Is a Molinist Concept of Providence Discomforting?

by Max Andrews

Not too long ago I was reflecting on my recent wedding and I realized something I found hard to deal with.  Five years ago my brother was in Iraq, and his pregnant wife died (for reasons and causes still unknown to us).  I was talking about the wedding with my mother and we both made the same observation.  We thought that there should have been a five-year old girl running around at my wedding.  I should have had a five-year old niece dolled up in a cute dress and playing with the other children.  What was difficult for me, upon further reflection, was that God thought and willed that there should not be a five-year old girl running around at my wedding.  I was at a clash with God’s will.  I thought that things should have been different.  Apparently, God disagreed and willed the course of history to be different.  As a Molinist, I found this very discomforting at first.  Let me explain the details.

The Molinist concept of providence understands God as controlling everything that happens throughout the course of history.  Everything that happens is a result of God’s will.  God both strongly and weakly actualizes everything.  Strong actualization is where God directly causes or acts in the world, which directly produces the effect.  God weakly actualizes S if and only if there is an S* such that God strongly actualizes [direct causation] S* and S* → S, where → is “counterfactual implication” (Let S be a state of affairs).  Or, in other words, weak actualization is the means of actualization where God uses free agents to bring about his will (an indirect means).  So, if all that comes to pass in the course of history is the result of God’s will, how should I deal with this (or how should anyone deal with these types of situations)?

This problem is very closely related to the problem of evil.  Now, my first reaction was very discomforting knowing that everything that happens occurs because God willed it to happen.  My discomfort soon turned to comfort.  When I thought about this the more I realized my finitude.  God knew that taking my niece and sister-in-law home was the best course of action for him to take.  I’m in no spatiotemporal position to evaluate the effects their death produce.  I know that they have had tremendous influences and effects in my life since their passing, and I trust much more will come.  I don’t have to be able to explain why God chose the course of history that he chose, I just have to demonstrate that how he does it is the most coherent, biblical, and sound model.  Who am I to judge God in his providential course of action? I do not have the cognitive scope or holy intentions that he has.

Let’s consider a non-Molinist perspective.  If God causes all things (no weak actualizations) then there are tremendous problems with the problem of evil.  I’ve discusses this issue in previous posts so I’m not going to elaborate too much here.  Suppose the Molinist concept of providence is true and that God has every detailed moment and aspect of your life planned.  What about those who don’t have a “good life”?  What about the unemployed, starving, diseased, and homeless?  Is it God’s will for them to be like this?  Surely, God’s providential means is not that of the Molinist’s concept right?  This may sound harsh but I do believe it is the will of God for the starving to starve, the diseased to be diseased and the homeless to be homeless.  Let me qualify this.  There are different orders to God’s will.  It is not God’s will, antecedently, for the starving to starve, the diseased to be diseased, and the homeless to be homeless.  It is, however, God’s will, consequently, because of the decisions made by free agents, the good that will come of it, the factor it plays into the grand scheme of things (or the counterfactual role it plays in the feasible world God chose to actualize).  Now consider that this is not true, that God doesn’t will every detail in history.  Does God directly cause all these things to come to pass? If that’s the case then God antecedently wills the starving to starve and the diseased to be diseased.  The Molinist denies that, it is consequently (because of factor X, Y, and/or Z) that God wills circumstances like those mentioned.

Perhaps it is the case that God cannot prevent such circumstances?  If that’s the case then why should we trust God?  God has made so many promises to us in Scripture, what guarantee can I have that he will fulfill these promises if he cannot prevent other circumstances?  Another hidden premise I would have to reject in this discomforting aspect or rejection of the Molinist paradigm is that God wants us to be happy, healthy, and for us to have “good lives”.  It’s primarily and antecedently God’s will for us to know him and to love him.  Our measure of a “good life” is nowhere near God’s primary will for our lives.  We need to void our ideology that God just wants us to be happy and healthy all the time with a good job, spouse, and nice dinners at night.  God may provide what is necessary for us to live but he desires us to know him and to seek first his Kingdom (see Matthew 6).

My knee-jerk reaction upon this reflection was to feel a sense of discomfort.  When I really analyzed and thought through everything I found this to be quite comforting and the best model of divine providence.  I do understand that it may be a hard pill to swallow at times.  When I say that it is God’s will for me to struggle with my own disease, to be hospitalized over and over, to be in pain for extended periods of time, for me to say that this is the will of God is certainly difficult.  However, I’m not going to deny that it is because I trust God will make good of it and that he wants me to know him, love him, and seek his Kingdom above all else.  This certainly wasn’t meant to be exhaustive, just my initial thoughts and meanderings… To God be the glory in all things.


6 Responses to “Is a Molinist Concept of Providence Discomforting?”

  1. You’re on a roll here as of late, Max. I hold tentatively to the open view and it is because if find meticulous providence to be a bit disturbing for some of the reasons you outlined, but you make some interesting points. I’ve been thinking about the POE a lot lately and wanted to just throw out meandering thoughts of my own and see how one maybe more formally trained in theology and philosophy might respond to these.

    I think when we employ a greater good theodicy (GGT), we are getting into some dangerous territory. Like when we use the moral argument, we want to say that the realm of objective facts is just as real as the natural realm. Certain things we just know are wrong. But then when it comes to the problem of evil, we say that things are happening for the greater good, and we can’t know if something is wrong. So we want to say we epistemically know right when it comes to other creatures, but when something bad happens we say God did or allowed it for a greater good and we can’t realize what that greater good is. Do you see what I’m driving at?

    The GGT also seems to suggest that evil is necessary to the plan of God, as well as it commits seems to commit God to consequentialism, where the ends justify the means in determining what is right. And plus, say when we are poor for instance, why seek to get a better education or a better job when maybe God wills for us to be poor so that some greater good can come out of it? Or why should we help the poor if God is really working this or the greater good? For these reasons I think the GGT is inadequate and can for some people even be very damaging emotionally.

    Plus, I feel like scripturally it is inadequate to say that everything that happens is God’s will when clearly some people thwart the plan of God for their lives (Lk. 7:30) I think it all fits in the parameters of what God will possibly allow, which may not be different than what you are saying, but what I understand from scripture that we come to understand what the will of God is by renewing our mind. I think that includes bearing our cross, but I don’t see where in the N.T. or otherwise where that includes suffering say from…extended extreme poverty, for example. So I don’t think we ascertain God’s will from outward circumstances but rather the promises he makes in his word.

    Anyway, sorry for the mini-book. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

  2. Erik, although I’m not a Molinist, I found your response to be interesting, so I will venture a few thoughts:

    – The “greater good” is usually agreed to be God’s glory (Romans 11:36).

    – I would bite the proverbial bullet and claim that evil is indeed necessary to the plan of God. I don’t see a problem in admitting this unless it is argued that this implies God does evil, which I deny. More on this next.

    – Your thought that God is committed to consequentialism is well-taken but a bit imprecise in my opinion. For instance, while I think God plans all things – evil included – for His glory, I do not think God Himself commits evil in the process.

    I think the matter hinges on what it means to practice evil (sin) or good (righteousness). I would say that to do evil is to scorn God’s glory whereas to do good is to intend to manifest God’s glory (which implies knowledge of how to do so). The way in which we can tell whether man or God does good is by judging the choices of each in relation to whether or not they intend to and do manifest God’s glory. How can we discern this?

    On God’s side of matters, the answer is simple. He does good because all that He does, even His inclusion of creaturely evil into His plan, is for the purpose of the manifestation of His glory. Any answer to “why” God planned something is, ultimately, that such manifests His glory. How evil can function towards this end is a matter of debate but a distinct issue.

    On our side of matters, Paul says that we should do all to the glory of God. How do we do that? Obedience to God’s commandments in faith (1 Corinthians 10:23-33, cf. Romans 14:13-23). Disobedience to God’s law (sin; 1 John 3:4), then, must be the scorning of God’s glory. And this makes sense, since disobedience to God is equivalent to a rejection of God’s authority.

    So to take you example of, say, not providing for the poor when it is within our ability to do so, the response would be this: Our choices can simultaneously be a creaturely disregard for God’s glory which nevertheless has been planned by God such that His glory will be manifested (e.g. Genesis 50:20). Whatever will happen – good or evil – has been planned by God for His glory; God is good. We may not have comprehensive knowledge of God’s plan, but then again, we don’t need to in order to know that we are responsible for the way in which our choices relate to God’s glory.

    – Finally, I disagree that God’s [sovereign] will can be thwarted (Isaiah 14:27, Romans 9:19). His commands can be thwarted – as in the case of Luke 7:30 (cf. 3:3) – but when this occurs, it occurs according to His will. God’s commands and God’s plan can’t be conflated.

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