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An Odd Seminar And Interesting Debate

Hope you all had a grand thanksgiving with family and friends.

I’d like to share something that happened last week. I was in Providence, Rhode Island participating in a seminar on divine providence at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). The seminar was held in a large hotel ballroom and the place was packed, with people even sitting on the floor along the walls.

I’ve done a number of these seminars, but this was by far the strangest.

First, this was supposed to be a seminar on the four different models of providence usually held by evangelicals. Paul Helseth represented the “omni-causal” view (Calvinism), William Lane Craig represented the “Middle Knowledge ” view (Molinism); I represented the “open” view (Open Theism), and Ron Highfield represented “the comprehensive supervision” view.

The trouble is, no one had ever heard of the “comprehensive supervision” view!  It turns out it’s the Calvinist view all over again!

When Highfield was asked how his view differed from Helseth’s, his only reply was, “I’m not comfortable with the word ‘omni-causal.” When I asked Helseth how he thought his view differed from Highfield’s, he just smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

One would have thought the seminar would have included a simple foreknowledge (classical Arminian) model of providence as the fourth view. What an odd omission!

Soon into the seminar we all learned that the moderator who put the seminar together was a very passionate Calvinist, which possibly explains the odd “doubling up” on the Calvinist perspective. But it also explains a second extremely odd aspect of this seminar.

After Paul Helseth opened the seminar with a fine paper defending the Calvinist model of providence, the moderator — whose job is to introduce speakers, field question and, most importantly, stay neutral  — asked if there were any questions. After about 2 seconds — I kid you not — he said, “Okay then” and proceeded to give all of us (and I quote) “four compelling reasons why we should all strongly consider embracing the Calvinist view.” He then started to passionately preach about how the Bible “clearly” and “emphatically” teaches omni-causality!

I began to laugh involuntarily. Bill Craig turned to me and exclaimed, “This is positively bizzare!” And it was. After about one and a half minutes of this (we were all stunned into silence) an irate seminar attender finally interrupted the evangelist/moderator and said, “Do you mind if we ask the presenter a few questions?” The preacher sheepishly backed down, and a nice discussion ensued. But the comedy wasn’t over, for throughout the entire seminar this fellow would make comments and gestures of approval for all pro-Calvinist statements while shaking his head and muttering beneath his breath in response to any anti-Calvinist and/or pro-Molinist or openness comments. To be honest, I found this guys’ uncontainable passion for his views to be charming and very entertaining. But it obviously didn’t serve him well as a moderator.

On the whole, the seminar didn’t break any new ground. It may have even been a bit on the boring side. The only really interesting part of the seminar for me was when Bill Craig and I debated. (He’s always fun to spar with). Two issues are perhaps worth repeating.

* Craig defended a definition of omniscience that basically says that an omniscient being must know all true propositions as true and all false propositions as false. On this basis he holds that God knows (among other things) what all future agents will do, and what all agents would do were they in different circumstances. (This is called God’s “counterfactual” knowledge and is the main distinctive of Molinism).

Now, I completely agree with this definition of omniscience. (In contrast to Hasker, another Open Theist, who defines omniscience as the ability to “know all that can be known” — as though there are truths that can’t be known). But I asked Craig why an omniscient being wouldn’t also know the truth value of propositions asserting what might and might not take place, where “might” is considered the contradictory of “will not” and “might not” is considered the contradictory of “will”? In this view, if God knows it is true that “x might and might not do y at a certain point in time,” then God knows it is false both that “x (certainly) will” and “x (certainly) will not do y at a certain point in time.”

Craig responded by pointing out that this is not how “might” and “might not” usually function in philosophical semantics, but his left me unsatisfied. I would argue that the reason they don’t function like this in most philosophical circles is because an exhaustively settled view of the future is being presupposed.

Second, in response to my claim that the Open View presents the most exalted view of God’s wisdom, Craig and I got into a good natured debate about “whose God is smarter.” Being able to possess information that is natural for one to possess,  I argued, doesn’t make one wise. Wisdom is rather centered on using information to solve problems. Using a chess game analogy, I argued that only the Open View of God requires God to be wise, for only this God genuinely solves problems.

Think of it this way, I said. God is assured victory in Calvinism because he controls his opponent. God is assured victory in Molinism because he has special information about what his opponent will do (and would do in response to every conceivable move). But God is assured victory in Open Theism not because he controls his opponent or merely possesses special information, but because he anticipates each possible (but not certain) free move his opponent might make and must prepare a response to each possible future move. But he’s so wise, he does this as effectively as if he were certain of each future move, and thus every move of his opponent plays to his ultimate advantage.

IF God controls or merely knows, there’s no problem to be solved. God is simply controlling or knowing what is natural for God to control or know. Only in the Open View must God genuinely out-smart opponents, which is why his victory over opponents is most praiseworthy and why I claim the Open View most exalts God’s wisdom.

Craig disagreed, claiming that a God who knows what his opponent will do in the game they’re playing, and would do in any other conceivable game, is smarter that a God who must anticipate possibilities. In my view, the Molinist God just possesses more information, but doesn’t need to be wise at all.

On top of that, I argue that “extra” information Molinism ascribes to God is incoherent. It’s contradictory to assert, as Molinism does, both that agents are free to choose x or y while also holding that the fact that the agent will chose (say) y instead of x eternally precedes the agents choice. If an agent is truly free to choose x or y, I argue, the final thing that can be said about this state of affairs is that the agent might choose x and might choose y.  And since God is omniscient, knowing reality exactly as it is and not otherwise — this is what God knows.

Think about it.



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