3 Misconceptions of One of the Most Unknown, Fruitful Theological Ideas
Arminianism, check. Lutheranism, check. Calvinism, big check. But Molinism, named after the Catholic reformer and Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina? Mostly unknown.
Yet, as Kirk MacGregor reveals in his new book Luis de Molina, “Molina’s thought is quite relevant to Christians of all theological stripes, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox.” (12) In fact, middle knowledge is “one of the four principal views on divine providence and omniscience, alongside Calvinism, open theism, and simple foreknowledge.” (13)
Perhaps the reason why Molina’s theology is so unknown is because he is largely unknown. While Bainton gave us Here I Stand and Cottret Calvin: A Biography, no modern biographer has traced Molina’s person and thought-development. Until MacGregor’s volume, that is.
His seminal work in Molinism studies charts the man and his middle knowledge, the belief that God knows not only everything than does or will happen, but what his free creatures would choose in all possible circumstances.
At the start MacGregor helpfully outlines three major misconception of Molina’s theology. Reviewing these misconceptions paves our way toward better appreciating “one of the most fruitful theological concepts ever formulated.” (11)
Misconception #1: Molinism is for Catholics
First, many reduce Molina’s theology to merely a Catholic facsimile. Though he did praise the Catholic Church for progress made post-Trent, Molina “charted out a course that was neither mainline Catholic nor compatible with the Protestant Reformers’ impulses.” (16)
For instance, Molina agreed with the Council of Trent’s assertion of human freedom. He was discouraged, however, with the Council’s affirmation of the Thomistic doctrine of grace. “For he believed this to be a faulty view of grace as a kind of divine substance that empowered people to perform good works.” (18)
Interestingly, Molina agreed more with Luther and Calvin on this point, “understanding grace as God’s unmerited favor toward sinful humans and God’s unmerited assistance in securing their regeneration and sanctification.” Yet unlike the two, Molina affirmed that “God gives sufficient grace for salvation to every person that he creates…” (18)
Though Molina sought to reform from within the Catholic Church, he “navigated a middle ground between Tridentine Catholicism and Protestantism.”
Misconception #2: Molinism is Arminianism By Another Name
One of the more pervasive allegations is that Molinism is Arminianism of a different stripe. MacGregor contends such exaggerated guilt-by-association virtually forestalled Protestant interaction with Molina for nearly 350 years.
Yet MacGregor reveals that “Molina would have accused Arminius of misunderstanding exactly what he meant by middle knowledge since Molina anticipated Arminius’s construal of middle knowledge and explicitly rejected it in Concordia.” (20)
He outlines four ways Molina found Arminius’s version of middle knowledge “incoherent” in light of his doctrine:
- God’s decision to create the world was made before he knew whether this world would be worth creating, and whether anyone would have freely received Christ;
- God lacked the freedom to create a world that didn’t feature the incarnation of Christ, which seemed to Molina a denial of God’s sovereignty;
- Arminius’s version grounded middle knowledge on God’s decision to create free creatures and on the potential of these free creatures themselves, many of whom would never exist, undermining divine perfection;
- Arminius claimed God decreed salvation for all who received Christ before apprehending his middle knowledge, which meant some individuals obligated God to save them.
In both his systematic and practical theological appraisal, MacGregor explores what Molina actually believed, often contra Arminius.
Misconception #3: Molinism Stifles God’s Sovereignty
This final misconception “is based on the idea that God’s sovereignty is inversely proportional to human freedom and randomness in the world, such that the more freedom humans have and the more randomness that exists in the world, the less sovereignty God has.” (24)
Except, Molina rejected this idea outright, judging it a “severe defect in the thought of Luther and Calvin that God’s sovereignty seemed threatened by human free choices and random events in the world.” (24–25)
Instead, Molina contended God’s sovereignty was directly proportional to human freedom and the randomness of world events. Rather than diminishing God’s sovereignty, Molina was obsessed with enhancing it, insisting his conception of God was more sovereign than Calvin’s. And Molina contended Arminius’s view of predestination left God no choice but to save people, which violated God’s sovereignty.
“Molina found a God who can choose whether creatures possessing absolute freedom are saved or lost strictly on the basis of his good pleasure to be more sovereign than a God who can only determine their salvation or condemnation if these creatures lack absolute freedom.” (28)
MacGregor’s work proves Molina’s story is “just as captivating, edifying, and inspiring as the stories of Luther and Calvin.” (15) It also shows why his theology of middle knowledge is just as captivating, edifying, and inspiring as the twin Reformers.
Discover yourself why many modern evangelicals “laud Molinism as the long-awaited rapprochement between Calvinism and Arminianism and the antidote to open theism.” (29)
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