Calvinism and Foreknowledge in Romans 8:29

Jack Cottrell — March 2015

QUESTION: Romans 8:29 clearly says that God predestines people to heaven based on his foreknowledge. This seems to undermine the Calvinist view of unconditional election. But Calvinists argue that “foreknowledge” in this text does not mean simply to be aware of man’s future decisions; rather, it means God LOVES and CHOOSES certain people in advance. How can we respond to this?

ANSWER: The main issue in Romans 8:29, according to Calvinists, is the meaning of the word “foreknow” (proginōskō). Since ginōskō means “to know,” and pro means “before,” it would seem obvious that proginōskō means “to know beforehand” in the sense of prior cognitive or mental awareness. God certainly has such precognition. Because of his unique relation to time, his knowledge is not limited to the now; he knows the past and the future as well as he knows the present (see my book, What the Bible Says About God the Creator, 255-259, 279-289). The verb “foreknow” is used here and in four other places in the NT: Acts 26:5; Rom. 11:2; 1 Pet. 1:20; 2 Pet. 3:17. (The noun is used twice: Acts 2:23; 1 Pet. 1:2.) Everyone agrees that in Acts 26:5 and 2 Pet. 3:17, where it refers to human foreknowledge, it has this simple meaning of precognition or prescience.

But Calvinists argue that in all the other passages, in which God is the subject, both the verb and the noun have another connotation altogether, namely, distinguishing love (John Murray, Epistle to the Romans, I:318). Included here are two concepts: loving and choosing. Since the word “know” itself at times is “practically synonymous with ‘love,’ to set regard upon, to know with peculiar interest, delight, affection, and action,” foreknowledge in 8:29 must mean “whom he knew from eternity with distinguishing affection and delight,” or “whom he foreloved” (Murray, I:317; see also commentaries by Hendriksen, Moo, Stott, and MacArthur).

The key word, though, is “distinguishing.” For Calvinists the foreknowledge of 8:29 is an act by which God (unconditionally) chooses some people out of the mass of future mankind to be the sole recipients of his saving grace. This says “foreknowledge” is the same as “election.” As Douglas Moo sums it up, “The difference between ‘know or love beforehand’ and ‘choose beforehand’ virtually ceases to exist” (Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary: Romans, I:569). For 8:29 Arndt and Gingrich (1957, p. 710) give the definition of “choose beforehand.” Newman and Nida (Translator’s Handbook on Romans,167) translate it, “Those whom God had already chosen.” It has the “connotation of electing grace,” says Bruce (Epistle of Paul to the Romans,177).

On what do Calvinists base this peculiar definition of foreknowledge? Mainly they base it upon a few selected biblical uses of the verbs for “to know,” in which they find the connotations of “choose” and/or “love.” These include the places where “know” is a euphemism for sexual intercourse, and they include a few other OT uses of yada‘ (Hebrew for “know”), usually Gen. 18:19; Exod. 2:25; Jer. 1:5; Hos. 13:5; and Amos 3:2. Also cited are these NT texts: Matt. 7:23; John 10:14; 1 Cor. 8:3; 13:12; Gal. 4:9; and 2 Tim. 2:19. Since “know” in all these passages allegedly means much more than simple cognition, we may conclude that “foreknow” in 8:29 and elsewhere also means much more, namely, “distinguishing love bestowed beforehand.” Thus, “whom He chose beforehand, he also predestined.”

How may we respond to this? By a thorough study of the way the Bible uses the words for “know” and “foreknow.” Such a project could fill a book, but here we will offer a summary analysis.

First, noncognitive connotations for ginōskō are virtually nonexistent in secular Greek. Moo admits that the Calvinist definition of foreknowledge (i.e., to choose or to love beforehand) sounds “somewhat strange against the background of broad Greek usage” (I:569).

Second, the use of “know” as a euphemism for sexual relations contributes nothing toward this Calvinist view, since it refers specifically to the sexual act and not to any love that might be associated with it. Also, the act of sexual “knowing” in no way includes the connotation of choosing, but rather presupposes that a distinguishing choice has already been made (via marriage). Finally, the use of “know” for this act is much closer to cognition than either loving or choosing; it connotes cognitive knowing at the most intimate level.

Third, biblical texts where “know” and “foreknow” seem to have a connotation of love or affection (e.g., Exod. 2:25; Hos. 13:5) prove nothing, because they usually do not specify the reason for God’s love-knowledge, and they certainly do not suggest that it was unconditional. In fact, 1 Cor. 8:3 seems to say it is conditional: “The man who loves God is known by God.” (Note also that this text distinguishes between loving and knowing.)

Fourth, an analysis of the NT texts where the words for “know” have persons as their objects, i.e., where the action of knowing is specifically directed toward persons and not facts as such, shows that in such cases these words never have the connotation of “choosing” or “imposing a distinction.” This applies to ginōskō (used c. 52 times in this way), epiginōskō (c. 15 times), and oida (c. 43 times).

Such an analysis yields very helpful insights into the meaning of God’s foreknowledge. In order of increasing specificity, the three basic connotations of “know a person” are as follows.

(1) Recognition. In this case “to know” means to recognize someone, to know who he is, to know his identity or his true identity, to be able to identify him for who he is, to be acquainted with him, to be familiar with him, to understand him, to know his true nature. This is by far the most common connotation, occurring at least 80 times (e.g., Matt. 11:27; 14:30; Luke 7:39: John 1:31; Acts 7:18). It is a purely cognitive act. It does not impose an identity upon someone, but perceives that identity. This includes the idea of recognizing someone as belonging to a particular group, as distinct from those who do not. This is the sense in which Jesus “knows” his sheep (John 10:14, 27), even as his sheep know him (John 10:14; see 2 Tim. 2:19). This is the connotation of “know” that applies to “foreknow” in 8:29.

(2) Acknowledgment. Here “to know” means not only to have a cognitive knowledge of someone’s identity, but also to admit or acknowledge that identity. As such it is an act of will, though it presupposes an act of cognition. The most important thing is that this acknowledging does not impose a particular identity upon anyone, but simply confesses it. A few examples of this connotation are Mark 1:24, 34; Acts 19:15; 1 Cor. 1:21; 16:12; 1 Thess. 5:12.

(3) Experience. The third and most intense connotation of “to know” when a person or persons are its object is to know experientially, to experience a relationship with someone. Again, it presupposes cognition but goes beyond it. Most significantly, such knowing is not an act that initiates a relationship but simply experiences it. This connotation is found, for example, in John 17:3; Phil. 3:10; 2 Tim. 1:12; Titus 1:16; 1 John 2:3, 4, 13, 14.

Matthew 7:23; 1 Corinthians 8:3; and Hebrews 8:11 could be either (1) or (3).

In each case the act of knowing does not create a person’s identity or his distinction from other people. It rather presupposes an already-existing identity or distinction; the act of knowing perceives and in some cases acknowledges that identity or distinction. These connotations for knowing fit the term “foreknowledge” very well as it is used in 8:29 and elsewhere. Those whom God from the beginning recognized and acknowledged as his own, he predestined to be members of his glorified family in heaven. (The connotation of experiencing a relationship does not transfer well to the concept of foreknowledge, since foreknowledge as such precedes the existence of its object, precluding an experienced relationship.)

In any case, an analysis of all the uses of “know” with persons as the object undermines the notion that it means “choose,” and thus does not support the Calvinist idea that foreknowledge is the same as election or choosing beforehand.

The four other NT uses of “foreknow” and the two uses of “foreknowledge” do not comfortably bear the connotations of “forelove” and “choose beforehand.” Acts 26:5 and 2 Peter 3:17 do not refer to God’s foreknowledge, but they clearly refer to precognition. Romans 11:2 refers to God’s foreknowledge of Israel as a nation and not to any individuals within it. The context suggests that Paul is referring to God’s precognition of Israel’s rebellion and idolatry. Despite the fact that he foreknew all of this (see 9:22, 27-29; 10:16-21), it was never his plan to reject his people altogether.

In 1 Peter 1:20 Christ is the one foreknown from the foundation of the world; and in the context precognition, not choosing, is the preferred meaning. The contrast is between the hidden and the revealed. Even though the Father knew from the foundation of the world that Christ the Son would be our Redeemer, he did not reveal it until the last days.

The two uses of the noun “foreknowledge” are likewise consistent with the non-Calvinist understanding of “foreknow” in 8:29. First Peter 1:1-2 says that the chosen (are chosen) according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. Thus a clear distinction is made between foreknowledge and choosing, and there is no reason to see in foreknowledge anything other than its basic meaning of precognition. Thus the relationship between foreknowledge and election here is exactly the same as that between foreknowledge and predestination in 8:29.

Acts 2:23 refers to the foreknowledge of God the Father; its object is Jesus Christ and the circumstances of his death. Jesus was delivered up “by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge.” “Set purpose” is equivalent to predestination; the NASB translates it “predetermined plan.” I.e., God had already determined from eternity that Christ would die for our sins. That he was delivered up “according to foreknowledge” means that God foreknew all the human acts of participation in Christ’s betrayal and death, such as those of Judas and Herod. God did not predetermine these acts, but he knew them in advance and therefore could work his plan along with them and through them.

Sometimes Calvinist exegetes try to equate the foreknowledge and predetermined plan in Acts 2:23 by invoking a rule of Greek grammar. Here is how John MacArthur argues: “According to what Greek scholars refer to as Granville Sharp’s rule, if two nouns of the same case (in this instance, ‘plan’ and ‘foreknowledge’) are connected by kai (‘and’) and have the definite article (the) before the first noun but not before the second, the nouns refer to the same thing . . . . In other words, Peter equates God’s predetermined plan, or foreordination, and His foreknowledge” (MacArthur NT Commentary: Romans, I:496). Kenneth Wuest puts it almost exactly the same way, that in such a case the second noun “refers to the same thing” as the first; therefore Acts 2:23 shows that predestination and foreknowledge “refer to the same thing” (Romans in the Greek NT, 143-144).

This argument, however, is seriously flawed. Both MacArthur and Wuest misquote Sharp’s rule. The rule does not say that the two nouns in the construction described above “refer to the same thing.” It says only that in such a case the second noun “always relates to the same person that is expressed or described in the first noun.” There is a huge difference between relating to the same person (or thing) and referring to the same person (or thing). D. A. Carson says it is an exegetical fallacy to assume that the latter or strict form of Sharp’s rule has universal validity. He says, “If one article governs two substantives joined by kai, it does not necessarily follow that the two substantives refer to the same thing, but only that the two substantives are grouped together to function in some respects as a single entity” (Exegetical Fallacies, 84-85). Also, Sharp states his rule as applying only to persons, not to things. As one Greek scholar says, “Non-personal nouns disqualify the construction”; he cites Acts 2:23 as a specific example of this (Richard Young, Intermediate N.T. Greek, 62).

In conclusion, the preponderance of evidence shows that “foreknowledge” is not equivalent to election or choosing, and that in 8:29 it refers to nothing more than the cognitive act by which God knew or identified the members of his family (as distinct from all others) even before the foundation of the world. He identified them by the fact that they were (would be) the ones who loved (would love) him, and who met (would meet) the required conditions for salvation. Knowing through his divine omniscience who these individuals would be, even at that point he predestined them to be part of his glorified heavenly family through resurrection from the dead after the pattern established by the firstborn brother, Jesus Christ.

(This material is adapted from Jack Cottrell, The College Press NIV Commentary: Romans, 2 vols., [Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996, 1998], II:505-511.)

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Calvinism and Foreknowledge in Romans 8:29 — 8 Comments

  1. Dr. Jack cottrell what do you mean here when you say The connotation of experiencing a relationship does not transfer well to the concept of foreknowledge, since foreknowledge as such precedes the existence of its object, precluding an experienced relationship????


    • I do not think the distinction between Classical Greek and Koine Greek helps us in any way to understand the meaning of foreknowledge in Romans 8:29. This is a blind alley and should be shut down. There is no doubt that foreknowledge precedes foreordination. The usual Calvinist view is not the opposite of this, however. The usual Calvinist view is that foreknowledge IS foreordination.

      • Hi Dr. Cottrell,

        Thank you for posting this well-written and well-researched article. I found your discussion of “foreknowledge” very thorough. As you referenced in this article regarding 11:2, Paul sometimes uses this term in relation to people groups. As you are most aware, for various reasons Paul discusses distinct people groups (Jews and Gentiles) in his letter to the Romans. Sometimes it’s in relation to the sinfulness of both groups. Sometimes it’s in relation to God’s plan of salvation for both groups. Sometimes, it’s in relation to their God-ordained roles they play in His plan of salvation for the world. (ie: 1:16, 2:9-12, 3:9, 3:19-24, 4:11-12, 4:16, 8:28-29, 9:24, 10:4, 11:17, 11:30-31) I’m curious, because we see Paul focus so much on the salvation history and roles of these two groups throughout this letter, is it possible that Paul was referring to the foreknowledge of a people group (probably the Gentiles) in 8:29 as you rightfully pointed out that he had in view in 11:2? I’m not versed in Greek, so I’m wondering if the Greek gives any indication that Paul was not referring to people groups.

        I would suggest that Paul’s discussion in Ephesians regarding predestination, a term somewhat connected to this idea of foreknowledge here in 8:28-30, was in relation to people groups as well.

        It seems possible that Paul’s point here in Romans may be very similar that in Ephesians.

  3. It seems to me that the term “foreknowledge” must always, by definition, mean something profoundly different when applied to God than it does when applied to a human.

    Humans, bound by time, have foreknowledge only to the extent that God shares information with us. God, unbound by time and separate from it (time itself being his creation), simply has knowledge. We proceed through time linearly, and therefore use the term “foreknowledge” to describe something that is, frankly, unique to God.

    God’s knowledge is never predictive or precognitive. God observes all of time in a way that human words cannot ever capture: we are tempted to say God observes all of time at once, but “at once” refers to time. We literally cannot conceive of this timelessness, so there are no words that address it correctly or reliably.

    This presents a serious problem. Regardless of the grammar and the language of origin, there’s a limit to the value in parsing the language around a word like “foreknowledge.”

    Because the word refers to a characteristic that humans literally can never grasp, the context clues always have to be interpreted in light of the characteristic of God, and we must be careful *not* to apply human characteristics and limitations to our understanding of that word.

    Precognition in humans is time-bound, and only occurs when God shares knowledge with us (i.e., his prophets). The term does not have special meaning when applied to God — he does not look ahead from his current position, as we might if we had foreknowledge. He simply knows what is, regardless of where it happen/s/ed along a timeline.

    Anticipation is strictly part of creation. It is not a trait of God.

    In that sense, then, God’s knowledge and God’s choice are inseparable. It is not plausible to argue, as some do, that God set a system of rules in motion and stood aside to see what would happen: God cannot simultaneously wait to see what happens and also foreknow what will happen. God made creation according to his will, and, existing apart from it (including time), he knows it all “at once.”

    Election, therefore, seems an inescapable conclusion, regardless of the limitations of Greek vocabulary and grammar.

    • I disagree with almost everything this commentator says, but I will include it here anyway. I believe that one of the most serious false speculations about the nature of God is the notion of his “timelessness.” I have critiqued this false idea in an essay on God and Time, found here: . Attempting to exclude time and the experience of time from the nature of God requires us to create a concept of God that is alien to Biblical revelation.

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