Proginwskw as Divine Prescience
Romans 8:28-30 is a core text for Arminians. Romans 8:29 stands front and center for the Arminian understanding of foreknowledge. Arminians argue that Paul indicates divine prescience with the term proginwskw. Paul writes, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” For the Arminian, Paul is interpreted as stating that foreknowledge (proginwskw) is God’s knowledge of events before the events transpire. For a clearer understanding of the concept, one must examine the term used by Paul. However, defining the term only complicates matters. The term translated “foreknowledge” is the term proginwskw. Proginwskw is defined as, “to have knowledge beforehand, to foreknow; of those whom God elected to salvation; to predestinate.” Gundry-Volf writes, “The verb ‘to foreknow’ proginosko, usually means ‘to know beforehand’…When used of God’s action, therefore, it could refer to God’s eternal foresight of what will come to pass.” However, Gundry-Volf also shows that the Calvinist interpretation of the term as follows, “Against this view J. Murray argues that Paul writes not of God’s foreseeing the faith of persons but foreknowing persons ‘whom he foreknew’ (Rom. 8:29; 11:2).” The trouble is determining which definition or interpretation Paul intended for proginwskw. Arminians understand that proginwskw indicates God’s prescience, or prior knowledge of all things yet to occur. This is logical considering God’s omniscience. The psalmist writes, “Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite.” Picirilli explains the doctrine, The Arminian affirms, in other words, that there are events that actually can transpire in either of two (or more) ways, yet God knows which will take place. He knows all future events perfectly. This means that they are all certain, else he would not know what will be. (It also means…that all future events are in accord with his overall plan and purpose, that nothing ever happens in his universe that is outside his knowledge or control, or that thwarts his ultimate plan.) Picirilli shows the general Arminian understanding of foreknowledge in that God is certain of the decisions made by individuals in the future. Roger Olsen, a Baptist Arminian, while conquering some of the misconceptions concerning Arminian doctrine in his book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, illustrates the importance of Romans 8:29 in lieu of the Arminian understanding of foreknowledge. Olsen writes, “Few of Arminianism’s theological critics would claim that Arminians do not believe in predestination in any sense; they know that classical Arminianism includes belief in God’s decrees respecting salvation and God’s foreknowledge of believers in Jesus Christ. They also know that Arminians interpret predestination in light of Romans 8:29, which connect predestination with God’s foreknowledge of believers.” Olsen shows that Romans 8:29 is one of the building blocks of the Arminian understanding for divine prescience. This interpretation dates back to the founder of Arminianism. Jacob Arminius, the founder of the modern Arminian movement, wrote about divine prescience. His writing succinctly shows that God foreknows people and their decisions before they are made. Arminius writes, From these decrees the fourth proceeds, by which God decreed to save and to damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in divine foreknowledge, through which God has known from all eternity those individuals who through the established means of his prevenient grace would come to faith and believe, and through his subsequent sustaining grace would persevere in the faith. Likewise, in divine foreknowledge, God knew who would not believe and persevere. Arminius showed that foreknowledge is essentially God’s supernatural transcendence of time. God is able to know future events and actions because God is not bound by the restraints of time. However, many Christians are not satisfied with Arminius’ idea of prescience. Some have great problems with proginwskw being interpreted as divine prescience.
Problems with Proginwskw as Prescience
Calvinists possess several objections to the Arminian understanding of prescience in regard to the term proginwskw. However, these objections can be boiled down to two major problems with the Arminian understanding of prescience: problem that sovereignty negates prescience and the conflict with proginwskw defining the foreknowledge of a person and not the person’s action. First, the problem of God’s direction will be examined.
Sovereignty Negates Prescience
John Calvin, the founder of the Calvinist movement, had a great problem with the idea of prescience. Calvin’s stern opposition is seen in his commentary on the book of Romans. Calvin writes, But the foreknowledge of God, which Paul mentions, is not a bare prescience, as some unwise persons absurdly imagine, but the adoption by which he had always distinguished his children from the reprobate. In the same sense Peter says, that the faithful had been elected to the sanctification of the Spirit according to the foreknowledge of God. Hence those, to whom I have alluded, foolishly draw this inference,—That God has elected none but those whom he foresaw would be worthy of his grace. Calvin views the idea of predestination to such a strong degree that prescience is not an option. In other words, God’s decision is final and not based upon any human interference. Therefore, the view that proginwskw refers to God’s knowledge is a gross misinterpretation according to Calvin. Calvin’s understanding of God’s sovereignty leaves little room for human freedom. If Calvin is correct, then every action, including human decisions, was foreordained. If this is correct, then human freedom is merely an illusion. Every action has its root cause in the sovereign God. Humans would have no choice but to act according to the pathway ordained for them. The previous interpretation is glorious for one elected in Christ. However, the view has a darker side. If one is not chosen to be part of the kingdom of God, then there is little hope for an individual chosen for damnation. Also, there is the problem of human responsibility. If God is the sole proprietor of human actions, how could a human be held responsible for any action?
Proginwskw Understood as Foreknowledge of Person and Not Action
Proginwskw can be viewed as foreknowledge in another sense which does not necessitate prescience. John A. Witmer and F. F. Bruce show that foreknowledge could refer to the foreknowledge of a person and not a person’s future actions. Witmer writes, These verses give Paul’s explanation of what it means to be one who has “been called according to His purpose” and why God keeps on working all their experiences together to their benefit (v. 28). Believers are those God foreknew. This does not mean simply that God foreknows what believers will do, but that God foreknows them. Nor does divine foreknowledge merely mean an awareness of or acquaintance with an individual. Instead it means a meaningful relationship with a person based on God’s choice (cf. Jer. 1:4–5; Amos 3:2) in eternity before Creation. “He chose us in Him before the Creation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). F. F. Bruce adds, “God’s foreknowledge here connotes that electing grace which is frequently implied by the verb ‘to foreknow’ in the Old Testament. When God takes knowledge of people in this special way, he sets his choice on them.” Witmer and Bruce thus conclude that proginwskw refers to God’s foreknowledge of a person. Foreknowledge in this sense is preserved by God’s choice of a person unrelated to the person’s future decisions. Witmer and Bruce’s conclusion is tenable, but it does not necessarily negate prescience. If God foreknows a person, then God would know the personal characteristics of the person and future decisions that such a person would make. Witmer and Bruce could be correct in that this divine decision was made regardless of human decision. However, it could be argued that the human decisions that the person would make could be known in regard to the foreknowledge and election of, and by, God. In essence, Witmer and Bruce show that God’s decision to choose such a person could still possibly be based on God’s knowledge of the person’s future receptivity to the grace offered to that person. Witmer and Bruce may be correct, but their argument still leaves the door open to an interpretation of proginwskw as prescience.
Arguments for a Prescient Understanding of Proginwskw
In the previous section, two Calvinist arguments of varying degrees against a prescience understanding of proginwskw were presented. In this section, three arguments will be presented defending a prescience interpretation of proginwskw as a tenable position: the context of Romans 8:28 with proginwskw, a pre-Augustinian understanding of prescience and proginwskw, and a proginwskw prescient interpretation in relation to divine sovereignty.
Context of Romans 8:28 Fits with Prescient Understanding
Proginwskw in verse 29 must be understood in the context of the pericope in which it is contained. Paul wrote, “And we know that God causes all things to work for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” At first, it would seem that a more Calvinist understanding is appropriate due to the terms “causes,” “called,” and “purpose.” However, the phrase “to those who love God” is referenced here. The phrase tends to indicate a personal response to God. This is not unusual for Paul. In Romans 10:9, Paul writes, “That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” As in Romans 10:9, Paul shows a personal response in Romans 8:28. It could be argued that for God to bring all things to good that it would require a Sovereign direction on God’s part. There is no reason why God’s direction in any way hinders a free personal response on the part of the human being. William Lane Craig shows how middle knowledge could serve as an answer to the dilemma. Craig writes …middle knowledge can help us understand the basis of divine knowledge of future contingents. Divine foreknowledge is based on (1) God’s middle knowledge of what every creature would freely do under any circumstances and (2) his knowledge of the divine decree to create certain sets of circumstances and to place certain creatures in them. Given middle knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom and the divine decree, foreknowledge follows automatically as a result, without any need of God’s peering into the future, as detractors of divine foreknowledge imagine. While middle knowledge is not a classic Arminian position in the traditional sense, Craig shows that middle knowledge does help present prescience as a tenable option. In regard to verse 28 and other segments of Paul’s writings in the book of Romans, one could conclude that a prescience view of proginwskw is a good, if not probable, interpretation of Paul’s use of the term. It is not impossible, as was shown in Craig’s evaluation of middle knowledge, for one to conclude that prescience is at least a possibility in solving the divine sovereign/human freedom dilemma. Therefore, a prescience view of proginwskw is a tenable position.
Pre-Augustinian Understanding of Prescience
It can be argued that the determinism found in Calvinism has enjoyed a rich history within the church. John Calvin certainly promoted a deterministic viewpoint concerning humanity. However, others such as Thomas Aquinas also promoted a sense of determinism. Aquinas wrote, “Now if a thing cannot attain to something by the power of its nature, it must be directed thereto by another; thus, an arrow is directed by the archer towards a mark. Hence, properly speaking, a rational creature, capable of eternal life, is led towards it, directed, as it were, by God.” Aquinas also writes, “Predestination has its foundation in the goodness of God.” According to Aquinas, God is the prime mover even for human actions. While Arminians may not have as rich a history as classic Calvinists, it may be surprising to note that Arminius’ interpretation of prescience is not a new interpretation. In fact, the interpretation of divine prescience dates back to the early church fathers. McCall and Stanglin write, Furthermore, if we take ‘foreknowledge’ in Rom 8:29 to be referring to God’s foreknowledge of something about an individual (the ‘theoretical/intellectual’ [Turrentin] or ‘cognitive’ [Baugh] aspect), then Arminians have a remarkable amount of support from the patristic tradition. Such Fathers as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, Chrysostom, and John of Damascus all agreed that God predestines on the basis of what he foreknows about a person. Therefore, it cannot be said that the Arminian understanding of prescience holds no historical support. The view is supported among numerous early church leaders and apologists. This ancient Christian view of prescience is observable in the teachings of Justin Martyr. Martyr, a Christian leader and apologist of the second century, wrote, For among us the prince of the wicked spirits is called the serpent, and Satan, and the devil, as you can learn by looking into our writings. And that he would be sent into the fire with his host, and the men who follow him, and would be punished for an endless duration, Christ foretold. For the reason why God has delayed to do this, is His regard for the human race. For He foreknows that some are to be saved by repentance, some even that are perhaps not yet born. In the beginning He made the human race with the power of thought and of choosing the truth and doing right, so that all men are without excuse before God; for they have been born rational and contemplative. Two things should be noted from Martyr’s writing: Martyr’s emphasis on God’s foreknowledge of future events, and Martyr’s emphasis of the rationality of every human being. Therefore, one could conclude that Martyr held an opinion that matches the Arminian understanding of prescience. Another example of an early church father that held to the belief of divine prescience is found in Irenaeus, a church father of the second century. Irenaeus wrote, Again, we could have learned in no other way than by seeing our Teacher, and hearing His voice with our own ears, that, having become imitators of His works as well as doers of His words, we may have communion with Him, receiving increase from the perfect One, and from Him who is prior to all creation. We-who were but lately created by the only best and good Being, by Him also who has the gift of immortality, having been formed after His likeness (predestinated, according to the prescience of the Father, that we, who had as yet no existence, might come into being), and made the first-fruits of creation-have received, in the times known beforehand, [the blessings of salvation] according to the ministration of the Word, who is perfect in all things, as the mighty Word, and very man, who, redeeming us by His own blood in a manner consonant to reason, gave Himself as a redemption for those who had been led into captivity. In the selected passage, Irenaeus shows that a prescient view that combines divine knowledge and human free will as an acceptable position. Irenaeus and Justin Martyr serve as examples that the view of prescience did not originate with Jacob Arminius. Furthermore, the church fathers show that the idea of prescience was an accepted position extremely early in the history of the church. While the early nature of the belief does not prove that prescience was what the Apostle Paul had in mind when using the term proginwskw in Romans 8:29, it does demonstrate that such a view was early enough to be the likely use of the term since it was the general understanding of the early church. At the very least, the belief of the early church fathers demonstrates the early acceptance of prescience and, therefore, shows the belief to be tenable. Boyd reinforces this fact, “To be sure, early orthodox Christians uniformly reject divination practices and, at least up until Augustine, vigorously attacked all forms of determinism. Yet the association of providence with the conviction that God knows the future exclusively in terms of what will and will not come to pass was almost uniformly adopted from the start.” Therefore, one can find support for the Arminian doctrine of prescience in the early church.
Prescience Needs Not Hamper a Sovereign Understanding
Romans 8:30 give the results of God’s action towards the believer. Paul writes, “And these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” Must a prescient understanding diminish the understanding of God’s ability to bring about the promises in Romans 8:28 and also in Romans 8:30? Earlier in the paper, the understanding of middle knowledge was shown to provide tenability to divine foreknowledge. The idea of middle knowledge helps also in demonstrating that prescience does not negate God’s sovereign plan. Craig and Moreland write, “When we understand that God timelessly knows the things he knows, and that his knowledge of something does not cause that thing to happen, then we have the resources for developing a posture to the problem. Still others utilize a notion called middle knowledge, roughly, God’s knowledge of what every free creature he could create would do in every possible circumstance in which they could be placed.” Craig and Moreland show that knowledge does not demerit God’s sovereign ability to bring forth the promises that He made. Prescience could be understood to show that God is able to place individuals in circumstances in which an individual would freely choose the grace of God given to them. Some would claim that if individuals were placed in circumstances that would lead them towards a decision that the individual would not be able to choose differently. While God would know the decision made before the decision was made, the decision would still be left to the individual. Goetz adds that this understanding helps one understand God’s allowance of moral evils without attributing those evils to God, “Moreover, while God can bring something good out of a moral evil one experiences (St Paul reminds Christians in his Epistle to the Romans 8:28 that in everything God works for good for those who love Him), one must not confuse the idea of His doing so with that of His intending that one experience moral evil as a means to the end that one justly experience perfect happiness or any other end.” Goetz demonstrates that God can act to bring certain ends despite His allowance of human freedom. This understanding of prescience does not prove that Paul intended that proginwskw be used in such fashion. However, this understanding detracts the view that prescience and divine direction are impossible to reconcile, thus leaving prescience as a tenable position.
Even though this paper did not attempt to prove the Arminian understanding of proginwskw as prescience as the correct interpretation, it did show that such a view is tenable. Calvin and others, like Witmer, argue that such a view is not necessary when understanding proginwskw in light of the remaining portion of Romans 8:28-30. However, it has been shown that prescience is tenable especially in light of middle knowledge. Although middle knowledge is not a classic Arminian position, it does show how a prescient understanding of proginwskw can remain as a plausible option. Also, it was shown that many pre-Augustinian Christians such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus held views that corresponded with, if not promoted, divine prescience. Finally, employing the use of middle knowledge, it was shown that prescience does not necessarily hamper an understanding of divine direction. Therefore, the paper concludes that the understanding of proginwskw as prescience is a tenable position.
All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the New American Standard Bible, 1995 Update
(La Habra, CA: Lockman Foundation, 1995), Romans 8:29.
James Strong, Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon
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J.M. Gundry-Volf, “Foreknowledge, Divine,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters,
Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 310.
J. Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 316-317, quoted in J.M. Gundry-Volf, “Foreknowledge, Divine,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters,
eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 310.
Picirilli, Robert E. “Foreknowledge, Freedom, and the Future.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
43, no. 2 (06, 2000): 262.
Roger E. Olsen, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities
(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 179.
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in Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments
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(Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 317–318.
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eds. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 474.
F. F. Bruce, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Romans
(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997, 166.
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eds. Stanley N. Gundry and Dennis W. Jowers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 85.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologicae I.23.1,
trans. the Fathers of the Eastern Dominican Province, The Summa of the Summa,
Peter Kreeft (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1990), 175.
Tom McCall and Keith D. Stanglin, “S. M. Baugh and the Meaning of Foreknowledge: Another Look.” Trinity Journal 26, no. 1 (Spring, 2005), 24.
Boyd, Gregory A. “Two Ancient (and Modern) Motivations for Ascribing Exhaustively Definite Foreknowledge to God: A Historic Overview and Critical Assessment.” Religious Studies
46, no. 1 (03, 2010): 41-59, 49.
J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview
(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 282.
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eds. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 477.