Election and Middle Knowledge: Arminius’ Gambit and Reformed Response

Recently, one scholar [William Craig] has proposed Molina’s concept of a divine foreknowledge of future contingents lying outside of or prior to the divine will as a possible point for dialogue between Arminians and Calvinists – as if the concept had never before been proposed by Arminianism, and as if the concept actually offered a middle ground between the Arminian and Calvinist theologies. For scientia media to become the basis for such rapprochement, however, the Reformed would need to concede virtually all of the issues in debate and adopt an Arminian perspective, because, in terms of the metaphysical foundations of the historical debate between Reformed and Arminian, the idea of a divine scientia media or middle knowledge is the heart and soul of the original Arminian position. Middle knowledge is not a middle ground. It was the Arminian, just as it was the Jesuit view, in the controversies over grace and predestination that took place in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

From the historical Reformed perspective, as from the Dominican, Thomist perspective, the notion of a divine foreknowledge of future contingents lying outside of the divine willing of actuality undermines the divine sovereignty, assaults the doctrine of salvation by grace, and in addition proposes an ontological absurdity. In the first place, if the salvation of human beings rests on divine foreknowledge, the human being is clearly regarded as the first and effective agent in salvation, and God is understood simply as the one who responds to an independent human action. In the second place, it must be asked whether future contingents lying outside of or prior to the general divine willing that actualizes all things are in fact possible. The Reformed orthodox enter the discussion with the assumption that God alone is original, self-existent, and necessary and that the entire contingent order depends on God for its existence. Or, to make the point in another way, prior to the act of creation, God alone exists as an actual or actualized being; the created order is simply a series of possibilities or potentialities in the mind of God. Out of all the possibilities that god knows, God wills to create some. Once created, moreover, the things and actions of the finite order do not become self-existent, but continue to have their existence from God – or, to make the point in Thomistic language, all things have their existence by participation in the being of God. The power of being, self-existence, and potential for the existence of others does not belong in any absolute sense to the created order.

Creation and providence, therefore, are two sides of the same issue. It is not as if God becomes a deistic Deus otiosus, an “idle God” or God on vacation, after the moment of creation. As Perkins comments, “if God should foresee things to come, and in no sort will or nill them, there should be an idle providence.” God actively maintains the created order in its being: all things not only exist, but continue to exist by the will of God. Granting that God alone is fully actualized being, without the divine will that things exists, the creation would not continue. Contingent things and events lying outside of this divine will cannot consistently be argued to exist, unless we overturn the whole doctrine of creation and argue that some things existed prior to and apart from the creative work of God and continue to exist outside of God’s providence. This problem appears in the Molinist and Arminian view of divine concurrence: Molina and Arminius after him argue that the divine action or concurrence that supports the existence of works or effects brought about by contingent agents enters the finite order of events in the effect, not in the secondary or finite cause. God thus supports the effect and gives it actuality while not strictly bringing it about or willing it. The finite agent acts independently in bringing about the action or effect.

In response, the Reformed and the Thomists note that this theory may claim to account for the effect, but actually falls into ontological absurdity, because it does not account for the existence or action of the finite agent: it is impossible for any finite being to bring either itself or anything else from potency to actuality without the divine concurrence. In other words, freedom and contingency not only are compatible with an eternal decree that ordains all things, but also depend upon it. Against the Roman Catholic theologian Albert Pighuis, whose views on foreknowledge and predestination adumbrated those of Arminius, Calvin argued,

You ascribe a prescience to God after your own fashion, representing him as sitting in heaven as an idle, inactive, unconcerned spectator of all things in the life of men. Whereas, God himself, ever vindicating to himself the right and the act of holding the helm of all things which are dome in the whole world, never permits a separation of his prescience from his power. Nor is this manner of reasoning mine only, but most certainly Augustine’s also. “If (says that holy father) God foresaw that which he did not will to be done, God holds not the supreme rule over all things. God, therefore, ordained that which should come to pass, because nothing could have done had he not willed it to be done.”

Calvin’s point is not that all things occur by absolute necessity, but that the ability of creatures to have their own “quality and nature” and “follow [their] own inclination” depends on the divine ordination and conservation of their existence. In the more precise language of Turretin, “No effect can be understood as future, whether absolutely or hypothetically, without the divine decree, inasmuch as no creature can exist in the world apart from the divine causality; so also no future conditionals can be knowable prior to the divine decree.”

Thus, from the Reformed and the Thomistic perspective there can be no middle knowledge inasmuch as its proposed objects cannot exist. The two original categories of divine knowing – necessary and voluntary – are exhaustive: they refer to all possibility and all actuality. On the assumption of the divine creation of the world out of nothing, moreover, there can be no actuality that arises apart from the divine will. As Voetius argued, since all actuality ultimately rests on God’s willing, there is nothing outside of the divine willing: the object of middle knowledge, therefore, is nothing. Knowledge of nothing is no knowledge at all – and middle knowledge, so-called, cannot exist anymore than can its purported objects. In order for future contingents to exist there must be an effective divine will that actualizes them as contingents, and the divine knowledge of future contingents must be an absolutely certain knowledge, eternally in God, of those possible contingents that God wills to actualize. From the Reformed perspective, a middle knowledge is not necessary to account for future contingents or for the divine knowledge of future contingents. The free or voluntary knowledge of God is an eternal knowledge of all actual things, whether (from the perspective of the creature) past, present, or future, and whether necessary, contingent, or freely willed.

This is precisely the point made by the definition of the immutable decree and its relation to the world order found in the Westminster Confession and many Reformed systems:

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

The point is that the contingent order cannot exist and, therefore free and contingent acts within that order cannot exist, unless God wills their actuality and wills it in such a way that they are established as free and contingent. Or, again, in the discussion of providence,

Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly, yet by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

The Reformed orthodox theologians view this arguments as far more sound and consistent – and certainly far more in accord both with Scripture and with the demands of soteriology – than the Arminian claim of a scientia media, inasmuch as middle knowledge, with tis corresponding view of divine concursus, presupposes that some events belong to chains of cause and effect that lie outside of the divine willing. How, one wonders, if such events can actually occur, can they belong to or be drawn into God’s plan of salvation? From the Reformed perspective, the Arminian God is an interventionist, not in control of his own world, and not particularly successful in effecting his will to save all human beings…

Concluding Remarks
The theology of Jacob Arminius has, over the centuries since the controversies of the early seventeenth century, become the basis of much Protestant soteriology. The irony of this development lies in the direct opposition of the Arminian system to the theology of the Reformation. Indeed, when the Arminian understanding of the relationship of grace and human choice has been spelled out – particularly in terms of Arminius’s own interpretation of the medieval maxim, “to those who do what is in them God will not deny grace” – Arminianism, like the Molinist theology on which it drew, is little more than the recrudescence of the late medieval semi-Pelagianism against which the Reformers struggled. It tenets are inimical to the Pauline and Augustinian foundation of Reformed Protestantism.

In the Arminian system, the God who antecedently wills the salvation of all knowingly provides a pattern of salvation that is suitable only to the salvation of some. This doctrinal juxtaposition of an antecedent, and never effectuated, divine will to save all and a consequent, effectuated, divine will to save some on the foreknown condition of their acceptance of faith reflects the problem of the scientia media. The foreknowledge of God, in the Arminian view, consists in part in a knowledge of contingent events that lie outside of God’s willing and, in the case of the divine foreknowledge of the rejection of grace by some, of contingent events that not only thwart the antecedent divine will to save all people, but also are capable of thwarting it because of the divinely foreknown resistibility of the gift of grace. In other words, the Arminian God is locked into the inconsistency of genuinely willing to save all people while at the same time binding himself to a plan of salvation that he foreknows with certainty cannot effectuate his will. This divine inability results, presumably, from the necessity of those events that lie within the divine foreknowledge but outside of the divine willing remaining outside of the effective will of God. Arminian theology posits the ultimate contradiction that God’s antecedent will genuinely wills what he foreknow can never come to pass and that his consequent will effects something other than his ultimate intention. The Arminian God, in short, is either ineffectual or self-contradictory. Reformed doctrine, on the other hand, respects the ultimate mystery of the infinite will of God, affirms the sovereignty and efficacy of God, and teaches the soteriological consistency of the divine intention and will with its effects.

Related Post
Reformed Critique of Middle Knowledge (Molinism/Arminianism). Part 1 by Petrus van Mastricht

Source: Richard A. Muller, “Grace, Election, and Contingent Choice: Arminius’ Gambit and the Reformed Response” in Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware, The Grace of God and the Bondage of the Will, vol.2 (Baker Books, 1995), pp. 265-269; 277-278.