Luis Molina’s Theory of Middle Knowledge as a Catholic Response to the Reformation

This paper was presented at the undergraduate Medieval and Early Modernists of North Texas and Oklahoma 2019 Conference in February of 2019 at the University of Dallas

The Protestant Reformation was undoubtedly the most important theological event of the 16th century and perhaps the most important historical event of that time outright. Since the Reformation, Protestantism has developed and continues on as one of the main branches of Christianity today. In turn, the divide between Catholics and Protestants is not what is was in the 16th century. While few contemporary Protestants today would consider the issue of free will to be a key issue to Protestantism, it would not be difficult to argue that notion of free will was a central point of contention in the Reformation. Indeed Martin Luther himself in his Bondage of the Will commended Erasmus for recognizing the centrality of free will to the debate when he told him that free will was the central point of his cause and said

I give you hearty praise and commendation on this further account—that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like—trifles, rather than issues…You, and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns.[1]

That hinge of course was the issue of free will. With this in mind, it becomes easier to understand the lengths to which some Catholics went to defend free will against the attacks of Luther, Calvin, and other reformers. One of these men, the one whom we will be discussing today was a Spanish Jesuit named Luis de Molina (1535-1600). Molina sought to find a way to reconcile the strong view of Divine sovereignty which the reformers were pushing with a strong view of free will which he believed was an essential part of Catholic doctrine. Molina did so by positing the idea of scientia media or middle knowledge. In this essay I will look briefly at the Reformers’ views of free will and divine sovereignty, show what middle knowledge is, and then show how Molina used it to affirm both a strong notion of divine sovereignty and a strong notion of free will by examining the highly debate topic of predestination. Lastly I will briefly discuss the theory’s relevance to both the 16th and 21st centuries.

         According to B.B Warfield, the famous 19th century Calvinist, the Protestant Reformation can be viewed as the triumph of Augustine’s soteriology over his ecclesiology.[2] While the extant to which this statement is true is debatable, it does show what the central issue of the reformation was namely, soteriology. The central debate of the Reformation was the extant to which grace was both necessary and sufficient for salvation. One major question was ‘Is man’s free cooperation with God’s grace necessary or not’? Thus, the issue of grace is intimately tied to the issue of free will. As it turns out, many of the reformers had a very low view of free will.

         Martin Luther and John Calvin for example both held to limited notions of human autonomy. Luther for example says in his Bondage of the Will,If He[God] wills what He foreknows, His will is eternal and changeless, because His nature is so. From which it follows, by resistless logic, that all we do, however it may appear to us to be done mutably and contingently, is in reality done necessarily and immutably in respect of God’s will.” [3] Thus for Luther, contingency itself is merely illusory and all things happen by necessity. He certainly rejected the notion that a person could will to act or refrain from acting in some circumstance for any person can only do what God has ordained. It was this view of will which Molina saw as central to the Reformation and which he rejected as un-Catholic.[4] Calvin too held to a very limited notion of free will and states in his Institutes of Christian Religion “the minds and wills of men are controlled in such a way that they move precisely in the course He has destined.”[5] Notice here that God exercises “control” over man’s will. While Calvin holds that man is free from compulsion, that is he acts willingly, he believes that man’s acts are necessary. Molina rejected both of these views. In order to see how Molina reconciles free will with divine sovereignty it is important to look at his doctrine of middle knowledge.

Molina’s theory of Middle Knowledge can only be understood in light of God’s natural and free knowledge. The distinction between natural knowledge and free knowledge is a distinction that goes back to Aquinas. St. Thomas distinguished between two types of knowledge in God: what he called his scientia simplicis intelligentiae, or what Molina called scientia naturalis (natural knowledge), and his scientia visionis or what Molina called scientia libera (free knowledge).[6] God’s natural knowledge is knowledge of all necessary truths. This would include things like mathematical truths as well things that are possible. For example, God knows in his natural knowledge, that Ronald Reagan could be president in the year 1971 A.D or that the earth could be a spherical planet with one moon etc. Obviously some of these possibilities, in fact almost all of them, never come to pass in actuality. God’s knowledge of the things that do come to pass is his free knowledge. In his free knowledge, God knows what will in fact happen in the world. In between these two types of knowledge, according to Aquinas, is God’s decision to create the world. Thus his free knowledge flows from his decree to create. In sum, natural knowledge is knowledge of what could be and free knowledge of what will be.

Molina posited that in the middle of natural and free knowledge (hence the name middle knowledge) is God’s knowledge of what would happen in various circumstances. Molina summarizes it as follows:

Finally the third type is middle knowledge, by which, in virtue of the most profound and inscrutable comprehension of each faculty of free choice, He saw in His own essence what each such faculty would do with its innate freedom were it to be placed in this or in that or indeed, in infinitely many orders of things—even though it would really be able, if it so willed, to do the opposite…[7]

It is important to note that middle knowledge is different from both free knowledge and natural knowledge and cannot be reduced to either. It is similar to natural knowledge in that it is known to God logically prior to his decree to create. However, it differs from natural knowledge in that it is knowledge of contingent rather than necessary truths. What God knows via middle knowledge God did not have to know because the conditional statements about the decisions of free creatures (also called counterfactuals) could have been different. The contingency of middle knowledge makes it similar to free knowledge. Overall, Molina posits four logical moments of God in his knowledge and creation: 1) God’s natural knowledge of all necessary truths 2) God’s middle knowledge of all contingent counterfactuals 3) God’s decision to create the world 4) God’s free knowledge of the future. Thus God has two types of pre-volitional knowledge–natural and middle knowledge–and one type of post volitional knowledge—free knowledge.

Having looked at Middle Knowledge it is important to see how Molina applied his theory to counter Reformation theology. We will do so by looking at the issue of predestination.

While to the surprise of some biblically illiterate modern Christians, predestination is a strongly biblical concept. The word “predestine” (Gk: προορίζω) appears in both Romans 8:29 and Ephesians 1:5 so it is incumbent upon all Christians to have at least some doctrine of predestination. Luther and especially Calvin stressed this doctrine and held views which go even beyond Thomas Aquinas’ very strong view of predestination. Calvin for example held to the notion of double predestination in which God not only predestines the elect to salvation but predestines the reprobate to damnation. In response to this, some thinkers such as the Protestant Jacob Arminius chose to reject a strong view of predestination, basically reducing it to an ornamental result of his foreknowledge, and instead chose to stress human free will. There are two passages of Scripture illustrate the divide between these two views: Romans 9 and 1 Tim 2:4. Let us look at each in turn.

Calvinists appeal to a face value reading of Romans 9 which seems to teach that the predestination of individuals to salvation or damnation is solely the result of God’s will. To see why just listen to what Paul says in verse 17-23.

Rom. 9:17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

Rom. 9:18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

Rom. 9:19 ¶ You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”

Rom. 9:20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”

Rom. 9:21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?

Rom. 9:22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,

Rom. 9:23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—[8]

Notice that God in order to show his glory has “prepared beforehand” some people to share in the “riches of his glory” while others are “vessels…prepared for destruction”. Thus it is easy to see why this is a favorite passage among Calvinists. Clearly, or so they argue, God is the potter who chooses men for whatever purpose He desires whether it be honorable or not and it is His will alone that determines man’s fate. The reason anyone is saved or damned is solely the result of God’s volition.

A passage not so favorited by Calvinists but a preference of Arminians who seek to refute Calvinism is 1 Tim 2:4 which states that God “desires all men to be saved and come to knowledge of truth.” This passage seems to run contrary to the Calvinist notion of limited atonement which states that Christ died only for the elect and not all people. For indeed, if God is sovereign and He wills all people to be saved, how could some fail to be saved? Calvin’s answer was that God does not in fact desire that all be saved. His interpretation of 1 Tim 2:4 is that “all” really means “all kinds of men” not all men. Thus, while Arminians are in an awkward position when exegeting passages like Romans 8, Romans 9, etc. Calvinists are in a similar position with passages such as 1 Tim 2:4, Matthew 23:37, etc.

You might be asking what any of this has to do with Molina. Well…

Molina by contrast can take both of the above passages at face value for he holds to both a straightforward reading of Romand 9 and the idea that God desires all men to be saved. He was able to reconcile the two using his doctrine of middle knowledge.

In terms of universal salvific will, Molina held that God provides all people with prevenient grace sufficient to liberate them from the bondage of sin and give them what contemporary philosophers would call libertarian free will.[9] This he sees as God’s calling of all individuals exemplified by Revelation 3:20 where Christ knocks on the door and asks all to open it to him.[10] Thus, God wants all people to be saved and provides sufficient grace for them to that end, but gives them the free will to reject him or accept Him. His election occurs in his actualizing a set of possible circumstances. For each person, there are some circumstances in which he would be saved and some in which he would freely reject God.[11] Thus, by creating a certain world and putting people in their various circumstances, God individually predestines some people to salvation and others to damnation. The reason Peter was saved and Judas damned was because God chose to create the world in which Peter was saved and Judas damned. However, no person in any world can complain to God by saying, “If only I were put in different circumstances I would have been saved!” For as Molina holds, all people received sufficient grace to accept God and they stand justly condemned if they choose not to.[12] Thus, by using middle knowledge, Molina holds both to a strong notion of predestination, God’s universal salvific will, and human freedom. Thus we can see that Molina’s view is a Catholic attempt to affirm both the historic notion of predestination so stressed by some of the Reformers as well as the historic belief in the freedom of the will.

Molina’s view is very controversial and was highly debated both in the 16th century and today. Molina’s main work was entitled The Compatibility of Free Choice with the Gifts of Grace, Divine Foreknowledge, Providence, Predestination, and Reprobation or in short the Concordia. It made up of seven volumes and was published in 1588 and then again in 1595.[13] Molina’s work was highly scrutinized and was subject to papal investigation and the Spanish Inquisition.[14] The Concordia was met with mixed reviews amongst its reviewers, but finally in 1607, after years of debate between Jesuits (mostly supporting Molina) and Dominicans (rejecting Molina and siding with Thomas Aquinas), Pope Paul V declared that both the doctrine of the Dominicans and the Concordia could be studied and read without fear of spiritual harm and that neither could be censored.[15] Lastly, Pope Paul said that the Holy See would resolve the dispute at a future time though, 412 years later, this time has apparently yet to arrive. Several of Molina’s fellow Jesuits Francisco Suarez and Robert Bellarmine held to slightly modified version of Molina’s view known as Congruism.[16] Today Catholic Molinists include Alfred Freddoso and Thomas Flint. Thus, since his day, Molina’s view has been supported by fellow Catholics.

Molinism has also been part of the Protestant tradition. Molinism was introduced to Protestantism first in the writings of Jacob Arminius, though Arminius himself did not fully understand the concept of Middle Knowledge and essentially equated it with free knowledge.[17] Arminius’ views and by association Molinism were condemned at the reformed Synod of Dort held in 1618–1619. It was not until 1974 when Alvin Plantinga published his work God Freedom and Evil that Molinism returned to Protestant thought.[18] Though Plantinga was at the time unaware of Molina, numerous Protestants since then would begin to investigate Molina’s views. In the last few decades there has been a strong revival of interest in Molina’s work among Christian analytic philosophers of Religion. Contemporary Protestant Molinists include William Lane Craig, Mark Wiebe, Kirk MacGregor, and many others. Prominent critics of Molinism today include William Hasker, Dean Zimmerman, and Robert Adams.[19] Molinism has been offered as a rapprochement between Calvinism, which holds to a strong view of sovereignty and a weak view of freedom, and Arminianism, which holds to the opposite. Many Reformed and Arminian theologians have in fact adopted Molinism.[20] Indeed according to Dean Zimmerman, a philosopher at Rutgers University, Molinism is the most popular Protestant view of divine sovereignty today.[21]

In conclusion, the mystery of God’s sovereignty and human free will was one of the central issues of the Protestant reformation of the 16th century. The relationship between these two ideas has spawned not a few debates and has led to some of the most brilliant theological writing in history. One such writer was Luis Molina, who, as a Spanish Jesuit was highly influenced by the reformation and sought to repel the reformers’ denial of any robust sense of free will. Molina’s famous work the Concordia in which he laid out his theory of middle knowledge has been studied down through the years and, given the recent interest in his thought, will remain relevant for years to come.  


Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1987.

Craig, William Lane and Paul Helm. “Calvinism vs. Molinism: Paul Helm and William Lane Craig.” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry Volume 11 (Spring 2014): 66.

Denzinger, Henry. The Sources of Catholic Dogma. Translated by Roy J Deferrari. St Louis: B. Herder Book Co, 1957.

Hasker, William. God, Time, and Knowledge. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Lonergan, Bernard J.F. Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. New York: Herder and Herder, 1971.

Luther, Martin. “The Bondage of the Will” In Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, 166-203. Edited by John Dillenberger. New York: Anchor Books, 1962.

MacGregor, Kirk R. Luis de Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.

Molina, Luis De. On Divine Foreknowledge: Part IV of the Concordia. Translated by Alfred J Freddoso. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma Translated by Patrick Lynch. Charlotte: Tan Books, 1974.

Pegis, Anton C. “Molina and Human Liberty” in Jesuit Thinkers of the Renaissance. Miluakee: Marquette University Press, 1939.

Plantinga, Alvin. God Freedom and Evil. Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 1974.

Trenham, Josiah. Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings Columbia: Newrome Press, 2018.

Wiebe, Mark B. On Evil Providence and Freedom: A New Reading of Molina. Dekalb Il: Northern Illinois University Press, 2017.

[1] Martin Luther. “The Bondage of the Will” In Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings. Ed John Dillenberger, (New York: Anchor Books, 1962),p. ???

[2] Cited in Josiah Trenham Rock and Sand (Columbia: Newrome Press, 2018), 21.

[3] Luther, “Bondage of the Will”, p. 181.

[4] Atonin Pegis “Molina and Human Liberty” in Jesuit Thinkers of the Renaissance (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1939), p. 88.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion ed. Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1987), p. 74.

[6] Kirk R. MacGregor, Luis de Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), p. 85.

[7] Luis de Molina, On Divine Foreknowledge: Part IV of the Concordia trans. by Alfred J Freddoso (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1988), 52.9 (p. 168).

[8] Romans 9:17-23 ESV

[9] MacGregor, Luis de Molina, p. 142.

[10]MacGregor, Luis de Molina, p. 144.

[11] Thus Molina rejects the notion of trans world depravity which has been proposed by Alvin Plantinga. See Plantinga, God Freedom and Evil, p. 52.

[12] Macgregor, Luis de Molina, p. 145-147.

[13] To this day, only book IV has been translated into English. See Alfred Freddoso, On Divine Foreknowledge (Part IV of the Concordia) (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1988).

[14] MacGregor, Luis de Molina, p.172, 176, 228.

[15] MacGregor, Luis de Molina, p. 241. See also Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma. trans Roy J Deferrari. (St. Louis: B Herder Book Co, 1957), p. 314.

[16] Ludwig Ott, Fundamntals of Catholic Dogma trans Patrick Lynch (Charlotte: Tan Books, 1974), 15.4 (p. 249).

[17] Macgregor, Luis de Molina, p. 246.

[18] Mark Wiebe, On Evil Providence and Freedom: A New Reading of Molina, (Dekalb Il: Northern Illinois University Press, 2017), p. 13. See Alvin Plantinga, God Freedom and Evil (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1974).

[19] See William Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).

[20] MacGregor, Luis de Molina, p. 13.

[21] William Lane Craig and Paul Helm. “Calvinism vs. Molinism: Paul Helm and William Lane Craig.” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry Volume 11 (Spring 2014): 66. Here Craig is quoting a non-Molinist philosopher Dean Zimmerman though the source of Zimmerman’s comment is unknown

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