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.