If one engages in theological studies, one will be met with two main theological paths: that of Calvinism from French Reformer John Calvin and that of Arminianism from Dutch Reformer Jacob Arminius. Calvin’s theology can best be summarized by the acronym TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints). Arminius, while not taking an extreme course as believed by some, took somewhat a different route. For he still promoted total depravity (with some distinctions), but also taught conditional election (based on divine foreknowledge), unlimited atonement (free for everyone), resistible grace, and leaving open the possibility of apostasy (while he did not explicitly teach that one would fall away from grace, he left it open as a possibility).
As I have deepened my studies in Scripture, I have noticed glaring holes in both systems. For Calvinism, there are undeniable problems related to the character of God. Calvin did not focus so much on the love of God as he did the grace of God (for more information see my paper Evaluation of John Calvin’s Views on Election here on the website). There are clear-cut problems with Calvinism (at least the extreme forms) when it comes to understanding a person’s responsibility to respond to the Spirit of God. For example, Paul writes explicitly “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). This indicates that one can resist the Spirit of God. God also says, “…“I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.” But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Romans 10:20-21).Notice that God states through Paul and Isaiah that He reached out to others not associated with Israel while continuing to reach out His hands to those who were disobedient and contrary. Why would God do this if His Spirit were irresistible? Obviously God knew they would resist, but He still tried to reach them.
There are great problems with Arminianism, as well. If you read some of my earlier posts, you will note that I previously identified myself as a classic Arminian Baptist. However, I am not so certain that Arminius holds the best answers either. While Arminius holds fewer problems than extreme Calvinists, Arminianism is problematic in the sense of Romans 9. Many Arminians would hold to what is called corporate election, meaning that God chose to save a group of people through Christ. Christ was the person that was elected and not necessarily other individuals. This is extremely problematic. For, one will note that if God foreknew the people who were going to be saved, God would have known the individuals that constituted that corporate group before they were created, as well as those who were not chosen. Why then did God still create those who were not going to respond?
Luckily, other systems can be discovered that help one wade through the depth of these theological issues. In fact, two other systems are preferred over both Calvinism and Arminianism. These systems are less stringent than those of Calvin and Arminius which leaves more wiggle room, therefore holding less problems. The two systems stem from the uber-intellectual Christian giant known as Thomas Aquinas (Thomism) and from one of Aquinas’ followers, Spanish theologian Luis de Molina (Molinism). Both systems hold similarities with some stark differences.
Basics of Thomism
Thomism does not have a catchy little acronym to demonstrate the basics of the system. However, for the purposes of this article, it is important to understand two basic principles that Thomas Aquinas taught in his classic writing Summa Theologicae. First, Thomas believed in the sovereign reign of God. In fact, God is responsible for the creation of all things. For Thomas, God is the necessary “efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name God” (Aquinas, Summa I.2.3, 67). Therefore, God is the prime mover when it comes to salvation. However, Thomas seemed to hold to a form of the human will in the process of salvation. Thomas writes that
“just as it is impossible for a thing to be at the same time violent and natural, so it is impossible for a thing to be absolutely coerced or violent, and voluntary. But necessity of end is not repugnant to the will, when the end cannot be attained except in one way: thus from the will to cross the sea, arises in the will the necessity to wish for a ship. In like manner neither is necessity repugnant to the will…For what befits a thing naturally and immovably must be the root and principle of all else appertaining thereto, since the nature of a thing is the first in everything, and every movement arises from something immovable…” (Aquinas, Summa I.82.2, 290).
So for the Thomist, God is the ultimate mover and humans respond to the movement of God. Later, it was added that efficacious grace, or “grace that effects the purpose for which it is given” (Hughes 2001, 521) was necessary for one to be saved. In other words, efficacious grace is grace that plays out to its end. This is somewhat similar to the doctrine of irresistible grace with some differences. It is here that Molina would have issues with the classic Thomist view.
Basics of Molinism
Luis de Molina, a Spanish theologian and knew and taught from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologicae extensively. However, Molina held some issues with the two forms of knowledge promoted by Thomas Aquinas and in his view of efficacious grace. Molina held that while humans were free to respond to the grace of God, God knew how a person would respond under certain circumstances. Molina held that in addition to God’s natural knowledge (things that are) and free knowledge (things that could be), God also possesses middle knowledge (or the things that might be under certain circumstances). So, in other words, Molina believed that God knew how a person would respond to God’s grace under certain circumstances. Therefore, God places people in events and places that would bring the person to His grace without impeding upon the human will. This differs from Arminanism because God absolutely knows what it takes to bring a person to faith and knows those of whom no amount of persuasion would influence. This holds a greater balance in the context of Scripture than one might think. The Scriptural support for Molinism will be argued in a future article. Because of middle knowledge, Molina did not see efficacious grace as necessary.
Finally, future Molinists would create another version of the Molinist system. Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez developed a system called Congruism. Congruism fits well in both Calvinist and Arminian perspectives. In this system, God knows individuals before creation. God’s knowledge of the individuals includes the knowledge of what the person would do in certain circumstances. Therefore, those who would respond to the grace of God were placed in positions that would lead the person to respond to the grace of God. Efficacious grace re-enters this version of Molinism. While more study of Bellarmine and Suarez’s theology is necessary before expounding on their systems extensively, the Congruist system is explained by Millard J. Erickson as “a mild Calvinism…that gives primary place to God’s sovereignty, while seeking to relate it in a positive way to human freedom and individuality. This theology is a dualism in which the second element is contingent on or derived from the first. That is, there are realities distinct from God that have a genuine and good existence of their own, but ultimately received their existence from him by creation (not emanation)” (Erickson 1998, 448). Erickson also writes that Congruism was the position of B.B. Warfield who termed the position as congruism as it “holds that God works congruously with the will of the individual; that is, God works in such a suasive way with the will of the individual that the person freely makes the choice God intends” (Warfield, in Erickson 1998, 385).
While any of these three systems work well in dealing with the sovereignty/free will conundrum, it is in this writer’s opinion that Congruism works the best. However, I would disagree with Warfield, Erickson, and Norman Geisler that Congruism is a version of mild Calvinism. Congruism should be noted as being mild Molinism. For Congruism seems to fit the system of Molina more than Calvin. In fact, Congruism seems to fit the systems developed by Bellarmine and Suarez even more as these two theologians presented their own twist to Molinism. I would add one small detail to Warfield’s description of the system, however. It is God’s will that all should be saved. It has been written many times before, but it bears repeating that Peter wrote that “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). In fact: if Congruism is true, then God has not only a purpose for each life, God holds a purpose in an individual’s existence in a particular timeframe. In which case, you have a purpose not only to God but also to the world in which you are placed.
So to answer the question presented in this article; do Thomists and Molinists hold better answers in solving the conundrum of God’s sovereignty and human freedom in regards to salvation than do Calvinists and Arminans? My answer is a resounding…YES!!! Regardless of where one finds oneself on the theological spectrum, it is important to find balance. While we may strive to understand the ways of the infinite God and the workings of God’s creation, it is important for us not to become so obsessed with the differences in the theological systems that we forget the clear commands of God in that we are to love God with all our being and to love one another as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39-40).
All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologicae. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 1920. In Summa of the Summa. Edited and Annotated by Peter Kreeft. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990.
Hughes, P. E. “Grace.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Edition. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.
Warfield, B. B. The Plan of Salvation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1942. In Millard J. Erickson. Christian Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.
© Pastor Brian Chilton. 2014.