Response to James White on the Unbelievable William Lane Craig and Paul Helm Discussion

By Tyson James

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April 20, 2018

Summary: In the March 11, 2014 episode of The Dividing Line, James White offers an analysis of the discussion between Dr. William Lane Craig and Professor Paul Helm on the topic “Molinism vs. Calvinism,” which originally aired January 4, 2014. I conclude that White doesn’t actually offer an analysis so much as uses an incredulous tone and makes largely irrelevant comments from a position of ignorance.

Source: http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/2014/03/11/caners-apology-the-pope-and-word-faithers-shawn-mccraney-and-a-bit-of-wlc/.

Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26qT6hwJmH4.

Original Unbelievable? discussion between Dr. William Lane Craig and Professor Paul Helm: https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Calvinism-vs-Molinism-William-Lane-Craig-Paul-Helm-Unbelievable.

I’ve transcribed relevant sections below for the reader, each followed by my response.

Charity and Hypocrisy

James White: “I would expect by this point in time, after all these years, that Dr. Craig would have in his dialogues a sufficiently deep knowledge of the positions that he decries to provide a meaningfully accurate representation of them. And what I mean by that is if he wants to use philosophical terminology, at least allow those systems that are considerably more biblically oriented than his own to use primarily biblical language, and at least try to make the translation accurate if you’re going to insist upon not using biblical categories. “Puppeteers”… “robots”… all of this kind of simplistic language… of the effect of God’s decree, instead of seeing the full-orbed nature, instead of seeing the three-dimensional nature, instead of seeing the richness, the fact that we’re looking at a diamond, not a print-out of a diamond, the fact that you can look at it from different angles, it has depth, there’s more to the relationship between things than just simply a flat correspondence that would result in the idea of a robot and the idea of a puppeteer, the reality of the divine decree becoming the very foundation of the existence of the universe, the fabric of time, the events in the fabric of time and, hence, the reality of the actions of mankind in time – that, for some reason, doesn’t enter into Dr. Craig’s understanding. It has to be a very simplistic idea that God moves the will to sin.”1

Response: First, the use of the term “decries” to describe Dr. Craig’s thoughtful objections is excessively emotional. Disagreement does not entail the type of impassioned denunciation White’s description suggests. To the contrary, Dr. Craig has traditionally exhibited incredible charity when assessing the views of his opponents, even going so far as to rework their arguments into stronger versions to make sure he is taking them on in their most formidable forms.

Second, White’s complaint that Dr. Craig’s use of the terms “Puppeteers” and “robots” is simplistic and non-biblical is hypocritical, as White immediately uses his own non-biblical terms (“full-orbed” and “three-dimensional”) to counter. Moreover, White never gives any reason to think that non-biblical language should be considered illicit. Is there something logically fallacious or immoral about using non-biblical language to analyze a theological position? Does the Bible itself condemn non-biblical language in theological analysis? Of course not.

Third, note the focus on and complaining about Dr. Craig’s language, as well as the absence of any rebuttal to Dr. Craig’s objection, which in the original discussion was that Calvinism (Helm’s version) makes God the author of sin in two different senses. White says that Dr. Craig’s claim — that on Helm’s Calvinism, God moves the will to sin — is “very simplistic,” but he doesn’t actually deny the claim or give any reason to think that it is very simplistic.

He Does Not Recall

James White: “Biblically, we can demonstrate beyond all shadow of a doubt the fact that God actually restrains human evil… I do not recall any situation wherein William Lane Craig has been asked or required to interact with biblical texts where God restrains the evil of men… I don’t believe he has a biblical anthropology. Molinists generally are not going to have a biblical anthropology of man being dead in sin or anything along those lines because how can that really fit with middle knowledge?… How does middle knowledge even take into consideration the reality of the deadness of man in sin?”2

Response: White does not list any specific texts, so it is hard to determine which ones he is talking about here. Regardless, Dr. Craig does interact with such biblical texts throughout his Defenders classes. But perhaps White can be forgiven his assertion that Dr. Craig does not have a biblical anthropology, since he cannot recall situations (like the Defenders series) in which Dr. Craig has interacted with these texts.

As for having a biblical anthropology of “man being dead in sin,” Dr. Craig addresses this exact subject in Defenders: Doctrine of Man (Series 2, Part 17). In fact, this issue of how God restrains and looses the evil of men without himself being found culpable is a major topic within (and is plausibly resolved by) Molinism and its affirmation of God’s middle knowledge.

White should have additionally asked whether middle knowledge has biblical support, to which I would reply in the affirmative, pointing to Kenneth Keathley’s “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach” for a list of relevant texts.3

“Will” vs. “Would”

James White: “Middle knowledge… Does it know what an individual will do given certain circumstances…”4

Response: Here, White finds himself quite mistaken in the wording of his question. It is not knowing what an individual “will do given certain circumstances,” but rather what an individual “would freely do given certain circumstances.” Notice the conditional term “would” that identifies our talking about the concept of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, not simple foreknowledge. Perhaps White was simply not familiar enough with the literature at this point (March 11, 2014) to recognize his error. This is highly probable, given White’s own admission at 1:21:11 that he “didn’t have a bibliography” for his sources on the subject.

Double Trouble

James White: “How does it take into consideration regeneration and non-regeneration? So, there’s double middle knowledge to where, well, if person X is [non]-regenerate in situations Y, he’ll do Z.  But if person X is regenerate, then in situation Y, he’ll do A.”5

Response: I corrected White’s quote to reflect what I think he meant: a middle knowledge analysis of the free actions of persons given their regeneration or non-regeneration. White uses the term “double middle knowledge,” demonstrating his ignorance of possible worlds semantics and likely oversaturation of Calvinism (the “double” being an artifact of “double predestination,” perhaps).  When the Molinist speaks about what person X would do in situation Y given regeneration or non-regeneration, he is speaking of two different possible worlds that God could have chosen to create. Saying something like “I would have gotten drunk last night if I wasn’t regenerate” is another way of saying “If God had chosen to create a world in which I had not already freely trusted in Him by last night, then I would have gotten drunk.” Again, note the conditional language.

On Molinism, both regeneration and non-regeneration are taken into consideration, since God would know via His omniscience whether one would or would not freely trust in Him when confronted by sin and the need of a Savior.

James White: “But whether he’s regenerate or not, that’s all up to his free will. So, how would you know?”6

Response: You wouldn’t… unless you had middle knowledge.

Waiting for a Prooftext

James White: “My objection to this whole concept is purely biblical…There’s just such a massive chasm between those who derive their theology from that which is theopneustos and those who derive it from philosophical categories and philosophical systems… which can be used to substantiate anything at all… You’re not deriving this from Scripture.”7

Response: Notice that White has not introduced a single text to demonstrate that Molinism is either false or explanatorily impotent. Again, Molinism does find biblical support in those texts which record God’s knowledge of subjunctive conditionals (1 Sam 23:10-13, for example). This is consistent with Molinism in that middle knowledge consists of God’s knowing the truth of subjunctive conditionals regarding human free choices prior to the decision to create. For example, prior to the decision to create, God knew that if he were to put Peter in first century Palestine, he would be with Jesus until his arrest and then freely deny him three times. In his divine providence, then, it’s completely up to God whether or not he wants to create Peter in first century Palestine.

White also makes the same mistake as Helm in failing to distinguish the senses in which a doctrine may be supported by the biblical text.8 White seems to assume that the only valid method a doctrine may gain such support is through biblical exegesis. He fails to recognize the second method used by many theologians, which is philosophical argumentation aimed at arriving at a conclusion that both coheres with the biblical data and enjoys more explanatory power than its competitors. The Bible is underdeterminative regarding a great many theological points (Is God timeless or temporal? What’s the correct Christological model? How many angels did God create? Did Jesus retain a physical body after his ascension?). And while our conclusions from this method may be less than absolutely certain, absolute certainty is not a prerequisite for knowledge. And, in fact, there are no theological doctrines gained through biblical exegesis which are themselves absolutely certain, since certainty is a property of persons, not texts or interpretations.

Agreement

James White: “There’s the challenge: to know that you are influenced by your own systems, to know that you have your own traditions, to know enough about church history, for example, to realize that the conflicts that influence you, influence how you read Scripture, to know all of that and still to affirm that there is a unified, beautiful fabric of divine truth that is consistent with itself and to give your life to the discovery of that – not like that you’re doing it for the first time – but to continue walking in the steps of all of those before you who have pointed all these things out so that you can have a foundation upon maybe to even go farther and to go deeper and to see connections that had not been seen before. But you aren’t gonna do that… that’s not where you’re gonna go if in reality what’s going on is you are trying to make the Scriptures consistent with your philosophical system as your ultimate authority.”9

Response: I actually completely agree with White on this score, as I am sure Dr. Craig would. If anything, White has just defined why I think Dr. Craig’s defense of Molinism is so compelling – his affirmation of Molinism was a conclusion reached through careful study of church tradition, solid biblical exegesis, and the search for logical coherence.

Assertion

James White: “The Molinist, therefore, I don’t think even can start to understand the depth of the relationship that exists between the clear statements of Scripture in regards to God’s absolute creative control over everything that he has made and the fact that then, because of the way he’s made it, is a solid foundation upon which to hold men accountable.” 10

Response: This, unfortunately, is paradigmatic of White’s treatment of Molinism: assertion without demonstration. Notice the continual barrage of claims that White’s own views are derived directly from the “clear statements of Scripture,” yet throughout the entire segment, he doesn’t cite a single verse, a single piece of biblical refutation. Moreover, it’s clear that, at least at the date of this episode, White had not read any Molina himself, for if he had, he would have seen Molina’s extensive appeal to Scripture to establish the data for which he found middle knowledge to be the best explanation.11

James White: (White plays another excerpt of Dr. Craig in which Craig says “God has resources for providentially ordering the world that go beyond puppetry and causal determinism.  But what I want to know is why couldn’t that resource be middle knowledge?”)12

“Why couldn’t that resource be middle knowledge? Because, as Paul said at the end, that doesn’t actually provide anything because that… Here’s my question. That’s not God’s resource.  Where’d he get it? It came from someplace else. It doesn’t come from God’s being. There’s that card-dealer again. He’s got to deal with the cards he’s been dealt. And if what a free creature will do does not flow from God’s decree, then where does it flow from?  What’s its origin? What’s its source?13

Response: It is a common misconception that God’s middle knowledge requires some sort of source outside of himself. However, as a purely conceptual knowledge, God conceives of the free creatures he could create and knows in a purely conceptual way how those creatures would freely choose in a given situation. With this knowledge, God may (freely) choose to incorporate those (free) choices into his meticulous providential planning of history or not.

What is perhaps troubling for White (and other anti-Molinists) is the Molinist claim that God does not control the truth values of creaturely free choices. To anyone who thinks it’s logically incoherent for God to cause someone to freely choose something, this is an intuitive belief. But it may help to see this intuition more clearly by noting other examples of truth values that God does not control. God does not control the truth value of his own existence: he exists necessarily and self-sufficiently, and since he is a perfect being, he cannot bring it about that he does not exist. Similarly, God does not control the truth of his moral perfection or omnipotence. If one can admit that God doesn’t control these truth values, why not consistently agree that God cannot control the truth values of creaturely free choices?

Conclusion

In the end, White never comes close to articulating an actual rebuttal to Dr. Craig’s position. Instead, the tack he chose was one of asking questions with an incredulous tone, asserting himself as having a significantly more biblical view, and speaking with unwarranted confidence and condescension from a position of ignorance. By contrast, Dr. Craig’s comments on Unbelievable? were charitable, concise, and based on extensive academic research. While White’s condescension is lamentable, I am encouraged by the recent words of another Calvinist brother:

“I am a Reformed Calvinist Christian and I debate many different folks in different camps like atheists, Muslims, Mormons, JW’s, agnostics, and other Christians in other Theological camps. The sharpest group by far are Molinists. You cannot get away with any sloppy thinking with a Molinist and Molinists can make very good category distinctions and are sharp as a knife, I must say. My Molinist brethren challenge me well.”14

May it ever be so!


Notes

11:17:10-1:19:22

21:19:30-1:20:25

3“Support” here should not be taken as “proof”. Like Dr. Craig, I find the biblical data underdeterminative with regard to the resolution of God’s omniscience and creaturely moral responsibility. However, like Luis de Molina and Dr. Craig, I also believe a philosophical analysis that includes the biblical data leads to the conclusion that God has middle knowledge.

41:20:34-1:20:39

51:20:39-1:20:59

61:21:00-1:21:08

71:21:29-1:22:31

8See also Jonathan Thompson, “Paul Helm Misses the Mark on Molinism: A Response to Ligonier.org’s “Molinism 101”,” Free Thinking Ministries (July 3, 2017).

91:23:16-1:24:31

101:24:37-1:25:06

11See Luis de Molina, On Divine Foreknowledge (Part IV of the Concordia), translated by Alfred J. Freddoso (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University, 1988).

121:27:36-1:27:51

131:27:52-1:28:25

14Special thanks to Jason McNaughton for the permission to include his comment.

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About the Author

By Tyson James

Tyson James has been a chapter director for Reasonable Faith since 2013 and is now the organization's National Chapters Director. Tyson received his M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University in 2016. He holds an additional M.A. in International Relations and B.A.s in Spanish/International Trade (double-major) and Religious Studies. In 2006, Tyson enlisted with the United States Air Force and served as an Airborne Cryptologic Linguist (Arabic). He developed a passion for apologetics during a deployment to Southwest Asia and decided to cut short his rapidly rising military career in order to become a more academically-trained ambassador for Christ. He now teaches apologetics at churches and writes apologetics satire articles for his blog called “fauxpologetics”. The views and opinions expressed by Tyson are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Reasonable Faith organization