One theological question that has perplexed Christian thinkers for centuries is how God’s sovereignty relates to human free will. If God is sovereign and directs all the affairs of the world, how is it that humans have free will? Are humans just puppets or do they in fact have significant freedom to choose their own actions and destinies?
One way this topic has been approached is by Molinism, named for the sixteenth century Spanish Catholic Jesuit priest Luis de Molina (1535-1600). He believed that God has three types of knowledge. He named them natural, middle, and free knowledge. Middle knowledge is the type that most concerns us in this view, but we need to understand natural and free knowledge first.
Natural knowledge, at its very foundation, is what God knows could possibly be the case if he decided to create. (Theologians and philosophers call this possible worlds.) In other words, God has knowledge of all the possible ways he could create a (or this) universe.
Free knowledge, on the other hand, is what God knows will occur once he has decided to create this particular world we live in. God knows, for example, what I will do in the year 2020.
Here is where middle knowledge comes in. God not only knows what could be and will be the case in our created universe, but he also knows what would be the case if a particular human were found to be in a particular circumstance. For example, God knows that if the Apostle Peter were to be placed or find himself in the situation described in the New Testament, Peter would deny Christ three times. However, if Peter were to have found himself or had been placed in entirely different circumstances, God knows what Peter would do in those different circumstances. Perhaps, Peter would find himself in circumstances in which he would not deny Christ three times. Whatever circumstances the Apostle Peter would find himself in, the point is that God knows what Peter would freely choose. Middle knowledge, then, is the knowledge God has of what every human would freely choose in any circumstance he or she would find himself in.
Some have found the concept of middle knowledge easier to understand by expressing it in an “if, then” statement. For example:
God knows “if Peter finds himself in the circumstances found in the New Testament Gospels, then Peter would deny Christ three times.”
If this is not very helpful, perhaps the following table of God’s different types of knowledge may make it more clear:
The significance of God having middle knowledge is that it enables him to be in control, or sovereign, over the entire creation while still allowing humans to choose freely. Because God knows what every human would do in any given circumstance, God is able to “weave” his plans into the fabric of creation without making humans into robots. For example, because God knew via middle knowledge that Peter would freely deny Christ three times given the circumstances described in the New Testament, God knew what he needed to do and how he needed to do it to ensure that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world.
Certainly there is a lot more to Molinism than what was described here. Questions pertaining to God’s foreknowledge, providence, and other aspects that relate to free will are numerous. What has been described here is what we can all “mere Molinism,” or the basics of what Molinism is all about. For further study, see the books below.
Dr. Peter Rasor