MUST-READ: William Lane Craig discusses Calvinism and the problem of evil

This is an answer to a question of the week from his Reasonable Faith web site.

Here’s the question:

Dr. Craig,

I am troubled at the mass amount of Calvinists I see who are incredibly intelligent and trustworthy christian leaders. What I mean is that, So many seem to be capable of great analysis (far beyond myself), but seem to stick their head in the sand when it comes to the problem of evil. If they don’t, then they tend to make God a self-contradicting being. Why do you think this is so?

I’m also personally troubled at how few leaders I see subscribing to Molinism. It seems to me that it answers the most questions and creates the least problems. I understand it can be complex, but I wouldn’t think we would just rest with the problem of evil not being satisfied. I don’t base what I believe on the beliefs of others, but we can’t ignore the influence others have in our lives, or the desire to have a home with others when it comes to these thoughts.

Anyway, I would enjoy your thoughts… as I always do.

Thanks,

Gordon

And here’s the first part of the answer:

I think you’re right, Gordon, that a great many intelligent and godly Christian leaders are Reformed, or followers of John Calvin, in their theology. I’m currently participating in a four-views book on divine providence along with a pair of Reformed theologians. It is evident from their contributions that, despite the intellectual puzzles raised by the Reformed view, they both embrace it because they are convinced that it most faithfully represents the teaching of Scripture on the subject, Scripture being the only authoritative rule of faith.

Actually, I have no problem with certain classic statements of the Reformed view. For example, the Westminster Confession (Sect. III) declares that

God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Now this is precisely what the Molinist believes! The Confession affirms God’s preordination of everything that comes to pass as well as the liberty and contingency of the creaturely will, so that God is not the author of sin. It is a tragedy that in rejecting middle knowledge Reformed divines have cut themselves off from the most perspicuous explanation of the coherence of this wonderful confession.

By rejecting a doctrine of divine providence based on God’s middle knowledge, Reformed theologians are simply self-confessedly left with a mystery. The great 17th century Reformed theologian Francis Turretin held that a careful analysis of Scripture leads to two indubitable conclusions, both of which must be held in tension without compromising either one:

that God on the one hand by his providence not only decreed, but most certainly secures, the event of all things, whether free or contingent; on the other hand, however, man is always free in acting and many effects are contingent. Although I cannot understand how these can be mutually connected together, yet (on account of ignorance of the mode) the thing itself is (which is certain from another source, i.e., from the Word) not either to be called in question or wholly denied (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1: 512).

Here Turretin affirms without compromise both the sovereignty of God and human freedom and contingency; he just doesn’t know how to put them together. Molinism offers a solution. By rejecting that solution, the Reformed theologian is left with a mystery.

Craig levels 5 challenges against Calvinism:

  • Universal, divine, causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture.
  • Universal causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed.
  • Universal, divine, determinism makes God the author of sin and precludes human responsibility.
  • Universal, divine, determinism nullifies human agency.
  • Universal, divine determinism makes reality into a farce.

Read the rest here. It’s worth it. (Registration is not required, as far as I can tell)

All of my readers should try to make themselves familiar with Molinism (i.e. – middle knowledge). I have friends who are Calvinists and I think it helps to be able to explain to non-Christians how God can be sovereign over all of the universe from the beginning of time, and yet man can still be responsible for freely choosing to rebel against God.

I think every Christian feels that God was tugging them toward him to some degree or other, and that they had no free choice to resist him. And on Molinism, there was no other way it could be. God chose a universe in which he knew that you would freely respond to his drawing you toward him. He was not surprised – he knew. There was no rolling of the dice – he chose to save you before the universe was created. But not in violation of your free will to respond to his salvific initiative. He chose you, and he gave you what you needed to respond to his drawing you to him.

Seriously folks – the middle knowledge view solves the problem of divine sovereignty and human freedom a lot better than Calvinism does. You can keep your Calvinism if you like it, but it sure helps to know the Molinist view if you are talking to atheists who want an answer. Just phrase it as a possible answer to the problem, if you don’t believe it. At least survey the possible views for non-Christians so they see it as a possibility.

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Response from a Calvinist

35 thoughts on “MUST-READ: William Lane Craig discusses Calvinism and the problem of evil”

    1. Theological debate does not necessarily produce “in-fighting.” Agreement for the sake of agreement on non-essentials is intellectually dishonest. Both Molinists and Calvinists, among the other essentials of our faith, affirm both God’s monergistic work of salvation and man’s responsibility for his damnation. It seems to me many put their philosophical understanding of God’s Word ahead of God’s Word. That’s a shame.

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    1. Stan,

      Are you under the impression that Molinism teaches that God knows some things contingently? If so, then I suggest you go back and re-read the work of contemporary molinist like Craig, Keathley, Flint, Plantinga, etc. because none of them claim God’s middle knowledge is contingent.

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      1. That is the very essence of Middle Knowledge. “If this, then that … no, that’s not good. How about if this, then THAT? Oh, yeah, that’s good. We’ll do that.” The basic principle in Middle Knowledge is the counterfactual which is an “if-then” premise. That is a contingency.

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        1. Yes, but God chooses the universe that accomplishes his sovereign will. Once he decides the universe to create, the group of people who will be saved is set in stone, based on his choice to create. But the free will of the people he creates is also respected, including the ones who he knows will not respond to his drawing them to him. They can complain about being created, (Romans 9), but it’s their own fault that they’re not saved.

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        2. Ah, as i suspected. You don’t really understand what Middle Knowledge/Molinism teaches at all but you’ve bought into the oft-repeated lies and ad-hoc “refutations” of it (based on said misunderstanding).

          While the grounding objection is certainly the strongest objection posed to this doctrine, it is hardly new nor is it a sufficient defeater.

          Here is a more extended piece on this subject: http://bit.ly/4zfpNo but I also encourage you to read more regarding Molinism rather than relying , instead, on the misunderstandings and gross mis-characterizations of others.

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    2. Show me where Molinism claims God “knows some things contingently.” He knows all contingencies because he’s all knowing, but that’s not the same as saying he knows some things contingently, as if his knowledge is dependent on some outside source.

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    1. Hey, McKenzie,

      My understanding of this doctrine is from CS Lewis, who makes a lot of mistakes, but I think he’s right about this one. He thinks that once Adam and Eve rebelled against God, that they lost that ability to relate to him directly through their rebellion. Their children, including us, inherit that propensity to sin just by reaching a time in our lives when we become aware of the moral law. We are prone to disobey God because we inherit the habit of disobey God. And we are held accountable for our own sin, not for Adam and Eve’s sin.

      We from Reason to Stand had a brief post on it recently. I agree with his point that “all have sinned” is a DESCRIPTIVE phrase, not a PRESCRIPTIVE phrase. It’s describing what humans are prone to do.

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  1. “Their children, including us, inherit that propensity to sin just by reaching a time in our lives when we become aware of the moral law.”

    When do we become aware of the moral law, and what is our moral status before we become aware of it?

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  2. And here is a must read response to Dr. Craig – The gloves are off!

    Craig states, “…Scripture being the only authoritative rule of faith.

    This is not what Sola Scriptura teaches. That would be more along the lines of Solo Scriptura. He is correct that those Reformed folks believe they are holding to what they believe most accurately is taught in Scripture. I would hope any Christians believes this about their position. I wonder then, why Craig doesn’t interact with the Scripture the Reformed use?

    As careful as he is in his debates when speaking of probabilities and possibilities he does not seem to be as careful when it comes to Calvinism. I’ve heard him state that basically Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism are the same only differing in degrees. This does not seem like a careful position for a philosopher to take. Not to mention most theological disagreements are a matter of degrees of difference.

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    1. Mark,

      I think the problem Craig faces is that Calvinists themselves throughout history have been confused about the philosophical implications of their theological positions. Calvin himself went back and forth in his Institutes over simple questions such as the role of natural revelation, man’s epistemic abilities, the nature of the will, etc.

      So to answer your question as to why Craig isn’t as careful and precise with Calvinism is simply this; Calvinism seems to shift from one Calvinist to the next whenever the philosophical holes are exposed.

      Also, your bare assertion that Craig doesn’t address the verses that Calvinists love to use (which are few, because Calvinism is poorly attested to in Scripture) is simply false and makes me wonder how much of Craig’s work you’ve actually studied.

      I know I’ve asked elsewhere, but I’ll ask again all the same; What ARE the actual logical and philosophical and theological differences between hyper-Calvinism and Calvinism? I ask because the only difference between the two I’ve ever heard from Calvinists tends to be a practical one based on what hyper-Calvinists _don’t_ do and what “other” Calvinists _do_ (namely, evangelize).

      However I’ve never heard anyone in the Reformed camp actually offer an objective and qualitative difference separating the beliefs of one vs. the beliefs of the other. So it seems to me that the hyper-Calvinist is simply someone who lives the teachings of Calvinism (at least, of the Edswardian flavor) out consistently.

      Consequently, I like how Malcom Yarnell (professor, SWBTS) characterized hyper-Calvinism as someone who holds to eternal election/salvation (and, as a result, eternal reprobation).

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        1. I think I’ll just rephrase Wes’ words from above:

          “…I suggest you go back and re-read the work of contemporary [Calvinists] like [Piper], [Grudem], [James White], [Sproul], etc. because none of them claim [the erroneous things you claim Calvinists believe].

          I am constantly astounded at how many non-Calvinists are so completely lost when it comes to just simply representing Calvinism accurately. You don’t have to agree with it but by gosh, get it right!

          Who do you guys read that give you these impressions about Calvinism? I can only imagine it is coming from other non-Calvinists. I would love to see some quotes from Calvinists if possible.

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          1. I am too astounded at how many Calvinists are quick to presume what an objector such as myself has and hasn’t studied and/or comprehended.

            “Who do you guys read that give you these impressions about Calvinism?”

            Oh, just the usual insignificant small fish such as Calvin, Luther, Beza, Van Til, White (who I would hardly consider much of a scholar) etc.

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          2. Wes,
            I didn’t presume what you studied. I asked. No need to get all offended and snarky. Just relax.

            When someone informs me of what I believe and it isn’t what I believe, I reserve the right to ask where they are getting their ideas from. Don’t you do this as well?

            Also, was that a back-handed ad hominem on James White? Why was that necessary?

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          3. What if what you claim to believe and term Calvinism is not what many Calvinists themselves have claimed?

            Are you willing to abandon the label of Reformed or Calvinist in favor of not being wrapped up in criticisms and errors you apparently accept as valid?

            Or would you rather persist in calling yourself a Calvinist and simply get offended every time someone points out these flaws and indignantly claim that “that’s not Calvinism!” (like what White does in regards to his hyper-calvinistic beliefs).

            Regarding James White, I hope what I said regarding him didn’t come off as a back-handed assault on his academic credentials. I would much rather it have come off as a full frontal assault considering his degree doesn’t come from an accredited university. (http://bit.ly/9NAYIn)

            Not that White can have an opinion on the matter. Just don’t be surprised when I scoff at his being cited as a serious scholar.

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          4. Wes,
            Do you have some quotes or some articles you can point me to where you are reading these erroneous things about Calvinism? Give me some primary sources from Piper, Grudem, White, Sproul, etc. My guess is that you are unable to do so.

            Regarding James White, it was an ad hominem. Apparently in your world Wes, you would rather attack a person’s educational background rather than their actual arguments. It’s irrelevant and simply uncharitable. It’s also wrong.

            You said earlier: “Ah, as i suspected. You don’t really understand what Middle Knowledge/Molinism teaches at all but you’ve bought into the oft-repeated lies and ad-hoc “refutations” of it”

            Could it be that this is true of your knowledge of Calvinism?

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          5. “Do you have some quotes or some articles you can point me to where you are reading these erroneous things about Calvinism?

            ..

            My guess is that you are unable to do so.”

            You are right, I won’t but I will point to someone who has. Ken Keathley’s paper here (http://bit.ly/bBKFYM) contains many primary source references outlining what I’ve been claiming.

            “Regarding James White, it was an ad hominem. Apparently in your world Wes, you would rather attack a person’s educational background rather than their actual arguments.”

            Not at all, I wouldn’t make much of White’s degree if White himself didn’t use it on numerous occasions in order to establish clout (that he has not earned).

            I believe White’s defense of other things such as the in-errancy of Scripture and his debates with Muslims have been excellent. However when it comes to his work on Calvinism I find his presupposed bias for it to cloud his objective treatment of it.

            “Could it be that this is true of your knowledge of Calvinism?”

            It could be, but I haven’t seen where it is.

            I do welcome the challenge, however. Though I fear this thread is rapidly approaching the size constraints of WK’s site :-P

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        2. I actually acknowledge no difference between Weslyan Arminianism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but, hey, who’s counting?

          I am, of course, kidding. In what possible sense can something called “A” and something else called “hyper-A” be “identical”?

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          1. Well, what some Calvinists just don’t follow their view to its logical conclusion.

            What Calvinism says is that when it comes to relationships with God, we are robots. God decides whether he loves us or not, and whether we go to Heaven or not. Our will is totally irrelevant. We have no choice at all. Some people say they are Calvinists and then act inconsistently with that view, (by evangelizing, say), while others hold the view consistently.

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          2. Well, in defense of Calvinists, you might be more referencing more to hyper-Calvinists WK- because from what I’ve studied, Calvinists believe that God works through his people to initiate salvation. For example, a Calvinist believes that God has burdened you to create this apologetics blog in order to reach the lost, and he has pre-ordained which people will find it. When these people find the blog, God may open their hearts to believe if it is his will.

            So, it’s not irrational for Calvinists to witness, in fact, John Piper makes the point that it makes the Calvinist all the more confident to witness to people with darkened hearts, because they know that God is working through them and that it’s not their own job.

            I’m still trying to decide if I’m a calvinist or not. I believe in total depravity and limited atonement, but I also believe that you can lose your salvation.
            I’m not sure if together those are philosophically tenable though!

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          3. Evan, that is a difference of practice, not one of logical or philosophical difference. This gets back to what WK said earlier about people claiming to believe something and then acting inconsistently in regards to that belief.

            I think the fact that many Calvinists choose to live and operate inconsistently with the logical and philosophical implications of Calvinism is actually a good thing, however. It shows that they realize at some level that something is wrong.

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          4. Touche, my friend..

            I don’t know enough about it to be able to distinguish it as a difference of practice or philosophical difference.

            I never thought there was anything wrong with the idea of God working through people not fixing the problem with the difference between hyper-Calvinism and moderate Calvinism, but there could be something I’m missing.

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      1. Ha, yeah I thought the same thing at first, thinking, I couldn’t get a fair answer if I went to Calvinists for answers, but I used the article along with Geisler’s view of chosen, but free.

        That way, I could actually understand what the doctrine of election and predestination is taught by Calvinists by reading the article by Calvinists. I understand it now, but don’t totally subscribe to their view on predestination. That’s the only thing I don’t agree with in Reformed theology and as the guys say, you can still be saved and not understand or even disagree with the predestination doctrine.

        For predestination, I think middle knowledge is an attractive solution.

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  3. I offered a public rebuke to Dr. Craig and, like Stan, I would also love to hear where I “failed”:

    http://www.godcontention.org/index.php?qid=287

    BTW, with respect to evangelizing, there is no sense in which it is inconsistent with divine determinism. If God has determined you are going to evangelize, you are going to evangelize. If He has determined you will not, then you will not.

    Another way to say this is that God ordains the MEANS as well as the ENDS.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

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    1. The way I understand Calvinism and evangelizing is that the Bible says to preach the gospel to the world, so that’s why Calvinists evangelize. I think it was Chuck Spurgeon that said, “Unless I can see a mark on someone’s back that means their saved, I’ll preach the gospel to everyone.” So, I think that is a totally fair statement and lines up with Calvinism.

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