Review: Middle Knowledge

middle knowledge

Middle KnowledgeJohn D. Laing. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2018.

Summary: An exposition and defense of the doctrine of middle knowledge, also known as Molinism, and arguments for why this best addresses other theological issues.

God’s sovereignty and human freedom. Somehow both logic and experience witness to the truth of both and yet how the two may be understood together has been one of the toughest questions facing theologians and Christian apologists. A truly sovereign God has both the knowledge, indeed foreknowledge, and power to accomplish God’s will. If this is so, in what sense can humans be said to be free? On the other hand, humans often act in ways contrary to God’s will, sometimes in horribly evil ways that inflict great suffering on others. If God has the power to stop this, why doesn’t God? How can we say God is both good, and powerful.

One of the ways some theologians have responded to this question is to advance the idea of “middle knowledge.” The name comes from the idea that this is knowledge that is in the middle of, or between God’s natural and free knowledge. God’s natural knowledge is both necessary and independent of God’s free will, that is what God knows by his nature. God’s free knowledge has to do with his choices in creating and is contingent and dependent upon God’s free will. Middle knowledge is between these two in that it is both contingent, having to do with what God would do if various states would obtain, but also independent of God’s free will in being “pre-volitional.” What this means is that God is able to pre-know the various counterfactuals of human freedom and choose to act in creation in ways that effect his will through the actions of creatures who act freely.

This work by John D. Laing unpacks this theological approach, also called Molinism after Luis de Molina, the Jesuit theologian who first propounded these ideas, and defends it against both Calvinist and Arminian objections (which he often associates with Open Theism, an association that some may challenge). He begins with introducing different models of providence (process theology, open theism, Calvinism, theological fatalism, and middle knowlege) and the assumptions these make about God’s omnipotence and omniscience and about human freedom. He then explicates the doctrine of middle knowledge and the ideas of counterfactuals and probable worlds so critical to this approach.

He then addresses three problems that are raised with the opponents, the conditional excluded middle problem, that Molinism leads to determinism, and what Laing believes the key objection, which is the grounding objection–that there is no ground or guarantee of the truth of counterfactuals of freedom in either God or the person. In a separate chapter he also deals with the circularity objection.

Following this, Laing applies the doctrine of middle knowledge to our understanding of other Christian doctrines: divine foreknowledge and creaturely free will, predestination and salvation, including discussions of atonement and the relationship of regeneration and faith, the problem of evil, inerrancy and inspiration (particularly as this bears on the idea of verbal plenary inspiration and the freedom of the writers of scripture), and questions of science and theology including questions about God’s involvement in physical processes and how an intelligent designer might be at work through mutations and how one might account for creaturely flaws. What Laing seeks to do in each chapter is to show how middle knowledge is the best construct providing explanations of the ways of God in the life of his creatures.

Two final chapters consider the biblical support for middle knowledge over and against Open Theism and Calvinism, and the ways middle knowledge provides existentially satisfying answers to a number of aspects of Christian living: unfulfilled prophecy, petitionary prayer, evangelism, discipleship, having a God worthy of worship, dealing with end of life issues, and the end of all things.

Laing, who also wrote the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Middle Knowledge, is one of the leading proponents of this theological approach. He engages carefully with critics, notably Open Theist William Hasker. He both answers objections and advances arguments for the explanatory power of the Molinist approach, while being honest about places, like the problem of the Holocaust, where all explanations struggle. This may be one of the best single author works on Molinism, or middle knowledge apart from the writings of Molina himself. Laing does careful philosophical work in this book, so be prepared for some heavy lifting in understanding counterfactuals, possible worlds, and the like.

I’m not sure at the end of the day whether I am convinced. I’m always a bit suspicious that explanations that reconcile God’s sovereignty and human freedom give away too much of one or the other or both. Perhaps I’m a bit more comfortable leaving the apparent contradiction between these two unexplained and unreconciled. But Laing has given me a good deal to think about, particularly in his discussions of inerrancy and inspiration, and his discussion of science. I certainly understand the idea of middle knowledge and the claims of its proponents far better because of this work. Definitely worth digging into if you care about questions of human freedom and divine sovereignty.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

3 thoughts on “Review: Middle Knowledge

  1. You write:

    God’s sovereignty and human freedom. Somehow both logic and experience witness to the truth of
    both. . .

    You may say so, Both logic and human experience, however, point to the opposites. History’s pages
    are filled with slavery, torture, racism, misogyny, genocide. As I write this, our own nation is instituting child abuse as an intentional policy of deterrence. Are we free to do anything about this? If I pour gasoline on myself and light a match, would doing so do any good? My going to prison in protest? My ONE vote, offset by the votes of the mindless mob addicted to sitcom drivel? The only conclusion a thinking person may draw is that, if there is a God, he or she is one perverted mutha.* Voltaire, on his deathbed, opened his eyes just before drawing his last breath and said, “And now for the answer to the greatest question of them all.” And died. We shall see. Or not.

    * From A PLACE CALLED SCHUGARA, p. 12: “Considering the Twentieth Century only, we must dread the notion of God.”

    • Joe, thanks for your comment. The reality of evil and the limits of any individual’s agency certainly are challenges to all this. Perhaps my comment reflects something of my own experience, both of choosing to follow Christ, and then looking back and having some sense that God had chosen and pursued me as well. I do wrestle with the evils you mention, but also recognize that one of the reasons I call it evil is a sense that there is a “goodness” this violates and that ought to be pursued. We often talk of the problem of evil, but do we also consider “the problem of goodness,” that is that we do sense much good in the world and that there is a good against which evil is measured. Any reckoning of reality also has to account for this.

      Hey, thanks for actually reading my stuff and responding! It’s nice to know someone is, and your responses always make me think and see things from another perspective!

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: October 2018 | Bob on Books

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