Books: Salvation and Sovereignty by Kenneth Keathley

Salvation and Sovereignty by Kenneth Keathley is an outstanding book, but it is a challenge for anyone not prepared to deal with the twists and turns of Calvinistic theology. If you want to learn about Calvinism and its limitations, this book is outstanding.

For starters, don’t judge this book by the cover, which lacks any appeal whatever. The publisher let the author down; that is a common experience.

Aside from clear writing about a complex subject, the special value of this book is that it tries to explain how Molinism (see below) combines with Calvinism to make a biblical and sensible explanation of salvation and sovereignty. At the end of the day, I don’t buy it, but there was never much chance the author could bring me to the somber shores of Calvinism no matter what boat we sailed on.

Molinism

Let’s take a minute to introduce Molinism (also known as “middle knowledge”). The Jesuit scholar and priest Louis Molina (1535–1600) originated a way of applying God’s comprehensive knowledge to the issues of sovereignty, human freedom and salvation. It’s a bit of a head-spinner, so hang on!

Molinism hinges on the words could, would and will. First, God knows everything that could possibly happen; he knows all possible worlds that could be created. Second, God knows everything that would happen; he knows which worlds — out of all the possible worlds — would accomplish his purposes. Third, out of all the possible worlds that would accomplish God’s purposes, he chooses one and creates that one world. In that one created world, God knows everything that will happen.

Now, let’s stop and ask one simple question: where is any of that stated in the Bible? If you answered “Nowhere!” to that question, then give yourself a reward. Keathley says: “Scripture never states explicitly that God utilizes middle knowledge to accomplish his will. But when all the disparate components of the biblical witness are brought together it becomes clear that Molinism is a reasonable proposal.”[1] The kind of philosophical reasoning such as that in the previous paragraph is typical of the sixteenth century, and here we are talking about it in 2011. See my previous post for more on how that happened.

Back to the story of Molinism — the key to the Molinist argument is a kind of trick typical of this kind of philosophical theology. Because God knows everything that would happen in the possible worlds that would accomplish his purposes, he also knows how humans would behave in those worlds. But because God has not yet selected which world he will ultimately create, the human beings in those worlds are acting freely in making their decisions. That being so, there can be no accusation that anyone other than those people are responsible for their behavior. They have complete free will, so this (hypothetical) fact upholds human freedom. It also means they are responsible for the sins they commit.

Next we get to the final step where God picks the world that best suits his purposes. Once he chooses that world and creates it, he has picked a world where nothing can happen other than what he has chosen. He knows what will happen in that world — our world, by the way — so God is shown to be sovereign over every detail of that world. Yet he cannot be responsible for the sin in that world because the humans inhabiting it freely chose such sins before he chose to create that world.

This clever scheme upholds both human freedom and divine sovereignty. So, I guess it is time to break out the champagne and celebrate. Not so fast! Many Calvinists and Arminians have rejected middle knowledge, each because it makes concessions to the other side of the argument. Some on each side are still trying to work out the issues.

I see several problems with this theory of middle knowledge, at least in the form Keathley describes:

  1. The system is still deterministic enough to leave God responsible for sin.
  2. The created world lacks any life-like dynamism because all the choices were made before the world was created.
  3. The system fails to account for the real-time emotions, actions and contingencies that God initiates in the scenes described by the Bible. A good example is the suffering of Jesus and his resulting prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36–44).

Objection 1: Molinism leaves God responsible for sin

Consider my first objection, that Molinism makes God responsible for sin. When God picks world 321 — just one among the infinite possibilities — along with all the specific actions and choices its contains over the course of time, and then creates that world, God is in fact determining that all the actions and choices contained in world 321 will occur without fail. When you think about it, that means God is determining all the murders, instances of sexual slavery, genocides and so on that will occur in the pre-selected “life” of that created world. So, how does Keathley get around this problem?

Keathley treats the would-stage — the specific world 321 that God has not yet created — as if it were an independent compartment sealed off from that world when it is actually created by God at the will-stage. In effect, each person in world 321 is created already responsible for their as-yet-future sins. If not, then God would be responsible for effectuating their lives while already knowing he has determined that they will sin.

How did God pick world 321 for creation? Keathley explains: “William Lane Craig suggests that God ‘chose a world having an optimal balance between the number of the saved and the number of the damned.’ In other words, God has created a world with a maximal ratio of the number of saved to those lost.”[2] Keathley appears to argue that God did the best he could; he made the least bad choice, though Keathley never says so straight out.

Keathley illustrates this view using the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II. General Dwight Eisenhower genuinely desired that none of his troops perish, but he ordered the invasion knowing that some were doomed to death by that decision.[3] To demonstrate Molinism more fully, Keathley later expands that illustration by imagining that General Eisenhower knows exactly what will happen to each soldier in every possible invasion scenario and picks the invasion plan that will result in the least fatalities overall.[4]

Keathley seems to think this least-lost scheme puts God in a favorable light. In fact, the only thing Keathley has done is to maintain what he calls God’s “meticulous command of the minutest details,”[5] which he considers to be a firmly established biblical doctrine. So, in Keathley’s understanding of Molinism and his understanding of the Bible, determinism is alive and well.

Objection 2: Molinism gives us a world without dynamism

Once God decides to create world 321, nothing can happen in the unfolding of that world’s human lives other than what he has already foreseen and determined will occur. Such a world has all the real-life possibilities as a movie on a DVD: that is, it has none! Nothing is going to happen in that world except what the laser has already cut into the grooves of the DVD.

You remember Abraham’s famous string of requests for God to spare Sodom from destruction (Genesis 18)? It reads like a dynamic interchange between the living God and a man concerned for his kinsman. But no, it already happened as part of world 321  a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Once God decided to enact world 321, then Abraham would play his part in due time, just like in the movies. The DVD of world 321 does not change. It can’t!

Objection 3: Molinism mocks contingency and emotions

The Bible is filled with contingent situations, usually marked with the word “if.” Read in Jeremiah 18:5–10 how God shapes his actions to match the repentance or stubbornness of those nations he threatens with judgment. Read in Ezekiel 18:1–32 how God interacts with individuals based on their obedience or disobedience. These chapters express simple contingency where God blesses or curses based on the faith or rebellion of those he is dealing with.

But remember that, in Keathley’s Molinism, world 321 — my designation for the specific world God chose to create — comes into existence with all its questions settled in advance. How can “if” possibly mean anything in world 321? The ugly truth is that in such a world God is not free; never mind the fact that man is not free either.

Molinism also seems to mock emotions. Consider the powerful emotions Jesus expressed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36–44 and Mark 14:32–34). It is even more wrenching in the Greek original than in English translation. Jesus said, “Abba, Father . . . everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Does the Father really have a choice here? Jesus says he does, but how is that possible in the pre-determined world 321? How can Jesus feel such strong emotions here and in other cases if he has known for 13.5 billion years — or 7,000 years for you young-earth folks — what was going to happen?

Quick Summary on Keathley’s Molinism

Maybe I’m missing something, but for now it seems that Keathley has only traded problems. He does a terrific job of respectfully showing the shortcomings of standard Calvinism. Keathley appropriately notes that while Calvinism stresses God’s sovereignty above all else, Molinism stresses God’s omniscience the most. Molinism is indeed preferable. Unfortunately, both roads still lead to determinism.

A Final Word

I would add that Keathley does a great job discussing ROSES, the new replacement for Calvinism’s famous TULIP. I may address that another day. He also has some useful insights from historical theology. If you like philosophical theology that has a high view of Scripture and is very well written, this book is for you. I really enjoyed it.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.


[1] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010) 41.

[2] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 153.

[3] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 153.

[4] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 160.

[5] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 23.