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Molinism and Varieties of Freedom V: Reformed Perspectives

27 October 2011

John Calvin

This penultimate installment of “Molinism and Varieties of Freedom” will examine the compatibility of Molinism and Reformed understandings of divine foreknowledge and human agency. Given that Calvinism is the tradition that gives us Double Predestination is seems something of a fool’s errand to seek to find common ground between it an a philosophical system which seeks to maintain perfect creaturely free will but the desire to retain some type or vestige of human agency under the insuperable divine will is not a vain one.

Sitting at the very center of Calvin’s theological paradigm was an omniscient and omnipotent God at work behind all things. All of Calvin’s theologising had as its aim to glorify this God, assigning all power and honours to him at the expense of creatures. This impulse stands at the heart of Calvin’s theological thought and is central to the paradigm in which he worked. With that in mind it is not difficult to see why Calvin found human free will to be nothing less than an offence to the power and glory of God: does it not impugn the omnipotence of a such a mighty God to suggest that lowly creatures may do other than he wills them to do?[1] This strongly theo-centric approach to human free will is not dissimilar to Luther’s hamartiological apprach to the question: the actual theological anthropology of each is a mere implication of a theology deemed more important. In Calvin’s case what is primary is divine providence, as is termed the unfolding of divine will by divine power in the created order, and any consideration of mere creaturely freedom is secondary and follows always from that primary consideration.

This paradigm leaves little room for Molinism’s central intent on reconciling free will with divine foreknowledge. In Calvin’s theology human free will is, like in compatibilism, bound by necessity. This is how Calvin maintains his theodicy: the will bound by necessity is still morally responsible.[2] Terrance Tiessen of Providence Theological Seminary has recently (2000) argued for what he terms a “middle knowledge Calvinist model of divine providence.” Within Tiessen’s system God possesses knowledge of counterfactuals, how non-actual states of affairs would been actualised, but Tiessen maintains restricted creaturely freedom.[3] However to Calvin the necessity that restricts creatures in the perfect divine will. This particular nuance sets Calvinism apart from other compatibilist accounts of human freedom by making it necessary not to assert human freedom. Thus the actual implications of Tiessen’s idea are clear: there are none. What Tiessen proposes says nothing new about creaturely will in within the Calvinist perspective, only about divine knowledge, precisely because in the Calvinist perspective the will is bound and that is all there is too it.

Jacobus Arminius

Of course this is not the first time that someone has brought Molinism into conversation with Reformed thought. Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius (d. 1609), father of Arminianism and principle, though not official, leader of the Remonstrant movement, turned to Molinism in order to reconcile perfect divine foreknowledge with the perfect human freedom he insisted upon because of his views of divine love and justice.[4] Arminius was engaged in a debate with Supralapsarianism, the then-popular position that God’s decree of human election and reprobation logically preceded his decree of the fall.[5] As previously detailed Arminius felt that predestinarianism contradicted divine wisdom, justice, and goodness and that these divine attributes necessitates that God allow his creatures a perfectly (libertarian) free will. It is important to note that Arminius did not break completely with his Reformed heritage, he continued to accept the Calvinist theology that human beings, by the fault of the fall, are unable to think, will, or act upon the good without the regeneration and continual aid divine grace.  Where Arminius diverged from Calvin and his own Reformed contemporaries was in asserting that human beings are not wholly passive under the effects of grace but by grace are newly able to move toward the good.[6]

Arminius returned humanity to an active role in the economy of salvation in a Protestant framework by asserting that while humanity does nothing to merit salvation we are active in its application. Thus salvation becomes more than the imputation of righteousness; it becomes the imparting of righteousness, to use Arminius’ own words, “…the communication of spiritual gifts, and elevation to dignities.”[7] Arminius reconciled this soteriology with Reformed theology’s insistence upon perfect divine foreknowledge through scientia media. Arminius’ appropriation and application of Molina’s theory is done within the existing modes of discourse of Protestant theology and his works read more like Calvin’s Institutio Christianae religionis than Aquinas’ Summa theologiae. He does not directly employ the terms scientia naturalis, scientia libera, or scientia media, perhaps for fear of drawing untoward attention through use of such nomenclature to the scholastic provenance of his ideas, which would have been not only unpopular but dangerous.

Arminius argues that God “… knows what things will come from creatures, whether they will come into existence or not, can exist by conservation, motion, assistance, concurrence, and permission… He knows what things He can do about the acts of the creatures…consistently with himself or with these acts.”[8] Arminius is sure to specify that God’s  foreknowledge is infallible, so that God sees all counterfactuals, but that this infallibility rests on God’s infinite essence, and not on an unchanging will that prescribes the unfolding of those contingencies and events.[9] By that assertion Arminius verily overturns the Calvinistic system, subordinating the perfect divine will to divine love and justice and maintaining a perfectly free, but perfectly foreknown, creaturely will.

Rather like in the case of Lutheranism taking on scientia media to Calvinistic theology is, prima facie, unnecessary. Though Arminius attempted it and the theology he produced is certainly still a Reformed theology, Arminianism is not Calvinism. Not only did Arminian theology eventually become the founding soteriology of a new Christian tradition, Evangelicalism, through his later interpreter John Wesley, even those Reformed thinkers who embrace the label ‘Arminian’ tend to do so in opposition to ‘Calvinist,’ the two ‘-isms’ forming separate streams of the larger Reformed inheritance. As Tiessen’s attempt makes clear, there is no actual affect to incorporating middle knowledge into a Calvinist theology: creaturely freedom is still restricted in the same way that it was before, God merely knows other non-actual realities in which our freedom could also be restricted.

The next, and concluding, installment of “Molinism and Varieties of Freedom” will make some general conclusions about scientia media and issue a few comments about creaturely free will, divine foreknowledge, and the theological-philosophical culture of early modernity.

Notes and Bibliography

[1] See Calvin’s Institutes II.ii.11-37

[2] For a more detailed discussion of the will bound by necessity see Molinism and Varieties of Freedom III: Compatibilist Freedom.

[3] Laing, John D., “The Compatibility of Calvinism and Middle Knowledge,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47: 459.

[4] The degree to which Jacobus Arminius can actually be called a ‘Molinist’ is debatable but his dependence on Molina’s categories is clear and he is known to have owned Molina’s Concordia.  See Muller, Richard A., God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Modern Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker House Books, 1991), 16-18.

[5] Here again we are dealing with a logical order of precedence rather than a temporal one. That the logical order in which God made his decrees prior to the event of creation is an issue sufficiently debated to earn self-identifying “-isms” (the opposing view, that God’s decree of election and reprobation logically succeeded the fall, is called postlapsarianism) may seem condemnatory of post-Reformation theologians (rather like those medieval debates over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or whether the churchmouse who sneaks a piece of consecrated bread has received the body of Christ) but within the Reformed theological paradigm the distinction carries significant implications for soteriology and theology proper.

[6] Slate, Howard A., The Arminian Arm of Theology: The Theologies of John Fletcher, first Methodist theologian, and his precursor, James Arminius (Washington D.D.: University of America Press, 1979), 54.

[7] Nichols, James, trans., The Works of James Arminius vol II of III (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 367. The quotation is from Arminius’ Private Disputations.

[8] Works, vol II, 341. Again it is the Private Disputations being quoted.

[9] Ibid.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 December 2011 12:34 am

    It’s not often I can look at a blog and feel intrigued, but this is a very good piece of writing, and I gained some good ground for thought from it. So firstly, thankyou for that!

    I have an extreme amount of respect for Jacobus Arminius as a theologian and a man. As a man, he went through a lot in his life, but nevertheless persevered in his faith and love for God to the very end. I wholly recommend his biographies, “Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation” by Carl Bangs, and “The Life of James Arminius” by Casper Brandt (trans. John Guthrie). I actually utilised these two texts in my rendition of his life at my blog, if you care to take a look (http://sentimentsassuch.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/the-life-of-jacobus-arminius-d-d-1559-1609/).

    As a theologian, quite frankly I think he’s a genius. As for his views on Middle Knowledge, this is a very interesting question for me as an early-modern history student at University and Christian. At another internet page, it referenced Arminius’ “Works” (II:123-124) where Arminius was discussing the concepts of natural, middle and free knowledge as evidence that Arminius was himself a Molinist and endorsed this thinking. Other scholars point to his personal library, which certainly did include copies of Molina’s writings.

    The problems I have with these arguments however is that it does not follow from the citation of a concept that Arminius therefore agreed with the concept. I note in that above citation (Wo. II:123-124) that Arminius’ prefaces his points on middle knowledge with “The schoolmen say…” i.e. ”Scholars write of this…” which seems more like a simple scholarly reference than a full endorsement, though I may be wrong.

    Additionally, to have a book in one’s library does not constitute endorsement necessarily, but surely it shows understanding. Arminius scholar Richard Muller apparently made this mistake in addressing his concerns about whether or not Arminius implicitly agreed with Catholic theologies but denied it (he owned many Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox authors). But obviously, it does not follow, and his works testify to the opposite. However it is true that Arminius held that it is not the source of a point, but the validity and soundness of a point itself (so ad hominem and genetic fallacy arguments are obviously not valid); he agreed with Eastern orthodox theologian St John of Damascus for example in his exposition on the twofold (or, ‘two-fold’) will of God in and against the

    Brill publishing house has some pricey but interesting volumes on Arminius, and perhaps “God’s twofold Love” (available on amazon) would be a good one.

    I think that perhaps I will write an Honours thesis on Arminius’ influence in European history.

    Once again, good post!

  2. 27 December 2011 12:38 am

    Sorry I didnt quite finish a sentence…!

    “…he agreed with Eastern orthodox theologian St John of Damascus for example in his exposition on the twofold (or, ‘two-fold’) will of God in and against the [Calvinistic concept of the two wills in God theory.]”

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