Molinists and Calvinists: Locked in a Wordy Embrace with the Same Gargoyle

I have put my hand to the tar baby. Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Broadman & Holman) came out this month, a book in which I tackle the divine sovereignty–human responsibility conundrum, specifically as it relates to the area of salvation. As the title indicates, the book approaches the issue from a Molinist perspective, which means I advocate a high view of sovereign control but a libertarian understanding of free will (though in a stripped-down version I call “soft-libertarianism”). After grinding my brain cells on the subject for the past ten years, I am struck by how much compabilists (read Calvinists) and Molinists have in common. We agree much more than we disagree. And we are wrestling with same puzzle: how God is entirely the Author of our salvation while we are entirely the origin of our sin. As Allen Guelzo describes the efforts of theologians and philosophers over the past two centuries, “we have been locked in a wordy embrace with the same gargoyle” (Guelzo: 1999, 108). To pile on another metaphor, Calvinists approach the tension from one side while Molinists come at it from the other, but in the end we are both slamming our heads against the same brick wall.

Without minimizing our differences, let me list some areas of agreement between Molinists and Calvinists:

1. Divine Sovereignty and human free will are both profoundly true. We hold to both because the Bible simultaneously teaches both. We reject two opposite but equally dangerous tendencies: the denial of free will (fatalism) and the deification of free will (open theism comes to mind). Philosopher Robert Kane proposes a version of “soft-libertarianism” that goes a long way in addressing the objections many Calvinists have had towards libertarianism, and in the book I incorporate his insights in my discussion on human choices.

2. God, whenever He chooses, accomplishes His will with precision and success (Isa 14:24; Prov 16:33; Matt 10:29-30)). Some might call this a version of meticulous providence. Molinists and Calvinists equally affirm God’s comprehensive control of both the means and the ends.

3. Despite the fact that God can and does accomplish His will through the wicked decisions and actions of sinful men (Gen 50:10; Acts 2:23), God is not responsible for evil nor is He the origin of sin. This is certainly not a distinctly Molinist doctrine. The Canons of Dort declare that the very notion of God as the author of sin is “a blasphemous thought” (Art 15).

4. Apart from a gracious work of the Holy Spirit, no one can repent and believe the Gospel. Fallen humanity has lost free will in the one place it really matters–in the ability to respond to God. Not only do Molinists and Calvinists agree on this point, but so do all orthodox Christians. To deny this fact is to embrace Pelagianism. The disagreement between Molinists and Calvinists lies in our respective understanding of the nature and extent of God’s enablement (i.e., whether it is always effectual). This dispute must not be papered over, but it shouldn’t be caricatured either.

5. The Gospel is genuinely proffered to every hearer. If Calvinists generally find unsatisfactory the Molinist approach to point four, then Molinists usually look with skepticism at the typical Calvinist explanation on this point. But let’s remember that all good Calvinists and Molinists affirm “the well-meant offer” of the Gospel. As Wayne Grudem points out in his discussion of the Savior’s invitation of Matt 11:28-30, “Every non-Christian hearing these words should be encouraged to think of them as words that Jesus Christ is even now, at this very moment, speaking to him or to her individually…This is a genuine personal invitation that seeks a personal response from each one who hears it” (Grudem: 1994, 694. Emphasis original).

So we affirm that salvation is a sovereign, monergistic work of God, such that the redeemed are saved entirely by grace. At the same time, we genuinely repent and believe, we truly receive the Gospel, such that the Christ-rejecter is damned by his own choice. The Bible clearly teaches both concurrent truths. And we must simultaneously affirm both. To coin a phrase from Peter Thuesen, on this issue the biblical witness requires that we must be theologically ambidextrous.

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  1. Ross Parker   •  

    Dr. Keathley,

    Great to see that the book is out! I also appreciate this post pointing out the similarity between the two camps. I’m not entirely sure, however, if Calvinists will agree with your claim that your view of salvation is truly monergistic. (I’m also not sure that I would call it monergistic either, because of the way that the term is used currently.)

    I’m interested to see the discussion that the book engenders.

  2. peter lumpkins   •  

    Dr. Keathley,

    I thought it’d never get here! I ordered my copy yesterday.

    And, even though I’m a fan of Wm. Lane Craig, I’ve never formally considered ‘Molinism’ as a lens through which to interpret Divine sovereignty and human free will. Perhaps it’s because I’ve not yet read your book ;^)

    More importantly, your greatest hurdle may be introducing to Southern Baptists a view which sounds more like the flu than a theo-biblical interpretive approach to the mysteries of the Almighty.

    I hope to read and digest your book before Spring. I may give you a call for some precision tutoring.

    Grace. And merry Christmas to you and your family.

    With that, I am…

  3. Stephen Roberts   •  

    I don’t know Peter, I think this is the “theological home” many young SBCer’s are looking for. While our heroes are mostly Calvinists some find the whole package not satisfying, myself included. Having taken Dr. Little this past semester for Philosophy, he shared the Molinist perspective on Evil, Suffering, and Creation order and Providence. I find it satisfying when dealing with those narratives and even sayings of Jesus that Calvinist usually have to go around the world to explain. I look forward to reading this book and I look forward to the summer school class on Molinism, which will be my last class before I recieve my MDiv, PTL! But anyway back to the SBC receptiveness, I think this is where most theologically engaged SBCers are at even if they can’t put a label on it. Sadly many in our “members in the pews” are Pelagian. Ask them what will happen to the unevangelized, if you don’t believe it.

  4. Ken Keathley   •     Author

    Ross, good to hear from you! Hope all is well in Waco.

    Yes, I expect some debate about the way I use the term “monergism.” However, I mean it in the sense of 1 Cor 15:10–every good choice and action you and I make is the working of divine grace. Yet because we are the source of our respective sins, and because the ability to not sin is truly available to us (1 Cor 10:13), then this monergistic work must in some sense be resistible. One’s understanding of grace’s efficacy must be able to account, not only for our conversion, but also for our sanctification. It must contend that all merit belongs to God while all culpability belongs to us.



  5. Ken Keathley   •     Author

    Peter and Stephen, I have a strong affinity for Reformed theology, and consider Charles Spurgeon and Andrew Fuller to be my heroes. However, like Stephen points out, there are many of us who remain unconvinced about TULIP. Many of us live in 3- to 4-point territory (3-point for me: T,U, and P). Molinism is a model which demonstrates that we are not merely inconsistent Calvinists. Rather it provides a coherent model for holding to the profound truth that choices, actions, and decisions are both certain and contingent.

    Merry Christmas!


  6. Nathan Finn   •  

    You are not far from the kingdom, Dr. Keathley. ;-) I hope the Keathley’s had a blessed Christmas.


  7. Ken Keathley   •     Author

    Yes, the Keathleys had a blessed Christmas, and I trust the same is true for the Finns.

    As for not being far from the kingdom, that brings to mind an analogy to eschatology. I see the development of the salvation and sovereignty issue as somewhat analogous to the way premillennialism has morphed over the last century. When I was young (yes, that was quite a while back) if a person embraced the notion of a literal 1000 year reign, then it could be assumed he also imbibed in classic dispensationalism. That is not so today. The typical current premillennialist (even those at DTS) hold to an eschatology that Schofield or Larkin would hardly recognize.

    The same thing has happened and is happening in Reformed theology. Dort was snapshot of where Reformed theology was at the turn of the 17th century. And the motto “semper reformandum” is true. You are wandering around in the kingdom with me. Happy New Year, Dr Finn!

  8. Nathan Finn   •  

    Dr. Keathley, I always find that you are one magnanimous Molinist. I hope I’m a charitable Calvinist. Let’s both pray that our friend Dr. Ashford will remain an affable Amyraldian. It’s fun wandering the kingdom with you and all the rest of the gang. You and Mrs. Keathley have a Happy New Year.


  9. peter lumpkins   •  

    Thanks for the responses. It’s said (by Professor Jerry Walls, I think) that when famed Reformed thinker, A. Plantinga rehearsed his free-will defense, many tagged him a “Molinist.” Indicative to his response was, what in the world is a Molinist? My point, of course, is obvious.

    As for pelagianism rampant in SB pews, I haven’t the faintest idea about that.

    Grace, all.
    With that, I am…

  10. Stephen Roberts   •  

    Yes, Peter my comment about Pelagianism in the pew was an overstatement. But it would be safer to say “many” Baptist don’t know what they believe or why.

  11. Keith   •  

    Speaking for those in the pew, we know what we believe – and who we believe. Our belief has nothing to do with “roses” and “tulips.” It has EVERYTHING to do with The Rose Of Sharon. After one semester of seminary and seeing the discussions that go on in blogs and such, I can understand why alot of those in the pew think that seminaries “ruin a good preacher.” We just simply take the Bible for what it says. God is the creator of this world and all humanity. HE says nothing about choosing between several possible worlds. HE gave humans the ability to choose freely for themselves, hence the fall of humanity and the fact that every single person is born in sin. JESUS is the ONLY way of salvation, and if ANYONE dies without accepting HIM as LORD and SAVIOR, they spend eternity in Hell and ultimately with satan in the lake of fire. That is what the average rural NC Baptist pew sitter believes. It is not Calvinism, it is not Molinism, it is not any “ism.” It is the pure gospel so simple and plain that a child can understand it. I never heard of the “tulip” of Calvin until about 2 years ago in a theology class in my undergrad. I had never heard of Molinism until Dr. Keathley’s book and his “roses.” Now I know fully why they say “ignorance is bliss.” I think I was better off not knowing about either one. Neither is totally wrong, but neither is near as correct as the Bible. Why do we need to be playing in flowers anyway? All are born in sin and without hope(Romans 3:23). JESUS is the only way of salvation(John 14:6). Everything else is just man-made.

  12. Keith   •  

    By the way – I will soon be 44 and have been a member of several Southern Baptist Churches since I was saved at 9 years old. My father has been a NC SBC pastor since I was 5. Just for some clarification of the previous post.

  13. Tony Auxier   •  

    As far as pelagianism in the pews goes, I think that Robert Picarilli defines it better in Grace, Faith Free Will. He describes most Southern Baptists as Sub-Calvinists. They have an Arminian theology with a belief that any profession of faith makes one a believer who is “secure.” This explains the large number of Southern Baptists who have made a profession of faith, been baptized, and dropped out of sight. They insist they are secure, although their lives deny the gospel has the power to in any way change them. It also explains why most SBC churches are radically opposed to church discipline.
    Dr. Keathley’s book is a fantastic read. Too many people try to trap God in time and make Him think in a linear fashion. I have always been a fan of J. L. Dagg, but have problems with limited atonement and irresistable grace. The logical conclusion that Calvinism makes God the author of evil has always been an obstacle, too. Thank you for an excellent book and an interesting approach to those dilemmas.

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