Peter Hickman asked a couple of times about my own views on divine sovereignty and human free-will on the Freedom and Autonomy threads. I deliberately refrained from answering there, because the purpose of that series was to show how much the thing became an issue through the introduction of a non-biblical but addictive concept of human free-will and liberty during the Renaissance. I argued that, starting in a small way with the Arminian controversy, that new concept has gradually taken much modern theology badly off-course since, until the whole structure of Christianity has been transformed. I still believe that is an important challenge, and hope you read the series purely with that in mind.
Nevertheless I do have my own views, which I have not hidden, and I came across some interesting material during preparation for the last series which might be worth discussing in future posts. Meanwhile Peter’s points are worth replying to especially because they raise the other half of the equation, ie not so much whether God’s subsuming of human freedom in his providence invades man’s autonomy, but whether it makes him a participant in evil (which one might call the theodicy issue).
Like free-will, though, the first question is to decide whether Scripture says God is so involved, the theodicy being done on a theological and philosophical basis afterwards. Peter makes the case for predestination (the compass of which we won’t go into here) being the result of God’s foreknowledge, presumably of our future choices as in Arminianism, in Romans 8.29:
According to Romans, “For whom he foreknew, he also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son”.
So something preceeds predestination (foreknowledge).
And what is predestined is specified (conformity to Christ’s image).
It is best to use words in the way that the Scriptures do.
The question here, then, is “In what way does Scripture use ‘foreknew’?” There’s a very detailed word study here, looking at the the use of the words (προγινοσκω [vb.] and προγνοσις [n.]) throughout Greek literature, including the Bible. Excellent stuff – challenging reading.
A few summary points from that:
(a) Adding prefixes to words, especially in koine Greek, serves mainly to intensify rather than change the meaning. So quite often one writer might prefer the bare verb “know”. The “pro-” stresses the time of the knowing, but doesn’t change its reference.
(b) In classic Greek proginosko was mainly about the infallible prediction of, say, a god or prophet. It’s distinguished from pronoeo, which can also mean foreknow in a weaker sense, as in “making provision”, which is once used of God’s providence in the New Testament. But whatever one foreknows (proginosko) will certainly happen – so at least that excludes provisionality when used of God.
(c) Gradually, both “know” and “foreknow” aquired a personal sense, and that predominates in the New Testament.
(d) Lastly, and especially in the NT, proginosko acquires a determinative meaning, within that personal context. The idea is of God’s forming a relationship in advance even, sometimes, of a person’s existence. This reflects a Hebrew OT usage such as Jeremiah 1.5, in which the prophet is (in parallel phrases) known, set apart and appointed as a prophet to the nations before God forms him in the womb. V6 shows that God was not simply picking up on Jeremiah’s future ambitions, but that “knew” is equivalent to “chose” (as NIV margin notes).
So what about the NT use of “foreknow”? Fortunately there are only seven instances, so we can look at them all.
Two are in Acts (and therefore reflect Luke’s usage). In 26.5 Paul says at his trial that the Jews have “known me for a long time”, lit. “foreknowing me from the beginning.” The use here is clearly personal, the “pro” simply emphasing when they first knew him, rather than any predictive issue.
Acts 2.23 is much more significant to us:
This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death.
Here is clearly stated that God purposed Jesus to be sinfully handed over to death at the hands of wicked men. That implies a lot about God’s involvement in the world’s affairs, for all the unique nature of the Passion. But what’s that word “foreknowledge” doing there? It might seem that God, passively foreknowing their evil intentions, actively determined Jesus’s arrest in response. But the syntax (even in NIV translation) shows that it was by the agency both of God’s purpose and foreknowledge: to say that passive knowledge delivered him over is absurd. The word therefore is being used in its personal, determinative sense: God (a) purposes to deliver him and (b) foreknows him as his appointed suffering servant; and so ensures these things happen.
Peter’s use is also mixed. 2 Pet 3.17 speaks of his readers already knowing true teaching – proginosko merely means they already knew something some time ago. But 1 Pet 1.20 says:
[Christ] was chosen [lit. foreknown] before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.
Here even the translations translate proginosko determinatively – KJV has “foreordained”. The sense is clearly of the Son set apart by his Father before creation for all that he would do, and eventually did do “in these last times.”
That leaves 1 Pet 1.2, a close parallel to Rom 8.29, which says:
To God’s elect [eklektoiw] … who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.
Literally that’s “To God’s elect … according to the foreknowledge of God…”. So is the use of “proginosko” the same as later in the same chapter, or different? The active agent of God’s choice is “the sanctifying work of the Spirit”, and that produces “obedience to Jesus Christ” and “sprinkling by his blood.” That choice, leading to that process, are “according to the foreknowledge of God.”
That might mean
(a) God’s knowledge that these particular people would somehow merit, or cooperate with, or respond to his choice. But nothing of the sort is mentioned – only God’s own actions.
(b) that God knew in advance the fact that he would choose these people, sanctify them, etc. That doesn’t seem to add much meaning to the sentence, or
(c) That, in an analogous way to knowing and choosing Christ as Saviour in v20, God knew these people as saved (in Christ) as the basis of his choice of them for sanctification.
Which of these three makes most sense to you?
Now we turn to Paul’s use of the word – twice, both in Romans. In 11.2, despite Israel’s disobedience:
God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.
It would be incoherent to say he did not reject them because he knew they would rebel. And indeed foundational texts in Deuteronomy 7.7-8 and 9.6 (reinforced in Ezekiel 36.22) show that God chose Israel absolutely not because of any quality seen or foreseen in them. Paul goes on to stress that in Elijah’s time, God himself reserved 7,000 obedient Isrealites, and that similarly he has now chosen a Jewish remnant “by grace. And if by grace then it is no longer by works.” The only sensible understanding is that, as in 1 Peter, God’s foreknowledge here is an electing personal relationship which alone makes the Jews’ consistent rebellion no reason at all to reject them.
And so, at last, to Rom 8.28-30:
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
So – predictive use, or determinative use here? Knowledge of events, or of people? First note that the whole purpose is assurance. Those called according to God’s purpose prosper. Vv29-30 only support that assurance because the “links in the chain” are solid: “if (a), then necessarily (b), and so necessarily (c)” etc. So the idea is that those foreknown end up glorified, via those other stages.
But if future faith, or obedience or some other differentiating quality is what is foreknown, why are they not specified (exactly the same as in 1 Peter 1)? In fact, in that predictive sense, God foreknows everyone, so the passage would have to mean “those whom God knew certain things about he predestined, but not those he knew certain other things about – after that stage, the chain works… and by the way, I’m not telling what God needs to foresee in you to bless you.” That would be messy writing indeed.
Then again, the controlling idea in the passage is God’s choice. It is seen in “called according to God’s purpose” in v28, and in “those whom God has chosen” in v33. So where does that “choice” appear in the chain of blessing? Logically it should be mentioned at the beginning, before God predestines us to be conformed to Christ, and certainly before he calls, justifies and glorifies us. Instead, all we have is foreknowledge … unless that word is being used in its frequent determinative sense, ie that the start of the chain is God’s choosing to know us in a personal way, in the way he previously chose Israel and, of course, the Lord Jesus. As the word study linked above points out, this is not an arbitary, purely sovereign choice:
The word proginosko does involve a sovereign choice. That choice is not arbitrary, but purposefully takes into account what God will do in and through the one chosen. However, that choice is not the choice of a King planning a military campaign, but the choice of the Bridegroom choosing His bride.
The same word study cites Denne:
hous proegno: those whom He foreknew – in what sense? as persons who would answer His love with love? This is at least irrelevant, and alien to Paul’s general mode of thought. That salvation begins with God, and begins in eternity, are fundamental ideas with him, which he here applies to Christians, without raising any of the problems involved in the relation of the human will to the Divine. He comes upon these in chap. ix., but not here. Yet we may be sure that proegno has the pregnant sense that ginosko (Heb yada‘) often has in Scripture: e.g., in Ps. i. 6, Amos iii. 2: hence we may render, “those of whom God took knowledge from eternity” (Eph. i. 4).
Why would Paul not mean it in that sense? Well, to answer that absolutely seriously it would probably be because Paul is keen either, like post-Renaissance interpreters of him, to maintain the dignity of human autonomy, or because, as hinted in Peter’s post, he puts limits on the sovereignty of God in such matters. In a future post, I hope to provide some specific clues on that question from a non-biblical first century source.
Like “freedom”, though, “foreknowledge” is a concept that bears a lot of weight in current theology, so getting it right is important. After all, Open Theism restricts God’s “foreknowledge”, understood as knowledge of future events, because it limits man’s free choice. But we’ve seen that at least the word “foreknow” is pretty rare in Scripture, and that at very least in some cases it has to do not with knowing things, but with choosing people. One might ask why, if God’s limited future knowledge is so important, why so little is said about it in the Bible?