The Case for Molinism: Free Will, Foreknowledge, or Foreordination?

Dr. Howard Short
One solution to the theological dilemma that God’s foreknowledge and foreordination present to human freedom was first championed by the sixteenth century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina. In philosophical circles, his solution is known – unsurprisingly – as Molinism.
Molina distinguished three divisions in the structure of God’s knowledge. The first is necessary knowledge (knowledge of all truths that must be and could be, such as ‘one plus two equals three’ and ‘Adam and Eve could exist’) and the third is free knowledge (knowledge of what will be, such as ‘Adam and Eve will exist’). Between necessary and free knowledge Molina placed middle knowledge (knowledge of all truths about what would be were certain circumstances to exist, such as ‘Adam and Eve would eat the forbidden fruit were they placed within Eden’).
Molina suggested that necessary knowledge could not be different and was not determined by God (God does not decide that ‘one plus two equals three’ or that ‘Adam and Eve could exist’) and that free knowledge could be different and was determined by God (God does decide that ‘Adam and Eve will exist’). Middle knowledge, however, he said, is knowledge that could be different and yet was not determined by God. The reason is that truths such as ‘Adam and Eve would eat the forbidden fruit were they placed within Eden’ must describe the free (self-determined) actions of Adam and Eve. Hence, they cannot be necessary (three has no choice about being the sum of one and two) nor can they be determined by God (Adam and Eve have no choice about eating the forbidden fruit if God causally predetermines that they will). Necessary and non-self-determined choices are forced choices, and the Molinist argues that forced free choices are as incoherent as married bachelors. Adam and Eve’s consumption of the fruit must be (in some sense) something that they determine, otherwise they would not be free and responsible for that decision.  
Statements about what free creatures would freely choose to do in any situation in which God might place them are known as counterfactuals of freedom. All of them have the form ‘If P were in S, then P would do A’ (where P is any person, S any situation, and A the action performed) and all fall within God’s middle knowledge.
Molinists argue that the above sketch provides the conceptual resources for proposing a resolution to the dilemma that foreknowledge and foreordination present to human freedom. Using middle knowledge, they say, God is able to bring about the actions he providentially prefers by bringing about the situations in which persons freely perform his providential preference. To illustrate, I am confident that were I to offer our son Jonah a trip to Teton Toys with a stop for pizza at Pinky G’s afterwards, that he would freely accept. Perhaps I will extend this offer and perhaps not. The point is that my confidence in the truth of this counterfactual of freedom may motivate an attempt to plan this future that includes his free decision. My confidence may be misplaced, of course, and so my plans may fail because the above counterfactual that I think is true is actually false. But this shortcoming within my own knowledge is absent within God’s knowledge; the success of his providential plans that include the free choices of free creatures is not similarly at risk.
Is Molinism biblical? Consider two examples. First, in 1 Samuel 23 David is fleeing Saul and hides in the town of Keilah. While there, David asks God whether Saul will come to Keilah and whether the people of Keilah will hand him over to Saul. God affirms both, but neither occurs. Why? David leaves Keilah. This is not false prophecy from God, but rather, says the Molinist, by his middle knowledge God discloses to David what would happen were David to remain in Keilah.
A second example is from 1 Kings 22. There, God is seeking to persuade Ahab to attack Ramoth Gilead so that he will die there. A spirit comes forward and indicates that it will persuade Ahab by lying to his prophets. God states that the spirit will succeed and so it departs to persuade. Here, Molinists can say that God not only exhibits middle knowledge (he knows what Ahab would freely do were Ahab to hear from his prophets), but also that middle knowledge explains God’s foreknowledge and foreordination of Ahab’s death in a way that does not negate his freedom.
Other examples abound (Matthew 11:20-24 and 1 Corinthians 2:7-8 are just two), but I think enough has been said to at least show that Molinism is not unbiblical. But even if Molinism is not unbiblical, it does not follow that Molinism is true (there are three categories to consider, after all: the biblical, the unbiblical, and the nonbiblical – matters about which Scripture is silent). So, is Molinism true? Well, that’s a question each reader must answer. Disappointed there’s not something more definitive in closing that I can say? Welcome to philosophy.

About Dr. Short
Dr. Howard Short teaches upper school philosophy, logic, and math at JH Classical Academy. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma, where he did his doctoral work on freedom, foreknowledge, and foreordination. He earned his master’s degree in philosophy of religion and ethics from Biola University.

Dr. Short says that his background in philosophy, theology, and mathematics has allowed him to delve into the logical and academic side of Christianity. Believing that a classical education teaches students to pursue truth, beauty, and goodness, he is committed to equipping students to defend the faith through apologetics. He has especially enjoyed engaging his high school students at Geneva in Socratic discussions and group activities. He guides students so that they are able work through topics (whether in AP Calculus or philosophy) on their own, step-by-step, rather than passively hearing a lecture.
He and his wife, Hillary, our upper school dean of faculty, have a son, Jonah, who’s in second grade.

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