Sunday, November 27, 2011

JP Holding, Unconditional Election, and Middle Knowledge

As I return to JP Holding’s views on Calvinism, I think it better to select those very foundational beliefs of Holding, that, if proven false, accomplish my primary purpose: defending the biblical truth of Calvinism. In this post, I will defend unconditional election against Holding’s assault. According to Holding, unconditional election is the most controversial of all the points. Moreover, he thinks that people have more of a problem with the idea of election itself than they do the unconditional piece. In response to these two statements, I would contend that Holding is wrong. Most people consider “limited atonement” to be the most controversial point in Calvinistic theology. Secondly, it is not election that people find offensive, but rather the fact that the basis of election is wholly and entirely located in God, and not some outward work or decision or foreknowledge of some work or decision man makes.

Holding leans on middle knowledge coupled with a method of exegesis known as “Hebrew block logic” to contradict the reformed teaching of unconditional election in Romans 9. I address middle knowledge in this post in response to Holding and then I provide an exegetical treatment of Romans 9 in a second post in asnwer to Holding's contention that unconditional election is an unbiblical doctrine.

Middle Knowledge a.k.a. Molinism

Space prohibits a full treatment of the concept of middle knowledge. Therefore, I will be as brief as possible in my response to Holding’s use of middle knowledge. In the traditional view, God’s knowledge is seen as necessary or natural in one sense and free in another sense. God’s knowledge of counterfactuals for example would fall into the category of necessary knowledge while His knowledge of actual events is free. Under Pelagian thinking, God’s knowledge, or better yet, His omniscience seemed to pose real problems for libertarian freedom. Therefore, the Jesuits came up with the concept of middle knowledge. Actually, it has its roots in Origen and Pelagius. This is knowledge somewhere between God’s necessary knowledge and His free knowledge. The idea was to create a system in which God could know the future acts of libertarian free creatures. This media scientia means a divine knowledge of contingent events that is logically antecedent to God’s decrees. The object of this knowledge is the possibilities that depend for their realization on one condition or another. At bottom, God’s future actions are determined by the decisions of creatures in certain conditions. God knows what He will do should the creature freely do X as opposed to Y. If the creature does X, God will do A but if the creature does Y, God knows He will do B. If the creature decides for Christ, God will elect Her to salvation. But if the creature rejects the gospel God leaves her for reprobation. If Jacob does A, God knows He will love and choose Jacob and hate Esau. Perhaps it is better stated that if Jacob does A and Esau does B, then God knows He will choose Jacob, not Esau because He knows if He chooses Esau under these conditions, God’s desired world would not be obtained. Moreover, God’s knowledge of these contingent events is prior to His decree concerning the absolutely free events.

Now, as an example of this media scientia, Holding points to a hypothetical example of conditions around Jacob’s election resulting in 178 million saved versus Esau’s election resulting in 155 million being saved. Holding then says, Is there unrighteousness with God? Hardly. "Why not choose me?" -- Esau. At the very least it may be said in reply, "Because look what happens if you do." Although he may not see it, and perhaps he would not admit to it, Holding’s unavoidable conclusion is that the basis for God’s election of Jacob really rests in Jacob. Jacob’s free actions were superior to Esau’s because they produced a “better” possible world, one that God found more attractive. Holding’s burden is to demonstrate that his thesis is congruent with an exegesis of Romans and the rest of Scripture. Second, Holding has to demonstrate that this is coherent with the idea of free will. As one will see, middle knowledge does nothing to support the notion of free will as defined by Pelagianism, nor does this theory support a straightforward exegesis of Romans 9. In fact, Romans 9 directly contradicts the notion of middle knowledge by locating God’s basis for election outside the creature in every way.

The first problem for middle knowledge is that it fails entirely in its attempt to harmonize free will with divine foreknowledge. Free will is “will” that is free from any and all external causes. In other words, free will means that its acts are purely arbitrary. There is no causal relationship between the will and anything else. This would make predictability impossible even for God. There is no basis upon which to test the “what if.” This is like an algorithm whose inputs change with every trial. No intelligible pattern is possible. This view of the will of course is in contradistinction to the Augustinian/Calvinist view that the will carries out the greatest desire of the creature. As Bavinck says, “The Reformed reject the theory of a “bare foreknowledge” (nuda praescientia) and “middle knowledge” (media scientia). [Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 2, 200] A will such as this can never be harmonized with the decree of God. There is no mediating position. The only other possibility is that God has to watch to see what the autonomous will does, and then react accordingly. Now to be fair, the adherents of middle knowledge would say that God always knows what all the possible contingencies are and what he would do if any of them obtained. What God cannot know in this system is what the free creature will actually decide, due to the nature of freedom he possesses. It becomes obvious that omniscience is drifting into open theism and process theology in this arrangement.

This is the case with middle knowledge. The doctrine of middle knowledge, however, represents contingent events as contingent and free also in relation to God. [Bavinck, 201] This is similar to Origen’s view of foreknowledge. Things do not happen because God foreknows them. God foreknows them because they are going to happen. In middle knowledge, God does not derive his knowledge of the free actions of human beings from His own being, His own decrees, but from the will of creatures. [Bavinck, 201] In this system, grace is dispensed according to merit; predestination depends on good works. [Bavinck, 201] Holding says as much in his own words when he says that God did not choose you, Esau, because, “look what happens if I do!”

If an event is only a possibility and will never be realized, it belongs to God’s necessary knowledge. If an event will one day be realized, then it belongs to God’s free knowledge. There is nothing in between. There is what will not be realized, that which is only possible, and there is that which will be realized. There is no middle ground between these two. If a contingent is never realized, then it is only possible. If a contingent is realized, then it is actual. The former belongs to necessary knowledge and the latter to free knowledge. Hence, unavoidably, middle knowledge collapses.

Free will, in reformed theology does not consist in indifference, arbitrariness, or change. Rather it consists in rational delight. [Bavinck, 202] As Dr. Edwards put it, “The determination of the Will, supposes an effect, which must have a cause.” If Holding agrees with Edwards, well then, we have little in dispute. Such a view would be compatibilist freedom and with this Calvinism would have no problem. But Holding seems to be a man of many conveniences. He adopts a convenience of hermeneutics when it suits his purpose, and a philosophy of convenience to compliment it when he feels like it.

In order for middle knowledge to harmonize free will with foreknowledge, it must show how the will can be entirely free and predictable at the same time. The open theists and process theologians have already given up on this idea long ago. For them, free will was more important than preserving sovereignty and so they sided with the creature over against the Creator.


Middle knowledge was an attempt on the part of the Jesuits to harmonize the Pelagian concept of free will with omniscience. Middle knowledge fails for two basic reasons: (1) Possibilities also referred to as counterfactuals, belong to God’s necessary knowledge. Actual events belong to God’s free knowledge. The last time I checked, there are only two kinds of events: possible and actual. Middle knowledge has no basis for its existence. What else is there to know? (2) Pelagian freedom is indeterminate freedom. The will is an island unto itself. Essentially, libertarian freedom is uncaused. That is what “free” means in this scheme and it is this freedom that middle knowledge attempts to harmonize with omniscience. However, one could never predict or know what a free creature such as this would do because of the indeterminate nature of its will. Hence, it follows that middle knowledge fails to harmonize freedom and omniscience. If what is desired is a harmonization of compatibilist freedom with omniscience, well, just about any Calvinist theologian can help you with that. That work was done long ago.

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