In a recent episode of the Unbelievable show, we finally got to see Calvinist pastor / theologian James White discuss middle knowledge (a.k.a. Molinism) with philosopher / theologian William Lane Craig. In this post, you’ll find a link to the MP3 file, the YouTube video, my comments on the debate, and a couple of posts about the debate from Tim Stratton of Free Thinking Ministries.
Here is a link to the details from Unbelievable:
Calvinism and Molinism are two very different ways of understanding God’s sovereignty. But which one best addresses the problem of evil?
James White argues that Calvinism – God foreordaining all human behaviour both good and evil – is the more Biblical and coherent view. William (Bill) Lane Craig argues that Molinism – a view which reconciles human freedom and divine sovereignty – is Biblically consistent without making God the author of evil.
The direct link to the MP3 file.
And the video:
JB: Why is there evil?
JW: Natural and moral evil are the results of God’s divine decree to create the world.
WLC: God has knowledge of what individual humans would do in different circumstances prior to his divine decree to create the world. God’s decree takes into account the free decisions of people in different situations. With regard to natural evil, Calvinists and Molinists do not differ much – they are permitted to achieve a greater good. But for moral evil, there is a difference. Moral evil is the result of free decisions by individual humans. They are not God’s will. God permits people to perform evil actions, because those free actions will lead to him achieving his ultimate purposes. God does not override human free will. He achieves his ultimate purposes through the actions of his free creatures. On the Calvinist view, God moves the will of creatures to do evil. God is the cause of their evil acts.
JB: God sees all of the possible worlds and instantiates a world where he is able to achieve his ultimate purposes while respecting the free decisions of his creatures.
WLC: God does not see what humans WILL do, and decree based on that. He sees what they WOULD do in different circumstances, and articulates a world where the free decisions they make in the circumstances he decrees lead to his ultimate purposes being fulfilled.
JB: And this view achieves God’s sovereignty (God gets the result he wants) with human freedom (God is not responsible for moral evil)
JB: James, isn’t it better for God to get what he wants while respecting free will, rather than micromanaging every thought and action of the people?
JW: There’s micromanaging on both sides. On Molinism, God micromanages the circumstances. On Calvinism, God micromanages everything. But how could God have that knowledge of what people would do, prior to actually creating those people? The Bible teaches Calvinism, and so we should go with that. Calvinists are concerned when Craig says that God does not determine the truth value of these subjunctive conditionals (i.e. – what free individuals would do in different circumstances) The individuals determine what they will do in different circumstances. And Calvinists would prefer that God determine (i.e. – exhaustive determinism) what individuals do in different circumstances. WLC, would you agree that the knowledge of these subjunctive conditionals are the essence of what middle knowledge is? (WK note: micromanaging circumstances doesn’t violate free will, micromanaging everything does violate free will)
WLC: No, but it is an essential aspect of it. According to Molinism, God does not determine what free individuals would do in different situations in which they find themselves. The Calvinist view is that in any situation, God actually moves the will of the creature, so God is the author of moral evil. On the Molinist view, creatures are responsible for moral evil, not God.
JW: So you’re saying that these subjunctive conditionals are not under God’s control. How can they be under the control of the creatures, since prior to God’s creative decree, the creatures do not exist yet? Where do these truth values come from.
WLC: This objection to Molinism is called the “grounding objection”. The counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are true without having to be grounded by the created individuals. This objection presupposes a view of truth called “truth-maker” theory. This theory says that in addition to propositions that are true, there are things that make propositions true. There are many counterexamples to this view. For example, if you deny the existence of something that does not exist, then there is no truth maker that makes that claim true. (WK note: E.g. – a unicorn does not exist) Another example is “If WLC were rich, WLC would buy a Mercedes” but there is no truth-maker situation that makes that true, except maybe if he were rich. (WK note: I think that the created individual WLC would be the truth-maker in that case?)
JW: The decisions that I make are caused by God’s decree of what gifts I have or don’t have. He has freedom to decree those gifts, and then that has an effect of what I am free to do. E.g. – I am not 6’11” so I am not free to be a center in the NBA. So on the Molinist view, what is the basis for these subjunctive counterfactuals that limit what God can do?
WLC: The grounding objection presupposes the truth-maker theory, and a particular strain of that theory called truth-maker maximalism, and counterfactuals of creaturely of creaturely freedom would be prime candidates to be exceptions to the truth-maker theory.
WLC: Regarding the point about how people don’t exist in a vacuum but have a whole history, background, characteristics, etc. to shape their decisions. That’s right. But the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom factor all that in. The key point that divides us is that God doesn’t determine what creatures decide, he decides the circumstances. And so the creature is responsible for moral evil, not God. And so God doesn’t cause people to commit moral evils, then punish them for it.
WLC: We should guide our views based on what is in the Bible. But even Calvinist theologians affirm things about God that are not taught explicitly in the Bible, such as God’s spacelessness and timelessness. And Molinism makes the best sense of divine sovereignty and human freedom. On the Calvinist view, God determines how anyone would act in any situation God might place him in, so God is responsible for the moral evil committed by his creatures.
JW: (repeats) If God is limited in what he can do by counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, then we have to know where these counterfactuals come from. (WK note: the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom come from… creaturely freedom.)
JW: Genesis 50:20 says that God used the moral evil committed by some creatures to achieve the good purposes he intended. (WK note: that’s exactly what the Molinist view is, God permits moral evil by his creatures, as long as it achieves his ultimate good purposes)
JW: Molinism is unknown in the church for 1500 years. (WK note: Molinism is in Acts 17:24-27, and also, Calvin and Luther were unknown in the church for 1500 years)
JB: Is Genesis 50:20 a good example of Calvinism?
WLC: (very excited) NO!!!!!! It’s a great example of Molinism!!!! The text says that God didn’t move the bad actors to perform sinful actions – that would make God the author of evil. But God knew that if they were in this situation, they would behave in these evil ways, but ultimately it would lead to good results that God wanted. There is a chain of people partially articulating the middle knowledge view prior to Molina.
JW: You shouldn’t believe Molinism, because it comes from Jesuits. (WK Note: this is the genetic fallacy)
JW: The Bible has examples where God “hardens hearts”, e.g. Pharaoh.
WLC: It’s not that the Bible authors had Molinism in mind. It’s that this theory is consistent with what the Bible teaches.
JW: Ephesians 1 teaches that God unilaterally determines who the elect are. Calvinism emerges from the text. But in Genesis 50:20, Molinism doesn’t emerge from it.
WLC: We’re both trying to make sense of the data of Scripture. Scripture doesn’t teach the universal divine determinism of every human act, especially evil acts. The Bible says thate God is not evil, and cannot even be tempted with evil, but on the Calvinist view, God is causing the evil actions of his creatures, and then he punishes them for it. If it’s evil to cause someone to do evil, it makes God himself evil.
JW: In Isaiah 10, God uses the Assyrians to punish Israel, then he punishes the Assyrians for the haughty attitude of their heart.
WLC: The Molinist view of Ephesians 1 is that part of God’s good pleasure is to respect human freedom, and not to unilaterally divinely determine them to sin. Regarding Isaiah 10, you’re asking how God can punish the Assyrians for something he causes them to do? No, God knows that the Assyrians are going to do this moral evil and he uses that for his purposes, and he is free to punish their immoral act, because they did it of their own free will.
JW: But if you need Molinism to understand these texts, then what did the authors intend for people to think before Molinism.
WLC: People understand from Genesis 50:20 that people do evil things, but God gets a good outcome out of it.
JW: As a Calvinist, I do not believe that God respects human freedom.
JW: I don’t think that individuals have control of the circumstances in which they are born or where they live that limits God’s sovereignty. (WK note: he doesn’t understand Molinism or Acts 17:24-27. Individuals control their own decisions. But God controls the circumstances – i.e. – everything else). There is no essence of James White that determines where I am born, my physical characteristics, my siblings, etc. God decrees everything about who I am.
WLC: “That’s because you’re a determinist, James, and I’m not”
JW: “Yes. Yes. OK.”
WLC: There are number of possible worlds where James White could exist. Different country, different education, different language, different family. God decides the circumstances for James White. James White makes the decisions. God doesn’t cause James White’s moral evil. James White does. The counterfactuals of creaturely freedom must exist prior to the divine decree in order for humans to be responsible for their evil actions.
JW: You’re using philosophy. But your view should come from the Bible. (WK note: look at Acts 17:24-27)
WLC: Universal divine determinism isn’t taught in the Bible.
JW: Yes, in Ephesians 1.
WLC: The Molinist affirms Ephesians 1.
JW: It doesn’t mention respecting free will there, it’s teaching universal divine determinism.
WLC: The Bible teaches that God does have knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, e.g. 2 Cor 2:8. So the question is whether God has this knowledge logically prior the decree (Molinism requires this), or is it logically after. If it is logically after, then it makes God the cause of human moral evil.
JW: The verses raised by Craig can be subsumed under God’s natural knowledge and free knowledge.
JW: Some Molinists believe that the only people who are lost in this world are people who cannot freely respond to God’s saving initiative in any circumstances (WK note: this is called trans-world damnation (TD), and I hold this view). Does anyone in the Bible know about this idea? That changes God’s expression from universal divine determinism to accepting human free will and human responsibility for sin (which Calvinism denies).
WLC: Yes, there are two different views. The one view takes human free will, and human responsibility for sin, seriously. The other view makes God the cause of human sin, and therefore makes God evil for being the author of evil.
JW: On Molinism, God knew that if he actualized this world, then he knew the evil that would result, but he didn’t do it for some purpose, like revealing his own character?
WLC: No, he didn’t bring the evil into the world. He actualized a set of circumstances, and a set of free creatures. And he knew that in those circumstances, he knew that the creatures would choose to do evil. His absolute will is for all his creatures to always do the right thing. But he knows that often they will do evil. He permits that to happen, but in the end he achieves the good purposes. E.g. – achieving the redemption of mankind through Jesus through the evil decisions of the rulers at that time.
WLC: I love the Westminster Confession. But without middle knowledge, that Confession is incoherent. Middle knowledge explains how things work, so that the Westminster Confession’s affirmations are logically coherent.
JW: What you’re saying is that God respects human free will and human responsibility.
WLC: Molinism is extremely fruitful theologically. I have applied to the problem of exclusivity of salvation, to the perseverance of the saints, to the inspiration of Scripture… but the focus of the discussion today is on moral evil. Who is the cause of human evil?
JW: Only universal divine determinism and the denial of human free will and human responsibility are consistent with Scripture.
WLC: Scripture alone is my authority, not church tradition. But Reformed theology is permeated with concepts that are not described in Scripture, but are consistent with Scripture, e.g. – timelessness, spacelessness, simplicity.
JW: I disagree, ALL the concepts in Calvinism emerge directly from the text. Isaiah 40-48 clearly teaches divine necessity, that God exists necessarily, in every possible world. (WK note: Calvinist thought emerges 1500 years after the Bible was written)
JW: Middle knowledge is a Catholic dogma, which is why even the Catholics rejected it.
WLC: (holds up 2 volumes of a 4 volume, 2144 page set of books on Reformed theology) Anyone who thinks that Reformed Dogmatics are simply read out of Scripture “doesn’t know the history of Reformed theology”. These volumes are permeated with theological constructs, philosophical models, philosophical principles. The necessity of God’s existence, timelessness, spacelessness, etc. are all affirmed by Reformed theologians, and were inherited from medieval scholastics (Catholics).
JW: The central claim of middle knowledge, that counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are known by God, are not in the Bible. (WK note: Craig gave an example of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom in the Bible. There are lots of them.)
I think that it was a good debate. Well worth watching. I don’t promise that my summary is 100% accurate. Please leave room for a little snark, and watch the debate yourself. I like to take the spin off of people’s words, when I feel that they are trying to weasel out of the conclusions of their own views. It’s 2 AM on Monday morning now, and I don’t want to proof-read. Please point out errors in the comments.
If I could boil down the mistake that James White makes to one sentence, it would be to say that he comes to the text with a philosophical presupposition (determinism), and this causes him to misinterpret the plain meaning of the text as a whole. And this misinterpretation isn’t about peripheral teachings of the Bible. His embrace of God as the cause of moral evil means that he denies the goodness of God – a basic Christian doctrine. (This is compounded by his embrace of double-predestination, although that was not the topic of the debate). Christians shouldn’t let a philosophy – determinism – override the plain meaning of Scripture. Determinism is man’s philosophy – it’s a Greek philosophy that existed centuries before Christ.
White also was clearly unfamiliar with the philosophy of religion of his own Reformed tradition, and especially with the history of the development of Reformed theology. Craig was able to correct him, by showing him the books on Reformed Dogmatics and explain the historical antecedents of Reformed thought.
James White is not a “hyper-Calvinist”. He is a normal Calvinist. Calvinism teaches universal divine determinism. Calvinism teaches that where each individual goes after the judgment is decided unilaterally by God. Calvinism teaches that human moral evil is caused by God. Calvinism teaches that God punishes people for this moral evil. Calvinism teaches intentional double-predestination.
I wrote about the problems with Calvinism, citing Calvinist D.A. Carson and William Lane Craig, in a previous post. Determinism denies free will, and therefore undermines all meaning in life. That’s not consistent with the Bible’s clear teaching that God issues commands to his creatures, because he expects (free will) obedience. That is how we develop our relationship with God after becoming Christians (sanctification), and those relationships have ultimate significance.
Note: I link to James White’s work on this blog. He does a great job of fighting cultural and political enemies. I really appreciate his conservative perspective on issues like abortion, and his sensitivity to the totalitarian impulses of the secular left. His work on KJV-only and and debating Catholics is excellent. I don’t always agree with Craig. I recently posted disagreement with Craig on his latest work on the historical Adam and evolution. I have other minor disagreements with him as well, in substance and method. The only theology books in my house are by R. C. Sproul, Wayne Grudem, D.A. Carson, Millard Erickson, John MacArthur, etc. – all Calvinists.
If you missed Craig’s debate with Paul Helm, which is mentioned in the debate, I blogged about that previously, as well.
My friend Drew, another Christian apologist, had some thoughts. He has a couple of Masters degrees. He’s an expert in Christian history, theology, philosophy of religion. His current interest is history of Christian thought.
I would have mentioned that the Western Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Second Temple Jewish traditions all reject determinism. Thomas Aquinas states:
“It does not seem meritorious or demeritorious for persons to do necessarily what they could not avoid doing. It is also to be counted among the oddest philosophical opinions, since it is not only contrary to faith but also subverts all the principles of moral philosophy. For if nothing is within our power, and we are necessarily moved to will things, deliberation, exhortation, precept, punishment, and praise and blame, of which moral philosophy consists, are destroyed.”
In response to Ephesians 1:11 John Chrysostom states “Having first used the expression, to them that are called according to a purpose, and at the same time wishing to declare their privilege compared with the rest of mankind, he speaks also of inheritance by lot, yet so as not to divest them of free will.”
Chrysostom was not a compatibilist.
This is important to show that White’s view of universal divine determinism is relatively new in the history of Christian thought.
Free Thinking Ministries
I noticed that Free Thinking Ministries has a couple of responses up already, and a debate review video.
The first one is a response to James Whites post-debate comments, in which he says he struck a “fatal blow” to Molinism that none of the Molinists he has engaged with ever thought of. Tim Stratton responds to James White, firstly by noting that he has avoided engagement with academic Molinists, either in debate or in academic journals, and secondly, against the substance of his argument. I really recommend reading this post to learn more about why White struggles in these debates.
The second one is a response to the famous “grounding objection” to Molinism, which White raised, although he didn’t seem to know the name of the objection.
There is also another video review of the debate by Leighton Flowers and Eric Hernandez.
I just want to say here that back in the early 2000s, when I was just starting my career as a software engineer, I attended a philosophy conference at Wheaton College on middle knowledge. Paul Helm was the keynote speaker. And everyone – even me – knew what the grounding objection was, and also what trans-world damnation (TD) was. This is basic Christian apologetics, suitable for rank-and-file Christians.
9 thoughts on “William Lane Craig and James White debate Calvinism vs Molinism”
I’m stealing this quote from a Discord server I am on (William Meme Craig):
— George Horne
Man, this is a great summary. James White is awesome and did ask great questions. WLC is a deep philosopher, and JW is more theological, but JW did bring up a good philosophical question or two.
But the truth is that I don’t even know what repentance means on Calvinism. Was that me repenting or God repenting through me and making me think it was me when it was Him? And what about false repentance? Was I predestined to do that??? For what purpose? To damn me when I thought it was “I” actually repenting? Yikes! Is there a Matrix on Calvinism, LOL.
There seem to be more existential issues with Calvinism. If God had us in Mind before the foundation of the world, then He had plenty of “time” to work through all counter-factuals before He created the universe. And to work through all of the possible universes. And He’s really smart too. Like, omniscient.
I don’t care if Jesuits came up with this. Many Jesuits are flat out brilliant. They can be really smart in some areas and wrong in others. We are all like that.
Finally, I’ve had some really positive and super negative experiences with Calvinists, including lately. But one thing that deeply concerns me is that, like many Catholics, they confuse Church with churches. So when I criticize the churches of the West, many Calvinists come back and accuse me of slandering the Church. There seems to be an assumption that people in the Western churches are saved. Of course, some are, but many are not. I don’t even understand how they can fail to make the distinction between Church and churches when there are so many openly apostate churches.
But that might be the product of adhering to Calvinism over Christ, just like the Catholics do with Catholicism?
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I really appreciate your measured, perceptive comment. So good!
“But the truth is that I don’t even know what repentance means on Calvinism.”
Yes. If God causes the repentance, in what sense can the repentance be genuine?
“And to work through all of the possible universes. And He’s really smart too. Like, omniscient.”
I think he has to be smarter than Calvinists think, to work all these free decisions with the circumstances he chooses, so that he gets the outcome he wants.
“I don’t care if Jesuits came up with this. Many Jesuits are flat out brilliant. They can be really smart in some areas and wrong in others. We are all like that.”
Jesuits back then are different from Jesuits today. But in any case, who cares? When Craig explains counterfactuals, what work does “Jesuit” anything do?
I like how Craig pointed out how Reformed theology inherited a lot of the medieval work done by Catholics. LOL.
All great points! It should also be pointed out that Luther had no intention of breaking from Catholicism, just reforming it from within. It’s also been said that Calvin was more Lutheran and Luther more Calvinist, but I don’t know if that’s true or not. Just something I’ve heard.
Regardless, this is very interesting. To be honest, James White did better than I expected, even though I think that WLC carried the day. I’ve been watching Right Response Ministries, and they are Reformed, and I really love their videos because Pastor Joel Webbon takes on the culture. I don’t care what a person’s theology is (within reason) if they are willing to go on the offensive against the culture.
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Honestly, JW isn’t any friend of scholasticism either, be it Reformed or Catholic, and is currently waging a war against Aquinas, so he’s at least consistent on this point.
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Plenty of great minds have given their analysis of the discussion (yours included!). What I freely choose to do instead is summarize it in the form of concise images: https://scottthong.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/yugiohwhitewlc1.png
And the mic drop moment of 72:30 in the video: https://scottthong.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/yugiohwhitewlc2.png
Those are great! I love seeing WLC trolling a little bit more, like holding up those huge volumes. I always thought he might have been a little too nice in the past.