God’s control and our free will

This is the second post in a series of posts on God’s providence. Last time we looked at a bunch of passages from Scripture which weigh in on the question. This time, as the title suggests, we’re going to talk about the relationship between God’s control and our free will.

In our first post, we asked two questions:

  1. Does God have the ability to control or direct human choices and actions?
  2. How often does God exercise this ability?

I think it was plain from last time that God does have the ability of directing human actions (cf. Gen 50:20, 1 Sam 2:25, Luke 22:22, Acts 4:27-28) and that he uses this ability to direct all history (cf. Prov 16:9, Eph 1:11). Now we turn to our current question: “How does God direct human actions?”

Some views on providence and free will

When I was younger I would often ask about how on earth God could direct human history without removing human responsibility. At the time, unfortunately, no-one around me was sufficiently equipped to answer the question and my question often got shrugged off with one of those, “oh well it’s just a mystery” kind of answers. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with mystery per se. After all God is a person and we can’t presume to know the motivations for his actions all the time, just like I can’t know the motivations behind the actions of anyone around me. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to make sense of it, at least for the sake of showing the Christianity is a coherent worldview. A correct understanding of this relationship between God’s control and our responsibility will also counteract faulty thinking. I’ve found it happen too often that Christians who haven’t thought about divine providence fall into fatalistic thinking, which is quite unbiblical.

As it turns out, there are a number of models that seek to elucidate this relationship. We’ll begin by listing of a number of different answers that have been given, and then we’ll focus on the details of two of these answers specifically. The first class of models are what we might call “meticulous control” models. These models hold that God can bring about any possible choice in a human. The second class we might call “directing control” models. These hold that God can control outcomes of human actions, but can’t necessarily bring about all of the possible outcomes. This may sound weird, but we’ll see how we can hold this kind of model with a strong view of divine providence. The final class we might call “negligible control” models, and I’m sure you can guess what they hold. We won’t be concerning ourselves with this third class of models, because I think they’re unbiblical (although some very clever theologians don’t, which is worth noting).

In this post we will be discussing compatibilism (meticulous) and Molinism (directing) as potential answers to the question we posed earlier. I myself currently hold to the latter of these two, although I have held a a fair number of different views in the past, and I don’t really mind which you prefer yourself.

Free will

Before we discuss these models we need to introduce some distinctions with regards to free will and moments of God’s knowledge. First, there’s the distinction between compatbilistic versus libertarian free will. The compatbilist says that a choice being free is compatible with it being causally determined. Some compatibilists take this to include being caused to choose one way or the other by something external to the person doing the choosing (called external causal determination), whereas others only take this to include being caused by factors internal to the person doing the choosing, like their desires or will. As far as I understand, all compatibilists will agree that God can cause me to choose something and that choice will be free so long as it does not go against my will or nature.

Now, libertarianism is incompatibilistic. The libertarian says that an agent’s choice is free only if it ultimately arose from the agent and is not causally determined. There are some variations on this, but this is the basic idea. For the libertarian, even if God caused a person to choose something that was consistent with what they wanted, that choice would not be free.

The difference, in terms of choices being determined can be stated from the perspective of possible worlds. Imagine an agent A is in a circumstance C. For the compatibilist, A necessarily makes a choice S and is free. For most forms of libertarianism, A there will be some possible worlds in which A chooses S and other possible worlds in which A chooses otherwise. This is called the principle of contrary choice (PCC). As far as I’m aware the libertarian needn’t take PCC as a necessary condition for a choice to be free, but in this post we’ll assume the PCC for the sake of simplicity.

Moments of God’s knowledge

On classical theism, God is omniscient. However, certain things God knows depend on other things he knows. We can distinguish between up to 3 “moments” of God’s knowledge. These moments are logically ordered, in the sense that some depend on others. But they are not temporally ordered, since God had all this knowledge from eternity “before” there was time.

The first moment is God’s natural knowledge. This is God’s knowledge of all necessary truths. This includes all possible worlds, that is, all the different ways history could have gone. So, we’ll say that God’s natural knowledge is his knowledge of everything that could happen. God does not choose the content of his natural knowledge. So, natural knowledge is necessary and not chosen by God.

The last moment is God’s free knowledge. This is God’s knowledge of everything that will happen. God has this knowledge because of his decision of which possible world to actualise. As such, God does choose the content of his free knowledge. So, free knowledge is contingent and chosen by God.

Now there is a third moment called God’s hypothetical knowledge. Depending on our view of God’s providence this is gets placed differently in the order of things. How much we focus on it also differs with the views of providence, as we’ll see now. God’s hypothetical knowledge is his knowledge of everything that would happen. What I mean is the following: we can all agree that there are facts of the form, “If person A were put in a circumstance C, then he would choose S”. The libertarian can say, for example, that in any given circumstance, there is only one thing we would choose, even though there a lots of things we could choose. As I said, where we place this knowledge is determined by our view, and this is what we’ll be talking about now.


Say we’re compatibilistic about free will. The next question is how God determines what will happen. Does he place us in circumstances which causally determine our choices, or does he actively cause our choices? We’ll call these two views soft compatibilism and omnicausality respectively. For both, God’s hypothetical knowledge is part of his natural knowledge. Although typically, on omnicausality, God’s hypothetical knowledge isn’t a particular focus since that’s not the primary means by which he brings about his purposes.

I won’t say much about soft compatibilism, since it’s very similar to Molinism, which we’ll discuss below. The key difference being the type of free will in focus. The soft compatibilist, I presume, would say that when the person is put in a given circumstance, the factors in the circumstance (be it the person’s nature, feelings and will at the time, their character, etc.) causally determine, and therefore necessitate, the choice that person will make. It’s worth noting that compatibilists don’t think that any causally determined choice is free: only non-constrained choices. In his book, No one like Him, John S. Feinberg has this to say about constraint (pg. 636):

As for constraint, in general it is a force that is not part of a person’s nature, a force which moves them to act against their wishes. Often the constraining force is external to the person, though a psychological neurosis might also constrain someone at act against his will.

Omnicausality seems quite strong, but if I were a compatibilist I think it’s the one I’d go for. The version of this view that I have in mind is the one explicated by Paul Helseth in his contribution to the book, Four views on divine providence (his contribution is summarised quite nicely here). As far as I can make out, Helseth takes omnicausality to be a consequence of the doctrine of concurrence. Essentially, this doctrine holds that God is the primary cause of everything that occurs in the world. On Helseth’s account, this means that he is also the cause of free creaturely choices. This isn’t to say that he is the only cause of these choices, but rather that he causes the choice along with the agent. Helseth distinguishes between God as the primary cause and the agent as the secondary cause of the agent’s choosing. God’s causal work, among other things, is what enables the agent to make their choice in the first place. I’m sure Helseth, along with the soft compatibilist, would be quick to include the nuance about non-constraining causation as a necessary condition for free will. Unfortunately, we can’t delve too deeply into the details of Helselth’s proposal here, so I’d recommend reading his contribution to the book and/or the summary I linked to. Needless to say, the view is nuanced, and in my opinion it is defensible.


The Molinist places God’s hypothetical knowledge in the middle, between his natural and free knowledge, and calls it middle knowledge. On this view, what it means for the hypothetical knowledge to be in the middle (as opposed to being part of natural or free knowledge) is that it is contingent and not chosen by God. Molinists are also libertarians, and they use middle knowledge to explain how God can direct human history without our actions being causally determined: God ensures that we find ourselves in the circumstances in which we would choose according to his plan.

On this proposal, we can imagine that in the first moment of God’s knowledge (natural knowledge) he has all the possible worlds laid out in front of him. Then, in the second moment (middle knowledge), some of these worlds are picked out as feasible worlds. These are the possible worlds in which the creatures act according to the counterfactuals contained in God’s middle knowledge. God then picks from the feasible worlds which to actualise, and so he enters the third moment of knowledge (free knowledge).

Some people have taken exception to the “strangeness” of middle knowledge. How can it be that there are contingent facts that are not decided by God? If not God, then what decided them? To put this in more philosophical terms, what grounds the truth of the counterfactuals that make up God’s middle knowledge? This oft repeated question is known as the grounding problem. We’re not going to discuss it here, but I’ve written a post detailing how I think the counterfactuals can be explained (even if they can’t be grounded) and to my mind this greatly reduces the weight of the problem. On the answer I give there, it is us who decide which counterfactuals are true.

We must reiterate that Molinism includes libertarian free will. What this means, at least in general, is that agents can act contrary to how they would act. That is, in a given circumstance there is one thing an agent would do even though there are many things they could do. Consider what this means from the perspective of possible and feasible worlds. Imagine Bob is put in some circumstance C, and imagine further that the counterfactual “If Bob were in C, he would choose A” is true. This means that in every feasible world in which Bob is in C, he chooses A. There are possible worlds in which Bob is in C and doesn’t choose A, but God can’t actualise these worlds, because it would involve Bob choosing contrary to what we would freely choose according to the counterfactuals that happen to be true. On libertarianism, it is a contradiction in terms for God to cause Bob to choose something freely.

Does Scripture dictate which view we should hold?

Some theologians and/or philosophers think that Scripture teaches compatibilism. I obviously disagree. Others think that Scripture teaches something like Molinism (or at least libertarianism). I disagree with them too. I am of the opinion that Scripture is largely underdeterminitve when it comes to reconciling God’s control and our moral responsibility. What I mean by that, is that Scripture teaches two things: (1) that God directs history according to his will, and (2) that human choices are real and that we are responsible for our choices. It teaches these, but it doesn’t tell us how they’re supposed to be reconciled. It is up to each of us to find a model that, in our opinion, best explains the truths Scripture teaches without over-emphasising either of them.

Scriptural passages that go against Molinism?

With that in mind, let’s consider three objections to Molinism, besides the grounding problem which I mentioned earlier. First, we might consider passages in Scripture that seem to suggest that God has more control than what the middle knowledge affords him. In one of the passages we quoted last time, the writer of Exodus tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3-4, 9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8, 17):

And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.

Surely, our interlocutor questions, this goes contrary to what Molinism says about how God directs human choices? Again, she might point to Ephesians 1:11, where Paul is quite clear that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will.”  Surely, our interlocutor urges, this goes contrary to the scope of God’s control that Molinism allows for? I’m sure there are other passages that one might bring up, but it seems to me that any passage would be brought against either the means or scope of God’s control on Molinism.

Now, do the passages I mentioned really show what our interlocutor thinks they do? I don’t think so. Firstly, the Molinist would whole-heartedly agree that God works all things according to his will. After all, he decided all of history before he created anything (remember our talk about possible and feasible worlds?) Just because he doesn’t directly causally establish everything doesn’t mean he doesn’t bring it about via some other mediate means. Secondly, we must be careful not to read into Scripture the means by which God brings about choices: the Exodus passages say that God harden’s Pharaoh’s heart. But how does he do that? Exodus doesn’t say; it just tells us the outcome. As a Molinist, I gladly read that and think, “Yes! God placed Pharaoh in circumstances in which he knew Pharaoh would freely choose to reject him.” No problem here.

Based on how we dealt with those two passages, it becomes easy to see why I think Scripture is largely underdeterminitve when it comes to these things. The Biblical authors simply don’t spend time trying to explicate exactly how God’s control is to be balanced with human responsibility. When people claim that this or that passage shows their view to be correct, we must ask ourselves if they are not simply reading their view into the passage.

Scriptural doctrines that go against Molinism?

Ok, perhaps we can’t find a passage that rules out one view or the other. But perhaps Scripture teaches some doctrine which would rule out Molinism. Consider the doctrine of concurrence, for example. We saw earlier that Paul Helseth takes omnicausality to be a logical consequence of concurrence. Is this the case? Perhaps for the type of concurrence that Helseth has in mind, but it seems to me that the teaching of Scripture is also consistent with the type of concurrence described by William Lane Craig here:

With regard to free acts, this serves to highlight Molina’s doctrine of simultaneous concurrence. Remember we talked about the doctrine of concurrence a couple of lectures ago which is the doctrine that God concurs with the actions of secondary causes to bring about their effects. So God is the cause, literally, of everything that happens. The fire would not burn unless God concurred with the action of the fire to produce its effect. Molina’s doctrine of simultaneous concurrence is different than the doctrine of his Catholic Dominican predecessors. He was a Jesuit and he disagreed with Thomas Aquinas and the Dominicans as well as the Protestant reformers on this. His view is that God does not act on the creaturely will to make it move this way or that, but he acts with the creatural will to produce its effects. Do you see the difference? He doesn’t act on John’s will to move John’s will to A or to not-A. Rather, he acts with John’s will in accordance with what John chooses so that if John chooses A, God concurs with that choice and produces the effect. He doesn’t act on John’s will to bring about A, rather he acts with John’s will so that both John and God bring about A. Therefore, John is completely free. He is not determined by prior causes. So John has libertarian freedom – incompatibilistic freedom. The circumstances in which John acts are freedom permitting circumstances. But God knows how he would freely act in those circumstances. So by placing him in those circumstances, God knows what John would choose and God concurs with John’s free choice to bring about the effect that John would have. So everything that happens is caused by God. In sinful decisions, God concurs with the agent’s choice to produce the effect of the sinful choice but notice he does not move the person’s will to make that sinful choice. That is different from the Calvinistic view where God is the one who determines the choice of the will. Here what God does is he concurs in the choice by producing the effect of the sinful choice, but he does not act on that person’s will to make it choose that way. Therefore, God is not responsible for the sinfulness of the act since he did not move the creatures will to do it. Therefore, God is not the author of sin on Molinism. Out of his desire to permit human freedom, he allows human persons to make evil choices and he concurs in their effects because he wants them to have genuine freedom but he does not make them choose those evil actions. In the case of good actions, God directly wills the things that happen but in the case of sinful or evil acts God merely permits them to happen by concurring in producing the effects of those sinful actions but he does not will directly that they happen and he certainly does not move the creature to make those choices.

Besides the doctrine of concurrence, some people I’ve spoken to have wondered how Molinism doesn’t detract from God’s omnipotence. However, it has been almost universally acknowledged that God’s omnipotence doesn’t entail his ability to bring about contradictions. Since Molinism involves libertarianism with respect to free will, it follows that for God to be able to cause someone to do something freely is a contradiction. Therefore, his inability to do so does not detract from his omnipotence any more than his inability to create square circles or married bachelors.

Scriptural passages that go against compatibilism?

Some libertarians have mentioned that God holding humans responsible for their sins is a Scriptural reason for rejecting compatibilistic. Of course, this is just as mistaken an approach as the first objection against Molinism we considered above. This simply assumes that libertarianism is the only valid view of free will, and therefore the Biblical authors must have assumed it when writing. Again, I say, Scripture does not say one way or the other.


We’ve considered two views on how God’s control and human responsibility can be reconciled (compatibilism and Molinism). Both of these are consistent with the teaching of Scripture, and so it seems to me that the only way to decide between them is by going with the one that we are more philosophically inclined towards. Of course, while we might agree that both are consistent, we might nonetheless be inclined towards one or the other by our reading of Scripture, and that’s fine too. Next we will tackle the problem of suffering.

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