Thursday, May 26, 2016

Clearing Up Some Concerns about Molinism

See here for a general account of the Dominican-Molinist controversy.  I will assume a basic knowledge of that controversy here.  And see here for some previous thoughts of mine on Molinism.


Some of the Molinists held that the predestination to eternal life of individuals is not unconditional but is rooted in God's foresight of the use these individuals would make of the grace God would provide them.  Other Molinists, the Dominicans, and others, argued that predestination to eternal life is unconditional, not based on any foreseen good acts of the will.  Some of these latter accused the former group of compromising the sovereignty of God and salvation by grace by their theory, but I am not convinced that is the case.

The Dominicans argue that predestination to eternal life must be unconditional, because the very reason why God gives efficacious grace to some people is in order to bring them to eternal life.  Any good use of the will towards salvation individuals possess is a product of efficacious grace, and therefore an effect of predestination, since efficacious grace is given in order to fulfill the purpose of predestination.  Some Molinists respond that God may decide first of all to grant efficacious graces to certain individuals for a variety of reasons, and then having decided that, he sees that they will therefore make a good use of the graces given and on that ground decides to predestine them or elect them to eternal life.

My opinion is that this argument is actually, for the most part, absurd and unnecessary.  The reason is that both sides are trying to decide which parts of history God ordained first and which parts he ordained secondarily in order to accomplish the things ordained first.  But this is a fallacious way of envisioning God's ordination of the events of history.  In fact, God sees all things as a complete, unified whole, in one single vision.  That means that he doesn't first see one part of history and then, after that, see other parts.  He sees all the parts at once, including their connections to all the others.  So, for example, he doesn't envision an individual's attainment of eternal life and only after that envision means to attain that goal.  Nor, on the other hand, does he see the gifts of grace he will give in a person's life and only after that see the end that these graces will lead to--eternal life.  Rather, he sees both of these at once and in the light of each other.  Therefore, it is absurd to ask which one was made for the other.  The real answer is that both were made in light of the other, without any having any priority.  God didn't just ordain a person to eternal life, nor did he just ordain efficacious graces for a person.  Rather, he ordained an entire life history for that individual involving both the efficacious graces given and the eternal life these graces will lead to.  What God envisioned in his ordination is not one part or another by itself, but the whole thing altogether, with all of its parts functioning as parts of the larger whole.  So there is no point arguing about which part has first priority.  They are all parts of one whole in God's vision, and are never seen separate from the others.

What we do need to say is that, in formulating his plan by which he ordains all that comes to pass, including the efficacious graces he will give, who will attain eternal life, and all other things, he does not receive input ultimately from some source outside of himself.  Since God is the First Cause of all reality, there can be no such thing as any reality that is not ultimately rooted in him.  He does not learn something new from some source coming ultimately from outside of himself.    This includes the free choices of creatures as well.  Our choices are not First Causal events which derive their existence ultimately from something outside of God--whether that be ourselves, or chance, or whatever.  Any positive being or goodness in our choices ultimately derives its existence from God, while any negative thing or evil derives from God's free and sovereign permission by which he allows defect to exist.  If we grant this, we can say that, in an ultimate sense, predestination is unconditional, because the ultimate explanation for why some people are saved and others are not is God's plan rooted in God, not in anything coming from outside of him.

Molina agreed to this.  Fr. John Hardon, in the article linked to at the beginning of this post, quotes Molina acknowledging as much:

[P]redestination has no cause or reason on the part of the use of the free will of the predestined and the reprobate, but is to be attributed solely to the free will of God. This follows logically from the fact that the will to create a certain order of things and to confer upon individuals certain aids, provides the basis for the predestination of adults, which depends on the use that God had foreseen they would make of their free will.  (Taken by Fr. Hardon from Luis de Molina, Concordia Liberi Arbitrii cum Gratiae Donis, Divina Praescientia, Providentia, Praedestinatione et Reprobatione [Paris: P. Lethielleux, 1876), p.549)

In other words, predestination is ultimately unconditional because, although God elects certain people to eternal life on the basis of the good use he foresees that their free will will make of his grace, yet the entire plan of history which includes all the graces given, the good use of that grace by free will, and the attainment of eternal life by those who make good use of grace, is a plan freely chosen by God based only on his sovereign will.


Another controversy was engendered by Molina's argument that God and his grace cannot force the will to do anything, so that no matter what graces God gives, it must be possible for the will to accept or reject them.  One thing Molina certainly had in mind when formulating this idea is the teaching of the Council of Trent, which said this (page number removed):

The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God.

So grace is needed to move the will to choose God, but that grace may be rejected.  The will is not moved as if it were an inanimate object, and so is always capable of consenting or refusing to grant consent.

Molina took this idea and worked out a system.  Fr. Hardon describes Molina's system (footnote removed):

According to Molina, “God knew before the free act of His will what the crated [sic] will would do in all circumstances, if He, God, decided to place such created wills (men and angels) in a particular set of circumstances. And to the contrary, He also foreknew if the created will should decide on an opposite course of action. On the basis of this principle, the freedom of the will is compatible with divine foreknowledge.” This means that through the scientia media God knows from eternity what reaction a created will would make to every conceivable grace He might confer. When, therefore, in the light of this knowledge, He actually bestows a grace, this grace will turn out to be efficacious or merely sufficient, according as God foresees whether a man will freely accept or resist the divine aid. He has absolute power to give or withhold His graces in each individual case, depending on His own free decision.

The idea is this:  In every situation, the will can move however it wills.  So when grace is given, the will can either accept or reject it, choose to cooperate with it or to resist it.  If the will resists the grace, the grace remains merely sufficient and not efficacious (that is, it provides only the power to act but not the act itself).  If the will cooperates with it, the grace becomes efficacious.  God, as he determined upon his overall plan for all history, decided freely what situations to put all his creatures in and what graces to give them, and he knew from eternity how his creatures' free will would respond in every possible situation.  Thus, his plan from eternity included all the free decisions of his creatures without his determining those free choices in such a way as to nullify their freedom.  This idea of God knowing what creatures would do in any situation Molina called scientia media, or "middle knowledge."

The Dominicans objected to this because they thought that Molina was implying that God cannot turn the will, but that the will is a First Causal power that can only turn itself, so that it is not grace that gives us a good will but rather the goodness comes ultimately from the will itself and not from grace.  They were also concerned that attributing such First Causal power to the will violates the sovereignty of God over creation and his status as the one First Cause.

But I think the Dominicans got it wrong here.  I have not seen any indication that Molina intended to attribute First Causal power to the will, or deny that grace is the cause of goodness in the will.  Molina believed himself to be in accord with St. Augustine on these matters.  He had no intention of denying established Catholic doctrine, which clearly affirms the sovereignty of God, his unique First Causal status, and the attribution of good salvific will to the supernatural grace of God merited through Christ.  All Molina was attempting to do was to safeguard the freedom of the will as that was defined by the Council of Trent--a concern the Dominicans fully shared.  In fact, Molina's idea of the scientia media actually precludes the human will being a First Cause in its own right.  If God can foreknow how we would certainly react in any situation, our choices cannot be First Causes, free from all prior causal determining of any sort.  If they were, then God could not know what we would choose without actually watching us make the choice, so that middle knowledge, which is only hypothetical and not actual, would be impossible.  If God knows how different circumstances will produce different choices, it can only be because our choices are not independent of those circumstances but are in some way determined by them.  This is why those who really do want to see our choices as First Causal, like the Open Theists in the Protestant world, often object to the concept of middle knowledge (and even to any foreknowledge of the future by God).  They think--rightly--that it smacks too much of the horrid idea that God predestines all things that come to pass, including our free choices, by his own sovereign will and that he can change a will from bad to good efficaciously.

I think the confusion arose because it is very difficult, using human language, to describe adequately how the will is both free and moved.  To say that God "causes" or "determines" the will to choose good can easily make it sound like the will is being treated as an inanimate object, and that it has no power to resist God's causal power or determination.  On the other hand, Molina found that describing the will as able to consent to or resist grace can make it sound like grace is not the cause of the good will.  So we have the Molinists objecting to the Dominicans, accusing them of denying the freedom of the will, and we have the Domincans accusing the Molinists of denying the efficacy of divine grace.  But I don't think that either of them were right in their accusations of the other.  (The Domincans might have taken a hint from the fact that Calvinist Protestants had always objected to Trent's language on the very same grounds that the Dominicans objected to Molina's language.  The Calvinists tend to read Trent as affirming the freedom of the will in such a way as to deny the efficacy of divine grace, even though the Dominicans would protest--rightly, I believe--that that was not Trent's intention.)

Both sides, I think, wanted to hold together the efficacy of grace (so that the good will can be attributed to the grace of God, as St. Augustine so strongly emphasized against the Pelagians and the Semipelagians) and the true freedom of the will.  Let me try to express the congruence of these two things by distinguishing between "causing" and "motivating."  Let's use "to cause" to mean "to bring something to pass without the cooperation of the will," either because there is no will involved (as in the moving of an inanimate object) or because the will is circumvented or even opposed and the action is accomplished anyway.  On the other hand, let's use "to motivate" to mean "to bring motives to bear on the will such that the will is persuaded to embrace a certain course of action freely without being circumvented or forced."  Motivation can be just as infallible as causality, but it leaves the will free to refuse consent.  I think Fr. Hardon articulates this well in another article:

By a truly efficacious grace is meant one that will be (is) infallibly followed by the act to which it tends, e.g. contrition. If you receive such a grace, even before your will consents to it, that grace is infallibly “sure of success;” it will infallibly procure your consent, produce that act – of contrition. But although it infallibly procures your consent, it does not necessitate you to consent: it leaves you free to dissent. Your will will infallibly say "yes" to it, but it is free to say "no.”

So, using my language defined above, we would say that grace does not "cause" the will to choose good, but it infallibly "motivates" it to do so.  The will can always say no, but if the grace is efficacious it will always say yes, successfully persuaded by the grace.  I think both sides in the Molinist-Dominican controversy would have agreed with this, and I think they could have granted that given this agreement, the fundamental points of Catholic faith need not to have been seen to be in conflict between them.  Both sides acknowledged, in accordance with established Catholic doctrine, that the good will is a gift of grace, granted efficaciously and supernaturally, and also that grace leaves the essential freedom of the will intact.  (I have defined "cause" and "motivate" in a special way here, but once we've seen what is being said by both sides, I don't think it is necessarily required that we must use the terms in this way.  In fact, I think that it is necessary for useful dialogue that everyone learn to recognize the flexibility of language and not jump to conclusions about the other side merely because of the difficulties of word choice.  Surely, in a broader sense, "motivation" is a kind of "cause," in the sense that when the will is motivated to do something we can say that that which persuaded it produced the effect of the will actually doing the action, but in a way consistent with the nature of the will.  Inanimate objects are "moved" or "affected" in certain ways, and free wills are "moved" or "affected" in other ways, consistent with their various natures.)

A good hint that we are on the right track can be seen in the fact that even Calvinists recognize the need to be careful with our language in order to preserve the balance between efficacious grace and free will.  A great example is the famous Calvinist philosopher Jonathan Edwards.  He was concerned in his time and place about people using Calvinist ideas about grace and free will to excuse themselves in their refusal to obey God.  So he was concerned, as Molina was, to show carefully how efficacious grace does not destroy free will.  To do this, he distinguished between what he called (and others had called before him) "moral" vs. "natural" inability:

We are said to be naturally unable to do a thing, when we cannot do it if we will, because what is most commonly called nature does not allow of it, or because of some impeding defect or obstacle that is extrinsic to the Will; either in the Faculty of understanding, constitution of body, or external objects. Moral Inability consists not in any of these things; but either in the want of inclination; or the strength of a contrary inclination; or the want of sufficient motives in view, to induce and excite the act of the Will, or the strength of apparent motives to the contrary. Or both these may be resolved into one; and it may be said in one word, that moral Inability consists in the opposition or want of inclination. For when a person is unable to will or choose such a thing, through a defect of motives, or prevalence of contrary motives, it is the same thing as his being unable through the want of an inclination, or the prevalence of a contrary inclination, in such circumstances, and under the influence of such views.  (Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the WillPart I, Section IV)

In other words, Edwards is saying, there is a difference between a situation where a person is truly unable to do a thing even if he wants to (or, in reverse, if he is forced to do a thing that he does not want to do), and a situation where it is certain that a person will do or not do a thing but only because he wants to or doesn't want to.  But in both cases, there can be an infallibility, a certainty that certain things will happen.  As Edward says, "Moral Necessity may be as absolute as natural Necessity. That is, the effect may be as perfectly connected with its moral cause, as a natural, necessary effect is with its natural cause."  This happens when we are effectively persuaded of something, so that it is certain that we will do what we are persuaded to do, such as when God's efficacious grace converts the will.  But Edwards notes that language can be misleading here:

But it must be observed concerning moral Inability, in each kind of it, that the word Inability is used in a sense very diverse from its original import. The word signifies only a natural Inability, in the proper use of it; and is applied to such cases only wherein a present will or inclination to the thing, with respect to which a person is said to be unable, is supposable. It cannot be truly said, according to the ordinary use of language, that a malicious man, let him be never so malicious, cannot hold his hand from striking, or that he is not able to show his neighbor kindness; or that a drunkard, let his appetite be never so strong, cannot keep the cup from his mouth. In the strictest propriety of speech, a man has a thing in his power, if he has it in his choice, or at his election: and a man cannot be truly said to be unable to do a thing, when he can do it if he will. It is improperly said, that a person cannot perform those external actions, which are dependent on the act of the Will, and which would be easily performed, if the act of the Will were present. And if it be improperly said, that he cannot perform those external voluntary actions, which depend on the Will, it is in some respect more improperly said, that he is unable to exert the acts of the Will themselves; because it is more evidently false, with respect to these, that he cannot if he will: for to say so, is a downright contradiction; it is to say, he cannot will, if he does will. And in this case, not only is it true, that it is easy for a man to do the thing if he will, but the very willing is the doing; when once he has willed, the thing is performed; and nothing else remains to be done. Therefore, in these things, to ascribe a non-performance to the want of power or ability, is not just; because the thing wanting, is not a being able, but a being willing. There are faculties of mind, and a capacity of nature, and every thing else, sufficient, but a disposition: nothing is wanting but a will.

Because of the difficulty of human language on this point, it is easy to get confused about what is being said.  If a person says that the will cannot resist grace, he may mean that the will is forced to a certain action in such a way as to circumvent its freedom, or he may mean simply that grace efficaciously persuades the will to do something freely.  Only context can tell, which is why we have to be very careful.  I think that this kind of difficulty in communication may account for much of the Dominican-Molinist controversy on this question of the efficacy of grace and the scientia media.  So long as it is recognized that supernatural grace is the source of the good will, and that the human will does not act in a First Causal manner but is under the sovereignty of God and does not constitute a power coming ultimately from outside of God, there need be no fundamental argument, although there might be disagreement on lesser matters.  This is, in fact, what Pope Paul V seems to have concluded and was one of the reasons why he decided to leave the controversy alone after spending a huge amount of time considering it:

I postponed making a decision in the matter of de auxiliis for three reasons: . . . The second, because both parties are in substantial agreement with Catholic truth, namely that God through his efficacious grace makes us act and turns us from unwilling to willing subjects, bending and changing human will. There is disagreement about that, but only concerning the manner in which God does this:  (Guido Stucco, The Catholic Doctrine of Predestination from Luther to Jansenius [Xlibris, 2014], 198)

By the way, having brought up the Calvinist position, I should note that I believe that Catholics have often seriously misrepresented the Calvinist position by saying that it denies free will, makes the will to be forced by grace, etc.  In fact, I think the same kind of language confusion is at work here as well.  Listen to how the Westminster Confession, a premier Calvinist statement of faith, describes the working of efficacious grace (footnotes removed):

All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased in His appointed and accepted time effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.

Calvinist theologians like Francis Turretin have always made distinctions on these matters similar to those made by Catholic theologians.  There is much more agreement here than is often acknowledged.


There is one more point I wish to address before concluding.  The Molinists often speak about how, in his middle knowledge, God sees how people will respond in various situations.  Some of them sometimes make comments to the effect that sometimes the same grace might be given to two individuals but in one case it is efficacious and in the other it is not.  This raises a red flag with the Dominicans, who reason, "If the same grace is given to two people, and one is converted and the other not, grace must not be the cause of the good will, contrary to Catholic teaching."

But this need not be the case, and I have not seen evidence that these Molinists wished to oppose settled Catholic doctrine on this matter.  On the contrary, as I've mentioned, Molina believed his view would be acceptable to St. Augustine.  The fact that two people in different circumstances might be given the same grace and yet one is converted and the other not does not necessarily mean that it is not grace which produces the good will to convert.  In order to have its full effect on the will, grace must actually reach the will.  Whether it reaches the will or not depends on all kinds of circumstances, such as whether the gospel has been heard and understood, whether it is seen in its true and full light, etc.  Imagine Fran and Marie.  Both of them are in a position to encounter the gospel and its grace.  But when that encounter occurs, Fran is in such a state of mind, or in such external circumstances, that the full power of grace never really hits her head on.  Perhaps she doesn't understand the gospel, or she is distracted, or her mind is cluttered up with other things in a way that she only absent-mindedly considers what is being presented to her (whether by the gospel externally presented or by her own mind presenting her with reasons to follow God), or any number of things.  Marie, on the other hand, is in the right external condition, frame of mind, etc., so that grace comes home to her mind with all its power, and so, unlike Fran, Marie is persuaded and converted.  It is grace indeed which had the power to move both their wills, and which actually produced conversion in Marie.  It didn't produce conversion in Fran not because it lacked efficacy but because there were obstacles external to it which prevented it from being able to exert its full effect on Fran.  I think this is the kind of thing Molinists have in mind when they talk about the various circumstantial factors that can influence the will to resist or cooperate with grace.  Efficacious grace is still efficacious, and conversion and non-conversion are still under the sovereignty of God (because it is God, ultimately, who determines what external obstacles exist when grace is presented to any person, this being a part of his larger plan which includes all the details of history).  So I think that here as well, there need be no cause of concern about the Molinist position.  It is fully in accord with fundamental Catholic teaching.

For more on predestination and efficacious grace in Catholic doctrine in general, see here.

Published on the feast of St. Philip Neri

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