Providence and Freedom: A Compatiblist Account. Part 1- Self-Limitation and Molinism

Having considered some of the more significant models for interpreting human freedom and moral responsibility, it is now appropriate to ask how human freedom might work within a world which is providentially governed by God. Specifically, we are now ready to inquire into dynamics of double-agency. We will examine the three most common models of providence and freedom in contemporary philosophical theology and briefly discusses their explanatory implications. In particular, I will explore two libertarian models and one—my own—compatibilist model. My model is unique in that it utilizes a middle knowledge, semi-compatibilist approach.


1 Two General Providence Libertarian Models

As might be imagined, a commitment to libertarian freedom raises some very interesting problems concerning divine providence. If, for example, freedom is conceived of as ‘the ability to do otherwise,’ then it seems hard to imagine how one could affirm that God ordains the action which libertarian agents actually perform. The problem can be framed as follows:


(1) Man is morally responsible.

(2) PAP is the correct principle for understanding the conferral of moral responsibility.

(3) Therefore, some form of libertarianism is the best way to explicate human freedom.

(4) Therefore, some agent x is free only if he could have done otherwise than act q in circumstances c.

(5) If God determines all things then God determined q.

(6) God determines all things.

(7) Therefore, God determined q.

(8) If God determined q, then x could not have done otherwise than q.

(9) Therefore, either God doe not determine all things or x could not have done other than q.

The strategy in both cases which we will consider will is to modify the most natural interpretation of (6) so that the idea of ‘determination’ does not entail determinism. This is the only way to avoid the problem contained in (9). Divine sovereignty must be thought of only in a general sense so that it does not shut down alternative pathways. Both strategies I will consider explicate this general sovereignty model in a different way. The first strategy qualifies the last two words of (6) (‘all things’) while the second focuses its energies on the second two words (the nature of the ‘determining’).


1.1 The Divine Self-Limitation Model

The divine self-limitation model has been employed by many philosophers and theologians—predominately those associated with Arminianism and what is now called ‘open theism.’ This position usually takes two forms. The first form argues that God has actually depleted himself of certain kinds of powers by virtue of creating a certain kind world—a world with libertarian agents, for one. The second form seems to interpret ‘self-limitation’ as ‘self-restraint.’[1] It is not that God no longer has the power to exert control over free creatures—he still has that power. Instead, God’s love for his creation is such that he has chosen to limit his control so as not to violate their freedom. Richard Swinburne identifies the libertarian motivation of this position when he suggests that:


An agent could be in a state of belief and desire such that it was inevitable that he would do what he did, or an action as good as the action he did do, and then neither praise nor blame would be deserved. It is a continuation of that thought to suggest that an agent would not be morally responsible at all (he would never be praiseworthy or blameworthy) if he was caused necessarily, predetermined, to try to do what he did, by his brain state, and that in turn by some prior state, until we come to causes outside the agent’s body and ultimately to causes long before his birth.[2]

How is it, then, that God is sovereign and yet man is free in the relevant (libertarian) sense? Bruce Reichenbach offers the following answer:


Sovereignty invokes the political relationship of governance….The governor or sovereign has both authority and power…The relation of the sovereign to the fundamental laws [which he set forth] and the source of the sovereign’s authority help determine the kind of power the sovereign has, what their limits are, and to what extent they may be employed. If there are certain necessary laws, the sovereign’s power is determined and limited by these laws. If the power of the sovereign is derived from the consent of the governed, then his power will be limited by the governed whose consent may be withdrawn under certain circumstances….To be sovereign does not mean that everything that occurs in accord with the will of the sovereign or that the sovereign can bring about anything he or she wants. The ability of the sovereign to determine the outcome depends on the freedom granted to the governed. If those subject to the sovereign have freedom, then there are certain things that the sovereign cannot bring about…Orthodox Christians hold that God is sovereign; he has both authority and power over his creation….Yet at the same time he has willingly limited his power and created us with a freedom to choose between good and evil.[3]

Commenting on God’s providential interactions with libertarian agents, Thomas Tracy argues along similar lines that:

In establishing this relation to creatures, God commits himself to a pattern of interaction that qualifies the scope and direction of his activity. He creates a field of other agents whose integrity he respects and so whose independent actions condition his choices. This amounts to a purposeful limitation of the scope of his own activity, but it dos not nullify his omnipotence: he remains an all-powerful and radically self-creative agent capable of freely regulating his own pattern of life at every movement of his existence. Intentional self-restraint does not represent a enunciation of omnipotence, but rather a renunciation of certain uses of power, and this is entirely in keeping with God’s unlimited self-creativity.[4]

Starting, then, with the assumption of libertarian freedom, this view of providence conceives of divine predetermination in a very general sense. God exerts his influence and exercises his control over creation only to extent that it does not violate libertarian freedom. So God does not causally determine all things; he only determines the general structure of reality (like say, setting up it laws, granting man freedom, etc.)—not its particular actualizations.[5] These particularities are left up to the self-creativity of his creatures. Libertarian freedom is proof of this.[6]


1.2 The Molinist Model

Molinism (from the medieval Jesuit philosopher Louis de Molina) starts out with the assumption that God has knowledge of what every libertarian agent would do in every possible world (i.e. God has middle knowledge). In the moment logically prior to creation God eternally contemplates every possible world and then chooses the world which is most suited for his plans and purposes. According to Molinists, the agents in the actual world have libertarian freedom since they could have (and presumably would have) done otherwise in other possible worlds. As Richard Gaskin claims, “Middle knowledge enables God to plan for every eventuality, never to be taken by surprise; but it achieves this without derogating from human autonomy: God does not have to know what is going to happen by making it happen.”[7] As it relates to divine election and predestination, the Molinist claims that God elects by virtue of instantiating the present world from among all of the other possible worlds. In other words, by God choosing to actualize the present world, he chose the libertarian agents who would freely choose him in that world. Thus, Craig seems to view predestination as a subset of divine sovereignty: “We might say that it is up to God whether we find ourselves in a world in which we are actually predestined but it is up to us whether we are predestined in the world in which we find ourselves.”[8] So God’s determination, once again, is very general. God determines a world of consisting of a network of libertarian choices rather than a network of events in a world. He only determines the particular events of the actual world in so far as they are part of the world he chooses to instantiate. It is important to emphasize that for the Molinist, God’s knowledge of the events in each possible world are logically prior to and independent of his decree. Consequently, God has control over the events he knows only in so far as he chooses whether to instantiate a world with those exact events. And it is not the case that God can determine any set of events (i.e. any world) he wants, he can only determine events in so far as they are feasible within a network of events in a possible world i.e. while there may be a presumably infinite range of possible worlds, there is only a logically limited range of feasible worlds. As Thomas Flint summarizes:


Though God has no control over which truths he knows via middle knowledge, and thus no control over which worlds are feasible worlds, he has complete control over which feasible world will become actual, and he fully exercises this complete control by performing a particular complete creative act. Hence, the Molinist can consistently say that each and every contingent event that occurs is subject to divine sovereignty….Hence, the whole world truly is in God’s hands: everything that happens was not only foreseen, but either intended or at least permitted by a deity who had full power to prevent it.[9]


Thus, God’s sovereignty means control only in a general sense. On this view, God does not directly determine individual choices, only worlds in which individual choices are made.

To be continiued…

[1] See for example Marcel Sarot, “Omnipotence and Self Limitation,” in CFPT, 172-85.

[2] Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement, 51.

[3] Bruce Reichenbach, “God Limits his Power,” in Predestination and Free Will: Four Views on Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom, edited by David and Randall Basinger (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1986), 104-19.

[4] Thomas Tracy, God, Embodiment, and Action (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 1984), 143-44.

[5] cf. D.J. Bartholomew, God of Chance (London: CMC Press, 1984).

[6] For further discussion of some of these points, esp. interaction with Jewish exegetes and philosophers, see Sarot, “Omnipotence and Self Limitation,” 172-85.

[7] Richard Gaskin, “Conditionals of Freedom and Middle Knowledge,” in Middle Knowledge: Theory and Application, ed. by William Hasker, David Basinger, and Eef Dekker, CPT, ed. by Gijsbert van den Brink, Vincent Brummer, and Marcel Sarot (Oxford, Eng.: Peter Lang, 2000), 138.

[8] William Lane Craig, “Middle Knowledge, A Calvinist-Arminian Rapprochement,” The Grace of God and the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism, ed. by Clark H. Pinnock (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Academic Books; Zondervan Publishing House, 1989), 157.

[9] Thomas P. Flint, “Two Accounts of Providence,” in Divine and Human Action: Essays on the Metaphysics of Theism, edited by Thomas V. Morris (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988)158-59.


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