Luis de Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge
MacGregor, Kirk. Luis de Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge, Michigan: Zondervan, 2015. 288 pp. Hardcover, $19.15. ISBN 978-310-51697-2.
It takes little effort today to find books about the history and theology of the Reformation’s leaders. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli continue to have books written about them. Yet a somewhat obscure name has been gathering interest among many Evangelicals. The name belongs to the Spanish Jesuit, Luis de Molina (1535-1600), who is known for his doctrine of middle knowledge. But what is middle knowledge?
Theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, have categorized God’s knowledge into two main categories: natural knowledge and free knowledge. Natural knowledge describes God’s knowledge of possibilities or things that could be. Free knowledge pertains to the future or what will be. After his theological and philosophical study, Molina argued that there must be a knowledge that rests between those two areas of knowledge, what he called middle knowledge. Middle knowledge, averred Molina, is that aspect of God’s knowledge in which God apprehends hypothetical truths or what would have been.
To illustrate consider the biblical account of Peter denying Jesus. In his natural knowledge God knew that it was possible that Peter could deny Jesus three times. In his middle knowledge God knew that, if Peter were in those circumstances, Peter would freely deny Jesus three times. Finally, in his free knowledge God knew that Peter will deny Jesus three times. It was by way of middle knowledge that Molina sought to reconcile the problem of diving sovereignty and human libertarian freedom. Though Molina is well known for this doctrine it is his life’s details which have remained obscure.
If scholars want to do research on Molina’s history or theology they would be faced with the Herculean task of reading the relevant, untranslated 16th century Latin documents. Kirk MacGregor took up this task and his book, Luis de Molina, is the fruit of that labor. His book is first and only modern critical biography of Molina in any language and of any significant length. MacGregor’s timely work tells the story of who Molina was, what he taught, how he developed his doctrine, and how his work earned him the eye of suspicion from Dominicans, Jesuits, and Rome.
Because of Evangelicals’ misconceptions about Molina the book begins by clarifying common errors about him. MacGregor explains why Molina is not only for Catholics but for the Church as a whole, and why the Protestant Church has had so little engagement with Molina’s work. Protestants originally dismissed Molina’s, because they tacitly assumed that his formation of middle knowledge was the same as that of Jacob Arminius.
MacGregor’s book is broken into ten chapters. Each chapter begins by telling the relevant story for the chapter, explains the development of Molina’s thinking and theology, and then a summary section for that chapter. As the readers make their way into the life of Molina they will be just as encouraged and edified by Molina’s life as they would be with Luther’s or Calvin’s. Readers will also be thoroughly impressed by Molina’s scholarly pedigree, honesty, humility, and brilliance. Because most of the book is the history, of Molina a brief summary of his life will be presented.
MacGregor writes that Molina was born into a wealthy, noble family in Cuenca, New Castle, Spain. His father became a wealthy merchant and married into the noble family of Molina. It was the matrilineal name, Molina, which was given to the children. Nobility, not new money, was prized in Spain. Luis’ upbringing was one of privilege, wealth, great education, and piety. The entire Molina family was devoutly Catholic.
Luis was planning, like Luther, to become a lawyer and matriculate to the University of Salamanca. But after his first year at the University Luis left to become a priest. Luis, after reading the Gospels and Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, became deeply conflicted about his relationship of his wealth to his soul. Luis gave up his lucrative career path, joined a reformed-minded Jesuit order, took a vow of poverty, dedicated his life to helping the people of Spain, became a scholar, and followed Christ.
Luis de Molina’s magnum opus was the Concordia, which explained the doctrine of middle knowledge. It brought him fame, infamy, and perennial misunderstanding. Molina did not intend to invent a new doctrine for the sake of novelty or innovation. Rather, it was from engaging the writings of Luther, Calvin, Augustine, Aquinas, the council of Trent, and the effects of their teachings on the laity that Molina sought out an answer to the longstanding discussion surrounding sovereignty and freedom.
Over the course of chapters three, four, and five, MacGregor articulates how Molina’s exegesis birthed middle knowledge, how the doctrine relates to providence, and the doctrine’s unique take on predestination. Chapters six and seven recount how his Concordia caught the attention of Dominican detractors, the unintended approval the Inquisition, and the eye of Rome.
Dominicans and the Jesuits outside of his order did everything they could to discredit Molina’s work. They reported it to the grand inquisitor of the Inquisition in the hope of having him declared a heretic. However, in an ironic twist, the inquisitor adored the Concordia. “Each attempt at banning the book backfired, only whetting the public’s hunger for it and making its publication quite lucrative for local printers” (p.159). When describing Molina’s popularity MacGregor writes, “crowds ranging from approximately 700 to 1,900 people turned out following the release of the Concordia; previous [church] attendance had averaged approximately 150 people” (p. 159).
Chapter nine is where the story of Molina ends. Rome appointed a special council to settle the issue of middle knowledge. Molina himself could not go and defend his own works in fear of being captured and burned as a heretic. Initially his works were denounced by the council and Molina fled to his home town for fear of his life. Molina spent the rest of his days serving in his home town. He died in 1600 from dysentery. It was after his death that Molina’s work was posthumously vindicated by the Vatican in 1607.
MacGregor’s concluding chapter is dedicated to the modern-day problems, questions, and issues that middle knowledge speaks to. MacGregor demonstrates middle knowledge’s applicability to longstanding exegetical problems like God causing Pharaoh’s heart to harden, king Saul’s suicide, and David’s taking of the census, without attributing a loss of those individuals’ responsibility and not making God culpable of sin in any of those instances (p. 114). MacGregor also demonstrates how apologists have used middle knowledge to explain the problem of evil, the relationship between Christianity and other world religions, quantum indeterminacy, and more.
MacGregor’s work on the life and theology of Molina is destined to become pivotal in the study of this Jesuit. MacGregor not only writes a captivating account of Molina’s extraordinary life and genius but also explains Molina’s legacy and its importance. The reading level for this book is high if readers are not familiar with philosophy or theology, but the book itself does explain all the concepts that the reader will come across. MacGregor’s prose packs a lot of thought into just a few words and sentences, so a slower reading speed is suggested.
MacGregor has completed an important work that is rightfully worthy of any and all students of theology, church history, and philosophy should pick up and read. In the coming years middle knowledge will be an important and growing theological question and this book will be the resource that everyone will want to consult.
Robert W. Kleber