Foreknowledge – Its New Testament Meaning

The following article was originally published in the October 1989 issue of The Dividing Line Theological Journal. The article is presented in its entirety as it was originally published.

“Foreknowledge”
Its New Testament Meaning
James White

“For whom He did foreknow, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He might be the firstborn of many brothers. And whom He did predestine, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He Justified, these He also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30).

This incredible passage, known as the “Golden Chain of Redemption”, has long held great fascination for men and women of God. Yet, the truth it proclaims has, for the most part, been obscured by a misunderstanding of one of the very first terms encountered, that being “foreknow”. What does this term mean? Roman Catholic theologians, lacking the concept of salvation by grace through faith, and the attendant concept of the sovereignty of God in salvation (election) view the term as referring to God’s “foresight” of future events; that is, God, knowing the future, “chooses” those whom He knows will be pliable to His will and who will repent from their sins and turn to Him. This is the same position held by Arminians as well. For example, Dr. Curtis Hutson, editor of The Sword of the Lord, has written a small booklet entitled “Why I Disagree with All Five Points of Calvinism.” While we would not wish to make this booklet representative of responsible Arminianism, on this point Dr. Hutson’s comments are very representative of this perspective: “God in His foreknowledge knows who will trust Jesus Christ as Saviour, and He has predestined to see that they are Justified and glorified.” In other words, God elects on the basis of the actions of man (though seen in the future) rather than on the sole basis of His own will and purpose. This, we are told, is what “foreknowledge” means—a simple knowing of future events, with the result that certain actions can be taken on the basis of those future events.

But, we must ask, is this what the Bible teaches? Are we taught in Scripture that God responds to the actions of men, even when those actions are future? Or does the term “foreknowledge” mean this at all?

We might approach this question from the perspective that it is an established fact that the Bible teaches that God is eternal and immutable (unchangeable). If this is true, then surely God’s decrees cannot possibly be derived from the actions of men; God’s actions cannot be based upon what happens in time, for this would indicate a progression and change in the being of God. To assert that God’s actions are dependent upon or based upon man’s creates incredible difficulties in regards to the nature of God. But, someone might assert, the Bible presents God’s knowing of future events as the basis of His actions, so shouldn’t we go with the Bible? Of course we should, but we must never interpret Scripture so as to make the Word contradictory to itself. Then what does foreknowledge actually mean? Is it used consistently in Scripture? Is its meaning in line with the nature of God as revealed by the Word?

To answer these questions, we must first understand the process of determining what a word in the New Testament actually meant to the writer and his audience. Frequently modern writers assume that the English translation carries all of the range and depth of meaning of the original Greek or Hebrew term when in fact it does not. Also, there is great danger in “pushing” the meaning of the English term back onto the Greek or Hebrew word. What matters is not what an English word means today, but what a Greek or Hebrew word meant back then!

So, to find out what the Bible means when it speaks of God’s “foreknowledge” we must look at the usage of the Greek term itself; we must see how it functions in the New Testament, and. Just as importantly, we must discover whether it has been influenced by the Old Testament as well.

The Greek term translated by the noun “foreknowledge” is πρόγνωσις (prognosis). The verbal form, προγινώσκω (proginosko) is the term found in Romans 8:29 above, as well as in Romans 11:2, and 1 Peter 1:20 (this study will focus only on the usage of these terms in regards to God). The noun form is found in Acts 2:23 and 1 Peter 1:2. On first glance the meaning, as the Greek term is a compound of προ (before) and γινωσκω (to know), seems fairly simple: to know beforehand. But before such a simple answer is accepted, let’s look at what it means “to know.”

Anyone familiar with the range of meaning and usage of the terms γινώσκω and οἶδα (another term meaning “to know”) in Paul’s writings knows that the nuances of meaning found in these terms is anything but easily defined. Therefore, the better part of wisdom is to ask, “is the term ’to know ’ in the Old Testament relevant to the meaning of the same term in the New?” To find out, let’s look at the OT term “to know”.

The basic Hebrew term translated “to know” in the Old Testament is יָדַע (yada). Both Greek terms noted above (γινώσκω /οἶδα) are used to translate this one Hebrew word; γινώσκω is used over 500 times as the translation of יָדַע in the Septuagint (LXX). And what does this term mean in Hebrew? Does it refer simply to having intellectual knowledge? No indeed! When the Hebrew speaks of God’s knowledge, something far more than just bare cognizance of facts is in view. Let’s look at some passages where this will be seen, and see if some of the fuller meaning of יָדַע can be discovered.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew (יָדַע) you, before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5) Here God says that He “knew” Jeremiah even before He formed the prophet in the womb. Does this mean that God simply had knowledge of the future actions of Jeremiah? Clearly not, for the parallelism of the passage indicates that the knowing is to be understood as being synonymous with God’s consecration of him and His appointing him as a prophet to the nations. Hence, the term refers to an action on God’s part in choosing Jeremiah. God is active in this knowing, this choosing. The object of His knowing is not a fact, but a person. God’s יָדַע of Jeremiah is personal. Is this kind of understanding a common feature of Hebrew thinking? Indeed it is! For the Jewish person, knowledge is very personal. One cannot know something truly in the Hebrew system of thought simply by standing afar off and thinking about an object. When Adam knew Eve in Genesis 4:1, the result was the conception of a child. Obviously, then, this “knowing” of Eve by Adam was far more than a simple understanding of her existence—his יָדַע of his wife was intensely personal. And when we speak of God’s knowing someone, we are speaking of His entering into personal relationship with that individual.

This is seen very clearly in Yahweh’s encounter with Moses in Exodus 33. In verse 17 we hear God saying to Moses, “I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in my sight, and I have known (יָדַע) you by name.” Earlier Moses had indicated that God had spoken these words to him before (v. 12). Surely we here see that God is not simply saying ” I know your name” but that something far more personal is in view here. The knowing of Moses’ name is very personal; God is indicating His gracious decision to enter into a very special and personal relationship with Moses. The fact that this passage figures so prominently in Paul’s discussion of election in Romans 9:15 is surely significant as well, for if Paul connects verse 19 of this chapter with God’s predestination in Romans 9, surely his usage of “foreknow” in Romans 8 is drawn from here as well.

The continued emphasis upon the personal nature of the object of God’s knowledge is seen as well in Amos 3:2, where the nation of Israel, as God’s special covenant people, is addressed: “You only have I known (יָדַע) among all the nations of the earth.” Here God asserts that He has known only the people of Israel. Again, bare factual knowledge cannot possibly be the meaning, as God surely knows that other peoples exist, for He created them! Instead, the word “know” means “to choose”. Both the New American Standard Bible and the New International Version render יָדַע here as “chosen”. So prevalent is this sense of the Hebrew term when in reference to God that the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament comments, “We find yd’ in Am. 3:2 as an expression for the special relationship between Yahweh and Israel or election to service… In Ex. 33:12, 17.. .yd’… character- ize(s) the special election (and call)…In Jer. 1:5, the appointment of Jeremiah to prophetic office is characterized by yd’ (יָדַע). . long before his birth…Jeremiah had been chosen as a prophet.” (5:468).

Does the emphasis upon the active choice of God to enter into a personal relationship with an individual as an emphasis of the concept of “knowing” in the Old Testament come through in the New? It most certainly does! For example, when the Lord Jesus refers to His sheep, He asserts, “I am the good shepherd; and I know My own, and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15) Again, simple knowledge of data is surely not what is in mind. Here “knowing” refers to personal relationship. The same is to be found elsewhere; in Matthew 7:23, when the Lord Jesus dismisses the ungodly from before the judgment seat with the words, “And then I will declare to them, ’I never knew you; depart from Me, you who work lawlessness.” Again, Jesus had intellectual knowledge of these people, but they did not have a personal relationship with Him. And the “firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, ’the Lord knows those who are His.’” (2 Timothy 2: 19). Hence, we have seen that “to know” in Scripture, especially when it is God who is doing the “knowing” and when the object of this “knowing” is personal (a person, or a people, as in Israel), refers not to a knowledge of data and facts, but a personal relationship between God and the “knowee”. With this concept in mind, let us now look at the concept of God’s foreknowledge in the New Testament.

Hence, we have seen that “to know” in Scripture, especially when it is God who is doing the “knowing” and when the object of this “knowing” is personal (a person, or a people, as in Israel), refers not to a knowledge of data and facts, but a personal relationship between God and the “knowee”. With this concept in mind, let us now look at the concept of God’s foreknowledge in the New Testament.

Above we cited Romans 8:29-30. As we look at this passage we note that again the object of God’s action of foreknowing is a person (or a people if we take the plurality of all men and women who are to be saved). We do not here see God knowing actions but rather people. God is not the passive recipient of knowledge of future events, but the active one who is foreknowing. This is God’s choice, God’s action in entering into a personal relationship with His creation. In this context, προγινώσκω refers to God’s gracious choice to enter into the special relationship of Redeemer to those who are the object of His love, the elect (v. 33).

This understanding of προγινώσκω is confirmed by its usage in Romans 11:2. “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.” This is spoken about the people of Israel. Surely no truth is more clearly proclaimed In the Old Testament than that found in Deuteronomy 7:6-7: “For you are a holy people to Yahweh your God; Yahweh your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. Yahweh did not set His love on you or choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples…” God chose Israel freely and without any reference to their actions, merits, or anything else. But, if the common meaning of προγινώσκω as seen in most modern understandings is used here, we would be forced into the absurd statement that God chose Israel because He foresaw that Israel would choose Him! Can anyone with even the slightest familiarity with the history of the nation of Israel make such a statement? Surely not! God’s election of the people of Israel was based upon His own gracious decision to enter into covenant relationship with them, not on the basis of His foreseeing their actions or attitudes.

The personal nature of προγινώσκω is seen as well in 1 Peter 1:20, where Christ is said to have been “foreknown” before the foundation of the earth. Here again, election, choosing, personal relationship—all these elements that we have traced through the Old Testament are found to appear in the New.

The noun πρόγνωσις is found in two places in the New Testament: 1 Peter 1:2 is the first of these: “(who are)…chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, unto the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ; grace and peace be multiplied to you.” Just as it is revealed in Romans 8:29, the Biblical order is foreknown, then elected (predestined). But, as we have seen, this is a sovereign decision by God wherein He enters a personal relationship with the object of His foreknowledge. Before we even existed, God graciously entered into relationship with us. What incredible mercy!

The second passage in which God’s πρόγνωσις is found is Acts 2:23: “this One, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” At first glance it might seem as if this usage contradicts what has been seen before; that is, it looks as if here the action of the delivering up of Christ is what is foreknown, not Christ Himself, in opposition to what has been said, that God’s foreknowledge is always in regards to people, not things or actions. But, a closer look at the passage reveals that the object of God’s foreknowledge is indeed Christ. Hence it was according to God’s will and choice that Christ was delivered up. Surely we are not going to say that God simply looked into the future and saw what Christ would do; God is the very origin and source of Christ’s work; it was His will and plan. He is not reacting to some future event in sending Christ; God is the one who decided to send Christ.

So what have we seen? We have discovered that the Biblical presentation of God’s knowledge is consistent between the Old and New Testaments; that in the OT God’s יָדַע involves His gracious choice and selection of a person or people; that this continues on in the NT when we find that God’s πρόγνωσις refers to God’s gracious, merciful and solely sovereign choice to enter into personal relationship with a person. In the case of Christ, this is referred to His work in providing for salvation; He is “known” as the Redeemer. In reference to the elect, this is referred to God’s action in bringing them into relationship with Him. As Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says, “In the NT προγινώσκειν is referred to God. His foreknowledge, however, is an election or foreordination of His people…or Christ.” (I:715). The bare concept of simply having knowledge of future events has been seen to be inconsistent with the NT usage, and hence to be rejected.

What then can we conclude? That God’s election of individuals to salvation is free and sovereign; His action is not based upon anything in the creature either of merit or action. God’s action in predestination is based solely on Himself and His own will. This is vitally important in many ways; our theology of God will be seriously compromised if we accept the concept of God’s being dependent upon the actions of creatures in the creation of His decrees. Not only this, but a gospel that bases salvation upon the choice and action of man dishonors God and debilitates the church. Let us stand firm in the proclamation of the Apostle Paul, “It is from Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that just as it has been written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).

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