Richard Coords, “Middle Knowledge”

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Middle Knowledge is the knowledge of contingencies (i.e. the knowledge of the what-if’s), which exemplifies an extreme sense of divine omniscience. [Editor’s note: This is often how “middle knowledge” is thought of popularly. But more technically, middle knowledge is so called because it comes logically in the middle between God’s natural knowledge and his free knowledge. God’s natural knowledge is God’s knowledge of all that is possible or necessary. It is prior to any of God’s choices. It is knowledge of all possibilities, what could be. Free knowledge is God’s knowledge dependent on his choices. In other words, it is knowledge that comes logically after God’s decree to create. Middle knowledge is God’s knowledge of what any possible free being (not just actual ones) would (not merely could) do in any given circumstance. It is prior to God’s decision to create, but it is contingent on what those free potential beings would do. Believing in middle knowledge in this more formal sense means someone is a Molinist. But this article is using the terminology in a looser and more popular sense. it would be better to call the knowledge discussed in this article “hypothetical knowledge” or “counterfactual knowledge.”] In some cases, it could represent an element of hyperbole, such as if that’s the case with Matthew 11:20-24, in order to establish a larger point concerning the lack of repentance of certain Israelite cities. However, in the cases of 1st Samuel 23:9-13 and Jeremiah 38:17-24, God’s Middle Knowledge represented actionable information, which David followed and it saved his life, and which if king Zedekiah had followed, it would have saved the life of his two sons. Here are the texts:


1st Samuel 23:9-13: “Now David knew that Saul was plotting evil against him; so he said to Abiathar the priest, ‘Bring the ephod here.’ Then David said, ‘O LORD God of Israel, Your servant has heard for certain that Saul is seeking to come to Keilah to destroy the city on my account. Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down just as Your servant has heard? O LORD God of Israel, I pray, tell Your servant.’ And the LORD said, ‘He will come down.’ Then David said, ‘Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?’ And the LORD said, ‘They will surrender you.’ Then David and his men, about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go. When it was told Saul that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the pursuit.”


Jeremiah 38:17-24: “Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, ‘Thus says the LORD God of hosts, the God of Israel, “If you will indeed go out to the officers of the king of Babylon, then you will live, this city will not be burned with fire, and you and your household will survive. But if you will not go out to the officers of the king of Babylon, then this city will be given over to the hand of the Chaldeans; and they will burn it with fire, and you yourself will not escape from their hand.”’ Then King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, ‘I dread the Jews who have gone over to the Chaldeans, for they may give me over into their hand and they will abuse me.’ But Jeremiah said, ‘They will not give you over. Please obey the LORD in what I am saying to you, that it may go well with you and you may live. But if you keep refusing to go out, this is the word which the LORD has shown me: “Then behold, all of the women who have been left in the palace of the king of Judah are going to be brought out to the officers of the king of Babylon; and those women will say, ‘Your close friends Have misled and overpowered you; while your feet were sunk in the mire, they turned back.’ They will also bring out all your wives and your sons to the Chaldeans, and you yourself will not escape from their hand, but will be seized by the hand of the king of Babylon, and this city will be burned with fire.”’ Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, ‘Let no man know about these words and you will not die.’”


Matthew 11:20-24: “Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.’”


The men of Keilah never surrendered David into the hands of Saul, but they would have, had David remained there. Things would have gone well with king Zedekiah, but he refused to obey God’s warning. The wicked cities of Tyre and Sidon (who effectively served as object lessons of immorality) would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes, and even remained to this day, had they been placed under similar circumstances as the Israelite cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida.

That demonstrates what Middle Knowledge is and how it is useful. In fact, there is an entire theological system centered around divine Middle Knowledge. It is called Molinism, named after a 16th-century Spanish Jesuit theologian named Luis de Molina. Of course, one is not a Molinist simply because they believe in divine Middle Knowledge. Rather, Molinism is a theology that proposes how God uses His Middle Knowledge to providentially govern His created order, and Molinism can include both Calvinists and non-Calvinists [Editor’s note: while Calvinists can be Molinist, few are, and the vast majority of Molinists are Arminian]. It really all depends on what one believes God does with it. For example, does God use His Middle Knowledge simply to shape the future to reach His own goals, in the midst of creatures with autonomy of reason, such as Jonah, in order to prepare a storm and a “great fish” to ensure that he ends up where God called him? Or, does God use His Middle Knowledge in a meticulously deterministic way, so that everything that happens, both good and evil, all occur exactly as designed, without even the slightest deviation, so that the appearance of human freedom is really more attributable to a form of Calvinistic Compatibilism? How one answers that question will determine whether they are an Arminian-Molinist or a Calvinist-Molinist.


So, what do Calvinists teach about Middle Knowledge? The answer is that they affirm it, but since Calvinists ground divine omniscience in determinism, then Middle Knowledge must similarly be grounded in determinism, and that, of course, leads to an entirely different meaning of Middle Knowledge. In other words, in Calvinism, God knows something because He has meticulously determined it, without which, He otherwise could not infallibly know it, which also represents a big difference from what non-Calvinists believe about divine omniscience. Non-Calvinists believe that God can know something, without causing it, simply because God exists independently of our dimension of time and space. So, while the Calvinist understanding of divine omniscience is really simple (i.e. God determined everything and necessarily must know what He’s done), the non-Calvinist understanding of divine omniscience is very complicated, which is also a factor of God being a complex Being. For instance, non-Calvinists believe that God knows everything, but cannot explain how God knows anything. This is not necessarily paradoxical, but simply awaits revelation of God’s essential nature. That is similar to God’s eternal existence. Calvinists and non-Calvinists agree that God is eternal and uncreated, but neither can explain how. It is not necessarily paradoxical, but just awaits explanation from God as to who He is, relative to His dimension of existence in relation to our own.

R.C. Sproul: “God’s omniscience refers to God’s knowledge of all things actual and potential. God knows not only all that is, but everything that possibly could be. … God knows not only all available options, but also which option will be exercised. He knows the end before the beginning. It is said that God knows all contingencies, but none of them contingently. God never says to himself, ‘That depends.’ Nothing is contingent to him. He knows all things will happen because he ordains everything that does happen. This is crucial to our understanding of God’s omniscience. He does not know what will happen by virtue of exceedingly good guesswork about future events. He knows it with certainty because he has decreed it.”238


Our reply:

That would mean that God knows all counterfactual ramifications and contingencies to the extent that He knows all that He decreed. Infinite potential, then, would simply be a factor of the decreed order. Middle Knowledge, in Calvinism, would ultimately seem to be like a fantasy island, in which God ponders all that which He chose never to be. [Editor’s note: To draw out the author’s point more: on Calvinism, God’s knowledge of what would happen if things were different, such as what the men of Keilah would have done had David stayed in the city, would simply be his knowledge of what he would have decreed to happen if he had decided for things to be different. In the case of David and Keilah, it would be God’s knowledge of what he would have decided for Keilah to do if he had also decided that David would stay in Keilah. This erases the very notion of true contingency.]


238 What is Reformed Theology? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1997), 171-172.

[This post has been excerpted with permission from Richard Coords, Calvinism Answered Verse by Verse and Subject by Subject, © 2020.]