A leading figure in sixteenth-century Iberian scholasticism, Molina was one of the most controversial thinkers in the history of Catholic thought. In keeping with the strongly libertarian account of human free choice that marked the early Jesuit theologians, Molina held that God's causal influence on free human acts does not by its intrinsic nature uniquely determine what those acts will be or whether they will be good or evil. Because of this, Molina asserted against his Dominican rivals that God's comprehensive providential plan for the created world and infallible foreknowledge of future contingents do not derive just from the combination of his antecedent "natural" knowledge of metaphysically necessary truths and his "free" knowledge of the causal influence - both natural (general concurrence) and supernatural (grace) - by which he wills to cooperate with free human acts. Rather, in addition to God's natural knowledge, Molina posited a distinct kind of antecedent divine knowledge, dubbed "middle" knowledge, by which God knows pre-volitionally, i.e., prior to any free decree of his own will regarding contingent beings, how any possible rational creature would in fact freely choose to act in any possible circumstances in which it had the power to act freely. And on this basis Molina proceeded to forge his controversial reconciliation of free choice with the Catholic doctrines of grace, divine foreknowledge, providence, and predestination. In addition to his work in dogmatic theology, Molina was also an accomplished moral and political philosopher who wrote extensive and empirically well-informed tracts on political authority, slavery, war, and economics.

1 Life and writings

2 Grace and freedom

3 Providence and middle knowledge

4 Political philosophy

1 Life and writings 

Luis de Molina, S.J. (born Cuenca, Spain 1535, died Madrid 1600), was a leading figure in the remarkable sixteenth-century revival of scholasticism on the Iberian peninsula that also produced the likes of Peter Fonseca, Domingo de Soto, Domingo Baņez and Francisco Suárez. After entering the Jesuit novitiate in 1553, Molina studied philosophy and theology for ten years at Coimbra and Évora in Portugal, and then taught at these same colleges until retiring in 1583 to devote himself to writing. He spent the next sixteen years in Évora, Lisbon and Cuenca, before being summoned just before his death to teach moral theology in Madrid.

The most famous and controversial of Molina's three published works was the Liberi arbitrii cum gratiae donis, divina praescientia, providentia, praedestinatione et reprobatione concordia (A Reconciliation of Free Choice with the Gifts of Grace, Divine Foreknowledge, Providence, Predestination and Reprobation) (first edition, Lisbon 1588; second edition, Antwerp 1595). Popularly known simply as the Concordia, this work was in large part extracted from the Commentaria in primam divi Thomae partem (Commentaries on the First Part of St Thomas's Summa Theologiae), which was subsequently published at Cuenca in 1592. Molina also authored a five-volume work on political philosophy, De Justitia et Jure (On Justice and Law), the first complete edition of which appeared only posthumously (Venice, 1614). Although there are also modern editions of a few unpublished pieces, most of Molina's shorter tracts and commentaries survive only in manuscript form.

The publication of the first edition of the Concordia ignited a fierce controversy about grace and human freedom that had already been smoldering for two decades between the youthful Society of Jesus (founded in 1540) and its theological opponents. At Louvain, the Jesuit Leonard Lessius had been assailed by the followers of Michael Baius for harboring views on grace and freedom allegedly contrary to those of St Augustine. In Spain and Portugal, the Jesuits were accused of doctrinal novelty by theologians of the more established religious orders, especially the Dominicans, led by the redoubtable Baņez.

When the dispute began to jeopardize civil as well as ecclesiastical harmony, political and religious leaders in Iberia implored the Vatican to intervene. In 1597 Pope Clement VIII established the Congregatio de Auxiliis (Commission on Grace) in Rome, thus initiating a ten-year period of intense investigation -- including eighty-five hearings and forty-seven debates -- that rendered the Concordia one of the most carefully scrutinized books in Western intellectual history. At first, things did not go well for the Jesuits; Molina died in Madrid amid rumors that he was being burned in effigy in Rome. However, due to the efforts of Cardinals Robert Bellarmine and Jacques du Perron, Molina's views emerged unscathed in the end. In 1607 Pope Paul V issued a decree allowing both parties to defend their own positions but enjoining them not to call one another's views heretical.

2 Grace and freedom

Both sides of the dispute over grace and freedom agree that in addition to creating and conserving contingent beings, God acts as an immediate efficient cause of all the effects produced by created or secondary causes, including acts of free choice.

First, God acts as an immediate general or universal cause of all the natural effects produced through the powers rooted in the essences of natural substances. This immediate causal contribution is called God's general concurrence (concursus generalis) because even though in any given case the effect proceeds as a whole from both God and the relevant secondary causes, the fact that the effect is of one species rather than another is primarily traceable not to God's concurrence but to the natures and causal contributions of the created agents, which for this reason are called particular causes. So, for instance, when a gas flame makes a pot of water boil, the fact that the effect is the boiling of water rather than, say, the blossoming of a flower is traceable primarily not to God's causal contribution, but rather to the specific natures and causal contributions of the secondary causes (gas, water, etc.). Likewise, any defectiveness in the effect is traced back causally to a defect or impediment within the order of secondary causes rather than to God's causal contribution, which is always, within its own order, causally sufficient (in the sense of "enough") for its intended effect, even when that effect is not produced. When the intended effect is produced, God's concurrence is said to be efficacious with respect to it; when it is not produced, God's concurrence is said to be merely sufficient with respect to it. If a defective effect is instead produced, its defectiveness is something that God merely permits rather than intends.

This account applies straightforwardly to morally good and evil acts emanating from the power of free choice that rational creatures are endowed with by nature. No such act can occur without God's general concurrence, and in causally contributing to it God intends that the act be morally upright rather than sinful. Nonetheless, because of defects in the free agents with whom God cooperates, his general concurrence is often merely sufficient -- and thus inefficacious -- with respect to the morally good act he intends. So even though God must concur causally in order for even a sinful act to be elicited, nonetheless, the act's defectiveness is traced back to the free created agent rather than to God, who permits the defect without intending it. By contrast, when a morally good act is freely elicited, God's concurrence is efficacious with respect to it.

Second, God also cooperates with free human acts by means of the particular causal influence of supernatural grace, merited for the human race by the salvific death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. By this grace, God empowers and prompts human beings to elicit free acts of will that are supernaturally salvific, and he cooperates as a simultaneous cause in the very effecting of these acts. By eliciting such free acts of faith, hope, charity and the other infused virtues, human agents are able to attain and foster that intimate friendship with God which in its fullness constitutes their highest fulfillment as rational beings. Still, insofar as grace operates prior to the consent of human free choice, it can be freely resisted; and when it is resisted, it is said to be inefficacious, or merely sufficient, with respect to the salvific act God intends.

All this is accepted by both Molina and his Baņezian opponents. Their dispute has to do with the intrinsic character of God's simultaneous causal cooperation with free human acts. Regarding the natural order, Baņezians insist that there is an intrinsic ontological difference between efficacious and merely sufficient concurrence, so that of itself efficacious concurrence necessarily attains its intended effect, whereas of itself merely sufficient concurrence necessarily fails to attain its intended effect. So God grants intrinsically efficacious concurrence when and only when the human agent freely elicits the morally good act that God intends; and God grants intrinsically merely sufficient concurrence when and only when the human agent freely fails to elicit the morally good act that God intends. An immediate consequence is that God infallibly foreknows whether or not a human agent will freely elicit a morally good act at a given time simply in virtue of knowing whether or not he himself will grant intrinsically efficacious concurrence with respect to that act.

The Baņezians hold a parallel position concerning the grace by which God operates to elicit supernaturally salvific acts. God grants intrinsically efficacious grace when and only when the human agent elicits the supernaturally salvific act God intends; and God grants intrinsically merely sufficient grace when and only when the human agent resists and thus fails to elicit the supernaturally salvific act that God intends.

Molina argues strenuously that this Baņezian doctrine is incompatible with human freedom and falls into the strict determinism advocated by the Lutherans and Calvinists. For even though the Baņezians, like Molina, insist that a free act of will cannot result by natural necessity from antecedently acting causes, they nonetheless assert that an act of will can be free even if God has predetermined to cooperate with it contemporaneously by a concurrence or grace that is intrinsically efficacious (or inefficacious). This Molina denies: 'That agent is called free who, with all the prerequisites for acting having been posited, is able to act and able not to act, or is able to do one thing in such a way that he is also able to do some contrary thing.' And numbered among these prerequisites is God's fixed intention to confer his general concurrence and grace. So if God has decided to confer only intrinsically efficacious (or intrinsically inefficacious) grace or concurrence in a given situation, the created agent's freedom is destroyed.

Molina's alternative thesis is that God's grace and general concurrence are intrinsically neither efficacious nor inefficacious. Rather, they are intrinsically "neutral" and are rendered efficacious or inefficacious "extrinsically" by the human agent's free consent or lack thereof. Baņezians retort that this position savors of Pelagianism and violates the Catholic doctrine that God is the primary source of morally good and supernaturally salvific acts.

3 Providence and middle knowledge

Molina's views about grace and freedom seem at first glance to jeopardize the Catholic tenets that God is perfectly provident and has infallible and comprehensive knowledge of future contingents.

According to the traditional doctrine of divine providence, God freely and knowingly plans, orders and provides for all the effects that constitute the created universe with its entire history, and he executes his chosen plan by playing an active causal role that ensures its exact realization. Since God is the perfect craftsman, not even trivial details escape his providential decrees. Whatever occurs is specifically decreed by God; more precisely, each effect produced in the created universe is either specifically and knowingly intended by him or, in concession to creaturely defectiveness, specifically and knowingly permitted by him. Divine providence thus has both a cognitive and a volitional aspect. By his pre-volitional knowledge God infallibly knows which effects would result, directly or indirectly, from any causal contribution he might choose to make to the created sphere. By his free will God chooses one from among the infinity of total sequences of created effects that are within his power to bring about and, concomitantly, wills to make a causal contribution that he knows with certainty will result in his chosen plan's being effected down to the last detail.

This much is accepted by both Molina and the Baņezians. They further agree that it is because he is perfectly provident that God has comprehensive foreknowledge of what will occur in the created world. That is, God's speculative post-volitional knowledge of the created world -- his so-called free knowledge or knowledge of vision -- derives wholly from his pre-volitional knowledge and his knowledge of what he himself has willed to do. Unlike human knowers, God need not be acted upon by outside causes in order for his cognitive potentialities to be fully actualized; he does not have to, as it were, look outside himself in order to find out what his creative act has wrought. Rather, he knows 'in himself' what will happen precisely because he knows just what causal role he has freely chosen to play within the created order and because he knows just what will result given this causal contribution. In short, no contingent truth grasped by the knowledge of vision can be true prior to God's specifically intending or permitting it to be true or to his specifically willing to make the appropriate causal contribution toward its truth.

Molina's problem can now be stated succinctly. As noted above, he affirms against the Baņezians that God's cooperating grace and general concurrence are intrinsically neither efficacious nor inefficacious. So if God has only his antecedent natural knowledge of metaphysically necessary truths plus knowledge of his own total causal contribution to the created world, he cannot specifically provide for or know any actual or "absolute" future contingents. His natural knowledge tells him only what each free secondary cause would be able to do, not what it would in fact do, in any possible situation in which it could act; and if his grace and general concurrence are intrinsically neutral, then his own causal contribution to the contingent effects of secondary causes cannot uniquely determine what those effects will be. How, then, can God be perfectly provident and have comprehensive knowledge of future contingents?

Molina replies that since there is genuine freedom and indeterminism in the created world, God can be perfectly provident in the way demanded by orthodoxy only if his pre-volitional knowledge includes comprehensive knowledge of which effects would in fact result from causal chains involving free or indeterministic created causes. That is, God must have infallible and comprehensive pre-volitional knowledge of "conditional future contingents" or "futuribilia," i.e., metaphysically contingent propositions specifying how any possible indeterministic created cause would in fact act in any set of circumstances it might find itself in. Since this knowledge is of metaphysically contingent truths, it is not part of God's natural knowledge; since it is pre-volitional, it is not part of God's free knowledge. It stands 'midway' between natural knowledge and free knowledge - hence its title, middle knowledge (scientia media).

According to Molina, then, the basis for God's providence and for his foreknowledge of absolute future contingents is threefold: (i) his pre-volitional natural knowledge of metaphysically necessary truths, (ii) his pre-volitional middle knowledge of futuribilia, and (iii) his post-volitional knowledge of the total causal contribution he himself wills to make to the created world. By (i) he knows which spatio-temporal arrangements of secondary causes are possible and which contingent effects might possibly emanate from any such arrangement. By (ii) he knows which contingent effects would in fact emanate from any such arrangement. By (iii) he knows which secondary causes he wills to create and precisely how he wills to cooperate with them via his intrinsically neutral cooperating grace and general concurrence. So given God's pre-volitional natural knowledge and middle knowledge, he is able to choose a comprehensive providential plan; and given further his post-volitional knowledge of what his own causal contribution to the created world will be, he has free knowledge of all absolute future contingents.

The Baņezians counter by denying that any metaphysically contingent propositions, including any futuribilia, can be true prior to God's freely making them true by his predetermining decree. This dissatisfaction with middle knowledge provides another reason for Baņezians to reject Molina's strongly libertarian account of freedom, which engendered the need for middle knowledge in the first place. (Interestingly, by way of contrast, the main opponents of middle knowledge in twentieth-century analytic philosophy of religion retain Molina's account of freedom and reject instead the traditional doctrines of divine providence and foreknowledge.)

4 Political philosophy

Molina holds a "translation" account of political authority. Unlike the ecclesiastical authority of the pope, which is bestowed immediately by God on the person designated by the ecclesiastical community, the governing authority of the political ruler is bestowed immediately by a community which has established itself as a commonwealth and in which political authority resides by natural law. Hence, unlike the ecclesiastical community, the political commonwealth not only designates its rulers but also legitimately limits the power it transfers to them and restricts their use of that power. Because of this, the individual members of the commonwealth can, under certain extreme circumstances, legitimately resist and defend themselves against tyrannical rulers.

Molina also addresses at length a wide variety of moral questions regarding war, slavery, and economic matters such as taxation, free markets, monetary policy, and price regulation. Given his historical circumstances, Molina's ruminations about slavery are especially interesting. Like his Aristotelian predecessors, he believes that slavery is morally justifiable under certain limited circumstances. For example, those lawfully condemned to death may legitimately have their death sentences commuted to perpetual servitude; enemy populations conquered in a just war may legitimately be enslaved in restitution for damages to the victors; and free and willing adults may legitimately sell themselves into slavery. Nonetheless, Molina's many conversations in Lisbon with the captains of slave ships led him to conclude that the African slave trade as it was actually being carried out by the Portuguese was 'unjust and wicked' and that those who engaged in it, both sellers and buyers, were almost surely 'in a state of eternal damnation.'


List of works

Molina, L. (1592) Commentaria in Primam Divi Thomae Partem, Cuenca.

----- (1953) Liberi Arbitrii cum Gratiae Donis, Divina Praescientia, Providentia, Praedestinatione et Reprobatione Concordia, ed. J. Rabeneck, Oņa and Madrid; trans. A.J. Freddoso (1988) On Divine Foreknowledge: Part IV of the Concordia, Ithaca: Cornell. (Translation of and introduction to Molina's theory of middle knowledge, including references to twentieth-century discussions.)

----- (1614) De Justitia et Jure, Venice.

----- (1935) 'Neue Molinaschriften', ed. F. Stegmüller, Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie und Theologie des Mittelalters, band 32, Münster. (A collection of unpublished treatises and letters.)

References and further reading 

Adams, R.M. (1977) 'Middle Knowledge and the Problem of Evil', American Philosophical Quarterly 14: 109-117. (Introduced the debate over middle knowledge into twentieth-century analytic philosophy of religion.) 

Brodrick, J. (1928) The Life and Work of Blessed Robert Francis Cardinal Bellarmine, S.J., vol. 2, New York: Kenedy. (Chapter 19 contains an extensive historical account of the sixteenth-century dispute over grace and freedom.) 

Costello, F. (1974) The Political Philosophy of Luis de Molina, S.J., Spokane: Gonzaga. (Helpful and clear introduction to Molina's political thought.) 

Flint, T. (1988) 'Two Accounts of Providence', in Divine and Human Action, ed. T. Morris, Ithaca: Cornell, pp. 147-181. (Clear exposition by a Molinist of some key differences between Molinists and Thomists). 

Garrigou-Lagrange, R. (1943) The One God, St Louis: Herder. (Contains a trenchant neo-Thomist critique of Molinism.) 

Hasker, W. (1989) God, Time, and Knowledge, Ithaca: Cornell. (Contains the best critique of middle knowledge in analytic philosophy of religion.) 

Pegis, A. (1939) 'Molina and Human Liberty', in Jesuit Thinkers of the Renaissance, ed. G. Smith, Milwaukee: Marquette, pp. 75-131. (Comparison of Molina with St Thomas.)