We humans love to predict the future. Or listen to someone who can.
Sometimes it’s just a novel curiosity like breaking open a fortune cookie; sometimes it’s more serious like reading a horoscope or visiting Madame Palm Reader.
Sometimes we don’t recognize it, even though we’re sitting through an hour of pre-game speculation. Or watching that half of the cable news network that seems to consist of nothing but talking heads discussing why the current administration’s actions will or will not have disastrous consequences.
We find much common ground in our interests about the future, but our opinions about the source of such knowledge usually serve only to divide us.
Consider the perennial questions debates arguments accusations that surround such biblical topics as election or predestination. The Bible connects these both to God’s foreknowledge (1 Peter 1:1-2; Romans 8:29), but strangely enough, foreknowledge is often assumed rather than defined. In other words, these discussions usually skip over it without bothering to ask what it means.
I suggest we start there, if only perhaps to forestall those disputes that serve no useful purpose to the Body of Christ.
To do this, I’d like to ask a few simple questions:
Does God Foreknow People or Just the Facts About Them?
I’ll grant that these are not mutually exclusive. If you know someone, then you certainly know some of the facts about them. However, you may easily know facts about someone without actually knowing them. Just think of all the social props that come from meeting a celebrity, and you’ll see how we make a clear distinction between the two.
I won’t worry you with definitions here because definitions are written by lexicographers who have their own theological presuppositions. I also won’t weary you with a list of all the Bible verses where foreknowledge is used, though I’m pretty sure such a list would be longer than most people think. (If you want it, let me know in the comments.)
That’s because you can’t simply look up “foreknow” and “foreknowledge.” You must also look up “know” and “knowledge,” before focusing on those verses that also include some suggestion of “before.” And because Greek and Hebrew use multiple words for “know,” you have to make sure you’re studying the right one.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve done this, but I’ll risk not laying out all the evidence and get right to the point. Here’s what you’d find…
First, there is a set of “knowing” verses that do not refer to knowing a person but to knowing facts. These are irrelevant to our discussion.
Second, there is a set of “knowing” verses that refer to knowing a person, but also clearly specify the facts that are known about that person.
Third, there is a set of “knowing” verses that refer to knowing a person but make no mention of the facts known about them.
We currently use all three of these in our daily conversations, but only the last one clearly implies some kind of relationship. This is relational knowledge, as in, “I know her.”
When we limit our discussion to “foreknowledge,” we find that there are really only two kinds of verses: those that make mention of the facts that are known beforehand, and those that only refer to “foreknowing” a person or a people. These always have God as the subject, a person as the object, and an absence of any facts about them. As in, “God will not reject his people, whom he foreknew.” (Romans 11:2)
So when we discuss those battleground texts (an unfortunate, but accurate description), we ought to ask whether the Bible is talking about God knowing a person (relationally) beforehand, or whether the Bible specifically mentions certain facts about them, such as what they might do or believe in the future. Biblical usage of the term indicates that when the Bible does not clearly indicate what is known about a person, the emphasis is upon the relationship that God has established with them.
This means that foreknowledge includes some exercise of God’s sovereign control over history. Just how much control leads to the next question…
Does Foreknowledge Imply Foreordination?
This can be a sticky question because of the problem of evil. How can a good God be in total control of a future that includes evil? The answer is beyond the scope of this post, but there are theologians who attempt to wriggle out of the problem.
Some simply deny God’s foreknowledge – at least his certain foreknowledge. Either he doesn’t know what will happen, or he just doesn’t know for sure.
Others believe in his foreknowledge but then hand the future over to human free will, stating that God merely permits evil.
There are other answers, as well.
But none of these answers really gets at the issue:
If a supreme being knows in advance all that will happen, and also has the power to do whatever he wills, then his foreknowledge seems to imply more than permission. It seems to imply sanction. Perhaps ordination. Or planning.
(Not necessarily the same thing as moral responsibility, however…)
I don’t mean for this post to dwell on the philosophical. Let’s look at the Bible. Does the Bible indicate any link between God’s knowledge of the future and his control over the future?
The translators of the King James Version (1611) certainly seemed to think so. In 1 Peter 1:1, they translated the Greek noun πρόγνωσις as “foreknowledge.” But in v. 20 of the same chapter, they translated the cognate verb προγινώσκω “foreordained.” Perhaps they noted God’s relationship with his chosen in v. 1, but saw God’s plan to give his Son in v. 20.
Speaking of God’s plan to give his Son to save sinners, Acts 2:23 contains a remarkable pairing of “foreknowledge” with God’s “counsel” or “plan.” The verse says that Jesus was given to crucifixion according to God’s foreknowledge and appointed plan.
(I don’t mean to be rude, but you’d have to be illiterate to say that foreknowledge of this kind implies nothing more than permission.)
What’s more, this verse helps us on our way towards answering the problem of evil because it goes on to say that Jesus’ divinely foreordained crucifixion was carried out by wicked men. The holiest and most heinous converged on the cross of Christ. That should teach us something!
And there are other passages of Scripture, as well. Try reading Isaiah chapter 41 through 44 some time. In these verses, God repeatedly emphasizes that he alone is God (and thus worthy of trust and glory). He does this by challenging any god, anywhere, to do one of two things: show how they had been able to predict the current situation, or give an accurately detailed prediction of the future. His foreknowledge proves that he is God!
How he knows it is the question we’re asking. Does his foreknowledge imply foreordination or something less?
Some Bible readers would say, “Less.” God can only tell the future because he looks down the “tunnel of time” to see what will happen, what people will choose to do. But what of the steady stream of action words coming from the mouth of God?
“I raise up…”
“I work and do…”
“I have taken…”
“I will strengthen, help, uphold…”
“I will make…”
“I will hear, open, plant, set…”
(I’m only halfway through Isaiah ch. 41. There are a lot more.)
Later, God sums up what he’s saying in Isaiah 46:10, “Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.’”
This looks like a lot more than a “tunnel of time.”
Of course, there is a third question that might take care of the whole problem…
How Does Foreknowledge Even Make Sense If God Is Eternal?
Here’s what’s happening: God is eternal, meaning he experiences no succession of moments within his person; he exists in “one indivisible present.” (Berkhof)
In short, God is not bound by time.
God is infinite; time is finite.
Therefore, while God may exist and act within time, he is not limited by it as we are. Another way of saying this would be to say that God is present at all points of history simultaneously.
The usual reason for mentioning this is to eliminate any problems associated with God foreknowing anything.
Unfortunately, it also eliminates the point of him foreknowing anything, too.
God, in his glory, is incomprehensible. For us to understand him, he must limit himself – whether limiting communication to human language, limiting his nature to human analogies, or limiting himself voluntarily in the form of human flesh to die and rise again on our behalf.
This means that he reveals himself in the way that he wants us to understand him. We can understand him correctly, even if not completely.
Which means that when God reveals himself as foreknowing, he means for us to think of him in terms of time. We know that he is eternal, but we also know that from a human perspective, he means for us to think of his actions in terms of a temporal sequence.
In other words, despite what else we know of God, when he says that he foreknows, he means for us to believe that he knows before.
And he’s got a very good reason for doing so…
Bonus Question: What’s the Point of God’s Foreknowledge?
God emboldens a prophet by telling him, “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I knew you.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
God encourages suffering believers by telling them, “You can know that I’m working all things together for your good because I foreknew you and predestined you for glory.” (Romans 8:28-30)
God exhorts Christians to live holy lives by reminding them, “Because I foreknew you, I chose you to experience all the transforming grace of Christ’s cross and the Holy Spirit’s power.” (1 Peter 1:1-2)
Obviously, the point of all this is not to polarize the Church of Christ and exclude brothers and sisters from Gospel fellowship and ministry. Or to argue endlessly about things we can only barely begin to understand.
The point seems to be that God wants us focusing on him and the power, greatness, and sovereignty he has mustered on our behalf through the cross of our Savior since before the world began.
Or as John put it so simply (1 John 4:19, 21b):
“We love him because he first loved us.”
“Whoever loves God, let him love his brother.”
Before we come to blows, let’s come to terms. And maybe we can ask some questions instead of starting quarrels.
I can’t foreknow anything, but I know I don’t have all the answers…or questions! What questions would you ask?