Saturday, April 23, 2005

Molinism and Acts 13:48

Molinism (after the Jesuit Louis de Molina, 1535-1600) suggests that God only contingently knows the future free choices of human beings, such as a person's decision to put his faith in Christ. The contingency is whether or not the person does, actually, come to such a belief, for before such a decision is made, it does not exist in a way that can be known. This means that God does not logically know the outcome of free choices until they are actually made (though temporally, he would know the decision before it takes place). So while temporally God may know what a person's future free choice will be, he knows it only on the basis of what he forsees their future decision to be.

A prima facie read of certain Bible verses seem to challenge such a view, however. For examle, Acts 13:48, "When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed." A natural interpretation of this verse suggests that God had first appointed these Gentiles to become believers, only after which (and because of which) they did come to believe upon hearing Paul's message. They were first appointed to believe (by God, presumably -- who else?) and only later did actually believe. "Appoint" is quite an active verb, so it appears that God has done something more with regard to these Gentiles than merely know of their future freely chosen faith.

A Molinist must, it seems to me, disagree with something in such an interpretation of Acts 13:48. And, of course, often we must correct our prima facie readings of a particular text. Other scriptures themselves may sway us, or, perhaps we realize our first view has internal inconsistencies, etc. So here's my concern about Molinism: what would possibly lead me to abandon my prima facie reading of Acts 13:48 in favor of a Molinistic solution that would, somehow, deny that God actively appointed these Gentiles to believe? It seems that Molinists are generally motivated by a philosophical contradiction they perceive between saying a given event is both determined by God and also determined by a human being. Is that concern legitimate enough to pry us loose from the natural reading here?

I don't think so. A simple affirmation that God pre-appoints certain uncoerced human choices is not necessarily a philosophical contradiction. The Bible's mention in Acts 13:48 that God appointed Gentiles to believe is "simple" in that it doesn't tell us anything about the mechanisms of agency in either the divine or human will. Admittedly, we would be guilty of a philosophical contradiction if we said that God freely determined the outcome of that event in a simultaneous and exactly similar way that free Gentile wills determined it. But no one is making that claim (that I know of). The Bible does not say how God can determine an event that is also freely chosen by a human, it just says he does, without indulging us in the details. But someone might respond, "Knowing the details wouldn't change anything, since even what it said is a contradiction." But this is only the case if God's agency operates enough like human agency that there isn't room for both to act freely to produce the same event. Granted this would be impossible if talking about two humans (I can't predetermine that my wife will eat pizza with me tonight and then claim she has an equally free choice whether to eat it or not). Isn't it quite possible, then, that God knows something we don't about divine agency that makes it different than ours? Why opt for a philophical solution like Molinism that forces us to nearly deny the face value of a text like Acts 13:48, not to mention that necessarily rests on determinations about the mechanics of divine causality that do not seem to be revealed to us? The alternative is to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt about what is possible within God's mysterious ways.

These are just some opening thoughts, mostly to myself.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Christian Philosophers and Divine Agency

My philospher friend Mark Case (Ph.D. Cornell) and I had a short discusssion the other day about the nature of free-will. Apparently, the majority of Christian philosophers, following Alvin Plantinga, tend to think that human free-will is not compatible with the kind of determinism that states that if one could know everything about the universe, then one could predict any future event. But where would this leave the likes of Jonathan Edwards and his position on free will? Edwards seemed to say that God does have such perfect knowledge, but that humans still do, in fact, have a kind of free-will in the sense that they can always choose in favor of their preferences. Is this just too shallow a sense of free-will to deserve the name, according to Plantinga, et. al.? In a somewhat related observation, my nagging sense has been than we don't know enough about the nature of divine agency to state, philosophically, that God can't determine a human decision without violating all senses of free-agency in the human chooser. Isn't it conceivable that God could act on an object (like a human will) in a way unlike ways that we would (such as coercion, brainwashing, etc.) and thereby allow that God can foreordain (in God's way) a human choice that nonetheless allows that choice to still be called "free"? Isn't it a potential err to make quick analogies between zero-sum events of agency in the world of our normal experience with what need not be zero-sum events when we're dealing with an agent like God who gets his work done God-knows-how? I need to think more about this (and my later post on Molinism goes deeper into this issue).

Tuesday, April 12, 2005