Book Write-Up: Middle Knowledge, by John D. Laing

John D. Laing.  Middle Knowledge: Human Freedom in Divine Sovereignty.  Kregel Academic, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

John D. Laing has a doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  He teaches systematic theology and philosophy at the Houston campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he is also a chaplain for the Texas Army National Guard.

As the title indicates, this book is about the concept of Middle Knowledge, which was articulated by Luis de Molina, a sixteenth century Jesuit theologian.  According to this concept, God foresaw various hypothetical worlds, how humans would act and things would unfold in different settings and situations.  With this in mind, God acts to effect God’s will.  God, in a sense, is limited: God chooses not to violate human free will, and God can only effect a world that is feasible.  But God acts in light of the various alternative scenarios that God foresees: God knows that, if God does A, humans will do B.  God wants humans to do B, so God decides to do A.  God works with human free will: God is constrained by human choices, yet God can effect God’s will by influencing humans to make the choices that God wants.

The Introduction situates Middle Knowledge among other Christian models of divine providence and human free will, including Process Theology, Open Theism, and Calvinism.  Chapter 1 explains Middle Knowledge, and Chapters 2-4 respond to objections to the concept of Middle Knowledge.  Chapter 4 is noteworthy because it addresses the question of how God can interact with the world in time when God is said to exist outside of time.  In Chapters 5-8 and 10, Laing contends that Middle Knowledge sheds helpful light on contentious theological issues: predestination and salvation, the problem of evil, biblical inspiration, science (particularly origins), and the efficacy of prayer.  Chapter 9 focuses on what Laing considers to be biblical evidence in favor of Middle Knowledge.  I Samuel 23:7-13, where God guides David in reference to a danger that would come if David were to remain in a particular area, is cited more than once in the book.  Laing also refers to other Scriptural passages in which God is aware of alternative scenarios.  Interestingly, Matthew 11:23-24, in which Jesus declares that Sodom and Gomorrah would have repented had they seen the sorts of miracles that he was performing, is denied by Laing to be an illustration of Middle Knowledge; rather, Laing claims that Jesus there is being rhetorical.  Chapter 9 is also where Laing offers his interpretation of Romans 9, as he argues that God foresaw, not predestined, how Jacob and Esau would act as God chose Jacob instead of Esau.

The greatest strength of this book is that it meticulously goes through various positions and evaluates them.  Chapters 2-3 were difficult because they used logical equations, but the rest of the book was fairly easy to understand.  In some cases, Laing arrived at a position that made sense, as when he argued that libertarian freedom does not mean that choices lack motivation or influences; choices, in short, do not pop out of thin air, but what libertarian freedom affirms is that a person has some ability to choose otherwise.  Another example of a sensible conclusion is when Laing stated that God is not required to create a perfect world, but that God creates a world that fits God’s purposes.  In a number of cases, Laing’s conclusions were a little tepid.  For instance, after an exhaustive discussion of views about whether divine foreknowledge undermines human free will, Laing simply concludes that humans have libertarian free will, even if their choices were foreseen.  It is not so much the conclusion itself that is bothersome.  What makes it disappointing is that one might expect a more robust defense of it after all of the build-up.  Laing deserves credit for attempting to tackle the issue of natural evil.  Essentially, he questions whether there is “natural evil”: “natural evil,” Laing muses, is subjective, and what one may see as natural evil may serve a positive purpose.  But is there anything naturally beneficial about cancer?  To his credit, Laing acknowledged situations in which readers might deem his conclusions to be inadequate, or begging the question.

The book is lucid, overall, in summarizing different positions, and Laing does well to reiterate what Middle Knowledge is throughout the book.  There is still unclarity on my part, however, on how Middle Knowledge adds to many of the theological discussions that Laing discusses.  There are so many variables and so much randomness that, even if God were to intervene through creation or providence, could God get entirely what God wants?  And how does God effect God’s will?  Okay, those who lack an opportunity to hear the Gospel are people whom God foresaw would not believe it anyway, if given the chance.  Did God arrange for them to be born in non-Christian areas that have little access to the Gospel?  That makes God somewhat of a micro-manager, which Molinism seems to argue that God is not.

In writing this review, I feel as if I am looking at a blurry image that becomes clear, then blurry again.  Middle Knowledge makes sense, then it does not, then it does, and the cycle continues.

A slight point of critique: Laing frequently uses the term “counterfactual,” and he seems to mean by that term the various alternative realities that God foresaw, including the one that God chose to work with.  That muddied the waters a bit.  “Counterfactual,” one would think, implies contrary-to-fact, the alternative realities that did not take place.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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