Saturday, June 08, 2013

Book Review: Molinism: The Contemporary Debate

First developed by the sixteenth-century Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina, Molinism was accidentally reinvented by Alvin Plantinga in the 1970s, when he unwittingly presupposed it in his Free Will Defense against the logical version of the problem of evil. Molinism is a proposed solution to the age-old problem of reconciling human freedom and divine sovereignty. Its distinguishing claim is that, logically prior to deciding which world to actualize, God knows what any possible person would freely choose in any possible (appropriately specified) situation in which He might place them. Dressed up in more distinctly Molinist terminology, the claim is that God has so-called “middle knowledge,” by which he knows the truth-values of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (hereafter ccfs), which take the form “If person P were in circumstances C, P would freely do X.” By means of this special sort of knowledge, God providentially plans out all the events of history in detail, without any abridgement of human freedom.

Since its reintroduction into contemporary philosophical theology, Molinism has been enthusiastically applied to a wide range of theological problems. In addition to issues of divine sovereignty, predestination, and foreknowledge, as well as Plantinga’s application of the concept to the problem of evil, Molinism has been applied to issues of prayer, prophecy, the incarnation, papal infallibility, the inspiration of Scripture, Christian exclusivism, the perseverance of the saints, evolution, original sin, the demographics of theistic belief, divine hiddenness, sinlessness in heaven, and more. But despite the apparent fruitfulness of the idea, Molinism has formidable critics as well. Ken Perszyk’s volume Molinism: The Contemporary Debate provides a snapshot of the current state of what Perszyk calls “the Molinism Wars.”1

Perszyk’s volume is a compilation of 17 original papers by 12 able Philosophers—critics and defenders of Molinism alike. Following a helpful introduction that reviews what is at stake in the Molinist debate and sketches each of the volume’s contributions, the first half of the book is devoted to arguments for and against the coherency of the notion of middle knowledge. The arguments discussed in these chapters question whether it is possible for God to have middle knowledge. The second half of the book, on the other hand, is devoted to debating a different line of anti-Molinist attack: objections that Molinism provides God with either too much or too little control. Perszyk maintains that the best way to evaluate arguments of this sort is to engage in “Applied Molinism,” that is, to “roll up one’s sleeves and dig deeply into particular aspects of providence and Christian faith to see how Molinism fares with respect to them.”2

Leading anti-Molinist William Hasker opens the discussion by reviewing the two theoretical objections to middle knowledge that have dominated discussions of Molinism since the 1970s. The first is the so-called “grounding objection,” which asks what, if anything, makes Molinist ccfs true, and the second is a reductio argument which attempts to show that Molinism implies the absurdity that persons both have and lack the power to bring about the truth of ccfs describing their own actions. Hasker believes that progress in the Molinist debate depends on continued discussion of these arguments. In the case of the grounding objection, he points out that some Molinists have replied to it by trying to show that ccfs can be grounded in a satisfactory way, while others reject the notion that such grounding is necessary at all. “It will be interesting,” says Hasker, “to see which of these approaches proves more appealing.”3

In chapter 2 Thomas Flint replies to Hasker, maintaining that Molinists have satisfactorily answered the objections Hasker sketches in chapter 1. Flint criticizes Hasker’s reductio argument, charging Hasker with illegitimately defining ccfs into the “history of the world” prior to a given free creaturely choice. But Flint has doubts about the value of continuing to pick at the details of these arguments, expressing skepticism that “if we get this clause just right, or tweak that definition just a bit, the scales will fall from our opponents’ eyes.”4 Flint suggests instead that Molinists should turn to in-house discussions with each other to further develop their model of providence. He also encourages, among other things, shifting more focus to issues of Applied Molinism like those that dominate the latter part of the book.

Following these papers on the current state of the Molinist controversy is a four-chapter exchange where Trenton Merricks criticizes Hasker’s anti-Molinist reductio argument, contending that it threatens more than just Molinism—maybe even libertarian free will—and that the argument ultimately fails. Merricks’ reply involves a particular way of characterizing the relationship between truth and the world, according to which free agents like us are able to bring about the truth of ccfs about ourselves. Both Hasker and his fellow anti-Molinist, Dean Zimmerman, have a say in this exchange, criticizing several aspects of Merrick’s piece, and Merricks gets the final word in a brief reply to both of his critics. Readers are left to decide for themselves who comes out on top in this energetic interchange.

Next up are two stand-alone chapters. In chapter 7, Ken Perszyk and Edwin Mares address Molinism’s relationship to the standard semantics for counterfactuals, arguing that the semantic issues faced by Molinism are distinct from the ontological issues (like the grounding objection), and, furthermore, Molinism is compatible with the standard semantics, despite common allegations to the contrary. Then, in chapter 8, Edward Wierenga tackles the question of what belongs in the antecedents of appropriately specified ccfs. In order to have a truth-value, a ccf must have all the relevant circumstances specified in its antecedent. But just what are the relevant circumstances? Wierenga argues in favor of the view that the antecedents of ccfs describe initial segments of possible worlds, and criticizes an older account.

Another exchange, this time between Dean Zimmerman and William Lane Craig, occupies the next three chapters. Following a précis of Zimmerman’s anti-Molinist argument, Craig launches a multi-faceted attack on the argument, which Zimmerman subsequently criticizes. Zimmerman argues that, on Molinism, there are possible worlds in which creaturely choices are sensitive to trivial adjustments in the creature’s circumstances, (like the way that cosmic dust swirls in a pre-big bang space time), so that God could get creatures to choose however he wished simply by making adjustments in those trivial and removed details of history. Zimmerman refers to this as the possibility that creatures could be transworld manipulable. He then presents Molinists with a dilemma: they must either hold that transworld manipulable creatures are still genuinely free (which Zimmerman finds implausible), or that Molinist ccfs could have been such that God was unable to create free creatures (which Zimmerman sees as a threat to God’s omnipotence). The discussion between Zimmerman and Craig is fascinating and has many subtleties. Once again, readers are left to make their own judgment call on who “wins” this round.

At this point the book turns its attention to issues of Applied Molinism. Thomas Flint heads off this section with a paper that expands his work on applying Molinism to the incarnation. Here he defends the possibility of multiple incarnations, proposing the creative (if odd) view that Christian believers might be, at the completion of their sanctification, assumed by Christ in virtually the same way that the human nature of Jesus of Nazareth was assumed by the Logos. Though many will find this proposal uncomfortable if not downright heretical, Flint believes it can be defended against such concerns and that it accords well with passages like 2 Peter 1:2, Galatians 2:20, and 1 Corinthians 12.

The book then turns to the subject of foreknowledge. In Chapter 13, John Martin Fischer argues that Molinism, contrary to a popular assumption among Christian philosophers, does not provide a unique solution to the dilemma of human freedom and divine foreknowledge even if Molinism is true. While Molinism does provide an important and unique contribution to discussions of divine providence, it works by presupposing rather than presenting a solution to the freedom and foreknowledge dilemma. Following Fischer’s chapter, Greg Restall considers Molinism in relationship to branching time and argues that Molinists should reject branching time, even though this would mean abandoning objective indeterminacy.

Though Molinism’s most prominent critics are open theists, Molinism also faces opposition from the other direction—Thomist theological determinists. While open theists have often objected that Molinism gives God too much control, making theodicy difficult (for example), Thomists complain that Molinism does not give God enough control. Chapters 15 and 16 are a Thomist critique of Molinism and a defense of theological determinism, respectively. Hugh J. McCann’s chapter is on evil and the Free Will defense, in which he argues that open theism and Boethian-atemoporality models of providence do not do justice to God’s omniscience and sovereignty. He argues that Molinism mostly remedies these defects, but he objects to divine middle knowledge on other grounds and concludes that we ought to adopt a Thomist model of providence, thus abandoning the Free Will Defense. In the next chapter Derk Pereboom defends theological determinism against objections that it lacks the resources for doing theodicy and that it does not adequately account for such things as blame, guilt, repentance, gratitude, and love.
The final word goes to Hasker, who presents an open theist theodicy of natural evil in chapter 17. He argues that natural evils result from design features in the world that serve a good purpose overall (e.g. natural disasters are inevitable on a geologically active planet, but an active planet is necessary in many ways to sustain life).  Hasker maintains that this sort of “general policy theodicy” fits nicely into risk-taking models of providence like open theism.

Overall, Perszyk’s book is an excellent resource. There are several big names among the contributors, the papers are of the highest quality, and even the bibliography is impressive. While Perszyk doesn’t claim that the bibliography is exhaustive, all appearances suggest that it is pretty close. Furthermore, the discussion in the book does a lot to push the debate forward, while also providing the reader with a clear picture of the state of the debate right now. One notices, for example, that interest in the grounding objection has begun to fade, as both sides apparently feel that there is little more to be said on the matter. Whether or not the debate over Hasker’s reductio argument will end in a similar stalemate is hard to tell at this point. It will be interesting to see how Merricks’ account of truth shapes future discussion in these areas. There also appears to be a need for more internal work to be done among Molinists (like determining exactly what belongs in the antecedents of ccfs), as well as room for more discussion in the area of Applied Molinism.

This reviewer's primary criticism of this volume is that the essays on Applied Molinism in the latter portion of the book lean heavily in the anti-Molinist direction. Apart from Flint’s chapter in the incarnation, readers do not get to see much extension of the work Molinists have done in applying their model to particular Christian doctrines. But perhaps this imbalance was a strategic move, intended to stimulate more discussion in this area.

A final note of caution is in order. This book is an academic title that is not written with the layperson in mind. It is rather technical and it does not serve as a good introduction to Molinism (for an introduction, see Kenneth Keathley’s Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach, or the final chapter of William Lane Craig’s The Only Wise God). But for readers with some background in analytic philosophy or familiarity with the literature on Molinism, this volume is highly recommended.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Justin Mooney is an undergraduate art and design student from Michigan. He has a passion for apologetics and is planning to study philosophy of religion in graduate school. More of his writing can be found at

[1] Perszyk, Ken. Molinism: The Contemporary Debate. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2011, p. 3
[2] Ibid. p. 11
[3] Ibid. p. 35
[4] Ibid. p. 38


Anonymous said...

Now if only we could get lay-apologists to stop waving around molinism as though it were a magic wand, part of their Free Will Defense as the deus ex machina...

Eric Miller said...

When I abandoned the idea of of Molinism as a possible solution between the Calvinism/Arminianism debate and accepted it on its own merits, the doctrine really came to life. It answers so many questions I've had, albeit raising some others.

This book sounds like a very good resource and I really appreciate Justin's review!

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