By Richard Sasso
One of the most influential theologians across many Christian circles today was a Jesuit priest from 16th-century Spain. That priest is Jesuit Father Luis de Molina, SJ.
De Molina’s ideas — known as Molinism — resonate across the theological spectrum. They help scholars in many disciplines think more clearly about topics as diverse as “biblical inerrancy, creation and evolution, the relationship between Christianity and other world religions, the problem of evil, and quantum indeterminacy,” according to Dr. Kirk MacGregor in his book “Luis de Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge.” MacGregor, an associate professor of philosophy and religion at McPherson College, is both a devout evangelical Christian and a scholar of de Molina.
The author of the only full-length biography of de Molina in any language, MacGregor has long loved the work of de Molina. Although much of de Molina’s seminal work, “The Concordia,” was still untranslated into English when he first heard about de Molina in graduate school, MacGregor was undeterred. He learned Latin to gain access to the fullness of de Molina’s work.
Here’s the story of Luis de Molina that MacGregor uncovers. He was born in Cuenca, Spain, in 1535 to an affluent merchant family. Anticipating a career in his family business, de Molina studied law at the University of Salamanca in 1551. There he was exposed to the “Spiritual Exercises” of Ignatius of Loyola and had a life-changing conversion experience. He came to see and believe that Jesus demanded more than simple obedience or blind faith. Rather, he argued, people should fully dedicate themselves to the Lord. Like Ignatius of Loyola himself, de Molina too walked away from his family’s high status to follow in the footsteps of Christ.
After his conversion experience, de Molina entered the Jesuit order in 1553, completing his doctorate in 1562. De Molina would then spend the rest of his life crisscrossing the Iberian Peninsula teaching philosophy at various universities. His academic output was prodigious and varied; he would write and teach about a variety of topics, from economics and contract law to profound metaphysics.
“You have to understand all his concerns to fully appreciate de Molina,” MacGregor emphasizes in an interview. Not simply content to explore metaphysics, de Molina wrote with keen insight into economic issues, such as the paradoxes created by supply and demand: “The just price of a pearl, which can be used only to decorate, is higher than the just price of grain, bread, or horses, even if the utility of these things is superior.” He was also a prescient voice in his opposition to the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade.
But his most enduring contribution was the idea of God’s “Middle Knowledge.” Known in Latin as “scientia media,” it represents de Molina’s valiant attempt to reconcile human free will with divine providence. “Divine providence” here refers to how God directs events to achieve his goals. But many Christians also believe people have free will to make their choices without being controlled by God. How exactly an all-powerful God uses free agents to achieve his ends is a formidable intellectual riddle.
Unwilling to simply throw up his hands and leave the matter a mystery, de Molina dedicated himself to solving the riddle. The answer, de Molina believed, was in the nature of God’s omniscience, or the totality of his knowledge.
De Molina’s surprising — perhaps even genius — insight was that God’s total knowledge includes three parts: He has both “natural knowledge” (knowledge of all possible truths) and his “free knowledge” (knowledge of God’s own will and how he wants to achieve it). Between these, de Molina reasoned, there must be a “Middle Knowledge.” According to Professor MacGregor in his biography of de Molina, “Middle Knowledge is God’s knowledge of all things that would happen in every possible set of circumstances, both things that are determined to occur by those circumstances and things that are not determined to occur by those circumstances.”
Therefore, God knows what each of his creatures will do in any given circumstances. De Molina argued that God achieves his will not by forcing or predestining anyone to do or be anything. Rather he simply arranges events so that his creatures will act in a way that is both an outgrowth of their free will according to their natures but also in accordance with his divine will. One way to think of it is like this: God uses this Middle Knowledge to put the right people in the right places. They then act with full free will and in accordance with their natures, but in a way that fulfills God’s will.
This “Middle Knowledge” theory was to generate immense controversy within Catholicism during de Molina’s lifetime. Catholicism had no single doctrine or dogma about how exactly free will and divine providence interact. (Nor does it today.) However, de Molina’s ideas were distinct from the ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas’ thinking on the topic. And in the intellectual tumult of the world after the Protestant Reformation, new theological ideas were often viewed with suspicion in Catholicism, especially in Spain at the time.
This led to controversy. Just as Ignatius of Loyola often found himself under investigation from ecclesial authorities, de Molina eventually found himself under investigation by the Spanish Inquisition, facing some risk to himself. Indeed, Pope Paul V himself intervened in the argument, although the dispute would eventually be resolved after de Molina’s death. De Molina won his battle posthumously: The pope decided Molinism was a valid philosophical path, but also ended the argument by prohibiting further debate.
Molinism then receded into history as part of an esoteric battle among Catholic theologians until 1974.
The man responsible for its rebirth was Protestant thinker Alvin Plantinga, who would eventually teach at the University of Notre Dame. By all accounts a scholar of immense intellect, Plantinga published the book “God, Freedom and Evil” in 1974. In that book, Plantinga re-discovered the basic tenets of Molinism without realizing it. When other scholars pointed out how his ideas resonated with Molinism, Plantinga became a firm defender of Molinism, writing extensively on the implications of Middle Knowledge especially.
This opened the door to its current renaissance. Plantinga’s academic work brought the idea of “Middle Knowledge” back into currency among academic theologians across many denominations of Christianity by showing its applications across many areas. Soon a variety of thinkers began to mine its vein of thought, including Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dr. Craig is perhaps one of the most respected evangelical Protestant Christian apologists at work in America today. He holds posts at two universities and has two doctorates, one each in philosophy and theology.
Craig’s enthusiasm for Molinism is obvious. “I discovered Molinism when doing my doctoral work and reading … Alvin Plantinga,” he said in an interview. This school of philosophy was among “the most fruitful of theological ideas I have encountered.”
Besides threading the theological needle of predestination versus free will, Molinism also gives new ways of thinking about how God inspired Scripture and other religious questions. But Craig notes that Molinism also touches on our role in bringing about the kingdom of God in our world. Craig further notes that as each of us goes through life, we must never forget we have been placed in this world with God’s exquisite care; we have divinely inspired opportunities to evangelize those whom we are “appointed to meet” as we go through life.
In fact, Molinism affirms that we each have a unique vocation in our lives to see that God’s will be done. De Molina’s work has gone from obscurity to generating innovation across religious disciplines today. The current relevance of Molinism itself may best serve to make de Molina’s argument: God puts us where he needs us to do his work. The work may not always be easy — and we may not see its results at the time. But in doing it, we are like the sower in Christ’s parable, planting a seed that may bear unexpected fruit — 100, 60, and 30-fold.
Richard Sasso teaches high school English and Spanish outside of Chicago, Illinois. He is a freelance writer, teacher union activist, and an advocate for immigrants. His works include “Becoming Italian.”