I am not a Calvinist. I am not a Molinist. I am not an Arminian. However, my life, theology, and ministry has been shaped by giants of the faith in all three of these realms. Two such giants joined Justin Brierley to discuss which position best explains the problem of evil from a theological perspective on his show Unbelievable.
William Lane Craig’s approach to philosophy and theology helped me to solidify my own faith when struggling through questions of God’s existence. I have watched many debates and read many articles and books written by William Lane Craig on the arguments for God’s existence and his own take on the story of Genesis with which I, respectfully, do not agree. Reasonable Faith is a mainstay in my tool kit for sharpening my understanding of apologetics, faith, and scripture.
While the ideas of Molinism have always been intriguing to me, I have not spent a lot of time exploring the topic. I know enough about it to understand the tenants, but there have been enough questions in my mind concerning some of its philosophical underpinnings that have precluded me from joining the ranks of the Molinist. Even with this hesitance, Dr. Tim Stratton, a rising proponent of Molinism, and author of Human Freedom, Divine Knowledge, and Mere Molinism, allowed me to join his team at Free Thinking Ministries to address theological and social topics of the day. Tim has been extremely supportive, reasonable, and fun to work with over the past six months as I have officially started writing for his website.
James White, on the other hand, is someone I also highly respect and another giant of the faith that I have leaned on in times of need. White’s debates on Islam, writings concerning the word of God and his exegesis of the Greek New Testament stand second to none in my opinion. His show, Dividing Line, has been a mainstay in my podcast repertoire and remains meaningful to me still today.
Imagine my excitement when two of the deepest thinkers that I have followed and have impacted me from afar finally got together to discuss something of extreme interest, not only to myself, but to many in the evangelical community.
I have, personally, always been hesitant of theological labels such as Calvinist, Molinist or Arminian, as I am deeply dedicated to Sola Scriptura, but also dedicated to learning from the history of the confessions as well as from the church fathers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and many others. Having been in ministry, I had reached a point very recently where I was comfortable within the tension of the text itself when considering things like predestination, free will, and election.
I had become convinced through my personal study, particularly of the book of Romans (included in this study are two undergraduate and graduate level classes on the letter), that there is a healthy tension in scripture between human free will and divine sovereignty that perhaps God did not intend for the reader to fully comprehend until the culmination of time. I still feel that way in many regards, but as human beings we often strive for resolution, so this conversation between two highly respected proponents of two positions I think are biblically defensible and derived, excited me because I thought perhaps I could reach some sort of resolution through the conversation.
Let me be the first to say that I am not nearly as academically credentialed or studious as these two men. I could likely not even carry a meaningful discussion on the topics for longer than twenty minutes, but I will endeavor to give my perspective of the conversation here. And as someone who has no “dog in the fight” as it were, I hope my perspective can be enlightening for those that are in the middle and for those that are convinced on either side of the issue.
Watching the exchange, I believe the conversation boiled down to one issue on either side. For James White, the issue was not at all which best explains the problem of evil (though that was supposed to be what was debated), instead he focused on which position is most likely to flow from the biblical data without a presupposition. What was readily noticeable is that White seems to begin with his own philosophical assumptions and then reads Scripture through the lens of said assumptions while he accuses the Molinist of doing the same exact thing. In my opinion, we all bring a lens with us as we read scripture, the question, as Craig pointed out, should be which lens seems to make the most sense in light of scripture. I believe this is what Dr. Craig is getting at when he speaks of consistency within the text for one position or another. White’s main assertion seemed to be that Calvinism, or reformed theology, is better understood than Molinism through a clear reading of the text. That the text naturally leads one to Calvinism and thus, this explains God’s omnipotence and his sovereignty from the divine decree until the end of time.
I have a problem with this assumption because, well, it is an assumption. I have read and studied scripture very carefully. I have read and studied Calvinism and Arminianism very carefully but through my reading of the scripture I came to an understanding of God’s sovereignty that looks different from Calvinism and allows for free will to be a factor, because free agency is readily apparent within the scriptures. As is God’s divine and purposeful sovereignty.
Moreover it seems as though both positions used similar proof texts for their positions. Instead of addressing this problem head on, the issue seemed to be skirted around. I do not blame either party for this, as sometimes these things happen, especially in a short form discussion, but a debate specifically on why a Calvinist reading of Ephesians 1 is better than a Molinist reading of the same scripture likely would have been more fruitful than the discussion that evolved here.
White seemed to fixate on this problem with Molinism. He constantly referred to Molinism’s issue of grounding in untenable and unexplained counterfactuals that presumed a delimitation of God’s power in the divine decree. The issue, for White, is that Molinism, while certainly philosophical, is simply unbiblical and he believes that the Molinist uses eisegesis to read into certain stories the philosophies of Molinism whereas Calvinists come to Calvinism simply through the reading of the same scriptures. I, obviously, do not find this to be the case whatsoever and I think it weakened White’s position because he chose to denigrate Craig’s perspective instead of investigate it on its merits.
Moreover, White’s main objection to Molinism is philosophical in itself. He did not use scripture to introduce the grounding objection, but philosophy, which is why Craig’s rebuttal veered into philosophy rather than into scripture. Doctor Craig’s rebuttal, was, in essence, to say that exegesis, not eisegesis, of similar passages can lead to both understandings of God’s divine knowledge, and, therefore, the one that seems most plausible without “bruising” the biblical data would be the most reasonable understanding of God’s creative will.
White’s response is that the Christian’s job is not to find the most plausible explanation but the most biblical explanation. Which, I believe Craig would agree to, but I also think that if we believe that logic itself comes from God, the creator, then the best use of the biblical data would be to find the most reasonable outcome, therefore, Craig is right to ask the question: Which philosophy of God’s sovereignty is most plausible considering the biblical data? I do not understand why White bristles at this question. If he simply would have embraced it then they could have spent the rest of the time analyzing the biblical data in light of the two positions.
I thought White’s objection was interesting, but I also thought Craig’s response was equally as interesting, but understandable. In response to White’s objection concerning scripture, Craig often did not respond with scripture but with a conversation concerning truth making. While this exchange was fruitful and illuminating, I do not believe it addressed the core issue that White suggested but only addressed part of the issue.
It was clear that Craig did not come to debate the philosophy of truth-making. He came prepared to discuss what view (if true) could better address the greatest argument for atheism: the problem of evil. White changed the topic of the debate midstream and Craig, unfortunately, chased the red herring. Which I found interesting because in past debates Craig often calls out red herrings for what they are.
A more interesting response, in my opinion, would have been a theological response, not a philosophical response, and it would have veered the conversation back on topic in my opinion. White’s concern that God is delimited is only a concern if God was not the originator of that limitation. In other words, I thought Craig missed an opportunity to throw White a bone while also doubling down on middle knowledge as the best explanation of the biblical data.
A response to White’s charge could have gone something likes this: We see often in scripture a moment in time where God limits himself in order to bring himself the most glory. This is seen both in the garden and in the crucifixion story. God limits himself in the garden by not being “present” to challenge the serpent as the serpent tempts Eve. A question for the Calvinist at this point could be, “Is it your opinion that God caused Lucifer’s rebellion and caused Eve’s transgression?” But that carries with it a different and just as important point, because whether or not God caused those actions, the mere fact that he seemed to not be “present” with Adam and Eve in that situation would suggest God limiting himself in some facet. This line of thought kills two birds with one stone. It shows that God is capable of self-limitation and that if God causally determined those actions, then Adam and Eve did not. If Adam and Eve were not the cause of their sinful actions, then God seems to be the author — the causal determiner — of the fall of man (and all of the carnage that has followed in its wake).
Likewise, scripture is full of God limiting himself through the incarnation. Jesus was clearly not omnipresent as the divine God-Man, he also limits his own knowledge of his second coming prior to his ascension. If God could limit himself in these circumstances to give himself the most glory, could he not do the same prior to the divine decree as well? In other words, could God see all of the possible worlds he could create and decide that the world that he creates that would bring himself the most Glory and the most good pleasure would be one in which he limits himself in the way that middle knowledge suggests that he limits himself? Thus, the delimiting power comes from counterfactuals that are, in essence, part of God’s own decree at creation. Which means that it was not an unknown force, entity or philosophy that limited God’s power in this sense, but it was God himself. He chose to limit how he might interact with mankind because it would bring him the most glory, and we know that he would do this because scripture tells us that he did do this in other circumstances. Thus, God could have created a world in which he decreed every single action of every individual for all of time, but a maximally great God would not do so even if it meant that his creation would turn against him.
This would have avoided the discussion of truth making maximalism as the suggestion that Baal does not exist simply is an interesting example of truths that do no necessitate a truth maker, but this response (if Craig agrees, and I am not aware if he does) would avoid devolving conversation into hypothetical truths that may or may not necessitate a maker behind them.
This response also answers White’s other question of why God would sometimes be involved and other times seem distant. God, in creating a world, recognized that in order for his purposes to be accomplished and for his glory to be revealed in the best way possible saw the need for libertarian freedom but also recognized the necessity of divine intervention. There would be moments in time where God would need to step in and direct the course of history in one sense or another. Craig mentions this in passing during one of the discussion points by saying something like he had no issue with God’s miraculous interventions.
I suppose White’s rebuttal to this could be that God, being infinite in wisdom, would not need to consider other worlds prior to the divine decree because whatever he decrees is good by nature of the fact that it is God who decrees it. However, that objection only works if we see God as someone that actually must weigh pros and cons prior to the decree, it is equally as plausible that God knows all that he could decree (his omniscience) but also knows, without needing to weigh considerations, what he will decree because in his decreeing it, he makes it the highest good. This means that we are simply back to analyzing the biblical data, but I believe the grounding objection has lost its power.
By focusing on the philosophy discussion concerning truth making I think Craig opened himself up for an attack that focused on lack of scriptural support rather than addressing the theology behind White’s statements. White wanted to discuss doctrine even as he objected with a philosophical objection and Craig instead discussed philosophy and there was a disconnect within the topic.
I do not fault Craig for this because it was clear to me that he had assumed the discussion would orient around which understanding of God’s decree best explained the problem of evil and it was quickly derailed from that discussion point when Molinism itself became the subject of debate. I wondered, personally, if there would have been some headway in the discussion if Brierely had stepped in to moderate the discussion by granting the grounding of Molinism for sake of argument so we could get passed that aspect and get back to the question at hand.
Speaking of the problem of evil, this objection to Calvinism was made multiple times by Craig towards White but was discussed very little. It was interesting to me that White took issue with Craig’s dealing with truth making, even accusing Craig at one point of dismissing the question entirely while White did the same thing concerning the problem of evil.
Craig did offer that “Baal does not exist,” to show that there is no concrete truth-maker making the proposition true. The best that can be said is that what grounds “Baal does not exist” is the fact that Baal does not exist. But if it is mere facts that can ground truth-makers, then the Molinist is left unscathed. So, White’s objection was defeated but White did not provide a counter. I suppose White COULD have said that the truth-making is the fact that God did not create Baal, although he could have, but I believe this objection would play directly into the hands of the Molinist and might be why it was not offered. If God himself can be the truth-making cause then Molinism, as discussed above, does not suffer a grounding problem at all.
White though, never really discussed the problem of evil on his view. I do not know if that is because White thought he had addressed the issue by reading the Westminster Catechism at the beginning of the program or if he simply wanted to keep the focus on scripture as the basis for Calvinism but he never did directly respond to the charge that Calvinism makes God the author of, and actor in, evil.
I know Calvinists that line up on either side of this topic, so I do not believe it is a settled matter even amongst those circles. Some might point to the book of Job, or God sending an evil spirit to torment Saul, or that God sent a spirit to deceive certain Prophets before King Ahab. All of these passages seem to indicate that God does direct evil forces to deal with humanity but none of them indicate that God causes human beings to act in an evil manner. In fact, such passages could be used to bolster the Molinist’s view point, as well as passages concerning demonic possession in the New Testament and how those beings relate to and must listen to the words of Christ. However, all of these could also be used to substantiate the fact that God, in order to bring himself the most glory, brought about evil for his own purposes so that he can punish it. In all instances of God hardening hearts or sending delusions, it is AFTER the person has rebelled, hardened their own hearts, or rejected truth. I would think that White would agree that God does not causally determine those who love truth to affirm false theological beliefs. But if determinism is true, we may be stuck with that premise. White did address God’s use of evil people to judge (Isaiah 40-48) and then to be judged, but he used this as an attack on Molinism, not as a support of Calvinism other than the divine decree. Another possible response could have been the tu quoque response in which White would simply have suggested that given the passages above, and many others, the Molinist has a similar position to the Calvinist in regards to the problem of evil. However, White chose not to directly answer the charge in any of these terms, instead focusing on the biblical grounding for Molinism. In which case, the two came to an impasse towards the end of the discussion.
I do think that White and Craig briefly touched on the tu quoque objection when White indicated that Craig has a similar problem, however, Craig’s response to the question was well answered and the topic was left there. There is a difference between allowing evil an opportunity to exist and directly causing evil to come about.
One answer to the problem of evil I have heard from a Calvinist (though I cannot recall which one at this time) is that in order for good to exist evil must also exist and therefore, if God were to create anything and call it good, then he must also allow for the existence of evil. In other words, in order to create, God must allow for evil so that goodness can be known for what it is, but in his divine decree he also eradicates evil, causing it to only exist temporally while goodness will exist for eternity. I suppose a Molinist could respond easily enough to this statement, but the burden in the debate was not to prove which position made less sense than the other but to prove why one position made more logical sense than the other and I believe this could have given the Calvinist some footing in that regard.
In the end, I believe White’s response to the problem of evil is probably akin to a reductio ad absurdum in which he states that since the scriptures say God decrees it, it is so, and any laboring on the process is simply an absurdity. Perhaps that is not his view, but since he did not articulate exactly what his view is on the topic (besides quoting the Westminster Catechism) I can only posit a guess.
There was also a moment in time where I thought the two talked past each other in regards to Calvinistic belief on what God does and does not determine. White saw God’s sovereignty in line with constraining evil more than enacting it, whereas Craig made the accusation that in Calvinism God causes human beings to choose to do both good and evil. While there are many Calvinists that would affirm that, there are also Calvinists that accept “free will” to the extent that any “free” choice a person makes will only be evil or ordinary all the time. I believe a quote from Martin Luther might be used here wherein he states something like human beings being free in regard to goods or possessions on earth but not in eternal things such as faith, grace, or salvation. In other words, God does not direct humans to choose evil, they simply do as part of their nature, however, any time a human being does good it is because of God’s causal direction. In other words, human beings can readily choose the devil, but only those that God chose can ever “choose” Him and the good. White never intimated which side of the fence he was on in that regard, but even so, that would answer the question of what humans are free to do now, not what Adam and Eve were free to do then. Could they have chosen otherwise when they ate the fruit? They did not have a sin nature at that point, or did they?
I felt that, generally speaking, both White and Craig did a great job of articulating their own views but neither did a great job at articulating responses to objections that resonated with the objection itself. I feel that most people that watched this discussion would have found it fascinating but also would not have found it particularly illuminating one way or the other. As someone who has a stronger background in Calvinist theology than Molinist theology I would say I came out of that discussion with a better, albeit somewhat cloudy, understanding of Craig’s view than of White’s.
As a fan of both White and Craig it brought me a bit of sadness to see White treat Craig’s position with so little charity. While mostly a good natured discussion I found White’s disposition towards Craig somewhat off putting, especially in regards to how Craig handles scripture.
I do believe, however, that White scored some points in the debate when it came to uses of scripture. Craig only brought one scripture up while White used multiple scriptures to bolster his position (even though Craig, rightfully so, intimated that those same scriptures could be used in support of Molinism). I thought the discussion on Ephesians 1 left a bit to be desired and thought that Craig could have better articulated how Molinism understands “all things” within the context of that passage. In general, I wish the debate would have focused primarily around this passage as I thought much was left unsaid here and there could have been a rich discussion concerning how best to understand that passage under Molinism or Calvinism. One passage of scripture I was hoping would be brought up by Dr. Craig, that was not, concerning Molinism was 1 Samuel 23:7-29. Instead, much was made about Genesis 50, which, while fascinating, garnered very little clarity from either position as it is very plausible to read that story in light of either position, but I would have been interested in the Calvinist response to 1 Samuel 23:7-29.
Instead it seemed that White simply read scriptures assuming they are Calvinistic by nature and was surprised that Craig would disagree. It seemed to me that while Craig was able to step outside of his own view to consider Calvinism (and ultimately reject it), White did not afford the Molinist the same respect. Calvinism is true, according to White, simply because it is the natural reading of scripture. And why is it the natural reading of Scripture? Because the reformers say so, but then what about Molina? Well, according to White, his opinions were not shaped by scripture but by thwarting the reformation. But even if this were true, which I am not convinced it is, what does that have to do with whether or not one can come to a Molinist position sola scriptura? Even if his motives were suspect, and I do not suspect they were, does that negate the truth claims out of pocket? I do not think so. I think you must engage with those claims as they stand, and I believe that White failed to do so in this exchange unfortunately.
In the end, I enjoyed the discussion, I thought both made solid points and arguments for their respective positions but I did not find that either convinced me one way or the other to resolve the conflict I sense within the scriptures concerning free will and God’s providence, but then again, how could I have seriously expected a one hour discussion to do what years of study has yet to accomplish?
For more on this topic please check out the videos below as Tim Stratton and Tyson James respond to James White’s arguments:
Round 2.5 (Ryan Mullins)
 Philippians 2:6
 Matthew 24:36
 1 Samuel 16:14
 1 Kings 22:19-23
 Matthew 8:28-34
 1 Corinthians 2:8