Are Arminian Theology and Middle Knowledge Compatible?

Are Arminian Theology and Middle Knowledge Compatible? September 4, 2013

Are Arminian Theology and Middle Knowledge Compatible?

One of the most basic impulses of Arminianism is that God is not the author of sin and evil—even indirectly. On this virtually everyone knowledgeable about Arminian theology agrees. Divine determinism, the belief that God directly or indirectly determines all that happens according to a predetermined plan, was rejected by Arminius and has been rejected by all Arminians since him. I have demonstrated that in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities and Against Calvinism. Arminian theology and divine determinism are like oil and water; they cannot mix. And the reason they cannot mix is because of the Arminian Grundmotif which is God’s goodness. If divine determinism is true, the fall and all its consequences, including eternal hell, are part of God’s plan and made necessary by God even if only indirectly.

In a now famous and much discussed article in Sixteenth Century Journal (XXVII:2 [1996]: 337-352) Dutch theologian Eef Dekker asked “Was Arminius a Molinist?” and answered in the affirmative. (Molinism is, of course, synonymous with belief in middle knowledge.) Several leading Arminius scholars have agreed. Reformed theologian Richard Muller agreed in God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius (Baker, 1991). (He came to the same conclusion as Dekker before him.) Dutch theologian William den Boer agrees in God’s Twofold Love: The Theology of Jacob Arminius (1559-1609) (Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2010). Now, in two recent studies of Arminius’s theology three American theologians agree. (I will be responding to their two books at a professional conference in November, so I’m going to decline to name them or address their arguments directly for now.)

So it would seem a consensus is developing that Arminius himself was a “Protestant Molinist” and may have actually introduced Molinism, middle knowledge, into Protestant theology. (Molina was himself a Catholic contemporary of Arminius.) However, other Arminius scholars are not so sure. One of the most scholarly and exhaustive studies of Arminius’s theology is William G. Witt’s Notre Dame doctoral dissertation which I used extensively in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Witt argued that Arminius mentioned but did not use middle knowledge. Another Arminius scholar who agrees with Witt is F. Stuart Clarke, author of The Ground of Election: Jacob Arminius’ Doctrine of the Work and Person of Christ (Paternoster, 2006).

Without doubt one can find references to middle knowledge in Arminius’s writings. The question is whether he relied on middle knowledge to reconcile God’s foreknowledge with free will (and there is no doubt he believed in libertarian free will) and whether he used middle knowledge to explain God’s sovereignty in providentially governing the whole universe including creatures’ free decisions and actions.

Dekker argues that, in using middle knowledge, Arminius unwittingly fell into determinism. Den Boer admits that even if Arminius’s use of middle knowledge did not imply determinism, it raised some serious questions for Arminius’s consistency—especially in the practical realm. That is, even if middle knowledge does not imply determinism, it does convey the impression, at least to the untutored, that their lives are predetermined.

I have argued here before that believing in God’s middle knowledge, that knowledge whereby God knows not only what will happen but would happen, not only what free creatures will do but what they would do freely in any possible situation, set of circumstances, is not in and of itself inconsistent with Arminianism’s basic impulses which have to do with God’s goodness (his “twofold love”). However, I have argued, and continue to maintain, once one believes that God uses middle knowledge to render certain that every creature does what they do by creating them and placing them in circumstances where he knows they will “freely” do something, then determinism is at the door if not in the living room and that is inconsistent with Arminianism’s basic impulses. It makes God the author of sin and evil even if only inadvertently.

In order to test this we must go back to the first disobedience—Adam’s and Eve’s fall. The question is not whether God knew they would disobey but whether God rendered their act of disobedience certain.

Advocates of middle knowledge usually rely on a distinction between “certain” or “infallible” and “necessary,” with only the latter making God the author of sin and evil. The argument is that God’s use of middle knowledge to render the fall certain, even infallibly (it could not have not happened given God’s foreknowledge of what Adam and Eve would do and his creation of them and placing them in that situation) does not render the fall necessary.

I tend to think that’s a distinction without a difference.

That use of middle knowledge, providentially to render the fall certain, necessarily implies a plan in the mind of God that makes the fall not only part of God’s consequent will but also part of his antecedent will. And, as everyone knows and agrees, the distinction between God’s consequent will and God’s antecedent will is crucial to Arminianism’s argument that God is not the author of sin and evil.

Why else would God use his middle knowledge providentially? And why would he use it at all if not for the purpose of meticulous providence?

Many Calvinists have used Molinism, middle knowledge, to “explain” predestination and reprobation in order to get God “off the hook,” so to speak, as not the author of sin and evil. I think, for example, of Millard Erickson and Bruce Ware—two evangelical Calvinists who use middle knowledge as the “key” to reconciling God’s sovereignty and human free will. However, they at least admit that their view of free will is compatibilism—that free will is compatible with determinism. In other words, if my argument is correct, they “get it”—middle knowledge used by God for providential advantage requires a compatibilist view of free will.

To the best of my knowledge no Arminian claims to believe in compatibilist; all embrace libertarian free will.

But, to me, at least, libertarian free will means “ability to do otherwise than one does.”

Now, admittedly, Arminian believers in middle knowledge, including those who believe God uses middle knowledge to render creatures’ decisions and actions certain according to a plan, claim to believe that creatures who sin do so with libertarian freedom. In other words, they could do otherwise. Well, at least Adam and Eve could have done otherwise than disobey God. (The picture gets more complicated for their posterity under the effects of the fall.) But could they have?

If middle knowledge is true and God uses it for providential advantage, as Richard Muller says, offering inducements to creatures that God knows they will follow given their dispositions and inclinations, then God is not only “in control” but “actually controlling” everything including Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience. They could not have done otherwise even if they did it “freely.” That is the very essence of compatibilism!

Let’s use an illustration. Suppose I know one of my students so well that I know (beyond any possibility of being wrong) that if I suggest he read a certain book he will misunderstand the subject of our course and go on to fail it. Without the book, he would pass the course. I suggest he read the book. Why? Well, perhaps because I need someone to fail the course. I don’t grade on a curve and the dean is worried that I am not upholding academic standards. All my students pass with flying colors. My career is in jeopardy as is the academic credibility of the school. So I use my middle knowledge of the student’s dispositions and inclinations to bring it about infallibly that he fails the course. Nothing I did took away his free will. He read the book voluntarily (no external coercion was used, only inducement). (Note: None of that would happen; it’s purely hypothetical.)

Now, who is really responsible for, the “author of,” the student failing the course?

And can it fairly be said that by rendering his failure certain, using my middle knowledge, I did not make it necessary?

Now, there’s no point in appealing to God’s freedom to do whatever he wants to do. This is a debate among Arminians and Arminians, following Arminius, are not nominalists. We all agree that God is essentially good by nature and cannot simply do anything capable of being put into words. No informed Arminian would say “Whatever God does is automatically good, just because God does it, period.” So that objection to my scenario isn’t relevant to this context—a debate among Arminians.

I tend to agree with Eef Dekker, against several leading Arminius scholars, that if Arminius used middle knowledge to explain God’s sovereignty, then he unwittingly contradicted himself. He contradicted his own most basic principle which is that God is by no means the author of sin and evil. He unwittingly fell into determinism at that point and should not have relied on middle knowledge. Why he did, if he did, is a separate question. I think reasonable answers can be imagined (having to do with his desire to build bridges between himself and his critics).

So what does this mean for Arminians? I’m certainly not going to say that one cannot be an Arminian and a Molinist. What I will say is that, in my opinion, Molinism is a foreign body in Arminianism even if Arminius himself used it! If he did, it was a foreign body in his own theology in the sense that it conflicted with his own basic belief commitments about God’s goodness, God not being in any sense the author of sin and evil, and creatures’ free wills (especially in disobedience).

No one should be surprised if a theologian falls into contradiction with himself at times—especially if he (or she) writes much over a very long period of time. I’m a historical theologian and have studied the theologies of virtually every major Christian theologian from Irenaeus to Pannenberg (and beyond). In every case I find some tension, some element of conflict within the theologian’s own system.

Besides, being Arminian does not require absolute agreement with Arminius. If that were the case, he would have been the only Arminian (and maybe not even he would be!).

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