The lesser known theological flower, the ROSES of Molinism, was first developed by Spanish Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina, for whom the system is named. It attempts to reconcile the dual emphasis in Scripture on God’s sovereignty and human responsibility/free will.
While it is not as widely known as Calvinism or Arminianism, it is growing in popularity today, especially among Christian philosophers. Two of the most prominent, William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga, both espouse some version of Molinism. It is also growing among theologians, as evidenced by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary theology professor, Kenneth Keathley’s book, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach.
So how exactly does Molinism make compatible these two issues that seem to be at odds?
Theologians and Christian philosophers have been formulating ways to relate these two concepts. C.H. Spurgeon, himself a moderate Calvinist, when asked how he reconciled them, reportedly said, “I do not try to reconcile good friends.” Despite their status as good friends and equally affirmed in Scripture, there seems to be some logical separation.
There are various views across the theological spectrum explaining the relationship, despite the seeming insistence that one must be a five-point Calvinist or a died in the wool Arminian. Besides Molinism, Thomism, named for Thomas Aquinas, also attempts an explanation. It states that because God exists outside time, then God’s election and foreknowledge occurred “together” so there is no conflict between the two.
Keathley, borrowing from moderate Calvinist Timothy George, uses ROSES to describe the Molinist approach to understanding all the issues involved with the stated goal of balancing both God’s sovereignty and human free will. Within Molinism, there are those who are more Calvinistic and those who are more Arminian, but we will focus on Keathley’s approach.
R: Radical Depravity
Humanity is depraved. Adam’s fall has effect us all and because of that sin we cannot come to God without His initiative. However, the Calvinist terminology seems to imply that man is as depraved as possible, incapable of any good action and that because man has no free choice that sin and Adam’s fall, somehow, find their nexus in the choice of God.
Man, while obviously depraved (read the news to see that perfectly illustrated), does not always choose wrongly. Calvinist R.C. Sproul Sr. points out that even Hitler loved his mother. Humans have within them a range of choices that they can (and do) make according to their nature, but their nature will not choose God, apart from His work in them.
If Calvinist take their determinism to the logical end, it seems to place sin at the feet of God. R.C. Sproul, Jr. goes much farther than his dad or other Calvinist want to go when he writes that God is “the culprit” that introduced evil into the world. He continues, “Of course it’s impossible for God to do evil. He can’t sin. This objection, however, is off the mark. I am not accusing God of sinning; I am suggesting that he created sin.”
Obviously, that is not the position of most Calvinists. It is, however, a logical conclusion of the view point that God is the ultimate cause of everything. If you allow no room for human freedom, then you must place responsibility for everything, including the bad, with God.
How do Molinists avoid this conundrum? The propose the central tenant of the system – middle knowledge. While it sounds like an intimidating philosophical term, it is not as daunting as it seems. Molina proposed that God had natural knowledge – He knows everything that could happen. He knows all possibilities. God also has free knowledge – He knows everything that will happen. He has exhaustive knowledge of everything in reality. Those are commonly accepted and discussed ideas about God.
Molina added another layer to God’s knowledge. He has middle knowledge – He knows everything that would happen. He knows what would happen in all of the possibilities that could happen. It is in His middle knowledge that God sovereignly elects His people.
God chose to create this world, out of all the possible worlds, because He knew this world would bring about the most glory for Him and the most good for His creation. He also knew that this world would be the one in which each and every one of His elect would freely choose to follow Him. So, God sovereignly chooses to make this world a reality and create the situation where all of those who were elect before the foundation of the earth would seek Him when empowered by the Holy Spirit to make that choice.
Molinism disagrees with Calvinism that the individual has no role in actually accepting the Gospel. It also disagrees with Arminianism in that God’s election is only a reaffirmation of man’s decision.
O: Overcoming Grace
Calvinism has the “problem of the well-meant offer,” meaning that while Calvinist preach and extend the Gospel to all of their hearers they actually cannot really mean what they say. When they say “whosoever,” they have to mean “whosoever is elect.” The doctrine of irresistible grace entails that when God offers listeners a choice in the Bible, He really isn’t given them a choice because their action is solely determined based on whether or not God gives them the grace to act. No grace, no action. Does that mean no responsibility?
Non-Calvinist say that salvation is open to whoever hears and receives it. That encounters its own problem. Does that make my choice a good work, and thus make salvation, in some small way, works based? If a friend and I were listening to the Gospel being preached and I responded, but he didn’t, did I not do something good that he did not do? Would that give me reason to boast?
The overcoming grace model of Molinism seeks to solve those two problems by asserting that salvation is all of grace and damnation is all of human sin. Keathley explains this using the ambulance analogy.
Imagine you wake up and discover that you are in an ambulance being transported to the emergency room. You clearly require serious medical help. If you do nothing, you will be delivered to the hospital. However, if for whatever reason you demand to be let out, the driver will comply. He may express his concern, warn you of the consequences, but he will abide by your wishes. You receive no credit for being taken to the hospital, you receive all the blame for getting out. This is a picture of the Molinist view of salvation.
The Holy Spirit desires my salvation. If I simply allow Him to work, He will bring about salvation in my life. However, if I resist and protest, He will move on. Salvation is completely all of grace. My only action is an inaction of not resisting. Damnation is all of my sin. In that way, I am telling God, “No, I do not want to be saved.” The difference between those who believe and those who do not is not found in the believer, to give him something about which to boast. The difference is found in the unbeliever, which gives him a reason to be judged.
The idea of irresistible grace seems to be foreign to Scripture and our experience. We see numerous cases of people being drawn to Christ in various stages only to eventually reject Him. The salvation story for many Christians, involves a period of them rejecting God’s grace only to accept it later.
For Christians the concept brings up even more difficult questions. If God’s grace is irresistible, why do I still sin? John Piper would argue that we sin because somehow, for some reason in His “hidden will,” God desires that sin in our life to bring glory to Himself. Other Calvinists would argue that God’s grace operates differently once we are saved. This reasoning, however, neuters their objections to many who embrace an Arminian view of salvation, yet hold to eternal security.
Both of those positions argue that something changes at conversion that makes it different than it was before. For one, Christians can resist God’s grace in ways they could not prior to conversion. For the other, once the Christian has made a free will decision to come to Christ, He cannot (or will not) choose to reject his salvation. It seems to me a much more strange argument to say that the Christian gains the ability to reject God’s grace upon conversion.
S: Sovereign Election
Both Molinism and moderate views of Calvinism seek to affirm both divine sovereignty and divine permission. God’s permission means that He allows something other than Himself to exist. He gave humans the ability to choose, within certain parameters.
Some strict Calvinist argue that everything flows from a decree of God. The fall of humanity happened because God decreed it to happen. He did not allow it to happen. He was the ultimate cause of it. Most Calvinists (and most people in general) are repelled by that doctrine.
However, the moderate Calvinist faces logical problems within his theology. If God does not cause the fall or sin in our lives, but merely allows it, is His judgment of the sinner conditional – ie based on the condition of our sin. The sinner is damned by God in response to their sins.
Calvin, himself, rejected this moderate form of Reformed theology because it abandons the classic view of God’s sovereignty. It is very difficult to logically hold the idea that God sovereignly, unconditionally ordains all things, while saying that sinners are judged conditionally upon their sinful acts.
Molinsim would argue that God does sovereignly elect those whom He has chosen, by creating the world in which they would freely choose Him. William Lane Craig explains, “It is up to God whether we find ourselves in a world in which we are predestined, but it is up to us whether we are predestined in the world in which we find ourselves.”
While Calvinism and Arminianism seem to ignore and interpret strangely portions of Scripture that do not line up with their theological system, Molinism allows for a robust view of both God’s sovereignty and man’s free will/responsibility. Scripture often focuses on the two side by side, yet the majority views in Christianity tend to elevate one and dismiss the other.
E: Eternal Life
Despite modern day ideas, historically, Calvinists have struggled with assurance of salvation almost as much Arminians. While an Arminian may worry that he will loose his salvation at some point in the future, a Calvinist may worry that he was never part of the elect and his experience is wrong.
According to Arminian theology, it is possible to forfeit your salvation. Calvin taught that God gives a temporary faith to some of the reprobate. That makes it seem to everyone, including that person, that they have been genuinely saved, but it is a false salvation given from God so that, according to Calvin’s chosen successor Beza, “their fall might be more grievous.” Some have said, and I agree, that seems dangerously close to divine sadism.
We can find our assurance only in Christ. The objective work of Christ is the only basis for assurance. Our works will not and cannot be the basis of our assurance. However, the works done by God through us can, and should, providing a supporting confirmation to the already present assurance.
Scripture also teaches that true saving faith will endure until the end. The genuinely saved person will seek God. They may backslide for a time, but there can be no peaceful backsliders because if the Holy Spirit dwells in them, He will convict and discipline them.
S: Singular Redemption
The TULIP “L” is the most difficult to hold, both Scripturally and emotionally. Again, many Calvin scholars have said that Calvin did not hold to “limited atonement” himself. However, the Arminian view of “general atonement” has problems in that it does not secure salvation for anyone, but merely grants the opportunity.
The general atonement view of the Arminians says that redemption is obtained, salvation is obtained for all, but secured for none. The Calvinist limited atonement view says that redemption is secured, salvation is secured for and only for the elect. The moderate and Molinist position says that redemption is provided, salvation is provided for all, but applied only to those who believe.
Holders of limited atonement are forced to conjure up weird explanations for Bible verses that clearly speak of Christ’s death being for “all” and the “whole world.” General atonement supporters have to be careful not to drift into universalism (everyone is saved because Jesus died for everyone) and argue that Jesus’ death did not actually make Him our Savior, but rather open the door to the possibility of Him being Savior.
The idea of singular redemption says that Christ’s death is universal in accessibility, but limited in application. Everyone can choose to access it, but only those who make the choice to follow Christ have the benefits of His death applied to their life.
Molinism is just another form of Arminianism – said by a Calvinist. Molinism is just another form of Calvinism – said by an Arminian.
Any mediating position faces this criticism. Since it differs from one, it must be the other. This is a false dilemma and a bit condescending to imply that the only choices one has to explain the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility are those two.
It seems that both of those theological camps have been at war for so long, they see enemies in any person who will not whole-heartedly embrace every nuance of every position. Often times they engage in friendly fire within their own camp over minute differences. It is no real criticism to be attacked from both sides.
It is simply a philosophical concept. Why not just believe the Bible?
Yes, it is a philosophical concept. No, it is not simply a philosophical concept. Every way of looking at Scripture and trying to interpret them in a logical, coherent system is in some sense philosophy.
You can simply say, “I believe the Bible.” But so do Calvinist, Arminians, Molinists, Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Orthodox, Methodists, etc. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons say they believe the Bible. It is not a matter of simply believing the Bible. To think deeply about the Bible, you have to explain how concepts like divine sovereignty and human free will interact.
How could God know the things that would happen?
Philosophically, this is called the grounding objection. At this point, many Molinists appeal to mystery. Mystery is often mentioned by every side. Molinists would say that their appeal is the most satisfactory because it places the mystery within God’s attributes, in this case his omniscience, whereas a Calvinist has to place mystery in God’s character when he talks about the status of the unelect or in God’s will when he speaks of why sin exists in the life of the believer.
It is much more fulfilling to say that as a human being I do not totally understand how God has all knowledge and that knowledge extends to things that would happen than to say I do not know if God really loves those He has not chosen to be elect.
If it is not obvious enough at this point, I would call myself a Molinist after a life of dissatisfaction with both the Calvinist and Arminian models and a time of studying and reading about other options. My position is one of humility in that Molinism seems to best explain all of the phenomenon, but I do not and cannot assert that it is the only way or that anyone who disagrees is somehow lacking in the biblical knowledge or relationship with Christ.
Other posts in the series:
Beauty in the all the flowers: TULIP, DAISY, ROSES
Pushing up DAISY: Arminianism in Brief
Tiptoeing Through the TULIP: Calvinism in Brief
Theological Flower Bed: TULIP, DAISY & ROSES