Is Middle Knowledge Biblical? An Explanation

Charles Rennie

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.


[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.

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