An Exegetical Study of God's Foreknowledge
Retrieved from on July 12, 2004.

This paper will attempt to briefly analyze the theological meaning of God’s foreknowledge, especially as to how God’s foreknowledge relates to His decree. The format that the writer will utilize to outline this study will follow a grammatical, Biblical, theological, and applicational analysis of the term "foreknowledge".


Traditionally, the debate over the meaning of God’s foreknowledge is a consequence of the debate between Calvinists and Arminians over predestination, particularly as it relates to the doctrine of election. For example, Calvinists hold to the position that God’s foreknowledge is "causative": what God decrees He foreknows. W. Robert Cook explains: 

In Biblical usage, the two concepts [foreknowledge and predestination] are sequential only in that foreknowledge points to initiating cause, namely, God’s love in His choice, while predestination points to the willing act which determines the destiny or outcome.

Arminians, on the other hand, view God’s foreknowledge as simple prescience, akin to His omniscience. In relating foreknowledge to election, one Arminian author states: 

having set forth these conditions for being in Christ, God foreknows from the beginning who will and who will not meet them. Those whom He foresees as meeting them are predestined to salvation.  

Therefore, according to the Arminian doctrine, foreknowledge is simply God’s knowing future events apart from His having a causative relationship to them.

Grammatical Analysis

The Greek words translated "foreknow" and "foreknowledge" are the verb proginosko and the noun prognosis. The verb has the basic meaning of "to know beforehand", "to know in advance", and the noun simply means "foreknowledge" [Cf. Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, A Greek - English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature

The Septuagint uses the verb proginosko and the noun prognosis apart from any Hebrew equivalent. The verb is attested three times (Wisdom 6:13, 8:8, 18:6), while the noun is used only twice (Judith 9:6, 11:19). 

While Septuagint usage does allow for prescience when used of inanimate objects (Wisdom 6:13), when used of God the usage is clearly connected with His decree: 

"Yea what things Thou didst determine were ready at hand, and said, Lo we are here: for all Thy ways are prepared, and Thy judgments are in Thy foreknowledge." (Judith 9:6)

Biblical Analysis

The verb proginosko is used five times in the New Testament (Romans 8:29, 11:2; Acts 26:5; 1 Peter 1:20; 2 Peter 3:17), while the noun prognosis is attested twice (Acts 2:23; 1 Peter 1:2). 

In Romans 8:29, foreknowledge is explicitly connected with God’s decree: 

"For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren." (NASB)  

Romans 11:2 refers to God’s people Israel whom He "foreknew". It is obvious from the context that this means more than prescience. In Acts 26:5, Paul, in his defense before Festus and Agrippa, discusses his own life and the fact that all the Jews have known (proginosko) him for a long time (i.e., personal knowledge). Acts 2:23 and 1 Peter 1:20 attribute God’s foreknowledge to the mission of Christ. Cook comments: 

God not only knew ahead of time that Christ would be the Lamb (a concept that is self-evident and tautological), He determined it. No other interpretation of [foreknowledge] makes sense ...  

1 Peter 1:2 relates to God’s election of individual believers "according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit". Commenting on this verse, C. Samuel Storms writes: 

The first thing that strikes me about the Arminian interpretation of this verse is the utter absence of any reference to faith or free-will as that which God allegedly foreknows or foresees in men.  

Storms goes on to say: 

Thus to "foreknow" on God’s part means to "forelove". That God foreknew us is another way of saying that He set His gracious and merciful regard upon us, that He knew us from eternity past with a sovereign and distinguishing delight.  

The Greek word gnosis (and its cognates) finds its linguistic counterpart in the Hebrew word yada. The Hebrew term refers to knowing with experience or intimacy. For example, it is used of sexual union (Genesis 4:1, 19:8); of personal acquaintance (Genesis 29:5; Exodus 1:8); of knowing good from evil (Genesis 3:5,22); and of knowing the true God (1 Samuel 2:12 - 3:7; Jeremiah 3:22). The Greek noun and verb gnosis and ginosko have meanings that parallel those of the Hebrew yada

In Matthew 1:25, the statement "he kept her a virgin" is literally "he knew her not" (eginosken). Moreover, in Philippians 3:10, the Apostle states his foremost desire, "that I may know Him" (gnonai). The reference in Romans 11:2 also has the meaning of the Hebrew yada

"God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?" (NASB)  

In this context, "foreknow" is synonymous with "forelove". 

The conclusion is, therefore, that the word "foreknow" carries a much broader possibility of meanings than mere omniscience. In those contexts which speak of God’s electing or predestinating, the idea of personal causation out of personal love is present. 

Theological Analysis 

Reformed scholar Loraine Boettner makes the point that what is foreknown is foreordained: 

What God foreknows must, in the very nature of the case, be as fixed and certain as what is foreordained; and if one is inconsistent with the free agency of man, the other is also. Foreordination renders the events certain, while foreknowledge presupposes that they are certain.  

Now if future events are foreknown to God, they cannot by any possibility take a turn contrary to His knowledge. If the course of future events is foreknown, history will follow that course as definitely as a locomotive follows the rails from New York to Chicago. The Arminian doctrine, in rejecting foreordination, rejects the theistic basis for foreknowledge. Common sense tells us that no event can be foreknown unless by some means, either physical or mental, it has been predetermined. Our choice as to what determines the certainty of future events narrows down to two alternatives -- the foreordination of the wise and merciful heavenly Father or the working of blind physical fate.  

Millard Erickson expands upon the idea that what is foreknown is foeordained and relates it to human freedom: 

It should be noted that if certainty of outcome is inconsistent with freedom, divine foreknowledge, as the Arminian understands that term, presents as much difficulty for human freedom as does divine foreordination. For if God knows what I will do, it must be certain that I am going to do it. If it were not certain, God could not know it; He might be mistaken (I might act differently from what He expects). But if what I will do is certain, then surely I will do it, whether or not I know what I will do. It will happen! But am I then free? In the view of those whose definition of freedom entails the implication that it cannot be certain that a particular event will occur, presumably I am not free. In their view, divine foreknowledge is just as incompatible with human freedom as is divine foreordination. 

This line of theological reasoning can be illustrated in the followng syllogism: 

  1. What is foreknown is fixed.
  2. What is fixed is certain.
  3. What is certain is predestined.
  4. What is foreknown is predestined. 

As was mentioned previously, Christ was crucified according to the foreknowledge of God (1 Peter 1:20; Acts 2:23). Does foreknowledge in this context mean that God had no absolute plan or no causative personal relationship to the mission of the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ? It would be absurd to deny causation here. In the same way, divine foreknowledge as it relates to any element of God’s predetermined purpose, must relate to God’s active involvement in bringing the event to pass. 

Applicational Analysis 

In the final analysis we ask the question, "What difference does it make?" Is a proper understanding of God’s foreknowledge as it relates to His plan all that important? The following three reasons for answering this question in the affirmative are offered: 

God’s foreknowledge demonstrates His love. Just as Jesus Christ was "foreknown" by God (1 Peter 1:20) in the sense that God has eternally set His love upon Him, believers have been foreknown by God in that He has eternally set His love upon them (Romans 8:29). 

God’s foreknowledge demonstrates His soverignty. God’s omnipotent sovereignty entails more than His omniscience. God is not "looking ahead" and planning His course accordingly. His plan is unconditional and complete according to His good pleasure (cf. Ephesians 1:2ff.). 

God’s foreknowledge demonstrates His personal care. Predestination apart from foreknowledge might imply impersonal fatalism. However, God is not a God of impersonal fatalism but a God who is intimately involved with His creation and in His plans for it. 

"For as many as may be the promises of God, in Him they are yes; wherefore also by Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us." (2 Corinthians 1:20)