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What is middle knowledge?

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Middle knowledge is a theological concept developed by Luis Molina and espoused by modern Christian philosophers such as William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga. Middle knowledge is the philosophical cornerstone supporting the theology of Molinism. In short, middle knowledge is God’s omniscient awareness of what “would” happen if certain circumstances were to occur, including the free, un-coerced choices of creatures in those scenarios.

Middle knowledge is so named because it comes logically between God’s “natural knowledge,” which is truth existing independent of God’s acts or choices, and His “free knowledge,” which is truth dependent on His acts or choices. Like natural knowledge, middle knowledge is not subject to God’s control, a point of great controversy for some theologians. And yet, like free knowledge, truths known by middle knowledge are contingent on God’s actions, meaning which truth is made real is entirely within God’s control.

An analogy to middle knowledge from mathematics is the “Order of Operations,” sometimes known as PEMDAS. The order of operations sets the proper sequence of tasks to be done in arithmetic: Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, and Subtraction. None of these operations happen “before” or “after” another in a chronological sense, but do occur “before” or “after” in a logical sense. That is, when we calculate “(1+2) x 3 = 9,” 1 and 2 are added “earlier,” with multiplication by 3 “later,” only in the logical sense of “earlier” and “later,” not in terms of the passage of time; there is no time involved. Order of Operations simply explains the logical order in which these concepts play out. In much the same way, the concept of middle knowledge implies a logical—not chronological—progression in God’s knowledge, as follows:

Natural knowledge: what “can” happen (independent of God’s control).
Middle knowledge: what “would” happen (independent of God’s control).
Creative command: God’s choice, action, intervention, etc.
Free knowledge: what “will” happen (completely under God’s control).

Calvinism and Arminianism hold that the salvation of any particular person is determined, respectively, entirely by God’s direct action or entirely by human choice. In rough terms, this is seen as a debate over the interplay between God’s sovereignty and human free will. Molinism, in essence, upholds both real free will and God’s total sovereignty, through the use of middle knowledge. By this, it is claimed that God knows all things a free creature would do in all possible circumstances, and so infallibly enacts His will through those circumstances, rather than directly overriding that creature’s freedom.

Perhaps the strongest scriptural support for middle knowledge, and therefore for Molinism, comes from the use of counterfactuals in the Bible. Counterfactuals are “if-then” statements about situations or choices. For example, Jesus explicitly says, twice, that under different circumstances certain people would have made a different free choice of whether or not to repent (Matthew 11:21–23; Luke 10:13). Jesus also refers to different outcomes under different circumstances (Matthew 26:24; John 14:2). God also references different choices leading to different results in the Old Testament (Exodus 9:15; Isaiah 48:17–19). Further, the Bible clearly states that God allows us to make choices contrary to His preferences (Matthew 23:37; 2 Peter 3:9; Psalm 5:10; Isaiah 30:1).

Middle knowledge is often hotly contended by supporters of Reformed theology. Calvinist and Reformed theologians object to the idea that God is not directly in control of the choices of free creatures. Molinists would counter that “directly controlled free choice” is a logical contradiction. The counter to this counter, frequently, is to appeal to the mystery of God’s nature and omnipotence, suggesting that there is some way in which God can both decide for us and we be free, without its being a contradiction.

Open theism and Arminian theologians who reject middle knowledge usually do so under the claim that these counterfactuals cannot be logically framed without either being circular or determined beforehand as dependent on God’s nature. This is known as the “grounding objection” and is the most common foundation for critiques of both middle knowledge and Molinism.

Despite what may be said in well-meaning zeal, middle knowledge is well within the boundaries of orthodox Christianity. Whether or not a person believes in middle knowledge is more a question of philosophical tastes and denominational history than anything else. Truth or falsehood is important, of course, and how one views middle knowledge will affect his theological approach to other issues, particularly evangelism. Yet, in practice, Calvinism, Arminianism, and Molinism apply the same basic biblical, moral, spiritual, and cultural approaches. Middle knowledge is controversial to some but ought never to become a point of division between true believers.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022