Ping-Pong Evangelicals and Middle Knowledge

Paul Helm blogs monthly and substantively. The latest entry concerns the question of God’s so-called “middle knowledge” (MK) (media scientia). He writes,

I’ve heard it said that many Calvinist writers currently favour some form of the doctrine of middle knowledge. I’ve also heard that among the roll call are the names of John Frame, and John Feinberg, but I have not checked this. I hope not. Terrance Tiessen and Bruce Ware have openly avowed their commitment to Calvinist middle knowledge.

First, as I’ll argue below, I have no idea what “Calvinist” MK is. So far as I know, the Calvinists of the 17th century, who faced the doctrine of MK directly, rejected it thoroughly. Second, that some evangelicals are embracing MK says more about the nature of contemporary evangelical theology, piety, and practice than it does about Calvinism or Reformed theology.

According to the Reformed understanding of Scripture, God’s knowledge may be described in two aspects, “natural” and “free.” In the  late 16th and early 17th centuries some (mainly Jesuits) advocated a third aspect of divine knowledge, hence the adjective “middle” (between “free” and “natural”). According to advocates of MK, there is a middle term that is not unknown to God, but beyond his determinate will. He knows what free agents would do in any given circumstance but his knowledge doesn’t determine what those free agents do.

The debate has been revived in recent years, not by Roman scholars, but by evangelical philosophers such as William Lane Craig and others. This debate is being conducted mostly by philosophical theologians with little reference to historical theology. The exegetical theology by philosophical theologians is generally amateur and unconvincing. It seems to me that if I can find one case of a divine determination of any free agent then MK fails and there are dozens of such cases explicitly revealed in scripture. See this essay.

William Lane Craig is a leading proponent of the renewal of the MK argument. In a recent IVP volume he laid out his case clearly. He describes MK as a doctrine that is “astonishing in its subtlety and power…. Indeed I would venture to say that it is the single most fruitful theological concept I have ever encountered in my own work….” (“The Middle-Knowledge View,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy [Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001], 125).

To defend MK, he appeals to the existence of “counterfactuals.” He says, “counterfactuals are conditional statements in the subjunctive mood.” (“Middle Knowledge,” 120).  hH says, God  “knows for example what would have happened if he had spared the Canaanites from destruction, what Napoleon would have done had he won the battle of Waterloo, and have Jones would respond if I were to share of the gospel with him.” According to Craig the Reformed view,

inevitably makes God the author of sin, since it is he who moved Judas, for example, to betray the Christ, a scene that merits the hapless Jew everlasting perdition. But how can a holy God move people to commit moral evil and, moreover, how can these people then be held morally responsible for acts over which they had no control? The Augustinian-Calvinist view seems, in fact, to turn God into the devil (“Middle Knowledge,” 135).

He recognizes that there are biblical passages that teach a “staggering assertion of divine sovereignty over the affairs of men.” He mentions that the crucifixion “happened by God’s plan based on his foreknowledge and foreordination” (“Middle Knowledge,” 134). But he re-defines foreknowledge as MK. He appeals to 1 Cor 2:8 and suggests that it means that God arranged the circumstances such that free agents would do what they did but that God did not directly control their actions.

The Reformed Response
As far as I can tell, the issues have not fundamentally changed since the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The neo-evangelicals defending MK simply do so without much reference to the Reformed orthodox critique. Craig’s summary of the post-Reformation discussion does not engage the Reformed orthodox critique of MK directly.

Part of the problem concerns the definition of natural knowledge. Craig so limits the definition of natural knowledge as to exclude counterfactuals. The Reformed, however, define natural knowledge so as to eliminate the need for MK. Further, the Reformed doctrine of concursus, whereby God is said to work through “free creaturely decisions,” essentially contradicts MK. It is not as God is active in some events or choices and not in others. Any such view of God’s activity in the world would be virtually Manichaean.

The great and quite influential 17th-century Dutch Reformed theologian Gijsbertus Voetius spoke of God’s “natural necessary knowledge” (scientia necessaria naturalis) as that  “which precedes every act of will in the order of nature, and by which God knows at the first direct and highly necessary act (a) Himself in Himself and through Himself; then (b) all things possible, not in themselves but in His essence as their necessary cause, and (c) scientia libera [free knowledge], by which after the decree of His will He knows determinately all matters existing, in whatsoever difference of time they are, whether present, past or future.”

As Louis Berkhof summarized it, divine omniscience is  that”perfection of God whereby he, in an entirely unique manner, knows himself and all things possible and actual in one eternal and most simple act” (Systematic Theology, 66).

Voetius said that God “…knows all things of Himself, in Himself, through Himself.” (Is. 40:1314; Rom 11:34). God’s knowledge is eternal, unchangeable, without succession. God knows in a “single intuition.” (Ps. 7:10; 139: 2-5, Jer 17:10; Heb. 4. 13). His knowledge is necessary even when dealing with “things free, contingent and … indeterminate in their nature; so that it cannot be liable to any ignorance, error or doubt….” His knowledge is not actuated by anything outside himself.His knowledge is exhaustive and eternal.  Because he simple (indivisible) there is no distinction between God’s knowing and his power. He knows while he wills and wills while he knows. His will is co-extensive with his knowledge, i.e., he knows all he wills (though he cannot be said to have willed all he knows, since he knows things that might have been and are not, and if they are not, he has not willed them).

According to Reformed theology, anything that makes God contingent upon contingent beings, denies divine simplicity, i.e. the biblical teaching that God simply is (he isn’t becoming), that he is fully realized (“I am that I am” or “I will be what I will be”) and that he is one. He is indivisible. God has no parts. According to MK, God isn’t what he is, but he is becoming.

Voetius argued:

From the points which have been so far upheld against middle knowledge it is clear that the whole difficulty in the present controversy reduces to this one point: Could free conditioned things, from eternity indifferent by nature to futurition or nonfuturition, have passed over into the state of a future event otherwise than by the divine decree? This is the fundamental of fundamentals, on which the whole weight of the case rests. This is that postulate, which both we cannot concede to our adversaries and they cannot prove to us. …Middle knowledge is effective and congruous for any end by its nature. Upon it God is forced to wait in the wise framing of His decrees, which are bound to have a fixed result. The truth or falsity of future conditioned free ones is not known from their causes or from the divine decree, but from the actual occurrence of the thing. Before every act of His will God can see certainty in things quite uncertain by their nature. In short, there is an ens independent of the supreme ens.” The main thing is, then, that for God there can be no possibility or object of knowing, which precedes His decrees and is independent of them.

Voetius’ rejection of MK was shared universally by the Reformed orthodox. The great biblical scholar and theologian, Johannes Cocceius concluded that MK reduces God to an “Homeric Jupiter who consults the fates” ((Summa theologiae 10 §33). According to Francis Turretin, (Institutes, 3.13.1) there is a only in God a necessary knowledge, grounded in the divine nature, and a free knowledge whereby God knows what actually exists because of his will (hence “free,” because it is voluntary). To teach that there is a MK that depends on the liberty of the creature is to support synergism. If God only knows hypotheticals, then our choice becomes essential for salvation. In which case the biblical teaching concerning the utter graciousness of salvation is undermined.

The problem of MK was not purely theological or theoretical. The Calvinists met in ecclesiastical assembly to address problems such as MK (and many others) at the Westminster Assembly in the mid-1640s. As Helm reminds us in his post, they adopted language which addresses the problem of MK directly:

Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions (Westminster Confession of Faith, 3.2).

The Westminster Confession of Faith was adopted by the Scottish Presbyterian Church and the American Presbyterian Church and continues to be confessed without substantial revision by confessional Presbyterians throughout the English-speaking world. The same doctrine is embraced by all the confessional Reformed Churches. MK is outside the bounds of confessional orthodoxy. While this fact means little or nothing to evangelicals who do not confess the Reformed faith, it ought to give pause to those who, ostensibly, still confess the Reformed faith. However attractive MK might seem to the philosophically inclined, the Reformed Churches have considered and rejected it and therefore, unless the churches are convinced by biblical exegesis and sound theology to reverse course (and they haven’t been so convinced for more than 300 years) then MK remains beyond the pale of Reformed orthodoxy.

The Nature of the Non-Confessional Evangelicals
One of the weirder aspects of the affiliation with aspects of Reformed theology by non-confessional evangelicals (and by some who are ostensibly “Reformed”) is the way they move (as it seems to me) like a ping-pong ball theologically. One of the movements I don’t fully understand is the embrace by some in this class of the doctrine of MK. I don’t understand the sort of theological instability that leads some, who just a few years ago were staunchly criticizing open theism, to embrace a view that exegetically weak and theologically unnecessary and only shades different from Open Theism.

Part of the explanation for this instability is that most evangelicals are not rooted in the Reformed tradition and they are not bound by confessional commitments. They do theology without much ecclesiastical oversight. Their “community” is fellow non-confessional evangelicals (e.g. the Evangelical Theological Society). To borrow a phrase from Van Til, they’re like a man of water, in a body of water, climbing a ladder of water. They work in a sea of like-minded non-confessional evangelicals. They have no anchor outside their own non-confessional community.

Reformed theology, piety, and practice, however is tethered, even anchored to a tradition that doesn’t imagine that we’re the first to face most problems. We have a resource that transcends the last thirty years. Our community of fellow readers of Scripture is diachronic as well as synchronic.

Further, we do theology in an ecclesiastical context as well as an academic context. As ecclesiastical theologians we’re committed to reading Scripture not only with the tradition but also with the church: that divinely-instituted organization charged with interpreting, preaching, and ministering God’s Word to his people in formal assembly and instruction. The church has confessed her understanding of God’s Word in ecclesiastically sanctioned, public, and binding documents (that are subjective to revision according to the Word). Those documents are the Reformed confessions. Our theology, piety, and practice, therefore isn’t (or shouldn’t be) in a constant state of flux.

One of the great differences between contemporary evangelical theology, piety (TPP), and practice and the Reformed TPP, is the relative stability of the Reformed TPP. It is subject to revision, by the churches, according to the Word, but it doesn’t change willy-nilly from year to year. This is why we don’t fit on the typical evangelical “liberal-conservative” paradigm and the apparent growing fascination among some evangelical theologians with MK is an excellent illustration of the difference between predestinarian evangelical theology and genuinely, confessionally, Reformed theology. The former seems to be blown about and the latter might seem stodgy, but the biblical exegesis and systematic theology and ecclesiastical confession of the classic Reformed theology isn’t philosophical-theological ping-pong.

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  1. Second para. in Reformed Response, verb missing?

    Further, the Reformed doctrine of concursus, whereby God is said to work through “free creaturely decisions,” essentially to MK.

          • thank you dr. clark, for your interesting discussion.

            i do have to quibble with you just a little; for middle knowledge is not to be equated with molinism. even within the jesuit order, there were theologians, like francis suarez, who wished to preserved the augustinian doctrine of unconditional election while also appealing to the divine *scientia media* as a way of understanding the divine providence–hence, suarez’s congruism is the fusing together of a molinistic doctrine of creation/providence with an augustinian soteriology.

            the basic problem with molina’s soteriology, as suarez pointed out, was that it advocated salvation by human merit (hence, via his *scientia media*, GOD knows who would follow the commandments of GOD if they were given grace). this is why craig has insisted that, if someone wants to be a christian, then he/she must be either a Protestant (who, in light of *sola fide*, preserves *sola gratia*) or a Thomist (who, though compromising *sola fide* (john gerstner notwithstanding), embraces unconditional election)—let it be said here that anyone who self-consciously denies *sola gratia* cannot be a christian! so … since molina self-consciously denied *sola gratia* he was not a christian!

            suarez attempted a compromise, as we have seen; and it would seem that frame, feinberg, ware, and others have followed in his path (minus suarez’s catholicism)—the differences being that suarez was a libertarian, while these neo-calvinists are compatibilists.

            if you are interested, you might want to view my essay, “Middle Knowledge: A Reformed Critique,” _Westminster Theological Journal_ (2006): 1-22; which can also be found at there i document frame’s and feinberg’s adoption of the *scientia media*.

  2. Can someone direct me to some resources that would elaborate more on “the Reformed doctrine of concursus, whereby God is said to work through “free creaturely decisions,””? Thanks.

    • Hi Joel,

      Three places to look: (I’m away from the office)

      Bavinck’s vol on the doctrine of God in the newly translated Reformed
      Dogmatics or the old single volume synopsis of the same.

      Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (c. pp. 60s-70s)

      Turretin’s Elentic Theology

      Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics has a section surveying (a series of
      quotations) from the 17th-century Reformed theologians.

  3. Excellent article ! In my Baptist circle this concept seems to be getting some mileage . I will be pointing them to this article for sure.

  4. Molinism/ MK seems to be in vogue at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where several professors hold to it and openly avow it in class. I wish the SBC would somehow hold men to a confession like the PCA and OPC do. Professors at SEBTS all have to sign the Baptist Faith and Message, as well as the Abstract of Principles, which if they really held to, would prevent them from teaching MK/Molinism, but they don’t…

    • Hi Jeff,
      I graduated from SEBTS in 2008. When I was there, only two professors (that I know of) believed in MK: Dr. Little and Dr. Keathley. What other professors believe in and teach MK? I’m just curious.

      Thank you,


  5. While I’m no expert on MK or concursus, I presented a piece at a meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation a few years ago that had lots of references to C. Hodges’ discussion of Turretin and concursus. Some might find it a useful starting point. It originated as a critique of some of Howard Van Till’s flirtation with process theology.

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