who creates things and secures the power by which humans bear the responsibility of executing their own agency by their own will and without any real involvement of God in the day to day affairs of life.

The result is a Deus otiosus – an ‘idle God’ – who we can certainly pray to, but the kind of questions we have to ask ourselves vis-à-vis this model pertain to exactly how we are to pray, what do our prayers amount to and what kind of God is it that hears our prayers?

Thoughts?

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4 thoughts on “Providence & Prayer (2) » Molinism

  1. Thanks for the post and the reflections Mark. The strength of Molinism is also its great weakness. For Molinists, as based on your argument, God becomes very relatable and tangible. His reactions and interactions with us are understandable because they mirror our own. We don’t like to say that anyone, let alone a supreme being, may act in such a way that violates our own choosing. It would be considered divine imperialism! However, that is its great tragic flaw. God is not like us. God is wholly “other”. God’s agency is so far beyond our understanding in that he can act and let us act and He remains the Sovereign God. God needs to remain God, not anything that is less. God needs to be the “active” in history, not the “reactive”, “inactive”, or “passive.” Yes God the Son Incarnated himself to become like one of us. But, as the Gospels witness, He was still wholly “non-us.”

    As far as prayer goes, I don’t know what comfort there is for a Molinist that is above what another person could provide. God becomes “just a chum” as it were, and can provide no comfort in terms of being able to do something about it.

  2. The key problem is the metaphysics of God’s knowledge of counterfactuals regarding libertarian agency. This is known as the grounding problem.

    1. God knows what any libertarian agent will do in every unactualized world and in the one he choses to actualize.
    2. God selects the best of the libertarian-agent worlds.
    3. But God cannot know what these libertarian agents do because of:
    a. His foreknowledge, since all but one of these worlds will not be actualized and, thus, cannot be foreknown. The one world God foreknows is known as such not because it is foreknown, but becuase of the fruitful arrangements of its agents (best ratio of good to evil, given libertarian constraints).
    b. The cause and effect structure of the counterfactual world. This is because libertarian agency is agent causation: choice comes from the agent, not from outside effects.
    c. God’s predestination of the world, since God does not do this and cannot with libertarian agents.
    d. The character of the agent’s themselves, since the agent can always do either A or non-A; it is not determined by the agent’s character.

    4. If a-d obtain, then, there is no metaphysical basis for God’s counterfactual knowledge (middle knowledge) of what these agent’s world do.
    5. Therefore, middle knowledge is impossible, since it lacks necessary grounding.

  3. Hopefully I’m not reopening a too-dead conversation, but it seems that there is some potential here that has been lost. I’m not sure that I fully fall in with the Molinist crowd either, but let’s give it its due and see what happens.

    Mark – The “zero-sum” model doesn’t really represent Molinism. First of all, let us note that under Molinism, God could have created a deterministic world; however, He has completely of his own volition chosen not to. Therefore, the fact that we even have free will in the first place has already placed us within the theatre of God’s drama; the shaping of the world and all of our circumstances are also God’s willing, and so in interacting with this world we are interacting with God. Molinism simply holds, like any other coherent theology, that if God choses to work with certain materials, than God has chosen to work with those materials; certain things are thus relatively necessary, and the Molinist says that libertarian free will accompanied by counterfactuals of freedom are one of those relative necessities.

    In addition, each of my willings is still willed by God, and even when I chose something which would be suboptimal in the local situation, God has chosen me for that situation for His larger picture. It has not therefore simply been one giant game of tug-of-war, and you seem to make it out to be.

    Also: “The mistake, therefore, of Molinism and other accounts that speak of the relation between God and humanity in this uniform way is that it subjects both parties to a single category. By doing so God is stripped of his Lordship and made an equal with the creature within this single category, but so parsed, this category cannot contain both, as God refuses to be domesticated.” I would like to see some argument for this, and an explanation of Lordship and sovereignty which entails this and is necessary or at least probable on Biblical, theological, and/or philosophical grounds. Otherwise, it’s simply a deus ex machina.

    Finally, if creatures do not have their own free will, why isn’t this world a pantheist one? Let me put it like this: let’s say that there is a world in which God creates a fully non-conscious, non-sentient rock. God completely caused it, God has completely provided its end, God completely sustains it. Is there any difference at all between this world and one in which God simply “thinks” the rock? There is nothing in the rock not completely accounted for in God, after all. Now, if human beings are the same way, how are we separate from God? We, as determined, would be the sum of our parts, and all of our parts would be reducible to God.

    Now, isn’t it a sign of God’s power that He is not stranded in this view? Wouldn’t a God would could only make a determined world (where I take probabilities as a special form of determination, and randomness as a special form of probability) be less powerful, less “sovereign” than one who could in addition make libertarianly free beings should He so choose?

    Doug – Point 3d is precisely what is denied by the Molinist. The person’s character does say what she would do; this is not the the same as saying what the person must do. The Molinist says that the dichotomy between determinism and randomness is a false dichotomy, and that counterfactuals of freedom supply a missing category irreducible to anything else.

    Also, isn’t the grounding objection the claim that God must know these things discursively? It would seem that it implies that God must be able to reason out His knowledge of the counterfactuals of freedom from other facts. However, a) if these form an irreducible category, why assume that they can be deduced from anything else? and b) why not assume that God has intuitive knowledge of all facts, including these counterfactuals? Maybe one could claim that there is a problem with the grounding of the truth of these counterfactuals (though this is only a valid objection once someone shows what truth-grounding entails), but the metaphysical grounding of God’s knowledge of them could be simply that they are true.

  4. Mr. McDowell,

    I have three objections to your post:

    (1) You say, “Molinism proposes that before time God had perfect knowledge of every possible world and the outcomes included within that existence and chose our world based on the decisions and actions we would make.”

    This is not the position that a Molinist would take. God did not choose to create our world, “based on the decisions and actions we would make.” Rather, God chose to create this world based upon His Divine Omniscience and His Sovereign will. Your depiction of Molinism here is entirely inaccurate.

    (2) You say, “As Kathryn Tanner has helpfully explained, ‘The theologian must correct the assumption that freedom and power are had by the creature only in independence of God’s creative agency for them. The theologian must talk of creaturely freedom and agency as freedom and agency under God’. The mistake, therefore, of Molinism and other accounts that speak of the relation between God and humanity in this uniform way is that it subjects both parties to a single category. By doing so God is stripped of his Lordship and made an equal with the creature within this single category.”

    These comments suggest to me that you really don’t understand Molina’s ideas at all. In the Concordia Molina says this:

    “The primary, though remote, source of contingency for the effects of all secondary causes belonging to the natural order is God’s will, which created the free choice of human beings and angels and the sentient appetite of those beasts that seem to be endowed with some sort of trace of freedom with respect to certain acts; on the other hand, the proximate and immediate source is the free choice of human beings and angels.”

    Nothing exists without God; therefore, nothing happens without God. This is what Molinists call God’s divine concurrence. A creature has libertarian free will, in so far as they are the efficient cause of their actions. However, they derive their continued existence from God who maintains them and therefore permits them to act at all; in this sense, God is the primary or remote source of contingency for the effects of secondary causes (i.e. the actions of free creatures).

    It is unclear to me how this strips God of his Lordship and makes him equal with the creatures He created.

    (3) Finally, you say, “God is portrayed [by Molinists] as an indifferent divine agent who creates things and secures the power by which humans bear the responsibility of executing their own agency by their own will and without any real involvement of God in the day to day affairs of life.”

    Once again, your depiction of Molinism is completely unfounded. To begin with, as I just demonstrated, Molinists believe existence and being depend upon God. If God did not sustain his creation it would not persist. Secondly, Molnists believe God is intimately involved in every aspect of His creation like any other traditional Christian. God is both transcendent and immanent. God is actively involved in our lives and knows us—God is a person and relates to us in a personal way. God is providential, ensuring that His plans and purposes come about. How could this view of God possibly be construed as indifferent or uninvolved?

    Sincerely,

    Josh

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