Molinism and Self-Existence

Recently, I had the privilege of appearing on Evan McClanahan’s radio show on KPFT 90.1, called Sin Boldly. Evan was interested in having me on in light of an article I wrote a few weeks back titled ‘The Break-Up: Molinism & Divine Simplicity’. Now, Evan is not a Molinist, but he did invite Eric Hernandez of Eric Hernandez Ministries to represent Molinism in light of my stance on the position.

We only had an hour to discuss some rather lofty theological items, so it helps me to leave this follow-up article for interested readers.

My contention, in case it was muddied during the conversation, was that Molinism violates the doctrine of divine simplicity by adding a real separate category of knowledge to God (i.e. middle knowledge). Eric’s response to this, in the end, was that it made no difference whether or not he had to deny simplicity because he denies it already.

But my point, originally, was to point out that if you violate divine simplicity, you violate self-existence or God’s being necessary—a doctrine Eric does hold to (see here)

First, the issue between Molinism and God’s self-existence is in the fact that God’s middle knowledge cannot be ontologically grounded in God if creatures are truly libertarian free agents.  If middle knowledge were in God necessarily, then it follows He determines the actualized world and this fails to satisfy libertarian free will. Ergo, libertarian free will is illusory. If God has a real category of knowledge not metaphysically grounded in Him, that is contingent knowledge, then God is made of parts (His natural and free knowledge & His middle knowledge). And, in case you were wondering, since natural and free knowledge are not truly distinct but only linguistically distinct, there is no problem for divine simplicity along those lines.

Some Molinists have said that God’s middle knowledge doesn’t originate in Him but that it’s a contingent knowledge in that it depends, at least in part, upon what creatures would do given various possible worlds. God must choose a world in which His will is maximally fulfilled. In other words, He must choose a world such that (as it relates to salvation) persons X choose objective C given a particular set of circumstances. And this world is that which best aligns with His will.

The problem, if one wants to hold onto libertarian free will at this point, is that God either derives this knowledge from His creatures, or the knowledge originated in His being and is thus wholly grounded in Him, leaving Him the determiner of all things which come to pass. Meaning that even if He creates one world over all the others, He determines that world—having eternally prior knowledge of all that which would come to pass in that world. If God creates world X, knowing everything about world X (exhaustively), yet He could have created worlds A, B, C, or D, God determines that world X should come to pass. All that which God foresees coming to pass in world X will happen notwithstanding any other causal agent.

Thus, this undermines libertarian free will since God could have created another world other than world X. From God’s eternal choosing to create world X, that which will happen in world X will happen, unless of course God chooses to create a different world. See, then, that what will happen in world X is completely dependent upon God and His decision to create that world, not in any way upon the creature.

If, on the other hand, God derives this knowledge in some quasi-immutable way, it is a truly distinct knowledge from God’s necessary and free knowledge. Where as necessary and free knowledge are had by God in a single eternal act, and thus in virtue of Himself; middle knowledge is had by God in virtue of other factors external of Himself, and this means God is made of at least two partsthe traditional description of God plus middle knowledge. And this violates self-existence. A simple argument is as follows:


  • If God is self-existent, then He exists in virtue of who He is.
  • If God exists in virtue of who He is, then His essence and existence are one. [For example: If we think of something that is self-existent, we are thinking of something that just exists. We can think of unicorns without thinking of unicorns as having any real existence. But we cannot think of something that is self-existent without also thinking of that thing existing.]
  • But if God’s essence and existence are one, then there is no real distinction between His essence and existence.
  • If there is no real distinction between God’s essence and existence, it follows that there can be no real distinction between God’s attributes and His essence. Otherwise, God wouldn’t exist in virtue of who He is essentially, but in virtue of His attributes or properties. He would not be self-existent, but dependent upon His attributes.
  • Therefore, there can be no real distinction in God’s knowledge. [Because God would then depend on a faculty of knowledge to be who He is. He would not be self-existent. He would exist in virtue of His parts, not in virtue of Himself.]

Second, Eric made a distinction between substance and aggregates. He defined a substance as that which has inseparable parts; while he defined aggregates as those which have parts, but depend on their parts to be what they are. Later, in a Facebook conversation, he defined substances as those things which may have capacities and faculties, but are not made up of parts “held together in a given structure.”

I think this is a distinction without a difference, as I tried to hint on the show.

A substance does not have to be composed of parts, capacities, or faculties if that substance is simple. In fact, this description would only apply to creatures, not to the Creator. For example, my substance as Josh is composed of parts, parts I depend upon. Eric chose to use an example in which humans do not rely on their parts, but this way of thinking isn’t very interesting. For one, I do rely on my parts to be who I am, and there must be a distinction between essential parts and accidental parts. I do not need my hand to be Josh. But I do need my soul and my body to be a human, to be Josh. Moreover, I need both the essence of human-ness and my existence in order to be who I currently am. You see, I do depend on my parts.

The same is true for Eric’s definition of substance. If, as Eric said, the parts of the substance depend upon the substance rather than the substance on the parts, then what is the substance? To ask it another way, what would the substance be without its parts? Would it exist at all? Would it merely exist in a different way?

In light of these questions, what is the real difference between a substance with parts (faculties, capacities, etc) and an aggregate comprised of the same types of things? Could not a person say the same of an aggregate that they do of a substance? For example, an aggregate is composed of parts, consequently depending upon them to be what it is. Take away a part of the aggregate, and the aggregate then changes. So too, the substance, as defined by Eric, must retain its parts (capacities, faculties, etc) irrespective of whether or not it has always had them eternally or inseparably. If, in theory, it didn’t retain it’s parts, the substance would change, and this proof that the substance, notwithstanding Eric’s claim to the contrary, needs or depends upon its parts to be what it is.

Third, Eric also said, toward the end, that I did not show how God’s self-existence is incompatible with middle knowledge, should middle knowledge be a part (capacity, faculty, etc) of God. But this is simply not true. I explained how, in my opening statement, a necessary being must in fact be self-existent. Moreover, I explained that this self-existence entails simplicity because something that is composed of that which is more basic to itself cannot be self-existent—because it’s existence would then depend on its parts. God would not be self-existent, that is subsistent existence itself, but would be contingent upon His parts and would exist in virtue of His parts, not in virtue of Himself. God would depend on middle knowledge to be God.

If Eric were to object using the distinction he presented between substances and aggregates, one would simply need to ask what is the substance that the parts are supposedly relying upon? It seems like a cop-out to posit inseparable parts in a substance, claiming they are necessary, and then deny the ontological priority of those parts while claiming those parts depend on the substance rather than the other way around. But if the substance is the sum total of these parts, then it itself depends upon these parts to be what it is.

It is my prayer that this conversation will continue.

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