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Is Middle Knowledge Biblical? An Evaluation

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In part one of this series, the doctrine of middle knowledge was set forth and explained on its own terms. Its principal concern is to reconcile the sovereignty of divine agency and the liberty of human agency by inserting a third logical moment between God's natural knowledge and visionary knowledge, wherein God purportedly knows what every creature would freely do in any set of circumstances. It is argued that, by freely ordaining a particular world with a particular set of circumstances in which God foresees what the creature would freely do, the integrity of both divine agency and human agency are preserved. 

In what follows, the biblical fidelity of Molinism will be evaluated from a self-consciously and confessionally Reformed perspective. Therefore, it must be asked: How biblical is middle knowledge? This question will not likely be resolved on purely exegetical grounds. A more definitive answer will be sought by evaluating some of the divergent theological presuppositions about God that lie behind these important exegetical discussions. And as we shall see, the assumptions that one is forced to make about God in order to assert the need for, much less the coherency of, a so-called middle knowledge in God, are inconsistent with the God of the Bible who just "is What He is" and is all that He is of Himself (Exodus 3:14).

Middle Knowledge Evaluated

How biblical is middle knowledge? There are different ways to approach this question. We could refute Molinism from an exegetical and hermeneutical perspective, and others have competently done so.[1] But we can also approach the question by evaluating the biblical and confessional fidelity of some of the more metaphysical assumptions implied in the Molinist position. In what follows, we will evaluate three of these assumptions. With respect to the first two, it will be argued that the solution proposed by the advocates of middle knowledge presupposes an unbiblical and, therefore, incoherent view of God. Regarding the third, it will be argued that the proposed problem itself, much less their proposed solution, equally assumes an unbiblical view of God and, therefore, should be rejected at the outset.

First, with respect to the Molinist solution, it fails to ground God's so-called middle knowledge in God's knowledge of Himself. Rather, it claims that free and contingent effects (events, actions, or otherwise) are known by God as things independent of divine causality. But this would make God and the perfection of His knowledge dependent upon that which is not God. Just as no creature can be in the world apart from the divine causality, neither can it be known what a creature would do if they were in the world apart from the divine causality. To say otherwise would necessarily presuppose a God whose knowledge is dependent upon the creature and a creature who is in some respects independent from God, both of which are metaphysically impossible and biblically incoherent.[2]

The second is related to the first, again with respect to the middle knowledge solution. This view fails as an explanation for how God can know with certainty what creatures would do contingently of their own independent-libertarian-freewill. A necessary cause produce necessary effects, which can be foreknown with certainty; a contingent cause produces contingent effects foreknown only with probability. If God knows what a would-be-creature would do by grounding His knowledge in the contingent causality of the creature, and not in Himself as the first cause, then He can only have a conjectural or probable knowledge concerning it. Middle knowledge provides no further explanation for how God can know with certainty, but only with probability, what we would do of our own independent-freedom. Furthermore, probable knowledge can be rendered significantly unreliable by the possibility of our "acting out of character."[3]

The third objection is with respect to the "problem" as they see it. We just said that necessary causes produce necessary effects and contingent causes produce contingent effects, i.e., effects that proceed from their cause in such a way that they might not have happened or could be otherwise. And the Molinist assumes that God's will, because it is infallible and immutable, must be a necessary cause that only ever brings about necessary effects and, therefore, threatens the contingency and liberty of human agency. 

But we cannot accept the problem as they see it, which assumes that God is of the same univocal order of being whose causal agency must compete for space and influence with the agency of the creature. Divine agency cannot be reduced to either a necessary or a contingent cause. God's causality transcends the whole order of creaturely existence and agency; His is of the first order of causality and the whole of creaturely existence is lived out in the order of second causes. Though divine agency in the world is certain and unfailing after the manner of first causes, it is not, as such, a necessary cause that produces necessary effects. Rather, as a transcendent cause, He unfailingly ordains necessary causes for the effects that He wills to be necessary, and He no less effectually ordains causes acting contingently for the effects He wills to be contingent. There is plenty of mystery here, but no problems to be overcome. Divine agency and human agency do not need to be reconciled as two forms of causality competing for the same effects. Divine agency of the first order does not violate but establishes human agency of the second order, whether necessary or contingent. To suggest otherwise is a colossal failure to take seriously the fundamental biblical distinction between the Creator and the creature.  

Our Reformed Confessions do not try to solve the mystery as though it were a problem, but unashamedly confess it:

"Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without his providence; yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently" (2LCF 5.2; WCF 5.2).[4]

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[1] For instance, see James Anderson's series "How Biblical is Molinism?" on his blog Analogical Thoughts.  

[2] Regarding the Grounding Dilemna, cf. Rom. 11:33-36. Also, cf. note 1 and 3 above. See Regninald Garigou-Langrange, The One God, 465-466, "God's knowledge cannot be determined by anything which is extrinsic to Him, and which would not be caused by Him. But such is the scientia media, which depends on the determination of the free conditioned future; for this determination does not come from God but from the human liberty, granted that it is placed in such particular circumstances ... Thus God would be dependent on another, would be passive in His knowledge, and would no longer be Pure Act. The dilemma is unsolvable: Either God is the first determining Being, or else He is determined by another; there is no other alternative. In other words, the scientia media involves an imperfection, which cannot exist in God." Charnock, Existence and Attributes, "If he understood by images drawn from the creatures, as we do, there would be something in God which is not God, viz. the images of things drawn from outward objects: God would then depend upon creatures..." (1:452). Again, "As his essence primarily represents itself, so it represents the creatures, and makes them known to him. As the essence of God is eminently all things, so by understanding his essence, he eminently understands all things. And therefore he hath not one knowledge of himself, and another knowledge of the creatures; but by knowing himself as the original and exemplary cause of all things, he cannot be ignorant of any creature which he is the cause of all things, he cannot be ignorant of any creature which he is the cause of; so that he knows all things, not by an understanding of them, but by an understanding of himself..." (1:453). See Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:214, "There was nothing from eternity which could be the cause of the determination of a thing indifferent to either part except the will of God; not his essence or knowledge, for neither can operate ad extra separated from the will. Therefore, as no effect can be understood as future (whether absolutely or hypothetically) without the divine decree (because no creature can be in the world without the divine causality), so no future conditional thing can be knowable before the decree."

[3] Regarding Only Probable Knowledge, cf. Isa. 46:10. See Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:215 (summarizing Aquinas, ST I, q.14, a.13), "He who knows an effect contingent in its own cause only and not in some superior cause certainly determining it, has only a conjectural knowledge concerning it; since from an indifferent cause as far as it is indifferent, a determinate act cannot flow; and for the same reason from a contingent antecedent, as far as it is contingent, a necessary conclusion cannot flow before the decree of the divine will." Again, "What is conceived to be determinately from God can also be pronounced to be determinately; but what is conceived only to be possibly can be pronounced to be only possibly. Now it is denied that the coexistence of a free act on hypothesis can be conceived to be determinately antecedently to the decree; it is granted that it may be possibly. So it is true that Peter would possibly sin if placed in a given order of things antecedently to the decree; but not determinately so as to make it true the Peter would actually and in fact sin if placed in such an order of things. This could not be certain unless from a permissive decree of God" (Turretin, 1:217-218). See Richard Baxter (quoted in Muller, PRRD, 3:4222), "[S]eeing they use it to shew how God knoweth that Determinatively, which he foreseeth but in Conditionibus sine quibus non, or in unnecessary and not determining causes. And their own answer signifieth nothing more to the purpose, but that God can know future contingents by the Infinite perfection of his understanding, which is most true. But that he knoweth them the more from the supposition of circumstances, they never prove."

[4] Regarding First and Second Causality, cf. 2LCF 3.1. See Michael J. Dodds, Unlocking Divine Action: Contemporary Science and Thomas Aquinas, 210, "If we affirm divine transcendence, we can see that secondary causality neither diminishes the power of God nor distorts that of creatures. God can act through secondary causes, with their character of necessity, contingency, chance, or freedom, without becoming himself just another secondary cause, acting with a univocal necessity, contingency, chance or freedom. God's causality is not limited or circumscribed by creatures. Nor is the causality of creatures compromised by God's causality: what God wills to be actualized in the world is always actualized, and it is actualized through the mode of secondary causality that God wills--actualized either through necessary causes so that it occurs necessarily, through contingent causes so that it occurs contingently, through free will so that it occurs freely, or by chance so that it occurs spontaneously." See Aquinas, ST I, q.19, a.8, "There is a difference to be noted on the part of the divine will, for the divine will must be understood as existing outside of the order of beings, as a cause producing the whole of being and all its differences. Now the possible and the necessary are differences of being, and therefore necessity and contingency in things and the distinction of each according to the nature of their proximate causes originate from the divine will itself, for he disposes necessary causes for the effects that he wills to be necessary, and he ordains causes acting contingently (i.e., able to fail) for the effects that he wills to be contingent. And according to the condition of these causes, effects are called either necessary or contingent, although all depends on the divine will as on a first cause, which transcends the order of necessity and contingency. This, however, cannot be said of the human will, nor of any other cause, for every other cause already falls under the order of necessity or contingency; hence, either the cause itself must be able to fail or, if not, its effect is not contingent, but necessary. The divine will, on the other hand, is unfailing; yet not all its effects are necessary, but some are contingent." See Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:218, "...what in respect to the first cause is necessary with respect to the second can be contingent, the first cause so disposing it. This not only insures the existence of the thing, but in its own manner that it is a necessary thing necessarily, a contingent contingently. Yet that necessity as to the first cause does not take away the liberty of free will because it is not a necessity of coaction, but of consequence or infallibility which best conspires with liberty."


Charles J. Rennie is a graduate of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies (IRBS) and Westminster Seminary California (2008), the University of St. Andrews (2017), and is presently a Ph.D candidate at Durham University. He is a pastor at Sycamore Reformed Baptist Church in East Moline, IL He also serves on the board of trustees for the IRBS Theological Seminary.


Related Links

"Is Middle Knowledge Biblical? An Explanation" by Charles Rennie

Grace Worth Fighting For by Daniel Hyde 

Chosen in Christ by Richard Phillips

What Are Election and Predestination? by Richard Phillips

PCRT '83: Predestination  [ Audio Disc |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

Five Golden Links by James Boice [ Audio Disc |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

 

Is Middle Knowledge Biblical? An Explanation

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Middle knowledge, otherwise known as Molinism, derives its name from a 16th century Jesuit named Luis de Molina (1535-1600). There is evidence that within a decade of Molina's death, his view of middle knowledge had a profound influence upon the theology of James Arminius--though there is some scholarly disagreement as to the extent of that influence. Among the more academic and influential contemporary advocates of Molinism are Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig (who has proposed that Molinism is the key to a Calvinist-Arminian rapprochement).  But interest in the doctrine also seems to be growing in the more popular and accessible world of internet blogs, videos, and podcasts. If you have not yet encountered it, there is a good chance that either you or one of the members of your church will. 

In this two part series, the biblical fidelity of Molinism with be examined from a self-consciously and confessionally Reformed perspective. However, before its biblical fidelity can be evaluated, which will be the focus of the forthcoming post, we must seek to understand Molinism on its own terms. Therefore, it must be asked: What is Molinism, and to what does "middle knowledge" refer?

Middle Knowledge Explained

The principal concern of its advocates is to reconcile the certainty of God's decree and the contingency or liberty of man's actions, i.e., divine agency and human agency. The problem, as they see it, is this: because God's foreknowledge and will are immutable and infallible, whatsoever He foreknows must necessarily come to pass. But, if all things occur necessarily, genuine freedom, or the contingency of free agents, seems to be impossible. For instance, because God infallibly foreknew that I would presently be writing this analysis of Molinism, it would seem that it is not genuinely possible that I not be writing this at this moment. How can we affirm the certainty of God's foreknowledge and decree without reducing man's liberty to some form of necessitarianism or determinism, i.e., fatalism? The Molinist maintains that this is the logical consequence of the Reformed position and proposes the doctrine of middle knowledge as the solution.

However, we cannot accept the problem as they see it, nor the assumptions that lie behind it. But leaving that aside for the moment, in order to understand the Molinist solution we need to bear in mind two things with respect to God's knowledge. First, we must maintain that the foundation of all of God's knowledge is His own essence and does not depend upon any thing other than Himself. "I Am Who I Am" (Exodus 3:14). In other words, God just is what He is, and He possesses all that He is from Himself. "God ... is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creature which he hath made, .... In His sight all things are open and manifest, His knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent or uncertain" (2LCF 2.2; WCF 2.2); "Known to God from eternity are all His works" (Acts 15:18). Medieval and Reformed alike have always confessed that God knows by His own essence, i.e., He necessarily knows all things in perfectly knowing Himself and every way in which His own perfection and goodness can be imitated and reflected in the creature in finite and limited ways. In this way, God's knowledge is grounded in His own essence as imitable--as the Prototype and Exemplar of all reality, whether of things actual or merely possible.[1] This is an important biblical presupposition, to which we will return in a moment, that undermines the Molinist position.

The second thing we must bear in mind is the various logical and biblical distinctions that have been customarily made with respect to the knowledge of God. The medieval and Reformed consensus has been to distinguish two logical (not temporal) moments in the divine knowledge relative to the divine decree: the natural or simple knowledge of God and the free or visionary knowledge of God. Another way to say this is that God knows both all that He can do and all that He, by virtue of His decree, will do. 

The first moment--the natural knowledge of God--is logically prior to the divine decree, i.e., it does not presuppose the decree, but comprehends His absolute knowledge of all possible things-and-worlds in which His essence can be imitated in created things. As such, His natural knowledge is His knowledge of His own absolute power (de potentia absoluta), i.e., whatsoever God's power can do.

The second moment--God's so-called knowledge of vision--refers to His fore-knowledge, not of whatsoever He is capable of doing, but more narrowly of those things that He has freely willed/decreed to do. As such, the visionary knowledge of God presupposes, or logically follows from, the decree of God and rests not only upon the absolute power of God but more particularly the ordained power of God (de potentia ordinata). 

The former, being logically prior to His decree, refers to whatsoever God can do, including many possibilities that God might have done but has chosen not to do. The latter, presupposing His decree, refers to God's foreknowledge of whatsoever He has freely chosen to actualize or bring to pass. Things are known as possible by virtue of His power and fore-known as future by virtue of His will. And yet, "although God knoweth whatsoever may, or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions" (2LCF 3.2; WCF 3.2; cf. Rom. 9:11-18). 

Once again, as the Molinist sees it, the problem with the traditional reckoning is that, if God's foreknowledge of things future (persons, events, actions, etc.) rests upon the immutable will of God, then those things must come to pass necessarily. And if they come to pass necessarily, then the contingency and liberty of human agency would be destroyed. Their proposed solution to the problem is the so-called doctrine of middle knowledge. In order to affirm man's liberty and divine sovereignty, they insert a third logical moment between God's natural knowledge and visionary knowledge, hence the name middle knowledge. Like the natural knowledge of God, middle knowledge, according to one author, 

"is God's prevolitional knowledge of all true counterfactuals. That is to say, it is a type of knowledge God possessed logically... prior to his willing to create the world or his making of any decisions about what kind of world, if any, he would create. In this knowledge, God apprehended the truth value of all counterfactuals, or conditional propositions in the subjunctive mood. ... To illustrate, the [following proposition is a counterfactual] ... "If the Supreme Court had declared Al Gore the winner of the 2000 presidential election, the United States would not have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq." And according to middle knowledge, God knows which of these propositions are true and which are false before deciding to make this world or any world."[2]

That God possesses counterfactual knowledge is not particularly controversial. Medieval and Reformed alike would confess that so-called counterfactuals are among the many possibles that lie within the purview of God's natural knowledge. What is controversial about the middle-knowledge-claim is that it does not ground this knowledge in God's knowledge of Himself (neither in what He can do nor in what He will do), but in what the potential creature would do of its own accord. The middle knowledge view proposes that God knows what every creature, if created, would freely do in any set of circumstances, not by knowing Himself as the principle cause of every possibility, but by knowing the potential creature as the whole cause of their own actions, independent of divine causality. What is controversial, then, is the assumption that God's so-called middle knowledge is grounded not in God Himself, but depends upon something other than God--upon the creature, presumed to be independent and autonomous.[3]

The uniqueness of this view can be seen in its relation to the doctrine of election. The popular variety of Arminianism proposes the following logical order: God decides to create a particular world and then looked down the corridor of time and foresees who will put their faith in Christ and who will not, and then He bases His decree of election on the faith foreseen in those persons. Molinism, however, approaches the matter with more sophistication. It proposes that God is, according to a so-called middle knowledge, aware of all possible worlds in which, under certain circumstances, a person would freely trust in Christ and other possible worlds in which, under different circumstances, they would freely reject Christ. Accordingly, He does not base His election of that person on the basis of their foreseen faith, but no less determines that they will believe by sovereignly decreeing one of the possible worlds, together with all of the concomitant circumstances, in which He foresees that they would believe. Human freedom is thereby preserved, inasmuch as God is not the cause of their believing; likewise, God's sovereignty is preserved, inasmuch as He was under no necessity to decree that world and not another of the myriad of possible worlds in which they would not have believed.

In Summary. We have sought to answer the question: What is Molinism, and to what does "middle knowledge" refer? The principal concern of its advocates is to reconcile the sovereignty of divine agency and the liberty of human agency. The problem, as they see it, is this: if whatsoever God decrees necessarily comes to pass, then genuine freedom and the contingency of free agents seems to be impossible. Their proposed solution is to insert a third logical moment between God's natural knowledge and visionary knowledge, wherein God purportedly knows what every creature would freely do in any set of circumstances. It is argued that, by freely ordaining a particular world with a particular set of circumstances in which God foresees what the creature would freely do, both the sovereignty of divine agency and the liberty of human agency are preserved. But how biblical is middle knowledge? In part two of this series, we will offer a brief evaluation of the so-called doctrine of middle knowledge from a self-consciously and confessionally Reformed perspective.

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[1] cf. Aquinas, ST I, a.15, q.2, "Inasmuch as He knows His own essence perfectly, He knows it according to every mode in which it can be known. Now it can be known not only as it is in itself, but as it can be participated in by creatures according to some degree of likeness." Charnock, Existence and Attributes, "God knows by his own essence; that is, he sees the nature of things in the ideas of his own mind, and the events of things in the degrees of his own will; he knows them not by viewing the things, but by viewing himself; his own essence is the mirror and book, wherein he beholds all things..." (1:452). See Henri Renard, The Philosophy of Being, "From all eternity God contemplating His essence, which is the actuality of all perfection, sees the possibility of limited imitations of that supreme perfection. Thus, from an eternity He conceives the possible essences; consequently, these essences are said to be eternal, immutable, and necessary. The formal realization of the possibles, then, is in the divine intellect. The foundation, however, for this cognition is the essence of God as imitable, for the essence of God is the source of all reality, of all possibles, of all beings" (112). See John McCormick, Scholastic Metaphysics, "[I]f anything at all besides God is possible, it is because it can imitate in a finite way some infinite perfection of God. God's essence as imitable in a finite way in created things is, therefore, the ultimate foundation of the possibles and the final reason why things are possible at all... God's essence is therefore the Exemplar and Prototype of all reality" (1:55).

[2] Kirk R. MacGregor, Luis de Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge, 79.

[3] The Molinist might protest this conclusion, pointing out that Molina himself spoke of divine causality both in creating creatures capable of libertarian-causality and in freely bringing to pass a specific order and, therefore, outcome of things. He even maintained that "God acquires no knowledge from things but instead knows and comprehends everything He knows in His own essence and in the free determinism of His own will..." But Molina immediately goes on to limit the extent to which God comprehends everything He knows by excluding the notion that He knows all things in knowing Himself as their cause: "...nonetheless it is not because He knows that something is going to be that that thing is going to be. Just the opposite, it is because the thing will come to be from its causes that He knows that it is going to be" (Molina, On Divine Foreknowledge: Part IV of the Concordia, trans. Alfred J. Freddoso, disputation 52.19).


Charles J. Rennie is a graduate of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies (IRBS) and Westminster Seminary California (2008), the University of St. Andrews (2017), and is presently a Ph.D candidate at Durham University. He is a pastor at Sycamore Reformed Baptist Church in East Moline, IL He also serves on the board of trustees for the IRBS Theological Seminary.


Related Links

Grace Worth Fighting For by Daniel Hyde 

Chosen in Christ by Richard Phillips

What Are Election and Predestination? by Richard Phillips

PCRT '83: Predestination  [ Audio Disc |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

Five Golden Links by James Boice [ Audio Disc |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

Reprobate Anglicans

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Continuing to ponder the idea that God appointed some to everlasting life and others to a different fate. Is this really a genuinely Anglican idea, as my previous posts about the dark side of predestination and the way not to apply reprobation have asserted?

The first commentary on the Thirty-nine Articles by Thomas Rogers seems to indicate so. In The English Creed (1585), page 60, he writes (with Yoda-like grammar), "Err therefore doe they which stand in opinion that some are appointed to be saved, yet none to be damned." His later A Treatise upon sundry matters contained in the Thirty-nine Articles (1658), page 65, adds a condemnation of those who say "no certain company be foredestined unto eternal condemnation."

He was not alone in holding this view of course. In reply to an attack by a Portuguese Roman Catholic named Osorious on the English creed (i.e. the Articles), the famous John Fox and a certain Mr Haddon, wrote this:
For whereas that most sacred purpose of the divine predestination and reprobation doth issue and spring from out the only will of God, being indeed most unsearchable, yet most righteous; and whereas, also, men are first fashioned in the same will, as in God's workshop, to be either vessels of wrath, or vessels of mercy, before that any lenity or mercy do appear to be extended towards any of them from God; by what means then will Osorius affirm that the defence of justice consisteth wholly in mercy, and that there be no vessels of wrath, but such as will not be vessels of mercy? I do answer that this is true that no man perisheth at all, but whoso perisheth by his own procurement and default," nevertheless, "as he is a judge he doth punish sinners indeed; but as he is a creator he doth fashion his creatures according to his will, even as the potter doth fashion his pots."  Haddon & Fox Against Osorius. (originally, 1563). (See Thomas R. Jones, An Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles by the Reformers (1849), page 105.)
Haddon and Fox oppose the view that there are only "vessels of mercy" and those who themselves decide not to be. They oppose that by saying that predestination and reprobation can both be traced back to God's will. God's will, not their own, makes people vessels of mercy or vessels of wrath. It is true, they affirm, that all who perish do so because of their sin, in a sense. But in an ultimate sense, God fashions things as he wills.

There was a dispute in Cambridge about these issues in the 1590s. There were virulent sermons against Calvin, Beza, Vermigli, and Zanchius, and especially their doctrines of election. In response, the co-called Lambeth Articles were drawn up by the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and endorsed by both archbishops, and others, in 1595. They clarified that Anglican doctrine was Reformed and, more specifically, that, "1. God from eternity has predestined some men to life, and reprobated some to death." Note the subject of that sentence. They added that, "4. Those not predestined to salvation are inevitably condemned on account of their sins." God predestines and reprobates, the latter on account of sin, the former on account of grace alone.

The Anglican worthies who were sent by King James I to attend the Synod of Dort in 1618 were far from severe or hyper-calvinists, as my previous interlocutor Dr Jensen will no doubt admit (their minority opinion on the matter of "limited atonement" being of particular interest to some of our mutual friends in Sydney). They did however pronounce it an erroneous opinion that predestination to life was "the whole and entire decree of predestination." The fact that some are severed from others by the decree is a key part of it according to scripture, they said.

On reprobation, the British divines at Dort -- who clearly were unafraid to disagree with a majority view, if they felt scripture or their confession called them to -- declared that "non-election, we avow to be grounded upon the most free will of God." They cite Romans 9 and John 10:26 ("you do not believe because you are not my sheep"). All lie in sin and are equally undeserving. God decides to save some, and decides not to save others. They are damned and predestinated to damnation in consideration of their sin. Reprobation is the negation of election and sets down "the immutable will of God, by which he hath decreed not to take pity of that person, whom he passeth by, so farre forth as to bestow upon him eternall life." As they conclude, "The Apostle fetcheth this preterition, or non-election, from the mere will of God." (See Anthony Milton (ed.), The British Delegation and the Synod of Dort, pages 230, 238-239, 241, 242-243.)

So nothing that I have affirmed about "the sentence of God's predestination" against the reprobate is un-Anglican. It is embedded in the first generations of Reformation Anglican writing on the subject, as well as being part of an international Reformed consensus at that formative time.

I know there are subtle distinctions at play in the way some people talk about this subject. And perhaps I am too much of a dullard and a historian to really understand the philosophical elegancies of systematics. But as the great Anglican scholar J.B. Mozley puts it in his Treatise on the Augustinian doctrine of Predestination (1883), page 392, "There is no real distinction between abandoning men to a certain state, of which punishment will be the consequence, and ordaining them to that punishment."

As he goes on, on the next page, "I see no substantial difference between the Augustinian and Thomist, and the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. S. Augustine and Calvin alike hold an eternal Divine decree, which, antecedently to all action, separates one portion of mankind from another, and ordains one to everlasting life and the other to everlasting punishment."

I confess that I find that intellectually satisfying and historically compelling, as well as most in accordance with scripture as I currently understand it. I also think it is authentically Anglican and thoroughly evangelical, and while I fully understand some may not like it and want to disagree, I can't see that it should be dismissed with irrelevant epithets such as "overly neat" or "unfeelingly dogmatic."

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society, adjunct lecturer at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, and Research Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Centre Africa at the University of the Free State, South Africa

How not to apply reprobation

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In my former article on The darker side of predestination, I spoke about how Article 17 of The Thirty-nine Articles is not entirely limited to talking about the positive aspects of that doctrine. It does indeed mention "the sentence of predestination", the flip side of the coin, as do other Anglican formularies. Article 17 teaches that reprobation cannot be used as an excuse for immorality, not that there is no such thing as reprobation.

This reading is confirmed I think by a passage in Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's proposed canon law reform, the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum. There, he writes, 
On the fringe of the church there are many who live in a wild and dissolute way, who when they get interested in the subject, being dissipated by excess and completely cut off from the Spirit of Christ, always toss predestination and rejection, or (as they usually call it), reprobation, into their speech, arguing that since God by his eternal counsel has already determined something, both concerning salvation and destruction, they have some excuse for their wrongdoings and crimes and all manner of evil. And when pastors upbraid their dissipated and disgraceful life, they blame God's will for their crimes and by that defence consider that the reprimands of admonitions are wasted... Wherefore everyone must be warned by us that in undertaking actions they should not rely on the decrees of predestination, but adapt their entire way of life to the laws of God, and contemplate that both promises to the good as well as threats to the bad are generally set forth to him in the Holy Scriptures.
In other words, one may be reprobate, but one is not to assume this in deciding how to live. All the more so, since "the decrees of predestination are unknown to us," as the 1553 edition of Article 17 says. Interesting use of the plural "decrees" there.

Rather, we are to obey the warnings of Scripture and trust the promises. As Article 17 says, "in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared to us in the Word of God." So we are not to base our rejection of God on a presumption that he has not chosen us. Scripture, when it speaks of reprobation, does not apply it in this manner.

So preachers should simply declare the promises of God for forgiveness as applicable to all those who repent and believe. Just because we don't preach reprobation to people as an excuse for them to sin, that does not mean there is no such thing as reprobation.

I love the way Article 17 tells us that believers should not recoil from this doctrine of predestination as "too complicated" or "too divisive" or "too mysterious", but meditate on it as "full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort" for believers. It leads to godliness and love for God. We can and should focus on that, as a much needed gospel comfort. But that doesn't mean we should dismiss as "scant" the references to another aspect of this doctrine.

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society, adjunct lecturer at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, and Research Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Centre Africa at the University of the Free State, South Africa


I was interested to see that TGC have launched in Australia. I hope and pray it will be a great support and encouragement to gospel-minded people down under.

On their shiney new website, there is an article posted two days ago on the great Anglican theologian, W.H. Griffith Thomas by my friend and birthday buddy, Michael Jensen.

One of the things Griffith Thomas says, and which for some reason Michael chose to zero in on in his summary of the man, is that there is no mention of the darker side of predestination in the Anglican formularies. Or as WHGT put it when commenting on Article 17 of The Thirty-nine Articles, "There is no reference to Reprobation or Preterition, neither of which is part of the Church of England doctrine."

Now, I don't especially like talking about this sort of thing. It can be difficult pastorally, and you always have to hedge everything around with qualifications and asides to guard against misunderstandings. And there isn't a consensus even amongst the more Reformed type of evangelicals about how precisely to formulate this sort of thing. So it isn't something I personally would choose to bring up if I was trying to build a coalition around central gospel truths. I would pass over it.

All that being said, it is a little disconcerting to read this sort of thing, and to be told that "there are scant Scriptures that might be said to teach a doctrine of reprobation." OK, so Article 17 does not explicitly cite:
1 Peter 2:8, "[those who do not believe] stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do."
2 Peter 2:12, "But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction."
Jude 4, "certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ."
Revelation 17:8, "the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world..."
But in such scriptures, the doctrine of reprobation does seem to many interpreters to surface in a most remarkable way. If it doesn't, if there is some other explanation for what these verses say, then perhaps we ought to be educated on that, rather than them simply being dismissed as "scant." They are, after all, about as scant as the number of verses directly addressing practising homosexuality, or whether you should marry a non-Christian.

We don't usually accept the argument that "where number of verses addressing a subject is small, dismiss the doctrine," or call it "mysterious," or say there is "no reference" to it. After all, how many times does God need to say something for us to listen?

As a mere historian, I think it is only fair to point out that Article 17 does actually speak of "the sentence of predestination." This "sentence" leads those without the Holy Spirit into desperation and ungodly living. This can only be a reference to that aspect of predestination which is directed against the non-elect, can't it?

The positive side of the doctrine is stated in the Articles using a clear allusion to Romans 9:23 "vessels made to honour". When you look that up, as all contextual exegetes like to do, it doesn't take long to notice that it is immediately preceded by a contrasting mention of "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" (Romans 9:22). Did I mention Romans 9 earlier? Maybe not, but again, it is another place where many commentators have seen the darker side of predestination being addressed, i.e. "What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction...?" Romans 9:13 doesn't say, "Jacob I loved."

It simply won't do to say that there is "no reference" to the flip side of this sweet doctrine. I know some people are offended by it. So did the English Reformers. There is an official Anglican Homily about that, "An Information of them which take Offence at certain Places of Holy Scripture." (The Homilies are officially recognised as having a certain authority in Anglicanism, by Articles 11 and 35.) This teaches us to have a "reverend estimation of God's word." And in part 2 of that homily, we are taught that, "Christ Jesus is a fall to the reprobate, which yet perish through their own default; so is his word, yea, the whole book of God, a cause of damnation unto them."

You might say this is simply affirming that sinners are damned by their own fault. That, as Griffith Thomas puts it "it is not God's doing." But it seems to me that it mentions God's word also being "a cause of damnation" there. Or did I misunderstand? I'm not quite convinced with Michael Jensen that "if we are condemned, it is our fault entire." I suspect there is more to it than simply us opposing his will (as if that could trump God's will). 2 Corinthians 4:3 also mentions another agency involved in the perishing of unbelievers.

There's also the lesser-read "Homily for Rogation Week" (Part 1). Here, we are also informed that God "may do what liketh him, and none can resist him. For he worketh all things in his secret judgment to his own pleasure, yea, even the wicked to damnation." God is involved somehow even in this darker side of things, it seems to say here. That even alludes to Proverbs 16:4 (another of those scant scriptures I forgot to list earlier).

I agree with Michael, that "There is much more of value in the work of Griffith Thomas." There is a great deal of useful stuff in the work of this great dispensationalist, premillennialist Anglican of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for those seeking to build a coalition around the gospel. Indeed, his portrait graces the walls of the Church Society office, and his commentary on the Articles is a Church Society publication. I just wish that we had learned more in Dr Jensen's article about some of the valuable things in his work, rather than this much more questionable aspect of his output.

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society, adjunct lecturer at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, and Research Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Centre Africa at the University of the Free State, South Africa

In scholastic theological discourse, 'moral suasion' and 'physical influence' represent two different ways of getting someone to do something. If my goal were, say, getting my four-year-old daughter to the dinner table, I might employ 'moral suasion' by promising her that she'd find her favorite dish when she arrived there, or by simply threatening her with consequences for refusing to follow my instructions to cease and desist from playing and join us for supper. I might, alternatively, employ 'physical influence' by simply picking her up, compliant or not, and carrying her to the table.

This distinction finds expression, among other places, in the Synod of Dort's explanation for how God brings his elect to faith and repentance. "God," the Canons of Dort argue, "not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to [the elect] outwardly, ... [but] also penetrates into the inmost being, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. God infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant."

The Divines at Dort described God's act of 'physical influence' upon the will in such terms to counter semi-Pelagians who professed that divine grace precedes every positive movement of the human will towards salvation, but -- when pressed -- were forced to admit that by 'grace' all they really meant was God inviting, threatening, pleading with, and otherwise attempting to suade [sic] sinners to embrace the Gospel. The underlying assumption of such persons was that sinners retain sufficient freedom of the will to respond positively to the Gospel when it is properly set before them. Grace in such a semi-Pelagian scheme need not entail any actual influence upon the will, and -- correspondingly -- remains something which can be resisted by those whom it confronts.

Though Luther never employs the exact terms I've outlined above ('moral suasion' vs. 'physical influence'), I believe this distinction lies at the heart of the difference he posits, in his Bondage of the Will, between God's work of regenerating those whom ultimately believe and God's work of hardening those whom ultimately perish in unbelief.

So enslaved, in Luther's perspective, is every human person's will to that human person's sinful nature -- i.e., so enslaved is every person's will to sin (cf. John 8.34) -- that Luther, though admitting that people sin freely and under no compulsion, is reluctant to attribute 'free choice' to sinners at all. For sinners to exercise faith in Christ, then, requires a divine act of physical influence upon their wills. "The ungodly does not come even when he hears the Word [moral suasion], unless the Father draws and teaches him inwardly [physical influence], which He does by pouring out the Spirit. There is then another 'drawing' [namely, one of physical influence] than the one that takes place outwardly [i.e., that of moral suasion]; for then" -- that is, when God employs his Spirit to bring someone to faith -- "Christ is [so] set forth... that a man is rapt away to Christ with the sweetest rapture, and rather yields passively to God's speaking, teaching, and drawing than seeks and runs himself."

For Luther, as for the Divines at Dort, 'moral suasion' and 'physical influence' coincide in the work of regeneration -- "it has thus pleased God to impart the Spirit, not without the Word, but through the Word" -- but the latter is utterly indispensable to any right response to the Gospel. Elsewhere Luther describes this "inward" work of God upon the will thus: "If God works in us, the will is changed, and being gently breathed upon by the Spirit of God, it again wills and acts from pure willingness and inclination and of its own accord, ... willing and delighting in and loving the good just as before it willed and delighted in and loved evil."

But Luther employs decidedly different language when he discusses God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart (and the hearts of all who die in final unbelief) in Exodus 9:12 (cf. Romans 9:17-18): "[God] provoked [Pharaoh] and increased the hardness and stubbornness of his heart by thrusting at him through the word of Moses, who threatened to take away his kingdom and withdraw the people from his tyranny, without giving him the Spirit inwardly but permitting his ungodly corrupt nature under the rule of Satan to catch fire, flare up, rage, and run riot with a kind of contemptuous self-confidence."

In other words, God hardened Pharaoh's heart through an act of 'moral suasion' alone. God confronted Pharaoh with a word which required Pharaoh to give up something he held dear, and in so doing provoked Pharaoh to cling more tightly to that very thing. Luther again explains: "It is thus [God] hardens Pharaoh, when he presents to his ungodly and evil will a word... which that will hates -- owing of course to its inborn defect and natural corruption. And since God does not change it inwardly by his Spirit, but keeps on presenting and obtruding his words... from without, ... the result is that Pharaoh is puffed up and exalted by his own imagined greatness, ... and is thus hardened and then more and more provoked and exasperated the more Moses presses and threatens him."

Thus God "hardens" all who are exposed to the Word without a corresponding work of God's Spirit to bring them to faith and repentance: "This provocation of the ungodly, when God says or does to them the opposite of what they wish, is itself their hardening or worsening. For not only are they in themselves averse through the very corruption of their nature, but they become all the more averse and are made much worse when their aversion is resisted or thwarted." In Luther's judgment the Gospel proves the ultimate "provocation of the ungodly," because it calls sinners to abandon their most prized possession -- their own self-righteousness.

This basic difference between God's act of hardening (through 'moral suasion') and God's act of softening (through 'moral suasion' and 'physical influence') human hearts should be carefully noted. It reminds us, among other things, that God is not the author of corrupt nature or sinful human acts as such. If, in fact, God hardened human hearts in some way analogous to how he softens them -- by an act of physical influence upon them -- Scripture's claim that God is "too pure" even to "look upon sin" (much less to be the culpable cause of sin) might seem to ring hollow. Persons who, like the Divines at Dort, accept with Luther the biblical truth that God has in fact predestined some (undeserving) sinners to eternal life (accomplishing their salvation in time) and predestined other (deserving) sinners to eternal death (accomplishing, in a fundamentally different way, there condemnation in time) would do well to articulate the difference in how God ultimately achieves those respective ends with as much precision and care as Luther.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Our local veterinary clinic -- where our dog, for reasons I'd rather not relate, is not welcome -- has a letter board on their grounds which typically displays humorous messages about animals. The message on display earlier this week caught my attention as I was driving to work. It read: "If cats could talk, they wouldn't." I must confess, this made me smirk -- which is generally as close as I come to laughing. I'm no despiser of cats in principle, but they do strike me as the kind of creatures that, were they suddenly endowed with the ability to speak in human language, wouldn't condescend to actually say anything to anyone. The sign made me wonder, in fact, if cats might not actually have the ability to speak, and simply don't because they can't be bothered communicating their thoughts to human beings, creatures so clearly inferior to them in every conceivable way. Can we really be sure they cannot speak if, regardless, they will not speak?

As it happened, I read that sign as I was on my way to teach a class on Luther's Bondage of the Will, and it struck me as I was doing so that this particular possibility regarding cats -- that, in actual fact, they "cannot" speak simply, or more properly, because they will not speak -- provides an apt analogy for Luther's teaching on sinful man and his freedom (or lack thereof) to exercise faith in, and genuine love towards, God. As is well known, Luther argued -- contra the claim that sinners retain some ability to choose the good apart from grace -- that sinners cannot choose Christ unless (or until) God restores their wills and so renders them capable of doing so (or, indeed, incapable of not doing so). Critics then and now have often argued that Luther's doctrine of the "bound will" destroys man's culpability for his crimes (or, alternatively, his merit for his positive moral choices), rendering him a mere puppet who acts according to the dictates of forces he cannot control.

Luther, to be sure, employs some images that might seem to warrant such criticism, describing for example the human will as a "beast of burden" subject to the mastery of either God or the Devil. "If God rides it, it wills and goes where God wills.... If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it." But when we read beyond the often quoted extracts, we quickly realize that Luther's teaching isn't really susceptible to the charge of reducing man to a mere puppet, free from moral responsibility. Luther's teaching is really that sinful man cannot choose Christ because he will not choose Christ. Like cats who, supposing they can actually talk, don't talk because they won't talk, sinners don't orient themselves towards the true Good because, quite simply, they want nothing to do with that Good. And, needless to say, sinners are morally responsible for that which they will not choose or do.

We see this, I suggest, if we pay careful attention to a distinction Luther repeatedly draws in his writings on the subject of the will, that between the "necessity of immutability" and the "necessity of compulsion." It is a distinction found in pre-Reformation writers, especially those of an Augustinian bent; Thomas Aquinas, for example, whose perspective on the will and human freedom was much closer to Luther's than either Luther or most modern scholars admit, makes this distinction in his Summa Theologiae (see I-II, 112, 3). The "necessity of immutability" describes the necessity that pertains to human choices, for good or ill, by virtue of the fact that God at very least foreknows (and, really, has fore-ordained) everything that comes to pass. The "necessity of compulsion" describes the necessity that pertains to human choices, for good or ill, by virtue of some outside agent effectively forcing those human choices.

Luther, much like earlier Augustinians and, for that matter, Augustine himself, acknowledges that everything happens according to divine foresight and design. There is, in other words, a kind of necessity (of immutability) that governs everything that happens, including the decisions humans make. But Luther vigorously denies that human choices happen according to any "necessity of compulsion." No man, in other words, does "evil against his will, as if he were taken by the scruff of the neck and forced to it." Man does evil, rather, "of his own accord and with a ready will." Man cannot do other than sin, in other words, because he will not do other than sin.

The converted man, likewise, chooses Christ not because he is compelled to do so by God, but because God has made that man willing to do so. "If God works in us, the will is changed, and being gently breathed upon by the Spirit of God, it again wills and acts from pure willingness and inclination and of its own accord, not from compulsion, so that it cannot be turned another way by any opposition, nor be overcome or compelled even by the gates of hell, but it goes on willing and delighting in and loving the good, just as before it willed and delighted in and loved evil." The converted man "cannot be turned" from Christ, in other words, because he will not be turned from Christ, whom he now delights in and loves.

Thomas, for what it's worth, put it this way: "If God intends, while moving, that the one whose heart He moves should attain to grace, he will infallibly attain to it, according to Jn. 6:45: Every one that hath heard of the Father, and hath learned, cometh to Me."

It never occurred to Thomas or Luther to illustrate the lack of compulsion that ultimately characterizes sinful or faithful choices by discussing snobbish cats and their refusal to speak. More's the pity, as no cat has ever said.

Now if someone could just devise some way of convincing cats to try to communicate, we might clear up once and for all the question of whether they can in fact communicate. I'm fairly certain, in any case, that dogs genuinely cannot speak. If they could, I'm pretty sure mine would never shut up.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL. Those who have met his dog, Oakley, know exactly why Oakley is not welcome at the local veterinary clinic.