16 June 2011

Placeholder, plus "middle knowledge"

by Dan Phillips

I don't like not to post at all on "my" days here, this platform being such a happy opportunity to me, and a regular stop for so many good folks. I have a number of good (to me) ideas and posts started and in mind... but for reasons I explained a couple of days ago, and just updated, I'm finding I just really can't put my mind on it right now. I think you understand.

So, if all you smart cookies (with less otherwise-occupied minds) would like to discuss something, how about middle knowledge? My understanding is that it refers to God's sure and certain knowledge not only of realities but of potentialities. Classic examples include 1 Samuel 23:11-12 and Matthew 11:21-23.

As someone convinced of the Bible's doctrine of God's sovereignty, I have no problem with the concept if viewed within that context. But I'm reading through McCune's theology, and find that he objects to it at length as the refuge of sub-Biblical, man-exalting theologies.

Your thoughts, if you care to share?

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Anonymous said...

In the absence of the smart-cookies, I'll say something.

It seems to me that there's a difference between middle-knowledge, and knowing what's in the hearts of men.

Middle-knowledge on it's face seems a little silly, because it implies that God bothers with figuring out what would happen if He did something differently.
That is, is assumes that God isn't deciding everything, but merely reporting on (or working with) everything.

In the verses you cite, I wonder if what's really going on isn't so much middle-knowledge, but knowledge of men.
I don't need to know what things would occur if my son was fed broccoli rather than chocolate, I only need to know that he loves the one and hates the other.

I see it more like John 2:24-25:

24 But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, 25 and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.

He knew the hearts of Sodom and Chorazin. He knew the hearts of the men of Keilah.
I don't see it requiring any middle-knowledge per se.

Anonymous said...

So I (not having read him) think that McCune is probably right on that.

Steve said...

Bruce Ware presents an able (and exegetical) defense of "compatibilist middle knowledge" in God's Greater Glory(esp. pp. 110-30).

Citing the exodus (Ex. 13:17), David & Saul (1 Sam 23:8-14), false Israelite prophets (Jer 23:21-22), unbelief in Bethsaida and Chorazin (Matt 11:21-24), and the crucifixion (1 Cor 2:8), Ware contends Scripture itself demonstrates that God has knowledge of differing outcomes in differing circumstances. For Ware, this ultimately explains God's sovereignty over evil and men (e.g., Isa 45:7), but in such a way that evil never flows from God in any way that could be described as "immediately causative." It is a way of articulating how God reigns through creation, as well as over it (Ware, 130).

I initially considered Ware's position in lecture and in writing with some skepticism. Yet, while I am by no means an able apologist, I concede it to be very persuasive. And I cannot see how anyone could claim Ware to be offering a"sub-Biblical" or "man-exalting" theodicy.

Zack Skrip said...

I just listened to an older Dividing Line by James White where he discusses William Lane Craig's Molinism, dealing specifically with Middle Knowledge. It seems that while understanding potentialities is, on its face, fine, where the followers go with it is less than biblical. Now, I am unfamiliar with a non-molinistic view of Middle Knowledge (or if there even is one), so if this is not what you are discussing then my apologies.

Zack Skrip said...

I guess that could be an interesting side-comment: What are the varieties of Middle Knowledge? Because if it is just Molinism then that dividing line was pretty brutal.

Jeremy Kidder said...

I think the problem is not with middle knowledge but with those who try to appeal to it exclusively in an attempt to deny concurrence and philosophical compatablism.

Under the “middle knowledge only” rubric God never actually works in the hearts of evil men such as Pharaoh. God’s hardening is only seen as his arranging circumstances such that He knows with absolute certainty the Pharaoh will without a doubt harden his heart. I had a philosophy professor who had this view and it just had a hard time dealing with texts like II Samuel 24:1 of Isaiah 63:17.

Rebecca Stark said...

I think that by definition, middle knowledge is logically prior to God's deciding what to will in creation. Otherwise, the same sort of knowledge would fall under one of the other two categories—free knowledge and natural knowledge. So middle knowledge by definition serves as a basis for God deciding what to do. That means that God's knowledge of what a free creature would do informs his decision about what he will do in regards to them. That means that the decisions of free creatures informs God's decree rather than God's decree informing the decisions of free creatures.

I think that's right, but I'm certainly no expert....

Robert Warren said...
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DJP said...

I've no interest, of course, in a view of m-k designed to make a bigger man and a smaller God; Zack's comments are right on-target there. My view of it is a matter of God directing lines which He has not decreed willbe actually drawn. IOW, if A and B are followed by C, then God can declare absolutely that D would be the result -- though He has decreed that C will not in fact follow A.

Rebecca Stark said...

In other words, just because something is counterfactual knowledge (the examples you give) doesn't mean it has to be middle knowledge.

I think... I wish a real philosopher would just go ahead and answer.

Rebecca Stark said...
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Turretinfan said...

I created this series of six "videos" to explain the subject of middle knowledge. I hope it is helpful.



Rebecca Stark said...
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Rebecca Stark said...

My view of it is a matter of God directing lines which He has not decreed willbe actually drawn.

I think that sort of knowledge is considered to be "natural knowledge" rather than "middle knowledge." It's God's knowledge of what he is able to do, if he had chosen to do it.

David Talcott said...

Here's a major objection that a Calvinist would have to the standard versions of Middle Knowledge:

By definition, Middle Knowledge is truth that is contingent and outside of God's control. It is truth that doesn't have to be the way that it is (so it is contingent), but there's nothing God can do that can change it (it is outside of God's control). Calvinists think that everything that is true, other than truths that follow necessarily from God's nature, was made true by God. Middle Knowledge denies this, saying that there are facts out there which are independent of God's nature and God's actions. This is something that we Calvinists typically don't want anything to do with.

Advocates of Middle Knowledge generally adopt the view because of this "outside of God's control" feature of it, which they think safeguards free will. So, God can know what men would freely do in various situations through his Middle Knowledge. He doesn't determine what they would freely do, He just knows, through His omnipotence, all the facts about what they would do. He can't do anything to change those facts -- they just are what they are. This concern to protect man's free will at the cost of creating contingent truths outside of God's control is what makes many Calvinists say that Middle Knowledge is a man-exalting theology.

Middle Knowledge is not just knowledge of possibilities, it's knowledge of contingent truths that are not up to God. God knows that it is possible for him to create many different worlds with different laws and populated by different people. He knows this simply by knowing Himself and His own nature. Knowledge of those kinds of possibilities is not Middle Knowledge.

It seems like wherever these truths that God knows by Middle Knowledge came from, they came from somewhere outside of God, and that is worrisome.

Evan May said...

Hey Dan,

It seems that you are confusing middle knowledge with counterfactual knowledge. Counterfactual knowledge is God's knowledge of all possibilities. It is a self-referential knowledge (God's perfect knowledge of his own omnipotence).

But middle knowledge is not self-referential. It by definition presupposes libertarian freedom. It is God's supposed knowledge of what Creature A would do of his own libertarian free will. As defined, it is a knowledge of realities that are independent from God. So middle knowledge for God is derivative knowledge.

This is problematic theologically and also philosophically incoherent (as Frame and Helm argue, middle knowledge is actually logically inconsistent with libertarian freedom, the very thing it was proposed to preserve).


Jared Miller said...

I am also only familiar with Dr. Craig’s work regarding Molinism and how God’s “middle knowledge” is central to Craig’s entire theological framework.

What’s nice about it (in some people’s views) is that it gives Craig a decent apologetic regarding 1) the problem of evil and 2) a philosophically savvy answer in reconciling God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.

Regarding #1: He explains that God has, and has used his middle knowledge to create the ‘best possible world’ in which there is the greatest amount of good with the least amount of evil. He gets there by explaining how God knew that with free creatures there would be no possible world in which there would be no evil, so he ordered events in this world where there would be the above outcome.

Regarding #2: For example, he posits that God knew that if Pilot were to be born at such a time in history he would eventually become Prefect of Judaea during the time of Jesus’ trial and that he would act exactly as he did—ultimately leading to Jesus’ crucifixion. In this way, explains Craig, man is entirely “free” to choose good or evil and yet God is still sovereign in that he ordered these events by means of his middle knowledge.

The problem is, if we embrace Craig’s view of God’s sovereignty, God essentially “looks down the corridor of time and ‘sees’ who will accept and reject Him and orders things in such a way as to have the most converted souls for the least amount of lost souls—sound familiar at all?

I also believe that Dr. Alvin Plantinga favors this position as I have heard Craig refer to his views with great excitement and admiration during his own lectures and debates.

Personally, I used to buy into this position before my “conversion” to Reformed Theology. Since then, when I listen to Craig during his debates and such, I always feel uneasy about his theology since it seems to be grounded more in logic, philosophy, and reason than on the Word of God. Although, I do not doubt his sincerity or earnestness, I do believe, like so many other prominent Christian philosophers, teachers, and speakers, you don’t get to their position by using the Bible alone as the standard of truth.

Aaron said...

@DJP and @ZACK: outside of molinism, I'm not sure what the point of middle knowledge would be. Are we arguing that a perfect God knows all the possibilities of what would happen should He have chosen to do something else? Isn't that akin to arguing about whether God could create a rock so heavy that he couldn't lift it? God's perfect and He chose perfectly. How could there be another possibility?

@Evan May: I agree with you completely. It assumes a libertarian freedom wherein God either takes no control over events (just predicts what he knows will happen) or merely puts obstacles (or worse) in the path of persons to get the outcome He desires. The latter seems very weak because it makes God out to be just picking the best outcome from one of many rather than designing the history of events from the beginning.

Zack Skrip said...

@Sir Aaron,
in reply to paragraph 1: Me neither.

Paragraph 2: to the best of my knowledge, m.k.'s entire purpose is to get away from God's design or purpose in history. I think that's good enough for me to want to stay away from it. That and WLC seems to extract it philosophically rather than exegetically.

Robert said...

I guess to me it seems that God knows (has always known - He is eternal!) what I would be doing/have done if He did not regenerate my heart and open my eyes to the truth of Scripture. And He knows (has always known) what I will do...look at Ephesians 2 - He already has prepared the good works that I am going to do (and prepared all the ones I have done) before time began!

I listened to a sermon by Allistair Begg this morning where he quoted another pastor/theologian (B.B. Warfield, I think) as saying that God created the Paul He wanted to write His message in a certain fashion in his epistles that are in the Bible. I think that is what is missing here...God knows our hearts because He is the Creator. He has designed everything perfectly to work out the way that He wants. And that also means that He knows every alternative that there ever could have been because He chose the perfect manner and design and created (and now sustains) it. Is God not omniscient?

Where we get into trouble is when we try to say how it could have been done better...or that we know what would have happened. Remember Paul's words to the Corinthians about how he planted and Apollos watered, but God caused the growth. Just the same way that God causes growth in each of our spiritual lives through the means He designed and pre-ordained.

David said...

At least initially, the Stanford Encyclopedia is a great place to begin researching the philosophical side of issues.

Middle knowledge (the stuff of molinism) is the same thing as counterfactual knowledge (see 2.4 of http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-will-foreknowledge/.) Middle knowledge is like knowledge that if I went to the grocery store today, I would have bought milk. Alas, I didn't make to the store, so it's not knowledge of a real situation. It's knowledge, and it's true, but it's based on a condition that does not obtain (a counterfactual condition).

Middle knowledge was proposed as an explanation of how libertarian freedom and divine sovereignty are compatible (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/providence-divine/#MidKno). Insofar as that was its original intent, if you don't believe in libertarian freedom, it won't help you with compatibilism.

Indeed, I don't think that middle knowledge is compatible with libertarian freedom. As I understand it, libertarian freedom means that, all things equal, I could choose either way. Middle knowledge is knowledge of what I would choose under a given set of circumstances (if some condition obtained). But, given libertarian freedom, I could choose either way in a given set of circumstances (regardless of conditions, I might choose either way). One couldn't know beforehand because the choice is not determined by some sufficient set of circumstances. Therefore, middle knowledge is of no help to libertarianism and compatibilism. Now, I don't think Bruce Ware is going to defend libertarian freedom, so his story might be more promising, but I'm not familiar with it.

Personally, I find middle knowledge to be more helpful in understanding places where God allegedly changes his mind, like where he threatens to wipe out Israel. Moses intercedes, and God "repents." This is speculative, but I think that God did intend to wipe out Israel (and rebuild the nation through Moses, thereby keeping his covenants) if Moses did not intercede. But God also intended for Moses to intercede. Those two intentions (and knowledge of the corresponding counterfactual situations) are fully compatible. But that is a bit speculative.

Intuitively, I see no reason why God shouldn't have exhaustive middle knowledge. We humans have some middle knowledge. If I'm in the woods with certain gear and some dry wood, I know that if I do certain things, I will start a campfire. If I never undertake those actions, that does not undermine my knowledge of what would happen. And if I have some middle knowledge, I assume that God has all middle knowledge.

The problem with middle knowledge, as I see it, is when philosophers/theologians start basing God's actions on man's actions. That is, God knows that if a certain condition obtains, I'll do B, and he wants me to do b. So God sets up condition A so that I do B. Which is primary? Did God sovereignly cause me to do B, or did I cause God to do make A obtain so that he could make me do B? Suddenly, God's planning seems to hinge around me. At least initially, this feels like a man-centered view of sovereignty, though I could be mischaracterizing it.

The Squirrel said...

I watched Turretinfan's video presentations on Middle Knowledge when they were first posted, and found them most helpful and informative. I commend them to you most heartily.

If I recall correctly, the whole philosophical construct, & it is a philosophical construct & not derived from scripture, was devised to explain how man could have "free will" while God knows the future. In essence, the God of Molinism is akin to a super-computer who ran all the numbers and then "actualized" the "best of all possible worlds."

I don't think that is the God of the Bible at all.


Doug Hibbard said...

Maybe I'm just tired, but doesn't middle knowledge come from reading Tolkien?

You know, Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and so forth?

Joel Hoyt said...

Squirrel: In essence, the God of Molinism is akin to a super-computer who ran all the numbers and then "actualized" the "best of all possible worlds."

I don't think that is the God of the Bible at all.

Didn't He run the numbers though? I mean, He knows it all, right? Not that He had to work really hard at it, but He did have those numbers run already; He had that data available. He did know that if He created the world with slightly different parameters, history would play out uniquely according to those parameters (disclaimer: except for miraculous intervention. Anyway...). Then God used certain specific parameters with which to create the world (that tree here, that bug there, this galaxy here, etc.).

I don't see how anyone can escape from the fact that God knew that different creation parameters would result in different histories playing out. Isn't it true that God designed the world to play out like He wanted it to?

I can't escape the "God of Molinism" as Squirrel puts it. Not that I cling to that idea -I'm not ready to die on that mountain- but I don't see how to get rid of it. If you can prove it wrong, please do, but you're really gonna have to prove it.

Tyrone said...

Dan, there never seems to be any lack of commitment on these somewhat "deeper topics" that you often debate. Which I must add have been of great help. However what I would love to see is a post around 1Co 1:17

Adam Omelianchuk said...

Middle knowledge refers to God's knowledge of subjunctive conditionals. "If S were to P, then Q" is the form. So in 1 Sam 23:11-12 David inquires like this,

Is it the case that if Saul were to come down, then would the citizens of Keilah surrender me to him?

God answers yes indicating he has knowledge of such conditionals. This type of knowledge is a counterexample to the popular scheme of divine foreknowledge grounded in theological determinism:

S foreknows P if and only if S ordains P to come to pass.

Yet because David chooses to flee, the citizens of Keilah do not surrender him over to Saul--his capture does not come to pass, yet God still foreknows what would have happened.

Nevertheless, the real issue is whether middle knowledge can accommodate libertarian free will. It seems plausible that David's actions were contingent as are many of our own choices. Philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, Thomas Flint, and William Lane Craig defend this view.

Still there is the problem of how God would know what we would freely do in such and such circumstances before he creates us. Robert Adams and William Hasker have leveled criticism in this vein in their own creative ways.

See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-will-foreknowledge/#2.4 for more.

Hope this helps!

philness said...

Its seems to me that a God with infinite knowledge would not have to go through processes of elimination to derive at what he first as already decreed.

Tim Bushong said...

It also seems like a huge incongruity in biblical interpretation to adopt a philosophical construct (or system, as it were) first, and then superimpose it on the Scripture, rather than allowing the text to determine its own system. IOW- the problem is that MK is smuggled in from the outside a priori- and it acts almost like an external authority.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

We know that God does everything with an intentional purpose in mind, that being to uphold His glory; every decision of His must be made with that as the sole driving force.

Having said that, He does not need a battery of options/possibilities to figure out how this should be accomplished. He is **intentionally resolute** on how this should be accomplished.

Being resolute would, I think, strongly suggest and demonstrate His absolute unwavering ability to be set on His first and only course of action. He does not need to acquire more knowledge to arrive at a correct decision. If there were more options available to God, would this not suggest that His ability to be resolute was flawed? Are we suggesting that a battery of options is needed by God to make an intelligent and informed decision? I hope not. This would greatly diminish, if not totally destroy His omniscience.

God knows the past, present and future simultaneously, He knows the end from the beginning, and knows, resolutely, that coarse of action which maximally will bring glory to His name.

I suggest that the best of all possible worlds exists here and now (in a restricted sense) and in heaven a full blown reality. Why do I say this? because God accomplished His intended purpose, here on earth, by using good to overcome evil, the cross is a clear depiction of this reality. And in heaven we will be living out the full consequences of this reality.

I’m not saying that evil in this world is the ultimate good, but that God’s intended purpose for evil *is good*, because it maximally brings glory to His name. So for God, at least here and now, this is the best of all possible worlds, when factoring in the destruction of evil through the death of His son.

In conclusion, does not having a battery of options available to God, suggest that God does not have the ability to make choices? NO! God’s character dictates how decrees are established and how His choices are made. God can only choose according to His nature. He does all things according to the GOOD pleasure of His will. His choices are fixed, in that He can only choose the good, which will ultimately maximize His glory. And the destruction of the wicked, is a good thing, and brings glory to His name.

If there is a flaw, someone point it out? Please!

Aaron said...

@Joel: Running all the numbers means there was some analysis first and then the best outcome was chosen out of many possible outcomes. Rather the Bible teaches God ordained outcome and the events that lead to it.

@Adam: Libertarians also believe that because God knows of such conditionals that such conditionals are possible. It's like my four year old daughter asking what would happen if I intentionally drove the wrong way on the freeway. I tell her because I know the outcome of such a conditional. But that conditional and related outcome are not really possible because I would never allow that to happen.

@Robert: You ignore that the entire purpose of entertaining "conditionals" starts and ends with molinism.

Aaron said...

Middle knowledge stands between two categories of divine knowledge: natural knowledge (God's knowledge of all possibilities) and free knowledge (God's knowledge of what will actually occur). Middle knowledge is what WOULD HAVE occurred if God had chosen to actualize a different world. It is pre-volitional in nature, making it closer to natural knowledge than to free knowledge.

The reason there is a category for middle knowledge, however, is only because of libertarian freedom. God knows not only what free agents COULD do (natural knowledge) and what they WILL do (free knowledge), but also what they WOULD do if their circumstances were different.

I think it is sub-biblical to employ middle knowledge as one of the bases of God's decree. It means that God chooses to actualize a world based on knowledge that comes to him independent of his own will (pre-volitional knowledge). In essence, it makes God dependent on man in order to formulate his decree. I think it is an unnecessary category anyway if one does not believe in libertarian freedom (as I don't).

Jules said...

Not a smart cookie, but I will say that something along these lines was how I attempted to rationalize God's sovereignty over the future while still clinging to an unbiblical, enlightenment notion of human free will. (I wasn't aware there was a term for it until years later when I heard James White critiquing William Lane Craig for a similar view.)

i.e. "We have absolute free will but God still knows and controls the future... or rather, all potential futures." I thought that I was honoring God because it seemed like sovereignty over a multitude of potential futures was way more impressive than sovereignty over one. But as the Bible's teaching caught up to me, I came to realize that wasn't sovereignty at all - it put God in the back seat clinging to the door as mankind swerved the car wildly all over the road.

In truth, God is still on Plan A, not plan 20SD39423Xte4F4535Gds7.

Tim Bushong said...

@Jules: You wrote:

"I thought that I was honoring God because it seemed like sovereignty over a multitude of potential futures was way more impressive than sovereignty over one."

May I just say that that sounds just like my little humbling detour through MK! I flirted with MK for about a year back in 2004-2005, but, upon closer examination and after more Bible study, it became clear that MK wasn't exegetically sound at all...

nwq101 said...

To me, MK is perfectly compatible with the notion of a God Who is sovereign over everything--including Himself. A God sovereign over Himself can choose not to exercise control over a thing, thereby allowing other moral agents--i.e. us--to freely choose their own acts.

To illustrate, "The Lord is not... willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." 2 Ptr. 3:9.

The Lord wills that none perish, but Scripture seems to indicate that aspect of His will simply won't come to pass, for not all will come to repentance. See, e.g., Rev. 21:8, Matt. 7:14.

Thus, it seems that, though God is absolutely sovereign, there are elements of reality--i.e. our exercise of free will--over which He has chosen not to exercise sovereignty. Since He is omniscient, he can predict with certitude the consequences of our individual actions, but since he is sovereign over Himself He can choose not to intervene in order to bring about His preferred outcome.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...


Read: Are There Two Wills in God, by John Piper.

It may give you a different perspective. However, if you are wed to the idea of man's free will, and God having limited sovereighnty, then it may not suit your present theology.