Category Archives: foreknowlege

An Explanation of Simple Foreknowledge

In the book Against Calvinism, Roger Olson asserts that Calvinism damages God’s reputation, and that  it (unintentionally) turns God into a moral monster who is hardly distinguishable from the devil.  Olson doesn’t argue that Calvinists affirm that God is like the devil. Rather, in his view  it is the logical implication of Calvinism.  It’s a strong assertion, but I agree.   John Wesley did also.

Michael Horton, a pretty amiable Calvinist, and author of the book For Calvinism, recently did a post on why he believes that Arminians runs into the same “character of God” issues as Calvinists do.  He proposes that “Non-Calvinist theologies are just as vulnerable on this question.”  He offers two questions:

If [in Arminianism] God knew that Adam and Eve were going to transgress his law, why didn’t he change the circumstances so that they would have made a different choice?

Why [in Arminianism] would God create people he knew would be condemned for their original and actual sin?

Horton’s questions  implicitly acknowledge that the Calvinist system does create problems for God’s character, however, he believes these issues are also present in Arminian theology.   If Horton’s arguments hit the mark, they would seem to limit Arminians to only two options:  1) Acknowledge that the Arminian understanding of God’s foreknowledge turns God into a moral  monster in the same way that Calvinism does, or 2) Reject the possibility that God has exhaustive  foreknowledge (Open Theism).

But there is a third option: simple foreknowledge (which I’ll call SF).  SF avoids the “character of God” issues present in Calvinism, while at the same time holding that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of all events since before the foundation of the world.

What if God knew what humanity would do only after he made a decision to create us?  This could be understood as a logical order, not by necessity a temporal one, since God is everlasting.  What if after God decided to create us, he was unwilling or unable to take back that decision?  This understanding of foreknowledge would not compromise God’s character, because his foreknowledge came about as a result of his decision to create. Not all Arminans hold to SF, some hold to different explanations (like Molinism).  However, SF provides reasonable answers for Horton’s questions about the character of God.

SF adherents maintain that God’s foreknowledge is contingent on our existence.  God knows what we will do because we will do it.  God’s knowing isn’t the source of our doing.  Rather, our doing is the source of God’s knowing.  SF adherents believe that it is meaningless to speak of God knowing the actions of creatures that never exist.  It’s also meaningless to speak of God knowing what we would do in different situations that don’t actually exist.  If an actual situation doesn’t exist, there is nothing for God to know about it.

It’s a bit like stating that God knows what will happen tomorrow when the hobbit steals the leprechaun’s pot of gold.  God doesn’t know any “fact” like that.  There is no hobbit.  There is no leprechaun.  There is nothing for God to know about that situation, only an imaginary concept that doesn’t exist.

SF adherents hold that at some point God made a decision to create the world.  Again, this can be understood as a logical order, not a temporal one.  Prior to God’s decision to make the world, there was nothing for him to know about what humanity would or wouldn’t do.  He hadn’t decided to create us.  We were non-existent.  After deciding to create the world, then God knew everything that would happen – sin, some people believing in him, others rejecting him. But at that point our world was actualized, God knew what we would do because we would eventually do it.  At that moment God also knew what he would do about sin and how he would redeem humanity – by sending Jesus: God himself in the flesh.  After deciding to create humanity in his image, and granting us the ability to make decisions, and granting us a privileged position, God couldn’t take back his choice to create.  He couldn’t make us cease to exist, without doing violence to his character and  to his creation.

Now, SF has some mystery to it.  How did God know what we would do before we actually existed in time?  How could God decide in an instant how he would interact with humanity throughout all time?  How can God be emotional about his creation today if he has foreknown all events all along?  These are valid questions, but I’m comfortable leaving them in  the realm of mystery.  Mystery is preferable to believing that God causes sin, or that he doesn’t know the future.

The logical order of God’s foreknowledge in Calvinism and Arminianism works something like this:

Calvinism
1) God meticulously decrees what will happen in the world that he intends to create.
2) God creates.

Arminianism
1) God decides to create.
2) God has exhaustive foreknowledge about everything that is going to happen.

While Calvinists and Arminians both believe that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future, only in Calvinism does God meticulously decree the future – and (in the Arminian view) that’s what makes him responsible for evil.  In Arminianism, God’s foreknowledge is contingent on the future free actions of creatures created in his image.  If we did something different, God would know something different, because the source of his foreknowledge is our eventual actions.  The Arminian does not affirm that God knew he would damn people before he decided created them, nor is it necessary for us to do so.  If the source of God’s foreknowledge is our actions, God is not culpable for evil.  If the source of God’s foreknowledge is through his meticulous decree, then God is responsible for every sin that every person commits.  And he is ultimately responsible for evil.  Perish the thought!

[For a scholarly explanation of the SF view, read God and Time by theologian Jack Cottrell.  Cottrell calls this concept the “noetic big bang”.]

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God and Time

I ran across an interesting article by theologian Jack Cottrell: Understanding God: God and Time

The article speculates about God’s relation to time, and the nature and extent of his foreknowledge.  Is God timeless (outside of time)?  Or does God experience time in some sense (everlasting)?  Cottrell argues that God does experience time, but that he is metatemporal – God experiences his own time, and also created our time.

Relating to God’s foreknowledge of our universe, Cottrell argues for something that he calls the noetic “big bang”.  God foreknew what would happen in our universe when he decided to created it, but not before.

Just as the universe (supposedly) began at a single point of space and almost instantaneously exploded to form the massive universe we now observe, so did God’s foreknowledge of the entire history of the universe begin at a single point of time and then expand in a kind of noetic “big bang.” This noetic “big bang” or explosion of foreknowledge was an event in the life of God, an event that occupied “X” amount of time.   Before this event, God had no knowledge of this actual world; after this event he knows its entire history. Since the knowledge occurs prior to the actual creation of the world, it is true foreknowledge.

We should stress that what God foreknows is not the unfolding history of a self-contained universe, with God himself being just an observer of what created causal forces (e.g., free will) will bring about. Rather, this is the time when God makes his decisions and plans regarding his own intervention into the unfolding historical process, or else regarding his deliberate permission to allow the created causal forces to proceed unhindered. The history that unfolds in God’s mind is not just the world’s history; it is his own history too.

In this event of the noetic “big bang,” as God is determining when and how he will intervene in our history, in a sense he is thinking more new thoughts, i.e., making new decisions concerning his own actions. In another sense they are not really new, since from all eternity he has had a complete knowledge of all possible worlds and all possible contingencies, and has eternally known his own potential responses to whatever contingencies will ever arise. So during the “big bang” process God does not have to ponder or weigh possible.

So Cottrell largely agrees with the Open Theist – that God exists in time, but also with the Classical Theist – that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of the world he created.

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Differences in Calvinism and Arminianism

It is easier to respect the position of someone whom you disagree with if you can understand their motivation.  Therefore, it is helpful to identify the foundational differences between Calvinism and Arminianism.

God’s Primary Attribute: Calvinists understand God primarily in terms of power and authority. God is sovereign in a deterministic sense.  Nothing happens without God’s decree.  Any doctrine that limits God’s power is viewed with suspicion by the Calvinist, even if it’s a self imposed limitation of God’s choosing.  Arminians understand God primarily as relational. Arminians believe that God is willing to set aside his rights in order to be reconciled with humanity. God did this because of his great love for humanity.  Power vs Relationship is the primary difference between Calvinism and Arminianism.

The purpose of the fall: Calvinists believe that God created mankind in such a way that the fall  was certain and necessary.  God purposed the fall to display his attributes of  justice and mercy, which in turn display his glory and greatness.  Arminians don’t believe that the fall was necessary. God purpose was relational.  He created man with the ability to freely respond to him in love.  In order to facilitate genuine relationship, Adam and Eve and their posterity needed to have the capability to do things that God did not ultimately prefer.

The Source of God’s Foreknowledge:  Both Calvinists and Arminians believe that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of the future, However, the source of God’s foreknowledge is different in the two systems.  In Calvinism, everything that happens is certain and necessary.  God knows everything because he has decreed for everything to come to pass.   In Arminianism, man’s doing is the cause of God’s knowing.  God sees our future choices and knows what we will do.  This is a logical order, because God has always had this knowledge.  Arminians  make a distinction between certainty and necessity.  Knowing something will take place is different than causing it to take place.

Grace: Both Calvinists and Arminians believe that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works.  Both believe that man must be drawn by God in order for him to want to be saved.  We disagree on the nature and extent of grace.  Calvinists believe that drawing grace is effectual and particular.  Those whom God chooses to be saved will certainly be saved.  God elects to save certain individuals and passes over others.  Arminians believe that drawing grace is universal and resistible.  God desires for all to be saved and draws all to himself.  Drawing grace can be resisted by the individual, to his own detriment.


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Foreknowledge

Foreknowledge means to have knowledge of something before it happens. In scripture there are are references to God’s foreknowledge of those who will believe in Jesus. Those whom God foreknows, he also elects to be saved.

The Greek word – proginosko
Proginosko is the word used in the New Testament that today we translate as “to foreknow”. It literally means “to know before”. The word breaks down like this: Pro (before) ginosko (to know).

We are familiar with this word in English. For example: a doctor will give a prognosis. And someone who makes predictions is called a prognosticator.

The word in its noun or verb form is used several times in the New Testament to explain the foreknowledge of God or of individuals. Here are some passages where the word is used:
Acts 2:23
Acts 26:4-5
Romans 8:29
1 Peter 1:1-2
1 Peter 1:20
2 Peter 3:17

Arminians believe that foreknowledge works like this: God has exhaustive knowledge of the future, thus He “prognosticates” it perfectly. God knows who will believe in Jesus. Those who believe are elected. Election is corporate in scripture (those who believe) as opposed to individual election. The Arminian understanding of foreknowledge is apparent in passages like Romans 8:29 and 1 Peter 1:2

(Bold mine – represents the Greek word for foreknowledge)

Romans 8:28-29: And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. (NKJV)

1 Peter 1:1-2 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied. (NKJV)

Calvinists err in their understanding of foreknowledge, confusing foreknowledge with predestination. They believe that God decrees whatever happens, so foreknowledge is only a byproduct of His decree. In Calvinist thought, foreknowledge is a synonym of election. But Romans 8:29 and 1 Peter 1:2 show instead that God’s election is a result of His foreknowledge, not the cause of it.

Another Calvinists interpretation of foreknowledge is “to forelove” instead of “to foreknow”. However, there is no justification for this interpretation in the context of the passages in the New Testament.

God is working for the good of those who love Him! He sees everything, he always knows what will happen, and He is always working on the behalf of those who He knows will believe. He is for us!

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