This week, I thought I’d try getting into some things that are not very well-known. Namely, the concept of “middle” knowledge. You’re probably wondering what the heck that is and it’s my purpose here to do my best to explain the concept.
The concept of middle knowledge has been attributed to the sixteenth-century theologian, Luis de Molina. But before we get too far into what this is, it might bear some explanation of a couple of the major reasons Molina arrived at this concept in the first place.
Two major theological viewpoints today are referred to as Calvinism and Arminianism. I won’t go into depth on these views, but for the purposes of this writing, the main points of contention between them have to do with God’s sovereignty and human free will. In the case of the former, they take God’s sovereignty much further to the point that some accuse them of making it out that God is the source of evil because everything is very tightly in His control.
Under Calvinism, there is this idea of God’s “Unconditional Election” which basically means that God decides who will be saved and who will not. Whoever He decides to save has no way to reject Him because God is sovereign and His grace in this regard is irresistible. I could go down several rabbit trails from here, but let’s just stick with this concept and think about what that means with respect to human free will.
Arminianism, however, still believes that God moves first. We don’t take a step toward Him. It’s always God’s initiative. Where they differ from Calvinists here is that they believe that humans have the ability to accept or reject God’s call. In other words, election is notunconditional with Arminianism, nor is God’s grace irresistible.
While Calvinists see our acceptance of God’s grace a “work” on our part (this would violate the doctrine of sola fide or salvation by faith alone), Arminians do not view this as a work. It is nothing more than the manner in which we respond to His grace. This is likely built around the idea that we have the ability to “quench the Spirit” (inferred from 1 Thessalonians 5:19).
This is where middle knowledge comes in. While Calvinists and Arminians went back and forth about God’s sovereignty and humans’ free will, Luis de Molina came up with the idea of middle knowledge. Now we can start to break down the types of knowledge God has so that we can fit this in the middle (no, it wasn’t just a clever name).
Traditionally, there were two aspects of God’s knowledge that have been understood as “orthodox.” That is to say, believed by all people, all the time throughout the history of the Church. One was that God knows only and all true propositions. In other words, any proposition imaginable, if it is true, God knows and believes it. God does not believe any false propositions. For example, God knows that I am writing this while sitting on my couch. He does not know that I am writing this while riding on an airplane, because that is not true.
The second aspect of God’s knowledge is tensed. In other words, God knows everything that has ever happened and He knows everything that will ever happen. Between these two things, we basically have the idea of “omniscience.” But, according to Molina, God is actually more than merely omniscient. He has “middle’ knowledge.
Middle knowledge is distinct from the previous two types of knowledge in that it states that God knows not only everything that will happen, but He also knows everything that would happen under every conceivable set of circumstances. Where this pertains to us is that God has foreknowledge of everything you or I would do in any given situation. Therefore, if you wake up late one morning and forget to take your coffee, He knows that you will stop at Dunkin’ Donuts (and you thought I was gonna plug Starbucks, didn’t you?). But He also knows that if you don’t get up late or forget your coffee, you will go straight to work…which then creates an entirely different set of circumstances as you enter the office alongside different people, start at a slightly different time, etc. (Think of the movie “Sliding Doors” here.)
Some people have referred to this middle knowledge as “hypothetical” knowledge. Personally, I like that name better as I find it more descriptive. With all that, however, how does this apply? Well, let’s see.
Rather than say that God chooses some people for salvation and chooses other people for damnation (Calvinism) or wonder at how we are able to resist God’s grace (Arminianism), God knows that if you are put in a certain set of circumstances (the year you’re born, the country you’re born in, the family you’re born into, the people you grow up with and spend time with, etc.) that you will receive His grace and obtain salvation (2 Peter 3:9).
So, the idea here is that God created the world and the people in it in just such a way as to ensure that the maximum number of people would accept Him and the minimum number of people would reject Him. This way, God’s sovereignty is still intact and human free will is unharmed. Of course, that does not mean that Molinism (as it is called sometimes) is not without it’s problems.
For the purposes of expediency, I won’t go into that here, but encourage you to research these concepts further on your own. My first reaction to Molinism, however, is that it could put one on a somewhat slippery slope toward deism (the idea that a divine creator made the universe and then stepped back and watched it unfold, no longer having any interaction with creation). I may be mistaken with that thought, but that’s my initial concern.
If you’d like to learn more about these ideas, Dr. William Lane Craig has a great deal of information at his website, Reasonable Faith. Please check it out. There is lots of really great stuff there. In the meantime…
Grace, love and peace.