Molina, Arminius, Plaifere, Goad, and Wesley On Human Free-will, Divine Omniscience, and Middle Knowledge

, posted by Kevin Jackson

Molina, Arminus, Plaifere, Goad, and Wesley On Human Free-will, Divine Omniscience, and Middle Knowledge

From the Wesleyan Theological Journal
Barry E. Bryant

Upon first glance the title of this paper contains a strange mix of individuals, one or two of whom are perhaps more obscure than the others. What each has in common with the others is a vested interest in the issue of free-will. What they also have in common is the realization that arising from the doctrine of free-will is the paradox of omniscience.

The paradox of omniscience acknowledges that, while free-will relocates the responsibility of evil from Creator to creature, it also seems to deny God divine omniscience. This arises from the problem of how God’s perfect knowledge, as a constitutive element of the divine and eternal nature, can be consistent with human free-will, presupposing that God’s omniscience must also include foreknowledge of all future events. As modern discussions of the issue of free-will constantly point out, free-will; creates problems for the doctrine of God.

Further, Molina, Arminius, Plaifere, Goad, and Wesley also have in common the concept of “scientia media,” or God’s “middle knowledge,” as an attempt to resolve the paradox of omniscience in order to maintain compatiblist view. It is this common denominator that I wish to explore this essay.

1. Luis de Molina

The general consensus is that “scientia media” was a phrase not simply used, but coined by Luis de Molina (1535-1600) in Concordia Liberi Arbitrii cum gratiae Donis (Lisbon, 1588/Antwerp, 1595).1 It entails a utilization of modal logic to describe God’s knowledge not of necessities only, but also of hypothetical future contingents (i.e., events that do not have to occur).2 Molina stated his point this way: “Unless we want to wander about precariously in reconciling our freedom of choice and the contingency of things with divine foreknowledge it is necessary for us to distinguish three types of knowledge of God.”3

The first type of divine knowledge which Molina distinguished was God’s natural knowledge. This knowledge consists not of individuals alone but consists as well of knowledge of all of the possible actions and circumstances associated with individuals. Although this knowledge of all future contingents existed before God created anything by His free will, it is not dependent upon God’s will.4 Such knowledge is a divine attribute and is essential to God, which is why it is called “natural.”

The second kind of divine knowledge which Moline distinguished was God’s free knowledge, the knowledge by which, after the free act of God’s will, God knows absolutely and indeterminately, without any condition or hypothesis, which states of affairs from among all contingent states of affairs are, in fact, going to obtain, and, likewise, which are not going to obtain.5 William Craig’s observations and comments on this point are helpful.

This knowledge is posterior to the free decision of God’s will to create, to instantiate one of the possible orders known by his natural knowledge . . . Since his knowledge is posterior to the decision of God’s will and since God’s decision to create this world is free, it follows that the content of free knowledge is not essential to divine omniscience, but is contingent upon which world God in fact creates. Had God created different worlds or even no world at all, the content of his free knowledge would have been different. So while it is essential to God to have free knowledge, the content of what he freely knows is contingent upon which world he chooses to create.6

In between God’s natural and free knowledge is a third option, what Molina called,

middle 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 to 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 . . . 7

Whereas by God’s natural knowledge God knows what an individual could do if it placed in a particular set of circumstances, by middle knowledge God knows what an individual would do when placed in the same particular set of circumstances. It is, Craig has pointed out,

God’s middle knowledge which thus provides the basis of God’s foreknowledge of contingent events in the actual world. By knowing what every possible; creature would do under any possible circumstances and be willing to establish a world order containing certain circumstances, God knows what will in fact take place in the world.8

As Molina himself said,

Therefore . . . we affirm that through the divine ideas (or, through the divine essence known as the primary object) all contingent states of affairs are represented with certainty to God, who comprehends in the deepest and the most eminent way both His own essence and all things, each of which is contained in that essence infinitely more perfectly than it is contained in itself. All contingent states of affairs are, I repeat, represented to God naturally, before any act of free determination of the divine will; and they are represented not only as being possible but also as being future – not absolutely future, but future under the condition and on the hypothesis that God should decide to create this or that order of things and causes with these or those circumstances . . [O]nce that determination is made, God knows all the contingent states of affairs with certainty as being future simply or absolutely, and now without any hypothesis or condition.9

On the basis God may have knowledge of an event without determining it. Quoting (Pseudo-) Justin Martyr, Molina said,

Foreknowledge is not a cause of that which is going to be, but rather that which is going to be is a cause of foreknowledge. For that which is going to be does not ensue upon foreknowledge, but rather foreknowledge ensues upon that which is going to be.10

This resulted in a compatiblism which was derived from an understanding of God’s natural, middle, and free knowledge in an attempt to solve the paradox of omniscience.

2. James Arminius

That Arminius advocated free-will is a well-documented fact of history. What is often overlooked is the fact that, like Molina, Arminius also an appeal to middle knowledge. What Arminius thought regarding the knowledge, or understanding, of God may be found in his “Disputations on Some of the Principal Subjects of the Christian Religion” (1610), Disputation IV, “On the Nature of God.” By this knowledge, or understanding, Arminius maintained that God knows

all things and every thing which now have, will have, have had, can have, or might hypothetically have, any kind of being…. God therefore understands himself: He knows all things possible, whether they be in the capability of God or of the creature; in active or passive capability; in the capability of operation, imagination, or enunciation: He knows all things that could have an existence, on laying down any hypothesis…11

God has this knowledge through “‘infinite intuition,’ by which God all things from eternity, nothing recently . . . whether they be considered as future, as past, or as present.”12 Such an understanding is certain, undeceived, and infallible, even with regard to future contingents.13 Yet, certainty of such knowledge “does not impose any necessity on nay, it rather establishes in them a contingency.”14 At this point Arminius described the nature of God’s knowledge which accommodates t notion. God’s simple knowledge may be distinguished by several modes — theoretical and practical knowledge, knowledge of vision, and knowledge of simple intelligence.15

XLI. Theoretical knowledge is that by which things are understood under the relation of Being and of Truth. Practical knowledge is that by which things are considered under the relation of Good, and as objects of the Will and of the Power of God. (Isa. xiii, 8; xxxvii, 28; xvi, 5.)

XLII. The knowledge of Vision is that by which God knows himself and all other beings, which are, will be, or have been. The knowledge of simple intelligence is that by which He knows things possible. Some persons call the former “definite” or “determinate,” and the latter “indefinite” or “indeterminate” knowledge.

XLIII. The Schoolmen say besides, that one kind of God’ s knowledge is natural and necessary, another free, and a third kind [mediam] middle. (1.) Natural or necessary knowledge is that by which God understands himself and all things possible. (2.) Free Knowledge is that by which He knows all other beings. (3.) Middle Knowledge is that by which He knows, that “if this thing happens, that will take place.” The first precedes every free act of the Divine Will; the second follows the free act of God’s will; and the last precedes indeed the free act of the Divine Will, but hypothetically from this act it sees that some particular thing will occur.16

Here Arminius clearly elucidated three kinds of Divine knowledge — natural, free, and middle, in such a way as to suggest some sort of historical and theological connection between Arminius and Molina. Unfortunately it cannot be fully explored here. It does, however, indicate that like Molina, Arminius sought to resolve the paradox of omniscience through middle knowledge in an effort to maintain a compatiblist view.

3. John Plaifere

This brings us to the name of John Plaifere. Little is actually known about this seventeenth-century figure. The title page of his work reveals most of what is known, “Sometime Fellow of Sidney-Sussex Col. in Cambridge, and late Rector of Debden in Suffolk.” In 1719 a work was published anonymously and entitled, A Collection of Tracts Concerning Predestination and Providence, and the other Points Depending on Them (1719). The volume consisted of four essays, one of which was Plaifere’s An Appeal to the Gospel, for the True Doctrin [sic] of Divine Predestination, Concorded with the Orthodox Doctrin of God’s Free-Grace, and Man’s Free-Will. This work originally appeared in 1651, bound with Barnaby Potter’s A Letter of the Learned Chr. Potter, D.D. Vindicating his Sentiments in these Controversies.

In Plaifere’s work many references were made to middle knowledge, demonstrating a thorough knowledge of the issue, both historically and philosophically.17 In it, he put forward five opinions about predestination. After showing the weaknesses of the first four he then suggested a fifth, which he said, is that of Arminius, which he interpreted accords to his own principles, in his Theses de natura Dei, . . . and the [Jesuit] Molina . . . and may therefore be less acceptable to some for the sake of the Teachers and Defenders of it; but a lover of Truth will not be prejudiced against it, because it hath besides these, the unanimous suffrage of the Fathers, Greek and Latin, before St. Augustine, if their Doctrine concerning Prescience be rightly examined, and explained, namely:

1.That God by his infinite Understanding, from all Eternity, knew all things possible to be.

2. That among other infinite things possible, in his understanding, he conceived all this frame of the World that now is, and in it all the race of Mankind from the first Man to the last, every one in his several Order, Government and Event only as possible to be, if he would say the word.

3. That he knew how to alter the ordering either of all, or of any part, or person in the race of Men, so as other effects, and other ends than those that now are, might be brought forth, if he would otherwise order them.

4. But that, considering this frame of the World, and order of Mankind (as now it is) he judged it was exceeding Good for the Manifestation of the Glory of his Wisdom, Power, Goodness, Mercy, Justice, Dominion, and Lordship, if he should Will, or Decree to put it into Execution, and into Being.

5. That God infallibly foreknew, that if he should decree to put it into execution, that then these, and these particular persons, would certainly, by this order of Means and Government, be transmitted, and brought to Eternal Life; and that those other particular Persons, under their order of Means and Government, through their own fault would go into Perdition, if Justice should be done them.

6. That though he knew, what these would be, yet he determined and decreed, out of his own absolute Will and Pleasure to say, Fiat, be it so; and to put into Execution, and into being, all this which he had in his Understanding: and in so doing, he Predestinated all Men either to Life or Death Eternal.18

Plaifere referred to both Molina and Arminius and argued that predestination takes place on the basis of middle knowledge. God considered all things that were possible. From the realm of the possible God knew that if grace were offered to certain individuals they would reject it, while others would accept it. In explaining middle knowledge, or scientia media, what is significant is that Plaifere quoted both Arminius and Molina as proponents of middle knowledge.

1. Thomas Goad

This brings us to Thomas Goad, once provost at King’s College, Cambridge. He was sent as a delegate to the Synod of Dort by King James as a substitute for the ailing Joseph Hall. It has been popularly assumed that Goad went there a Calvinist and returned an Arminian.

Tyacke has suggested that this is not “borne out by the original records.”19 In the 1620’s Goad wrote and licensed books against the Arminian point of view. The only “evidence” that Goad had eventually changed his views is based on the posthumous publication of Stimulus Onthodoxus in 1661. It is there that Goad’s doctrinal shift is speculated upon by the editor.20 What is interesting is that Tyacke concluded that this work, “a discussion of the necessity and contingency of events, only indirectly concerns the Arminian controversy and is moreover compatible with a Calvinist stance on the points in question at Dort.”21

This hardly seems likely when one realizes that that work utilized a concept employed by the anti-Calvinists in both the Catholic and Arminian positions, namely what Goad called the “middle point” between necessity and contingency.22 Goad had said,

The Sum of the Controversy is this: Whether all things that ever have or shall come to pass in the World, have been, or shall be effected necessarily, in respect of an irresistible Decree, by which God hath everlastingly determined, that they should inevitably come to pass . . . Whether many things have not been done contingently, or after such a middle Manner between impossibility of being, and necessity of being, that some things which have been, might as well not have been, and many things which have not been, might as well have been, for aught God hath decreed to the contrary.23

To Goad things were either done necessarily or contingently. Goad was convinced that God’s omniscience must consist of an infinity of knowledge.24 By limiting God’s knowledge to only things that must necessarily take place, God’s knowledge is limited, hence finite. However, by expanding God’s knowledge to incorporate contingent events it becomes infinite. This

makes his Prescience more wonderful. God, say we, ab aeterno, hath ordered that such Agents as he created Voluntarily, should have a double Liberty in their Operations, viz., a Liberty of Contradiction, to do, or not to do; as a Painter may choose whether he will work or no: and a Liberty of Contrariety, to do a thing after this or that manner; as a Painter may use what colors, in what quantity, after what passion he pleaseth.

Now God leaving to his Creatures free Liberty to work or not work after this or that manner, so that for any necessity imposed upon their Actions by him, whatsoever they omit was possible to be done, as what they did. And yet from all Eternity, Fore-knowing whatsoever his Creatures would do, or not do, his Fore-Knowledge must needs be Infinite, and most admirable. . . . And indeed this Fore-sight of future Contingents, is the true Character and Royal Prerogative of Divine Knowledge. . . 25

Knowledge of the contingent is created by the distinctions of liberty of contrariety and contradiction, particularly as displayed in the “square of opposition.”26 Knowledge of the contingent was for Goad the middle point between what must necessarily come to be and what is possible. This knowledge is infinite.27 Goad was convinced that without this middle path one must either walk on the path of Stoicism (i.e., determinism) or Epicurianism (i.e., fortuity). What is most important for our purposes is Goad’s reflection of something of an influence from Molina as he tried to solve the paradox of omniscience.

2. John Wesley

There is not enough evidence to suggest Wesley had more than a casual acquaintance with the “free-will” controversy between the Dominicans and the Jesuits precipitated by Molina’s work in the sixteenth century. For example, there is no reference to Molina in Wesley’s Ecclesiastical History, a four volume history of the church published in 1781.

There is still a great deal of debate as to whether Wesley ever actually read Arminius. There is only one piece of evidence that seems to suggest a very limited reading. In 1732 Wesley read Thomas Bennet’s Directions for Studying . . . (1714). As Bennet comments on the seventeenth Article of Religion, which relates to predestination, he refers to Plaifere’s work. At the bottom of pages 95-99 Bennet quoted Arminius.

There is, however, enough evidence to establish stronger links between Plaifere and Goad with Wesley. In the first volume of the Arminian Magazine — a periodical established by Wesley and circulated among early Methodists to propagate the cause of free-will — Wesley extracted Plaifere’s, An Appeal to the Gospel (1719), and published Plaifere’s opinions on predestination. By extracting Plaifere, Wesley exhibited a knowledge of the connection between Molina and Arminius on the issue of middle knowledge.

When it came to expounding the doctrine of middle knowledge Wesley did not use Plaifere, but Thomas Goad’s The Disputation Concerning the Necessity and Contingency of Events in Respect of God’s Eternal Decrees (1661). Admittedly, the material is used in a polemical setting, and there are no indications that Wesley ever sought to work out the implications of middle knowledge in any systematic way. Still, the material indicates that Wesley did see the immediate value of the concept of middle knowledge to his Arminian position.

What this evidence suggests is that the influence of Molinism among English Protestantism was perhaps more widespread than what many have perhaps assumed. There is certainly evidence to suggest that Molina influenced Arminius, both of whom influenced Plaifere, and even Goad. Goad and Plaifere in turn influenced Wesley. It has always been acknowledged that Wesley did much to propagate the Arminian cause in eighteenth-century England. In light of the evidence which suggests a link between Arminius and Molina it must now be asked, did Wesley implicitly propagate Molinism as well? Furthermore, what are the implications of scientia media for a Wesleyan-Arminian systematic theology?


1 Luis de Molina, On Divine Foreknowledge (Part IV of the Concordia), tr. Alfred J. Freddoso (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988). Hereinafter, this work will be cited as Molina, Concondia IV. etc. (I.e., Part IV. Disputation n. Paragraph n.)

2 William of Ockham, ‘Modal Consequences,” in Norman Kretzman and Eleanore Stump trs. and eds., The Cambridge Translations of Medieval Philosophical Texts. Volume 1: Logic and the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp.312-336.

3 Molina, Concondia IV.52.9.

4 Molina, Concondia IV.49. 11.

5 Molina, Concondia IV.52.9.

6 William Craig. The Problem of Divine Foreknowledge and Future Contingents from Aristotle to Suarez (Leiden: F. J. Brill, 1988), p.174.

7 Molina, Concordia IV.52.9.

8 Craig, op. cit., p.177.

9 Molina, Concondia IV.50.15.

10 [Pseudo-] Justin Martyr, “Expositiones Quaestionum a Gentibus Christianis Propositarum” Q. 58 (MPG VI.1300C); Molina, Concondia 10.52.21; also cf. Origen, Comm. in Rom. (8:30) (MPG XIV.1126C-D).

11 “James Arminius, “Disputations on Some of the Principal Subjects of the Christian Religion. Disputation IV: On the Nature of God,” 1 .XXX-XXXI, in The Writings of James Arminius, Translated from the Latin in Three Volumes, the First and Second by James Nichols, the Third by W R. Bagnall, with a Sketch of the Life of the Author (Reprint of 1853 ed. [Auburn and Buffalo: Derby, Miller and Orton], itself a slightly revised edition of that printed in London [vols. 1 and 2; Longman, et al., 1825 and 1828; vol.3; Thomas Baker, 1875]; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1956), I.444.

12 Op. cit. l.XXXIII-XXXIV (ed. cit., 1.445-446; 1825 ed., 11.121- 122).

13 Op. cit. 1.XXXVI (ed. cit., 1.447; 1825 ed., 11.122).

14 Op. cit. 1.XXXVIII (ed. cit., 1.447; 1825 ed., 11.123).

15 Op. cit. 1.XL (ed. cit., 1.448; 1825 ed., 11.123)

16 Op. cit. 1.XLI-XLIII (ed. cit., 1.448; 1825 ed., 11.123-124).

17 Cf. John Plaifere, B. D., An Appeal to the Gospel for the true Doctrine of Divine Predestination, concorded with the Orthodox Doctrine of God’s Free-Grace, and Man’s Free Will. . . (Wrote about the Year 1630) in The Arminian Magazine 1(1778): 302ff., 337ff., 385ff., 433ff., 489ff., 545ff; 2(1779), 1ff., 49ff. The Arminian Magazine is hereinafter cited as AM.

18 Anon., A Collection of Tracts Concerning Predestination and Providence, and other Points Depending on Them (London: n.p., 1719), pp.1-42; also cf. Plaifere, op. cit., in AM I(1778), 307-308; and Arminius, op. cit. “Preface” (1825 ed.), I:lvi-lvii.

19 Nicholas Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists: The Rise of English Arminianism, c.1590-1640 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), p.99.

20 Ibid., pp.99-100.

21 Ibid., p.100.

22 This concern with future contingents was also raised in “A Treatise concerning Election and Reprobation,” in AM 2(1779), 161ff., 217ff., 273ff., 329ff., 385ff., 441ff. Unfortunately, space for extended evaluation is lacking here.

23 Thomas Goad, A Discourse Concerning the Necessity and Contingency of Events in the World, in Respect of God’s Eternal Decrees. By Thomas Goad, D.D. [Wrote about the Year 1620], in AM 1(1778), 250-264; 289-302.

24 Cf. a similar view, more fully developed, in Anon., “On the Eternity of God,” in AM 3 (1780), 33-41. I have been unable to identify this author.

25 AM 1(1778), 262.

26 Norman Kretzmann, et al., eds.. The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 343ff. For Wesley’s use of the square of opposition, see his “Compendium of Logic” II (The Works of John Wesley [Jackson ed.J, XIV.165-167).

27 Goad’s argument introduces a philosophical dilemma: the notion that God may have an infinite knowledge of something finite. Lamentably, we lack space here to investigate this problem.