Middle Knowledge: What Does God Know?

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The subject of God’s knowledge has been a seed bed of debate lately. Modern day Molinists believe that their system offers a middle-ground approach to theology, avoiding both Calvinism and Arminianism. One of my professors at SEBTS is somewhat convinced that Arminius was a Molinist.

The Calvinist theologian Richard A. Muller noted that Arminius had studied from the likes of Luis de Molina, as well as others, but Arminius never declared himself to be a follower of Molina’s systematic thought concerning God’s knowledge. However, there are traces of Molina’s thought in the writings of Arminius (see Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius, Baker Books, pp. 159-161).

So, what does God know, and when did He know it? Open theists claim that God is learning as free will creatures make free will decisions; and for those decisions to truly be free, they cannot in any way be foreordained, coerced, or forced, for then free will would be compromised.

Open Theist Gregory A. Boyd comments, “The debate over the nature of God’s foreknowledge is not primarily a debate about the scope or perfection of God’s knowledge. All Christians agree that God is omniscient and therefore knows all of reality perfectly. The debate over God’s foreknowledge is rather a debate over the content of reality that God perfectly knows. It has more to do with the doctrine of creation than it does with the doctrine of God.”1

Boyd admits that God has exhaustive knowledge as “the sovereign Lord of history” and that He is “steering history toward his desired end;”2 however, God knows what He can bring about, and thus He has predicted future events based on His ability to bring certain things into reality. Yet, God allows for free will and holds people accountable for their actions, maintaining that He was not involved in their decision-making, nor the carrying out of those decisions.3

Molinism takes a different angle in this debate. Walls and Dongell note, “Molina is probably most famous for his view that God possesses what he called ‘middle knowledge.’ This notion is key to understanding Molina’s views of foreknowledge, providence and sovereignty, so let us consider his definition of it. He characterizes it as that knowledge ‘by which, in virtue of the most profound and inscrutable comprehension of each faculty of free choice, He saw in His own essence what each such faculty would do with its innate freedom were it to be placed in this or in that or, indeed, in infinitely many orders of things ~ even though it would really be able, if it so willed, to do the opposite.’

“Why did Molina call this middle knowledge? Because this is knowledge ‘between’ what he called God’s natural knowledge and his free knowledge. God’s natural knowledge is of truths that are necessary, that is, truths that could not be other than they are, such as mathematical and logical truths. Such necessary truths are obviously known to God prior to his decision to create the world and would have been known by him even if he had never created any world at all.

“God’s free knowledge, by contrast, is his knowledge of contingent truths, that is, truths that could have been other than they are. In particular, these are truths known to God as a result of his decision to create. For instance, it is a part of his free knowledge that our solar system has nine planets. This knowledge is free because it depends on God’s free choice to create our solar system with nine planets instead of seven or ten.

“Middle knowledge is ‘between’ natural knowledge and free knowledge in the sense that it shares a characteristic of each. On the one hand, it is similar to natural knowledge in that it is known by God prior to his decision to create and it does not depend on what he decides on that score. On the other hand, it is similar to free knowledge in the sense that it pertains to truths that are contingent rather than necessary.”4

You may be asking yourself if this issue is worth investigating or discussing among Christians. I think it is worthy of both. The apostle Peter noted that the scattered people of God were elect “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1Pet. 1.1-2), and the apostle Paul wrote that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Rom. 8.29, NIV). What was included in God’s foreknowledge?

For Calvinist John MacArthur, God’s foreknowledge is not “a reference simply to God’s omniscience ~ that in eternity past He knew who would come to Christ. Rather, it speaks of a predetermined choice to set His love on us and established an intimate relationship ~ or His election . . .”5 He then goes on to equate predestination with foreknowledge (e.g. Acts 2.23; 1Pet. 1.1, 2, 20). If that is true, then we have a redundancy: Those whom God predestined, He also predestined. Or, those whom God foreknew He also foreknew. Was it Paul’s intent to communicate such a redundant statement?

We believe that there was something legitimate which God foreknew. Granted, the text does not convey the idea that God foreknew the faith of anyone; God foreknew people. This lead Arminius to suggest that God has always known His people and He has always known them as His people. Thus, those of His whom He has always intimately known, these He has predestined to be conformed ultimately to the image of His Son. Yet, it is not unfair to suggest that God has always foreknown the faith of His own children. Certainly, no Calvinist would admit that God did not foreknow those who would have faith.

It does the student of Scripture well to bear in mind that Peter did not teach that people were elect according to the decree of God, but according to His foreknowledge. The above mentioned explanation of Romans 8.29 is in full agreement here. Those whom God has always intimately known as His own are elect, by their union with Christ Jesus, and will be conformed to His likeness by their Father at the Resurrection/Glorification.

Has God, then, determined who will believe in Jesus Christ? We believe that this flies in the face of such passages as 1Timothy 2.4, that God’s desire is for everyone to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, that He is not wanting the destruction of anyone (2Pet. 3.9), and takes no pleasure whatsoever in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from their wicked ways and live in His presence forever (Ezek. 18.23; 33.11).

How one can reconcile these passages with God’s determinative action to elect one person for salvation and not another, by a mere decree, is beyond my scope of reasoning. The question, truly, is this: Is God being genuine or not when He makes these statements? Can we take Him at His word?

1 Gregory A. Boyd, “The Open-Theist View,” Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 13.

2 Ibid., 15.

3 Ibid., 17.

4 Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I am not a Calvinist (Downers Grove: InterVarsithy Press, 2004), 134-135.

5 The MacArthur Study Bible, ed. John MacArthur (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1997), 1709.