Is Middle Knowledge Biblical? An Evaluation

Charles Rennie


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]


[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.

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