You can read the original post by Dr. Adam Lloyd Johnson over at Convincing Proof
Here are my initial ‘off the cuff’ thoughts concerning the debate between William Lane Craig and James White over the issue of Molinism and Calvinism that took place in December 2021. You can watch the debate here: William Lane Craig vs James White – Calvinism vs Molinism on the Problem of Evil
- Who won the debate?
- Can you find Calvinism in the Bible? Yes and No
- Were Molinism and Calvinism invented in the AD 1500s?
- Was Molina trying to undermine the Reformation?
- According to Molinism, are there people that God could not save?
- Does God predestine everything?
- Is God free to do anything He pleases with His creatures?
- Does God do everything for His own glory?
- Is God limited by counterfactuals?
- Who is responsible for evil?
- What is God’s will?
- Where do these counterfactuals come from?
- The Essence of James White
- Does James White do good work in other areas?
It doesn’t seem very helpful to declare a winner in such debates. It seems more helpful to describe where you think each person was correct and where you think each person was incorrect. For the most part I think Craig’s position is correct, and I believe White’s position has some serious mistakes.
White seems naïve about how theology works. He seems to think that Calvinism rolls right off of the pages of Scripture as though the Bible explicitly spells it out in detail. I find that folks who think their particular theological position is ‘clearly’ taught in Scripture, and anyone who disagrees is ‘obviously’ unbiblical, have become so influenced by their theological system that they can’t help but read it into verses they see in the Bible. In other words, they’ve so bought into their own theological system that it’s become a fixed filter through which they read the Bible, so much so that they can’t read the Bible without their filter. Now there’s no doubt this happens to all of us to one degree or another; what I’m saying is that when someone thinks their theological position is just so ‘clearly’ and ‘obviously’ taught in the Bible, then such a person has become so biased by their own theological system that they’re unaware just how much it’s actually influencing their interpretation of Scripture.
Contrast White’s attitude with Craig, who admitted that his theological position isn’t explicitly taught in Scripture but that it seems to make the best sense of the biblical data. That’s how theology works. Theology is our best attempt to interpret Scripture such that we can best accurately understand God and reality.
Here’s a simple hypothetical example I often use to explain how theology works. Let’s say there’s a verse in the Bible that describes angels as having two wings but there’s another verse in another book of the Bible that describes angels as having four wings. One theologian might look at this biblical data and propose a theology of angels which says all angels have four wings by concluding that the verse which described angels as having two wings was only referring to their larger wings; after all, the verse didn’t say they ‘only’ had two wings. Another theologian might look at the same biblical data and propose a theology of angels which says there are different types of angels—some have two wings and some have four. Both theological positions are consistent with the biblical data that we have. This is what Craig meant when he said both Molinism and Calvinism are consistent with the biblical data. (As a side note, I don’t think Calvinism is consistent with the biblical data—more on that later.) However, you can imagine the two theologians making a case for their respective position on angels by appealing to other things such as logic, reason, coherence, relationship with other theologies, etc. For example, the angels-have-four-wings theologian might argue that, based on what we’ve learned about flight dynamics over the last hundred years, having four wings is much more efficient for flying than having two wings. And since God would likely create flying creatures to be most efficient, it seems reasonable to conclude that all angels have four wings. In other words, we develop our theological positions by starting with the biblical data and then thinking through logically what interpretation best explains the data. This is how all theological positions work; this is how people have developed different theological positions about the Trinity, the incarnation, end times, salvation, baptism, angels, etc.
White’s naïvety about how theology works was most clearly on display when he read some verses from Ephesians 1 and then immediately began explaining what the verses mean, as though what he was explaining is just what’s ‘clearly’ and ‘obviously’ right there in the text. Here are the verses:
He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory.Ephesians 1:9-12
But if it was so ‘clearly’ and ‘obviously’ right there in the text, he wouldn’t have had to explain what it means; all he’d have to do is just read it out loud! My point is that he doesn’t seem to realize that he’s actively interpreting the text when he ‘explains’ it; he thinks he’s just saying what it ‘clearly’ and ‘obviously’ says. It seems White believes that his theological position just comes straight from the Bible and no interpretation is needed. The problem is that everything needs to be interpreted; that’s just how communication works. And it’s important to remember that while Scripture is inerrant, our interpretation of it is not.
Another example of this came up when they discussed Genesis 50:20 where Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” But this verse doesn’t specify if God deterministically caused Joseph’s brothers to do this (White’s interpretation) or if He merely allowed them to do this of their own free will (Craig’s interpretation). It’d be one thing if White merely said that he and Craig interpret this verse differently, but instead White doesn’t seem to be aware that he’s interpreting here; he thinks that the text just says that God deterministically causes Joseph’s brothers to do these things.
As for finding Molinism in the Bible, Craig didn’t get much of a chance to make a biblical case for Molinism in the debate, but he was able to point out a few of the verses (of which there are several – Matt. 11:21-23, Luke 10:13, Matt. 26:24, John 14:2, Ex. 9:15, Is. 48:17-19, 1 Sam. 23:6-14, Jer. 38:17-18, John 15:22-24, John 18:36) which talk about God knowing what people would have done if they were in other circumstances. It is these types of verses which caused people to begin thinking about God’s knowledge of these sorts of counterfactuals.
White tried to argue that his position was somehow superior to Craig’s because his standard for evaluating theological ideas is merely what the Bible says whereas Craig’s standard for evaluating theological ideas is philosophical plausibility. Yes, Craig often uses the term ‘plausibility,’ but what he means by that is how plausible a theological theory is in light of the biblical data, its logical coherence, and how well it matches with other things we know from general revelation. For example, one of the reasons Craig thinks that Calvinism is implausible is that it doesn’t fit with the biblical data which indicates that God cannot cause evil (James 1).
There’s another reason to reject White’s claim that his standard is merely the Bible whereas Craig’s standard is merely rational plausibility—White also appeals to things outside the Bible in order to evaluate theological theories. First, White said that his theology is derived from a consistent hermeneutic (the manner in which we interpret the Bible), and hermeneutic principles, by definition, have to come from outside the Bible. (They can’t come from the Bible because we need them—such as rules of grammar, definitions of words, etc.—in order to interpret the Bible in the first place.) Second, White himself used philosophical reasoning to evaluate Craig’s Molinism when he argued that it’s implausible to think God has knowledge of counterfactuals because there’s no good explanation of where these counterfactuals come from. White said that if they don’t come from God and they don’t come from creatures (because God hadn’t created anything yet), then where do they come from? White was using philosophical reasoning here to argue against Craig’s position. I’ll tackle this issue below of where counterfactuals come from, but my point here is to note that White inconsistently critiques Craig for using philosophical reasoning when White himself does so here as well. The fact is that we all use our God-given human reason to try to best understand God’s Word; that’s just how theology works, and it’s a scare tactic on White’s part to claim Craig appeals to philosophical reasoning while he himself develops his theology from the Bible alone.
White seemed to argue that Molinism should be rejected because it was invented in the AD 1500s. First, it wasn’t invented in the AD 1500s. The reason we use the term ‘Molinism’ to describe a particular understanding of God’s sovereignty, God’s knowledge, and human choices is not because Molina invented these ideas but because he did an excellent job articulating and systematizing them. The theological position we today call ‘Molinism’ has been discussed, described, and proposed to one degree or another for thousands of years. Similarly, the reason we use the term Calvinism to describe a particular understanding of God’s sovereignty, God’s knowledge, and human choices is not because Calvin invented these ideas but because he did an excellent job articulating and systematizing them. The theological position we today call Calvinism has been discussed, described, and proposed to one degree or another for thousands of years. So no, neither Molinism nor Calvinism were invented in the AD 1500s. Thus, White’s argument that Molinism should be rejected merely because it was ‘invented’ in the AD 1500s is a poor argument.
White asserted that certainly the biblical authors didn’t have Molinism in mind when they wrote Scripture, and he’s probably right. But that doesn’t mean Molinism is false. Most people throughout history have simply believed that God was completely sovereign and that humans were the cause of at least some of their own choices, especially their evil choices, though they might not have understood exactly how these two truths could be reconciled. As for the biblical authors, we can’t presume too much, but I would guess that even they probably saw it this way as well; they held both things to be true but might not have known how both truths could be reconciled. So no, the authors of the Bible probably didn’t have Molinism specifically in mind when they wrote Scripture, but they probably didn’t have Calvinism in mind either. As I’ll show below, though, it seems fairly clear that the biblical authors did reject the idea that God causally determines people to do evil.
Much like the humanity and deity of Christ, it took time for theologians to think through how both things could be true; many different theological theories were proposed, but eventually most everyone agreed that it’s best to understand Jesus as being fully God and fully man. Similarly, theologians over the centuries have proposed different ways that it could both be true that God is completely sovereign and that humans are the ultimate cause of at least some of their choices, especially their evil choices. Such theologians have developed their theories by evaluating the biblical evidence and using their God-given reason to propose and evaluate different theological possibilities.
White seemed to argue that we shouldn’t adopt Molina’s theology of God’s sovereignty, God’s knowledge, and human freedom because his motive in developing this theology was to undermine the Reformation and defend the Roman Catholic sacramental system. First, this was not Molina’s motive. For a detailed examination of Molina’s history and motivations, see Luis de Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge by Kirk MacGregor. There you’ll see that Molina was very much in line with, and sympathetic towards, many aspects of the Reformation.
However, even if Molina’s motive was to undermine the Reformation, this doesn’t mean his theology about God’s sovereignty, God’s knowledge, and human freedom is incorrect. White made a mistake in his argumentation here which is referred to as the genetic fallacy—rejecting something solely based on its source rather than evaluating it on its own to see if it’s true. For example, even though we all despise Hitler, if he said in a particular speech against Jewish people that it was raining outside, and it was, in fact, raining outside, then we shouldn’t reject his statement about the rain as false just because it came from him or because he said it out of a motivation to murder millions of Jews.
I’m concerned that White’s strategy here is to try to appeal to the strong feelings some Protestants have against Catholicism, paint Molina as a despicable Catholic, and then convince folks to reject Molina’s ideas on that basis alone. I find such a ‘muddying the waters’ scare tactic to be very poor argumentation because it’s playing on people’s fears and emotions rather than trying to build a reasonable case with good evidence and arguments.
White seemed to argue that it’s ludicrous to think there are people that God can’t save, that Molinism teaches there are people that God can’t save, and therefore we should reject Molinism. White indicated this was a fatal blow to Molinism that Molinists had never considered before, but actually White’s argument here makes it clear that he doesn’t understand Molinism. It’s so important to understand what your opponent believes before you critique his or her ideas.
First, as Craig noted, only some (not all) Molinists believe that there are people who would freely reject Jesus in any circumstance God would put them in; in other words, this idea is not essential to Molinism. Second, even those Molinists who believe there are such people are not saying that God can’t save such people. Molinists maintain that God certainly has the power to override their free will and move their will to trust in Christ if He chose to do so but that God refrains from doing that. All the Molinist is saying is that if God allowed such individuals to freely choose to trust in Christ or not, then they would never choose to freely trust in Christ in any circumstance. Again, not all Molinists believe there are such people.
Since I was a Calvinist for 12 years, I know what those of you who are Calvinists are thinking right now: Well, no one would freely choose to trust in Christ if God left them on their own—Romans 3 says that no one seeks after God. Yes, Molinists agree that that if God left people on their own then no one would trust in Christ. Molinists and Calvinists agree that someone would only trust in Christ if they were empowered by God’s grace to do so. The difference is that Calvinists think this empowering grace is irresistible (the I in TULIP) whereas Molinists think this empowering grace can be resisted, that God empowers people to trust in Christ but still ultimately lets people freely choose to resist this empowering grace or not. And no, just because one person chooses to trust in Christ doesn’t mean he can boast that he is better than someone who doesn’t because, as Paul argues towards the end of Romans 3, faith is the vehicle through which God chose to save us precisely because faith isn’t something, as opposed to works, that can be boasted about.
The word predestine is tricky because it can be used to mean different things. Craig and White both say that everything is predestined by God, but they mean different things when they say that. White uses the term to mean that God determinately causes everything, including all human choices, even our evil choices.
Thus, the larger disagreement here is among those who think that God has determinately caused everything including all human choices, which includes Calvinists and other groups, and those who don’t think God has determinately caused everything (for example, that humans are ultimately the cause of at least some of their choices), which include Molinists and other groups. So this is a larger battle than just between Calvinists and Molinists; it’s between those who think God determinately causes everything (Calvinism being just one group on this side) and those who don’t (Molinism being just one group on this side).
This is critical because it seems to be that if God determinately causes everything including all human choices, then this makes God the cause of evil, which is a horrendous attack on God’s character. This concern is what leads many to conclude that God does not determinately cause everything. White seemed to argue that people who reject that God determinately causes everything do so because they’re pridefully motivated to preserve human free will and don’t want to submit to God’s sovereignty. While it’s true that those who reject that God determinately causes everything do want to preserve human free will, the primary reason they want to preserve human free will is so they can avoid making a horrendous attack on God’s character by claiming God is the cause of evil. It seems that human free will (that humans cause at least some of their choices) is necessary to avoid the conclusion that God is the cause of evil. That’s why Craig summed up the debate well when he said that a theological position that allows for human freedom to do evil is much more plausible than a view that says God determinately causes creatures to do evil.
White tried to emphasize that God is free to do anything He pleases with His creation. He even wrote a book about this issue called The Potter’s Freedom. Presumably, White thinks his theological position is superior because he doesn’t limit God whereas other theologians do limit God. According to White, God is free to causally determine people to do evil so that God can be glorified by punishing such evil. However, is this true? Can God do anything? No, God cannot do anything because He is limited by His own moral nature. For example, God is not free to lie because His moral nature prevents Him from lying. God is not free to do evil because His moral nature prevents Him from doing evil. In addition, according to James 1 God cannot be tempted by evil and doesn’t tempt others to evil.
No one is to say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it has run its course, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters. Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.James 1:13-17
These verses seem to teach that we are the ultimate cause of our evil choices, not God. It is verses like these which have led Molinists to conclude that, because of His moral nature, God cannot causally determine people to do evil. Thus, while White thinks his position is superior because it affirms God’s freedom, his position actually accuses God of horrendous evil, something God could never do because of His moral nature. In other words, yes, God is free to do anything He pleases with His creation but, because of His moral nature, He could never be pleased to causally determine people to do evil.
I have concerns about the idea that God’s number-one driving motivation is displaying His own glory, but I’ll leave that for another day. But even if God’s number-one driving motivation is displaying His own glory, that doesn’t settle the dispute between those who say God determinately causes everything and those who say He doesn’t determinately cause everything. For example, someone could say, with Calvinists, that God determinately causes there to be evil in the world so that God receives glory or someone could say, with Molinists, that God allows there to be evil in the world so that God receives glory. In other words, since both positions can maintain that God does what He does in order to bring Himself glory, this isn’t a distinguishing factor between Calvinism and Molinism. I bring this up because it seemed that White tried to argue that only Calvinists could affirm God does what He does in order to bring Himself glory.
I must say that the idea that God causes people to do evil so that He can punish it and thus display His glory of righteous judgment betrays so much biblical data about God’s moral character. (Yes, I’m familiar with Romans 9—you can listen to my sermons on Romans 9-11 here.) I find this to be a horrendous idea and a direct attack on God’s character. I thought Craig made a good point when he replied to White that God does do what He does for His good pleasure, and it’s His good pleasure to not causally determine people to do evil.
White, like many Calvinists, is concerned when he thinks people are claiming that God is somehow limited or constrained by something outside of God. In the case of Molinism, he’s concerned with the idea that God is constrained by these counterfactuals (what people would freely do in various circumstances they could be in). But it’s important to remember that, according to Molinism, God isn’t really constrained by them in the negative way White portrayed. God could certainly override people’s free choices if He wanted to; He has the power to do so, but He chooses not to. So technically, God is constraining Himself in the sense that He’s limiting the options He chooses from to those where people freely choose to do things.
For example, let’s say that I would never freely choose to wear blue shorts in any circumstance that God could put me in. Is God therefore constrained in that He can’t create a world in which I wear blue shorts? No, God could easily force me to wear blue shorts. However, let’s say, for whatever reason, that God decides He’s not going to force me to wear blue shorts. If that’s the case, then this narrows down the range of options that God has to choose from. It’s not that I’ve somehow restricted God but that He’s restricted Himself by choosing not to force me to do something that I’d never freely choose to do. Similarly, if God decides not to force people to make certain decisions, then He is choosing Himself to restrict His options for what takes place in history. He could override people’s free choices, of course, but, as I’ve argued above, there may be reasons why He chooses not to override people’s free choices. By the way, God couldn’t force me to freely wear blue shorts because that’s a contradiction. (Forcing a free choice causes it not to be free anymore.) The bottom line is that these free choices aren’t outside of God’s control. He allows these free choices, but He could override them if He chose to. In addition, some Molinists claim that God does override many of our choices but not all of our choices.
Interestingly, it’s White’s position that seems to limit God. First, White limits God’s knowledge in that he claims God can’t have Middle Knowledge. Near the beginning of the debate, White seemed to indicate that God couldn’t know what we’d choose to do in different circumstances because humans are too complex. It seems odd to me that White would think that there are some things which are too complex for God to know. Besides the biblical data, which seems to indicate that God knows what people would choose in different circumstances, it seems quite reasonable to me that God would possess such knowledge. For example, I have a pretty good idea about how my wife would react tonight if I brought her some flowers. Now I’m not going to bring her flowers tonight, but I have a fairly good idea how she would react if I did. It seems quite reasonable to me that God knows exactly how my wife would respond if I brought her flowers tonight. It’s hard for me to imagine God not knowing such things. In fact, it seems to deny God’s omniscience to say that God doesn’t know such things.
Second, White’s position limits God in that he seems to claim that God cannot create creatures who make free choices. Several of White’s comments seemed to imply that God would lose control of the universe if He created free creatures. Molinism has no such limit on God; according to Molinism God can still maintain His complete sovereignty even if He creates free creatures.
Both positions have their strengths and weaknesses. Molinism results in some difficult questions that Molinsts have tried their best to answer—What grounds these counterfactuals; where do they come from? Why would God ever create people that He knew would reject Christ in any circumstance they were put in? However, all the difficulties of Molinism pale in comparison to the primary difficulty with Calvinism, at least the Calvinism that affirms that God causally determines everything. If God causally determines everything, then God is the ultimate cause of our evil choices. I don’t see how this conclusion can be avoided, and this is the primary reason I reject this form of Calvinism. The idea that God is the author of evil violates so much of the biblical data that it honestly surprises me how anyone can hold to such a position. I suppose they’re motivated to do so because they want to protect God’s sovereignty, but at what cost? God doesn’t have to causally determine everything in order to be sovereign; that’s a distorted view of sovereignty. If your theological position results in attacking God’s moral character by accusing Him of being the cause of our evil choices, then it’s probably a good indication you need to go back and rethink the steps that led you to your theological position.
We have to be very careful when we talk about God’s will. Theologians have come up with all sorts of qualifying words to communicate more precisely what we mean when we talk about God’s will – His permissive will, His perfect will, His decretive will, His perceptive will, His directive will, His revealed will, His secret will, etc. But don’t let all this jargon confuse you. I think it’s better, when we try to articulate and help people understand this issue, if we merely explain what we’re saying instead of inventing new technical terms. So let me explain how I think it’s best to understand God’s will.
Let’s say a young child was brutally raped and buried alive. Was that God’s will? We have to be very careful here because when most people hear the term ‘God’s will,’ they think of what He desires, what He wants, and what brings Him pleasure. So, if we say it was God’s will that that young child was brutally raped and buried alive, then people will most likely think we’re saying that God wanted that, He desired that, and that brought Him pleasure. Instead, it would be better if we said that, yes, God did allow that to happen, and we trust He had sufficient reasons to allow that to happen even if we don’t know what those reasons are, but He certainly didn’t desire it, want it, nor take pleasure in it. There are things that happen that God does not desire, does not want, and doesn’t take pleasure in. For example, God says He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:23, Ezek. 33:11), but there are people who die because of their wickedness. Thus, God allows some things that He doesn’t desire, want, or take pleasure in. Also, the Bible says God desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4), but certainly not all are saved. Thus, God allows some things that He doesn’t desire, want, or take pleasure in. He allows these things, and we trust He does so for good reasons even if we don’t understand what those reasons are, but we shouldn’t say that He wills them in the sense that He desires them, wants them, or takes pleasure in them.
One of White’s arguments against Molinism had to do with the origin of these counterfactuals. Sometimes this is referred to as the grounding objection. What grounds the truth of these counterfactuals? What makes them true if their truth doesn’t come from God and their truth doesn’t come from humans? White argued these counterfactuals can’t come from humans because God knows these counterfactuals before He created humans and thus humans don’t even exist yet. Information can’t come from something that doesn’t exist, can it?
This is an important issue because we all want to avoid the idea that God learns things, that is, that any part of God’s knowledge comes from information that originates outside of God. Thus, several Molinists have proposed that this counterfactual knowledge comes from ‘inside’ of God. In other words, God knows these counterfactuals by knowing Himself. Think of it this way: God knows that if He Himself chose to create the being Adam Johnson and give him free will, then He knows what choices this Adam Johnson would freely make in various circumstances. God knows this by looking ‘inside’ Himself and considering His own ability to create such a free creature and everything this free creature would freely do. So the information doesn’t come from outside of God but from inside of God. It’s not as though these human essences (i.e., the essence of James White) is floating around out there like some sort of Platonic, pre-existent soul that generates this information. No, God knows these counterfactuals by knowing in Himself His own abilities to create such free creatures. In fact, to deny God has this knowledge seems to deny His omniscience.
I was very surprised to hear that White thinks that if God had him live and exist in another time in history or another location around the world, that person wouldn’t really be James White. This is a very strange idea because it implies that these accidental properties (things like where a person is born, what era they live in, etc.) are necessary for them to be who they are. Most thinkers throughout history have understood ‘essence’ to be all those things something necessarily needs to have in order to be that thing. For example, it’s not essential for me to have ten fingers in order to be human. If I lost a finger, I’d still be human because having ten fingers is not essential to being human; it’s not part of my human essence. So there’s a sense in which I have a human essence, but I also have a specific ‘Adam Lloyd Johnson’ essence that are all the things I necessarily need to have in order to be Adam Lloyd Johnson. Theologians have debated over the centuries exactly what is necessary for a person to be that particular person, but I’ve never encountered someone who thinks that the accidental properties such as the time and location they were born are necessary essentials for them to be who they are. Of course, just because I’ve never heard anyone else propose such an idea doesn’t make the idea wrong, but it’s telling that no one else has proposed such a stringent set of essential properties. At a minimum I’d need to hear White’s argument for this peculiar assertion.
Though I disagree with White on this theological issue about God’s sovereignty and human free will, I agree with many, if not most, of his other theological positions. However, I’ve studied this issue of God’s sovereignty and human free will a great deal, more than any other theological issue. Thus, for me to see White misunderstand, mischaracterize, commit fallacies, and use scare tactics to argue against Molinism here makes it difficult for me to trust him when he argues about other issues that I haven’t researched as much. For example, I haven’t spent much time studying the issue of whether or not the Gospel writers used a prior source some scholars have called Q when they wrote their accounts of Jesus. I don’t know if White takes a position on this, but if he did it would be difficult for me to trust his arguments for it knowing how poorly he argued against Molinism. Therefore, seeing how poorly he performed in this discussion leads me not to trust his arguments for any of his respective positions even though I probably agree with many of his positions. In other words, though I agree with many of his theological positions, after seeing this debate I don’t trust his ability to argue for them well and therefore cannot recommend his arguments to others.