Middle Knowledge and Biblical Interpretation

Luis de Molina, Herman Bavinck, and William Lane Craig

by Sze Sze Chiew (Author)
Thesis 225 Pages


If God knows human actions in advance, do humans really have freedom of choice? Throughout the centuries various solutions have been offered as to how to retain or reconcile both the concepts of divine omniscience and human freedom. One solution focuses on the idea of middle knowledge. This theory originates with the Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina, was contested by Reformed theologians such as Herman Bavinck, and makes a remarkable comeback among present-day analytical philosophers such as William Lane Craig.
Apart from a wealth of philosophical considerations, the appeal to biblical texts also plays an important role in the work on middle knowledge by each of these thinkers. The book examines their writings and investigates how contemporary biblical scholars interpret the biblical texts used by them. The author elaborates a creative proposal as to how these gained insights apply to the theory of middle knowledge and what this means for our overall evaluation of this theory.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • 1 Introduction
  • 1.1 Foreknowledge and Freedom: Some Initial Observations
  • 1.1.1 Theoretical and Practical Issues
  • 1.1.2 A Preliminary Contour of What Follows
  • 1.2 The Analytical Discussion: A State of the Question
  • 1.2.1 Outlining the Problem
  • 1.2.2 The Boethian, Ockhamist, Open Theist, and Molinist Solutions
  • 1.2.3 Some Concluding Remarks on the Solutions
  • 1.3 An Intriguing Solution: The Theory of Middle Knowledge
  • 1.4 Approaching the Problem: Re-contextualizing the Issue in Its Biblical Context
  • 1.4.1 Outlining the Inquiry
  • 1.4.2 Methodological Considerations
  • 1.5 An Overview: Content of Chapters
  • 2 Middle Knowledge in the 16th–17th Centuries: Luis de Molina
  • 2.1 Introduction
  • 2.1.1 Molina’s Role in the Debate
  • 2.1.2 An Outline of What Follows
  • 2.2 Scientia Media
  • 2.2.1 Dispute between the Jesuits and Dominicans
  • 2.2.2 Divine Knowledge: Natural, Middle, and Free
  • 2.2.3 Objections Raised in the 16th–17th Centuries
  • 2.3 Scriptural Grounds of Molina’s Views
  • 2.3.1 Scriptural Ground of Molina’s Views of Divine Foreknowledge?
  • a. Psalm 139:3–5
  • b. Isaiah 41:23 and 48:5
  • c. Hebrews 4:13
  • d. John 14:29
  • 2.3.2 Scriptural Grounds of Molina’s Knowledge of Counterfactuals?
  • a. 1 Samuel 23:6–13
  • b. Matthew 11:20–24
  • 2.4 Evaluation
  • 2.4.1 Theological and Hermeneutical Issues in Molina’s Views
  • 2.4.2 The Role of the Bible and Its Relation with Molina’s Views
  • 2.5 Conclusion
  • 3 Middle Knowledge and Reformed Theology: Herman Bavinck
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.1.1 Bavinck’s Role in this Study
  • 3.1.2 An Outline of What Follows
  • 3.2 The Reformed Doctrine of Scientia Dei
  • 3.2.1 The Principia of the Reformed Orthodox
  • 3.2.2 The Problem of Scientia Media
  • 3.3 Bavinck’s Organic Motif in Scripture and Theology
  • 3.3.1 The Organic Nature of Scripture
  • 3.3.2 The Organic Relationship between Scripture and Theology
  • 3.4 Bavinck’s Discussion of Divine Foreknowledge
  • 3.4.1 Divine Knowing: Its Manner, Objects, and Degree
  • 3.4.2 Bavinck’s Criticism of Middle Knowledge
  • 3.5 Evaluation
  • 3.5.1 Molinism and Reformed Orthodoxy: Scientia Dei and Sola Scriptura
  • 3.5.2 Bavinck and Reformed Orthodoxy: Similarities and Differences
  • 3.5.3 Bavinck’s Method of Theology: The Role of the Bible
  • 3.6 Conclusion
  • 4 Middle Knowledge in Recent Studies: William Lane Craig
  • 4.1 Introduction
  • 4.1.1 Craig’s Role in the Debate
  • 4.1.2 An Outline of What Follows
  • 4.2 Craig’s Views of Foreknowledge and Freedom
  • 4.2.1 The Logical Order of Foreknowledge and Freedom
  • 4.2.2 The Logical Possibility of Foreknowledge
  • 4.3 Craig’s Theory of Middle Knowledge
  • 4.3.1 Three Logical Moments of God’s Knowledge
  • 4.3.2 Difference from Classical Defense
  • 4.4 A Survey of Recent Objections against Middle Knowledge
  • 4.4.1 Objections of Theoretical Issues
  • 4.4.2 Objections of Practical Issues
  • 4.4.3 Objections Comprising a Mixture of Theoretical and Practical Issues
  • 4.5 The Role of the Bible in Craig’s Discussions
  • 4.5.1 Biblical Evidences of God’s Comprehensive Knowledge
  • 4.5.2 Biblical and Theological Evidence of Middle Knowledge
  • a. Scriptural Indications
  • b. Theological Ramifications
  • 4.6 Evaluation
  • 4.6.1 Biblical Grounds of Evaluation
  • a. 1 Samuel 23:6–13 and Matthew 11:20–24
  • b. “Repenting Texts”
  • 4.6.2 Theological Ground of Evaluation
  • a. Divine Prescience
  • b. Divine Existence
  • c. Providence and The Problem of Evil
  • d. Predestination and Freedom
  • 4.6.3 Philosophical Ground of Evaluation
  • 4.7 Conclusion
  • 5 The Canonical Approach of Brevard Childs and The Hermeneutical Approach of Anthony Thiselton
  • 5.1 Introduction
  • 5.1.1 The Role of Childs and Thiselton in this Study
  • 5.1.2 An Outline of what Follows
  • 5.2 A Description of Childs’ Canonical Approach
  • 5.2.1 Two Key Assumptions of Childs’ Canonical Approach
  • 5.2.2 Six Features of Childs’ Exegesis
  • a. The Authority of Scripture
  • b. The Literal and Spiritual Senses of Scripture
  • c. The Two Testaments of Scripture
  • d. The Divine and Human Authorship of Scripture
  • e. The Christological Content of Scripture
  • f. The Dialectical Understanding of the History of Scripture
  • 5.2.3 Childs’ Application of the Canonical Interpretation of the Bible
  • a. First Avenue: Discerning the Plain Sense of the Text
  • b. Second Avenue: An Intertextual Dialogue between the Two Voices
  • c. Third Avenue: Discerning a True Witness to the Living God
  • 5.2.4 Concluding Observations: Canon, Community, and Theological Continuity
  • 5.3 A Description of Thiselton’s Approach
  • 5.3.1 Hermeneutical Currencies
  • a. The Meaning and Scope of Hermeneutics
  • b. Philosophy and Hermeneutics
  • 5.3.2 Biblical Interpretation as the Fusion of Two Horizons
  • a. “Engaging” and “Enlarging” Horizons
  • b. Multidisciplinary and Interdisciplinary Practices
  • 5.3.3 Concluding Observations: Hermeneutics, Philosophy, and Doctrine
  • 5.4 Conclusion
  • 6 A Possible Theological Appropriation of the Bible
  • 6.1 Introduction
  • 6.1.1 Where Do We Stand Now?
  • 6.1.2 An Outline of What Follows
  • 6.2 A Possible Theological Appropriation of the Bible
  • 6.2.1 The Beginning and Ending of the Knowledge of God: The Bible
  • 6.2.2 Encountering the Living God: The Lordship of the Triune God
  • 6.2.3 Working towards a Coherent Biblical Vision of God: Creedal Context
  • 6.2.4 Relating Scripture and Theology: The Larger Context of Bible and Its Method
  • 6.2.5 Responding with Obedience: Faith Seeking Understanding
  • 6.3 Concluding Evaluation of Molina, Bavinck, and Craig
  • 6.3.1 The Theological Scope of Scriptural Texts
  • a. Psalm 139:3–5
  • b. Isaiah 41:23 and Isaiah 48:5
  • c. Hebrews 4:13
  • d. John 14:29
  • e. 1 Sam. 23:6–13 and Matt. 11:20–24
  • 6.3.2 The Scriptural Ground of Evaluation
  • 6.3.3 The Usage and Role of the Bible
  • 6.4 Implications for the Contemporary Debates on Middle Knowledge
  • 6.5 Final Conclusion
  • Bibliography

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This work is a Ph.D. dissertation with the title “You Know It Completely: The Concept of Middle Knowledge and Biblical Interpretation in Luis de Molina, Herman Bavinck, and William Lane Craig”. It was my privilege to work on this dissertation with Prof. dr. Cornelius van der Kooi and Prof. dr. Gijsbert van den Brink at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Both provided invaluable theological guidance, thoughtful advice, and challenging critique. Errors remain in this work are certainly mine.

I am indebted to a number of people for their generous contributions throughout the journey of pursuing my doctoral studies. I am grateful for the financial support received from the Chinese Churches Association of the Christian & Missionary Alliance (CAMA), USA, which enabled me and my husband to live in the Netherlands during the final two years of both of our doctoral studies. Also, I am grateful to the Chinese Churches of the Christian & Missionary Alliance (CAMA) of the Netherlands. Thank you for welcoming and accepting us as co-workers and family.

I also wish to express my appreciation to Malaysia Bible Seminary, for granting me the study leave that enabled me to complete this research, as well as providing the fund for printing this book. I am similarly thankful to many churches in Malaysia which had supported me all these years.

My deep appreciation to Dr. Ken-Ang Lee, who led me to see the theological academic needs in Malaysia, and helped me in many ways to pursue my master’s degrees in the USA and my doctoral study in the Netherlands.

I owe more than I can say to our family and friends who have accompanied me and my husband with prayers, encouragement, and practical assistance. My special gratitude to Agata Gazal and May-Kuen Shiu, for devoting their time and tireless effort in editing my English language.

My husband, Poh-Seng Tan has been a great joy and support throughout my doctoral studies. I would not have been able to complete this research project without his sacrifices, suggestions, patience, and prayers. It is to him that this work is dedicated.

Above all, I thank God for providing me the wisdom and strength to complete this work. All glory and praise to the Triune God.

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How can our human actions be free and really our actions if God knows in advance what we are going to do? Apparently, if God knew yesterday – and even for all eternity – that I will be going to make a big donation to some charity tomorrow, or that I will be going to steal a car, it seems absolutely certain that I will make that big donation or steal that car. For clearly, everything which God knows must be true. If it is already certain in advance, however, that I will perform one of these actions, then obviously I cannot refrain from performing them. I cannot decide not to perform them – and therefore, so it seems, I am forced to perform them. And since it belongs to the most basic tenets of Christian and other theistic beliefs that God is omniscient, God must know even the tiniest details of my life. Thus, arguably, it follows from God’s being omniscient that I don’t have any real choices to make. Everything I do is predetermined already. We might only avoid this conclusion by turning the argument upside down: if I can make free choices and perform actions which I can really call ‘my own’, then it follows that God is not omniscient.

Or does it? Theologians and philosophers have intensely studied the conundrum of foreknowledge and freedom through the centuries, and they have come up with a wide variety of solutions. Some have argued that we should drop omniscience and ascribe a less encompassing range of knowledge to God in order to safeguard human freedom; others have redefined human freedom (e.g. in terms of voluntariness instead of alternative choices) in order to maintain divine omniscience. One of the most intriguing solutions, however, claims to do justice to both ‘real’ human freedom and full divine omniscience. Following the lead of Jesuit scholar Luis de Molina (1535–1600), it is proposed that we ascribe ‘middle knowledge’ to God – meaning by that knowledge of what every human being should freely decide to do given a certain set of specific circumstances. Having full knowledge of all such ‘possible worlds’, God can then decide to materialize that particular possible world in which humans freely make those choices which God not only knows but, arguably, even wants or allows them to make. In this way, the dilemma of God’s omniscience and omnipotence vis à vis human freedom is graciously solved, and Christians and other theists might with full intellectual integrity hold on to both horns of the dilemma.

Or not? Ever since De Molina came up with his sophisticated proposal, analytic philosophers and theologians have been debating its strengths and weaknesses, endorsing or rejecting the theory of middle knowledge for all sorts of reasons. After more than four centuries, still no convergence is to be discovered ← 13 | 14 → in this debate – let alone that unanimity has been reached or is on the horizon. Although the arguments have become more and more elaborate and abstract, voices in favor of as well as voices against middle knowledge continue to be heard in non-decreasing numbers.

Given this stalemate, Sze Sze Chiew has decided to cast the net to the other side of the boat. Dr. Chiew observes that Molina’s context of discovery was by and large the context of biblical interpretation. Though well-versed in philosophical analysis himself, it was from particular passages and verses in the Bible that Molina took his inspiration. In this study, that served as her Ph.D. dissertation at the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam, Dr. Chiew closely investigates these passages, assessing the exegesis of Molina as well as present-day defenders of middle knowledge such as William Lane Craig. Next to that, she examines how opponents of middle knowledge interpreted the same biblical passages, focusing especially on the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) in this connection.

Going a further step beyond the traditional debates, in the final chapters of her book Dr. Chiew explores how the biblical passages in question might be interpreted if one follows rules and lines of interpretation that are suggested by some prominent schools in contemporary biblical scholarship. Extrapolating from the work of Brevard Childs and Antony Thiselton in particular, she ends up with a surprisingly clear conclusion. Hopefully we don’t spoil the clue when we reveal that Dr. Chiew’s conclusions may strike the reader as robustly Reformed.

It has been our joy and privilege to work with Dr. Chiew on this project during the years that she, living alternately in Malaysia and in the Netherlands, prepared her PhD-dissertation with us, after she had already written an MA-thesis on the same topic at the Vrije Universiteit during a previous stay. It is wonderful to see her work in print now, and we sincerely trust that all those interested in the debate on human freedom and divine knowledge will benefit from the fact that the fruits of her studies in this way have been made available to the wider public.

Gijsbert van den Brink

Cornelius van der Kooi

March 2016

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, NL

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Christian theologians and philosophers have a long history of attempting to reconcile the perceived tension between the doctrine of God’s foreknowledge on the one hand and human free will and responsibility on the other. Throughout the centuries various solutions have been proposed as to how to retain both concepts in a coherent way. One of these solutions focuses on the concept of middle knowledge: apart from “natural knowledge” of necessary truths and “free knowledge” of God’s own actions, God also knows counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. That is, God knows what any human being would freely do given a set of conditions x, y and z. God can then manage the conditions that apply in such a way that God’s providential plans are realized without human (libertarian) freedom being compromised. This theory originates with the Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina (1535–1600), was contested by Reformed theologians such as Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), and makes a remarkable comeback among present-day analytical philosophers such as William Lane Craig (1949-).

Apart from a wealth of philosophical considerations, the appeal to biblical texts also plays an important role in the work on middle knowledge by each of these thinkers. For example, Molina appeals to Ps. 139:3–4, Isa. 41:23, 48:5, Jn. 14:29 and Heb. 4:13 to support his understanding of divine foreknowledge of future contingents, and argues that 1 Sam. 23:6–13 and Matt. 11:20–24 are direct Scriptural indications of middle knowledge. Moreover, one of the most active advocates of middle knowledge today, William Lane Craig, also points to 1 Sam. 23:6–13 and Matt. 11:20–24 as important Scriptural evidence of this theory. However, whereas the theory’s philosophical ramifications have been widely discussed in contemporary scholarly literature during the past decades, surprisingly little attention has been given to its use of biblical texts. This research aims at filling this gap, by critically examining the attempts to defend or criticize the theory of middle knowledge with reference to the Bible. Considering that in the course of the discussion, Molina, Bavinck, and Craig have made influential contributions to the discussions on middle knowledge, in three separate chapters the writings of Molina, Bavinck and Craig on the topic of middle knowledge are carefully examined with special attention given to the role of the Bible in their arguments. I also investigated how the biblical texts which play a role in these authors’ defense or refutation of middle knowledge are interpreted in the work of contemporary biblical scholars, or how these should be interpreted from their methodical perspectives. ← 15 | 16 →

In the chapter on Molina, I introduce the theory of middle knowledge within its historical and theological context. I show from the broader theological context at Molina’s time that post-Tridentine Roman Catholic theology was largely shaped by Thomas Aquinas as appropriated in contemporary Thomism and that as a result of its close engagement with scholastic theology, philosophy was viewed as a valid and legitimate way of formulating theological arguments and interpreting Scripture. In this light, proving the possibility of the logical reconciliation of foreknowledge and freedom through metaphysics played a decisive role in Molina’s argument. I show that although Molina did attempt to include Scriptural reflection in the process of formulating his theory of middle knowledge, the way in which he uses the Scriptures reveals that most likely he did not make biblical interpretation a significant part of his arguments. Rather, his appeals to Scripture seem intended to support his pre-conceived philosophical conclusions. I then examine Ps. 139:3–5; Isa. 41:23 and 48:5; Jn. 14:29 and Heb. 4:13. I argue in a provisional way that these texts do not speak about God’s foreknowledge as Molina defines the concept (i.e. in terms of pre-volitional knowledge of future contingents); and although 1 Sam. 23:10–12 and Matt. 11:20–24 indicate God’s knowledge of what would have happened had another possibility obtained, this does not prove that God foreknows conditional contingents in the way in which Molina conceives of this (i.e. that God obtains middle knowledge).

In my discussion of Molina’s theory of middle knowledge, I point out that for Molina’s theory to function the existence of foreknown conditions lying outside God’s will is required. This became a critical reason that not only middle knowledge was fiercely condemned by the Dominicans in the 16th century; it was rejected by a large number of other Thomists, Protestants, and the Reformed theologians as well. Middle knowledge was problematic to these groups because by intentionally placing it between God’s natural and free knowledge, middle knowledge does not merely understand God as having willed a particular world or preferring a particular world over another, but discerns a kind of divine cognition arising from future contingencies prior to or apart from God’s will. In order for God to have this kind of cognition, God would have to be ignorant of His determination and decision, which interferes with the theological belief that there can be nothing that falls outside the scope of God’s will. As a result, middle knowledge seemed to them to destroy the lordship of God—by sacrificing the sovereignty of God, it alters the relationship between God and finite creatures.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (June)
omniscience Reformed theology human freedom divine foreknowledge
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 225 pp.

Biographical notes

Sze Sze Chiew (Author)

Sze Sze Chiew received her Ph.D. in Theology from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and studied Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Michigan and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her research interests include topics in systematic theology, philosophical theology, and historical theology.


Title: Middle Knowledge and Biblical Interpretation
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228 pages