(Second to the last lecture in a class on nature and grace)
‘Today we reach the climax of our course on nature and grace, where we encounter the two main orthodox, and yet mutually contradictory accounts of the relation between nature and grace. We have already dealt with the imperfect or inadequate accounts of nature and grace- Luther’s account, for example, which was not intended to be systematic or precise, but (at least from the point of view of those of us who like sharp, systematic distinctions in things) served more as a call and a challenge to look at grace in a new and fresh way; or Jansen’s account which, though it makes the extremely relevant and important point that the imparting of grace is not an act of violence nevertheless fails to account for genuine human freedom. Today we will take up the conflict between Thomism and Molinism. We will leave aside the question of Calvinism until we have sketched out the main opposition between the Thomists and the Molinists.
First, let’s get it out there from the beginning that the opposition between thomism and molinism is paradoxical and has yet to be adequately solved – even when we allow for the very different standard of what counts as a solution in theological matters. We have no consensus on the resolution to the paradox, nor has one ever been reached. No great champion or school has ever emerged to sway the debate one way or another, whether to Thomism or Molinism or a New Synthesis of the two or a radically new approach that calls into question the foundations of both. Either no one has yet seen the resolution, or all those who have seen it have failed to illumine a significant portion of others. This should give us pause, and a certain amount of fear when approaching the problem. But, like all fear, there is a note of excitement in it too. Every discourse is pushed forward by confronting its paradoxes, and is stultified by igoring them or pretending they aren’t there. Discipleship and commitment to a rational system have a necessary place, but they need to be balanced against the all too human vice of desire for mere comfort that disguises itself as the attainment of certitude. As any confidence man will tell you, no one is more vulnerable than when he thinks he has things all figured out.
The paradox of Thomism and Molinism can best be expressed by considering the different views that they take of God as creator. We’ll first deal with thomism.
At the heart of St. Thomas’s rational discourse about God is the proof that God is an unmoved mover. This doctrine is the same as saying that God is the source of all actuality; and St. Thomas was clear that the act of existence was the actuality of all acts. When we say that God is the unmoved mover, therefore, we mean (among other things, to be sure) that he is the source or existence as existence. Without his action on some X, that X would be immediately annihilated. If God chose to “stop thinking about the universe”, then it would instantly vanish, and leave not even empty space behind. If God decided to think about the possibility of the universe, the universe would be impossible (at least so far as we consider this possibility as outside of God’s own mind). The divine action is what makes the difference between anything at all and absolute non-being outside of himself.
Within this context, the problem of grace has a straightforward answer – straightforward, not easy. Efficacious grace is a being. God is the source of all being. God is therefore the source of efficacious grace (remember the division between sufficient grace, or the grace by which you could choose, and efficacious grace, by which you actually do choose. I know that some of you want to return to this division, but let’s take it as given for the moment.) So, when a Thomist asks “how does God know that someone will receive an effficatious grace” the question is exactly the same as “How did Michaelangelo know that the David statue would be made?” or “How did Cervantes know that Aldonza Lorenzo’s name would be Dulcinea?” All of these know that something will come to be because they make it. Efficacious grace is a creature, and the creator knows what creatures will come to be because (do we even need to say it?) he will create them.
So what role does our will play in all this? Here we run into a Thomistic axiom which is at once sublimely simple and yet terribly vexing: sc. that God moves all things according to their natures, free things freely, and necessary things necessarily. For God to create means for him to give rise to some real being X, and so, if we take X as a given, then all that comes to be from it will be a case of God working through X. The divine action can get played in different keys, as it were, or it can be like a single melody played on different instruments. The instrument contributes something while remaining an instrument. Nevertheless, this contribution is a secondary reality. Fundamentally and primarily, it is the divine action, and the divine action alone, that makes the difference between existing in any way, and not existing at all. This raises the question of how will, precisely as will, and taken precisely so far as it is responsibel for its actions, can be fundamentally the instrument of another. This is the first great focus of criticism for the doctrine, though here again we stress that a criticism is not always an indication that the doctrine is weak – for all we know the criticism might ultimately be the occasion of the greatest triumph of a doctrine.
The second great criticism is arises from the account that we must give of a morally evil action if God is the source of all being. St. Thomas never balks – God causes a sinful action so far as it exists, though not so far as it issues from a corrupted will. In theological terms, God wills the entity of sin but not the malice. Again, we can’t deal with the value of the distinction here, but we can note that this is it is precisely where the controversy about thomism will arise, at least among those who know what they are talking about. Again (again) the distinction is not obviously false or obviously true- it more suggests lines of further research than it solves a problem. This is not to say we can;t give a simple answer to the question, only that even a simple answer comes at a high cost.
While Thomists focus on God’s creative action so far as it makes the difference between being and absolute nothingness, Molinists start with a view of the creator as considering all the possibilities of creation. Thomists stress the creative action as an action; Molinists start from the possibilities of the action known by the divine mind. These possibilities should be taken in the broadest sense: God the creator knows every answer to “what would happen if Q” or “If P were not, what would happen?” God has perfect awareness of the answer to every hypothesis, every counterfactual, every power that might be but is not, etc. While the creator of St. Thomas is seen as the source of all actual being; the creator in Molina is seen as considering noetically in himself all knowable reality. No real entity is hidden from the Thomistic creator; no intelligible entity is hidden from the Molinist creator. When we consider this Molinist creator so far as he knows the answer to all possible hypotheticals or counterfactuals, we are speaking about God’s scientia media – that is, an absolutely certain knowledge (scientia) that serves as a means (media). A means for what? The answer to this makes us turn back to the question we asked earlier “How does God know if he will give efficatious grace?” Here is the crucial point: while the Thomist answers the question by means to God’s creative act, the Molinist answers it by means of God’s scientia media. Because God foresaw that if he gave John sufficient grace, that John would choose it, he chose (for reasons we do not know, or at least don’t consider now) to give John that grace. Likewise, because he saw that Judas would resist the grace he was offered, he chose (for reasons we cannot know) to offer a sufficient grace. Unlike Thomism, the question whether one will freely choose a grace is directly relevant to God’s action in the bestowal of the grace. God is still ultimately in charge of what he gives or does not give, but the hypothetical response of the will – known only by scientia media – is essential to answer the question whether grace will be given at all. This is why the question of the truth of this question turns on the truth of a single question: is scientia media necessary to answer whether grace will be given? The thomists insist that it is not, and the argument is straightforward enough: the choice seen in scientia media exists and so is the free creation of God. Scientia media is superfluous – all we need to know is what God will do.”