Responding to James White’s Anti-Molinist Critiques: Creaturely Essences

By Jonathan Thompson


April 27, 2018

Summary: In The Dividing Line episode Behold the Secular Woman & WLC on Molinism (Once Again) James White argues that Molinism is false because it prohibits God from creating creaturely essences. Here, I offer several interpretations of White’s argument and demonstrate that regardless of which interpretation White prefers his argument can be shown to have an unargued premise.

Video Source:

Addressing White’s Preliminary Remarks
Prior to critiquing Molinism, White makes some preliminary remarks directed at William Lane Craig’s response to a certain critique of Molinism. White states:

“What I think [Craig’s response] does is establish even more firmly . . . the reality that God’s actions are constrained by the content of middle knowledge. . . And hence the question remains, ‘Where does. . . this knowledge come from?'”1

I’ve already responded to White’s assertion and question in another essay.2 For this reason I will only briefly summarize what I’ve already argued there.

Now in that essay I documented how White developed his assertion that middle knowledge constrains God’s actions into an argument which purports to demonstrate that middle knowledge undermines God’s sovereignty. I further demonstrated that White’s own argument is self-defeating because his premise that Molinism implies that the actual world isn’t the result of God’s will contradicts the justification White provides for it, namely that God’s freedom is limited to choosing which world He will choose to actualize. In light of this justification, I further suggested that it’s impossible to understand how God having the freedom to choose which world He will actualize could be sovereignty-undermining since it’s inconceivable as to how God’s freedom could be otherwise.

Because of the weaknesses of White’s argument I extended charity to him by suggesting that he might have simply articulated his criticism poorly. For this reason I crafted two arguments on behalf of White, attempting to capture what I believed he was attempting to convey. The first reformulation of White’s argument concluded that Molinism undermines God’s sovereignty because Molinism precludes God from creating creaturely essences. We saw that this argument was unsuccessful because it begged the question in favor the idea that creaturely essences actually exist (as opposed to being merely heuristic devices) and are the result of God’s will. We also saw that the argument foundered in so far as White failed to disclose his ontology of creaturely essences. The second reformulation of White’s argument concluded that Molinism undermines God’s omnipotence because Molinism precludes Him from having the ability to create a world of libertarianly free creatures whose counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (hereafter, CCFs) are caused (i.e. strongly actualized) by God. We saw that this argument was also unsuccessful because omnipotence does not require that God be able to actualize metaphysically impossible states of affairs such as ones according to which CCFs are causally determined by something other than the libertarian agent themselves.

Finally, with respect to White’s question concerning the content of God’s middle knowledge I suggested that the content of God’s middle knowledge is derived from the counterfactual choices of libertarianly free creatures themselves. Further, these choices are logically prior but chronologically posterior to God’s foreknowledge. I take it that my response to White’s question is perfectly coherent and I’m not aware of any rejoinders to my response. So, I take it to be the case that Molinists can safely ignore White’s comment about Craig’s statement establishing “even more firmly” White’s concerns about middle knowledge because White’s argument against Molinism has not been successfully established to begin with.

White Misrepresents Middle Knowledge
Shortly after White’s previous comments he goes on to provide an explanation of middle knowledge and then repeats his previous question. Specifically he states:

“. . .  The question that at least my little brain has . . . is [with respect to] the truth-value of these counterfactuals, [that is,] God’s ability to know what. . . Sam is going to do if Sam exists in given circumstances, – that’s not a part of God’s decree that’s what makes it middle knowledge is [that it’s] before the decree. So where does it come from? Because I know that what I do flows from who I am and who I am God made me to be. God has gifted me in certain areas and hasn’t in others. Each one of us is a mixture of different things and I believe we’re called to do the best to glorify God with what he’s given us.”3

Notice that White states that coming prior to the decree is what makes middle knowledge what it is. This is false. Natural knowledge also comes prior to the decree and yet it is not identical to middle knowledge. What makes middle knowledge sui generis from the rest of God’s knowledge is its being prior to the decree and also being logically posterior to God’s natural knowledge. This is why it’s called middle knowledge, because it’s in between God’s natural and free knowledge.4White therefore misrepresents middle knowledge.

Addressing the Rest of White’s Comments
What are we to make of the rest of White’s comments? If by his comments about our gifts White means to employ these gifts as an example of something which he believes composes our essence, then White will be committing himself (presumably unintentionally) to an implausible theory of creaturely essences.

In order to see how this is the case, it will be helpful to first understand the concept of an essence. An essence refers to the necessary and jointly sufficient conditions which constitute a particular substance or event. For example, the essence of God consists of His being omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect, inter alia.5For a property to partially constitute an essence, then, is for that property to merely serve as a necessary condition for that essence. So, for example, the property of being round is a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for a circle. Therefore, a substance which lacks the property of roundness simply is not a circle since it lacks a necessary condition for circularity (i.e. being round).

That being said, if by mentioning his own gifts White means to use these as an example of something which he believes composes his own essence, then it follows that the gifts White possesses in the actual world are essential to him and so could not be otherwise. But this is an implausible theory of creaturely essences since White presumably believes that an omnipotent God can bestow, withhold, and take away a gift a creature possesses at his own discretion. But aside from that, if this interpretation of White is correct, then he will also guilty of begging the question against the Molinist since he assumes without argument that his gifts compose his essence. White’s view is therefore unjustified.

There is, however, an alternative way of interpreting White’s comments. Perhaps by noting that that our gifts are God-given White means to assert that on Molinism God can’t be credited for bestowing creatures with gifts although these gifts do not compose our creaturely essences. If White did mean to communicate this idea, then White will be contradicting himself in light of previous claims he’s made. For as we saw in the essay I mentioned previously, White admits that on Molinism God’s freedom is limited to “whether he will or will not actualize. . . [a particular world]”6 and is limited to “what His criteria is gonna be”7 (e.g. the optimal balance between saved and lost). But since White already agrees that God is free to choose which world He will or will not actualize on Molinism, then it would follow that God can be credited for bestowing creatures with the gifts they possess. For without God, the circumstances by which those creatures obtained their gifts would not have been actual. Thus, on Molinism there is at least some sense in which God can credited for bestowing His creatures with the gifts they possess.

Let us now consider another interpretation of White. This third interpretation of White’s statement requires us to focus on his claiming to know that his actions flow from who he is and that who he is further depends on what God created him to be like. Perhaps by making this comment White is assuming that the type of thing God created him to be is that of an agent that is unilaterally casually determined by God. Therefore, given this truth, and given the Molinist’s claim that CCFs aren’t causally determined by God, then it would logically follow that the sort of thing White is doesn’t flow from what God created him to be like (i.e. an agent that is unilaterally causally determined by God).

The problem with this argument is that no justification is given in favor of the notion that the type of thing God created White to be is that of an agent that is unilaterally causally determined by God. Instead White just assumes this from the outset thereby begging the question against libertarian accounts of human agency. Hence, even this third interpretation of White’s argument presents no challenge to the Molinist.

The final interpretation of White we shall consider requires us to assume that he expressed himself poorly and meant to communicate something other than what he, in fact, stated. Maybe White’s real gripe with Molinism is that he thinks that it is false because this view does not allow God to be attributed credit for bestowing gifts on to creatures in the sense that He unilaterally causally determines the circumstances by which those gifts are obtained.

While it’s true that Molinism is incompatible with this idea, White doesn’t even attempt to present any argument in favor of the notion that Molinists should believe that God should be attributed credit in the relevant sense. Thus, even under this fourth interpretation of White, he inevitably ends up begging the question against the Molinist.

In conclusion, I’ve interpreted White’s anti-Molinist argument in a number of ways so as to extend charity to him. To the dismay of White, each of the four interpretations I’ve offerred contain a premise of which White presents no justification in favor of. In one notable case, we’ve even seen that White’s argument undermines the very omnipotence he would presumably aim to preserve in God. As a result of White’s implausible and unargued assertions, Molinism emerges unscathed from White’s criticisms.



2For my direct responses to White’s assertion and question see:

323:19- 24:30

4On the Molinist schema, natural knowledge is the moment which logically (not chronologically) proceeds middle knowledge. God’s natural knowledge encompasses all possible and necessary truths. God’s free knowledge, in contrast, is logically posterior to God’s middle knowledge and divine creative decree. Free knowledge consists of God’s knowledge of future contingents.

5I recognize that some adherents to the doctrine of divine simplicity will repudiate this example since it presupposes that God possesses logical constituents (i.e. omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect, inter alia). Disagreement for this particular reason, however, need not prevent the adherent of the doctrine from accepting my underlying point. This is because Classical Theism does not deny (nor imply, so far as I can tell) that there are at least non-God entities that possess essential logical constituents. So, if Classical Theist takes issue with my example, they can simply substitute God and the parts I’ve attributed to Him with some other object which they think possesses logical composition along with the essential logical constituents the Classical Theist thinks said object possesses.

6 (37:53-37:55)

7Ibid. (37:57-38:00)

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By Jonathan Thompson