William Lane Craig vs Paul Helm (Molinism vs Calvinism) – A brief commentary

This debate was aired yesterday on the show called ‘Unbelievable’ on the British Christian radio station ‘Premier Radio’. Here is the internet home page of the show but you can also subscribe to the show on itunes. This is not an exhaustive commentary but I have tried to pick out the main points. Here is the link to the recording.

William Lane Craig is a Molinist and Paul Helm a Calvinist.



Helm’s biggest problem with Molinism appears to be how God could know future free actions. He states he does not understand how it would work. Craig, by way of response, suggests that the verse from 2 Corinthians 10:13 (“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”)  indicates that there are different possibilities to our actions. He also refers to the clear existence of examples of subjunctive conditionals (some call these ‘counterfactual conditionals’ which are statements of the type “if”… “then”) in Scripture. Helm admits there are subjunctive conditionals in Scripture. He then repeats his complaint that he does not know how God can know future free actions and how such actions can be free if God does know them in advance. (Unfortunately there is a break in the show at this point and they don’t come back to this issue when they return – this is profoundly annoying.)

Helm’s criticism appears most curious to me. Even many professional atheist philosophers don’t think there’s a problem with God foreknowing future free actions either because there appears to be no obvious logical inconsistency on the face of it or because there are possible explanations depending on one’s theory of time. Take, for example, the atheist philosopher Nicholas Everitt who states:

“We will argue that theists have been unnecessarily concerned about divine foreknowledge of free action: the two concepts are not in any conflict.”

Nicholas Everitt, ‘The non-existence of God’ p.289

It appears somewhat odd to me that Helm would, on this contentious point, appear to claim some mystery or contradiction as if it causes Molinism some huge problem. If he thinks holding both are logically inconsistent then he must make the case to demonstrate such a thing (and he does not) or he must explain how they are mysterious. The charge of a belief having elements of mystery to it will be far less damaging to Molinism however since most Calvinists admit to moments of mystery in their own theology. One could say a freely chosen action is ‘determined’ in the sense that it is going to happen (on Molinism) but the point is that the source of that decision is the person themselves and not God. The Calvinist, in my opinion, would have to show that God’s foreknowledge of a freely chosen action renders the source of that decision as being to something other than the person themselves and I cannot see how they could do that. Craig did not have the opportunity to explain how Molinism is terribly different from a ‘simple foreknowledge’ view that an Arminian would give and so I’m not sure how Molinism (which has a reputation for getting very technical about such matters) is really necessary to answer Calvinism on this point or account for what the Bible suggests about what God foreknows.


Helm is asked about how humans can be responsible for their wickedness if their wickedness is foreordained by God and Helm replies “they were the choosers” in the sense that the people themselves choose evil. He says he does not understand the charge that God is the author of sin if one is a Calvinist (I find it odd that a philosopher and scholar of Helm’s reputation is not aware of this criticism!). Craig explains that if (as many Calvinists do think including Helm) God causally conditions our wills then he is the reason the person sins and therefore there is some charge to be brought against God. Craig explains that this view appears to impugn the goodness of God. Helm replies that he accepts that Calvinism holds a view that God determines what takes place and the wills of individuals but in order to answer the charge of God causing evil events to take place he suggests that people must understand that God “permits” (yes he actually uses that word) evil and he says that God is “respecting the wills of people” [time log: c.38 minutes].

They touch briefly on the problem of people who do not hear the gospel in their lifetime, as Helm thinks this is more problematic for Molinism than for Calvinism. Craig justifies his view based on Acts 17. God has providence over where people live according to his foreknowledge that he knows how they would react in any and every given situation.

Helm was, in my opinion, let off the hook here. He subscribes to compatibilist Calvinism (the view that divine determination and human responsibility are compatible) and he should have given some account of how both can be reconciled with each other. The way he talks of ‘permission’ and the ‘will’ of human beings made him sound almost Arminian (and to those who don’t know about compatibilism and incompatibilism he would have sounded exactly like an Arminian). I was dying to hear Helm comment on this severe problem but he offered no comment whatsoever. The borrowing of the term “permission” also appears odd to me. Many Calvinists refuse to use such language at all. What on earth does Helm mean when he says that God respects the wills of fallen people? On his version of Calvinism that is exactly the same as saying God respects the wills God gave to humans! How can God only tolerate what God sovereignly decrees?

This account of where people live in relation to the gospel call and its relationship to divine middle knowledge appears to be quite speculative to me but I have not read much on it and would like to read more. It could be open to the charge of demotivating mission which is something a lot of non-Calvinists like to throw at Calvinists (although, of course, to anyone who knows anything about Calvinist history will know this does not happen and Calvinists have been most passionate about mission). After all, if there are places in the world where the gospel is not found then obviously that is the place God is sending those he foreknew would not respond and we would be wasting our time attempting to reach them. Now I know Craig would not want us to take it that way but it could be taken that way.


Helm claims that Craig could not hold to the strong view of depravity as found in the Westminster Confession (another very odd thing for a scholar to say as one would have expected such a person to have read documents such as the Articles of Remonstrance which take a very strong view of human depravity) but Craig points out that virtually all non-Calvinists (apart from Pelagians obviously) believe in total depravity and he explains how the doctrine of prevenient grace helps to explain how humans can respond to the gospel. Helm replies with the standard Calvinist view that God is the only agent involved (either actively or passively) in conversion but I note this is not a reason for thinking the non-Calvinist view is incorrect or unbiblical (he uses an ‘icy pond’ analogy which I take to be a variation on the lifeguard analogy you will find discussed in my previous post). Helm also takes the standard Calvinist view that it takes something away from God (his sovereignty of course) if God is not the only agent involved in salvation. Craig “strongly rejects” the charge that Molinism or Arminianism lead to a type of synergism which means humans can take credit for their salvation. He cites Ephesians 2:8 in support and points out that in the New Testament ‘faith’ is not considered to be a ‘work’. Helm replies that Craig must admit that the non-Calvinist is “contributing something” to the process and this is what he does not like and takes issue with. Craig affirms there is some ‘contribution’ but that does not make it a meritorious action and therefore salvation is still completely by grace through faith. Craig makes it clear it is just a passive acceptance of a free gift and Helm asks what “energizes” the acceptance. [Again – the programme breaks at this point which is annoying because this was a key moment well worth exploring! Arghhhh!]

It appears to me that asking, as Helm does, what “energizes” the acceptance is the wrong question. The reason is because there is a sense in which nothing is energized without God in some ultimate sense but the question should be whether God permits his energy to be used for AND against his will (that is to say – can his grace be resisted?). Now since Helm has already admitted (and I do mean admitted since not all Calvinists, including Calvin himself, like the term ‘permission’ when referring to God having two wills) that God permits certain things to take place which are against his will it appears clear that the issue is not the energy but the SOURCE of that decision. Is the decision made by God or by a human at that point of conversion?

ROMANS 8 and 9:

The Golden Chain (foreknew/predestined/called/justified/glorified)!

Craig notes that the first link in the chain is ‘foreknowledge’ and so he argues this is not a problem text for the Molinist. Helm, of course, disagrees and says that this knowledge is merely knowledge “of his [God’s] own mind”. JB asks Helm about double predestination at this point and Helm says that God is benevolent in a way we don’t understand. Craig says the primary sense of election in Romans is corporate and it should be taken individually only in a secondary sense. Helm says the passage is about God’s choice and not man’s choice and that man has no say in salvation.

This part was incredibly short so you don’t get a real sense of the debate about how to interpret Romans 9 and neither Craig or Helm got sufficient time to lay out their views so it’s hard to be too critical. It would appear that Craig would accept some kind of individual election (possibly even to salvation?) going on in this passage from his brief remarks but of course he would preface this reading by saying it was according to God’s foreknowledge and that this refers to the Molinist idea of middle knowledge. I have to say – I cannot see how Calvinists can complain against that interpretation on exegetical grounds alone.  Is it really possible to render the Greek of Romans “That which God foreknew…”? and if so then surely that knowledge becomes the subject of the predestining / calling etc. in which case this verse makes very little sense on Helm’s reading. Also note that Helm brings in the mystery card at this point – something he was very critical of at the beginning of the discussion when it didn’t suite him to do so. Many Calvinists do this and until they devise some logical rationale for employing appeals to mystery it will always seem like a case of special pleading to me that they do so.


Helm is concerned about God’s sovereignty (what Calvinist isn’t?) and he feels that Molinism is “messy” in its view on God’s sovereignty. Craig explains there are some worlds that are infeasible even for God to create; for example a world in which there is genuine moral free will and in which there is also no suffering since that is not a logically possible world to create. Helm replies by saying that he does not like the idea that God might have chosen a particular world instead of choosing him individually and that God’s love for us is no longer direct but impersonal as a result. Craig replies by saying “I don’t see that at all…” and states clearly that God does love the individuals he creates – in fact God loves those individuals so much that he allows them to have some say over which subjective conditionals come to pass. Craig affirms that God can create a world which is deterministic (in the sense that God knows all that will happen before it happens) and that God’s sovereignty is not compromised. Helm claims again that this view limits God’ sovereignty.

Here I think Craig misses a trick (although time was short and the end was rushed). Helm is claiming that God is somehow limited on the basis that God cannot appear to create certain types of worlds but some other philosophers, such as Jerry Walls, have pointed out that even the Calvinist appears to think there are certain worlds God cannot create as well and yet they do not see this as a slur on divine sovereignty. For example – it would appear that the Calvinist believes that God cannot create a world where he is not glorified through the existence of suffering and evil since Calvinists often talk of suffering and evil being a necessary condition of creating a world with sentient beings in it. I would have liked to have heard Helm’s response to that charge since, I believe, the Calvinist has to admit that there are limitations on God’s sovereignty even in the Calvinist scheme.

Anyway – that’s how I saw it from my biased perspective! What about yourself?

The blogger ‘Wintery Knight’ also has an overview of this exchange and you can find it here.

Never heard of Molinism? You could begin here:

Wikipedia entry

IEP article

WLC on Reasonable Faith

Molinism according to Paul Helm



About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
This entry was posted in Arminian Theology, Calvinism, Conversations, Free Will, Molinism, Philosophy, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to William Lane Craig vs Paul Helm (Molinism vs Calvinism) – A brief commentary

  1. Rabbi Von says:

    Salvation and Sovereignty by Kenneth Keathley is also a very good and accessible resource on Molinism.

    • michaelstheology says:

      Thanks Rabbi! Yes I have heard good things about that book but not had the chance to read it yet. It’s on my Amazon wish list. I’ll add an image. Thanks for making people aware.

  2. Pingback: William Lane Craig and Paul Helm discuss Calvinism and Molinism on the Unbelievable radio show | Wintery Knight

  3. The link below is the best source for a middle knowledge hermeneutic of scripture. It is a “Molinist/Anabaptist” Systematic theology. The only one of its kind. Forget the anabaptist stuff, the work on Molinism is worth the price you pay. Highly recommended!


  4. theinconsistentarminian says:

    There’s another cool little ebook that is written by a layman but covers Molinism very articulately. I gave it a 4 star review on Amazon. I only mention it because it is much cheaper than most books on Molinism and has a good selection of quotes and references.


  5. Pingback: If you’re British and Arminian… DUCK!! | aRemonstrant'sRamblings

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s