Everyone has probably heard the joke about the two men of questionable intelligence in the movie theater, watching a Western. The one leans over to the other and says, "I'll bet that cowboy rides under a tree in just a minute, hits his head on a low branch, and is knocked off his horse." "You're on," his friend whispers back. "Ten dollars?" "Okay." Sure enough, the cowboy rides under the tree, hits his head on the branch, and is knocked off his horse. After the movie, the loser hands ten dollars to his friend. "I can't take it," he confesses, "I've seen this movie before. I knew that it was going to happen." "I've seen it before, too," admitted his friend. "I just didn't think the guy would be stupid enough to make the same mistake twice."
Once we have seen a movie, we know the plot and many of the details. If we see the movie again, we know ahead of time what will happen. We now possess foreknowledge. Such is not the only way to have knowledge ahead of time, however. Many times someone has told us of something that will occur. We may have been the only other person who knew. For example, a friend says, "Next month I am going to resign from my job." That information might or might not be significant, depending on whether the friend works at a fast food restaurant or is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. In either case, however, foreknowledge exists, but no one could accuse us of having caused our friend's departure from his place of employment just because we had knowledge of it. In fact, we might have tried to talk the person out of resigning, but his mind was determined. He had already decided what he would do. His confidence in us simply provided us foreknowledge.
God, depending on the circumstance, can either predetermine events or simply have foreknowledge of what will occur. Calvinists think that God has planned out every detail of this planet's history, and they point to passages that mention (in the King James) predestination, such as Romans 8:29-30 and Ephesians 1:5 and 11. Many revisions render the Greek word "foreordained." The same Greek verb is also translated "determined before" in Acts 4:28 and "ordained" in 1 Corinthians 2:7. The use of this word does not prove the Calvinist's case, however. It only proves that God foreordained some things, not everything.
What do these six verses teach that God predestined? God predetermined that: 1) Israel, along with the Gentiles, would put Jesus to death (Acts 4:26-28); 2) Christians would be conformed into the image of Jesus (Rom. 8:29-30); 3) man would be redeemed by means of the crucifixion (1 Cor. 2:6-8); 4) Christians would be holy and would be adopted as His children by Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:4-5); and 5) Christians would receive an inheritance (Eph. 1:11).
It is clear from these six passages that the Bible does not teach that God has mapped out everything that will occur to each individual--what car to drive, what person to marry, what job to acquire. All of the things foreordained above involve God's plan of salvation. He did determine that He would send His Son and that He would be rejected by His own people and crucified in conjunction with the Gentiles. He also determined that Jesus would be raised from the dead and that believers would become like His Son (holy), and have eternal life.
Calvinists believe that God controls everything. According to them, He decided who would be saved or lost before He ever created the world. If that were the case, then: 1) Why bother to create the world and play this charade, whose outcome He had already determined? 2) How can God not be responsible for all the evil that happens? and 3) How can we be held accountable for anything we do, since we cannot possess free will and at the same time conform precisely to what God had already ordained?
Some who do not believe in God also think that everything is foreordained--either by some impersonal force (Fate), the laws of karma, or astrology. Perhaps the reader has noticed that Shakespeare refers to Romeo and Juliet as "star-cross'd lovers" (Prologue, line 6). These explanations are wrong, also, and the ideas are ludicrous on the face of it. How can stars be controlling what each of six billion people does? They are bodies of burning gases (all romance aside). What connection can there be to each person's birth, marriage, and personal fortune? Who legislated the laws of karma? Something as impersonal as a rock or a tree does not care about human problems and predicaments.
God, then, from the foundation of the earth, has foreordained things pertaining to man's redemption. Has He determined to do other things and brought them about also? Yes. He told Abram that his descendants would live in Egypt 400 years, after which He would judge the nation that afflicted them and bring them out from there with great possessions (Gen. 15:13-14). The question we all wonder about is, "What does God simply know, and what does He cause to happen?"
In the above instance, God knew that they would go to Egypt. Did He cause them to go there? Joseph believed that God sent him ahead to Egypt to save the lives of his family during the great famine (Gen. 45:7-8). God apparently arranged for that rescue to happen, but did He cause the Egyptians to afflict them? Nothing so indicates, but He had knowledge that they would. He also determined that He would intervene in this situation and deliver Israel from the Egyptians.
Therefore, God knows what will occur. If He did not, how would He know when to intervene? If He was unaware of the famine that would occur throughout that part of the world, how could He have sent Joseph ahead to preserve them? How else did He know to warn Pharaoh of the famine so that Joseph could interpret his dreams and be placed in charge of preserving Egypt (and eventually Israel)? How could Agabus prophesy of the famine that would come in the days of Claudius Caesar (Acts 11:28)? There are two choices. One is that God knew about both of these famines because of His foreknowledge; the other is He knew about them because He was bringing them about.
Certainly, God could bring about a famine as punishment for a nation's sins. But He can also just know beforehand of natural events that will occur. How does He know? He knows because He is omniscient and because his perspective of time is different than ours. For the Creator of the universe, "one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." In other words, He is outside of time. As human beings, who are bound by time, we have difficulty comprehending the relationship that God has with time. He can declare the end from the beginning--especially if He personally brings something about (Isaiah 46:8-10).
Although the Scriptures credit God with intervening in the natural course of events in a number of ways and on a number of occasions, the fact is that He also frequently allows things to occur naturally. If He did not, then Calvinism would be true; but Calvinism is demonstrably false since the Scriptures teach that we possess a free will (see last week's article).
The Bible teaches that God knows what we will choose to do. He knew how Pharaoh would react to the ten plagues. He did not cause Pharaoh to act the way He did, but He knew that the plagues would harden his heart. Pharaoh had the freedom to act in a more rational way, but his arrogance would not allow him to, and God played off his pride.
God knows what men will do. David had saved the city of Keilah from the Philistines (1 Sam. 23:1-4). Shortly thereafter, he learned that Saul was pursuing him once again. David needed to know whether or not the men of Keilah, if he remained there, would turn him over to Saul. He inquired of God because he knew that God would know the answer. God would not have caused the city to abandon their recent savior, but God's omniscience allowed him to know what they would do. He therefore told David that they would deliver him into the hand of Saul; therefore, he fled (1 Sam. 23:9-13).
God's omniscience may make us uncomfortable. We may struggle exceedingly with a difficult decision. After we have weighed all the pros and cons, considering all the possibilities and their ramifications, and we finally choose, perhaps it dawns on us that all along God knew what we would do. What annoys us is that Someone else knows before we do. Probably we have had a friend tell us on some matter, "I knew what your decision would be." "How could you?" we retort, "I just now figured it out myself." Sometimes a friend's smugness can be infuriating! But God is not smug; He is God. He simply has access to the movie script, and He saw the scene in which we agonized over a situation before we determined how to resolve it. We were free to go either way; His knowledge of what we ultimately decided did not cause us to do it or influence our decision--He simply knows the outcome. This knowledge does not make God a puppeteer.
Recently, the editor of the Firm Foundation took the position in his June editorial (2-5) that "God has power to foreknow or not to foreknow" (3). He is not the first person to hold this position. T. W. Brents made the case for this idea in his classic book, The Gospel Plan of Salvation (103-104), published in 1874. At first, the proposition seems appealing; probably we have all flirted with the notion. Dub McClish, who cites Brents in his chapter on "The Foreknowledge of God" in the 1998 Power lectures on The Godhead, edited by B. J. Clarke, admitted in footnote six:
This author at one time maintained that it was compatible with the Bible doctrine of omniscience to hold that, while God could know all things, that He has chosen to limit His knowledge so as not to know some things (e.g., that Adam would sin). Upon further study he has concluded that such a view cannot be harmonized with God's omniscience, and that the view is contradictory to Scripture, to sound reasoning, and to the necessity of the case (178).
McClish quotes several others in regard to this point; included here are just a few. Stephen Charnock points out that, if God does not know all things, He is capable of learning something: "If there were a variation in the knowledge of God...He would grow wiser than He was; He was not then perfectly wise before" (163). Strong, who compiled the exhaustive concordance that so many of us use, wrote: "By this [omniscience, DM] we mean God's perfect and eternal knowledge of all things which are objects of knowledge, whether they be actual or possible, past, present, or future" (165).
After the kingdom of Israel divided, the man of God went to Bethel and prophesied against Jeroboam and the altar he had set up there. Among other things, he said: "Behold a child, Josiah by name, shall be born to the house of David; and on you [the altar, GWS] he shall sacrifice the priests of the high places who burn incense on you, and men's bones shall be burned on you" (1 Kings 13:2). 2 Kings 23:15-16 records the fulfillment of this prophecy. God foreknew this event-- and the king's name who would do it--over 200 years in advance. There is no evidence that God caused Josiah to be given that name (as He did, for example, the names of Isaac and Jesus). The same thing occurs with the name of Cyrus (and events associated with him). Roy Lanier writes:
If God can know a man by name one hundred and fifty years before he is born, and can know what he will do, is it impossible for Him to know a man by name a thousand or ten thousand years before he is born and know what that man will do? Is our God so small, so limited, that He can foresee one hundred fifty years and cannot foresee a person or event several thousand years in the future? (165).
In the same lectureship book Daniel Denham wrote a chapter on "The Omniscience of God." He quotes an excellent argument made by Mac Deaver:
God must have every attribute to the infinite degree because if He does not have all attributes to that degree, He is only a finite being. If God had all attributes except one to the infinite degree, He would still be a finite being. A being cannot be an infinite being and be finite in a single attribute. This is impossible. But God cannot be God (the ultimate principle of the universe) and be a finite being (141).
Denham also cites Thomas N. Ralston from Elements of Divinity:
The infinite knowledge of God not only comprehends every thing, great and small, whether animate or inanimate, material or immaterial, throughout the immensity of space, but also throughout the infinite periods of duration. All things, past and future, are just as clearly seen, and as fully comprehended, by the omniscient God, as the plainest events of the present (143).
Denham points out that the idea that God chooses not to know something implies an absurd position--that God imposes amnesia upon Himself (144). Surely the reader has had someone tell him a secret and then add: "Now don't tell this to anyone; in fact, just forget you heard it." How easy is it to not know something that you already know? In court trials the judge will often say, "The jury will disregard what was just said." But lawyers count on the fact that self-imposed amnesia cannot really be accomplished.
Furthermore, how can God work providentially in the lives of men when He chooses not to know certain things? Perhaps a key ingredient involving one of His children and certain events has been purposely forgotten, which alters God's course of action. This kind of "forgetfulness" could be disastrous. Self-imposed ignorance would put God in the position of being fallible.
Brents argued that God must be able to choose not to know or else He was deceptive with Moses (Brents 103-104). The Firm Foundation editor echoes Brents, uses the same argument, and asks the question, "Did God lie to Moses?" (3). The event in question occurs in Exodus 32:10. After stating the truth that Israel was a stiff-necked people, God said to Moses, "Now therefore, let Me alone that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation." After Moses makes some outstanding arguments against taking this course of action, the text says, "And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people" (Ex. 32:14, KJV). Brents humorously concludes that if God foreknew Moses' response and that He would relent, then "He knew He would not do that which He thought He would do" (104).
This absurdity depends, however, on the word thought. This Hebrew word is translated "thought" only here and in one other passage. Numerous times the word is translated as "speak" or "said." The New King James typifies most recent translations when it renders Exodus 32:14: "So the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people."
Most Bible students understand that God was testing Moses by stating His plan to destroy Israel. God neither lied nor deceived Moses: He simply stated the idea and let Moses react to it. God already knew how he would respond (since He is omniscient), but until He made the suggestion, Moses did not know what he would do in such a situation. He may have been feeling sorry for himself and wishing himself that God would destroy the people. But when voiced out loud, he found himself taking their part, which also bound him to them through all the upcoming trials they would be to him.
Most scholars have linked God's behavior in this case with his accommodating Himself to man's behavior and ways (an example of what is termed anthropomorphism). Matthew Henry, for example, wrote of the passage in Exodus 32:
But God would thus express the greatness of his just displeasure against them, after the manner of men, who would have none to intercede for those they resolve to be severe with. Thus also he would put an honor upon prayer, intimating that nothing but the intercession of Moses could save them from ruin, that he might be a type of Christ...[emp. DM] (176).
God is omniscient; how could He choose to be otherwise? He cannot not be Himself.
*Send comments or questions concerning this article to Gary Summers. Please refer to this article as: "FOREKNOWLEDGE VERSUS PREDESTINATION (8/20/00)."