Molinism is not Open Theism: A Critique of Dr. McMahon’s Assessment

In recent years Molinism has made a come-back in philosophical circles thanks to the work of Alfred J. Freddoso, Thomas Flint, and William Lane Craig.  As a result, Molina’s ideas are creeping their way back into theological discussions as well.  Slowly but surely, pastors and seminary students are becoming acquainted with, at least, the term Molinism.  Often, this minimal acquaintance leads the uninitiated to do a quick search on goggle.  Upon searching, they are confronted by the blog-post of Dr. C. Matthew McMahon on A Puritan’s Mind entitled:  The Heresy of Middle Knowledge.  Curiosity gets the best of them and they eagerly click on the post with the inflammatory title.  As they read the first paragraph of McMahon’s article, and encounter his thesis statement, any positive interest in Molinism which might have existed quickly fades away:

“In this paper, the heresy I am re-refuting surrounds Theology Proper, or the doctrine of God.  It is specifically in terms of the doctrine of the knowledge of God, or His Omniscience.  The error is called Molinism, or Middle Knowledge (Today Open Theism is its close brother.)”

After reading the final words of his thesis the troubled pastor or seminary student dutifully  stuffs Molinism in a black file-folder marked, “Heresies that must not be named,” and forego any more research on the matter.

For many, Dr. McMahons malicious and poorly researched blog-post is both their first and last introduction to Molinism.  I find this situation very sad, because Dr. McMahon’s description of Molinism is filled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations.  To rectify this unfortunate situation I will correct four of the biggest mistakes in McMahon’s post.

(1)  McMahon claims that the Doctrine of Middle Knowledge is Open Theisms “close brother.”

This claim is truly baffling considering Molina’s doctrine of Middle Knowledge is actually Open Theisms worst nightmare; for, it ascribes to God what Molina terms supercomprehension.  Without getting into too much detail, this means that God has knowledge of how a person would freely act in any and all possible worlds.  He calls this supercomprehension because it says that God has comprehensive knowledge of states of affairs that may never actually obtain (something far beyond regular comprehension.)  On top of this, Molina believed that God had this knowledge prior to his decision to create.  To put it in the crude vernacular of modern language: the doctrine of middle knowledge is like foreknowledge 2.0.

Open Theism argues that it is impossible for God to have foreknowledge—especially foreknowledge of the free actions of human beings.  So, it is entirely false and nonsensical to claim that Molina’s Doctrine of Middle Knowledge is Open Theisms “close brother.”

(2)  McMahon says, “middle knowledge states that God cannot know the future free acts of men in the same way He knows other things absolutely.  Thus, this middle knowledge is dependent upon the free acts of what men will do.  God, in His “omniscience”, waits for men to act and then will choose them to be saved based on their choice to be saved.”

It’s clear from this statement that McMahon has grossly misunderstood the thrust of Molina’s argument.  Molina holds to a libertarian view of free-will which basically means that human beings are the efficient cause or first cause of their own actions.  Naturally, if man has libertarian free-will then God’s middle knowledge is partly contingent (dependent) upon man because man is the one producing the action.  However, it does not follow from this that, “God, in His “omniscience,” waits for men to act and then will choose them to be saved based on their choice.”  This is the Arminian position.

The crucial part of Molina’s theory is not that God has middle knowledge but that he has middle knowledge prior to his free act to create.  Accordingly, God knew that Peter would deny him when placed in situation A (A being the situation described in the gospels) before the foundation of the world.  Furthermore, God knew how Peter would act in any and all possible situations that he could put Peter in.  Based on both his natural and middle knowledge God chose to create a world in which situation A would obtain.

So, it is not that God waits for men to act and then chooses them.  God chooses what creatures to make, what world to create, and what situations to place them in—knowing what free choices they will in fact make.  Thus, God predestines but this does not impinge upon mans free will.  Man is still responsible for his actions because he is the cause of his actions.

(3) McMahon says, “The Molinian logician will argue that an action must first occur before it can be true.  God, then, cannot know anything in this manner as true and absolute unless it has first occurred.”

This statement is obviously false, because Molina believed God possessed middle knowledge before his free act of creation. In other words, the Molinist does not believe an action must first occur before it can be true—that is Open Theism.  The Molinist believes that God has supercomprehension, and thus can have knowledge of actions before they occur and even if they never occur.

(4) McMahon says, “It is certainly easy to see what the doctrine of Middle knowledge is attractive here.  Men are ultimately their own little saviors.”

Well, actually, the doctrine of middle knowledge says no such thing.  In fact, the doctrine of middle knowledge has only indirect implications on matters of soteriology—it is directly concerned with matters of God’s omniscience.  There may be some crazy exception (there always is) but Molinist’s do not believe man can save himself.  They do believe salvation comes from the Lord—through the work of Jesus on the cross.


19 thoughts on “Molinism is not Open Theism: A Critique of Dr. McMahon’s Assessment

  1. The way you gloss free will is not libertarian, but source incompatibilist. Being the efficient cause of their actions of itself isn’t sufficient for libertarianism since it doesn’t inclide the alternative possibilities condition.

    Second, its not clear that Molinism is compatible with libertarianism since the ground of God’s knowledge is the essence of some person qua person and the relationship of the essence to the actions is deterministic, otherwise, God couldn’t know what Joe would do in w1 as opposed to w2.

    This is in keeping with Molinism as a species of Augustinianism.


    • Hey Perry,

      Thanks for your comment. I have never heard of source incompatibilism and I couldn’t find an entry for it in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. There was a section under compatibilism that dealt with source models–is this what you are referring to? In any event, you are right in pointing out that I didn’t give a comprehensive outline of libertarian freewill; however, that was not the focus of my post and would have been out of place. Perhaps I should write a post on libertarian agency one of these days.

      As to your second point, I’m not sure I understand what you are getting at. How is the relationship between the essence of a person to actions deterministic? how would this prevent God from foreknowing the actions of Joe in any given situation?

      – Josh

  2. Josh,

    I don’t have the philosophical chops to weigh in on your discussion with Perry, so I will gladly let that continue. I do want to say that I agree with you overall and think you represented Molinism very well. (One minor point: would Molina have conceded that any of God’s supercomprehension is contingent upon man’s actions? I don’t think so, but I may be wrong.)

    The first time I came across McMahon’s post, I was doing exactly as you described, only instead of “filing it away,” his vitriol drove me to dig deeper. Given that I had read Hasker’s critiques of Molinism, I was shocked to see someone try to lump it in with open theism. At the time, I considered McMahon an ill-informed quack and “filed him away.”

    To my chagrin, I find that his position is, if not typical, at least well represented within the Reformed camps. I have many Calvinistic and Reformed friends, so let me direct this next portion to them:

    You guys are always correcting non-Calvinists for their misrepresentations of your views (rightly so.) I readily admit that most of my Calvinist friends are very missionally minded. I also confess that if I held those same presuppositions, I would not be. For this reason, there are basic misunderstandings that cause misrepresentations. Please don’t fall into the same pit! McMahon’s attempt to understand Molinism is the worst kind of misrepresentation. He claims that Molinism is open theism’s close kin and then spends the rest of his article attacking open theism as if they were the same. How is this any different than a non-Calvinist laying out arguments against healthy Calvinism by painting it with the same brush as hypercalvinism? Look a little closer, and I think you will find that we Molinists have a healthy view of God’s sovereignty and a biblical understanding of libertarian free will. Give us a chance. It might even help to explain some of your nagging questions. *smile*

    Great job, Josh. Have fun with Perry.

    • Hey Cory,

      I’m not sure I have the philosophical chops to answer Perry’s questions. In any event, I’m shocked and distraught at how ill-informed Calvinists are when it comes to Molinism–it makes me upset that McMahon’s views are typical among our reformed brethren. Hopefully this article will play a small part in rectifying this problem.

      Thanks for the encouragement bro!

      – Josh

      P.S. Molina would say that God’s knowledge of future contingents or (counterfactuals of creaturly freedom) is primarily contingent upon the free creature. It’s no contingent upon God because He is not the one directly producing or causing the action–the creature is. However, it is also contingent upon God’s total, in depth, knowledge of His creatures.

  3. If the relation between the essence that is the person and the action is not deterministic, how will it follow that by knowing their essence God knows their actions in a given possible world? It won’t.

    • Hey Perry,

      That is a very interesting point–in fact, one that I’ve never considered. Let me think on it for a while before interacting with it. Please don’t think I’m blowing you off; I really will think about it and get back to you.

      – Josh

  4. Very informative article. I’m not completely convinced of Molinism myself, but do think that it is important to represent it fairly.

    McMahon also writes that Arminianism is “a deceiving doctrine of demons wrought up from the pit of hell”. A real piece of work. 😉

    • Hey Kevin,

      Thanks for your feedback. It seems that McMahon is more interested in pushing his Reformed Theology than doing objective scholarship.

      – Josh

  5. Hey Perry,

    Several things come to mind after thinking about what you’ve said.

    (1) It seems to me that the essence of a person is his soul (spirit) which is by definition an immaterial entity. Therefore, we can’t assume the same form of material cause and effect applies to an immaterial entity.

    (2) According to my understanding of libertarian freewill the essence of a person (that is his soul or–to use the lingo of philosophy of mind-his mind) acts as an unmoved mover or first cause of producing actions while intentions (such as desires and beliefs) act as the final cause of the action. In this case actions are not random (because they have a final cause) but they are spontaneously generated by the individual. If this account of libertarian freewill is true then it seems that the relationship between the essence of a person and his actions is not deterministic.

    (3) The Bible clearly and repeatedly shows that God has middle knowledge. Hence, even if I can’t explain in detail how it is that God has this knowledge I can at least recognize that he does. Perhaps I’m sounding a bit Eastern Orthodox here but there are some things (in fact many things) about God which remain a mystery to us. I don’t say this as a cop out; but simply to admit that my finite mind is not capable of fully understanding an infinite God.

    What do you think?

    – Josh

  6. So if the person is the soul, then either Jesus is two persons or he didn’t have a human soul. So Nestorianism or Apollinarianism are your options there.

    2.desires and beliefs are not necessarily or at all, intentions. Intentions are plans of actions, desires are states.

    I am not convinced that the bible teaches middle knowledge so asserting as much won’t move me.

    Given that I am Orthodox, no, you aren’t sounding a bit Orthodox. :P~

  7. Hey Perry,

    LOL! 🙂 I didn’t realize you were Orthodox! I’m enjoying our conversation and will respond to you on tomorrow. Have a good night!

    – Josh

  8. Hey Perry,

    (1) When I say that the essence of a person is his soul I am not trying to downplay the role or importance of the body. I believe the soul and the body are deeply united. At the moment I am leaning towards a Thomistic understanding of the soul as being the “substantial form” or “essence” of the body; the, “primary actuality of a physical bodily organism.” It seems appropriate to me that the essence of a person would be his soul because the soul continues to exist even when the body does not.

    In any event, I don’t see why my view would lead to Nestorianism or Apollinarianism. The logos is a person who became a human being–the incarnation. Is my thinking wrong on this point?

    (2) However one classifies intentions, they are clearly the reason or (final cause) of our actions. We explain why Bob crossed the street not simply in terms of physical causes or chemical reactions but based upon his intentions. Furthermore, if Bob has libertarian freewill then we can say his actions are undetermined because he acts as an unmoved mover or first cause of his actions.

    (3) How would you interpret I Samuel 23:6-10?

  9. Jmatt,

    I am not worried abut the importance of the body per se. Jesus is not a human person, but he has a human soul. Therefore the person cannot be the soul on pain of Apollinarianism or Nestorianism.

    The incarnate Christ is always and only a divine person in whom exists human nature.

    Intentions aren’t reasons though they include them. Intentions are plans of actions. I can have a reason without intending to do something, but the converse is not true.

    Intentions vs. physical causes won’t rule out all forms of determinism.

    And I am not sure what your point is with 1 Sam? Of cource I’m a Palamite and so I have a different conception of dvinity and the relation to time and the nature of divine eternity so I won’t cash it out in the same way as Molinists, Thomists, et al.

  10. Well written response. I was not impressed with the original article and can’t stand the general vitriol from so many Calvinists to whom I’ve talked. One even said that he hoped that one day I would let go of my logic and philosophy and embrace the truth of Calvinism. Haha! I feel like so many who follow one or the other views (Arminians/Calvinists/Open Theists/even some Molinists) can totally get caught up in their own dogma. We need to keep our focus, keep the main thing the main thing.

    Does your view truly denigrate the God of the Bible? If so, you might want to rethink your view. If not, then let’s move on.

  11. Wonderful article. I’m a Calvinist and also a metaphysical compatibilist. I first read up on Molina maybe a little over a year ago and was convinced that any Calvinist that was also a compatibilist (as many, though not all Calvinists, seem to be) was necessarily also a Molinist. They might hold onto their Calvinistic rhetoric (which I don’t disagree with, but it can be overly simplistic), but if they actually attempt to reconcile Calvinism and compatibilism (which is itself the reconciliation of determinism and “libertarianism”), I think that they will find that Molinism proves adequate to that task, without breaking from the confines of Augustinian orthodoxy.

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