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.
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.